Sheridan, Noel (1936–2006), artist, actor, and arts administrator, was born 12 December 1936 in Dublin, one of three children (two daughters and a son) of Cecil (Brinsley) Sheridan, entertainer, and his wife Ann ('Nan') (née Doyle). Cecil Sheridan (1910–80) was born 21 December 1910 in Queen (latterly Pearse) Square, Dublin, the only son and third of four children of Cecil Sheridan, an upholsterer, and his wife Catherine. His mother died of tuberculosis in 1916, when he was six years old, and two sisters died of the same disease the following year. The father brought up the two surviving children in difficult and rather haphazard circumstances; young Cecil attended the Christian Brothers' school in Synge Street, Dublin, and from the age of 15 trained as an upholsterer. He suffered from a very bad stammer but was attracted to the stage, and discovered that the stammer disappeared completely when he was performing. He appeared as an amateur entertainer for several years while still working with his father, and won a talent competition in 1930, but did not turn professional until 1937, when he won the prize of a week's engagement in a revue at the Queen's Theatre. Immediately afterwards, the director Lorcan Bourke (qv) practically pushed Sheridan, in a dress and a woman's wig, onto the stage to fill in for another comedian who had taken ill. He was a great success and over the next forty years became one of the most familiar and popular entertainers in Dublin, almost a Dublin institution. He appeared in all the variety theatres, in revues and shows, and was principal comedian in the Olympia Theatre. He wrote his own material, especially topical and clever parodies of popular songs, as well as jokes and sketches, and songs for others; he appeared for fourteen consecutive seasons as the Dame in popular Christmas pantomimes, some of which he wrote.
An accomplished all-round performer, he engaged the audience in banter and back-chat, often in the character and grotesque get-ups of his most famous creation, the Dublin harridan street trader Martha Mary Ann McGee. He appeared regularly on radio in a show with Maureen Potter (qv), occasionally on television, and in a few films, including Ulysses (1967; dir. Joseph Strick) (in the minor role of John Henry Manton), as well as in a handful of roles in serious drama, but was best remembered as Dublin's 'Parody King' and for his music-hall double entendres. He also worked all over Great Britain, touring as support for other variety performers, or in summer theatres in seaside resorts, and as principal comic in Butlin's holiday camps. With the advent of television in the late 1950s, opportunities for Sheridan's style of comedy were much scarcer, but on several occasions, even well into his sixties, he successfully organised and appeared in old-time music-hall and variety shows. The proceeds from several of these nostalgic events were donated to a campaign to save the Olympia Theatre on Dublin's Dame Street from being closed. Sheridan and others had tried without success to save several Dublin theatres, especially the Theatre Royal on Hawkins Street, once Europe's largest variety theatre, which was demolished in 1962 to make way for a twelve-storey office block. When a section of the Olympia's proscenium arch collapsed in November 1974, it looked almost certain that that theatre too would be sold and demolished, but Sheridan was a major supporter of an ultimately successful effort to rebuild and redecorate the old building, and the theatre reopened in 1977.
Notable for his charity work, he was one of the founders in 1950 of an all-code, no-holds-barred annual charity football match between the 'Crackpots' (comedians) and the 'Inkblots' (journalists); for over thirty years in this and other events he collected thousands of pounds for children's charities. In 1946 Sheridan was crowned King of Dalkey Island, an annual, honorary, light-hearted sinecure, and in 1976 he received the Variety Artists Trust Society award for his contribution to variety. His papers are deposited in the Irish Theatre Archive, Dublin. Notwithstanding his stage persona, Sheridan suffered throughout his life from severe depression, and was always miserably nervous before performances. He was hospitalised several times, especially after his wife died (28 February 1978) (they were married in the summer of 1934). Cecil Sheridan died in hospital in Dublin on 4 January 1980.
His son, (Cecil) Noel Sheridan, attended Synge Street CBS but left without a clear career plan. While working as an office boy and then clerk in the circulation office of the Irish Independent newspaper, he studied for four years at night in TCD for a B.Comm. degree, and took a diploma in public administration in 1958. During that time he began acting with Trinity Players, and also wrote satirical pieces for revues; his first performances received good reviews, as his father's son but also on his own account. For a number of years, up until 1963, he continued to act semi-professionally, and was especially impressive as a teddy boy in 'The scatterin', a 1962 play by the artist and sculptor James McKenna, which had a long run in Dublin and was successfully transferred to London for a short season. Sheridan was also, however, interested in the visual arts, though he lacked formal training; his early work appeared from 1958 in the annual exhibitions of Living Art (winning the Carroll prize for painting in 1965 and 1969), and in the Paris Biennale in 1960. Encouraged by this success, and by winning a prize of £50 in an art competition, the young man left his job in the newspaper to become an artist. His abstract landscapes attracted the attention of Leo Smith, of the Dawson Gallery, who put on a show of his work in 1960. (Sheridan was one of the five young artists who in 1959 founded a group called Independent Artists, risking thereby the displeasure of established, influential figures such as Smith.)
In 1961 Sheridan was awarded one of the first Macaulay fellowships (established by William J. B. Macaulay (qv) in 1958), and with his new wife, Liz (née Murphy), moved to London for a year to develop as an artist. He exhibited again in the Dawson Gallery the following year, appeared as a lead character in an RTÉ television drama by Thomas Coffey, The long sorrow (1963), and continued a collaboration with his father's colleague, the actor and writer John Molloy (1929–99). They wrote and performed in several versions of a revue, 'Tete at eight', which enjoyed enthusiastic press comment and long runs in the Gate and Eblana theatres from 1959 to 1962. The show was produced at the famous jazz festival in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1963, and moved to the Strollers Theatre on Broadway, but was not a success, as its opening coincided with the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy.
At this point, Sheridan decided to stop working in the theatre to concentrate on his painting. His father's eminence and local popularity in Dublin was a difficulty for him, and he believed that professionalism demanded specialisation. Moreover, he wanted to stay in New York, an exciting place for a young artist. He took a job as gallery attendant in New York's Museum of Modern Art, painting by night, and with the assistance of a scholarship entered Columbia University in 1967 to study for a master's degree in fine art. Thereafter he was strongly influenced by the conceptual art movement which was developing in the New York art scene, effectively changing the definition of art; for years he felt it was no longer worthwhile to paint, and instead concentrated on art events, performance art, video, and what would come to be called multi-media. His skills as performer and writer underpinned his new departures.
Sheridan and his family left New York in 1971, and lived for a short time in Co. Wicklow, where he produced the first version of a participatory artwork called 'Everybody should get stones'. This was at first a give-away booklet with instructions and illustrations, later (1975) morphed into an installation in Adelaide, South Australia (involving a room full of rounded stones, and subsequently regarded as one of the seminal events in modern art in that state), and later still was an element in Sheridan's 2001 retrospective exhibition in the Royal Hibernian Academy's Gallagher Gallery in Dublin. Sheridan's move in 1971 to Australia represented a new beginning for him; inspired by Finnegans wake (by James Joyce (qv)), he intended to make a film in New Ireland, in Papua New Guinea, but, encountering bureaucratic and other obstacles, ended up in Sydney instead. There he lectured to students of architecture and in the National Art School; his American and European perspectives and pioneering enthusiasm contributed significantly to the implantation of post-object art in Australia, and to the resultant reshaping of artistic consciousness in a post-colonial, post-provincial society.
In 1974 he was invited to be the first director of the Experimental Art Foundation in Adelaide, and established its standing within the art scene of the country. As an artist with an international reputation in avant-garde art, who could read a balance sheet and who had had a training in business organisation, he was a formidable figure. His combination of attributes was acknowledged by the members of the board of Ireland's National College of Art and Design (NCAD), when they invited Sheridan in 1980 to return to Dublin as the new director of an institution facing significant changes. The college, after years of existing in dispersed and sub-standard accommodation, intended to develop a dedicated campus in a disused distillery on Thomas Street, Dublin, but a great deal of planning, organisation and diplomacy was still needed. Sheridan as a Dubliner and as a radical artist supported the concept of involvement in an inner-city location, and was able to bring together several facets of the college into an expanding new entity with a much greater sense of itself. He oversaw the development of new undergraduate and postgraduate courses, was a popular and charismatic teacher, and popular also with staff. However, his departure on a career break in 1989 (the first ever granted to the head of a third-level college) angered many people, including students, who felt that they had been abandoned at a time when mergers between NCAD and other institutions were in question, and when financial stringencies threatened autonomy.
Sheridan went back to Australia on a five-year contract, to inaugurate and direct a very well-funded Institute of Contemporary Arts, in Perth, Western Australia, a city rather remote from contemporary art movements. He found his time there somewhat frustrating and difficult, but made his mark; his farewell party in Perth at the end of his tenure was a showman's finale, when he unexpectedly appeared on stage with backing singers and dancers, miming to the Ray Charles song 'Hit the road, Jack'. In June 1994 he returned to his post in NCAD to face still more difficulties over proposed mergers, as well as student dissatisfaction. He initiated a media department in the college, and was able to spend some time on his own practice; for the first time in years, he returned to painting, and had a successful retrospective in 2001 in the Royal Hibernian Academy. On reflection, an associated book of autobiographical writing and tributes from friends and reviewers, appeared at this time. He retired from the directorship of NCAD in 2003, but was still a presence in the Irish arts scene, often appearing on arts and culture programmes on RTÉ television.
His influence on generations of students and his contribution to institutions on two continents perhaps compensate for a relatively small legacy of enduring images and objects, a shortfall unavoidably resulting from his enthusiastic exploration of an art based on ideas, language, humour, and performance. He was awarded the emeritus medal of the Australia Council for the Arts in 1994, and was a member of Aosdána.
He died at his home in Fremantle, Western Australia, on 12 July 2006, survived by his wife Liz, four daughters and a son.