Star of stage, screen and dance floor on how illness took its toll

Ray McBride at his home this week. Photo: Joe O'Shaughnessy.

He was one of Galway’s best-known faces, but more than that, Ray McBride – actor, dancer, raconteur – seemed to make every challenge look simple, until illness took a terrible toll. Here he reflects on the past and looks forward to the future.

Ray McBride is a regular theatre-goer and says himself there’s very few shows or plays he misses if he can help it. This self-confessed arts addict just can’t get enough of them.

Then again, it’s no surprise how much this Claddagh man loves the theatre as he used tread the boards with such distinction until illness struck in his prime, leaving him with speech and mobility difficulties.

And though he enjoys going to the theatre, these days it’s in a wheelchair and almost always with assistance which makes him notice things he never did before –access, wheelchair space in auditoriums and the lack of lifts in some buildings around the city.

Ray McBride (second from left) with fellow cast members of the Druid Theatre’s production of their lunchtime play “Thirst” in 1980. From left: Séamus Mac Aindriú, Ray McBride, Maeliosa Stafford who directed the play and is holding the theatre company’s pet cat Druideen, Sean McGinley and Padraig Breathnach.

And while many Galwegians may dread the influx of people for the Arts Festival and the Galway Races, Ray embraces it saying he loves the buzz of the city all year round but especially during these few weeks.

Being wheelchair-bound doesn’t stop him from going out or indeed from going along to outdoor performances in spite of the narrow city streets and footpaths.

Where some would complain about access, crowds, the effort of getting around in tight spaces, Ray enjoys the sheer delight of watching a performance whether it’s on an indoor stage or in the street.

And if he’s hankering for the other side of the fence – as in performing – he doesn’t say.

Ray McBride as Quasimodo – The King of the Fools, during the Macnas Parade for the 21st Galway Arts Festival in July 1998.

But he does praise the support of his family and close circle of friends saying “I’m very lucky.”

Having performed with Macnas, the Druid Theatre and taking part in a few films as well as being a champion Irish dancer with his sister Margaret, he still has his finger very much on the pulse as far as the arts in Galway are concerned. Many of his friends now are ones he mentored in the early days of the city’s blossoming into the arts capital of Ireland.

The sound of Ray McBride’s step dancing featured on a six track music casette titled “Master McGrath – Galway 93” in the lead up to the 1993 All-Ireland hurling final against Kilkenny. Ray is pictured in action during the recording.

Ray was a natural performer. The first to spot it was Rita White, his Irish dancing teacher, a woman who continues to run her dance school in Boston. He was teamed up with his sister Margaret and together they wowed audiences with their flair and personality as well as their dancing skills.

There’s a great clip on YouTube of Ray explaining the various styles of Irish dancing to Gay Byrne on the Late Late Show in the early nineties. By then he was a regular actor with Druid and had just toured Australia with Vincent Woods’ At the Black Pig’s Dyke play.

Watching the video, you are reminded how effortless Ray spoke to anybody helped no doubt by his own sense of fun and natural comedy skills.

The late Mick Lally with Ray McBride at Druid’s 21st anniversary celebrations in June 1996.

Ray always came across as a bit of a messer – a ladeen – but when it came to learning his lines and his craft, he gave it 100% and remembers spending hours with his script. His delivery on stage was flawless, believable and always enjoyable.

But life had something else in store for Ray when 18 years ago he fell ill and was diagnosed with a cancer that affected his speech and balance; a nightmare scenario for a man who loved performing and was well on his way in his professional career.

Lucky for Ray, he has a close family who rallied around him and friends in the arts community who in different ways help make his daily life bearable.

Actor Ray McBride during a walk to Mutton Island during low tide in March 1998

He continues to live in the family home with his mother Kathleen, who is a jewel of an Irish mammy with her loving care and home cooking.

Ray has his weekly routine which sees him playing bowls either in town or in Castlebar once a week. Other outings involve friends and almost always include a visit to the theatre.

One of his own personal favourite plays is Wood of the Whispering by M J Molloy which won him a Harvey Award, he laughs gleefully.

“I just love the characters in it. The writing. I love it. It’s still one of my favourite plays,” he says.

There could be many favourite Ray moments for his fans. There’s the very funny scene in Tom Murphy’s Conversation on a Homecoming where Ray drunkenly sings into the telephone on the pub wall, as Captain Mummer in the Black Dyke or as Badger in Joe Comerford’s film, Reefer and the Model, which was shot entirely in Galway.

His mother Kathleen pipes in that this was her favourite screen role of Ray’s, adding that it was a good film.

Indeed, it was the start of Galway’s relationship with films and filming, made over a year before the founding of the Galway Film Fleadh in 1989.

He was worked with Gabriel Byrne, Brendan Gleeson and Tom Cruise but laughs when he recalls how his scene in Far and Away ended up being cut!

And though Ray loves stage and screen he would prefer the stage having acted with Druid for two decades during which he toured extensively with them, even to Australia.

“Learning the script for the plays was hard, no doubt, but I loved being on the stage, loved the buzz of being in the moment. With film, you do your bit and then you hang around on the set waiting to see if you have to do it again. Yeah, I preferred working on stage,” he says.

He doesn’t think acting can be taught. “Some people just have it,” he says referring to the actors he watches today on his daily soaps or on US crime/action drama.

He still remembers being auditioned by Garry Hynes on his return from the US where he had been in college on an athletics scholarship in the East Tennessee State University and thinking he had finally found his calling.

“I had studied speech and drama there and I loved it. I had worked for the Galway Fire Brigade across the road and they’re great lads, do great work but I knew I couldn’t spend the rest of my life sitting by the window waiting for a fire!”

And of course his family supported him in those early days when he decided acting was going to be his full-time career. They had been after all the first to spot his talent.

Had he stayed in the US, he may well have become a sports journalist as his major was journalism which involved him working with the Johnson City Chronicle.

He admits he’s quite political and likes to stay on top of current affairs. He wasn’t shy either of getting involved with the Saving Galway Bay, a group formed in the early 90s to fight plans to build a sewage treatment plant on Mutton Island.

“I still think that problem’s not solved,” he says referring to the plant, which he believes was never going to address the city’s sewerage problems.

Ray is very protective of his city and especially Galway Bay – and though he has tread the boards on foreign shores and enjoyed every minute of it, he always knew that most of all he loved coming home.