Shamrocks and shillelaghs, leprechauns and green beer. . . . These are the things of which St. Patrick’s Day celebrations are made--in America, at any rate.
Irish-born actor and singer Shay Duffin takes the stereotyping in stride. “It’s a friendly attitude,” the Redondo Beach resident said in a phone interview this week. “Everybody wants to be Irish.” Besides, he asked, what other nationality is celebrated in the United States with a whole day all of its own?
Still, Duffin refuses to pander to the quaint American view of Irish folklore, preferring in his own stage performances to spotlight the island nation’s rich literary, theatrical and musical heritage. “I’m always trying to raise the level of the appreciation of the Irish,” said Duffin, who performs Saturday in Huntington Beach as part of a St. Patrick’s Day celebration being sponsored by the Irish Fine Arts Society of Orange County.
Duffin’s performance will include storytelling drawn from the lives and writings of such Irish giants as James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde and William Butler Yeats. “I’ll be stealing from everybody. Stealing from one person is plagiarism; stealing from many people is research,” Duffin quipped.
As always, the literary references will be leavened with humor: “Just do it and get the laugh, and they don’t know they’ve been hit with a Shaw or a Joyce.”
Duffin is best known for his portrayal of Brendan Behan, the colorful writer and anti-English rebel whose works include the autobiographical novel “Borstal Boy” and the satirical play “The Hostage.” Behan, whose drinking was legendary, died in 1964 at age 41. (“Too young to die, too drunk to live,” was how the London Times eulogized him.)
At last count, Duffin has performed his one-man Behan show 3,844 times. He hits the road in a few weeks to bring the show to Canada and the East Coast. Saturday’s show will include an excerpt.
Duffin knew Behan, 26 years his elder, as a youth growing up in the same Dublin neighborhood. Duffin was a biking enthusiast and on Sundays Behan often would drop by the local team’s locker room, where the cyclists would mix brandy with a glucose solution for their morning rides. “That was the only place you could get a drink on a Sunday,” Duffin said. “Consequently, that’s where you found the bold Brendan.
“If he had the discipline, he could have been one of the world’s greatest entertainers. When you see a 41-year-old man die of too much booze, it’s a tragedy.”
Duffin, who said he does not drink, brought the Behan show to Dublin for the first time 3 years ago and played for 3 weeks in the historic Olympia Theatre. In the audience one night were Behan’s mother and his widow, Beatrice.
“It was very exciting,” said Duffin, who bears a physical resemblance to Behan. Brendan’s mother, then 94, “kept interrupting, because she thought it was Brendan up there.”
The show gained the family’s approval--"the Behans said, ‘You do him proud’ "--but prompted a few quibbles from the local critics: “His American twang is very distracting,” Duffin said, reciting from a review. “He’s been out in Hollywood too long.” (To ears perhaps less trained, however, his brogue still sounds 100% Irish.)
Duffin, who moved to Canada from Ireland in 1963, started in show business as a singer of Irish folk songs and recorded five albums for RCA. Saturday, he will sing updated versions of a few auld favorites. One, called “Green Cards” (sung to the tune of “Greensleeves”), takes a satiric look at Ireland’s wave of departing emigrants. “Ronnie, We Are Glad to Know Ye” is sung from the perspective of the homeless to the tune of “Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye.”
Current projects include a new one-man show called “Beyond Pale.” “The importance of being Irish is the theme of the show,” Duffin said. “One-man shows are great,” he added, “but the cast parties are lousy.”
Later this year, he will appear with Vanessa Redgrave in a movie about the Irish uprising of 1916 and with Mickey Rourke in a film about the Doukhobors, a rebellious Russian community in Canada at the turn of the century.
Duffin, a widower whose children are now grown, also will keep to the road, continuing his Behan shows and another, more cabaret-oriented act. “I’ll sing or entertain at the drop of a hat, and if I get paid, that’s the bonus.”
Saturday’s revue, sponsored by the Irish Fine Arts Society of Orange County, will feature Shay Duffin with singers Michael McCormack and Jan Knolton, dancer Vinnie O’Connor, the Nicholas Pipe Band and harpist Ellie Shoate. The dinner/cabaret show begins at 6:30 p.m. at the Huntington Beach Inn, 21112 Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach. Admission: $45, includes dinner, dancing and show. Information: (714) 840-7903.