Home Lifestyle Entertainment Speaking up for a forgotten genius

Speaking up for a forgotten genius

Angeline Ball will play the part of Betty in the reading of the new play MacGuinness.

Angeline Ball spoke to David Hennessy ahead of a reading of a new play about Billy MacGuinness, the Irish orator of Speakers Corner and inspiration for Heathcote Williams’ acclaimed debut novel The Speakers.

Angeline Ball has been a familiar face on our screens ever since she came to prominence as backing singer Imelda Quirke in Alan Parker’s The Commitments.

Her other big roles include playing Tina Lawless, Martin Cahill’s sister-in-law and mistress in The General, parts in films such Trojan Eddie, My Girl 2 and stints in long running shows such as Shameless and Eastenders.

In 2003 she won the IFTA award for Best Actress in a Film for her work as Molly Bloom in the screen adaptation of the James Joyce classic, Ulysses.

This was her second IFTA having won for Any Time Now just the year before

More recently we have seen her in BBC series Hidden Assets, RTE’s Acceptable Risk and she starred in the comedy hit Deadly Cuts.

Also, well known as a singer, Angeline has put out multiple albums and even sang backing vocals for Madonna on the Evita soundtrack.

This Sunday Angeline will be at The Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith for the UK premiere reading of the new play MacGuinness, written by Margaret Cox and adapted from the book The Speakers by Heathcote Williams.

The play is the story of Irishman Billy MacGuinness, the orator of London’s Speakers Corner, and his close friendship with Cafferty, aka the poet, writer and political activist, Heathcote Williams.

Known as ‘King of the Gypsies’, ‘Ringsend wanderer’, the play is the story of MacGuinness and Betty who will be played by Angeline with Cafferty, based on the writer himself, completing the three hander.

Betty is MacGuiness’ beleaguered girlfriend and a female lavatory attendant from Dublin.

- Advertisement -

From the austere fifties to the psychedelic sixties, Cafferty and MacGuinness are drawn to each other and begin to ‘merge’ despite their very different backgrounds.

Sadly, MacGuinness never makes it past his 40th birthday and dies in Blackpool in 1967.

This is where the play begins.

Cafferty visits a grieving Betty to retrieve the notebooks MacGuinness had promised him and spends a night he will never forget.

The cast of MacGuinness also includes award winning Irish actors Ruaidhri Conroy (Into the West, Six Shooter), Arthur Conti (Beetlejuice 2, House of Dragon) and is directed by Aidan Redmond whose acting credits include The Cripple of Inishmaan on Broadway.

Billy MacGuinness.

Angeline Ball told The Irish World: “I really am looking forward to it.

“I’ve been friends with Margaret Cox for a long time and she’s an absolutely exceptional writer.

“I actually think Billy MacGuinness is up there with the Brendan Behans and Sean O’Caseys really.

“I really think that it’s a beautiful piece.

“I actually think it could be a really good play that travels back over to Ireland, possibly the Abbey, the Peacock, the Gate, and/or over to the states.

“I think he was definitely kind of a beatnik philosopher, slightly gypsy and punk as they say.

“I think Ruaidhri Conroy is perfect for it.

“You need that wildness.

“So yeah, I’m really excited about it.”

It’s a shame that this story is not more widely known..

“I hadn’t known about Billy MacGuinness until Margaret brought it to me.

“And that’s shame on me.

“But how many other Irish people don’t know about him?

“He wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He wasn’t born on the right side of the tracks.

“And you often wonder whether that’s why these writers don’t make it.

“And I actually think it would be lovely really to kind of bring him to the forefront and for people to know him, that more people would get to know this man and his kind of crazy mind.

“As Irish people: Yes, we have all our saints and scholars, and we have all our revered poets and writers and stuff, but why not open the door to a few more that might have just been kind of misplaced, or not really celebrated?”

Heathcote Williams watching Tony Rohr as Billy MacGuinness.

Tell us about Betty. Is she somebody you identify with?


“Yeah, I imagine that she’s a bit of a lost soul like MacGuinness in that respect, and they call themselves the King and Queen of the Gypsies.

“I really feel that she also has a bit of a wild side.

“She has that kind of wild Irish side where she believes in ghosts, things bring you luck and stuff like that.

“She’s also a little bit mistrusting of the middle classes, I think it was her and him against the world kind of like Margaret said the other day, ‘the Sid and Nancy’, ‘the Liz and Dick’, those tragic kind of couples that can’t live sometimes with each other and can’t live without.

“We find her talking to Cafferty because I think she really, really misses him (MacGuinness) and she’s haunted by his ghost and she just wants to keep that bit of him and her alive.

“Also, I think she worshipped him.

“I really do feel that she believed everything he said.

“I imagine they kind of lived on the edge of a sword.

“I think he really was quite flighty and where they were going to eat that night, where they were going to sleep that night, who was going to put them up and who was going to buy them dinner and where the next drink would come from and all that, they did live by the edge of their pants, the skin of the teeth.

“I would imagine that when he died, her world got that bit darker.

“When there’s an absence in your life of somebody that’s like a firecracker, I guess she feels it.”

Would she be similar to other parts you have played like say your part in The General, another couple who played by their own rules and there may have also been that hero worship?

“I didn’t actually think of that but yeah, when you come it, possibly.

“I think it’s women that are not afraid to take a backseat to a man in that respect.

“We’re talking about the 60s here and still women have not got that sense of kind of independence or agency over themselves.

“There’s that saying, ‘Behind every great man is a great woman’.

“And I do think that they were very much a duo.

“He might not have been able to survive or get where he was without her and vice versa.

“It was a very codependent relationship.

“But I guess a bit like The General that she kind of hero worshipped him and anything that he would do that would slightly look a little bit anti- establishment or police or anything like that, I think she would feel justified by agreeing with him.”

Were you familiar with the writer, Heathcote Williams?

“I would have been familiar with his work a little bit, not too much.

“And obviously, between now and then I won’t get a chance to read his poetry but to be honest with you, I want to leave it quite bare.

“Betty’s not really interested in getting to know him.

“Betty only wants to know him and kind of use him as a vessel in order to get MacGuinness’ word and his writings and stuff out there.

“But even with Heathcote, he’s also not that revered, is he?

“It’s sad as well.

“I mean, in this day and age where everything is digital and internet and very kind of immediate and visual, I think it’s really nice Margaret has gone back through the archives and some books and stuff he’d left and it’s really nice to kind of rifle through that paperwork and written word.

“I’m quite old fashioned.

“You have to drag me into the next century with all this digital stuff.”

If Billy was around in the age of social media, he would be all over it…

“This is it.


“So it’s up to us now to try and get what we can from this and then start building from that, through social media, through getting it on stage, all of that so maybe he’ll have a second coming. A second arising.

“There can be a lot more made of it, I think even a film.

“It would be great: Quite rock and roll too and the psychedelic moments and all that.

“And that kind of homoerotic relationship between him and Heathcote.

“And then with Betty.

“’The holy trinity’ as he called them.

“It’s the first time I’ve worked with Margaret.

“I’ve known Margaret so long as a friend and depending on how big the Sunday goes, I’ll be kind of prodding her from behind kind of, ‘Keep going with this’.

“I’ve even said to her, ‘Have you invited the Abbey? Have you invited the Gate?’

“But I think we are filming it to send it out then with the possibility of developing it further.”

I bet you get asked about The Commitments in every interview.

It remains a classic, is just a seminal moment in Irish cinema as well as so many careers at this stage.

Did you know all those years ago you had something so special when you were making it?

“Not at all. We didn’t know whatsoever and it was a complete surprise.

“I think that’s the magic that you see in the film, is that nobody had preconceptions of how big it was going to be.

“In this day and age now, people go into things like Big Brother, Love Island and all with a preconception of being famous overnight and earning millions.

“We didn’t earn millions, certainly not, but we certainly lost our anonymity overnight.

“So in terms of that, we didn’t know.

“We worked very hard and it’s lovely as well when you have no expectations and I think you’re just in the moment.

“You’re in the film and you’re singing the songs and operating as a band.

“I think that’s where the magic lay in that film.”

The last time The Irish World saw you it was also in Hammersmith at the Riverside Studios for the Irish Film Festival London. Deadly Cuts which you starred in closed the festival in 2022….

“I absolutely loved that.

“I was the kind of the matriarch of the whole salon and it’s very interesting to play that role because everybody else had the really funny lines so you’re a feeder.

“That’s very interesting, to stay calm. It’s almost like staying calm when everyone around you is going crazy.

“I absolutely loved doing that.”

Billy MacGuinness was known for his great speaking.

Angeline tells us she has been busy with a new creative pursuit.

“I’ve just written a novel and I’m hoping to have that published.

“It’s with various agents at the moment.

“I’m already on my second one.

“Hopefully that’s another avenue that I can open for myself.

“It’s just another branch of the tree really.

“I just love writing.

“I’ve set this in the 1970s in Dublin.

“It’s about a woman and actually it’s a lot to do with mental health struggles.

“It’s all about the difficulties of a woman growing up and getting through life when there’s a lot of homophobia, there’s a lot of racism, there’s a lot of classism, sexism.

“It’s all about that but it’s done in a quite a humorous way.

“There’s a lot of pathos in it so it’s dark but it’s funny.

“Fingers crossed, watch this space.

“I took some time out from acting to write it, and I absolutely loved the process.

“That’s something that I will definitely be kind of putting into my schedule every now and again.

“As I said, I’m writing my second one which is completely different.

“It’s set in Louisiana in the 1950s so it’s from one extreme to the other.”

You’re also a singer, can we expect new music in the near future? “Yes, definitely. I hope so.

“I was ready to bring out some music and then the pandemic hit.

“I’ve got a really fantastic cousin in Dublin who plays with Damien Dempsey.

“He’s just an incredible flautist and all round musician.

“We said that we’ll have to do something so hopefully, I will get over to Dublin and we’ll put some stuff down.”

Born in Cabra, Angeline first learned to perform at the Billie Barry Stage School.

Was singing your first love?

“Yes, it was singing and then I fell in love with acting. And now I’m falling in love with writing, but I’m still in love with the others.

“It’s like having children: Singing, acting, now writing.”

Back to the play. You say it’s a show that may travel but it’s apt that it begins its journey in London, isn’t it? He was one of many Irish who have made their way to London and what happens then can often be a tragic tale..


“There’s always that story of the uncle that never married, over in London, still working on the building sites with 10 men under him.

“And the reality of the story is that they’re not, they’re in some place for homeless in Kilburn but the story they send home is that they’re doing really well.

“And not all the time but sometimes tragically, they weren’t and they felt too embarrassed or they left it too long to get back home.

“I remember reading an article many, many years ago.

“There used to be a shelter in Kilburn and I would have loved to visit it and just sit and listen to stories, people’s stories.

“There’s a bit about that in my book as well.”

Back to how she is looking forward to this Sunday’s reading Angeline says: “I just think it’s a great opportunity to put this out there to celebrate somebody that has not been celebrated yet in the Irish culture.

“It will be really poignant and lovely to celebrate this man and the other characters around that time and especially in the swinging 60s and stuff in London.

“That was a very interesting period.

“Everybody was kind of living on the edge, you know?

“I don’t know many films about Irish characters that have been made around that.”

Billy’s story is fascinating for that reason, isn’t it?

“I imagine, unlike the Guinness, he travelled well.

“I’m sure he could have got into any club with the blarney. He had that.”

I can imagine it being poignant and sad with how MacGuinness met his death at such a young age.

“I think the ending is poignant. It’s a little bit sad but it’s about delivery.

“It can be that he still lives on through these two people and their connection.

“Yeah, it is very sad. It’s sad what happened to him when he had such a brilliant mind.

“He was a very uneasy character, not settled at all in his own skin.

“But I think it will just depend on how we decide (to end it).

“It’s a bit like me when I finished ending Bloom, my yeses.

“Before I did the three yeses, all the other previous Mollys had shouted and screamed these yeses.

“I think I was the first Molly to have just basically let them ebb away like the sea.

“And now when I hear readings, a lot of people do that which is nice.

“It just depends on what way you interpret, what way you say it, what feeling you want to come across at the end, that he’s still very much in the ether.

“He’s still alive.

“His spirit is around.”

The Irish Cultural Centre Hammersmith present the UK premiere a play- reading of a new play MacGuinness by Margaret Cox adapted from the book The Speakers by Heathcote Williams this Sunday 7 April at 2pm.

For more information and tickets, click here.

- Advertisement -