Chapter One: Childhood Years
Sit a while dear son,
Here are biscuits to eat and here is milk to drink,
But as soon as you sleep and renew yourself in sweet clothes,
I kiss you with a good-by kiss and open the gates for your egress
hence. ----Walt Whitman
The 1940's saw dramatic changes around the world, the event creating the biggest impact occurring in 1945 -- the end of World War II. Technology was on the rise, with new energy-saving gadgets appearing on the market every day. The Western world was making the transition from an industrial society to a technological society. After having had a taste of equality during the war years, women were somewhat pushed back into subservient roles, but later they fought for greater independence. Soldiers who had left Australia, the United States, Great Britain, and other countries, in order to serve in lands which appeared strange in comparison to their own, returned to their homelands with knowledge of different cultures. The world was suddenly not as big as it once had been. The end of World War II meant freedom from oppression for many peoples: Yugoslavs, Jews, Gypsies, and of most consequence to the Neills: the Irish. In 1949 the Republic of Ireland gained its full independence from Great Britain.
People were adjusting to the post-war atmosphere in America, Australia, Britain, Germany and the rest of the world, but in Northern Ireland the fighting continued unrelentingly, not with the Germans or the Japanese, but in a civil war. Technically, the war between the English and the Irish has proceeded from the agreement made between King Henry II of England and Pope Adrian IV in the year 1171. Pope Adrian granted the hereditary possession of Ireland to Henry, and Henry began importing Englishmen into Ireland. This policy of settling foreigners on Irish soil eventually expanded into banning Irish culture, such as speech and dress, in favour of English ways. The major factor in the sectarian violence of today came about in 1690, when Catholic James II warred with Protestant William of Orange and his wife Mary for the throne of England. The deciding battle was fought in Ireland at the Battle of the Boyne. William of Orange won, and the Protestants were in complete control. This loss by James II was the beginning of horrendous discrimination against the Irish in general and Catholics in particular: Catholics were barred from public office as well as from the army and navy; they could not vote, and a reward of five pounds sterling was offered for the head of a priest. The victory of William over the Catholic James II is celebrated in Northern Ireland even today.
Twenty-six of the thirty-two counties that make up the island of Ireland gained complete freedom from Great Britain after World War II, calling their new nation the Republic of Ireland. However, six of the thirty-two Irish counties decided to remain within the United Kingdom, making up what is now known as Northern Ireland. In this small section of Ireland there are two distinctive factions, the Protestant side who wish to be known as British and the Catholics who consider themselves Irish. These two divisions of Northern Ireland are each very passionate about their respective religions, cultures and politics. The Northern Irish Protestants have close ties to Great Britain and are determined to remain within the United Kingdom. The Northern Irish Catholics, who even today feel that the British are an invading army in their land, formed an illegal army to carry out attacks against the British influences in Northern Ireland. This army, the Irish Republican Army, is still active today, and has no qualms about using whatever force is necessary in order to cause the British to give up possession of Northern Ireland, thereby allowing the six counties to rejoin with the other 26 in the Republic. One of the six counties of Northern Ireland is County Tyrone, the birthplace of Nigel 'Sam' Neill.
Today, County Tyrone's appearance conforms to the idealised vision of Ireland: a bucolic scene of rolling hills of green and cottages with thatched roofs. Placid cows graze peacefully in their fields while their owners sip pints of Guinness at the local pub. Situated on the North/South border, the county is made up of small villages and family farms, creating an ambience of close-knit community. Neighbour knows neighbour from generations past, even from well before Northern Ireland was separated from the other 26 Irish counties. Unfortunately, County Tyrone's idyllic appearance is a facade, as it has always been a stronghold for the Irish Republican Army, and most of the farmers are supportive of the idea of Northern Ireland becoming part of the Republic of Ireland. Most of these people sympathised with the Republic of Ireland's desire to secede from the United Kingdom, and therefore they resent the British military involvement in Irish affairs. Slogans such as "The only good British soldier is a dead British soldier" is a common sight on roads and walls around the county.
In the face of all this antagonism, Sam is rather proud of his family's military history, as well he should be. Sam elaborates on this: 'My mother's family have been more military than my father's. Several generals, some VC's and DSO's.' (A VC is a Victoria Cross and DSO is the acronym for Distinguished Service Order, both of which are quite impressive honours to receive from the British Military.)
The Neill family's first contact with the United States was in a military manner, during what is known as the War of 1812. This war was fought between the United States and Britain; the United States declaring war in response to British harassment of American ships. Lasting from June 1812 to the spring of 1815, most of the fighting occurred along the Canadian border. Sam relates the family story during an interview with American talk show host, Jay Leno:
My great-great grandfather, who was a very young man at the time, was involved in a small war between Britain and America...and there was an expedition coming out from Canada. He was on that expedition; they put Washington to the torch and burned down the White House.
Although this could be a negative factor in Sam's relationship with American audiences, he points out that it was not entirely a bad occurrence:
It's probably just as well, otherwise Bill Clinton would be living in a small, brown, wooden house rather than the nice, big White House.
However, there is only so far that Sam will go to appear conciliatory to the American public. When Jay Leno points out that the British did not completely destroy the president's home, Sam felt that he must defend the family honour: 'I don't know; I thought they put it to the ground. That's the family legend, anyway.'
Historical references appear to agree more strongly with Leno than with Sam on this matter. On August 14, 1814, all public buildings of the capital were deliberately burned, which would seem to agree with Sam's accounting of the event. British General Ross personally superintended the piling up of furniture in the White House before it was given to the flames, and Admiral Sir George Cockburn gave orders to burn the department buildings. However, Dolly Madison, wife of President James Madison, managed to save many historical artefacts and artwork before the President's house was torched. The walls of the president's home were left standing, however, which is more in line with Leno's accounting of the burning. James Hoban, who designed the original house, rebuilt it. The original grey sandstone walls were painted white to cover the stains left by the smoke, hence the name 'White House'.
The British troops which put Washington to the torch, were under good discipline and were not allowed to indulge in looting or destruction of private property. Evidently Sam's good manners and proper demeanour are the result of a long lineage of gentlemen.
Sam's father, Dermot Neill, was an officer in the Royal Irish Fusiliers, and although he may not have been involved in an event as well known as Sam's great-great grandfather's burning of Washington, he served his country, New Zealand, honourably. Dermot Neill was stationed in Northern Ireland, a land known for its years of terrible civil war, when Sam was born.
Before Sam was even born he was an outsider. The British were not welcomed by all Irish citizens and Sam's mother, Priscilla, was English, and a Captain in the Women's Army Corp (WACs), at that. Born Priscilla Ingham, her mother was left a young widow when Priscilla's father was killed at the Front in the First World War. The Inghams were related to much of the Anglo-Irish gentry, including Edith Somerville, one of the co-authors of the Irish R.M. series. With Priscilla's help, Mrs. Ingham ran a riding school in the years between the First and Second World Wars. While in the WACs, Priscilla was posted mostly around Milford Haven and Pembroke, where there was a lot of bombing due to the close proximity of the docks. When the Neills lived in Northern Ireland, she became very much a wife / mother figure. Priscilla's military career ended when Sam's older brother, Michael, was born.
Even though Sam's father was not an Englishman but a New Zealander, the fact that he was serving in the British army was close enough to actually being from England, from the perspectives of many Irish villagers. Oddly enough, Sam's great grandfather was Irish and immigrated to New Zealand in the mid-1800s. 'Just in time for the gold rush', Sam elaborates, referring to the fact that Otago, New Zealand prospered due to the demand created for its agricultural products by the Australian gold-rushes of the 1850s. Central Otago, near the Neills' home near Dunedin, also experienced a gold rush of its own in the 1860s and early 1870s.
When asked how Sam felt about his heritage, and whether or not he considered himself to be Irish, English, Australian, or a mixed breed, he responded:
I am Irish by disposition, inclination, and genetic imperative. I would never consider living there again. I am absolutely a New Zealander. But, of course, there is confusion, and I am also interested in my English/Norman/Anglo-Irish antecedents. Equally, now my wider family includes Maori and Japanese, and this is immediately more interesting.
If Sam believes there to be some confusion, then there can be little hope for the typical fan who tries to get a grip on his nationality. The New Zealand Embassy in Washington, D.C. even commented on this quirk of Sam's life, saying that 'Australia continually attempts to claim him as one of their own, but he is definitely a New Zealander.'
Whether or not the world considers him to be an Australian or a New Zealander, the fact is that Sam was born in Northern Ireland. Fortunately, in 1947, Northern Ireland was not as violent as become in the early 1970's. At the time of the Neill's presence in Northern Ireland, its citizens were beginning to re-establish peace following the end of World War II. The war industry had raised the economic status of Ireland 84%, resulting in a sense of optimism and well-being. Sam recalls his early years in Ireland as being very pleasant ones.
As pleasant and as peaceful as Northern Ireland may have been during Sam's childhood, there were moments when it was also rather chaotic, such as during the actual birth of Sam. Sam describes the scene:
I was born in a farmhouse which my parents were renting near Omagh. The midwife was apparently somewhat distracted by having to shoo out some pigs that invaded the house about the time I was born. (I was, incidentally, born in the Year of the Pig.)
Sam and his family remained in Omagh, County Tyrone, for only a year, moving from there to the eastern coast of Ireland, Tyrella, County Down.
My parents bought a house called "The Watchhouse" near a tiny place called Tyrella, where we lived for a couple of years while my father was stationed nearby. This was a two storey whitewashed 18th century house right on the rocks, surrounded by sea and beaches on both sides. We used to holiday there when we were living in Omagh. I have been back there, subsequently, and it's just as I remember. An absolutely idyllic place for a child and we were all very happy there.
Sam's family moved to Armagh in 1951. During the late 1940's and early 1950's, Armagh remained 'the holy city of Ireland', containing the famous cathedral which was founded by St. Patrick himself. The city was abundant with 18th century beauty and elegance, a truly distinguished town. It seems fitting that it was into this decorous atmosphere that Nigel 'Sam' Neill began his formal education.
My first school, at 4 or 5, was Armagh Girls' High School (A.G.H.S.). They had a co-ed part. However, my parents lied that the initials stood for General High School -- there being no way I would have gone to a girls' school.
Sam describes himself at this age as being 'a blond, rather skinny boy. Probably a bit shy.'
When he was seven, Sam's family returned to his father's homeland, New Zealand. First the Neills lived at Macandrew Bay on the Otago Peninsula, about 8 miles from Dunedin, and then on a farm on the North Taieri plain.
Looking back on Northern Ireland, Sam comments that
Northern Ireland is a great place to go and visit. Perhaps a rather sad place to live. The sectarian business seems to me futile and ghastly. I still have certain relatives in England / Ireland. They corrode in a rather genteel way.
When asked what he thought about the trip to New Zealand as a young boy, Sam pauses:
I don't remember. Excited, I think. The ship was a great adventure. Panama was especially exciting, because being a small boy, the wild engineering involved in the locks had to be seen to be believed. I was surrounded by jungle for the first time in my life, and it made a wildly different day or two's travel from the two weeks previous on the open sea.
Before heading on the open sea, Sam lived with his grandmother:
I lived for some months with my grandmother in Wales, in Tenby, in the transition period before we left for New Zealand. My grandmother was the kindest person I ever knew, and is still remembered with affection in Tenby. She had been widowed in the first war, and although she was, I suppose, not by any means well off, she spoiled me rotten, and I spent a wonderful week or two with her in London prior to catching the ship with the rest of the family.
After an exciting sea voyage, the Neill family arrived in their new home of New Zealand.
Dunedin is a port city on the east coast of New Zealand's south island. Standing at the head of Otago Harbour, protectively nestled beneath steep hills, it has a rugged, sharp landscape, shaped partly by outpouring of volcanic lava. Here Sam's father retired from the military and joined the family firm, one of New Zealand's largest liquor wholesalers: Wilson Neill. This family business was founded by Sam's paternal great-grandfather. Dunedin is a very conservative, very Scottish small town -- the name 'Dunedin' is Gaelic for 'Edinburgh'-- founded in 1848 as a Scottish Free Church settlement. It was quite different from what Sam was used to seeing from day to day in Northern Ireland. The apparent conservativeness of the town matched his parents' own apparent conservativeness.
In a 1989 interview, Sam described his parents' example of good manners and politeness:
The one thing about my parents is my father is a gentleman and my mother is the equivalent, what would you call it? a gentlewoman?, so they're nice to each other; they're well-mannered to each other. We [society] don't bother as much about manners as we used to. And manners are just as important with people who are close to you as they are with strangers.
This politeness would fit in well in British society, and it fit in well in New Zealand, where the citizens have retained much of their English heritage. Christchurch, where Sam went to boarding school, is said to be 'the most English city outside England'. The city itself was designed in Britain in the mid-1800s as a model Anglican settlement. Referring to the tenacious grip by the New Zealanders on the British way of life, Sam says 'My family is very English: my mother was English and my father was educated in England and served in the British army and all that.' Sam's father left New Zealand at a young age to attend Harrow, one of the most prestigious schools in England. From there he went to Sandhurst and on to the British Army.
However, Sam's mother, Priscilla, is not as conservative as her demeanour would suggest. She tempers her politeness and perception of propriety with a strong sense of humour. Family stories abound concerning her humorous, slightly irreverent side, an example being the description of the occurrences of one Christmas Day in the late 1970's:
Priscilla was driving a pony cart containing Father Christmas through a local New Zealand town, Mosgiel. Their destination was an aerodrome where children awaited with high expectations. The scene caused quite a sensation as they went clip-clopping through the town with Priscilla holding the reins in one hand and a hunting horn in the other, blowing it as they passed the corners. To add to the scene, Father Christmas was quite drunk and wobbly. When the cart finally appeared at the aerodrome, it was a bit much for some of the children who burst into tears.
Sam's basis for preserving the environment becomes apparent when another story concerning Priscilla's tenacity is related:
Priscilla raised native parrots in an aviary outside Dermot's and her bedroom window. These birds were dying as a species, but she was able to bring them back from the brink of extinction. Once they were hatched and raised to maturity, they were liberated into the nearby woods. The birds would often come back for a splash in the bird bath in the aviary. Apparently, however, raising them contravened some law, and Priscilla was threatened with prosecution. "Prosecute," she said, and they backed down.
Another story illustrates her sense of priorities:
Dermot was Honorary French Consul in Dunedin, and the French Ambassador was coming to stay with them. Just before his arrival one of the Neill ponies wandered off and fell through some wooden planks covering a cesspool. Priscilla spent hours hanging over the edge, feeding the pony grass and keeping its spirits up. It managed to keep its head above the sewage until a crane finally arrived to get it out. (The pony survived, by the way.) Priscilla returned to the house where the Ambassador was waiting. He advanced to kiss her hand, in typical Gallic fashion, but was knocked back by the scent wafting from her.
Both Dermot and Priscilla are known for their sense of humour, although it has been said that Dermot could be irascible in an Army way at times. However, Priscilla had a knack for jollying him out of such moods, and Sam's refusal to take himself seriously can be traced directly to his mother's influence. A family friend has noted that while Dermot and Priscilla were similar in many ways, their characters were very different, much in the same way that Northern Ireland and New Zealand are alike yet different. Sam's is an appealing mix of both of his parent's characters and one can detect the influence of a mixture of both environments in which he was reared.
Sam describes his introduction to his father's homeland:
I remember my first day in New Zealand quite clearly because it was a shock, and it continued to be a shock--the harsh, bright light after that soft Irish light. And the school playground was devoted to a barbarity to which I was completely unsuited.
This new land was a dramatic contrast to the elegance of Northern Ireland's Armagh.
It could be a horrible nightmare, one that wakes the victim in the dead of night. Sweating and shuddering, he tries to repress them, but to no avail; the memories come rushing back. Alone, with no supporters to take his side, the small boy trembles, surrounded by tormentors. His blue eyes, stinging from threatening tears, dart fearfully from one persecutor to the next. Taunting, jeering, they show no mercy as they shout out insults and ridicule the newcomer, the foreigner. He is on their territory now; he is no more than an unwelcome outsider. The tormentors' eyes demand that he answer their questions: 'How dare he come into their school? This proper little gentleman! Too good for them, is he? With his posh accent, and upper-class airs. They will show him where he belongs, and it isn't here; it isn't in New Zealand.' The small child finds himself silently agreeing with his tormentors; he doesn't belong here in this strange land where summer is winter and winter is summer. Their accents are as strange to his ears as his is to theirs. But they are the majority, and this is their land. His only hope is to become one of them.
Sam was an outsider in Northern Ireland, and now, here in his father's homeland, he was once again an outsider. Sam began to contemplate how he should handle his situation, and he concluded that 'to avoid being knocked around I wanted to become a radically different person very quickly...that is to say, an instant New Zealander.' 'Nigel' began to exclusively use 'Sam' as his primary name.
"Sam" was from when I was perhaps 10--there were too many Nigels in my class and we allotted each other names that had a Western sound to them. I encouraged my name.
He was more than willing to do so because he felt it sounded much less 'prissy' than Nigel, even though his mother dislikes the name. She refuses to call her son 'Sam'. A friend of Sam's, Geoffrey Eathorne, adds that Sam is still called Nigel by the family as well as several of his friends from his youth. However, Geoffrey says that he is 'at long last beginning to think of him as Sam as well,' while pointing out that two of Sam's close school friends were also Nigels.
Although this change in his first name undoubtedly prevented some teasing, 'Sam' was still having trouble with his schoolmates due to his 'posh' accent. He suffered with being teased and taunted mercilessly because of his speech, the resulting stress causing him to develop a pronounced stutter. The stutter served to give the tormentors more ammunition, and therefore little Sam's early schooldays were not very happy ones. The fact that he attended a boarding school made the stress and anxiety even worse, since there was no family to come home to each evening for comfort.
A close family friend of the Neills elaborates on the early days of their arrival in New Zealand:
Sam's elder brother, Michael, was already a figure who stood out. He has a great wit and at Christ's College he stood out as intellectually brilliant. People even then tended to be a bit in awe of him and looked up to him. By the time he got to university, he also tended to have stunningly attractive girlfriends. It was not easy for Sam to have to have such a brother. He followed in his footsteps and at Christ's there were inevitable comparisons. My memory is that Sam, whether consciously or not, made a greater effort to meld into the New Zealander's world. He was more sporty, more conventionally good looking, less remote in manner.
Although one may jump to conclusions and guess at sibling rivalry, evidently this was not necessarily the case:
I would add that there never seemed resentment about Michael's position as the favoured one. Michael is one of the kindest of people, and wisest. Nigel tended more, I think, to admire him deeply. Today they are very close.
Michael, five years older than Sam, was his chosen hero. Sam once commented that 'A lot of people do things in order to get the approval of their parents. I think that I have always done things to get the approval of my brother.'
Sam began boarding school at the age of nine, attending two private schools, both connected to the Church of England. From age nine until age thirteen, he attended Medbury, a primary school in Dunedin. From age thirteen until eighteen, Sam attended Christ's College in Christchurch. Sam elaborates on his primary boarding years:
Medbury was not a happy time -- (I was) too young and (it was) a primitive school. I saw my family 3 holidays per annum and I missed them very much, particularly the first 2 or 3 years. You get used to these things. Christ's College was much better. Good drama, some very good teachers that encouraged me.
There must have been a very fine line between success and failure for a child with these obstacles of isolation, speech impediments and subsequent lack of self-confidence. However, Sam's basic constitution was a strong one. It may have taken Sam years to develop his self-confidence; but the strength necessary to do so was within him. It seems ironic that considering how he suffered with stuttering and with being ridiculed about his unbearably proper accent, it is Sam's voice that is now his most recognisable feature.
Although his stressful childhood could have laid the foundation for feelings of insecurity and low self-confidence, it instead laid the foundation for his acting career. Sam felt that it was a matter of self-preservation for him to lose his 'proper' British accent and adopt the New Zealand one. He also adapted to the New Zealand way of life, as opposed to the British military lifestyle. By transforming himself into someone that he was not, he found that he had a talent for 'becoming' other people. Acting was a natural outlet for this new-found talent.
The fact that Sam looked up to Michael may have fostered this drive to be an actor, as well. It was commented that Michael had a 'deep interest in acting and was a marvellous actor in Christ's productions and at the University of Otago. Certainly Sam's interest must have been stirred by him.'
As a small boy, however, Sam preferred to dream about becoming a Royal Air Force pilot rather than a flashy Hollywood movie star such as James Dean. 'We didn't even know who he was', he explains. 'We were reading Biggles and Roy of the Rovers.' Sam was an introspective child, preferring reading to sports. He remembers reading 'a lot of serious stuff, books that were way too serious for my age.' These 'serious books' were the books that his brother, Michael, was reading.
The first few years of Sam's life created the pattern that his next years would follow. Being uprooted several times, to move from one country to the next, has undoubtedly made it easier for Sam to travel world-wide in his acting career. The fact that he felt impelled to 'become' a different person to fit into his surrounding society was a strong foundation for a professional actor. Even his most recognisable feature, his unique voice, was created during this time period. As stressful as it may have been to a small boy, what transpired during these early years provided the groundwork for the adult, the successful actor.
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