In 1978, he made his television debut as ‘McGlin’ in the episode ‘Pressure’ from the British television drama series ‘Z-Cars.’
He appeared as Michael Kavanaugh in the television miniseries ‘Les roses de Dublin’ in 1981. That year, he made his film debut playing Younger Protestant in the flick ‘Nailed.’
Moving on, he featured in single episodes of many other TV series, such as ‘Play for Tomorrow’ (1982), ‘Strangers’ (1982), ‘Moonlighting’ (1986), and ‘Remington Steele’ (1987); TV films like ‘Playboy of the Western World’ (1983) and ‘Kenny Rogers as The Gambler, Part III: The Legend Continues’ (1987).
In 1987, he featured in two films: ‘Omega Syndrome’ and ‘The Dead.’ In September 1987, he appeared as an unnamed helm officer in the first episode and series premiere ‘Encounter at Farpoint’ from the Gene Roddenberry created American sci-fi television series ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation.’
His character in ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ later transcended into a recurring role of Miles Edward O'Brien, a transporter chief of the USS Enterprise-D. Starting from 1987, he featured in the series for 52 episodes. He left the series in 1993 to join the main cast of another American sci-fi TV series in the Star Trek franchise titled ‘Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’ where he reprised the role of O'Brien.
He featured as O'Brien in ‘Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’ in 173 of its 176 episodes that aired for 7 seasons from January 3, 1993, to June 2, 1999. As the story progressed, his character was promoted to Chief of Operations of Deep Space Nine. This garnered Meaney widespread recognition.
Meanwhile, he went on to feature in many other films and television productions. He played Jimmy Rabbitte, Sr. in the Irish-British-American musical comedy-drama film ‘The Commitments,’ first of the three films adapted from Roddy Doyle's ‘The Barrytown Trilogy’ based on the 1987 novel ‘The Commitments.’ Counted among the best Irish films in the history, this cult film released in August 1991, and became a commercial success garnering four BAFTA Awards and an Oscar nomination.
He essayed the role of Daumer in the Steven Seagal starrer blockbuster hit action-thriller ‘Under Siege,’ which released on October 9, 1992, and grossed a whopping $156.6 million at box office.
The 1992 Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman starrer hit epic romantic adventure drama film ‘Far and Away’ featured Meaney in the character of Kelly.
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He landed up with the starring role of Dessie Curley in the 1993 Irish television film ‘The Snapper.’ It was the second of the three films adapted from ‘The Barrytown Trilogy,’ based on the 1990 novel titled ‘The Snapper.’ His brilliant performance in the film earned him nomination for the ‘Golden Globe Award for Best Actor’ – ‘Motion Picture Musical or Comedy.’
The 1995 British film ‘The Englishman who Went up a Hill but Came down a Mountain’ saw him playing Morgan the Goat. The film also featured Hugh Grant, Ian McNeice, and Tara FitzGerald. The film entered the 19th Moscow International Film Festival and was screened at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival in its ‘Un Certain Regard’ section.
He then starred as Larry in the 1996 film ‘The Van,’ third of the ‘The Barrytown Trilogy’ films based on the 1991 novel ‘The Van.’ With this, he became the only actor to feature in all the films of the trilogy. The film was screened at the Cannes Film Festival that year.
The 1997 box-office hit action film ‘Con Air’ saw him playing DEA Agent Duncan Malloy starring, along with Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, and John Malkovich among others.
He won the Irish Film and Television Award for Best Actor for his performance in the 2001 drama film ‘How Harry Became a Tree.’ Over the years, he has featured in several other notable films, including ‘Layer Cake’ (2004), ‘Kings’ (2007), ‘The Damned United’ (2009), ‘Law Abiding Citizen’ (2009), and ‘Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa’ (2013) among others.
The Irish mail agency ‘An Post’ issued a postage stamp in July 2008 that featured him as Joe Mullen from the film ‘Kings.’
Along with films, he continued working in television productions. Some of them are ‘Scarlett’ (1994), ‘The Driver’ (2014), ‘Will’ (2017), ‘Random Passage’ (2002), ‘Alice’ (2009), and ‘ZOS: Zone of Separation’ (2009); and TV films like ‘The Magical Legend of the Leprechauns’ (1999), ‘King of Texas’ (2002), and ‘Caved In: Prehistoric Terror’ (2006).
In one of his notable television works, he played the main role of businessman and investor Thomas "Doc" Durant in the American Western series ‘Hell on Wheels.’ The series aired from November 6, 2011, to July 23, 2016, and featured him in 51 of its 57 episodes. He earned nomination for ‘Saturn Award’ for ‘Best Supporting Actor on Television’ and ‘Irish Film & Television Award’ for ‘Best Actor TV’ in 2013 for his performance.
He plays Father Francis in the Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins starrer upcoming American biographical drama film ‘Tolkien,’ which is about J. R. R. Tolkien, the author of ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’.