Mary O'Malley

Co-founder of the Lyric Theatre, Belfast - which began as a company performing in her own home


Mary Hickey, theatre producer and director: born Mallow, Co Cork 28 July 1918; married 1947 Pearse O'Malley (died 2004; three sons); died Booterstown, Co Dublin 22 April 2006.

'Arid" is one way of describing the cultural scene in Northern Ireland when Mary O'Malley and her husband Pearse started the Lyric Players in Belfast in 1951. In this near desert they created and nurtured an extraordinary little theatre.

It was very little to begin with. With like-minded actors, directors and designers, the O'Malleys began to put on plays in their home in Belfast. The repertoire was dominated in thoseearly days by the verse dramas of the Dublin poet Austin Clarke and theplays of W.B. Yeats - Mary O'Malley felt that the Abbey Theatre in Dublin was neglecting the dramatic works of their formidable founder. She alsosent a cheeky message to the Dublin censors that the later, sometimes anti-clerical, plays of Sean O'Casey were worth putting on - which she did with gusto - and that they would not corrupt the faith or morals of those who watched them.

By 1952 the O'Malleys had moved to a sizeable house in Derryvolgie Avenue in the up-market Malone Road area of Belfast. While Pearse continued to practise as a psychiatrist, Mary's energy and ambition reached new levels. For more than a decade an astonishing variety of plays went on in what seemed to me, when I went there in the 1960s, like a converted suburban garage. Pearse offered then - and for the next half-century - unstinting support. Nothing was too ambitious for Mary O'Malley: I remember seeing a Shakespearean epic - Henry IV, Part 1, I think - performed with astonishing bravado in an auditorium where there was always a danger that if a banner were waved aloft too vigorously it would either knock down some lights or burst into flames.

In 1956 O'Malley opened a drama school; in 1957 she launched a quarterly literary journal, Threshold, which ran for 10 years, much helped by having as its poetry editor the astringent Protestant poet John Hewitt. While all this was going on she also found time to look after her three sons - Conor, Kieran and Donal.

She was born Mary Hickey in Co Cork in 1918. Her father died beforeher birth; her mother, with financial help from her older brother Gerard, saw Mary through the Loreto Convent in Cork and then St Michael's inNavan where she wrote and directed her own play, "The Lost Princess", at the age of 13. She did well at schoolbut, to make ends meet, had to take a secretarial course which led to a series of office jobs.

In the late 1930s she lived with her brother in Dublin, joined the CivilService Dramatic Society, became politically aware, met Maud Gonne and, then momentously in 1943, a young doctor, Pearse O'Malley. After a somewhat tempestuous courtship she married him in 1947 and he took up anappointment at the Mater Hospitalin Belfast. Her first son, Donal, was born in 1949 but she became politically active in the Belfast of the late 1950s and early 1960s, becoming a Labour councillor and increasingly involved in the intense but small-scale cultural life of the province.

From the start Mary O'Malley had been operating a kind of cultural peace process in Northern Ireland. She looked to the literary heritage of the island as a whole and strove mightily to use drama to promote debate and historical understanding in a community that found the simplicities of sectarianism so seductive. She began to put on the plays of Brian Friel and Patrick Galvin and recognition began to dawn in the relatively peaceful Belfast of the mid-1960s that perhaps such an artistic jewel should be housed in a theatre that could seat more than 50 souls.

So the current Belfast Lyric Theatre was born. The foundation stone was laid by Austin Clarke in 1965, Yeats's centenary year. Big names from the Irish creative establishment - young and old - attended. The poet's son, Senator Michael Yeats, was there; so were Padraic Colum, Seamus Heaney, Thomas Kinsella and W.R. Rogers.

By 1968 a modern 300-seat theatre in Ridgeway Street had opened and a new flow of acting and writing talent began to burgeon. The Lyric premiered plays by Stewart Parker (includinghis notable Northern Star), MarieJones, Graham Reid, Gary Mitchell, Christina Reid and Owen McCafferty - to name but a few turbines in thecontemporary powerhouse of Ulster play-writing. And Frank McGuinness did a version of Lorca's The Houseof Bernarda Alba.

The Troubles erupted soon after the Lyric opened. They did not make its early years easy, but actors like Simon Callow gave their all against a background of bomb explosions and gunshots. Sometimes the players would have to hold candles and the audience lamps. Liam Neeson came, learned and went on. He spoke for probably hundreds of other actors when he said:

"[Mary O'Malley] gave me my professional start . . . and believed in whatever raw talent I had. She pulled no punches in telling me of the potential hardships of the professional actor's life. Her love and pride in the Lyric Theatre was infectious and she became a sort of mother to us all in Ridgeway Street. " O'Malley supervised the first 10 years in the new building and went on directing productions until 1978, before retiring to Dublin in 1981. Control passed to a series of artistic directors and the Lyric became the only subsidised, producing theatre in Northern Ireland. Not surprisingly the transition from a tiny "fringe" theatre with an enthusiastic audience to a larger house which could fill 300 seats nightly for classics or controversial new work has not always been easy.

The "new" theatre - built on a shoestring at the time - is now "old" and will be replaced by a new 400-seater with a smaller studio theatre. The project will cost £12m - a long way from the modest stage at Derryvolgie Avenue. The current artistic director, Paula McFetridge, is very conscious of the O'Malley legacy and keen to perpetuate it:

She never underestimated audiences; she believed that if you gave them quality, loyalty would follow. She wanted the Lyric to be politically neutral but totally inclusive. And she believed passionately in the mission to train young people.

John Hewitt in his poem "For Mary O'Malley and the Lyric Players" perhaps described her achievement best:

I owe much thanks to players everywhere
Who've set such circumstances before my mind
that I have shed my momentary care
in rapt occasion of a richer kind . . .
with all to thank, I name in gratitude,
and set beside the best, with them aligned,
the little band upon their little stage . . .

Bernard Adams

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