Mary O'Malley Changed the NI Stage

Lee Henry pays tribute to the founder of Belfast's Lyric Players Theatre

Mary O’Malley (1918 – 2006) was the founder of Belfast’s Lyric Players Theatre. A self-taught and tireless director, she fought against a tide of cultural populism and social indifference in the north during the 50's, 60's and 70's to pioneer an unorthodox style of poetic theatre based on the principles of Dublin’s famous Abbey Theatre – co-founded by O’Malley’s literary idol, WB Yeats, where Irish writers and Irish culture would take centre stage.

Resolute in her conviction to develop a company in which writers, directors, actors, artists and singers could revel in pure theatre without interference or constraint, the Lyric Players Theatre would be her lasting legacy to a divided community united in its love of literature and the stage, blossoming from a drawing room labour of love to a fully professional producing theatre in its current location on the banks of the River Lagan.

In doing so, O’Malley provided an outlet for some of Northern Ireland’s most celebrated writers such as Graham Reid, Martin Lynch and Marie Jones and helped unearth such world-class Northern Irish actors as Louis Rolston, Adrian Dunbar and the Lyric’s current patron, Liam Neeson.

O’Malley was born Mary Hickey in Mallow, Co Cork in 1918. One of two children, she shared a lifelong love of theatre with her older brother Gerard, who himself would go on to become a successful set designer.

Mary's first experience with theatre came at the tender age of six, when she saw Boucicault’s The Colleen Bawn in the local town hall. At the age of thirteen, whilst stopping off in Dublin on the way to begin her first year at Loreto Convent, Navan, Gerard introduced her to the Abbey Theatre, home of Yeats’ and Lady Gregory’s Celtic Revival. Later that year O’Malley would write and direct her first play, The Lost Princess.

After she had finished at Loreto Convent, Mary moved with her mother to live near Gerard in Dublin. In her spare time she would attend productions at the Abbey and Peacock theatres and quickly became immersed in Dublin’s social and theatrical scenes, becoming a key member of the New Theatre Group and joining countless societies such as the Irish Society for Intellectual Freedom.

This was a time of great discovery for O’Malley, both artistically and politically. Following the outbreak of the Second World War, a plethora of intellectuals and artists had sought refuge from the fascist threat within Dublin’s neutral walls, and soon the city had become the de facto cultural capital of Europe. The radical socialist philosophies espoused in Dublin during this period would have a lasting effect on O’Malley.

On September 14, 1947, Mary was married to Pearse O’Malley at University Church, Dublin. Within a month she had moved north of the border to Belfast, where her neurologist husband had been busy planning a new Department of Neurology and Psychiatry at the Mater Hospital.

On arrival, Belfast had seemed a bleak and introverted place compared to the cultural melting pot of Dublin City. It wasn’t long, however, before the O’Malley residence on Ulsterville Avenue began to attract like-minded thespians, artists and left-wing politicos from both north and south of the border.

All that O’Malley had absorbed in Dublin she would aspire to execute in her new home town. In 1952, she ran for office as Irish Labour Party councillor for Smithfield, the only female in the running. On May 21, she polled the highest of all six contesting candidates, but with a burgeoning family and a developing theatre at home, her political career was short lived. As O’Malley admits in her autobiography, Never Shake Hands with the Devil: ‘…it dawned on me that my talents lay in other directions.’

Charged with organising a Christmas party for the Newman Society, of which he was President, Pearse soon drafted in his enthusiastic wife to deal with the prospective line-up. With a small company of amateur and professional actors, O’Malley produced two one-act plays - The Dear Queen and a nativity play written by Lady Gregory. The seeds of the Lyric Players Theatre had been sewn.

Thereafter O’Malley began staging private productions for friends and fellow theatre enthusiasts in her Ulsterville Avenue drawing room. A programme of one-act verse plays by Irish writers such as Yeats, Austin Clarke and Valentin Iremonger, poetry recitals and musical performances signalled the way forward for this ambitious company.

Not entertainment in the popular sense of the word, O’Malley’s was serious theatre: thought-provoking and idealist, inspired by Yeats’ vision of a romantic Ireland.

A new family home in Derryvolgie Avenue provided the O’Malleys with ample space in which to develop their company of amateurs. A labour of love for everyone involved, the Lyric Players Theatre came to be revered by amateur and professional companies alike as a model of artistic integrity.

As their repertoire grew, O’Malley felt it necessary to provide a permanent theatre for the company, and in the 60's the Lyric Players Theatre became a non-profit making association and a plot secured for the building on Ridgeway Street.

In 1965, Austen Clarke laid the new theatre’s foundation stone, inscribed with a quote from Yeats’ poem 'To A Wealthy Man': ‘Look up in the sun's eye’.

The theatre opened in October 1968, at the beginning of the Troubles. It would be the only theatre in Belfast to survive intact.

A central custodian of Northern Ireland’s cultural heritage, O’Malley sought to promote the arts in all their forms, simultaneously establishing an affiliate Academy of Music and Drama in connection with The Lyric, a literary magazine, Irish crafts shop and art gallery.

In 1976, exhausted by the travails of professional theatre, Mary left the north and finally settled in Wicklow. Never formally trained in theatre or drama, her spirited example would inspire a whole raft of amateur theatre companies throughout Britain and Ireland in their eternal quest for survival and put Belfast firmly on the cultural map.

Mary O'Malley died April 22, 2006.