In Memory of Mary
Tom Paulin and Michael Longley mark the Lyric Theatre's enduring contribution to NI's creative life
With a waning moon soundtracked by dull pops and not-too-distant explosions, one imagines that the October skies of south Belfast haven't changed much in 70 years. At the bottom of Ridgeway Street on the edge of the Stranmillis Embankment, though, The Lyric Theatre has been a catalyst and centre for theatrical and poetic creativity since Mary and Pearse O'Malley fought for its establishment in the 1950s.
It is in celebration of the theatre, its founders and its achievements that Michael Longley and Tom Paulin appear to read as part of LyricFest, a two-day programme of ad-hoc performances and events marking a key point in the theatre's history before closure, renovation and re-opening with an even higher profile.
Taking place the evening after the official launch of Sam McCready's Baptism By Fire - My Life with Mary O'Malley and The Lyric Players, Longley and Paulin's appearances attract a near-full house. Introduced by Kieran O'Malley, he notes that having returned from North America, his awareness of his parent's achievements is accentuated in Belfast. 'I'm used to being known as Kieran, Dr O'Malley... but here in Belfast, it's "Mary's son".'
Before introducing Longley, he opens the evening by reciting a poem written on the occassion of his father's sudden death in 2004. 'A Quiet Prayer for Patrick Pearse O'Malley' sets a dignified tone neither grieving nor excessively joyous, sustained by a tribute to Kieran's mother who, on April 22, 2006, passed into 'a deeply needed sleep'.
Introducing Longley as 'a central figure in Irish poetry, and a forceful figure within the Arts Council of NI', the audience is primed for a recital in which Longley's classical education bears witness to modern tragedy, triumph and contemporary life. Proving his mastery of the small moments of peace that are the opposite of violence, after recognising the coincidental and timely unveiling of two plaques in memory of fellow literary luminary and Lyric Theatre board member John Hewitt (in Mount Charles and Stockman's Lane) Longley recites a sonnet of Hewitt's, written at the laying of the Lyric's foundation stone on June 12, 1965.
Longley remembers the 'huge undertaking' of founding the Lyric and the 'monomaniacal devotion' required. The knowing and fond laughs of the audience confirm that this combination was one evident in the O'Malley duo, that they and they alone were made to establish the theatre. There is a sense that in remembering such efforts, the present-day audience sits in the company of great spirits, militant warriors of the imagination unwilling to lie down when faced with obstruction. Longley highlights the O'Malley's spiritual and cultural commitment, the willingness to take on 'the knaves and dolts' who not only said that that it couldn't be done, but made active efforts to prevent it.
History, it is sure, is not safe in the hands of the revisionists, an idea enforced in Longley's recital of 'Fleance'. Drawn from the experience of one of Macbeth's minor characters, it includes a line that recognises the forces that would 'pin my silhouette to history'. It pleases him that this is the first time this poem has got a laugh, and afterwards he recalls the pain of a friend who has a permanently damaged big toe. Mary O'Malley, once fleeing a theatre because of her aversion to 'God Save The Queen', failed to notice the foot beneath her stiletto heel during her hasty exit.
A 'newish poem', 'White Farm House', pays tribute to painter Colin Middleton, ending with a quotation from Dada leader Marcel Duchamp. Longley pays respect to the self-taught group of painters and artists some 20 or 30 years older than the then-beginning group of writers in the 1950s and 60s, the Belfast school of DIY including Middleton, Gerard Dillon and George Campbell.
Continuing with a couple of Homeric passages, 'The Campfire' rejoices in the 'boundlessness of space' and Longley jovially admits to being tired of reading one of his better-known poems, 'Ceasefire'. The poem was taken up by priests and politicians, such is its power, driving Longley to suggest that there must be something wrong with it. Although Paisley and Adams still amuse him, Longley says that NI lives in more hopeful times - not without sorrow, though - as young men from across the world lose their lives overseas. The poem proves its applicability and endurance with its resonant concluding lines,
'I get down on my knees and do what must be done
Kiss Achilles' hand, the killer of my son.'
With 'Ceasefire's' endurance, Longley says he was moved to write a lopsided corollary, a poem he describes as an 'ungamely' tribute to the Lisburn and Stranmillis roads and the memory of murdered greengrocer Jim Gibson, whose sister Kitty performed many a time on The Lyric's stage. Remembering that 'the opposite of war is not peace, but civilisation', he says that it is his pleasure to stand in this oval of breezeblock and wood, remembering those who founded it. He concludes his reading with 'The Levirate', an optimistic poem about his grandson which, with no morbid sentiment, observes aspects of nature only 'a day old and already learning to die'.
Tom Paulin, no stranger to controversy in his high-profile television and broadcasting work, has multiple awards in recognition of his poetic accomplishment. Once described as 'the thinking man's thinking man,' he was the recipient of the 1977 Somerset Maughan prize for A State of Justice. An acute observer of culture high and low, known by the BBC as a 'fully paid up member of the awkward squad', Paulin has been parodied in the media as many times as he has appeared, receiving reproach in pop culture in Adam & Joe's Toy Review as opinionated-stuffed-toy-with-Irish-accent Tom Tortoise, and in The Mighty Boosh stage show as the recipient of Howard Moon's explicit written advances.
Tonight, though, Paulin's own colourful history is not up for examination, although his reputation is inescapable. Beginning with 'a throwaway piece of verse' inspired by somebody he describes as a sinister figure - the Duke of Windsor - the poem is inspired by the Duke's visit to Yorkshire when the regal boot accidentally came down upon Paulin's father's foot. 'Boca di Inferno' from The Invasion Handbook is warmly received, as is an excerpt from his version of Sophocles' Antigone, Paulin recounting the moments when Creon has a change of heart - before tragedy strikes.
Paulin too, admits a fascination with Ian Paisley, revealing that in the early days of his career he immersed himself in the man's books, tapes and sermons. From here Paulin explored Ulster's links with America, and found himself drawing parallels between Paisley and Elvis Presley, the two born of 'a certain redneck culture'. The poem 'Off The Back of a Lorry', he says, 'is a cheap shot, but a fun one'. More verse from The Invasion Handbook raises the pertinent question, 'can dreams weigh on the record, or for that, can poems?'
The Lyric has moved from the personal to the professional, and is now moving into the corporate. Tonight pays tribute not only to the O'Malley's initial struggle to establish the theatre, but to those who have been moved to write, direct, perform or attend. Kieran O'Malley makes the most fitting memorial to his parents, suggesting that the audience tonight pay attention to the plaque and quotation from then-Arts Council President Captain Peter Montgomery, mounted to the wall on the staircase that joins the Lyric's café to the auditorium. Dated October 12, 1967, it reads:
'...when power narrows the area of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his experience.'