Seamus Heaney Unveils Lyric Theatre Threshold Stone

The Nobel Laureate comes to Belfast as the new Lyric Theatre reaches a memorable milestone. Video below, featuring music composed and played by Neil Martin

Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney returned to Belfast this month to celebrate the start of construction on the Lyric Theatre’s new home. Heaney was guest of honour at the unveiling of the theatre's new threshold stone, which has been engraved with one of his own poems.

It was a star-studded affair, with James Nesbitt, Michael Longley, Brian Kennedy and more showing their support for the Lyric, the board of which has still to raise around £800,000 before the new state-of-the-art theatre complex can be completed.

As cranes swung to and fro over the construction site, members of the theatrical fraternity took their seats before a makeshift stage, behind which rested the threshold stone itself, covered with a sheet of black fabric.

James Nesbitt, Conleth Hill and Brian KennedyThe unveiling ceremony was led by actor and long-time Lyric devotee, Dan Gordon. Before Heaney unveiled the stone, poet Michael Longley read one of his own poems; composer Neil Martin played a piece specially commissioned for the occasion; actress Geraldine Hughes read a letter written by playwright Brian Friel; and Lyric chairman, broadcaster Mark Carruthers, thanked present funders and called for help in the final financial push.

'The renovation of the Lyric Theatre is a reminder of the vital artistic achievement in the past and the promise of ongoing creative vigour in the future,' said Heaney, who celebrated his 70th birthday in April.

'The renewal of the fabric of the building stands for the kind of social and psychic renewal that the entire community aspires to. The Lyric has engaged with the life of its society and performed the classic Shakespearean task, of providing what Hamlet called ‘the abstract and brief chronicles of the time’. I am honoured that words from my poem will appear on the threshold stone and I add my voice to the chorus of congratulation.'

The unveiling mirrored another symbolic occasion in the Lyric’s rich history. In June 1965, supporters of the Lyric Players gathered on the very same site to lay the foundation stone of the original theatre. 

They included an up-and-coming Heaney who recited a new poem, ‘Peter Street at Bankside’, specially written for the occasion. 44 years on, a stanza from this poem has been engraved in the threshold stone which will mark the main entrance to the new theatre, scheduled to open in 2011.

In his letter, also specially written for the occasion, Brian Friel noted that: 'A new theatre can be the most exciting building in any city. It can be the home of miracles and epiphanies and revelations and renovations. And building a new theatre - especially in times like these - is both an act of fortitude and a gesture of faith in your community.'

'The unveiling of this threshold stone is a statement of intent for the Lyric’s future,' commented Carruthers. 'In our new home we can introduce more people to live theatre than ever before and we can stage world class productions of important work in a way that, up to now, we might only have dreamed of. Today we truly are on the threshold of something wonderful.'Lyric Theatre chairman, Mark Carruthers

The Lyric launched plans for its new theatre in 2003 and embarked on a major fundraising campaign. To date, over 95% of the £18 million project costs have been secured, with a final £800,000 still to be raised to pay for fit-out and equipment.

The project has attracted significant capital investment from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Belfast City Council and a wide range of private philanthropists and corporate sponsors, many of whom were represented at the unveiling.

Rosemary Kelly OBE, chairman of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, looked forward to the grand opening of the new Lyric Theatre:

'The opening of the Lyric’s new building in 2011 will mark a much-anticipated new chapter in the theatre’s history. The improved venue will meet the growing demands of local audiences, bringing the theatre’s facilities up to an international standard and providing Belfast with an outstanding new drama space which it can truly be proud of.'

Lee Henry