Baptism by Fire: My Life with Mary O - Sam McCready

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APRIL 2006.I am in an airport in Washington DC, waiting with Joan for a flight that will take us to Boston en route to Dublin. We have planned this trip for months. Joan will embark on another tour of her one-woman show about Lady Gregory, Coole Lady, and as I sit listening to the announcements and watch the many travellers to-ing and fro-ing through the terminal, I recall

how often during the last year we spoke of Mary O’Malley as the model for the indomitability and ruthless determination of Lady Gregory. Both women were married, had a family, ran a theatre, and were part of a cultural renaissance in Ireland: Lady Gregory in the south and Mary in the north. Both women pursued their passion at considerable personal cost. And now as Joan and I return to present the play in Ireland, we receive the news that Mary has died peacefully after a

long illness. I had expected to hear of her death for some time, but she held on, ‘almost to spite us’, I hear her say.

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I last saw her and Pearse, her husband, at their home in Booterstown, Dublin, in March 1999. We hadn’t been in touch for some time, but when I arrived, a nurse was with Mary, and Pearse took me to lunch. He was warm and cordial and appeared to be in wonderfully good health, so much so that I thought he must live forever. Indeed, he appeared to have changed little from the time I

had first met him some forty years before in the theatre attached to his house in Derryvolgie Avenue, the same dark hair and ruddy cheeks, the same sardonic smile, but as we talked, I sensed the strain he was under, coping with the pain of watching the woman he was devoted to, his closest companion for almost sixty years, gradually lose contact with this

world and those around her. Over lunch, he shared his sadness at Mary’s debilitating illness, blaming a thyroid operation she had had a few years back. He spoke proudly of their family, Kieran, Donal and Conor, and the many grandchildren. He asked about Joan and our family, and we touched briefly on the Lyric, recalling some of the actors, Michael Fieldhouse, Scott Marshall,

Olga McKeown (‘Have you seen them?’ he asked), the trips to Sligo in the early 60s to perform at the first Yeats International Summer Schools, and the last production at the old Lyric in Derryvolgie Avenue, Yeats’s The Resurrection. Together we repeated the final lines, spoken before Mary cut the cord of the front curtain and it dropped to the floor. ‘I always hear your voice

saying those words,’ he murmured, seeming to recall a memory from a happier time. Mary and he had met at a fundraiser for the Irish Film Society in Blackrock, the earnest, shy doctor from Newtownhamilton, Co. Armagh, and the intense, young woman from Mallow, Co. Cork, feisty and fiery and 

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committed to socialist politics and the theatre. That first evening he took her home on the crossbar of his bicycle. That was 1943 and the start of a relationship, but shortly afterwards, Pearse went to England for postgraduate studies. From Mary’s point of view, the arrangement was unsatisfactory—a long-distance courtship was not what she had in mind.

To mollify her, he wrote letters, but when she handed them back to him after a row, he threw them in the fire—an uncharacteristic gesture for someone so laid back and slow to anger; she must have pushed him to the limit. The telegram he sent her when he first went to England, however, was kept and quoted by her with much relish. It read,

ARRIVED SAFELY STOP LOVE TO MOTHER In 1946, Pearse returned from England to set up a Department of Neurology and Psychiatry at the Mater Hospital in Belfast—the first such department in a general hospital in Ireland—and plans were made for marriage. There was a major problem—they had nowhere to live, and the would-be groom appeared to be dragging his

feet, content to enjoy the comforts of the Belgravia Hotel on the corner of Ulsterville Avenue rather than look for a house. Frustrated with his intransigence, on a visit up north, Mary looked across at a large, multi-storied barrack of a house on the opposite corner of Ulsterville Avenue and said, ‘There’s a house for sale,’ and departed for Dublin. To her dismay, Pearse bought the

house, which had been the headquarters of the Northern Ireland Fire Service, and she was landed with a home that she knew was totally unsuitable if they were going to have a family. They married in Dublin in 1947, and it was a reluctant bride who took up residence across the border in Belfast on a cold,

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bleak October day, far from her family and her Dublin friends. Most bewildering of all—the policemen in the north carried guns. She quickly displayed in her home the resourcefulness she later brought to all her theatre work. She furnished the house comfortably, despite its vastness and their limited resources, organised

the rooms (although she never got used to having a dining room on the second floor), and held the first of her New Year parties just two months after she arrived. She made friends, among them Joseph Tomelty, the playwright and actor, who shared his love of the city and all its eccentricities, and she began looking at it through his eyes. Gradually, she acclimatised herself to

the ‘black north’, especially to its people whom she found dour but generous of spirit. The following Twelfth of July, as a gesture to the Orangemen who passed by on their way to Finaghy, she painted her front gate orange (but wickedly, she wore a green and white dress to watch the Orangemen pass by). And her Dublin friends kept in contact: they knew they had somewhere to

stay when they crossed the border, and politicians, like Conor Cruise O’Brien, who was investigating the possibility of uniting all the anti- Partition groups in the north (her observation on his mission, ‘God help you!’), came to know Ulsterville House, the grand name for the barrack, as a place where they could find hospitality and a bed for the night. She was always a generous

hostess and there were few nights, throughout the years I knew her, when she didn’t have a friend or family member to stay . Her first son, Kieran, was born in November 1948, followed by Donal in October 1950 (a third child, Conor, was born in 1954), but Christmas 1950 was also memorable because it

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marked the beginning of the Lyric Players Theatre. When Pearse asked her to provide some entertainment for the annual party of the Newman Society of Queen’s University, he had little idea that he was laying the foundation for a theatre company that would consume both of them almost totally for the next forty years. The success of that programme, which they presented in

Aquinas Hall, encouraged Mary to produce one-act verse plays in Pearse’s Consulting Room on the ground floor of her Ulsterville Avenue home. She had found her niche in Belfast.
There were twenty-five in the audience for the first production, all invited, and after the play, Lost Light, a long one-act by Robert Farren, the actors and audience adjourned to the breakfast room

for coffee and craic—a tradition which was maintained when the O’Malleys moved to Derryvolgie Avenue in 1952. That house, which I got to know as intimately as my own bedroom, had four reception rooms (one of which was Pearse’s Consulting Room), five bedrooms, a garden, and, most importantly, a long attic-like room at the back. It was this room that convinced Mary she

could have a studio theatre in her own home. There the major classics of world drama, among them Shakespeare, the Greeks, the Russian masters, and the playwrights of the Irish Renaissance, were presented from 1952 until a new purpose-built theatre was opened in Ridgeway Street in 1968—sixteen glorious years.


It was in Derryvolgie that I acted with the Lyric for the first time (I was never inside the Ulsterville home, which was later demolished). Almost nightly, a company of amateur players, which included teachers, chemists, electricians and clerks, rehearsed and played in that minuscule space, a veritable

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anthill of activity behind the Victorian grandness of a double- fronted suburban home in the well-heeled Malone Road area of the city, and all of the activity was paid for by Pearse—the scenery, the costumes, the programmes and so on—the only private theatre in the British Isles. It took a patient man to put up with living in a house where troops of leggy actors in togas might

pass him on the stairs or half-dressed women emerge from his bathroom.
When the Lyric is spoken of, Mary’s name leaps to mind but Pearse was an equal partner: she was the driving spirit but he was the brain, he was ice to her fire. As I look back on it, I see Pearse’s hand in most decisions related to the Lyric, and when there were rows or

confrontations, he was very present. He tried with all the means at his disposal to satisfy Mary’s overwhelming need to make theatre because he knew that would make her happy, and yet he was so often the object of her frustration and scorn. In their relationship, she was unpredictable, but through the theatre he gained some measure of control over her—how often she retreated to

his care when things were going wrong—and he fought tirelessly to ensure she had all she wanted.Now, because of her debilitating illness, he was taking care of her almost totally, sitting with her daily and feeding her biscuits as a treat. That he predeceased Mary in 2004 came as a total shock—the strain of her illness appeared to have taken its toll despite his outward strength

and resilience. On the Sunday before he died, he dined with his son Conor and his family and was in excellent spirits, discussing the latest political manoeuvrings in the north. Next morning, after taking his shower as usual, he had a massive heart attack from which he never recovered.

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After lunch, however, on that day in 1999 when I visited their home in Booterstown, Pearse took me to Mary’s bedroom. She sat on a chair, white-haired (I had only ever seen her with intensely dark hair), frail, paler than I had remembered her but beautiful, calm—almost beatific. It was as if she had fought all her life and was now finding peace. ‘She’s happy,’ insisted Pearse. ‘As you

can see, she’s happy.’ I sat in a chair a few feet away from her. We spoke of her grandchildren and their love of the arts; we spoke of my work in America, but it was difficult to know how present she was, how much she understood the conversation since Pearse answered the questions, prompting her occasional remarks. Throughout, however, she focused her dark eyes

on me. They were not piercing and demanding, as I remembered them, but soft and loving. I almost wished we could sit there and be silent, for there is eloquence beyond words, but Pearse needed to talk. ‘She understands!’ he kept insisting. ‘You see, she understands!’ And indeed, as I looked at her, I felt that somewhere in the depths of her mind she was reliving moments from the

rich past we had shared together—the entire canon of Yeats’s plays—the musical of Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Camus’s Caligula, Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed, among many classics—the visits to the Dublin Theatre Festival and the Yeats International Summer Schools; the productions at the King George VI Hall in May

Street, the Non- Subscribing Presbyterian Church Hall in Rosemary Street, and the Grove Theatre on the Shore Road—the rows, the joys, in equal measure—a wealth of experiences binding us inextricably together. She had a copy of my Yeats Encyclopedia in her hand, and

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when I suggested, after an hour or so that passed like minutes, that it was time for me to go, she opened the book at the dedication, ‘To Mary O’Malley and the Lyric Players Theatre.’ Then she looked out of the window at the fading afternoon light and recited, word for word, without hesitation, the final lines from Yeats’s play The Countess Cathleen:

The years like great black oxen tread the world,
And God the herdsman goads them on behind,
And I am broken by their passing feet.


‘Those are my favourite lines of Yeats,’ she whispered. I turned to Pearse. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘She understands.’ I never saw her again. Later, she was moved to a nursing home and Pearse went to live with Conor and his wife. The memories of that last visit have remained with me, so much so that I have dreamed of her almost nightly ever since. The dreams are sometimes reassuring:

we are working on a play and she is totally happy and encouraging, a smile on her face and a twinkle in her eye. Yet, too often, the dreams are disturbing. ‘The peacemaker’, she once called me, and I didn’t understand why, until I realised how often I had played the middleman when her temper had alienated her from one friend or another. I had no such advocate; I had to thole her

temper until such time as she calmed down. ‘The sins of omission,’ she would fire at me. Some of these ‘sins’ I accepted. Then there are those dreams from which I wake believing I haven’t done enough for her, that I am insufficiently grateful. I relive, too often, the occasion when she directed My Silver Bird, a musical about the pirate queen, Grace O’Malley, and her last production at the Lyric in 1981, with a script by Patrick

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Galvin that needed work, a score by Sean O’Riada’s son that taxed the resources of the Lyric, and the imminent death of Bobby Sands, which created tension in the streets outside and threatened to bring preparations for the play to a standstill. She was determined to prove she could still ‘deliver the goods’ (a favourite phrase), and she found fault with all of us. The

rehearsals were chaotic and when the play opened it was not well received. The Lyric trustees chose not to tour the production to the Opera House, Cork, a venue that was already promoting the event and welcoming the return of a native, but, as the joint-Artistic Advisor, I was the fall guy and had to bear Mary’s anger and resentment for the cancellation of her production. A short time

later, having been offered work in America, I gave up the job. I had had enough. I didn’t feel I had the authority to make decisions and was too often saddled with the responsibility for those in which I had little say. I left the Lyric and the north of Ireland. Yet, only a year or so earlier, on a visit which Joan and I made to her home in Delgany, near Dublin, while walking on the strand,

she had said, ‘You’re the only one I’ll give the theatre to.’ She had made it possible for me to have the Lyric but I walked away. The choice I made at that time is something I wrestle with to this day .
As Joan and I sit in the airport in Washington DC, waiting for our flight to be called, I reflect on

Mary’s supreme achievement—she built an art theatre in Belfast in the 1960s, an art theatre that was the centrepiece of an organisation that included the literary magazine Threshold, the Lyric Drama School, the Lyric Youth Theatre, the Children’s Art Class, the Belfast Academy of Music, Irish Handcrafts, and the New Gallery. Only those who lived through those times

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in the city can fully comprehend the magnitude of that achievement.
I recall her wit, her readiness for a fight, her generosity, her loyalty to friends, and her courage in the face of hostility. And I remember the special relationship she and I enjoyed during the early years of the Lyric Players Theatre—when she had a recurring nightmare that she had to go

before the audience on the opening night and announce that the play was not ready but instead I would sing the current hit ‘Lipstick on Your Collar’. I also remember a phone call she made to my home in Sandown Road in which I was so angry, my head was on fire and I slammed down the phone.


I take out my pen and start writing and for the entire journey to Ireland, the pen hardly leaves the page. Perhaps in writing about those times when I was closely associated with her, I can lay her to rest.