The Life of Mary O'Malley
By: Bernard Adams
Publication Date: 1 September 2022
Fierce Love: The Life of Mary O’Malley was published with the support of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and National Lottery Good Causes.
Fierce Love is a compelling and candid biography of Cork-born theatre pioneer (1918-2006) Mary O’Malley, founder-director of Belfast’s Lyric Players Theatre from 1951 to 1981. Neé Hickey, Mary went to Loreto Secondary School in Navan, Co. Meath, writing and directing her first play, The Lost Princess, before living with her mother in Dublin. There she became a key member of the New Theatre Group, immersed in the city’s social and cultural life and joining the Irish Society for Intellectual Freedom.
On 14 September 1947 Mary married Armagh-born psychiatrist Pearse O’Malley, later moving to Belfast’s Derryvolgie Avenue off the Malone Road. There she formed a fifty-seat studio theatre above the stables and created Belfast Lyric Players Theatre, a company of actors and artists who were to put on 140 plays over seventeen years on a stage only ten-foot wide, asserting a broad Irish and European culture. W.B Yeats, twenty-six of whose plays were performed, was her standard-bearer.
In 1952 she was elected to Belfast Corporation as an Irish Labour Party councillor, and in 1957 she founded the literary magazine Threshold, which enjoyed a thirty-year lifespan. Her other activities included running a drama school, an art gallery and music academy, while raising a family of three.
As she battled conservatism, a socialist and nationalist in a Unionist city, this courageous and tenacious woman transformed Belfast with her playhouse — Liam Neeson and Ciarán Hinds were among her protégées — expanding her repertoire and bridging the political quagmire of the sixties to build a permanent 300-seater Lyric Players theatre, which opened with Yeats’s Cuchulain Cycle in October 1968. Her fierce will survived the Troubles, ensuring that her broad-based community theatre never had to close its doors. Her vision was posthumously crowned by the 2011 Lyric Theatre building overlooking the Lagan.
Fierce Love celebrates these achievements, chronicling a resourceful and controversial individual, who swam against the tide of populism and sectarianism to establish an independent academy for actors and artists in a tireless quest for imaginative freedom and excellence. Mary O’Malley’s life was complex, and her legacy enduring.
PRAISE FOR FIERCE LOVE
‘A titan of Northern Ireland’s theatrical scene … I consumed this beautiful book with a few giggles and tears of memories recalled.’ – Liam Neeson
Enter stage left: Mary O’Malley and Belfast’s Lyric Theatre – Irish Times. Read here.
Mary O’Malley: Bernard Adams’ new book on the Lyric Theatre founder’s quest to expand cultural horizons in Belfast – Belfast Telegraph. Read here.
‘Adams follows the evolution of O’Malley’s development as a socialist activist and theatrical director with penetrating insight … He is to be commended for his realistic and refreshingly human portrait of a “complex woman who was remarkable but not always lovable.” … For readers interested in the historical development of theatre in Belfast, Fierce Love is indispensable reading.’ – Reading Ireland
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bernard Adams, a Dubliner with Ulster roots, went to school at Portora in Enniskillen and read English at Trinity College, Dublin. He became a journalist, writing early notices of Mary O’Malley’s plays for the Belfast Telegraph in Belfast before working as a BBC television producer in London. He is author of Denis Johnston: A Life (Lilliput, 2002).