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Obituary: Sam McCready – ‘Founder member of Belfast’s Lyric and renaissance man of the theatre’

Sam McCready at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre in 2017. Photo: Petre lee/Wikimedia Sam McCready at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre in 2017. Photo: Petre lee/Wikimedia

A founder member of Belfast’s Lyric Theatre, Sam McCready was the invigorating renaissance man of Northern Ireland’s theatre scene as it battled its way through the Troubles.

Beginning his theatre career as an actor, he became a director who was equally admired for his treatment of the classics and his commitment to new work, and also made his mark as a writer, designer and teacher. In that latter role, he established the Lyric’s first drama school and forged a pioneering engagement between education and theatre in the region, going on to teach at the University of North Wales, Bangor. From 1984 until his retirement from academia in 2001, he was professor of theatre at Maryland University, Baltimore.

Born in East Belfast and one of 13 children, his working life began in the civil service before training as an art and drama teacher. By then he had also begun to act, his profile greatly enhanced by appearances with Mary O’Malley’s Lyric Players.

Quickly establishing himself as a director, he showed an early and lasting commitment to the plays of WB Yeats, not least with the annual Yeats International Summer School in Sligo, Ireland.

At the Lyric, he directed the Irish premiere of Martin Sherman’s Bent (1980) and Martin Lynch’s controversial, fiercely topical The Interrogation of Ambrose Fogarty in 1982. A decade later, he directed Lynch’s The Belfast Carmen, Northern Ireland’s first community opera, at Belfast’s Grand Opera House.

Sam McCready (centre) setting off on tour with Lyric Theatre co-founders Mary and Pearse O’Malley in 1961. Photo: Lyric Theatre Archive

While teaching commitments in Baltimore kept him away from Belfast, notable returns included his own adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray with Theatre Ulster in 1989 and Steven Berkoff’s striking version of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher at the city’s Arts Theatre in 1991.

His interest in opera saw him directing the Irish premieres of Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia with the Northern Ireland Studio Opera Group in 1973.

In later years, with his wife, Joan, he launched the small-scale touring company Two-for-One Productions.

Noted for his one-man portraits of Yeats’ artist-father in The Great Yeats! and of the Irish composer Percy French, he continued to act throughout his career. He last appeared on stage at the Lyric Theatre in his solo version of Robert Harbinson’s No Surrender in 2018.

An accomplished painter, he published a biography of Irish theatre pioneer Lady Gregory (2005) and a memoir of the early years at the Lyric Theatre, Baptism by Fire (2007).

Sam McCready was born on November 22, 1936, and died on February 10, aged 82.

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