Thursday, June 29, 2023

JFK in Galway 1963 - Looking West from Galway to Boston

On the 19th June, 1963, the streets of Galway were filled with young and old making their way to Eyre Square. The occasion was a special one - the visit to Ireland and to Galway of President of the United States, John FitzGerald Kennedy. The descendent of Irish emigrants in the 19th century, the story of the Kennedy's ascent to the highest political office in the world, and as the first Catholic president of the United States, captivated Ireland and the world. The crowd assembled in Eyre Square had gathered in a jubilant atmosphere for a 'homecoming' of sorts for President Kennedy. 

Material from Special Collections marking JFK's visit to Galway, 1963

In his address to the crowd, President Kennedy spoke of Ireland's past and still recent history of emigration to the United States, as well as his personal links to Ireland, which had been to the fore along his journey, stating, "I must say that though other days may not be so bright, as we look toward the future, that the brightest days will continue to be those we spent with you here in Ireland."

He added "If the day was clear enough, and you went down to the bay, and you looked west, and your sight was good enough, you would see Boston, Massachusetts. And if you did, you would see working down on the docks there some Doughtertys and Flahertys and Ryans and cousins of yours who have gone to Boston and made good."

To mark this anniversary, a selection of material relating to Kennedy's visit to Galway in 1963 has been selected by Marie Boran and is on display in the foyer of the Hardiman Building. There you will see photographs of the visit, later coverage and writings about the visit, as well as an original issue of Time magazine from June 1963, featuring a cover illustration of the Kennedys. 

Other sources of interest include the Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston who has digitised photographs of the speech on Eyre Square online

A film in the IFI archives, made by the Columban Fathers in 1963, more details at
The Galway City Council commissioned documentary JFK: the three miles, will be screened at Galway City Museum, during Thursday 29 June, see
Tom Kenny did one of his Old Galway columns on the visit and it's available in the Advertiser archive at

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

W.B Yeats, Mary O'Malley, and the Lyric Theatre - "Look Up in the Sun's Eye"

'Yeats Day' on the 13 June annually has become a day of celebration of the works and life of Ireland's Nobel-Prize winning poet, W.B. Yeats. It is also a timely opportunity to reflect on others who have made important contributions to the engagement, study, and interpretation of Yeats' works, including the considerable body of plays written by Yeats. One key person in this regard is Mary O'Malley. Born in Cork in 1920 and later the founder of the Lyric Players Theatre in Belfast, along with her husband Pearse, the production and direction records of O'Malley, combined within other series of files within the O'Malley/Lyric Archive at University of Galway Library, provides a vital insight into Mary O'Malley's artistic vision as well as into her own work and processes as a director of Yeats' plays.

Mary O'Malley at Yeats' grave, Sligo. c. 1960

The first production of the Lyric Players Theatre took place in March 1951 and included a production of W.B. Yeats’ At the Hawk’s Well at Ulsterville House. With the O’Malley family soon moving house to a premises on Derryvolgie Avenue, it afforded the emerging group a new beginning. Space on the grounds of the house that lay over a converted hay loft were divided into two rooms which became the theatre site for the Lyric Players.

Already greatly influenced by W.B. Yeats and poetic theatre (such as that by Austin Clarke and his earlier Dublin-based Lyric Theatre Company, where O’Malley had attended performances previously), she was a committed producer and director of Yeats’ plays at her theatre in Belfast. In combining the visual, the aesthetic, as much as the lyrical, Yeats’ plays found a invigoration home of experiment and form at the Lyric, through Mary O’Malley, and with a host of important contributions in acting, design, choreography, music, and form, while keeping the poetic theatre at the heart of Yeats’ original vision to the fore. Mary O’Malley recounted that the first production of Yeats in 1951 was an important touchstone for the development of the artistic vision, policy, and repertoire of the Lyric Players and later its later theatre:

The stage was set and we endeavored to create a style suitable for dramatic poetry. This work and experimentation still goes on. Artistic activity attracts like the enchanted waters of the Hawk’s Well – the ultimate, always elusive. This, then, was the reason for beginning: a handful of people interested in the theatre, poetry and the arts, inspired by the legendary Ulster hero, ignored all obstacles and founded a Poet’s Theatre”.

The studio theatre, DerryvolgieAvenue, 1960s

Music score from 'Calvary', Lyric Players, 1954

The archive of the O’Malley/Lyric Theatre Belfast contains a vast record of the growth and development of the Lyric Theatre, the tireless work of Mary O’Malley and of her husband, Pearse O’Malley, in ensuring the theatre’s artistic and cultural expansion. The Lyric was more Arts Centre that ‘just’ a theatre as at various times in the 1960s and 1970s its ran an art gallery, music and drama school, craft shop, as well as publishing a highly significant literary journal, Threshold, which ran until its final issue in 1990. The Lyric Archive is also an indispensable source of information on the study of and production of Yeats’ plays. The archive has detailed records of numerous productions of Yeats’ plays from the 1950s onwards.

One remarkable archive item is Mary O’Malley’s personal copy of The Plays of W.B. Yeats. Every page of the volume is filled with detailed annotation, production notes, direction comments, as well as sketches and drawings of stage designs. The item presents itself as a handbook for the director interested in engaging with the vision and task of staging Yeats’ often experimental form. In discussing the directing of Yeats’ O’Malley once commented on the importance of voice to the actor when interpreting Yeats’ theatre: “Only those well-disciplined in speech and movement can be utilised . .  . lines must be clearly and unselfconsciously delivered.”

Mary O'Malley's annotated edition of
"The Complete Plays of W.B. Yeats".

Mary O'Malley's annotated edition of
"The Complete Plays of W.B. Yeats".

Throughout the archive are detailed production records, including annotated production and design notes, musical scores, designs, photographs, programmes and posters from numerous Yeats productions at the Lyric. Design was also an important factor with artists like Alice Berger-Hammarschlag and Louis Le Brocquy all designing Yeats plays at the Lyric.

"At the Hawk's Well", Lyric Players Theatre, 1960

Handwritten note on the 'Death of Cuchulain' music and
 dance sets, Lyric Players Theatre, 1959,

The Cuchulainn Cycle performed by the Lyric Players, 1978

Programme from the 10th Anniversary 
Cuchulain Cycle by the Lyric Players, 1978.

The literary journal, Threshold, of which Mary O’Malley was the founding editor provided more fertile ground for the exploration and discussion of the themes of W.B. Yeats’ plays and poems. The first issue of Threshold, edited by O’Malley, and all subsequent issues, carried a quotation on its inside cover from W.B. Yeats’ The King’s Threshold:

              Cry out that not a man alive

              Would ride among the arrows with high heart,

              Or scatter with an open hand, had not

              Our heady craft commended wasteful virtues.

In her foreword to the first issue in 1957, O’Malley wrote:

The history of Irish periodicals is not encouraging. Despite high literacy standards and imaginative presentation of general topics, few have survived. No one, however, would deny the value of their contribution to creative writing and objective criticism. It is hoped that Threshold will provide a medium for a further contribution.

Centenary flyer from 
Lyric Platers' Centenary 
Celebration  of W.B. Yeats.

In a later editorial for Threshold in 1958, O’Malley again outlined for artistic vision which straddles the poet and the theatre as a dual form of complementary expression, stating that: “The theatre links the writer and artist with the craftsman and ordinary citizen more intimately than any other medium.”. In the centenary year of the birth of W.B. Yeats in 1965, Roger McHugh guest edited a special issue of Threshold which was dedicated to the work and life of W.B. Yeats and to which Mary O’Malley contributed an essay on the plays of W.B. Yeats. A full run of the journal, as well as its administrative correspondence are all collected within the Lyric Archive.

The Lyric Theatre also has a long association with the Yeats Summer School is Sligo. The group performed at the inaugural summer school in 1960. The archive has play programmes, photographs from that visiting production to Sligo in 1960 and files of correspondence between the Lyric and the Summer School through subsequent decades.

The Lyric Players performing at the first Yeats Summer School, 
Sligo, 1960. 

The first dedicated biography of O’Malley, entitled “Fierce Love”, was recently published by former journalist and writer Bernard Adams. In his description of his subject, Adams wrote that:

Mary O’Malley wanted to change the world. In 1947 she came up from the South of Ireland to live in a place which badly needed changing – the Unionist-dominated statelet of Northern Ireland. She wanted to transform her Belfast world, politically and culturally.

The many legacies of Mary O'Malley, and of her work with the Lyric Theatre lives on through the Lyric in Belfast today, as well as through the Lyric archive at University of Galway. The archive material relating to W.B. Yeats is indispensable to the study of how Yeats's work for the theatre was produced and directed by one of modern Ireland's greatest Yeatsians, Mary O'Malley. 

The O’Malley/Lyric Theatre Archive catalogue can be searched here.

An selection of digitised material from the Lyric Archive can be viewed online here.

Mary O'Malley, pictured at the Lyric Theatre on Ridgeway Street
c. late 1960s. Lyric Archive.