Giants Of Drama Bestrode Stage At Newry Town Hall

WHAT giants of drama have bestrode the stage of Newry Town Hall, over many generations. Some have gone on to achieve celebrity in many fields, such as radio, television and film, while others have carved out a niche on the local show-business scene.

Meanwhile, from Burren to Lislea, and from Jerrettspass to Slieve Gullion, dramatic societies have fulfilled an important role in local communities.

Most prominent in the frontier town have been Sean Hollywood, “Newryman of the Century,” John and Susan Lynch, who have put Corrinshegoe on the international map; the legendary `Miss Ethel’ Fitzpatrick; Frank Hall of RTE’s “Hall’s Pictorial Weekly;” Sean Markey (U.T.V.), Gerard Murphy (B.B.C.), Liam O’Callaghan, Nancie Murphy, Owen Mooney, Mick Mathers, John Bell and Kathleen O’Donnell, as well as the ubiquitous Charlie Smyth.

The mid-40’s was a prolific period for drama groups, as four companies thrived in the town, - the Abbey Players, Iveagh Players, Newry Drama Club and Newpoint Players. They staggered productions over the year, - so there were no clashes. The Newry Drama Festival was established to cater for the diversity of talent.

There was a unique occasion, when the rival societies united in 1955 for a production of “City of Lights,” based on the life-story of Blessed Martin de Porres. Michael Carroll played the main role, with Nancie Murphy as his mother, and Liam O’Callaghan as the father. Sean Hollywood and Anne Petty were their other children, while Ethel Fitzpatrick was a “sparkling, vivacious Spanish lady.”

Other parts were played by Frank Sweeney and Charlie Smyth as a roistering duo; John Bell, Quinn Bennett, Paul Jellett, Ann Brady, Gerry Doherty, William Rafferty, Sean Brady and Michael Smith, with J.A. Fitzsimmons as producer.

Only Newpoint Players has survived, though they encountered a real-life drama in 1955. They were banned from the Town Hall for over a year, due to a conflict with Newry Urban Council, who demanded payment of ten shillings (50 pence) for damage to the stage of the refurbished Town Hall, caused by a “bloodstain,” during a performance of “Macbeth.” Each side sued the other in court, - but more about that anon!

Launched in 1945, Newpoint, - an amalgam of Newry and Warrenpoint, - chose “Paddy the Next Best Thing,” as their first play, with Livy Armstrong as producer. Then followed three challenging productions, “Gaslight,” “Night Must Fall,” and “Hamlet.”

But the 50’s were a golden decade, under the direction of Patrick Carey, headmaster at Grange primary school in Kilkeel. His skill and dedication sent Newpoint Players’ reputation rocketing. The B.B.C. selected the Newry society to participate in the programme, “We do it for love,” and they were also chosen to represent Northern Ireland at the Festival of Britain. Then came the ultimate accolade at the All-Ireland Drama Festival in Athlone, winning a special award for “The Duchess of Malfi,” following by the premier prize for “Arms and the Man” in 1958. This was broadcast on Radio Eireann.

The period from 1945 to ’60 had witnessed intense activity with 36 plays, ranging from slapstick comedies like “Sailor Beware” to high drama in the case of “Hamlet.” One play by John B. Keane, “Many young men of twenty,” attracted overflow audiences for five nights, while a real challenge was presented by Shaw’s Pygmalion,” as Nancie Murphy relished the role of Eliza Doolittle. And a modern interpretation of Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” provided a sharp contrast to Brendan Behan’s “The Quare Fellow.”

But amid the success came sadness at the departure of a long-time and esteemed member. Nancie Murphy, also a camogie player, had been a founder member, who starred in many plays, winning awards at festivals in Dundalk, Portadown, and Enniskillen. She was also deeply involved with the Newry Drama Festival.

At a farewell party before leaving for Canada, Nancie declared that she had taken six months’ leave, “hoped to see something of the country, and meet friends who have emigrated. You can expect me back, if I don’t like Canada.” She never did get back, but married and moved to Los Angeles. However, Nancie keeps in regular contact with Charlie Smyth. Another departure was that of producer and actress, Mary Andress, whose husband was transferred to England.

While the past two decades have been dominated by the versatile Sean Hollywood, culminating in the naming of Newry Arts Centre, he would have been the first to pay tribute to his neighbour and mentor, Ethel Fitzpatrick. She has inspired hundreds of boys and girls, including Sean, “Patch” Connolly and Margaret Nolan with a love of the spoken word, music and dance.

When one of her protégés, Gerard Murphy, won acclaim for a B.B.C. drama series, she phoned to congratulate him. The response was: “If it hadn’t been for you, I would not be doing this.” And at a reception in Hillsborough Castle, `Miss Ethel’ was serenaded by Secretary of State, Tom King with a rendering of “The Mountains of Mourne.”

Once `Miss Ethel` turned down an attractive offer from an American television station, to present an education programme. She explained: “I have lost out on absolutely nothing by spending my whole life in Newry. The images and impressions of my youth on High Street have made me the kind of person I am. I would not have missed it for the world.”

Educated at the nearby Poor Clares’ primary school, and graduating from St Mary’s training college in Belfast, she was appointed to the staff of her Alma Mater, where she would spend all her teaching career. Also teaching elocution, her class regularly won first prize in Verse-speaking at Newry Musical Feis. She commented: “To me, speech is very important. I had such a love of poetry and dance that I wanted to share it, - the idea that you can open the door to a magic world.”

Next Page >

© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008