Barry, Billie (Lillian) (1921–2014), performer and stage school founder, was born on 27 January 1921 in Drumcondra, Dublin, the youngest of fifteen children to John Clarke-Barry, orchestra leader and musician, and his wife Anne (née Hughes), an amateur operatic singer.
The family were initially comfortably off: Clarke-Barry ran three orchestras and even wrote a waltz for Britain’s Queen Mother. However, he was unable to adapt his style when musical tastes switched from orchestral to jazz, and ultimately had to move his family from their large house in Drumcondra to a smaller one in Marino. Despite this reduction in status Clarke-Barry did his best to keep up appearances: he never left the house without his hat and cloak, and when travelling by train always made sure to alight from the first-class carriage even though he had travelled in third. To supplement the family’s finances, Anne formed the younger girls into a stage act called ‘Madam Nanette’s Dainty Dots’ and joined Harry Lynton’s touring Hippodrome. Billie, aged five, was brought on the tour and even given her own billing as ‘Little Billie the wonder child’. Her trademark song was ‘Dream mother’, where she appeared on stage as a newspaper seller singing to an imaginary mother.
The sisters were on the road for almost five years, and during that time Billie was introduced to many ‘tricks of the trade’ by other performers. It was, she claimed, the kind of training in stagecraft money could not buy. Formal education was very much secondary to life on the stage and while the family were on tour Billie attended dozens of schools, never settling in one place. When they finally returned to the family home, Billie attended school at St Vincent de Paul’s in Marino, while her sisters Sheila, Violet and Norma opened a dance school at the back of their house and Billie joined them in putting on pantomimes and stage shows. The older sisters also formed the ‘Barry Sisters’ harmony act, touring Britain and Ireland, and Billie often accompanied them.
Around 1940 the Barry Sisters travelled to Belfast to take part in Noel Purcell’s (qv) variety show ‘Anything may happen’, staged in the Empire Theatre. After a two-week run Billie and her sister Norma were asked to stay on for another show and were then invited to join Gerald Morrison’s ‘Come to the show’, which ran for seven years. When Morrison died in 1947 Norma took over running the theatre, but Billie was ready to return to Dublin and marry her long-time sweetheart Patrick (Paddy) O’Farrell. The two had met at her sisters’ dance classes when Billie was thirteen and had maintained a long-distance relationship. They were married in 1947 and moved to Fairview, living in the flat over the pharmacy where he worked. As the wife of a chemist in conservative 1950s Ireland, Barry felt it would have been frowned on for her to continue working in the theatre and stayed at home to look after their four children. Her only contact with her past life was when she went for tea with the ‘Royalettes’ (dancers from the Theatre Royal Dublin). The family’s circumstances changed dramatically, however, when Paddy was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1964. In much the same way that her mother had stepped in to take care of the family’s finances in the 1930s, Barry now had no choice but to look for work outside the home. Performance was what she knew best and so the Billie Barry Stage School was born. On 11 November 1964, thirty-six students showed up to Carleton Hall, Marino, each paying one shilling and six pence to be taught by Barry herself.
Following her husband’s death in July 1966, Barry and her children moved back to her old family home in Marino to live with her sister Victoria, while she threw herself into her work, teaching ballet, tap-dancing, jazz and singing classes to local children and adults. In an interview she gave to the Irish Times in 2010 she said she knew she had ‘arrived’ when a local woman known for being miserably anti-social joined the classes (10 Apr. 2010). Her first big break came when students from her school appeared in the popular Telefís Éireann show Saoirse (or Seoirse) agus Bartley, thus beginning a long connection between the ‘Billie Barry kids’ and the national broadcaster. In 1971 Barry successfully auditioned for her students to perform in the Gaiety Theatre’s Christmas pantomime, and they have performed in it every year since. Perhaps her school’s greatest exposure, however, came when Billie Barry’s students performed for Gay Byrne on The late late show, and they would later become synonymous with the programme's annual Christmas 'toy show'.
During her thirty-five years as director of the school, Barry taught more than 20,000 students, many of whom went on to make careers in entertainment such as the actresses and singers Angeline Ball, Jacinta Whyte and Susan McFadden, and the pop stars Mikey Graham of Boyzone and Brian McFadden of Westlife. One of the most important lessons they learned from ‘Ms Barry’ was to always ‘keep your feet on the ground [because] people can see it through the footlights when you’ve lost touch with reality’ (Irish Times, 10 Apr. 2010). She also kept pushy parents in their place: ‘I would say, if you don’t like the way I do things you are very welcome to send them to any of the other stage schools’ (ibid.). She retired as director of the school in 1999 but maintained close contact with the day-to-day running while her youngest daughter Lorraine took over as director. In 2010 the Variety Club of Ireland awarded Barry their Living Legend award at a celebratory concert staged at the National Concert Hall, Dublin, which was followed by an invitation to dinner with President Mary McAleese to celebrate her life’s work.
On 30 September 2014 Billie Barry died at Beechlawn Nursing Home, Drumcondra, four weeks before the golden anniversary of the foundation of her school; she was buried in Glasnevin cemetery. Hundreds attended her funeral in the Church of St Vincent de Paul in Marino where her life was celebrated through music and song. Jacinta Whyte sang ‘Somewhere over the rainbow’ as her coffin was brought to the altar, and Susan McFadden sang ‘Dream mother’, Barry’s solo song from her time touring with her mother and sisters. The broadcaster Gay Byrne recalled her as ‘a sweet lady with her heart and soul in music and the kids and the dancing’, while Abbey Theatre director Fiach Mac Conghail described her as a ‘legend of Irish stage, a mighty woman’ (Irish Independent, 1 Oct. 2014). The Billie Barry Stage School continued its work after her death.