Morrow, Henry Cooke (‘Harry’) (‘MacNamara, Gerald’) (1865–1938), playwright, writer and artist, was born in Co. Down on 27 August 1865, the second eldest of eight sons of George Morrow, a painter, decorator and founder of Morrow & Sons Ltd, and his wife Catherine (née MacNamara). During his early life, Morrow lived with his family at Hanover House, Clifton Street, Belfast, and by 1869 they were living at 22 North Queen Street. A presbyterian family, the Morrows were described as ‘liberal and nationalist, as well as artistic and intellectual’ (Danaher Parks, 1984). Remarkably, six of Harry’s brothers became successful, working artists; Albert (qv), George Jr (qv), Jack (qv), Edwin (qv), Norman (qv) and Fred (1875–1949), who was a well-known Belfast theatre producer. The eldest, William ‘Willie’ Morrow (c.1861–1933), who did not pursue an artistic career, became head of the family firm.
Harry Morrow was educated with his brothers at the Model School and Government School of Art in Belfast. He was a student in Paris for a time in the 1880s where he became interested in the ‘work and technique’ of the Coquelin brothers (Mayne, 1938). The elder of the two brothers, Benoît-Constant Coquelin (1841–1909), was known as one of the greatest actors of his age and would inspire Morrow’s satiric methods. Morrow invested himself in the dynamic French theatre rather than learning his trade in Dublin, England or at home.
Around the turn of 1890 he was appointed a design teacher in the Government School of Art in Belfast, remaining in this role until at least 1902. From the 1900s he helped run the family firm, George Morrow & Sons Ltd, describing himself as a master house painter in the 1911 census. The firm, which operated in both Belfast and Dublin (from 15 D’Olier Street), was noted for the artistic quality of its decorations, often developing church interiors and background scenery for bazaars and theatrical productions. In 1894 he married a local woman, Elizabeth Clarke. They had a son, Henry Laurence, before her death in 1903. In 1909 he married another local, Marian Shanks.
Using the pseudonym Gerald MacNamara, the early twentieth century saw Morrow’s playwriting career begin to take off. He wrote about twelve plays during his lifetime, predominantly comedies and satires. Many were produced by the Ulster Literary Theatre (ULT), founded in 1904 by Bulmer Hobson (qv) and David Parkhill (qv) and known as the Ulster Theatre by 1915. Most notable are ‘Suzanne and the sovereigns’ (1907), ‘The mist that does be on the bog’ (1909), his most famous play, ‘Thompson in Tír-na-nÓg’ (1912), ‘No surrender’ (1928), ‘Who fears to speak’ (1929), and his final (unpublished) play, ‘Thompson in Terra Firma’ (1934). The first three of these plays were arguably his most successful. ‘Thompson in Tír-na-nÓg’ was published in his lifetime in Dublin by Talbot Press in 1918, while Kathleen Danaher (Parks) published typescripts of all the others in The Journal of Irish Literature in 1988, save ‘Thompson in Terra Firma’: the script of this play has not been located. Four of his other plays are also lost: ‘An August day’, ‘The throwbacks’, ‘Sincerity’ and ‘Fee-faw-fum’; and there may be a fifth, ‘The spurious sovereign’.
Morrow was, for some theatregoers, more famous for his acting than his plays. Described by Susan Mitchell as a ‘rarely accomplished actor’ (Irish Statesman, 13 Dec. 1924), he was most renowned for his role as Uncle Dan in Rutherford Mayne’s ‘The Drone’ (1908). He also played John Graeme and Cellach in Mayne’s ‘The turn of the road’ and Lewis Purcell’s ‘The pagan’ (both 1907), as well as Lundy and the High King (amongst others) in his own plays ‘Suzanne and the sovereigns’ and ‘Thompson in Tír-na-nÓg’.
During his writing career in Belfast, Morrow also became active across the Ulster arts scene. He was a founder member of the Ulster Arts Club (UAC) in 1902, becoming president of the club from 1910 to 1911. An early member and contributor to the ULT, Morrow eventually became vice president of the Ulster Theatre. He was also an Ulster committee member of the Arts and Crafts Society of Ireland, and became known for making many humorous addresses at council meetings held by various artistic and cultural institutions around Belfast, including the Ultonian Literary Club on Donegall Street, but most commonly the UAC. He presided over many lectures held by the club in the late 1900s and 1910s, all the while juggling these positions, and his writing career, with responsibilities at his late father’s business.
In the 1920s, alongside publishing some of his plays in the Dublin Magazine, Morrow wrote a weekly series of satirical lectures for the Dublin Evening Telegraph (this time under the pseudonym ‘Professor Dudd’), on topics ranging from ‘the evolution of music’ and ‘the evolution of locomotion’ to ‘the vegetable kingdom’. Morrow was an individualist, rarely abiding by cultural rules and regulations. For example, he submitted a one-act play, instead of a non-fiction article, to the March 1913 issue of the Journal of Decorative Art. In later life, Morrow was less involved in Belfast theatre, although in 1934 he was part of a committee of judges recruiting Ireland’s next Hollywood cinema stars (Northern Whig, 16 June 1933).
Morrow, unlike his brother Jack, was not drawn to the extreme nationalism of the Dungannon Clubs (set up by Bulmer Hobson and Denis McCullough (qv) in 1905). There is little biographical material and few letters available to provide an insight into Morrow’s aesthetic and political views, but his seeming self-exclusion from radical nationalist politics, and his satire of both sides of the Irish political scene, is suggestive of a critical ambivalence and political sensitivity. Rutherford Mayne (qv), his friend and contemporary playwright, wrote that ‘the cruelty of extremists who hammered on dogmas, or on drums, or on human beings, is mercilessly satirised in all [of Morrow’s] plays’ (Mayne, 55).
Morrow’s most successful play, ‘Thompson in Tír-na-nÓg’, sees an Orangeman, Andrew Thompson, accidentally kill himself during a commemoration of the Battle of the Boyne. He wakes up in Tír na nÓg, where his Irishness is put on trial by mythological heroes Cú-Chulainn (qv), the High King, and company. An early production at Belfast’s Opera House, despite the theatre manager’s warning that Orange Order members had brought ‘rivets and bolts in their pockets’ to pelt at the players, received enormous applause: both ‘sides’ of the audience loved the play (Bell, 48). Morrow’s plays satirise Irish mythology, historiography, commemoration, the Gaelic League, the Abbey Theatre plays (particularly Yeats (qv) and Synge (qv)) and Ulster Unionism. His radical satire set him apart from the literary revival in the south and what had previously been produced by the ULT and its unique, northern ‘school’ of theatre.
Harry Morrow died on 11 January 1938, in his home at 32 Victoria Road, Sydenham, Belfast. His only child Henry Laurence (‘Larry’) Morrow (1900–71), became a BBC and RTÉ radio broadcaster, while his grandson, Michael (1929–94), was a musician and music director. Harry’s decision to stay in Belfast, which had less time and space available for theatre than Dublin, led to limited exposure of his work. Morrow, however, remained rooted in Belfast and Ulster, as did his remarkable plays. The neglect of his contribution to Ulster and Irish theatre is evidenced by the lack of publicised obituaries and tributes following his death.
Some typescripts of Morrow’s plays, as well as images of their production, are held at the Linen Hall Library, Belfast.