O'Malley, Mary (Margaret) (1918–2006), theatrical director and activist, co-founder of the Lyric Players Theatre in Belfast, was born Mary Margaret Hickey in Mallow, Co. Cork, on 28 July 1918, the posthumous daughter of Daniel Hickey and his wife Annie (née Lysaght). Her father died of tuberculosis, and her mother had to bring up her children on her own in Youghal, Co. Cork; one of Mary's brothers lived almost entirely with grandparents. She was very close to her elder brother Gerard Hickey (d. 1961), who helped pay for her education at local convent schools and then as a boarder in St Michael's Loreto convent school in Navan, Co. Meath. Her mother moved to Dublin to be near her son Gerard who worked as a civil servant and was interested in the theatre and archaeology. On leaving school Mary took office jobs in the city and was dazzled by the culture and intellectual pretensions of the artists and wartime emigrés she met with her brother and on her own; she mixed especially with theatre people, and also sought to be involved with socialist politics. In September 1947 she married the psychiatrist Pearse O'Malley (see below) in University Church, St Stephen's Green, and then took up residence in a large house in south Belfast.
If she had not met Pearse O'Malley at a dance in Dublin in 1943, it is unlikely that her life would have been spent in Belfast (which she considered a cultural desert). Despite having had a protestant grandfather, she had no interest in the outlook and traditions of northern protestants and denied the validity of the political status quo. She felt strongly that it was her responsibility to try to inculcate into the citizens of Belfast, despite their obvious reluctance, the cultural values and political ideals that had brought about independence in the south. Not all members of the catholic middle class appreciated her purposes, and most protestants were at best baffled by her occasionally vociferous appeals, but her efforts to realign Belfast's cultural orientation never flagged.
In December 1951 she and her husband hosted a Christmas party at which she and some friends put on one-act plays. She found the experience of organising stage business and directing actors so fulfilling that she brought together a coterie of acquaintances and theatrical enthusiasts to work on ambitious amateur productions in the O'Malley home, initially before audiences not much more numerous than the casts. Audience members very often took part onstage or helped backstage in other productions. In the early 1950s, before the advent of television, amateur drama was particularly strong in Ireland, in the north as well as in the Republic, but O'Malley turned her face resolutely towards the south. Under her direction, the Lyric Theatre produced only a handful of locally written pieces. The policy of the little theatre from its inception was to take the poetic and symbolic dramas of W. B. Yeats (qv) as its basis and also as a touchstone; the theatre undertook to produce an annual Yeats play, and other plays that did not in her opinion measure up to the Yeats canon were rejected out of hand. Over the years, she directed twenty-three productions of Yeats plays. 'Hail Mary full of Yeats', Micheál MacLiammóir (qv) is said to have greeted her, encapsulating O'Malley's catholic background and nationalist enthusiasms.
She first confronted the unionist establishment as a member of Belfast city corporation for Smithfield Ward, topping the poll for the moderately radical, anti-partitionist Irish Labour Party in 1951; despite her initial somewhat naïve optimism, she found it hard to operate within party structures, and resented the amount of time and energy that had to be devoted to politics. She did not stand again after serving one term as a councillor, and instead concentrated on her 'poet's theatre', which became increasingly ambitious in its productions of Irish and international classic plays. By the early 1960s she and her husband Pearse had established a drama school and an academy of music, as adjuncts to the theatre, to improve the skills of the amateur actors. They held art exhibitions and founded a literary journal and a craft shop selling Irish-made items.
As the O'Malleys' cultural programme became increasingly complex and demanding, it was decided that the theatre needed to move out of the O'Malley family home on Derryvolgie Avenue to a permanent and larger base, and fund-raising began. The new Lyric Theatre opened on Ridgeway Street in the Stranmillis area in 1968, just as the Northern Irish troubles were beginning, and was immediately in difficulties. New formal and legal arrangements had had to be put in place, and the O'Malleys, already dismayed by their loss of control, reacted angrily to the establishment insistence that the British national anthem should be played on the opening night. For the O'Malleys, on the occasion that should have been the pinnacle of their success, this was completely unacceptable, and they resigned from the board of trustees of the theatre on which so much of their money and energy had been lavished for seventeen years.
Eventually they both returned to involvement, and until 1978 Mary continued to direct plays and to attempt to maintain her vision of drama as cultural leverage; however, other people were now involved and official funders had to be placated. The story of the Lyric Theatre over the next ten years is a narrative of internecine strife and struggle with external forces (which included the Northern Ireland Arts Council and the actors' union Equity). The events after 1968 highlighted the tensions between unionist and nationalist, amateur and professional, private and public, north and south, socialist and elite, pride and prejudice, and transplant and native which shaped the O'Malleys' lives and their theatre. As the troubles went on, and new internal arrangements developed, the coterie theatre that the O'Malleys had nurtured in their own drawing room gradually turned into something quite different. With fittingly dramatic irony, the Lyric Theatre perhaps became the de facto national theatre of Northern Ireland, an outcome completely at odds with its founders' ambitions.
Her career could well form the basis of a dramatic work, structured almost like a Greek tragedy. She prided herself above all on her unwillingness to compromise her ideals. Her stance is summed up in her autobiography in a quotation from Ibsen: 'compromise is the prince of lies'. But her failure to adapt to her situation and to allow necessary change led to her losing, more or less, the theatre that she had created thanks to her uncompromising idealism. Her 1990 autobiography, despite a title which might be interpreted as being rather uncomplimentary to her adopted milieu, Never shake hands with the devil, is mostly fair to opponents as well as fair to most supporters; it shows almost no bitterness but cannot hide disappointment.
When she wrote her autobiography, the O'Malleys were living in retirement (since 1976 in Co. Wicklow and later in south Dublin). In 1969 she received an honorary MA from QUB and was appointed a shareholder of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, where for twenty years, as forcefully as a second Lady Gregory (qv), she worked with and against the most influential figures in Irish drama.
She and Pearse had three sons. She died in Dublin on 22 April 2006 after a long illness. O'Malley papers are in the James Hardiman Library, NUI Galway, and a bronze portrait bust of Mary O'Malley was placed on permanent display in the newly rebuilt Lyric Theatre when it opened in May 2011.
Her husband, (Patrick) Pearse O'Malley (1918–2004), psychiatrist and theatrical activist, was born in Newtownhamilton, Co. Armagh, on 22 April 1918. His surname was recorded as Mallie. He was the son of Patrick Mallie and his wife Susan (née McKee); relatives included priests and medical doctors, and the family held strongly nationalist views. Pearse had several brothers and sisters, and was educated locally and at the Abbey Christian Brothers School in Newry, Co. Down. Having graduated in medicine from QUB in 1941, he decided to specialise in neurology and psychiatry, and spent two years as a junior doctor in what was then known as Bristol Mental Hospital. He also gained experience in London at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases in Queen's Square, and in St Patrick's Hospital, Dublin. He was awarded the Diploma in Public Health (NUI) in 1943.
In 1946 he was appointed to set up the department of psychiatry in the Mater Infirmorum Hospital in Belfast, the first such in a general hospital anywhere in Ireland. The Mater was a teaching hospital associated with QUB and until his retirement in 1981, O'Malley combined practice in neuropsychiatry with research and teaching; he was author of a number of articles in medical journals, and for many years was a member of the Northern Ireland Mental Health Tribunal. Regarded as a humane and progressive practitioner eager to take advantage of new pharmacological and other treatments, he continued to see patients privately until 1992. He was a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland from 1955.
His views on religion and medical ethics were explored in a lengthy interview in the catholic journal The Furrow of May 1960, and in a pamphlet of 1957 he set out his response to an appeal by Ernest Blythe (qv) to northern nationalists. He gave evidence to the European Court of Human Rights on the treatment accorded to prisoners in the province's jails during the northern troubles, especially on the psychological results of interrogations and solitary confinement.
He started to use the O'Malley form of his surname just before going to work in Belfast, and from 1953 was closely involved with the O'Malley clan gatherings in Mayo, was chosen as chieftain, and helped establish the Granuaile Trust to fund genealogical and historical research. Although most of the public credit for the considerable achievement of establishing the Lyric Theatre has been accorded to his wife, Pearse O'Malley's contribution should not be overlooked. In the early years, he financed the first productions, and the theatre shared his consulting rooms and his home. He was involved in the planning and decision-making throughout the years of the couple's closest involvement with the theatre, and afterwards his considerable influence as secretary of the board of trustees lasted through many difficult years until his resignation in 1981. The establishment of the literary journal Threshold in 1957 was his initiative; it ran successfully for ten years. Pearse O'Malley died in Dublin on 11 October 2004.