Barnes, Michael James (1932–2008), festival director, was born in Peckham, south London, England, on 31 October 1932. His parents were Robert Barnes and Winifred Barnes (née Dee), who married in 1931. In 1945 he won a scholarship to Alleyn's School in Dulwich, an independent school with a long history. His time in Alleyn's was successful and happy; he won prizes in history and poetry. The school had a strong association with the theatre, especially from 1950, when Michael Croft became a teacher there; he cast Barnes in a pioneering modern-dress school production of 'Julius Caesar' (1951), and went on to found the National Youth Theatre in 1956. Former Alleyn's pupils include well-known actors, directors and musicians, who in later years provided useful contacts for Barnes.
Barnes was awarded a major scholarship to study history at Wadham College, Oxford, going up in 1951, and despite considerable involvement with the college dramatic society, graduated with first-class honours in 1954. He did not complete his planned postgraduate work on Richard Brinsley Sheridan (qv), but in 1956 took up an assistant lectureship in history in the university of Edinburgh, where he was involved with productions in the Fringe Festival. In 1961 he moved to Queen's University, Belfast, to lecture in history. His lectures and classes were memorably stimulating, if not always conventionally organised or even regularly delivered. Barnes himself was always a distinctive figure: very tall and lanky, with floppy longish hair and a beard, at a time when such facial hair was associated only with beatniks or poets.
Michael Emmerson, also from England, was a student in Queen's at the time. In 1962, on a small grant from the university, Emmerson founded a festival of arts, with which Michael Barnes was enthusiastically involved from the beginning; in 1969 Barnes wrote and acted in at least one satirical revue for the festival, 'Son of the Telegraph'. Emmerson suggested in 1968 the establishment of a Belfast branch of the National Film Theatre, and Barnes agreed to be first director; despite rather inauspicious premises in the back lane behind University Square, Queen's Film Theatre quickly became an important element of Belfast's cultural scene, especially on Sunday nights, when everything else in the city was closed.
After nine years running the Queen's arts festival, Emmerson wanted to move on to a new career in January 1971; his successor remained in post for only a few months, and the festival's future, like its finances, was very insecure. The province's troubles had begun, and were making it increasingly difficult to attract performers as well as audiences. Barnes, by then a senior lecturer, ostensibly working full-time, agreed to take over running the festival from 1973. His contacts and knowledge of the international arts scene enabled him to bring together programmes involving world-class orchestras and dramas and other acts which had not hitherto been attracted to Belfast, and indeed not often to any provincial city. Over the more than twenty years that Barnes was festival director, the programme expanded to two weeks each autumn; the Royal Shakespeare Company, Yehudi Menuhin and Dizzy Gillespie, and many more internationally known performers, returned on several occasions, appreciating the Belfast audiences and their rapturous welcome. Local performers also were given opportunities, and some went on to greater fame.
Promoting events, dealing with international agents and performers, securing grants and funding, organising venues and facilities, placating those local councillors not enthusiastic about modern drama or art, were Barnes's perpetual concerns. The high-quality programmes that he organised would have been appreciated in any city, but from the 1960s through the 1990s Belfast was a city under siege; comments about festival artistes 'fiddling while Belfast burns' were all too often accurate, and on occasion Barnes had to find replacements for acts which pulled out at short notice, frightened by terrorist atrocities and even direct threats. Barnes's chief assistant, Betty Craig, was injured in a bomb blast in the Bell Gallery but continued to work in a wheelchair. Those performers who did come to Northern Ireland were acknowledged as much for their courage as for anything else, and Barnes's festivals were acclaimed for keeping the lights on in the city at a time when other public live entertainment was very limited.
Barnes made other important contributions to the cultural life of Northern Ireland. In the 1960s he produced a monthly arts programme on BBC Radio Ulster, and in 1980, still on secondment from Queen's University, agreed to become artistic director and administrator of Belfast's Grand Opera House. This beautiful Victorian theatre had been bought by the Arts Council (rescued from threatened demolition and 'redevelopment') and restored to its former ornate splendour; Barnes was often able to sell out events there, especially pantomimes and other events more populist than those associated with the Queen's festival. Though the Opera House was a much loved Belfast institution, it was bombed several times, notably in December 1991 and in May 1993, when the whole sidewall of the theatre was destroyed. Barnes must have despaired, but as soon as possible, the shows went on.
He oversaw the renovation and re-opening in 1994, but had to retire shortly afterwards, from both the Opera House and the festival, and was in poor health for years. He had been one of the most significant and easily recognised figures in Northern Ireland's arts and culture, during a deeply distressing period of the province's history. His personal equanimity and resilience had helped local cultural life to survive, enabling people to hold on to some aspects of normality. He was awarded an OBE in 1981. He died unmarried in a nursing home near Belfast on 14 May 2008.
In 2010 the author and television personality Michael Palin, Barnes's friend for many years and a popular performer at many Queen's arts festivals, endowed five Michael Barnes Scholarship and Travel Bursaries at Queen's University to enable MA students undertake research and theatre placements. Michael Barnes would surely have been pleased; he acknowledged that his opportunities in academic life and in the world of the theatre were thanks to the education provided by scholarships.