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Soldiers' tales of heroism and regret from the front line to be heard on stage for first time

Theatre veteran Sam to bring moving wartime letters to life

By Joanne Fleming

Published 06/08/2016

36th (Ulster) Division at the Somme
36th (Ulster) Division at the Somme
Sam McCready and his wife Joan at home in Belfast

Harrowing accounts of the First World War were often penned in letters from the front line to families desperate for news back home in Ulster.

Now the voices of some of these soldiers are to be heard for the first time in a special performance with veteran actor Sam McCready.

The internationally renowned theatre director, artist and author has unearthed soldiers' letters stored at the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland - many of which, until now, have never seen the light of day.

The 15 letters, combined with a collection of war poems, including those from contemporary Ulster poet Michael Longley, will be read by Sam and his wife Joan at the EastSide Arts Festival next weekend to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.

Accompanied by the Ulster Orchestra's Brass Quintet, the event at St Patrick's Church, Ballymacarrett, is set to be a poignant one.

"It is really a remarkable collection of poems and letters overall," said Sam, who was commissioned by the festival to carry out the research.

"The Public Records Office said it was pretty well the first time some of them have been made public. I also searched Victoria Cross citations, war journals and newspapers."

One of the uncovered letters that moved Sam the most was written by a 20-year-old soldier, known only as Eric.

"Eric was well aware that he may not make it," Sam said. "His letter home reads: 'If I fall in battle I have no regrets save for the loved ones l leave behind. If I fall, do not let things be bleak for you'. He died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

"A lot of the letters seemed to focus on what was ahead for these men."

Accounts of the appalling conditions suffered by the ordinary soldiers in the trenches are well known from wartime correspondence, but it was some of the officers' letters uncovered that surprised Sam the most. There were tales of heroism, he said, and selfless attempts to save lives.

"The officers are the ones who don't always come off the best in the dramas about this period," he said. "I was really struck, however, by how much they seemed to care for their soldiers.

"Colonel Nugent was in command of the 36th Ulster Division. I found a letter he wrote to George V to tell him about the heroism of the Ulstermen in the Battle of the Somme. A Captain Wilfred Spender also wrote with pride: 'I am not an Ulsterman but yesterday as I followed their amazing attack, I felt that I would rather be an Ulsterman than anything else in the world'."

Brought up in east Belfast, Sam became a teacher at Orangefield Boys' School where he nurtured a number of young actors who would later establish themselves as leading lights in the worlds of theatre and television, such as the late John Hewitt, Brian Munn and Colin Lewis. He emigrated to the US in 1984, when he was appointed Professor of Theatre at the University of Maryland, a position he held until his recent retirement.

Sam was also responsible for mentoring young actors in his time as artistic director of the Lyric Theatre and after he crossed the Atlantic one of his most famous discoveries was American Beauty and House of Cards star Kevin Spacey.

In the midst of many highs during their transatlantic careers, the McCreadys, who met at Stranmillis College in 1958, also experienced terrible loss when their son Julian died six years ago. Sam (79) said reading through the war time letters and poems had focused their minds once again on that loss.

"It moved me so much," he said. "Our son was 47 when he died. I think an 18 or 20-year-old dying, that is unimaginable, and it must have been so harrowing for people who lost more than one family member during the war. We are very mindful of that loss."

Of his own grief he added: "The important thing about it is, you have the choice to let it overwhelm you or what happened to you previously to empower you." As an east Belfast native Sam said he was pleased to see both how well the Somme commemorations had been handled and how the east was now laying claim to its own arts festival.

"The West Belfast Festival has done that successfully for many years. It is good to see this happening now in east Belfast. It gives a sense of dignity and confidence to the people," he said.

Letters from the Front runs at St Patrick's Church, Ballymacarrett, on August 13 at 8pm. Tickets cost £10.50. For details visit EastSide Arts at: http://www.eastsidearts.net/

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