Belfast Telegraph

Sam McCready, doyen of Ulster theatre, dies at the age of 82 in United States

Sam McCready
Sam McCready
Sam McCready and his wife Joan
The young Sam and Joan McCready with other actors from the Lyric
Actor Sam McCready

By Laurence White

Tomorrow night a play that was close to the heart of renowned writer, director, actor and teacher Sam McCready will open at the Lyric Theatre, but he will not be there to see it.

For the doyen of the local theatre has died at the age of 82.

He had helped refine a rough draft of the play about singer Ruby Murray when it was originally brought to him by writer Michael Cameron, but McCready had to give up the idea of directing it when he was diagnosed last year with a lung condition.

The illness was discovered when he returned to his home in Baltimore after a hectic period in Belfast doing a one-man show at the Lyric, holding an art exhibition and launching a book.

In an interview late last year with Ivan Little, McCready recalled how he had met the singer many years ago at the Lyric.

They spent the interval talking about a career that saw her have five songs simultaneously in the UK Top 20 in the 1950s.

Murray, who grew up in the Village area of south Belfast, died in England in 2006.

Expressing his sadness that he could not direct the play because of illness, McCready told Little: "Tell Belfast I will be back."

Sadly, that was not to be.

Sam McCready arrived in 1936, one of 13 children (12 boys and one girl) born to David and Sarah McCready.

His dad was a riveter in the Belfast shipyard.

Not all McCready's siblings survived to adulthood and he was the last of the line.

The family had to move from their Tower Street home when it was damaged in the 1941 Blitz and spent the next four years in Hillsborough before returning to a new home at Connsbrook Avenue.

He was educated at Strand Primary School and Grosvenor High School.

Among his many talents, he was an accomplished painter, having studied the discipline at Stranmillis College and the College of Art in Belfast. Due to teaching and theatre work he was unable to devote as much time as he would have liked to painting, but that was to change after his retirement from academia in 2001. He had a particular fondness for the landscapes of Northern Ireland, but also studied calligraphy and brush-painting with Chinese masters in the US, where he had a number of sold-out solo shows.

His first job was as a clerk in the Civil Service's family allowances department, but he went on to obtain a degree from Stranmillis teacher training college.

It was there he met the love of his life Joan, who became his wife in 1962.

An accomplished actress, she often put his own theatre career first, a sacrifice he was keen to stress in interviews. They also performed in many one-person shows. If he was the lead she would direct and vice-versa.

He taught at Fane Street school in Belfast from 1960-62 before becoming advertising manager at Berkshire Hosiery company in Newtownards for two years. He returned to teaching, becoming head of drama at Orangefield Boys Secondary School, where the Beirut hostage Brian Keenan and poet Gerald Dawe were among his pupils. McCready later became the school's head of English.

His teaching career was later to take him to the University of North Wales, where his students included film director Danny Boyle and actress Frances Barber, then to the University of Maryland.

The couple had two sons. Julian, a prison chaplain, who died from a debilitating disease at the age of 47, and Richard, who lived near them in New York. Richard was named music teacher of the year in the US in 2015 and the following year was nominated for a Grammy.

McCready was later to reveal that Julian's death left a tremendous hole in the family, but that their pain was eased by Richard's teenage daughter Margo, who often came to stay with them. One of McCready's enduring pleasures in the world of theatre and music was the work of Percy French, to which he had an early introduction.

He was a member of a mixed choir at Strand Presbyterian Church near his home in the late 1940s and when the leader formed the Ulster Girls' Choir, he was co-opted to sing songs by French and other Irish composers at large concerts in Belfast.

Two years ago he wrote a one-man play honouring French and performed it at the Lyric Theatre.

During his career McCready spent some time directing plays off-Broadway in New York, but it was an experience he did not entirely relish.

In an interview in 2007, he said: "New York Theatre is a barbaric world. It is cruel. It is cut-throat.

"It relies on making money, getting money to put the show on, and satisfying those who have given you the money so that they get a return.

"They're basically gamblers. People in Belfast go to a betting shop to bet on the horse or the greyhounds. Over there, there is an elite who put their money into theatre. But they demand a return, and I saw the cruelty of that.

"I had limited control over who was actually cast in plays. I sat there at auditions, auditioning for three, four days non-stop until my eyes were glazed over.

"If I saw one more blond-haired, good-looking muscled fellow, I would have dropped. I was dying to see a skinny guy, big ears... the same with the women, they all looked alike. I had a lot of success, but it was too much for me emotionally".

But, in that same interview, he said America had taught him that people should go out and work for themselves.

He said people should not get money for nothing and the arts should be subsidised, but those getting the grants "should use them to do quality work and not see it as an opportunity to do mediocre stuff".

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