Belfast Telegraph

Ulster theatre loses one of its leading lights as Margaret D'Arcy dies aged 100

Margaret D’Arcy in an art gallery
Margaret D’Arcy in an art gallery
Margaret D’Arcy with Lawrence Beattie in a scene from Mrs Martin’s Man at the Group Theatre, Belfast in 1954
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

A veteran actress who was one of the longest surviving cornerstones of the Ulster theatre and performed in Belfast with a youthful Liam Neeson has died, just four months after celebrating her 100th birthday.

A friend of Margaret D'Arcy said: "We've lost perhaps the last link to the 'old school' of theatre in Belfast.

"She was a very special actress who had the respect and admiration of everyone in the business.

"And she was still acting up to 2002."

Margaret enjoyed a long stage career in her native Northern Ireland and in England where she had a spell at Stratford-upon-Avon and in repertory theatre after studying for three years at drama college in London.

On returning to Belfast she quickly established herself as a favourite with audiences watching plays staged by the renowned Group Players.

One of her earliest appearances was as social welfare campaigner Mary Ann McCracken in Jack Loudan's play about her brother Henry Joy McCracken, the leader of the United Irishmen.

An entry in the Ulster Actors biography website says: "Margaret was a model repertory player, equally adept in both comedy and drama."

In one play, Arty, fellow local actor James Young starred in the title role.

Margaret stayed with the Group Players until the company folded in the late Fifties amidst the furore over the decision not to stage Sam Thompson's controversial play about sectarianism in the shipyard, Over the Bridge.

Margaret moved back to England and made her film debut as a nurse in a movie about the infamous siege of Sydney Street in London. She also worked in the theatre with the renowned director Tyrone Guthrie.

Back in Belfast, Margaret became a regular at the Lyric Theatre where, in 1976, she appeared as Trilbe Costello with a young Liam Neeson playing the role of Dom in Brian Friel's The Loves of Cass McGuire.

One of her most memorable successes at the Lyric was in a production of Graham Reid's The Hidden Curriculum.

And she forged a close friendship with the writer and his actress wife Gwen Taylor.

More television dramas followed and Margaret also won rave reviews for her performances in plays by Belfast writer John Boyd and Irish dramatist Sean O'Casey.

She also starred in plays at the Tricycle theatre in London and with the Druid Theatre company in Galway.

In 1996 she played Jimmy Ellis's wife in TV drama The Precious Blood, written by Graham Reid.

But six years later at the age of 84 she had a cameo role in the film adaptation of Spike Milligan's novel Puckoon which was shot in Northern Ireland.

She celebrated her 100th birthday earlier this year, in a care home in Limavady.

The story goes that a member of staff asked Margaret if she used to be an actress.

To which she replied: "I'm still an actress."

Actor Dan Gordon, who made his professional debut in The Importance of Being Earnest in 1982 with Margaret, said he was sad to hear of her passing.

He added: "She was playing Miss Prism in The Importance and I had a non-speaking role but I was also the assistant stage manager and I had to help Margaret on and off stage in the dark.

"She was very much the lady. In fact we all thought of her as Dame Margaret. But she was lovely and the consummate professional."

Like Dan Gordon, I too made my professional acting debut in a play alongside Margaret.

It was in a Theatre Ulster touring production of Joseph Tomelty's play, Is the Priest at Home? in 1991.

Other actors included Lalor Roddy and the late Mark Mulholland and JJ Murphy.

Margaret, who had been in the play in Belfast in 1954, was a formidable presence on and off the stage and the antics of some of the rest of the cast on our downtime didn't always sit easily with her.

But she still took time to share her rich experiences of the theatre with less seasoned actors.

Margaret will be buried following Requiem Mass at St Finlough's church, Ballykelly, today at 12 noon.

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