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Remembering theatre giant Sam McCready, who died almost a year ago… and how he faced his final days

As she organises a celebration of the life of the actor, director, writer and artist back in his home city of Belfast, Sam's widow Joan reveals how he organised his own funeral and said his last goodbyes to all his friends on both sides of the Atlantic

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Sam McCready

Sam McCready

Joan McCready with Sam in 2006

Joan McCready with Sam in 2006

Sam McCready

Sam McCready

Sam McCready

The widow of the acclaimed Belfast-born actor, director, writer and artist Sam McCready has talked movingly of how her husband of almost 57 years was "an object lesson in how to die". Sam died at the age of 82 in his adopted home of Baltimore in America in February last year and Joan McCready recalled: "There never was a happier man. He accepted it and he said his goodbyes."

Joan has returned to Belfast to help co-ordinate a series of tributes to Sam, who had been the Professor of Theatre at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) since 1984, but divided his time between America and Northern Ireland, where he still managed to keep up a high profile in the arts world.

"His head may have been in the States but Sam's heart was still in Northern Ireland," said Joan, who's an actress and director too and who was just three weeks away from celebrating the anniversary of her 1962 wedding when her husband died.

The talented couple met as students at Stranmillis College in Belfast in 1960 and after their marriage they were rarely apart and had two sons - Richard, who's a music teacher in the US, and Julian, a prison chaplain cleric, who sadly died from a debilitating disease at the age of 47.

The only significant time they weren't together was when Sam first went to the States to explore the possibility of starting a new life and career there.

As for Sam's illness, he was first diagnosed with the lung disease pulmonary fibrosis nine years ago, but Joan said it never really impacted on his life until he and she noticed he was suffering from a shortness of breath.

Joan explained: "We could see when he was doing his play about Irish songwriter and entertainer Percy French a wee while ago that the old energy wasn't quite there.

"And when he performed his No Surrender play about the Belfast writer Robert Harbinson that I directed in 2018, I altered a lot of the movement to make sure he could sit down more throughout the production.

"At the end of that summer things started to deteriorate and Sam was on oxygen."

But just three weeks before he died Sam was still performing.

"Along with our son Richard we delivered a piece about WB Yeats in a retirement community village in Charlestown, Baltimore, and it was very special," said Joan.

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Joan McCready with Sam in 2006

Joan McCready with Sam in 2006

Joan McCready with Sam in 2006

Sam was hospitalised for eight days but when he was discharged his doctor was candid about the prospects facing him. He told Sam that there was one more procedure he could try for him but he warned that it could make him even worse than he was. Stoically, Sam said no. And he prepared himself for the inevitable end of his richly colourful life.

Joan said: "His friends and former students called with him and Sam talked about how privileged he had been in his life. His spirit was incredible right up to nearly the very last day.

"Obviously he was too ill to come back to Northern Ireland to spend his final moments, but he was content to be at home in Baltimore.

"A lot of our friends in Northern Ireland were on the phone to bid him farewell. There were a lot of tears."

It won't come as a surprise to anyone who knew the irrepressible Sam that he helped to organise his own memorial service, which was held at a Lutheran church.

"There was a lot of WB Yeats readings in the service, of course," said Joan. "And our son Richard, who's the church organist, had bought a Celtic lyre which he played during the memorial."

Sam's last request was that Joan should read the Yeats poem Sailing To Byzantium and she did what he asked to the accompaniment of Richard, again on the Celtic lyre.

Joan admitted that it was difficult for her to hold it all together as she started to read the poem and deliver her eulogy. "I had said all along that I wouldn't be speaking at the service but I felt I was doing it for Sam and I told myself to remember that I was an actress and that's how I got it done.

"It was a beautiful, gorgeous service."

After so long together Sam's death has obviously left a massive void in Joan's life, but she said she strives to keep going, adding: "I have my moments. Of course I miss him all the time. But I try to move forward and maintain the work that Sam would have wanted me to do.

"He wouldn't have liked it if I was sitting around moping all the time. I'm trying to carry on his traditions and keep his legacy alive. And to that end I'm exploring ways of getting a series of short stories of his published.

"He also gave some tremendous public lectures over the years and I think many of them are very important and should be published too."

Joan said she had no plans to return to Northern Ireland to live on a full-time basis.

"There were times when we were over here in Northern Ireland we wondered what the hell we were doing in America. But when we got back to our home over there we would think that we were fortunate to be living in such a glorious place. And obviously the weather stateside is another factor in me wanting to remain there."

Right up to the end Sam managed to keep a foot in the artistic camps in America and here.

Sam McCready

And one of his biggest regrets was that he never got the chance to see a play which he had helped a budding new writer to develop. Sam's illness put paid to his plans to come back to direct Michael Cameron's play about Belfast singer Ruby Murray.

However, he was still determined to attend the opening night.

"Tell Belfast I'll be back," he told me in a Belfast Telegraph interview.

But he died in the States just before the play - Ruby! - was due to open in Belfast at the Lyric Theatre.

"Sam could never sever his artistic links with Northern Ireland or the Lyric in particular," said Joan. "The theatre was an integral part of his life from his late teens. And mine too. His devotion to Irish literature and poetry was limitless."

The idea of a memorial service for Sam back home in Belfast was mooted by friends and family, but Joan decided a celebration of his life would be more appropriate. And she reckoned there would be nowhere better to hold it than the couple's beloved Lyric.

"We spent many, many happy years at the Lyric right back to the time when Mary O'Malley set it up in her home in Derryvolgie Avenue," said Joan.

The evening of tributes on February 10, the anniversary of Sam's death, is called 'The Seven Ages of Sam', which was what son Richard called his eulogy to his father at his funeral service in the States. Joan said: "It started off along the lines of the Seven Ages of Man speech from Shakespeare's As You Like It, and then Richard adapted it to reflect all the phases of Sam throughout his life."

It was a life that could scarcely have been more varied with his time as a teacher, as an actor, as a writer, director and an artist. At Orangefield Boys School Sam was renowned for his work on theatrical productions, providing a launching pad for many young actors to go on to make their mark in the professional theatre and literary world.

Poet Gerard Dawe, who was one of Sam's pupils in what Joan called the "Orangefield gang", will be among the 30 contributors to the night, which will include scenes from Sam's plays.

Beirut hostage Brian Keenan, who was also persuaded by Sam to act in the Orangefield plays, will be at the Lyric too.

"He wrote an absolutely incredible poem about Sam after his death," said Joan. "Brian will speak about Sam and I will read his poem."

Joan will also read Sailing To Byzantium again with son Richard playing the Celtic lyre. There'll also be songs and dance during the tribute evening said Joan, who added: "It will be a totality, a fusion of all the art forms which were so important to Sam. I hope it will be an exciting celebration."

Another string to Sam's artistic bow was his painting, and the ArtisAnn Gallery in east Belfast will be holding a retrospective exhibition of his work throughout February.

It's also planned to stage two of Sam's favourite plays at the Lyric. Sam had written Percy French: Melodies Of Unforgotten Years and starred in it along with one of his former students Kyle Riley, with Joan in the director's chair.

She's doing the honours again this time around, but actor Karl O'Neill is stepping into the role made famous by Sam.

"It's strange to be directing the play without Sam on stage," said Joan. "But Karl is wonderful."

The other play in the McCready celebration is Coole Lady about Lady Gregory and her relationship with the likes of Yeats and the one woman show features Joan herself.

"Sam not only wrote it but he directed it too. This time I'm directing myself in the revival. I've done it enough times to know how Sam would want me to do it," she said.

Since she returned to Northern Ireland last month to shape the series of events in honour of Sam, Joan has been touched by the messages she still receives from people who have been impacted by her husband's death.

"It's very gratifying to know that he meant so much to so many people," said Joan, who has Sam's ashes at her US home. I will bring them over to Northern Ireland one day. He wants them to be buried here."

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