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Sam McCready: 'My passion for life is central to who I am... I love being my age and I'm on top of world'

By Ivan Little

Sam McCready isn't ready to join the pipe and slippers gang just yet. Now approaching 80, the Belfast man is embarking on a week-long run at The Lyric in a play about Percy French, one of Ireland's foremost songwriters.

Actor, writer, director, teacher and transatlantic traveller Sam McCready, who even on the cusp of 80 makes the Duracell Bunny look like a slacker, reckons they should take the word 'retirement' out of the vocabulary.

And he certainly shows no sign of slowing down just yet as he prepares for a week-long run at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast in his newest play about Percy French, the writer and painter who immortalised the Mountains of Mourne in song.

Sam's enthusiasm for living and for working is boundless, even at a time when most people his age have settled for the quiet life. "I am full of energy and ideas," he says. "My imagination is as powerful as ever.

"I recently went for my annual physical check-up with my doctor and he said he had seen 30-year-olds who weren't as healthy as I am.

"My passions for work and life are central to who I am. I love being the age I am. It's an adventure and I feel terrific. But I am also interested in conquering all those things about getting older and retiring.

"I think we need to keep going on. Obviously if you have a catastrophic illness, you can't do that. But for me, I am on top of the world. And I have a wonderful wife, Joan, who has always been by my side."

The McCreadys, who met at Stranmillis College in 1958, have also experienced grief in their lives after their prison chaplain son Julian died six years ago at the age of 47.

Sam has spoken of the terrible gap that Julian's passing left in the family, but he and Joan are still extremely close to their other son Richard who lives in the States where he is an award-winning music teacher.

Sam's latest show Percy French: Melodies of Unforgotten Years, was commissioned by the Newcastle Arts Festival as a celebration of the life and music of the composer who put the town and its mountains on the world map.

But the festival organisers were pushing on an open door when they asked Sam to take on the job.

For he has been a Francophile from his earliest days in east Belfast when he ended up as the only boy in an all-girl choir.

"Let me explain," he laughs. "My interest in Percy French's songs started when I was a member of a mixed choir at Strand Presbyterian Church near my home in Connsbrook Avenue in the 1940s.

"The leader, Irene Browne, later set up the Ulster Girls' Choir and co-opted me as a soloist to sing French's Eileen Oge and other Irish songs at big concerts in Belfast.

"My love of French's music never waned and when I was approached to write the one-man show about him, I immediately wondered why I hadn't done it earlier."

The production features affectionate anecdotes about French as well as some of his best-known songs like Slattery's Mounted Fut and Phil the Fluter's Ball which are sung by Sam and his accompanist Kyle Riley, who was a student of McCready's in America.

Ironically Kyle, who later went to drama school in London, has now moved to live in Co Cavan with his family, not far from Ballyjamesduff, another Irish town which French made famous in Come Back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff.

But Kyle doesn't sing the French songs the way that people are used to hearing them.

"They're totally different interpretations and he gives the songs some welly with punk influences. I just love it when they take off with a fresh energy. Brendan O'Dowda he is not," says Sam, who is sometimes surprised by the popularity of Percy French across the globe.

"My wife Joan and I go to Hong Kong for five weeks every year to judge competitions there and after one of them I sang Phil the Fluter's Ball and everyone at the social event went mad for it.

"People mightn't recognise the name of Percy French but they certainly know the songs. In America, for example, I found out that one of his compositions Abdul Abulbul Amir is a favourite of many people because it was popular with their ancestors.

"And, of course, The Mountains of Mourne is undoubtedly French's most iconic song.

"The fact that Don McLean of American Pie turned it into a massive hit opened it up to new generations."

Sam says that French wrote the song after visits to Co Down where his first wife's aunt was the Dowager Countess Annesley of Castlewellan.

"The first time he wrote those lines about the Mountains of Mourne sweeping down to the sea was when he was down south and looking right up the coast towards the north.

"He said he saw the mountains sliding into the sea and the song was born. But he also sketched the mountains over and over again during trips to see his wife's family after she died in childbirth."

On one of his painting excursions to the Mournes, French was told that a young father from Downpatrick whom he'd met earlier in the day had drowned while he and his family were on the beach in Newcastle.

Sam says: "Percy took a painting which he had just done to the manager of the Slieve Donard Hotel and asked him to raffle it for the family and it brought in more than £15 which was quite a sum back in those days. That demonstrated the kindness of the man."

Sam says he feels a close affinity to French because they have so much in common, including a love of art as well as music.

But Sam's research into French uncovered a picture of a man who was disorganised and forgetful.

"He would lose his luggage when he went on a journey and he would arrive in Cork when he had set off for Galway. How on earth he got round the country is astonishing. But he did tour every town and village on the island of Ireland as well as performing his music on stages in London for the Prince of Wales and distinguished members of the aristocracy."

Roscommon-born French who was a boarder for a time at Foyle College, Londonderry, graduated as a civil engineer from Trinity College Dublin before working as an inspector of drains in Cavan.

French and the drains were not well-matched, however, and he decided to launch himself fully into a musical career. "During his concerts he would also call people on stage and dash off lightning sketches of them before returning to the songs," says Sam.

One of the venues for French, who lived from 1854 to 1920, was the intimate Annesley Hall in Newcastle and Sam staged his show about the musician there last year. Another emotional setting for the production was the Strand Arts Centre in east Belfast during the Eastside Festival.

"That was like coming home for me," says Sam.

"I was a frequent visitor as a boy to what had been the Strand Cinema where I would spend so many happy hours watching the movies."

Sam went on to become a teacher and was a highly-regarded member of staff at Orangefield Boys School in east Belfast where he nurtured a number of young actors who would later establish themselves as leading lights in the theatre and television, like the late John Hewitt, Brian Munn and Colin Lewis.

Van Morrison had left Orangefield by the time Sam started there but he did teach former Beirut hostage Brian Keenan and the poet Gerald Dawe who have both acknowledged his influence on them at the school.

Sam was also responsible for mentoring young actors in his time as artistic director of the Lyric Theatre and after he spread his wings to America his most famous discovery was Kevin Spacey, the star of movies like American Beauty and the Usual Suspects and the TV series House of Cards.

Sam cast Spacey in a play about WB Yeats in the States where he was to take up a teaching job at the University of Maryland.

Before that he'd been on the staff at the University of North Wales where film-maker Danny Boyle and actress Frances Barber were among his students.

But Sam McCready is not one for resting on his laurels and he's already looking forward to another major creative project after the Percy French show.

"I have adapted a book called No Surrender by the late Robert Harbinson who was born in Dee Street and who wrote a series of autobiographies about growing up in east Belfast.

"He was brought up in the Orange tradition and he was fed a lot of anti-Catholic stuff before he went to England and became a part of the highly elite set there where he experienced a wonderful enlightenment. I will be reading my adaptation of No Surrender as part of the Eastside Arts Festival in August and what is interesting for me is that I came from exactly the same background as Harbinson. I know precisely what he was talking about and I make the same connection with him as I did with Percy French."

  • Percy French: Melodies of Unforgotten Years runs at the Lyr ic Theatre Belfast, from May 3-8, 2016

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