Feb 18, 2019
All of us associated with the Yeats Summer School mourn the death of one of the greats, Sam McCready, who died on Sunday, 10 February. His work with the Drama Workshop and his productions of the plays, co-directed with his equally talented wife Joan, will be remembered as a high point of every student’s time in Sligo.
Sam joined the Lyric Theatre in 1956 and participated in the performance of The Death of Cuchulain at the Dublin International Theatre Festival in 1959, and had a role in Yeats’s Deirdre at the Yeats Summer School in 1960. Over the years he acted in all of Yeats’s plays, and directed many of them.
He records his debt to Mary O’Malley, founder of the Lyric Theatre, in his memoir, Baptism of Fire, and, in many ways, his love of Yeats was influenced by her dedication to Yeatsian theatre in the 1960s. Many theatre-goers in the 1970s remember his Yeats productions at the Lyric. He first came to the Drama Workshop at the Yeats Summer School in 1998. George Watson had asked me to find someone to do the plays, and I suggested Sam, whose work I had known at the Lyric, when I was at Queen’s. He was now at the University of Maryland, but we knew he had a home in Belfast. George responded, “Sam McCready—the roses man from Portadown?”-- a typical joke of his, which he repeated over the years.
Sam responded to the invitation with enthusiasm and soon started sharing his plans for the summer. He and Joan led the drama workshop for many years, putting on at least ten different Yeats plays over the next ten or fifteen years, including Purgatory and Calvary (1998), At the Hawk’s Well (1999), The Death of Cuchulain (2003), The Only Jealousy of Emer (2005), The Dreaming of the Bones (2008.) These were plays you seldom could see elsewhere, and rarely outside Ireland. The plays were spectacular and the costuming and design was extraordinary, especially considering it was all put together on a shoestring budget over about ten days.
Sam had an instinctive feel for the shape and tone of Yeats’s plays with their masks and symbols, and their magical, ritualized movements, influenced by the Japanese Noh drama. The students rose to the challenge and felt the thrill of entering into a strange, occult text, transforming it into a vibrant, passionate, living play. Occasionally he gave a morning lecture on Yeats’s plays to the school, always a high point.
He was the author of many books, including A William Butler Yeats Encyclopedia, though he wore his learning lightly and had a rare sense of humour. He was the warmest and most congenial companion you could hope to meet. In the words of Martin Enright, former President of the Yeats Society, “Sam was as passionate as could be about Yeats' drama and of the importance of Yeats' drama to the YISS, but he was a balladeer par excellence, and livened up many’s the party.” He was a regular at the late sessions at the Silver Swan Hotel and other after-hours venues, where he led the singing and recitals. He had a wide repertoire and will be remembered for his “Star of the County Down,” but regularly regaled us with sprightly ballads like “Phil the Fluter’s Ball.”
Sam had many friends and his students at Sligo were devoted to him, often returning year after year from the four points of the compass “to work with Sam.” Several came from America, England and Germany every single year of his tenure at the school, or so it seemed. He made wonderful things happen, and was a witness to wonders, as when he climbed with Joan and Joyce and Martin Enright to the Well of Tullaghan (the hawk’s well of Yeats’s play) and a hawk came wheeling over them, crying out.
He later wrote a number of one-act plays about John Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory, Charles Dickens and Percy French. He later quipped that these were his four ideal dinner guests. He directed his wife Joan as Lady Gregory in Coole Lady, which was hugely successful in Ireland and abroad, while Joan directed him in a series of much-loved performances, The Great Yeats, Dickens at the Ulster Hall, and Percy French: Melodies of Unforgotten Years. He also devoted time to his extraordinary paintings, mounting shows at the ArtisAnn Gallery, Belfast, where an exhibition of his work will appear in April of this year.
Farewell Sam, we salute you. “Think where man’s glory most begins and ends / And say my glory was I had such friends.”
Jonathan Allison is Professor and Chair of the English Department,
University of Kentucky. He was Associate Director of the Yeats International
Summer School from 1998-2000 and Director from 2003-2005 and in 2009.