Fierce Love is a timely and necessary full biography of this Cork-born theatre pioneer (1918-2006), who was the founder and director of Belfast’s Lyric Players Theatre from 1951-81. At the age of thirteen, stopping off in Dublin on the way to begin her first year at Loreto Secondary School in Navan, Mary O’Malley (nee Hickey) attended the Abbey Theatre. Later that year O’Malley would write and direct her first play, The Lost Princess. After she finished at Loreto, Mary moved with her mother to live near her brother, Gerard, in Dublin. In her spare time she attended productions at the Abbey and Peacock theatres and quickly became immersed in Dublin’s social and theatrical scenes, becoming a key member of the New Theatre Group, and joining countless societies such as the Irish Society for Intellectual Freedom.
On 14 September 1947 Mary married Armagh-born doctor Pearse O’Malley and thereafter moved to Northern Ireland. She was elected to Belfast Corporation in May 1952, as an Irish Labour Party councillor for the Smithfield ward and in 1959 she founded Threshold literary magazine.
She started Belfast’s Lyric Players Theatre in the former stables at the back of her Malone Road home. A self-taught and tireless director, she contested cultural populism and indifference in the north during the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s to pioneer the new theatre. As their repertoire grew, O’Malley felt it necessary to provide a permanent theatre for the company, and in the 1961 the Lyric Players Theatre became a non-profit association, a base from where her proteges from Gabriel Byrne, Stephen Rea and others bestrode stage and screen in the last half of the twentieth and beyond.
Fierce Love, a scholarly work, is sourced from production notebooks and copious correspondence held in NUI Galway, measuring for the first time the achievements of a controversial and resourceful woman swimming against the tide of populism and sectarianism to establish an independent academy for actors and artists in a tireless quest for imaginative freedom and excellence.