Tribute to Ciaran McKeown

Ciaran McKeown, the former peace activist and journalist, who has died aged 76 played a vital and valuable role in the life of the Lyric Theatre for almost twenty years.

First approached to work at the theatre by Mary and Pearse O’Malley after the first wave of Peace People rallies of 1976-7, Ciaran went on to serve as Executive Secretary, the theatre’s senior administrative officer, and eventually Chairman of the Board.

His long term involvement with the theatre bridges that period of the Lyric’s history from Mary’s O’Malley’s departure from Belfast, to the more fully and recognisably professional theatre of today. Ciaran captured his memories of his involvement with the Lyric in a private memoir shared with this writer as part of the research for a BBC NI television documentary in 2016 on the Peace People.

By the late 1970s when Ciaran was working fulltime as Executive Secretary he recognised the wider renaissance in locally born dramatists.  He was among the first to encourage Leon Rubin who became Artistic Director in 1981 to build bridges to writers such as Graham Reid, Christina Parker and, most significantly, Stewart Parker.

The most tangible result of Ciaran’s work in this respect was that Stewart Parker was engaged to write a play about Henry Joy McCracken, one of the Northern leaders of the 1798 Rising.   Parker had long wanted to write this play and open it in Belfast.  The driving force to make that happen was Ciaran McKeown who noted in crisp prose in his Lyric memoir: “I’ve sometimes thought that if I did nothing else during my 20-plus years’ association with the Lyric, the commission and production of Parker’s Northern Star was worth it.”

There was however one other area of the Lyric’s future development where Ciaran played a vital role. He spotted that the 1968 building with only one performance space prevented the theatre from both developing new, small-scale work and presenting more challenging international work. When he became Chairman in the early 1990s a strategic priority was the need to expand the theatre.  In the same memoir he recalled: “my last action as Chairman of the Lyric in 1994 was to sign the cheque buying the land above the original Ridgeway Street theatre, creating the possibility for the two-stage facility which alone might fulfil the O’Malley dream.”

In one of my last email contacts with Ciaran as illness began to dominate his life, and in the context of the Lyric marking fifty years on Ridgeway St in October 2018, he wrote: “as for my own role, I seek neither credit nor acknowledgement — what I received in return enriched my life beyond anything I could have imagined at a very dark time.

As Yeats himself observed of his Abbey role, so long as we can keep the doors open and the actors paid, something will happen.”

The Board and staff of the Lyric Theatre extend their sympathy to Ciaran’s children, grand children and wider family and thank him for his immense service to the life of the theatre over so many years.

Stephen Douds

Vice-Chair, Lyric Theatre