Margaret D'Arcy: End of an era with passing of legend of local theatre
SHORTLY before her death aged 100, a consultant entered Margaret D'Arcy's hospital room and said, "Miss D'Arcy, I believe you were an actress."
The distinguished veteran of stage, radio and screen, who was still performing into her nineties, opened her eyes and stated slowly but clearly: "I still am".
They were among the last words Margaret uttered and they served to encapsulate both her razor-sharp wit and personality and the remarkable career she had enjoyed, as her death finally closed the curtain on a golden era for theatre in Northern Ireland.
Margaret Mary D'Arcy was the seventh of eight children born to Mary and John D'Arcy in 1918 and grew up in Knockbreda Park on the edge of south Belfast.
She first made her name with the celebrated Group Players, joining in 1942 after three years in drama school in London following her schooling at Cross and Passion College, Ballycastle.
She appeared in many of their most memorable productions, including Joseph Tomelty’s Is the Priest at Home?, Louis MacNeice’s Traitors in Our Way, and title roles in St John Greer Ervine’s Martha and CK Munro’s Diana.
However, her flourishing career was interrupted by the demise of the group in the late 1950s amid recriminations over a decision not to stage Sam Thompson's seminal work about sectarianism, Over the Bridge.
Margaret moved to England, where she made her film debut in the factual drama The Siege of Sidney Street, but after a prominent role in Thompson's television play Cemented With Love in 1965 she made relatively few appearances until joining the Lyric Players in 1976.
Back on the Belfast stage, where she was loved by audiences and relished their applause, she starred alongside a young Liam Neeson in Brian Friel’s The Loves of Cass Maguire.
Other major productions included Graham Reid’s The Hidden Curriculum and Christina Reid’s Tea in a China Cup.
A wonderful radio actress, Margaret also appeared in several BBC Northern Ireland dramas, and was reunited with James Ellis in Graham Reid's Belfast-set The Precious Blood.
As late as 2000 she took on a movie role alongside Brendan Gleeson and James Nesbitt in Wild about Harry, followed by a cameo in the film adaptation of Spike Milligan’s Puckoon two years later at the grand age of 84.
At the age of 92 she even discharged herself once from hospital to appear in Christopher Fitz-Simon's radio series Ballylennon, a role she was particularly fond of.
This, finally, brought to an end to a career spanning more than 60 years and which had left vivid and lasting memories across Ireland and Britain.
“There’s nobody left,” said actor Louis E Rolston, whose father Louis also appeared on stage with Margaret and who remembers her as an austere, upright woman whose smile would stop you in your tracks.
"When my son David was going off to London to become the third generation in our profession, Margaret came for dinner and sat with the young man talking about her experiences, giving him advice and offering him her support. Above all, she treated him with respect. As a family we appreciated that,” he said.
Roma Tomelty fondly recalls a perfectionist.
“Seniority gave her status and if she didn’t like a costume or a line of script she said so and usually it was changed," she said.
"She could be quite difficult but she had a wicked sense of humour and although a very private person, when you got her talking about the old days it was fascinating - McCandless, Towb, Devlin and my father Joe, she worked with them all.”
Pat McKane said she formed a lasting friendship with Margaret after touring with her as a member of stage management for the play Dear Aunt.
"She was so interesting and wonderful to listen to, she talked about life and love - and that she knew a lot about!
"To me she was this charming, beautiful actress, a lovely member of the human race and her death is the end of an era in Ulster theatre.”
Margaret moved from Rugby Mews in Belfast to Riverside Cottages in Ballykelly, Co Derry in 2001.
Three years ago she became a resident of the Cornfield Care Centre in Limavady, where she celebrated her 100th birthday in May surrounded by old friends.
She died on September 18 and at her funeral at St Finlough's Church, Ballykelly, her MBE award was among items brought to the altar.
Monsignor Bryan McCanny said she had inspired a generation of actors and used her wonderful gifts to "bring delight and joy to others".
"She patiently trained others in the act of public speaking, thereby giving them a self-confidence and self-respect, and as one of Ulster's leading actresses she gave the local profession a standing and a proud place in the world of acting."
He added that she was a lady of faith and a reader at Mass who never lost the charm which captivated audiences down the decades.
"We have all speculated that if Margaret was arriving at the gates of Heaven she would just charm her way in, saying something like 'Oh that would be lovely' just like she always did."