A Tribute to Mary McPartlan

Apr 07 2020 Posted: 11:26 IST

By Professor Patrick Lonergan, Professor of Drama and Theatre Studies, NUI Galway

The university community is deeply saddened by the loss of Mary McPartlan. She was renowned as a singer, highly respected as a producer, and admired and appreciated as a mentor of other artists. She was also an inspirational educator, whose ‘Arts in Action’ programmes gave thousands of NUI Galway students the chance to experience live performances as part of their education. But we will remember her best as our dear colleague and friend – as a person of unique kindness, good humor and fortitude.

Mary was originally from Drumkeerin in Leitrim, moving to Galway in the early 1980s. She worked with several arts organisations during those years, including TG4 and Galway Youth Theatre; she also ran her own arts consultancy company, Mac P. Illustrating her life-long commitment to supporting other artists, she founded Skehana theatre company in 1991, a group that staged plays by (among others) Michael Harding and Tom MacIntyre. The latter’s The Gallant John Joe was a popular success during a national tour that featured the distinguished Irish actor Tom Hickey.

During that period, Mary become a well-known figure in the Irish arts community for her work as a singer – but it was the release of her debut album in 2004 that brought her to international attention. That recording, The Holland Handkerchief, was nominated for a Meteor Award and was voted Number 1 Folk Album by the UK’s Mojo magazine. It was followed by Petticoat Loose in 2008 and From Mountain to Mountain in 2016. The music collected on those albums is as intimate and it is heartfelt, ranging from folk ballads to bluegrass to jazz – and from Bess Cronin’s traditional songs to Shane McGowan’s ‘Rainy Night in Soho’ and beyond.

From 2007 onwards, Mary taught on a wide range of courses at NUI Galway, and her practical experience and professional wisdom had a defining impact on the development of several courses – including the BA Connect in Theatre and Performance, the MA in Arts Policy and Practice, the MA in Drama and Theatre Studies, and others. She also developed a very popular module that introduced international students to the richness of Ireland’s traditional arts.

Without question, her greatest educational legacy is the creation and curation of the ‘Arts in Action’ programme, which is supported by the university’s College of Arts, Social Sciences and Celtic Studies. That weekly series of performances runs throughout the academic year, and features an unparalleled range of events by Irish and international artists. Within the last year alone, these have included stand-up comedy from Tommy Tiernan, concerts by Christy Moore and the Gloaming’s Martin Hayes, an original new performance by students, and much more. Those events are open to all NUI Galway staff and students – for free, every week.

Mary also taught and designed special Arts in Action modules that allowed students from a variety of subject-areas to include the creative arts in their learning. Over the years, students from Business, Law, Medicine, Engineering and many other areas (including the Arts, of course) have participated. She also founded the NUI Galway Medical Orchestra, allowing Medical students to obtain academic credit by engaging in musical performance – offering them the chance to reflect on the role that music plays within patient health and wellbeing, while also staging concerts that delighted music lovers within and beyond the university.

Collectively, such achievements demonstrate that Mary was an educator who believed in overcoming boundaries, including the walls between the university and the city, the disciplinary divisions between academic subjects, and the space between artists and audiences. She believed that the NUI Galway students deserved to encounter great art. But she also believed that NUI Galway students are – and will continue to be – great artists.

And while she overcame boundaries, she also believed in building links. She was a Fulbright scholar in 2012, teaching and studying in New York and Kentucky – and just last year she was honoured with the Ireland United States Association (IUSA) Distinguished Alumni Award, which recognizes people who demonstrated exemplary leadership in building links between Ireland and the United States.

Mary used those relationships not only to inspire new art (her album From Mountain to Mountain developed directly from her time in the US) – but also to support NUI Galway students. For example, to honour the memory of the American singer-songwriter Jean Ritchie, Mary established a student exchange between NUI Galway and Berea College, Kentucky. She took great care to ensure that the exchange would provide free room and board for Galway students, thereby opening up the life-altering benefits of international exchange to people who might not otherwise have been able to experience it. That quiet commitment to fairness, and that unobtrusive attentiveness to the needs of others, were among her defining characteristics.

Shortly after the release of her first album, Mary was diagnosed with cancer. It is a sign of both her resilience and her strength of character that she marked her recovery from that illness with the release of her second album and the launch of the Arts in Action programme at NUI Galway. With the return of that illness in recent years, those traits have again been in strong evidence: until very recently Mary was not only overseeing this year’s Arts in Action programme – but was avidly planning for next year.

Our deepest sympathies go to Mary’s family – to Paddy, Mairead, Meabh – and to her wider family and her many friends. She will be missed by all of us in the university, but she will also be celebrated. She believed firmly that the arts must always be ‘in action’: that they must be for everyone, that they must enrich and embolden us, and that they must change the world for the better. That is a powerful legacy that we will cherish and carry forward.

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