Citz Superstar – Mary Sweeney

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Source: Hearld online

Mary was born in Derry in 1923, the eldest of three children. At 17, at the outbreak of war, she travelled to Manchester alone where she worked as a nurse for the duration of the war. She was the only woman on a boat full of soldiers on the way over. The boat had to stop and everyone on board remain completely silent and still for 6 hours as a German U-Boat was detected underneath them. Mary had a chocolate bar (a gift from one of the soldiers) snatched from her as the rustling of the wrapper might have given them away.

During this time she was involved in mercy flights to France to pick up injured soldiers and bring them home. She returned to Ireland to help look after her sister, Josie, who sadly died at 21. While there, her brother Michael, introduced her to Hughie who would become her husband. They married in Glasgow in 1949 and made the City their home. Mary and Hughie had two daughters, Philomena and Geraldine. Unfortunately Mary was unable to return to nursing due to a back injury but with a young family to look after she sought part time employment which allowed her to be at home with her girls while Hughie was working.

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Mary and her granddaughter, Jenny, at Mary’s Citizens tea party in 2003.

In 1963 she joined the staff of the Citizens Theatre, where she remained for 40 happy years. Mary was known for running a tight ship and is credited with being the warm welcoming face of the theatre.  She proudly led her troupe of usherettes, encouraging them to respect audiences and maintain a professional standard at all times. She is remembered for her patience, particularly when training new staff and she was a constant source of support and guidance for her team. She was adored and respected by all her colleagues – from front of house,  to backstage,  to performers and developing life-long friendships. She played a vital role in the lives of many young people at the beginning of their theatre careers, be it on stage or off, and she keenly followed the progress of her colleagues after they left the Citizens. She often proudly announced “She was one of my usherettes!” when noticing a familiar face on the television.

Mary had an extraordinary ability to forge genuine, meaningful connections with those she came in contact with and it was this warmth that ensured she was remembered fondly by several generations of theatre goers, young and old. She greeted regulars by name and with open arms, creating many lasting friendships with some patrons. In the days before they were free of charge, Mary was careful to collect discarded programmes at the end of the night to pass on to student patrons who may not be able to afford them. She was also, on occasion, a notorious ice cream smuggler – much to the delight of certain panto-attending children (most frequently her grandchildren). She even dealt with more difficult patrons with trademark discretion and professionalism. During a show in the Circle Studio she noticed a patron in the back row drunkenly stumbling towards the stage with his fist raised to strike. Before anyone knew what had happened Mary had caught him and whisked him out of the theatre preventing both a disrupted performance and an inevitable black eye.  Events such as these, and there are many other stories, she took in her stride remaining consistently unflappable as was her inimitable style.

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Badges like the ones Mary would’ve collected.  All Citz staff have a collection – just ask them!

When the Citizens was visited by the Queen, Mary was chosen to show her to her seat. When asked if she had been practicing her courtesy she replied “No I don’t need to, I do it every year at Mass except we call it genuflecting.”

In 2003, at the age of 80, Mary handed in her Citizens Theatre badge. Metaphorically speaking,  in actual fact she retained a bag of every style of badge she had worn during her 40 years at the theatre. As a testament to the high regard and affection in which she was held, the Citizens Theatre organised a special tea for her retirement.

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M13, stall seat now in the family home. 

The chair she sat in as an usher, M13, located at the back of the stalls on the centre aisle for easy access to mutterers, splutters and sweetie paper-rustlers, was dedicated to Mary by staff and patrons. Her family purchased the chair during the recent refurbishment of the auditorium and it is now a prized momento of Mary’s wonderful 40 years at the Citz.

-blog originally written by Jenny Knotts.

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