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Charlie Smyth and Sean Canavan as the Ugly Sisters in ‘Cinderella’ in Newry Town Hall in 1979. Courtesy of Charlie Smyth
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At this time of year Newry and Warrenpoint are usually looking forward to hosting their annual pantomimes.  The Museum Collection has many artefacts and photographs from pantomimes staged in the two towns over the years.

The origins of pantomime date back to Middle Ages and developed from the traditions of the Italian Commedia dell’art in the 16th century, with comedic moments, customary characters and great physicality.  By the Victorian era, pantomime had become a typically Christmas custom.  They were based on fairy tales or folk legends with some of the more popular being ‘Cinderella’ ‘Aladdin’, ‘Dick Wittington’ and ‘Snow White’. Although they had become predominantly aimed at children, adults enjoyed them too.

Over the years various local groups have staged pantomimes. This production of ‘Dick Whittington’ was by Newry Christain Brothers Past Pupils’ Union.  Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
Over the years various local groups have staged pantomimes. This production of ‘Dick Whittington’ was by Newry Christain Brothers Past Pupils’ Union. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

The earliest pantomimes performed in Newry were staged in the Assembly Rooms on the upper floor of the Savings Bank, now the Sean Holywood Arts Centre in the later part of the 1800s. In April 1877 performances of ‘Cinderella’ were held under the patronage of Colonel Kent and Officers of the 77th Regiment.

From the mid-1930s P.J. McKay staged pantomimes in the town, with Harry Heather as Musical Director. These pantos continued throughout the Second World War. In 1942 the drama took place off stage when the principal boy, Mrs Kathleen Clark, sacrificed her part and dashed by ship, plane, train and car to the bedside of her wounded husband, Flight Sergeant Arthur Clark.

Pantomimes were often staged with a local twist. A 1957 production of ‘Sinbad the Sailor’ by Glanree Pantomime Group had Sinbad shipwrecked off the coast of the Mournes before making his way to Newry Market.

In the late 1950s Charlie Smith became involved in local pantomimes with Sean Canavan.  By the late 1970s the ‘Troubles’ had adversely affected the social and cultural life of Newry.   Paddy O’Hagan, Clerk of the Newry and Mourne District Council, asked Charlie Smyth if he could put on a show in Newry to raise people’s spirits. Along with the Glenn Youth Club a pantomime was produced and performed in the Town Hall beginning an annual tradition that has continued ever since.

Poster from the 1981 pantomine staged by Charlie Smyth and the members of the Glenn Youth Club. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
Poster from the 1981 Mother Goose pantomine staged by Charlie Smyth and the members of the Glenn Youth Club. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ was the first pantomime performed in Warrenpoint Town Hall in 1951.  It had a three-night run which was incredible for a small town at the time and buses ran to the performances from Newry, Kilkeel and Mayobridge.  During the ‘50s and ‘60s, the Warrenpoint panto travelled to Newry Town Hall, St. Louis Grammar School in Kilkeel and Darraghcross, near Saintfield, to raise funds for St. Vincent De Paul Society, a new hall and to fund the Arthur Burns School of Dancing’s trip to Rome. Frank Hanna produced all the pantomimes until his sudden death in 1984 when Liz Boyle took over productions.

Some of the cast members in the programme from ‘Aladdin’, P.J. McKay’s twelfth annual pantomime held in 1944. P.J. McKay drew his casts from local drama and musical societies as well as from elsewhere in Ireland. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
Some of the cast members in the programme from ‘Aladdin’, P.J. McKay’s twelfth annual pantomime held in 1944. P.J. McKay drew his casts from local drama and musical societies as well as from elsewhere in Ireland. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

The main exhibitions at Newry and Mourne Museum include a poster advertising the 1979 Charlie Smyth production of ‘Cinderella’.  The production ran for a week and tickets cost £1 for an adult and 50p for a child.

The Museum is currently offering free tours of the exhibition galleries on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 11.00 am. These must be booked in advance by calling our Education Officer at 0330 137 4422. 

Newry and Mourne Museum is open Tuesday – Saturday 10.00 am – 4.30 pm. Please call 0330 137 4422 or email museum@nmandd.org for further information.

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