DENNIS McKeever’s life has been a healthful mix of idealism and practicality - a teacher of maths in his professional life and immersed in music and drama in his service to the community, service for which Dennis has received the MBE in the New Year Honours List.
A retired lecturer in maths at Drumcree College - and its predecessor St Malachy’s - his life has been filled with drama, of the stage variety, since the tender age of 10. He recalled, “The Portadown Catholic Dramatic Society (PCDS) was performing the play ‘Home is the Hero’, at The Opera House, a couple of boys were needed for one of the scenes, so my brother Malachy and I - both pupils at St Columba’s Primary School - did the needful. We really enjoyed it.”
Society members like Harry Foy, Margaret Hamill, Dan McAreavey and Jim McCullough were the stars of the show, and literally cleaned up the silverware at festival venues all over Ireland, The young McKeevers’ mother Cassie and their aunt Bridie McKeever were, often as not, the female ‘leads’.
His love for drama was reinforced at Christian Brothers School (CBS) in Armagh, thanks to English and Drama teacher Larry Ryan, with plays like Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ and ‘The Merchant of Venice’, and they also performed several dramas in the Irish language. His greatest memory is playing ‘Shylock’ opposite distinguished actor Anew McMaster, a colleague of the famed Micheal Mac Liamoir, which led to Dennis performing a couple of plays on the stage of Dublin’s ‘Gate’ and ‘Abbey’ theatres, plus another on the fledgling RTE, “where they didn’t have any editing technology and we had to go through the drama word-perfect, but we managed”.
After CBS, he made it to Queen’s University, where studies for his maths and education degrees took precedence, after which he moved to St Malachy’s/Drumcree where he spent his entire career, retiring in 2001. It was here that he acquired his taste for producing and directing plays in tandem with fellow teacher Noel Millsopp - ‘Oliver!’, ‘Joseph’ and ‘Superstar’ among them. During this period - in conjunction with Thespians like Hugh Daly, Harry Foy and Gerry McCreesh - he helped form The Phoenix Players, the bird connotation being that the new group rose from the ashes of the PCDA and St Cecilia’s both of which had become defunct.
Early productions were ‘The Auction at Killybuck’ and ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’. And two years later Dennis and wife Angela (also keen on drama) came into their own with the formation of The Junior Phoenix, with Angela directing and Dennis and Ann Conlon producing. It became a real tour de force in the local drama world, with “a cross-community ethos that came about naturally and where we would like the see the percentages equal within the communities”.
Their annual musicals (with the occasional drama thrown in for good measure) are eagerly anticipated - productions like ‘Oklahoma!’, ‘Little Shop of Horrors’, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ and ‘Les Miserables’.
‘Les Miz’ was the first time an amateur society was allowed to perform the musical in Northern Ireland. And Dennis recalls that, prior to ‘Superstar’ there were protests outside the Town Hall by religious groups - “They were immaculately behaved, and it was the best publicity we could have received - the hall was packed!”
He is proud that one young star of ‘Superstar’ (Ryan Gibb) has gone on to play Ciaphas in the UK tour of the show (it also stars Mel C and Chris Moyles). And another ex-Junior Phoenix, Aaron McCusker, is blazing a trail in the TV smash hit ‘Shameless’. But Dennis and Angela are especially proud of the fact that, over the years, they have afforded hundreds of young people the thrill of appearing on stage, learning new life skills “and simply having a marvellous time”.
Other pursuits Dennis has enjoyed on a voluntary basis are singing, and driving a community bus (for five years between Ballyoran and the town centre). He sings bass in the 200-strong community choir ‘With One Voice’ in Belfast, and also sang with the Queen’s choir during his student days. “My voice moved up to baritone after I stopped smoking,” he said. “But that’s no bad thing!”
With that impressive CV, the MBE is thoroughly deserved, and Dennis is naturally delighted. “But I’m a front man in the Junior Phoenix,” he said. “It’s a group award. There’s a terrific team, and I thank them one and all. ‘Grease’ is the next one in August 2013, so be there!” But, most of all, he thanks the young stars over the years, “without whom The Junior Phoenix Players wouldn’t exist.”
He added, “The entire family is delighted - Angela, our sons and daughter, Peter, Sinead, Eamonn and Ciaran, and my nine siblings. It’s a great occasion for the McKeevers.”