Newry Drama Festival evolved out of the drama section of Newry Musical Feis. The growing popularity of drama during the 1940s saw the development of numerous dramatic societies in Newry and beyond, including Newpoint Players, The Abbey Players, Colmcille Players and the Iveagh Players. The drama section outgrew the Feis, becoming so large that another festival was needed to accommodate everyone. A separate committee was formed under the Chairmanship of Mrs J H Collins, and in 1949 Newry Drama Festival was inaugurated.

In its first year, the festival had 50 entrants. Competitors included local schools, dramatic societies, drama schools and youth groups. Plays were performed in both English and Irish. Over a period of twelve days, performances took place day and night. This was reduced to six nights in 1961, but later increased to nine. The plays in Irish disappeared from the programme in the mid-1950s and the Junior Section and One Act Plays by the end of the 1970s. Today performances take place over six nights of the festival.

Quality of adjudication is an important aspect of the festival, exemplified by the national and international stature of the adjudicators. The first adjudicator, Frank Harwood, performed the inaugural ceremony on 14th February 1949, commenting that Newry Drama Festival was far ahead of the most up-to-date English festivals in planning, schedule and entries. In 1950, Cyril Cusack’s adjudication was a performance in itself, followed in 1951 by Hilton Edwards, co-founder of Dublin’s Gate Theatre with Micheál Mac Liammόir.

The Troubles took their toll on the festival in the early 1970s. The Town Hall was badly damaged by an arson attack in February 1972 and the festival did not take place between 1972 and 1975. It was revived in 1976 and was joined by the newly established One Act Drama Festival. Its return was not without problems and there was difficulty filling a full programme of plays. On one of the nights when there was no play, the adjudicator, Gerda Redlich, a firm favourite of the festival, coming to Newry no less than five times, gave a one-woman performance, An Evening with Gerda: The Adjudicator Entertains, telling her life story on stage, regaling the audience with how she escaped from the Nazis in 1938 by skiing over the Alps and spent eighteen months with a travelling circus in Italy.

A team of dedicated and enthusiastic people work tirelessly behind the scenes to achieve and maintain the festival’s high calibre. Whilst the committee members have changed over the years, many executives have all served for long periods of time. Of particular note, Violet Durkin, who served as Vice Chair for over 40 years and Eileen Mooney, who was Secretary between 1976 and 2019, and who continues as Vice Chair. 

Over the years, challenges faced by the Troubles and Covid pandemic led to five missing years of the festival. Three quarters of a century later, the 75th annual Newry Drama Festival continues to offer a platform to many groups from all over Ireland.