When Fortwilliam Musical Society was founded in 1977, the constitution expressed the hope that the Society would encourage the musical talents of the youth in North Belfast. In the formative years, this was realised by the inclusion of school children in the orchestra, which performed for us in shows and Christmas concerts. In December 1983, the performances of The Sound of Music resulted in a huge box office and financial success, not least due to the inclusion of two sets of Von Trapp children. This encouraged the Society to continue staging youth based shows.

There followed productions of Oliver! – the first of which launched Peter Kennedy’s career as a professional director – and The Wizard of Oz which played with tremendous success in the much missed Belfast Civic Arts Theatre. During the years from 1984 to 1989 the main society’s production, whenever possible, included a youth cast.

The Youth Group is Born

With great ambition and no finances, Fortwilliam Musical Society officially launched the Youth Group in September 1991. William Cairns and Leonard Anderson voluntarily took on the roles of musical director and director. Their professional expertise helped steer the project to outstanding success with the production of The Boy Friend. “The great ambition” was more than realised with the abundance of awards achieved in the inaugural Derry Festival of Light Opera and the Northern Ireland Festival of Light Opera.

At both events, we were presented with the Award for Best Overall Show. These accolades were achieved thanks to the contributions from the late Tom McNally, set designer, Marie White, Irene Cairns and Ethna Harding, who designed and made the costumes and from all the senior members who helped so enthusiastically backstage and with promotion. We were also indebted to the Prince’s Trust among others for grants towards running costs of the youth group. Members of the senior society continue to volunteer their time to oversee the group and many are former members who have risen through the ranks of the Society.

Going from Strength to Strength

Since its founding, we have gone from strength to strength, providing opportunities for young people from across Belfast and Northern Ireland to develop their confidence and talent. One of the highlights was in 2006 when Joanne Laverty conceived, organised, promoted and directed a special performance of Oliver! in the Waterfront Theatre. The Youth Group cast of over 75 was augmented by a chorus of over 500 children from 15 schools from Belfast and beyond.

More recent highlights have included our Strictly Youth – the Reunion show, which was staged in the Theatre at the Mill in 2011 and brought together members from the Youth Group with alumni from the our 20-year history, many of whom have now gone on to careers as professional performers.

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