Citizens Theatre legend

Born: March 28, 1923.

Died: July 29, 2015.

FOR 40 years, Mary Sweeney, who has died at the age of 92, was the heart and soul of Glasgow's Citizens Theatre in the Gorbals, the area where she spent much of her life. For most of her tenure, from 1963 until 2003, she helped theatre director Giles Havergal give warm and gracious welcomes to expectant audiences in what is lovingly known as the Citz. That gave her no small part in seeing the theatre flourish to become the West of Scotland's leading theatre of in-house productions, with a global reputation.

As staff supervisor in charge of the ushers and usherettes, Mrs Sweeney bustled around to keep the wheels greased for both staff and spectators and was a vital cog backstage, onstage, in the foyer and in the aisles. She ensured all staff were in their places on time, And it was she who guided patrons to their seats and shepherded parties of schoolchildren in the right direction.

The elderly, infirm or wheelchair-bound visitors were accommodated with care but without unwanted fuss. Regulars would be greeted with a big smile, often by name and with a Northern Irish accent sprinkled with a wee bit of Glasgow patter. By the time she retired in 2003, aged 80 no less, she was already a Citz legend. That was proven by the 50-odd leading actors, backstage staff and regular Citz-goers who attended her 90th birthday party. Long after her retirement, actors and theatregoers would ask her daughter Geraldine or granddaughter Jenny, both of whom went on to work in the theatre, "how's Mary gettin' on?"

Although her official title was staff supervisor, Mrs Sweeney, who lived most of her life in the Gorbals or Castlemilk, made sure the whole shooting match ran smoothly from pre-show preparations, the entry of the first customer, through curtain-up and curtain-down, and until the last member of the audience walked out into that crisp Gorbals air. By the time that last visitor had left, she had chatted to as many members of the audience as possible to seek out, gently, their views on often controversial or even shocking productions. Her feedback was important to producers, directors, actors, indeed the entire Citz "family."

"This she did with neither pressure nor judgement, without fuss or drama," said Mrs Sweeney's friend and current Citz house manager Christine Hamilton. "All of this happened apparently seamlessly. Mary was the embodiment of customer care before the phrase was invented."

Mary Josephine Ronaghan was born on March 28, 1923, in the shadow of the historic city walls of Derry, which had only just found itself a "border city" and part of Northern Ireland after the island's partition. Soon after the outbreak of war, still only 17, she did her bit for the war effort by becoming a nurse, which she did for the war's duration, mostly after moving to Manchester.

In addition to tending the returning casualties, she made several trips to France, by military aircraft or ship, to pick up and bring home badly-wounded soldiers from the frontlines. On one trip from Northern Ireland, she was the only woman among a ship full of troops. After warnings of a German U-Boat in the vicinity, her vessel shut down its engines for six hours and ordered all on board to maintain complete silence. She recalled a crewman snatching a bar of chocolate, given to her by a soldier, before she could eat it: even the rustling of the foil wrapper was considered a potential giveaway as to their location.

Having met Hugh Sweeney, an Irishman from County Donegal close to her hometown of Derry, the couple got married in 1949 and settled in the Gorbals. She worked for a while as Avon Lady, going door-to-door to sell beauty products. Her charm worked a treat in the poor post-war Gorbals slums and she was able to help her husband put food on the table. They later moved to Castlemilk and she joined the Citz in 1963.

Mrs Sweeney even got to tread the hallowed boards when she was cast as an extra in Robert David MacDonald's 1980 play A Waste of Time, an adaption of Proust's masterpiece A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, It was one of the many works by MacDonald which helped put the Citz on the theatrical map in the UK and beyond. Having switched clothes from chief usher's uniform to a late 19th Century long black costume and scene-stealing hat, she cut an imposing figure on stage, albeit briefly, and treasured a photo taken of the scene.

After she retired and through her 80s, Mrs Sweeney often returned to the theatre, with its bright pink foyer and pink elephant guardians, to catch up with old friends, especially on opening nights. She liked to go back to her old special seat, M13, at the back of the stalls on the centre aisle, where she used to be able to monitor and deal with rowdy and/or tipsy patrons. When some of the theatre seats were sold off at auction, her granddaughter Jenny managed to snap up M13 as a souvenir of her beloved granny.

There have long been sightings, by both of staff and audience members, of ghosts at the Citz, including a monk, a "white lady" in Victorian costume and a strawberry-seller girl in the upper circle. If not the ghost, at least the cheery spirit of Mary Sweeney will no doubt float within the theatre smiling for as long as the Citz exists.

Mary Sweeney died in Muirend in Glasgow's Southside. Her husband Hugh died in 1996. She is survived by their daughters Geraldine and Philomena, her brother Michael, her grandchildren Chris and Jenny, and great-grandchildren Grace and Harry.