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Funeral for ‘Ulster’s theatrical jewel’ Leila Webster

Elizabeth Webster (right), Leila's daughter-in-law and her children Jamie, Mark and Christopher Webster (Leila's grandchildren) release doves in her memory at Mary Magdalene Church of Ireland at Donegall Pass.

Elizabeth Webster (right), Leila's daughter-in-law and her children Jamie, Mark and Christopher Webster (Leila's grandchildren) release doves in her memory at Mary Magdalene Church of Ireland at Donegall Pass.

The great and the good of the Northern Ireland arts scene came together yesterday to bid farewell to the last true showgirl.

Ms Webster, who died last week aged 90, had performed onstage with Bob Hope and Ulster musician Josef Locke.

Leila was once described as the jewel in Ulster’s theatrical crown.

After cremation at Roselawn, a memorial service was held at Saint Mary Magdalene Church of Ireland in Donegall Pass, near Leila’s Belfast home, conducted by Reverends Cotter, Smyth and Rea.

Leila, who had begun performing at the age of 10 after a difficult childhood battling illness and agoraphobia, grew up in Rutland Street.

At a party celebrating her 90th birthday last October, Leila sang and told jokes for the family and friends who had gathered, showcasing her ever-present desire to perform.

Longtime friend Dennison Mahood yesterday paid a tribute to the showbiz star, who had also worked with Northern Ireland playwright Sam Cree and actor James Young.

After the service celebrating Leila’s life had come to an end, spontaneous applause broke out in the church – something friend Ian Dougan said was a fitting tribute to a great performer.

“Leila had strong religious beliefs and so the service was very respectful of that,” he said. “But there were also nods to her life in theatre.”

Leila’s second husband Tom – said to have been the love of her life – was a fan of brass music, added Ian, and so a brass band performed at the service.

Hymns included “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and “The Lord is My Shepherd”.

A wreath was brought to the church to represent Leila’s presence, and family members – including her son Jim, his wife Elizabeth, and Leila’s grandchildren Christopher, Mark and Jamie – released a flock of doves.

Local personalities who came to show their respects included actor and playwright Dan Gordon, actresses Olivia Nash and Stella McCusker, and actor Paddy Scully.

Leila’s Arts Theatre stage manager Pat McKane – who once famously held the performer up after fainting at a show in the 1980s when Leila declared “the show must go on” – was also there to remember her friend.

Reflecting on Dennison Mahood’s “heart-rending speech”, Ian Dougan said it was a wonderful account of Leila’s life, including her MBE award for charity work.

“It was very memorable,” he said.

“Dennison spoke about their 60 years of friendship. He talked about the lady as a friend, and the actress that gave so much.”

 

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