Development & Alumni Relations Office 

Tony ‘Chas’ Emmerson

(Published by Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s on 11 December 2014)

Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s is sad to note the death of Tony ‘Chas’ Emmerson, Assistant Director of the Festival from 1964-1969. Brother of Michael, Chas played a key role in the development of the Queen’s Festival from being a student festival in 1961 and 62 to being a fully-fledged professional festival, rivalled only by Edinburgh in terms of prestige and six across the British Isles.

Born in Stratford-upon-Avon, Chas was a year behind older brother Michael and followed him across the Irish Sea to Belfast in 1962. Reading Modern History, Chas, like Michael was devoted to the arts. Putting on two Festivals in 1964, the Emmersons completely changed the ambition and scope of what could be achieved in the arts in Belfast. The first two Festivals featured fascinating artists including Anthony Burgess, Alex Haley and Patrick Kavanagh for example with music from now internationally celebrated artists such as Julian Bream and Humphrey Lyttelton. The Festival also saw itself as a platform for local talent including Seamus Heaney and Stephen Rea and reflected the political upheaval prevalent at the time.

Over the next four years, Tony Emmerson was a key part of that optimistic scene which gathered around Queen’s University and had a reputation as the ‘fixer’ for the Festival, sorting out problems where no one else could. For example, securing cash from the University bursar in order to rush down to the Elms Bar and pay off an angry Patrick Kavanagh, who was smashing the empty glass of each pint he drank, stating that he wouldn’t stop until he received payment in cash. Or in 1966 when the Philharmonia Hungarica sat stranded on the airport runway as they hadn’t paid for the stairs or ground staff in order to get off the plane. Tony remembered saying that ‘Queen’s would pay for it. That’s something we said a lot.’

Tony also met and married Mary Mills, who was Michael’s secretary at the Festival, in 1968.

Chas Emmerson was Assistant Director of Festival until 1968 when he stepped down from his duties. He went onto have a distinguished teaching career, including teaching US History at the University of Ulster. He was also an important figure in the Irish Association of American Studies.

The Festival and Belfast owes a debt of gratitude to him for his sterling and pioneering work in developing the Queen’s Festival and demonstrating to the city what ambition, skill and hard work could achieve.

(An obituary also appeared on the Irish Association of American Studies website)

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