Until recently it was believed that the Gaiety on South King Street was Dublin’s oldest extant theatre premises. However, earlier this year another, more long-established site reopened for business 350 years after first doing so. In the mid-1630s, the Scottish-born translator, cartographer and impresario John Ogilby moved to Ireland where he became tutor to the children of Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford who was then the country’s Lord Deputy. Thanks to this patronage, Ogilby received the royal appointment of Master of the Revels and opened a theatre on Werburgh Street in 1637. The rise of the Puritans and the outbreak of war in Ireland forced this venture to close after four years, and the departure of Ogilby not long afterwards.
Following the restoration of Charles II in 1660 he returned to Dublin and two years later received permission to open a new theatre in the city. Although designated the Theatre Royal by special patent (the first such title granted outside London), it was commonly known as Smock Alley after its location, and remains remembered as such to this day. Smock Alley lies in the midst of an area called Temple Bar, now best known for a superfluity of bars and clubs and the hordes of youthful drinkers that these attract.
Prior to the development of Essex Quay in the 1720s Smock Alley Theatre would have lain almost on the banks of the Liffey and this caused various problems: in 1670 and again in 1701 the upper galleries collapsed causing death and injury among the audience, and following another such disaster in 1734 the premises were largely rebuilt to the design of local architect Michael Wills, with increased capacity. There followed what might be considered the theatre’s golden age, during which time it was managed by Thomas Sheridan, godson of Dean Swift and father of Richard Brinsley Sheridan who went on to have a stellar career as playwright and poet.
During this period some of the finest performers in Ireland and England appeared on the stage of the Smock Alley Theatre including Peg Woffington, Colley Cibber, Spranger Barry and Charles Macklin; it was here that David Garrick, the most famous actor of the 18th century, first played Hamlet. But other fare than plays was also offered: a surviving notice for May 1754 advertises that after the performance of Charles Johnson’s The Country Lasses, an equilibrist (otherwise known as a trapeze artist) called Mr Stuart ‘will play very curiously with a fork and an orange such as was never attempted by any other person. He will also stand on his head, and quit the wire entirely with his hands when in full swing, and discharge two fire wheels off both his heels at the same time.’ One suspects health and safety regulations would not permit such a display in our own age.
Smock Alley had already seen off various rivals when in 1758 the wonderfully named Spranger Barry, who had appeared on its stage, opened his own theatre on nearby Crow Street and managed to have the Royal Patent transferred to his premises. This proved fatal to the older establishment’s welfare, and within twenty years it had closed for good. The building subsequently became a whiskey store, and was serving this purpose when an engraving of it, seen at the top of this piece, appeared in The Gentlemen’s Magazine in 1789 (the section of map, incidentally, comes from that of Dublin produced by John Rocque in 1756).
So it remained until 1811 when the former theatre was acquired by a Roman Catholic priest, Fr Michael Blake who worked with architect John Taylor to convert it into a church, SS. Michael and John, which opened for services in 1815. This was some 14 years before the achievement of Catholic Emancipation and it was therefore hazardous of Fr Blake to set up a bell rung several times daily to summon his congregation and to advise them of the Angelus. Seemingly a city alderman instituted proceedings against the priest for this breach of the law, but dropped the action on hearing the case was to be defended by a talented young lawyer called Daniel O’Connell.
One might imagine the Irish Catholic Church would cherish a building so important in its historic struggle to achieve the right of freedom to worship. However, once the institution noticed attendance numbers for services dropping it had no qualms in deconsecrating the premises and abandoning all further interest in the building’s future. The next organisation responsible for the old structure treated it with even more disdain: in 1996 Temple Bar Properties decided to convert the site into a Viking Adventure Centre. This ill-conceived enterprise inevitably closed in 2002 but not before wreaking havoc on the place, stripping out its galleried interior and the plaster from the walls, and inserting an additional floor.
In the intervening years, the property has been thoroughly surveyed by archaeologists who discovered that large sections of the church were actually parts of the original Smock Alley Theatre, although a comparison between the exterior as seen in the 1789 engraving and as it looks today would have indicated this was most likely the case. Earlier in the year, exactly 350 years since it first opened as a theatre, the building reverted to that purpose, thanks to the enterprise of Patrick Sutton and his team at the Gaiety School of Acting. While this initiative is a cause for rejoicing, aesthetically the premises’ problems – created by the mid-1990s remodelling – remain unresolved. Due to the division of the interior into two floors, the main 220-seat theatre has had to be fitted into the lower area and feels somewhat claustrophobic (although, should the production fail to hold the audience’s attention, exposed walls offer a good sense of the structure’s various alterations). Meanwhile the upper room is almost as oppressive due to lack of space between interpolated floor and elaborate neo-Perpendicular ceiling, incidentally the only part of the original decoration to survive Temple Bar Properties’ assault. The ideal would be for the building to accommodate, as was originally the case, a single auditorium and stage. Although that seems unlikely in the short term, the fact that Smock Alley Theatre has now reopened for business suggests the final curtain has not yet come down on this drama.