Nostalgia: Looking back on Cork’s rich theatrical history

Nostalgia: Looking back on Cork’s rich theatrical history

A busy Kyle Street in the 1930s with street dealers wearing their traditional shawls and selling their wares. Courtesy: Michael Lenihan

AT the end of April, some friends of mine traveled from Waterford to Cork for the long-awaited Ed Sheeran concert.

With some spare time on our hands, I took them on a short stroll around our beautiful city, specifically the ancient part located on North and South Main Street.

Originally called Main Street, this bustling thoroughfare was the centre of medieval commercial life in old Cork until the city wall was taken down in the 18th century; and with the physical development of the marches outside the wall, consequently, the old city lost its importance as businesses moved out onto the new spacious reclaimed ground.

After our leisurely stroll, we decided to go for a bite to eat and found ourselves in the Golden Bites Brazilian Snack House on the busy Kyle Street. While we chatted and waited for our food, little did my friends know that we were standing where Cork’s first theatre stood over 300 hundred years ago, according to local folklore, and when I mentioned this to them, they were eager to know all about it.

At the dawn of the 18th century, the directors of the Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin decided to send their players on a visit to Cork. For this purpose, they leased a disused malthouse,105ft long by 21ft wide, situated on Dingle Lane, off North Main Street and converted it into a theatre. In 1713, only 23 years after the Siege of Cork, its doors opened to the public, becoming Cork’s first theatre.

The Theatre Royal, now the site of the present GPO, St Oliver Plunkett Street, Cork. Illustrated London News) Courtesy: Cork City Library
The Theatre Royal, now the site of the present GPO, St Oliver Plunkett Street, Cork. Illustrated London News) Courtesy: Cork City Library

During its lifetime of almost 30 years, the theatre accommodated visits from many companies. Being under the influence of the Smock Alley Theatre, the Dingle Lane Theatre staged some of the finest Shakespearean productions including Macbeth, Richard III and Othello.

The success of the Dingle Lane Theatre encouraged more theatres to open in order to satisfy the ever-increasing theatre-loving audience in the young growing city of Cork. Historian, John Windele tells us that another theatre opened up in Broad Lane (where St Francis Church is situated today) but ceased to be used as a theatre before 1736. In that year, a regular theatre was opened in George’s (St Oliver Plunkett) St in Conway’s Yard. However, it was too small and so a larger one was built in 1760 called the Theatre Royal on the site of the present-day GPO. Corkonians reveled so much in their enjoyment of the wit, wisdom and frolic of the playhouses that more theatres subsequently opened up.

This elegant drawing shows Beamish and Crawford Social Club, formerly Lane’s Brewery, South Main St. This club became the Group Theatre, which was to become the Cork Arts Theatre, also popularly known as the Cat Club. The building was demolished in the 1960s to make way for the Cork City Car Park. Today the Cork Arts Theatre is located on Carroll's Quay. Also shown is the entrance to Old Post Office Lane.Courtesy: Artist, Catherine M. Courtney. 1996
This elegant drawing shows Beamish and Crawford Social Club, formerly Lane’s Brewery, South Main St. This club became the Group Theatre, which was to become the Cork Arts Theatre, also popularly known as the Cat Club. The building was demolished in the 1960s to make way for the Cork City Car Park. Today the Cork Arts Theatre is located on Carroll's Quay. Also shown is the entrance to Old Post Office Lane.Courtesy: Artist, Catherine M. Courtney. 1996

The second half of the 18th and the first half of the 19th century saw the Wide Street Commissioners (1757-1851) reshaping the medieval walled city and its surroundings. This involved reclaiming the prehistoric marsh lands and its waterways so that new thoroughfares and buildings could be constructed. Thus, in the early 1840s the buildings on Dingle Lane were demolished and incorporated into a new street called Kyle Street. From the rubble, limestones from the demolished buildings, including Cork’s first theatre, all went into the foundation of the new street as well as the erection of new buildings on both sides of the street. And it is in one of these buildings that my friends and I found ourselves after our stroll.

Today’s Golden Bites Brazilian Snack House and Antiques, Vintage, Retro & Bric-a-Brac store. Courtesy: Richard T. Cooke
Today’s Golden Bites Brazilian Snack House and Antiques, Vintage, Retro & Bric-a-Brac store. Courtesy: Richard T. Cooke

The building today is partitioned, with Golden Bites Brazilian Snack House on the western side and the Antiques, Vintage, Retro & Bric-a-Brac store on the eastern side. Since its erection in the second half of the 19th century, various businesses operated out of this building. The early years of the 21st century saw the building in poor condition and in 2009 it was purchased from Cork City Council by a local antiques businessman who converted it into a beautiful restaurant. Knowledgeable about the history of the street, he elegantly and tastefully renovated the building and named it the Theatre Tea House.

I’m glad to say my friends immensely enjoyed the concert and their tour of Cork.

Many thanks to Barry Madden, local antiques businessman for information regarding this article.

Sources: Cork City Library files Christopher Fitz-Simon, The Irish Theatre. Published: Thames and Hudson Ltd, London. 1983 John Windele. History of Cork. Published, CORK: The Fercor Press, 2 Bridge Street. 1973 J. W. Flynn. The Random Recollections of An Old Play-Goer. 1890 Gina Johnson. The Laneways of Medieval. Published: Cork by Cork City Council. 2002 T. F. McNamara. Portrait of Cork. Published by Watermans, Cork. 1981

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