SIXTY-five years ago, in December 1955, Cork Opera House burned to the ground and broke the collective heart of the city.
So many had grown up in its noble shadow, had climbed those endless steps to the ‘gods’, taken their seats in the stalls, or, for the lucky few, been ushered into the elegant boxes.
Others had taken their first steps on the boards there, and gone on to lifelong careers in theatre.
How many of you can remember visits to that grand old Victorian lady, whether to your first pantomime, to the ballet, to opera or drama? We would love to hear from you.
This writer can recall her first visit, at a very young age, to a gala performance of the Cork Ballet Company’s production of The Sleeping Beauty.
My parents had splashed out on the dignity of a box for the occasion, and the one directly opposite (suitably garlanded) was occupied by the then President, Seán T. O’Kelly.
I had a new party frock (yellow seersucker) made by my mother, while my older sister had her very first long dress. It was that sort of night.
Afterwards, there are recollections of the G & S with HMS Pinafore and Trial by Jury, also surely on one occasion a genuine circus onstage, but alas the days of the grand old theatre were numbered.
That rainy December night, the flames of its funeral pyre lit up the skies over Cork, and those who watched from Patrick’s Bridge wept as they saw the boxes topple slowly forward, the ‘gods’ crash into the pit.
Billa Connell, one of the Opera House’s legendary pantomime dames, has often told the story of how he almost wept too. Newly married, he was looking forward to the extra panto income to buy their first three-piece suite. When he got home, he woke his wife and showed her the blood-red sky. “Is it the Aurora Borealis?” she asked in awe. “Tis not,” he replied. “Tis our new furniture gone up in smoke.”
Over at the opposite side of Emmet Place, dancers with the ballet company saw the flames shooting out of the building and shrieked in horror.
In the very dressing rooms of the theatre itself, rehearsing children were suddenly told to get dressed and hurry home immediately, with no delaying. They didn’t even realise what was going on until they were safely away.
It was a very different Christmas that year. A bit like this one in some ways, we suppose.
We got a new Opera House in time, thanks to the untiring efforts of its supporters, but in the meantime theatre had to find itself a new home. Several new homes.
For a number of years, Joan Denise Moriarty took her company to the City Hall, while James N. Healy and also Everyman used the Father Mathew Hall.
As well as every new John B. Keane play, and many Gilbert & Sullivan performances, including the rarely-seen Utopia Ltd, with the late great David McInerney, the Carl Clopet company favoured the Fr Mathew with an annual season (oh, Phoebe Bradley-Williams in East Lynne…).
James N. put on many musicals at the grand old Palace too in his time, and later the Everyman took it over and gave that great Victorian music hall a new lease of life.
The theatre ghost who has walked the auditorium late at night since the late 19th century must have been pleased indeed.
UCC’s energetic Dramatic Society divided its loyalties between the tiny little Group Theatre in South Main Street, run by James N. Healy, and the somewhat more spacious, if not much more elegant, CCYMS (Cork Catholic Young Men’s Society) on the corner of Castle Street and Paradise Place.
That was where future luminaries of the international stage, like Dermot Crowley, did their early training before heading for brighter lights in the West End and on Broadway.
Dermot wanted to be an actor from an early age. “As a four-year-old, I was cast in this play at nursery school in Cork, but I got measles so I couldn’t be in it. I got better in time to be taken to see it by my mum, but I didn’t enjoy it one bit. I was absolutely raging because I couldn’t be up on that stage. Before that I had no idea of what acting was, but from then on, I knew it was the life for me.”
You might remember him in Falling For A Dancer, and many other television roles, as well as hearing of his triumph in winning the Los Angeles Drama Critics’ Award for The Cripple of Inishmaan, and recent acclamation for Brian Friel’s Translations at the National. He also gained meteoric screen fame as General Crix Madine in Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi in 1983.
“Would you believe it, there was even a doll of my character in Hamley’s on Regent Street? That’s fame, if you like!”
But behind it all was that training and experience given to him by Cork’s own theatres and directors like Dan Donovan and John O’Shea.
Patrick Talbot, who worked with the Gate, and also with Scottish National Ballet, before being director of Everyman for a number of years, now runs his own production company, currently putting plays on over the air at Everyman during the lockdown.
Again, the memories of learning his craft in our city by the Lee are vivid.
“My first association really with theatre was when I appeared in a play called In The Train in Colaiste Chriost Ri. That would have been in the early 1970s. It was directed by my then English teacher, and co-founder of Everyman Theatre, John O’Shea.
“The extraordinary thing about that production was not who was on stage, but the fact that it was designed by Bob Crowley. Bob was a past pupil of Chriost Ri at that stage and was a third level student at the Crawford College of Art. Bob would go on of course to become the top set and costume designer in the world.”
That same year, he recalls, the Everyman Theatre had taken over the Fr Mathew Hall, rechristening it the Everyman Playhouse, and John O’Shea asked Patrick to participate in the Christmas show there.
“There was an exotic, long-haired, hippy-type actor/musician from America in the cast, whose background was cloaked in mystery. Remember I was about 14 or 15 at the time. I simply wasn’t able to handle it when this guy David said to me that Phil Lynott had invited him to a late night Thin Lizzy concert at the Savoy and would I like to go to it. I couldn’t even conceive of doing that at the time.
“His true identity was revealed to us on opening night when there was a knock on the dressing room door and in walked legendary actress Angela Lansbury. It transpired that David was her son!”
Ger Fitzgibbon, emeritus Head of Drama at UCC, insists that The Group demands several articles all to itself.
“I was very fond of James N. He and Pat Murray were probably the only two really professional theatre people in Cork for years. And he was so generous when it came to dealing with students.
“We did have endless fun mocking him, however. The sonorous, serious tone with which he pointed out the many facilities of that shambolic fire-trap of a building: ‘This is the cinema’ (i.e. the room with a window to another room); ‘this is the studio — wonderful acoustics!’ (the room where cardboard egg-boxes had been stapled to the walls and ceiling); ‘and this is the kitchen (an obscure backroom, cantilevered out over the city car park, with a floor that palpably tilted as you walked from the door).”
We would tend to agree with Ger that it was a tottering old building which always looked as though it was going to quietly collapse, but many were the ambitious productions staged there. It is sad to pass these days and see the gaping emptiness where so much energy and laughter abounded in earlier days.
Others remember the Group with affection too. When interviewing the renowned late Shakespearean director, Michael Bogdanov, some years ago in England, I mentioned being from Cork. His face, previously withdrawn and polite, lit up. “Did you ever play at the Group?” he asked eagerly. Apparently, during Trinity days, he had come down and spent a season there working with James N. It was one of his happiest memories.
“Do you remember Lamberts doing serious (grown-up) puppet theatre there?” asks Ger eagerly. “And Peter O’Shaughnessy doing a brilliant version of Gogol’s Diary of a Madman? Plus Godot, Oedipus, American Hurrah, and several very lively Victorian melodramas.”
(This writer remembers borrowing the ‘cliff’ from which the Swan Queen throws herself into the lake from the Opera House to use in one of those melodramas.)
“And of course our UCC revues which we thought were so ground-breaking and ahead of their time!”
Those revues, reveals Ger, were inspired by a once-off, never-to-be-forgotten visit by the Cambridge Footlights, a company which spawned some of Britain’s most famous comedians (Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, John Cleese, Emma Thompson — the list is endless). The tiny theatre was packed to the rafters every night that the Footlights were in town.
One of the major challenges of the revues, says Ger, was the demand they placed on the fuse-popping, ancient lighting arrangements of The Group.
“We wanted snap-changes, black-outs, strobe effects, dazzle, silhouette lighting... The Group might provide these, but not necessarily in the order you expected.”
On another occasion, the Dramat was staging a production of Faust. On arriving at the theatre to set up on the afternoon of the show, the company discovered that the stage was entirely taken up by scaffolding (presumably James N. had discovered the rot in the roof).
Undaunted they wrote it into the action, Mephistopheles winding himself sinuously in and out of the uprights while Faust climbed distractedly from one level to another. It was certainly good training for any actor.
If you have memories of Cork’s theatres, whether as a performer or as audience, do let us know. We want to hear them! Email firstname.lastname@example.org