A trip back in time, to nights at the opera

THROWBACK THURSDAY: Some great tenors have graced Cork’s stages down the years — and city operatic societies have also performed to acclaim, recalls JO KERRIGAN
A trip back in time, to nights at the opera

Cork Operatic Society’s production of ‘The Country Girl’ at the Opera House in 1946.

CON Healy, who contributed that wonderful story about helping to remove Fred Bridgeman’s organ from the Savoy to Kilbrittain Castle in last week’s Throwback Thursday, was delighted to see the great picture we managed to unearth from the archives, showing the mammoth task being undertaken

Mr Healy was even able to identify some of the people in the photograph.

“Don Hurley is the man putting the platform in place to move the main console off of the stage. He is being watched by Russell Winn on the left. The other people in the picture I don’t recognise. The man in the suit could be the manager of the Savoy?”

But where was Con himself when that shot was taken?

“Well, as it happens, I was organising for a forklift from the Examiner/Echo warehouse, which of course was only just around the corner in Faulkner’s Lane (now alas disappeared forever, replaced by Opera Lane), to lift the console onto our truck. So I missed the photo opportunity.”

So De Echo didn’t just get the picture, it got right into the actual logistics of moving De Monster? Doubtcha boy!

The removal of the organ from the Savoy Cinema in Cork
The removal of the organ from the Savoy Cinema in Cork

“If the truth be known,” says Con, “I was the go-for and the fixer, and each morning I would receive a list of what Mr Winn saw as being do-able in a working day.

“I dutifully listed all this, and delegated to the other workers whatever jobs were within their remit, both at the city end, and down in Kilbrittain, within the castle and its environment.”

It was probably one of the most enjoyable jobs he ever worked in, Con adds, “and I had a variety of jobs during my working career, with no two days ever the same”.

He comes from a farming background, where it was normal to have to figure things out as you went along, so that prepared him well for a pleasantly varied working life.

“We had some hairy moments along the way, but we survived to talk about it. If a Health & Safety officer knew the kind of things we undertook back then, I suspect we would all be committed for assessment!”

Con retired from his last job at Heineken more than ten years ago, and when he saw the Throwback Thursday features on Cork’s cinemas, and especially the Savoy, he felt he had to put his own involvement on record. And we are so pleased you did, Con!

It’s contributions like this that fill out the whole colourful picture of Cork in bygone days.

Someone else has lasting memories of the great old Savoy too. Joe Murphy wrote to register his pleasure in our weekly columns.

“Your Savoy projects these past weeks have been very enlightening, and while I was not a big cinema-goer, anything involving music, musicals, or concerts were certainly events I would never miss.

“The Savoy always featured as one of the top venues whenever a good artist or group was coming to Leeside.”

Two tenors who appeared at the Savoy in the late 1940s or early 1950s, he recalls, were Beniamino Gigli and Luigi Infantino. “And oh, how both vocalists filled the theatre, right up to the Gods, with their respective renditions. Gigli was nearing the end of his career at that time, while Infantino was at the early stages of his.”

Beniamino Gigli
Beniamino Gigli

A favourite memory of Joe’s concerns that last Gigli concert.

“I almost failed to see Gigli, since I didn’t manage to secure a ticket. Standing outside the Savoy, hoping to buy one, I was approached by a Christian Brother who had one of these precious tickets.

CENTRE STAGE: Cork Operatic Society present The Belle Of New York at Cork Opera House — just three weeks before the theatre burned to the ground — on November 21, 1955
CENTRE STAGE: Cork Operatic Society present The Belle Of New York at Cork Opera House — just three weeks before the theatre burned to the ground — on November 21, 1955

“However, the previous day he had been notified at very short notice of his immediate transfer to teach in Bray, Co. Wicklow, on the following day, so he had to get the 3pm train. I got the ticket at face value!”

Incidentally, this would have been on Gigli’s farewell world tour before he retired in 1955. That exhausting tour is said to have impaired the legendary tenor’s health, as he died just two years later, in 1957, aged 67.

Joe Murphy took every chance he could to follow his love of music.

“Following the setting up of Cork Grand Opera Group in 1953/54, we were invited to take part in The Army Benevolent Fund Concert at the Savoy, starring Joe Lynch, and with the Band of the Southern Command under Capt. Bunny Kealy B. Mus.

“The chorus numbered in excess of 100 members then, with ladies and gentlemen singing such splendid pieces as the Hallelujah Chorus, the Angels Chorus, the Anvil Chorus, the Soldiers Chorus from Aida, and the Slaves Chorus from Nabucco. Splendid times!”

The Cork Grand Opera Group went on through 1954 to stage Maritana, starring Welsh tenor Heddle Nash and Spanish soprano Eugené Castélle at the Coliseum cinema in June, while in November at the Opera House they staged both La Traviata with soprano Patricia Baird, contralto Joan Booth, tenor Brychan Powell, and bass Bruce Dargaval; and Il Trovatoré with soprano June Grant, contralto Jean Watson, tenor Paul Asciak, and bass Bruce Dargaval.

Other operas were staged in following years both at the Opera House and the Palace. Those were heady days indeed, when Cork was crammed with enthusiasts who were not only willing but delighted to give their time, energy, and talents to creating great shows.

Anyone who wanted to sing (or indeed dance, or act) was welcomed to join one of the many groups on offer. Only principals got paid of course, but for the choruses, it was enough to be part of the show, to be on stage.

Another fond memory of the Savoy for Joe took place on August 24, 1956, when the theatre hosted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in their 75th anniversary season.

“I brought my young girlfriend, now my wife of 63 years, and we both enjoyed the occasion very much. We still hold the official programme in our memorabilia!”

Over the years since then, Joe and his wife have enjoyed many operas and concerts in Cork, Dublin, and Limerick as well as abroad. Once a music-lover, always a music-lover.

He ends with a firm order to the Echo’s Throwback Thursday column: “Keep up your good work in helping us remember our valued past!”

We will, Joe, and thank-you for sharing your own memories.

Speaking of memories, here is a classic Cork one: Katty Barry.

Who doesn’t know of this redoubtable lady and her eating house in Dalton’s Lane, off Cornmarket Street back in the 1950s and ’60s? Maybe you visited, tasted a crubeen or two, maybe you just tiptoed past, wondering and remembering all you had been told.

ICON: Katty Barry: Queen Of The Coal Quay is being shown online from February 12-14
ICON: Katty Barry: Queen Of The Coal Quay is being shown online from February 12-14

Many were the stories, real or apocryphal, told of Katty’s establishment, and she was in many ways the embodiment of the old Cork culture — independent, intelligent, and with a total disregard for officialdom.

Now you can enjoy a trip down Memory Lane with a staged online performance of her life from tomorrow until Sunday, at 7.30pm. Written and directed by Marion Wyatt for DoonShee, it’s a fine example of what theatres can do when all seems impossible.

Filmed by Ronan O’Shea, it provides an opportunity to enjoy drama at a time when you least expect to have the chance. Grab this one!

Tickets for the online performance of Katty Barry, Queen of the Coal Quay, from TakeYourSeats.ie. February 12-14, 7.30pm.

Now that’s a decent way to celebrate Valentine’s Day, isn’t it?

We are getting in some great memories of Lent as it used to be — hardly celebrated, more endured — in the past. Serious fasting, churchgoing, abstention from cigarettes, sweets, alcohol — it was a hard time, when life under ordinary circumstances was grim enough.

Ash Wednesday comes up next week, but not everyone realises that those ashes hark back to a far more pagan past, before ever Christianity reached our shores.

Even within living memory, rural mothers would mark their children’s clothes with a cross in ashes to prevent the Devil from seizing them. The ashes came from the ritual bonfires lit in the corners of fields in spring, to ensure a fruitful year and good crops. Thought you might like to know that!

Email your memories to jokerrigan1@gmail. com.

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