Throwback Thursday: Recalling the Cork Opera House inferno, 66 years ago

More of your motorcycle memories this week in Throwback Thursday – and the anniversary of the night that Cork lost a treasured icon, Cork Opera House
Throwback Thursday: Recalling the Cork Opera House inferno, 66 years ago

GONE, BUT NOT FORGOTTEN: The old Cork Opera House as it looked after fire destroyed it on December 12, 1955

READER Frank Mason has written to Throwback Thursday to say how much he has enjoyed our recent articles about motorcycling in the good old days.

“Last week, you mentioned Mick and Willie Sargeant ‘from Dungarvan’,” said Frank. “Well, I remember them well as I lived not too far away from them. Their father had a garage/motor business in Cappoquin, Co. Waterford, and the family lived there.”

Willie, says Frank, is the brother that he remembers most of all. “I attended a school in Mount Melleray, and apparently Willie was a past pupil. He frequently took a practice ride from Cappoquin up to Melleray and delighted us all with the fairly fast and noisy motorbike that he had. That would have been in the early to mid-1950s.

“Sadly, he lost his life in an unfortunate accident shortly after that at Rathnew, Co. Wicklow. It was while taking part in a road race that he came to grief.”

Frank also knew the late Dickie Wagner very well, and has kindly given us use of a photo that he took of him with his veteran bike back in the late 1950s.

“I am happy to say that that bike is still running well and is now owned by a member of the Wilson family,” says Frank, who adds that as a child he remembers seeing this writer’s late father taking part in a grass-track event in Cappoquin.

Thank-you so much for those memories, Frank, and for the photo too.

Gerald O’Flynn, who lives down in West Cork, says: “I have been meaning to write to you for some time, as I would have comments to make on many of your articles and indeed the books which you write.”

The tipping point which finally impelled him to do so was, again, those motorcycling features.

“I had an uncle, the late Frank O Shea, late of the Lee Garage of Cork and Midleton. He was a member of a ‘club’ of bikers into which I believe only four members ever succeeded in gaining entry.

“There were four things which had to be achieved to be accepted for membership. The one I remember was to take a motor bike to the top of Carrauntuohill!!. The others I cannot remember just now.”

There might be a bit of blending of different legends here, Gerald, as to my certain knowledge only one man ever succeeded in taking a bike to the top of Ireland’s highest mountain, and that was my father.

The rare picture shown here, snapped on that chilly and exhausting occasion, shows him at the summit with two friends who helped on the escapade, John Macken and (we think) Billy Lawlor. That was in the winter of 1955 and the bike was a Sun.

You may note the rope wound round Joey’s shoulders – that was for really difficult bits, like the Devil’s Ladder.

The bike and the team, so my brother Tom tells me, were brought up the Hag’s Glen in the family Willys Jeep. “ZK 120”, adds Tom helpfully. What it is to have a memory for numberplates!

MOTORBIKE CHALLENGE: Joey Kerrigan on top of Carrauntuohill with his motorbike, along with Billy Lawlor and John Macken, in 1955.
MOTORBIKE CHALLENGE: Joey Kerrigan on top of Carrauntuohill with his motorbike, along with Billy Lawlor and John Macken, in 1955.

The other three members of the ‘club’, says Gerald, were the aforementioned Mick and Willie Sargeant of Cappoquin and Fred Cross of Sullivans Quay.

“I remember seeing them all and indeed Joe Kerrigan in a dirt track race just outside Youghal in the years just after the war!” adds Gerald.

Tragically, he recalls, as well as Willie Sargeant, Fred Cross was also killed, in a separate motor bike accident. “I am sure both fatalities were reported in the Cork Examiner. My uncle disabled his two bikes after that and never rode again.

Well, we can tell you, Gerald, that at least one of your uncle’s bikes did survive, and is in good running condition somewhere in Cork to this day. If you would like more information on its whereabouts, we will be glad to help.

And you might also like to know that my father Joey Kerrigan spoke of the Sargeant brothers as two of the best grass track riders that he knew.

We will be getting back to Gerald O’Flynn again because of some other valuable memories he might be able to share. As he says: “I, myself was involved in two other fields which you write about. I was a gofer in the old Cork Opera house before it burned down. I lived in Patrick’s Hill. I was later involved in the new Opera House both on stage and as a stage manager in the late sixties.”

We have to know more about those, Gerald!

INFERNO: Fire engulfs Cork Opera House on Lavitts Quay 66 years ago this week
INFERNO: Fire engulfs Cork Opera House on Lavitts Quay 66 years ago this week

And, of course, Mr O’Flynn’s mention of that earth-shattering event, the burning down of the Opera House, on a windy, wet night, December 12, 1955 (oddly enough around the same time of my father’s bike ascent of Carrauntuohill), is something etched into the folk memory of all Corkonians, whether they have heard about it over the years since from their parents and grandparents, or whether they were actually there.

It is 66 years this week since the skies over Cork glowed with a terrifying red glare, and that much-loved old building collapsed into smouldering rubble.

My sister and I were too small to be allowed out of bed, but my parents went down to stand in silence on Patrick’s Bridge like so many others, and grieved for the loss of an integral part of the city.

My mother often recounted how a great collective groan went up as the gallery slowly toppled down into the pit and untold memories went with it, lost for ever.

Others, like the late great Billa Connell, watched in misery as they saw their occupation and income for the pantomime season ahead (The Sleeping Beauty, in case you’re interested) literally go up in smoke.

Across Emmet Place, the Cork Ballet Company were rehearsing in their upstairs studio, only to freeze in mid-movement as they unbelievingly saw the flames leaping from the roof of the theatre.

Tiny Tots were hustled out of that dangerous building with calm haste, Manager Bill Twomey hurriedly gathered together cash boxes and important files and brought them to safety. Everything was done that could be done – except save the building. It was already too late for that.

What caused it? Probably an electrical fault in a theatre that was already old and creaky and had after all been designed in a time when candlelight was the usual mode of illumination, and even gaslight was yet to come.

The after-effects were to continue for decades though, and it would not be going too far to say that the people of Cork, even those who rarely went there, other perhaps than for a pantomime at this festive time of year, suffered a collective trauma.

Do you remember that night in December, 1955? Were you, your parents, or your grandparents there to see it happen? Were you by any chance a Tiny Tot rehearsing that evening?

If so, please do let us know. We would love to share your memories this Christmas.

Email jokerrigan1@gmail.com. Or leave a comment on our Facebook page: (https://www.facebook.com/echolivecork).

More in this section

Sponsored Content

Add Echolive.ie to your home screen - easy access to Cork news, views, sport and more