9/11 reminded me of Cork Opera House inferno

A Corkman now living in New Jersey tells JO KERRIGAN how the terrorist attack on New York in 2001 brought back memories of the Opera House blaze in 1955
9/11 reminded me of Cork Opera House inferno

Fire engulfs Cork Opera House, Lavitts Quay, 1955.

WELL, we did rather think it might be the case - and your replies after last week’s Throwback Thursday article have certainly proved it. Everybody over a certain age has very vivid and undying memories of the night the Opera House burned down in Cork city, on December 12, 1955.

Liam McCarthy has particularly good reason to remember it. “I was in the Gilbert & Sullivan group at that time, which was run by James N. Healy, and we were rehearsing The Yeoman of the Guard in Wren’s Hotel upstairs in Winthrop Street. A fella came up and stuck his head in the door to say, ‘Ye’re wasting yer time, lads, the Opera House is on fire!’

“Of course, we all rushed down and over the road, and down the side lane, where we could see the horror for ourselves.

“I was standing with my back against Booth & Fox’s across from it (which was only a shell, as it had burned down some time before) and just watched it happen. I remember the explosions as bottles in the bar blew apart.

“To show you just how powerful the conflagration was, when the fire was at its height, the felt on the roof of the Savoy got dangerously near to melting, and the firemen had to hose it down.

“For the theatre itself, they stuck a hose out the window of the Crawford, but they had no generators to take the water out of the river and it just dribbled out of the hose. I overheard one local saying ‘Jaykus, I’d p-ss further than that!’”

The fire was a sickening disappointment to Liam, not just for the upcoming show, but for the Opera House itself.

“I knew the place so well. We’d go down into the bar below after a show and sing songs there. I was friendly with Bill Twomey back then. He was a great man. If the place was sold out we’d ring him and he’d put a couple of chairs in the aisle. Health & Safety wasn’t so big back in those days!”

Liam also remembers those wonderful Victorian iron stairs going up the side of the theatre. “We only lived up by the North Chapel and we would come down and climb those stairs every Christmas for the pantomime.”

Felim Buckley, now resident in New Jersey, USA, says he remembers living in Pic Du Jer, Ballinlough, when his father came home from town, to tell them that the Opera House was on fire.

A view of the Cork Opera House fire in December, 1955
A view of the Cork Opera House fire in December, 1955

“I was in bed and got up to look out our upstairs window to see an eerie red glow in the dark skyline. I remember that night vividly, like it was yesterday.”

Felim’s present home has a panoramic view of New York city, he says, “and I can remember on September 11 2001, watching the Twin Towers on fire. 

"Two thoughts I had on that day: first, am I watching the beginning of World War II, and second, an instant flashback to my dad and the Cork Opera House fire.”

Tom Jones, now also living in the U.S, but right down on Key West, saw the destruction of Cork’s much-loved old landmark from the window of his home at the bottom of Shandon Street. He describes it, most movingly, as “the night Cork collectively cried.”

Eileen Barry remembers tiptoeing into her parents’ bedroom at the top of Summerhill North and looking down in awestruck horror at the blazing red glow over the city below. “The next day, I saw the still-smoking ruins as my mother took me to ballet class at Miss Moriarty’s across on the other side of Emmet Place.”

But what happened to all those shows that couldn’t go on? The Sleeping Beauty, all ready to open on Stephen’s Day? The ballet which Miss Moriarty’s company were rehearsing that very night? The Yeomen of the Guard? Well, we do know what happened with that one.

“Of course we couldn’t play in the theatre as planned that spring,” says Liam McCarthy, “but James N, who was a great adapter and organiser, took us on tour instead, all over Munster, orchestra and all, bringing G&S to the people.

“I remember playing in the theatre which was in the back of the Cahir House Hotel, now sadly gone, and Clonmel, Waterford, all of those. We had a great time.”

This was a tradition carried on by James N. for years to come, especially when he brought the Southern Theatre Group’s productions of John B. Keane’s plays all over the country.

It wasn’t Liam’s first time playing in The Yeomen of the Guard, as it happens. He had actually played in a previous production, this time on the hallowed stage of the old Opera House itself. And thereby hangs a slightly risqué story.

“I was a fine big lad at that time, and James N. picked me out for a Beefeater, together with another hefty fellow. He instructed us to march down to the footlights, seize this chap standing there, and carry him round the stage on our shoulders while the chorus followed, singing and shouting and mocking.

“Well, for costume I was handed out tights and these sort of breeches that Beefeaters would wear, but the belt they provided wouldn’t go round me!

“The wardrobe mistress said ‘Don’t worry, I have a four inch safety pin here that will solve the problem’. I duly fastened that in place, and set out on opening night in all confidence to play my part. We got down to the footlights, I bent down to seize the chap’s head, and that pin gave way. Down went my breeches, and the tights with them!”

What a moment of horror! What happened?

“Well, I didn’t have anything on underneath, so I had to act quickly. I bent down and tugged everything up to hide my dignity, and we had to process round the stage then, me holding the victim with one hand and my breeches with the other!

“Our human load was screeching his head off, thinking we were going to let him fall, but the audience was louder, laughing its head off and cheering me. I can safely say I was the hit of that particular performance!”

And we should never forget the other feisty little theatres all over Cork city and county which carried on the tradition of the Christmas pantomime when that planned for the Opera House was so suddenly and shockingly cut.

DRAMA BEFORE THE REAL-LIFE DRAMA: Cork Operatic Society present The Belle of New York at Cork Opera House - three weeks before the theatre burned to the ground in December, 1955
DRAMA BEFORE THE REAL-LIFE DRAMA: Cork Operatic Society present The Belle of New York at Cork Opera House - three weeks before the theatre burned to the ground in December, 1955

The CCYMS, the AOH, the St Francis Hall, all had their own pantomimes where generations of actors first learned their skills (the late, great Billa Connell among them, who remembered as a toddler seeing and envying his older brothers and sisters hurrying off to their performances in one or other of these little homes of the drama).

Who can remember going to the splendid pantomimes at the village hall in Coachford, where an inspired parish priest got everybody involved in a spectacular show with special effects that were way ahead of their time? Those really deserve remembering.

The ballet moved to the City Hall, James N. to the Fr Mathew Hall, and well-wishers all over Ireland put their heads together to plan the rebuilding of the Opera House.

And, to finish, here are some lovely golden memories from Felim Buckley of those childhood Christmases long ago:

“The 1950s were a happy but grey time, and my memories of Christmas are fading with the years, but I do remember that we did have a Christmas tree, usually carried home by my dad from the Coal Quay.

“I have stronger memories of decorating with holly draped on picture frames around the house. My job was to hang up the paper decorations, concertina-like coloured paper that stretched from one corner of the ceiling to the centre light bulb.” (Oh, does anyone else remember making those self-same concertinaed decorations from strips of crepe paper, folding one over another until you had a neat tight little square which could then be unrolled and hung up?)

Felim continues: “My sister Ann hung up the Christmas cards around the mantel, The Christmas cards themselves offered great enjoyment, looking at the winter scenes, snow, robins and being proud in knowing my parents knew friends in far-flung places like England, Scotland and the USA.

As for Santa Claus, Felim can recall that Santa in the Munster Arcade, “where a visit included a screening of Rudolph The Red-nosed Reindeer in grainy black and white film stock.”

You’re right about the grainy film stock, Felim, and it got more worn by the year, but it was actually called The Night Before Christmas, based on the iconic poem by Clement Clarke Moore.

BIG DAY: Santa greets young visitors at the Munster Arcade on December 13,1967. A reader recalls getting toys from there in the 1950s
BIG DAY: Santa greets young visitors at the Munster Arcade on December 13,1967. A reader recalls getting toys from there in the 1950s

For so many children of the ’50s, it was the true start to Christmas. Wish we could find it somewhere in the archives of a film institute and put it on YouTube!

Toys in the 1950s, for boys, says Felim, were dominated by the popularity of Westerns, so cowboy hats, silver pistol cap guns, holsters and the like were everywhere.

“One of my favourite toys was a Davy Crockett flintlock gun and coonskin cap. Davy was all the rage back then.

“Just a few years ago, on a visit to the Alamo in San Antonio, I was compelled to treat myself to a new coonskin cap for old time’s sake.

“Annuals were also a big Christmas item, The Dandy and The Beano, Desperate Dan, Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx et al. Sadly, my literary tastes never improved after that!”

Another Christmas gift for boys, he recalls with some shock, was the Smokers Set, consisting of a liquorice pipe, candy cigarettes and matches, tobacco made from shredded coconut, and a chocolate cigar.

“How the times have changed. There would probably be a warrant out for my parents’ arrest if they tried that today! And no, I didn’t become a smoker as a result!”

Felim feels grateful to his parents for a great childhood and for the warm memories.

“My mother always said her favourite day was St Stephen’s Day, when all the hard work was done and she could sit and relax. Only later in life did I appreciate what she meant.”

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