Throwback Thursday: Cork Opera House inferno cost my dad his job

Michael Scanlon was Stage Manager of the Opera House when it burned down, and his wife had just had their fourth baby too. JO KERRIGAN takes up the story...
Throwback Thursday: Cork Opera House inferno cost my dad his job

The Scanlan family at Dollymount Strand with the Caffreys in the 1960s. Michael Scanlon worked at the Opera House and lost his job when it burned down in 1955, his son Dan shares his memories here

YOU may remember a month or so back that John Brennan wrote in to Throwback Thursday to tell us of his memory of using the dark and narrow laneway between the Grand Parade and South Main Street on his way to school at Sullivan’s Quay.

At that time, the country buses had their terminus there, where the Grand Parade meets the South Mall.

We asked John for more of his childhood memories and he has obligingly done so.

“I grew up in Passage West where my father was the Garda Sergeant covering Rochestown, Monkstown and Raffeen. That was a large area to cover on a bicycle! There wasn’t much going on in Passage, but I wrote several articles in the Holly Bough about life there.”

John went to primary school in Passage, and then on to secondary school at Sulivan’s Quay CBS, travelling there by bus every day. What was it like?

“The brothers were fond of using the leather strap, especially on younger kids. They did, however, provide an excellent education. Since families had to pay for secondary education, the brothers made sure they got their money’s worth.”

The teachers there, says John, counted themselves fortunate to have highly intelligent and motivated students.

“Competition and challenges in solving geometric and mathematical problems brought out the best in us. We ‘country boys’ had to try harder to compete with the city lads. Did the education stick? It certainly did.”

“Unfortunately, though, there were very few career opportunities available in the Ireland of that time. The best ones were in government departments or bodies such as the Post Office and the ESB. Published notices about openings carried a warning that ‘canvassing will disqualify’, but this was considered a joke!”

John adds: “Despite the difficult times, many of my classmates went on to highly successful careers, including editor of the Cork Examiner, CEO of Guiness Brewery and Waterford Glass, a Science Professor at UCC. One went into the priesthood and became a bishop in Australia. Then of course there was Billa, who capitalised on his own special talents to become the most famous of the group.”

John went into Ford’s as so many of his Cork compatriots did, but met with opposition.

“My own career at Fords was suddenly terminated by an overly ambitious ‘Time and Motion’ employee with a stop watch, clipboard and sharp pencil.

“But I was always grateful for the education I got at The Quay. Still am.”

Opening of the new Cork Opera House. 31/10/1965. 
Opening of the new Cork Opera House. 31/10/1965. 

Dan Scanlan is another reader with vivid memories of how hard life could be in Cork in the 1950s.

“Born in 1951, I was the youngest at that time of three children,” says Dan. “My older brother Sean, and sister Sarah, twins, were born in 1950.

“We lived in the first floor flat above the Sextant Bar, now sadly demolished, at the corner of Albert Street and Albert Quay.”

Young though he was at the time, Dan can vividly remember the memorable night the Opera House burned down.

Dan says: “My birthday is on December 12, and so I was celebrating my fourth birthday when the fire happened. We were being looked after by our dear Aunt Hannah that evening as my mother was in hospital, awaiting the birth of my younger brother, and my father, happening to have an infrequent night off, was with her.

“With a clear view from our bedroom windows, we could see across the River Lee over city roofs right up to Shandon Steeple and Gurranabraher beyond. We were startled by the huge glow lighting up the night sky and clearly visible over the city.”

How did they discover what was going on that night?

“The numbers 1 and 2 buses at that time stopped right outside the door of the Sextant and alighting passengers gave us the news that the Opera House was ablaze in the city centre.”

So the news came by bus.

As four- and five-year-olds, says Dan, the full personal impact of that fire hardly dawned on him and his siblings at the time, but in fact was to impact their lives for the next 15 years and beyond.

“After midnight on the morning of the 13th, as the Opera House still burned, Michael (our new brother) was born and in the same instant our dad was suddenly out of work.”

That’s because Michael Scanlan, better known to his friends as Mick, was Resident Stage Manager of the Opera House.

“He was born in Paul Street, within a stone’s throw of the theatre, and I always like to believe that he was born with the stage in his blood,” says Dan.

“He began his career there as a ‘gofer’, at the tender age of 12. This was the job of going around to the various dressing rooms back-stage, knocking on the doors to give 15-minute warning to actors that their appearance was required on stage.”

Mick was hard-working and capable of multi-tasking in many skills, so gradually he progressed through the ranks behind the scenes, eventually becoming stage manager.

“Over the years he worked backstage with many of the greats of theatre and opera, including Micheal McLiammoir, Hilton Edwards, John McCormack, the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, the Gilbert and Sullivan Group and many more,” says Dan.

But on December 12, 1955, Michael Scanlan joined the ranks of the unemployed.

“My dad, however, would rise above this adversity and, drawing on his strength and confidence in his own ability and expertise in stage management, within weeks had secured temporary employment in Dublin theatres.

“There he began a life-long friendship with Frank and Bridie Caffrey. Frank was prop master at the Abbey and Bridie was a seamstress at the Gaiety (or it may have been the Gate).

“They welcomed him into their home during that time in Dublin and we, as a family, spent many a happy holiday in Dublin during the late ’50s and ’60s, enjoying the many attractions which Dublin had to offer.

“There we got to know the towns and resorts of Howth, Bray, Malahide and places we would never have expected to see, all brought about inadvertently by the most unfortunate of circumstances.”

Dan recalls trips to the Metropole Cinema to see Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines, and to the Cinerama to see The Sound Of Music, both in 1965.

“The Cinerama was on Talbot Street a short walk only from the North Strand, home of Frank and Bridie. These trips to Dublin continued long after dad had moved on to other areas of employment.”

Loading goods on to the MV Innisfallen at Penrose Quay in March 1929.
Loading goods on to the MV Innisfallen at Penrose Quay in March 1929.

Following his time in Dublin, Mick Scanlan secured a position with the Welsh National Opera Company and took lodgings in Penarth, Wales.

“He returned home as often as possible, always sailing on the Irish Steam Packet MV Innisfallen to be with us.

“I will always remember those days when, through our kitchen window, we watched the Inisfallen as it berthed on Penrose Quay, knowing that within minutes dad would cross Clontarf Bridge and arrive home. Those homecomings during that time were so special to us but I’m sure also to our mum, who had worked tirelessly to hold the family together during those difficult months. Dad always brought with him a gift for each of us.”

Finally, Dan’s dad returned for good, taking up employment with Pulvertafts, a local manufacturer and brass foundry, with premises on Albert Road and Oliver Plunkett Street.

The theatre still called, though.

“Another very good friend, Dermot Breen, then manager of the Palace Cinema (now the Everyman Theatre) and founder of the Cork Film Festival, offered my dad a position as an usher in the cinema. He remained a lifelong friend of Dermot and the subsequent manager of the Palace, Mrs Delaney of Victoria Road, who sadly, in later years, lost a son in the 1968 Aer Lingus Viscount crash off Tuskar Rock.”

An additional bonus for the Scanlan kids, recalls Dan, was the free weekly cinema passes which were a perk of the job.

“We were the envy of our friends as we regularly attended The Col, Pav, Savoy, Capitol, Lee, Ritz and the Palace itself, all free of charge, on Saturday afternoons.

“Thanks to the generosity of Mrs Delaney, we retained these passes for some years after dad had left the Palace to work as a general handyman at the Victoria Hospital, a job very dear to his heart.”

At last, in 1966, the new Opera House was finally nearing completion and Michael Scanlan was returning as stage manager.

Dan says: “Prior to its opening, I recall ‘helping’ him to construct stage flats, those large wooden screens, of rectangular shape, used on the stage wings from which canvases were hung. These could be painted to reflect the different productions as required by the set designers. These he made in a large room (I think an old church) on Carey’s Lane off Paul Street.”

Dan’s dad retired from the Opera House in 1970 and returned to full-time employment at the Victoria Hospital, a position he had retained part time whilst working in the new Opera House.

“He often reflected in those latter days that the new Opera House failed to regain the character, charisma, and appeal of the old, a subject which to this day is still hotly debated.

“He passed away in the loving care of the staff at Victoria Hospital in 1984. My mum pre-deceased him by only six months.”

“You can see from the foregoing how the events of that night in 1955, whilst deeply affecting very many Cork people, had a long and lasting personal effect on our family.

“Much of this change was for the good and new friendships and experiences resulted which, but for the fire, we might never have enjoyed.

“It was due to the resilience and fortitude of my dad that we, as a family, overcame that event so successfully.

“My mum, who for many months during the intervening years, 1955 to 1966, had to manage the home, our upbringing and schooling on her own whilst my dad worked in Dublin and Wales, deserved great credit for her determination and strength in the face of such hardship and difficulty. This was no mean feat in the difficult times of the ’50s and ’60s.

Dan thoughtfully attached a copy of an appreciation from The Gilbert and Sullivan Group on the occasion of their final production at the old Opera House in November, 1955, (left) and also a photo taken on Dollymount Strand in Dublin with the Caffreys during one of his family’s many trips to Dublin at that time (above).

Thank-you for those very rich memories, Dan, giving us a vivid picture of the trials and struggles of just one Cork family, and the determination which carried them through.

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