Kilkenny’s Victorian Athenaeum

Kilkenny’s SECOND Athenaeum

Edward J Law (2012)

The original Athenaeum on the Parade, Kilkenny was the home of noted theatricals in the first two decades of the 19th century, but then met a sharp decline in its fortunes. By 1824 it was described as a hay-store. In 1837 it had an airing, literally, being advertised as “well aired”, on the occasion of an amateur theatrical presentation. Its status dropped again when it saw use as an office for the distribution of outdoor-relief. It finally closed in April 1848 when the front gave way and the theatre fell.
Subsequently another building was erected on the site. Named the Athenaeum Assembly Rooms it provided a venue for theatricals and variety shows until 1893. Bookings for the hall in 1868-69 give an insight on entertainment of the period. The Athenaeum was conducted by Coyle Brothers who are better remembered for their other businesses of printers and stationers. Their activities had a synergy which they promoted to visiting acts “As we carry on the bookselling trade no better house could be selected for the sale of tickets. If you require circulars directed or distributed we shall be glad to attend to them.” Before his appearance Professor Millar a New York illusionist billed as, “The most liberal man in the world”, requested the name of the best book or music seller to sell tickets and allow material to be exhibited in their window. It is no surprise that when he did arrive the “rich and rare costly presents” which he intended to distribute to the audience could be viewed at the Coyle’s premises in High Street.
In 1837 the theatre had been lighted by wax, but the new hall boasted gas for lighting and footlights, with the concert hall holding up to 500 people. The visiting acts could set their own prices for the three classes of seats, though Coyles recommended one, two and three shillings. The acts had to pay rent of up to £2 for one night or £7 for a week, and were charged for metered gas and for printing; ticket sales; and bill posting.
Following Professor Millar’s “bodyless sphynx with a living speaking head” came The American Slave Troupe and Brass Band, with 16 real negroes. Their business manager secured the patronage of Colonel Hort and the officers of the 44th Regiment, an honour sought after for promotional purposes. The Christy Minstrels who sought information about the venue in 1869 lacked the natural advantage of the American Slave Troupe, being a blackface group.
Other acts who appeared during the period were Herr Dobbler, billed as the greatest slight of hand performer in the world. Herr Dobbler was actually William George Smith who took the name of a recently deceased German illusionist.
Professor Anderson the Wizard of the North“, was a noted magician who wrote several books on the subject and toured Europe and America. He arrived in Kilkenny after appearing at Limerick and Waterford.
Charles DuVal, mimic, elecutionist and vocalist, revisited Kilkenny in June 1869. Looking for a reduction of rent he recalled that he had lost very heavily on his last visit to the city but hoped that a long run in Dublin would have made his name known. He asked Coyles to direct his circulars to “all the gentry in and about Kilkenny and work the affair up a little,” noting “My entertainment is much improved – everything first class.”
Stephen J Meany, looking to book for a lecture on ‘Poets & poetry of Ireland’ wrote, significantly, that it was “entirely none political”. Significant as Meany was a nationalist journalist, a leader of the Fenian movement in America and had been convicted of treason in Dublin a few years before.
Truly variety was the spice of life in 19th century Kilkenny.