Theatre in Kilkenny – The Early Years
Geoff Rose (2019)
Looking back at the Theatrical history of Kilkenny, the impression one gets is of a series of ‘fits and starts’ and no sense of continuity, especially in the latter part of the last century.
Ireland’s contribution to the Theatre of the English speaking world, since the end of the 17th century has been out of all proportion to the size of the island and the number its inhabitants. Starting with the storyteller/ seanachai, who would have told his tales to a small group of listeners gathered around the fireside, or in the open-air. Following the Anglo-Norman invasion of 1169, towns were established, and as the centuries passed, performances became possible, based on the English model in urban communities.
Kilkenny’s first know dramatic performance took place on the day of the accession of the Catholic Queen Mary in 1563, with a play by the Englishman John ‘Bilious’ Bale, Bishop of Kilkenny, entitled “God’s Promises”. A notorious anti-Catholic, Bale used the theatricals as propaganda to offset the accession of Queen Mary. In any event, open-air performances were given at Corpus Christi and Midsummer. The method of presentation differed from the processional one favoured in Dublin, with each play being acted on raised wooden platforms, which were set out at intervals on spots called ‘stations’, along the High Street, or in the Market Square. These platforms were railed off, to prevent the crowd obstructing the flow of the action. If these ‘stations’ blocked of a shopmans door and trade, the authorities permitted him to set up shop elsewhere. To announce the start of these plays, a trumpeter was employed and William Courcey was payed the sum of 10/- in 1584 for performing this duty. After the sounding of the trumpet, the spectators gathered about the first ‘station’ for the opening at its conclusion, they moved to the second one, and so on, ‘station by station’, until they had seen the entire series of plays acted. To ensure that the players were assembled on time, on the mornings of the performances, the Corporation engaged one of the townswomen, a good cook, to served the actors with breakfast. Mary Rothe was paid 20/- for her culinary efforts. Rates of pay for the actors were laid down by the Corporation, and experience and seniority dictated how much they received for their dramatic efforts. The last notice of the Corpus Christi plays is for 1641 when the Rebellion of that year meant the closing of the Theatres all over the British Isles.
In the latter part of 1698 when the population of Kilkenny was 7,000, the Duke of Ormonde issued an invitation to the Smock Alley troupe from Dublin to perform in his Kilkenny demesne, starting what may have been the first summer tour of the provinces by an Irish theatre company. The Ormonde family dominated the community, their castle was one of the show pieces of Europe, and it is in these rather idyllic settings that the players entertained the Duke and his guests. During the next 50 years if the people of Kilkenny saw a Dublin company in another summer season, notice of the visits have been lost.
There are however, definite records of Theatre in Kilkenny during the 18th century, the “Leinster Journal” announced that a company of strolling players from Waterford, had turned the County Court House into, “a most regular little Theatre”, which served as the city’s chief venue for Theatre for the next quarter of a century. Tickets were priced at 2/- for the Pit and 1/- for the gallery, and could be purchased from the Widow Newmans in the High Street!!
Various strolling companies visited the city, coming from places as far away as Belfast and Newry, they used the Assembly Room in the Tholsel, which was more restricted for the audience, who nevertheless paid 3/- for the box seats and 2/- for the Pit seats, and neither servants nor persons of quality were permitted to come early to hold seats for other individuals. The considerable activity between 1782 and 1784 sharpened the public concern for a permanent playhouse in Kilkenny, the “Leinster Journal” announced to the community that a plot of land was available on the Parade on which a Theatre could be erected. The intended site was situated on the west side of the Parade, opposite the Castle Gardens. Although the paper carried notices about the playhouse regularly, the citizens of the city could not be persuaded to invest in this civic venture.
Another period of inactivity followed, but in 1787, the Court House was re-opened as a temporary Theatre and the plays were advertised for the first time as “Gentlesmans Plays” The era of the Actor/Manager was with us, and these gentlemen and their companies ensured the huge success of the seasons. The often awkward arrangements of fitting up temporary stages in the Court House and the Tholsel did not befit “the Versailles of Ireland” as Kilkenny was called in some quarters, even though the county seats of less size, and wealth, such as Ennis, Galway, Wexford and Newry had already erected permanent Theatres.
John Butler the 17th Earl of Ormonde provided a site on the Parade across from the Castle. This Theatre was first expected to open in 1794, but a few days before the opening one of the prime overs behind the plan, Robert Owenson, who, having secured loans from various people and a mortgage of £500 from a local lawyer, expressed himself “disappointed of his Theatre in Kilkenny”. fter several further postponments, the curtain was finally raised for the first performance in August 1795. The opening plays included “The Citizen” and Richard Brinsley Sheridans “The Rivals”. But while the first season was a success, the end of the second season found Owenson on the brink of financial ruin, not only did huge bills remain unpaid, but the holder of the £500 mortgage came looking for his money. With nobody willing to come to his assistance, he left the city never to return to the Theatre which he had brought into existance. Three years later in 1799, the “New Theatre in Kilkenny” opened under the management of William Smithson, with the comedy “Everyone Has His Own Fault”, this 3rd season comprised of comedies and musical plays but eventually low box office returns meant the closing of the Playhouse, and this in turn marked the end of Theatre in the City until after the Act of Union. Even when the building of a playhouse was eventually undertaken, Kilkenny withheld proper financial assistance, for example, the wealthy merchants and shopkeepers had an almost Puritanical indifference to Theatre, and the fashionable gentry went to Dublin to sample the delights and the various amusements of the Capital City. After the Act of Union, local society began to explore its own resources for culture and recreation. Which brings us to the “Kilkenny Private Theatre”.
KILKENNY PRIVATE THEATRE
In the middle of the 18th century there was a vogue for country house theatricals in Ireland. Henry Flood, the statesman, was the first to introduce them to County Kilkenny. His theatriclas were simply to entertain his guests. No gentleman would, in those days, have appeared on the stage for any other purpose. A generation after him a more famous theatrical company was formed at a neighbouring house, Kilfane. The Kilkenny Players acted on the stage and then only for charity.
Richard Power of Kilfane, along with his brother John were the instigators of the theatricals, with Richard becoming Manager of the Playhouse, a position he held until its closure. While John is credited with the founding of the Kilkenny Hounds. The Kilkenny Fox Hunters Club, had its club-house in Patrick Street, in the Hibernian Hotel, the first establishment of its kind in the city to use the term ‘Hotel’. It was under the management of its founder, James Rice, who in partnership with Mr. John Walsh added the adjoining house, at the time of the opening of the new Cork Road. Under this partnership, the premises was known as the Hibernian Hotel and Fox Hunting Club and opened on 4th August 1817. The Club was associated with the hounds, but, in fact it was started by the Kilkenny Players, to whom membership was restricted. Rehearsals were, at first held at Kilfane. The first season opened in 1802. On alternate evenings there was a Ball at the Tholsel and every day there was a meeting of the Hounds, which were kept in the city for the week. After starting with plays by the dramatist Thomas Otway, they moved onto Shakespeare and Sheridan and after that, an average season had 15 or 16 different plays, and lasted two to three weeks. In two years the Kilkenny Players had started a fashion that was to last for nearly twenty years. In the 1808 season, the Poet Thomas Moore made his acting debut in the City, playing a comedy role in “The Rivals” and according to the Leinster Journal “Moore kept the audience in a roar”. The Viceregal party and friends arrived, and the Inns and the lodging houses were filled to overflowing. It was said that mothers with marriageable daughters found Kilkenny next best, to the city of Bath, for finding suitors.
While the actors were amateurs, recruited from local talent, many of the actresses were professionals, who donated their services, notably the London actress Elizabeth O’Neill, who at that time, was the toast of the English stage. The playhouse was known as “The ATHENAEUM” and it stood on the site of the present offices of the Citizen Advice Centre on the Parade. The repertory of plays included the works of William Shakespeare, as well as Irish-born authors like John O’Keeffe, Oliver Goldsmith, R. B. Sheridan and William Congreve, rather than the Farces which then were very fashionable. There was a years pause, and so great was the demand, that they opened again for a couple of more years. Then again they closed. Richard Power went off to Italy, and became very ill in Rome. But by 1817, having sufficiently recovered, he was home again and the Theatre was opened for the third and last time.
These last few years were also the most festive, and the crowds enormous. In these years, and those immediately preceeding, many famous visitors arrived, Maria Edgeworth, the novelist, as well as Thomas Moore and Henry Gratten, and Lady Caroline Lamb, who was using the trip to Kilkenny and Ireland to get over her infatuation for Lord Byron. Every evening a band played on the Parade, and the visitors to the City strolled up and down the tree shaded avenue. A succession of parties and gala balls were held in the Tholsel and the Castle, as well as the Theatre itself. To give an idea of the lavish scale on which these festivities were conducted, when a Mr. Becher gave a ball at the Hibernian Hotel, (nowadays known as the Club House Hotel), a breach was made in the wall that divided it from the adjoining house so that for one night, all his guests might be accommodated under the one roof!!! The Private Theatre came to a close in October 1819, and the money to the credit of the theatre was £4,500, and this sum was distributed amongst charitable societies in the city, as indeed were the monies from the previous seasons. At the final performance of “Richard III”, Mr. Power spoke the closing epilogue, lamenting the demise of the Theatre. Five years later, he died, after a long and protracted illness, and was buried at Kilfane Church.
Almost a century later in 1902, Lady Desart and her brother-in-law, Captain Otway Cuffe erected a spacious building in Patrick Street, it was first used as a gymnasium and also a venue for dancing, but eventually a stage, balcony, and dressing rooms were installed. Down through the decades many distinguished companies played there, including the legendery Anew MacMaster, as well as Jimmy O’Dea, and Lord Longford’s company. There was also local groups like St. Mary’s Choral Society, with operas and musical comedies and the Ossory Players, who were well known for their selection of plays and entertainments. These are but a few of the companies, from a long list, who played on the stage of the theatre for over 60 years. Regrettably, the Theatre, as in previous times, was closed down in 1963, even though in 1966 a friendly society was formed with the objective of buying and restoring the Theatre, among the people involved were the late Miss May Walshe, who with Joe and Paddy O’Carroll, made vain efforts to raise money to buy back the Theatre. It was never re-opened, and it now houses a hotel + restaurant (Zuni), which brings us up to the present day in Kilkenny. In 2018, the Watergate Theatre situated on Parliament Street in the former Savoy Cinema celebrated 25 years of Theatre going in Kilkenny. Many and various individuals were connected with the opening of the Theatre.
But shin scheal eile.