Friday 24 November 2017

Abbey rises from rubble

Architect Daithi Hanly saved the theatre facade from demolition in 1951. Could it be rebuilt?

Helen Hanley with granite stonework the old Abbey Theatre Facade. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Helen Hanley with granite stonework the old Abbey Theatre Facade. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
The old Abbey Theatre/Peacock Theatre box office. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

In theatrical terms, it is like finding the lost pyramids of Giza. In the garden of the Hanly family in Dalkey, I came across the remains of the old Abbey Theatre.

Granite blocks from the iconic facade are lined up in piles along a herbaceous border in the idyllic garden overlooking Killiney Bay.

If a builder could piece together these stones like a jigsaw puzzle, the theatre of Yeats, Lady Gregory, Synge and O'Casey could stand again like a garden temple towering over the bay.

Or, they could be transported back to their rightful place on the corner of Abbey Street and Marlborough Street in Dublin city centre, where the original theatre stood.

When the blaze ripped through the Abbey in 1951, it seemed that it was the final curtain for a theatrical tradition.

But the facade of the building survived as well as many of the fittings from the interior.

For a few years after the fire, this surviving part of the building was still used as a ticket office for Abbey performances, which took place in the nearby Queen's Theatre until the Abbey found a new home.

But in 1961, ten years after the fire, what remained of the Abbey was all set for demolition.

Old buildings were unloved and unfashionable in the Dublin of that era. It was a time when elegant Georgian houses were being flattened to make way for towering constructions of concrete, glass and steel.

Few, apart from Daithi Hanly, the Dublin city architect at the time, realised the historic significance of what was about to happen to the ruins of the Abbey.

He asked the demolition contractor Christy Cooney what was to be done to the rubble of the old theatre when the battering rams moved in.

Cooney told him that his instructions were to "dump everything".

Hanly was horrified that this last historic part of one of the most celebrated theatres in the English-speaking world would be lost for all time.

The architect decided to act to try to preserve the granite bricks, in case the theatre could be rebuilt at some point in the future.

He said later: "I knew that to let it go would be an awful tragedy."

Hanly asked the demolition man to number each and every stone at the front of the building, and then dump the remains in his garden at his home in Dalkey.

Cooney moved in to take down the building, but followed Hanly's instructions to the letter.

He had the carefully number relics of the theatre loaded onto a truck and transported them out to Dalkey.

Fifty-six years later, they are still scattered about the garden of the house on Vico Road, like fallen tombstones in a graveyard.

For many years it was the fervent wish of Daithi Hanly that the front of the theatre could be rebuilt, and his family still remain hopeful that his dream will be fulfilled.

Hanly's widow Joan still lives in the house, and the family hopes that the current directors of the Abbey Theatre will finally be able to recreate part of the old building.

Every so often, over the decades, well known actors such as Cyril Cusack visited the site to see the relics on a sort of theatric pilgrimage, and offer support to the Hanlys' idea of rebuilding the theatre.

Cusack was moved by this nostalgic experience, telling the Hanlys: "This was threshold I crossed so many times, the lintel I leaned on in the birthplace of Irish theatre."

Daithi's daughter, Helen Fogarty, shows me around the garden on Killiney Hill.

She used to play on the granite slabs as a girl, but obviously didn't realise their historic significance at the time.

Across the well-maintained garden, the stones are interspersed with shrubs and flower beds.

If they are left there for centuries to come, they will offer a puzzle to archaeologists of the future.

"The stones arrived here before I was born," says Helen. "When the theatre was demolished, I don't think there was much interest in old buildings in Dublin. People wanted everything to be new at the time."

Reconstructing the building using these remains may be more of a challenge to a conservation builder than it was when the building was demolished. Some of the numbers on the stones have faded over the decades, while others are still visible.

Daithi Hanly did not just preserve the stone slabs of the theatre's facade. He kept two of the iron pillars that once held up the balcony of the Abbey, and used them at the front of his home when he was building a conservatory.

Hanly was one of the country's most renowned architects. He designed the Garden of Remembrance in the centre of Dublin, and the Basilica at Knock.

Helen shows me into an old coachhouse and another shed, where there are more relics of the old theatre, and its adjoining theatre, the Peacock.

Old window frames and other wooden fittings from the demolished vestibule of the theatre are stacked against a wall.

And also against the wall is the old wooden kiosk, which is marked in chalk: "Peacock Theatre Entrance Pay Desk". This is where customers queued to see some of the stars of the stage.

There are slate counters and billboards and the Abbey Theatre sign that used to be displayed at the front of the building.

In one of the sheds, Helen shows me a scale model of the Abbey, as it was at its foundation in 1904. The model was found under the stage of the old theatre.

For decades, the Hanly family has tried to have these artefacts preserved.

Daithi Hanly felt that the facade could be the entrance to a museum dedicated to Irish drama and the family planned to donate the stones, but surprisingly the authorities have not yet taken them up on the offer.

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