Thursday 14 December 2017

What will Dublin be without the Abbey Theatre?

When a cigarette butt started a fire that destroyed Ireland's national theatre in 1951, the news reverberated in Dublin, and around the world, writes Patrick Geoghegan

The Abbey Theatre
The Abbey Theatre
Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats. Photo by George C Beresford/Getty Images
1951: Picture shows aftermath of Abey Theatre Fire in the auditorium - which shows how effective the fire curtain on the stage was. It was mostly water damage in the auditorium after the fire.
A fire-damaged doorway in the theatre
Damage to the side of the stage

'Those firemen might have saved their water" was how the poet Austin Clarke ended the first of two poems about the Abbey Theatre fire. The line might seem disrespectful and mean-spirited, but Clarke was really aiming his attack on WB Yeats, who he blamed for having been excluded from the Oxford Book of Modern Verse ("Pride made of Yeats a rhetorician"), rather than at the theatre itself. He did, after all, later acknowledge that it was the plays of the Abbey Theatre "that turned my head at seventeen" and inspired his early writings. Clarke's first poem about the fire was published in 1957, six years after the event, and he returned to the subject in 1963 in "The Abbey Theatre Fire". Now more forgiving of Yeats ("So, I forgot/His enmity"), he reflected on how "Yeats had not dreamed an unstubbed butt,/ I'll match, would bring his curtain down".

When the theatre which Yeats had helped to found went up in flames in the early hours of 18 July, the result apparently of a carelessly discarded cigarette, the effect was devastating, and many in the country believed that a national institution had been destroyed. The alarm was raised around 12.25am and five sections of the fire brigade, "with practically every fireman available" rushed to the scene. As the Irish Independent reports in this iconic edition - published on the same day as the fire - "thousands of gallons of water were poured on to the burning building from engines operating in the laneway, Marlboro St and Lower Abbey St". It was 2 am before the fire was under control and, while they managed to prevent its spread, "the main body of the building was a blackened shell".

As Robert Welch writes in The Abbey Theatre, 1899-1999: Form and Pressure, the theatre lost "all the scenery, props, many costumes, play scripts, records", and the Irish Independent records how "this highly flammable material" helped the fire to spread. Some things however were saved, including the portraits of the founders in the vestibule - WB Yeats, Lady Gregory, Lennox Robinson and other leading figures from its 47-year history - which were rescued by some of the Abbey staff, including actors and actresses who had taken part in the earlier performance of The Plough and the Stars. Page seven of the newspaper contains a photograph of the paintings being guarded outside, alongside an article describing the theatre as the "Cradle of Irish Drama".

Many of those with long connections to the Abbey were heartbroken. One person who heard the news on the night of the fire was Máire O'Neill, perhaps the leading actress in the early years of the Abbey Theatre, and credited by Linde Lunney in the Royal Irish Academy's Dictionary of Irish Biography with contributing "greatly to the internationally high reputation of the Abbey". She had played Pegeen Mike in the first production of John Millington Synge's The Playboy of the Western World, the one that was famously "howled off the stage in 1907". Don Harron recorded in his memoirs that she mourned the loss as if it was her own child, and reminisced about how she had learned the lines of The Playboy from the author himself, then "laughed and cried some more, and drank a final toast to the dear old Abbey", and then to Synge, to whom she had been engaged to be married before he died in 1909.

Some of the old atmosphere was lost in the fire. Walter Macken, the writer, actor, and theatre director, reminisced that there was "a sort of dirty glamour" about the theatre. He put this down to the wardrobe room because the costumes "seemed to be always old, shabby and dirty - tenement clothes if you like for that was the sort of play we always seemed to be doing". Lennox Robinson, the theatre director and playwright, claimed to be glad the place had burnt down, believing it would force the government to honour its promise, made years earlier, to build a new theatre to house the Abbey.

The shocked cast and crew of the Abbey Theatre met the morning after the fire to discuss what to do next. Ria Mooney, the first female producer at the Abbey, and one of its leading actresses, suggested closing down the theatre until a new venue was found. According to legend the head carpenter, Seaghan Barlow, intervened and argued that "the Abbey Theatre has never closed its doors except during Easter Week 1916. We must keep faith with the public. Even if we are to recite it on an otherwise empty stage tonight, we must give a performance".

Inspired by these words, they put on their scheduled performance of The Plough and the Stars in the experimental theatre next door, the Peacock. The much smaller theatre had a capacity of 102 compared to the Abbey's 520 and it was packed on an emotional night. Makeshift scenery was used, and costumes provided by the other Dublin theatres. At the end, a relative of Lady Gregory appeared on stage with a magnum of champagne "to drink to the memory of those who had gone".

This performance was reported in detail in the Irish Independent on 19 July and it praised the company for following one of the greatest traditions of the theatre, "The Show Goes On". In an editorial the paper recognised that it was evidence of the place of the Abbey "in our national life" that the destruction of the theatre "comes to so many as almost a personal loss". It praised the theatre for proving over its history, to "an incredulous or indifferent age, that there was a distinctively Irish literature; later it showed that there was an Irish way of life". Recognising that it had also been a source of controversy over the previous 47 years, "some of which was inept, some of which was unnecessarily provoked", it acknowledged that "the function of a living theatre is to provoke controversy".

The destruction of the Abbey Theatre was reported around the world. Under the headline "Sad news from Dublin", The New York Times reported the story on 19 July, and the first two sentences captured the international reaction: "The Abbey Theatre burned! And what will Dublin be without it?" Asking "was there ever such a theatre?" the paper believed that it was "impossible" the curtain had gone down for the last time in the Abbey. Instead it insisted that "one of these days soon the deep-toned gong will sound thrice - and the curtain will rise again". It credited the Abbey Theatre with a legacy of presenting all kinds of Irish life: "mystical, humorous, poignant, infinitely sad".

Some of the fire had been captured on film, and there were requests from news organisations in the United States to show it on television, and it was reported in the Irish Independent on 19 July that the film was being sent to New York.

Fifteen years to the day of the fire, on 18 July 1966, the Abbey Theatre reopened its doors on the same site, with a new design by Michael Scott. In the years between the company had operated in the old Queen's Theatre on Pearse Street while it waited for the rebuilding to be completed. President Éamon de Valera attended the opening, as well as other leading politicians, and it was seen as appropriate that the Abbey was being celebrated in the year of the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising. The next day the Irish Independent reported that the Abbey theatre had been "reborn out of smoke and flame as nations are".

In an interview recorded in 1951 and available online from the RTÉ Archives, Lennox Robinson had a poetic and philosophical interpretation of the fire. He recognised that sooner or later the Abbey Theatre would have needed demolishing and rebuilding and that this would have broken the hearts of those who had been involved with it for so long. So instead, "The Theatre took the matter into its own hands, waited until the house was empty, and deliberately set itself on fire. It went up in flames and in glory reflecting the glory of its players and playwrights". Reflecting on how the Abbey Theatre had been "harshly criticised" ever since its opening in 1904, he was moved to see how "this little tragedy" had generated so much support from other theatres, from cinemas, and from people in Ireland and around the world. It had finally made people "realise how deeply rooted the Abbey Theatre is in the national life of Ireland".

Patrick Geoghegan is a professor of history at Trinity College Dublin and presents the award-winning Talking History on Newstalk

A burnt-out shell: the metaphor for 1950s Ireland

Shortly after midnight on July 18, 1951, the Abbey went up in smoke. Badly scarred, Ireland's national theatre stayed upright - just about - making a perfect metaphor for the nation itself.

Ireland was tottering. The country had a new government, though it was really just the same old De Valera regime restored after three years and bereft of any fresh ideas for lifting Ireland from the mire. The outgoing coalition left some achievements, in particular an effective drive to wipe out tuberculosis. However, the Catholic Church and the medics had kicked back hard when Health Minister Noël Browne unveiled plans for a free Mother & Child healthcare scheme. Doctors quaked at the prospect of Ireland following the UK down the road of a free NHS, branding it a communist plot.

As the lights went out all over Ireland due to enforced power cuts, FG's Seán Mac Eoin blamed "fifth columnists" in the pocket of Moscow for spreading a mood of despair. A new census recorded that countless young people were emigrating each year to work in British factories and hospitals, and to labour rebuilding bombed-out cities.

A report on the scope for "incidents of immorality" amongst the Irish swarming to Britain landed on the desk of the incoming Taoiseach. It found: "A Catholic welfare officer stated that from her experience that 75pc of Irish girls becoming pregnant do so by Irish boys. A barman had three children by different Irish girls. A clippie, previously a good Irish girl, got into trouble, and was too ashamed and frightened to take anyone into her confidence. She worked on until one day she collapsed on the bus and died along with her child in hospital. Another Irish girl living with a coloured man had a baby by him."

The State-commissioned study told scare stories of Irish girls having their babies adopted by non-Catholic families.

The report cited married men going to England "in good faith" to seek work. However, the men would then often drop out of contact with their families, and some wives back in Ireland were allegedly resorting to the desperate measure of applying for a police warrant to have their husbands dragged back.

An Irish priest in Birmingham said he knew of Irish construction workers sleeping "in relays" because they only had access to their beds and tiny flats on a timeshare basis. He remarked sorrowfully: "They have no home life and are forced to spend their leisure in dance halls and public houses where they meet bad characters."

Irish journalists following up the story reported that Irish workers in Britain had to endure living conditions only slightly better than those of "the negro".

Settled back into office, De Valera made a speech in Galway saying that Irish migrants in the English Midlands were living in "absolute degradation". He urged them to come home to a better life here, although he was sketchy on the details of how life could conceivably be better in the moribund wasteland that was Ireland in 1951.

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