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Jesuit schools, bookshops and even a rubbish dump: 4 Dublin theatres in unlikely locations

‘When we dug the place up we found oyster shells and Norman crockery.’
Aug 29th 2018, 5:39 PM 5,596 0


The Dublin Fringe Festival and Dublin Theatre Festival are due to take place next month with dozens of productions slated to take place in venues across the city. 

With that in mind, we decided to find out a little more about some of the city’s more unique stages, from the oldest playhouse in the city to a theatre situated in the back of a bookshop. 

Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin 2

Believe it or not, Smock Alley Theatre is technically the oldest theatre in Dublin. Although it did take a 225-year breather. 

“Our theatre first opened in 1662 as a Theatre Royal under King Charles II following the restoration of the monarchy,” explains Conor Byrne, events manager. 

It operated as a theatre until 1787 when it was stripped out and used as a warehouse to store whiskey barrels. 

“It was then bought by the Catholic Church in 1811 and opened as a church in 1815 until it was deconsecrated in 1989,” says Byrne.

Prior to its long-awaited reopening in 2012, there was an archaeological dig performed in the main space, which uncovered a vast array of treasures, a small selection of which are on display in the theatre’s foyer. 

“The original theatre would have had a dirt floor so there were a lot of items to be excavated including old bottles, crockery dating from Norman times (it is believed the theatre was built on the site of an old rubbish tip in the city), clay pipes and, notably, a Restoration period wig curler.”

Randomly enough, the most commonly discovered item were oyster shells.

The most commonly found item were oyster shells. Oysters were considered a very inexpensive snack to have at shows. So patrons could buy bags of oysters and slurp on them during the shows, discarding the shells on the floor.

The building is steeped in history, but the bell that sits atop the building has sparked some memorable events.

“It was installed illegally when the church opened in 1815,” says Byrne. “The penal laws were in effect in the time and when the parish priest Father Blake rang it illegally in 1815, it was the first Catholic bell to have rung in Ireland for 300 years – and it happened 14 years before Catholic emancipation in 1829.”
“Father Blake was arrested, and was represented at trial by none other than Daniel O’Connell. O’Connell’s reputation preceded him and on the first day of the trial the prosecution dropped all charges for fear that O’Connell would show them up both in court and the papers.” 

Since reopening, Byrne says that the theatre has been lucky to host all kinds of “amazing stuff” including events as part of Dublin Theatre Festival, Dublin Fringe Festival, International Literature Festival and others. 

“Collapsing Horse’s Monster Clock starring Aaron Heffernan and Jack Gleeson [aka King Joffrey in Game Of Thrones] was one of the first productions we had,” he recalls. “It was fairly magical altogether and set the tone for the coming years.”

Smock Alley also hosts Scene + Heard, a festival dedicated to showcasing new work from emerging theatre artists. 

Their main aim? To provide quality theatre that isn’t prohibitively expensive.

“It’s massively important to offer good theatre at an affordable price,” says Byrne. “There’s not much point in theatre if only a select few can afford to go. It is a medium that can profoundly change people’s perceptions on a whole range of things so you can confidently say it’s important to the fabric of a society.”

The New Theatre, Dublin 2

Tucked away at the back of Connolly Books in Temple Bar is The New Theatre, an intimate theatre space that has been plugging away since 1997.

How exactly did a radical bookshop come to house a theatre space?

In January 1997, founder Anthony Fox returned home from New York having landed an acting role in a what he calls “a ‘priest’ show” in The Peacock Theatre. It ultimately didn’t work out and Fox was left with a desire to put on a show of his own.

“Connolly Books in Temple Bar allowed me the freedom and opportunity to build a theatre and raised stage in a run-down hall at the back of their bookshop.”

From there, he never looked back. “A new socially engaged, artist driven theatre was born,” he says. 

The New Theatre has been a part of the Dublin theatre scene for twenty-one years now. It hosts between 10-15 new productions annually and has become an invaluable resource for the city’s theatre makers, a place where people can feel “free of chains, free to express, free to challenge our society”. 

Asked to single out any notable productions over the years, Fox points to the success of its most recent show. 

“It’s said you’re only as good as your last show and The Harvest by Jane McCarthy is that show,” he says. Indeed, The Harvest had a critically acclaimed sold-out run and will soon embark on a national tour. 

“What proves our worth are the many artists – approximately 400 annually – who we support in every capacity. Those, and the audiences of 12,500 plus that attend our intimate theatre each year,” he says.

O’Reilly Theatre, Dublin 1

At the Opera, dahling. @irishnationalopera Powder Her Face.

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Situated in the grounds of Belvedere College near Mountjoy Square, O’Reilly Theatre has been open for business since 1999. It is named for businessman Tony O’Reilly. 

“As a former student of Belvedere College, Tony O’Reilly pledged to match funds raised by the Parents Association towards building the auditorium,” explains Aoife McCollum, front of house manager. “The balance was funded by Belvedere College.”

The plush 500-seat theatre was designed by Murray O’Laoire Architects.

“It has one of the widest stages in Ireland, a sprung floor stage and a hidden orchestra pit,” says McCollum. Not bad for a secondary school, eh?

Not only is the space used by students in Belvedere College, but it has also been used for everything from plays to talks to operas. Over the years, it has welcomed its fair share of luminaries with stars like Stephen Fry, Amy Schumer, and Judd Apatow all taking part in events there. More recently, the venue staged a high-profile production of Grief Is The Thing With Feathers starring Cillian Murphy.

O’Reilly Theatre also houses two additional spaces: No. 3 and Belvedere House. No. 3 consists of rental space for the artistic community with the likes of Oliver Cornet Gallery, Fishamble Theatre Company, Stoke Improv, Dublin Creative Therapy Centre and others all calling it home. Belvedere House is a Georgian building used for all sorts of events and, interestingly, once housed the classroom of a young James Joyce.

Bewley’s Café Theatre, Dublin 2

If only it wasn't being renovated. :( #arecommendedplace

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Known for its almond buns and pots of tea, Bewley’s is nothing short of a Dublin institution. For nearly twenty years, the iconic café has also become the home of daytime theatre in Dublin.

The café has always been popular with the artistic community with writers like James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Patrick Kavanagh and Sean O’Casey said to have popped in from time to time. 

“Mary Lavin famously wrote there and countless artists have made it an unofficial office down the years,” says Dave Horan, artistic director.

In 1999, the Campbell family decided they wanted to nurture this cultural side to the café and the idea of regular lunchtime theatre was born.

So how does it work?

“Doors open at lunchtime daily and you can come see a one-act play, usually comic in tone, and there’s often a lunch offering of a bowl of soup and hearty brown bread that you can choose to have while watching the play,” says Horan.

Tickets start from as low as €8 and audience members are usually out by 2pm and free to carry on with their day. Audience members range from day-shoppers and tourists to retirees or people enjoying a day off.

“It can be great for people who can’t come into town in the evenings – parents of young children, the elderly or people who commute from far outside of Dublin,” says Horan.

Over the years, they have put on shows by many of the country’s most respected writers. 

“Mark O’Halloran wrote two plays for the Bewley’s Café Theatre starting out and in them you can see the prototypes for the characters Adam and Paul in his superb movie,” points out Horan. 

We pride ourselves on showcasing great acting talent, young and old. We’ve had the likes of Seana Kerslake, Ian Lloyd Anderson, Tom Hickey, Clare Barrett, Des Keogh and Barbara Brennan and many others on our stage and audiences get to see quality filmic acting up close as the theatre is such an intimate space.  

More: How Ireland fell in love with the pub snug (and 5 of the experts’ favourites)>

More: ‘I think I came out of the womb with a bag of chips’: The people behind Ireland’s old-school chippers>

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