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Double Take: The underground car park that was Ireland’s first theatre

Take a trip back in time to the 17th century…

wt1 Source: Google Maps

JUST AROUND THE corner from Dublin Castle, on Werburgh Street, Dublin 8, is a nondescript underground car park. 

To the unknowing passerby, it looks like a regular city centre car park with grey concrete walls and barriers overhead – and that’s because it is. But once upon a time, 383 years ago to be exact, it was something quite special: the site of Ireland’s first public theatre.

Back in the 17th century, in 1633, the Earl of Strafford Thomas Wentworth arrived in Dublin as Lord Lieutenant and set about commissioning a theatre. 

Some two years later, he appointed John Ogilby to build the theatre for a cost of £2,000 at the time. The exact date of the theatre’s opening is unknown, but it’s estimated to be before June 1636.

werburgh st Source: Google Maps

In A History of Irish Theatre, Chris Morash writes that Ogilby’s timing was “propitious” as London theatres had been closed because of the plague since May 1636 and this allowed him to hire “a strong company” of English actors. 

There are no eyewitness descriptions of the theatre, but Morash quotes an account from 18th century theatre historian Thomas Wilkes, who said it “had a gallery and pit, but no boxes, except one on the stage for the then Lord Deputy, the Earl of Strafford.” Morash also describes it as a “versatile, intimate performing space.” 

Writing in The Oxford History of the Irish Book, Volume III, Raymond Gillespie and Andrew Hadfield note that it is said that the theatre “relied heavily on the patronage of Dublin Castle, but was nonetheless a public theatre, whose patrons included soldiers, the legal profession, minor gentry and students from Trinity College.” 

wt3 Source: Google Maps

The resident playwright for the theatre was James Shirley, whose first play for the theatre was The Royal Master, which premiered on 1 January 1638. The Werburgh Street Theatre also produced the first published play by an Irish playwright, Landgartha by Henry Burnell, in 1640.

However, write Gillespie and Hadfield, the theatre closed in 1641 and Wentworth, its patron, was executed. The site was first turned into a military stable, says Morash, before falling into ruin “by the calamities of those times.”

Over the following two decades, Irish theatre itself almost ceased to exist, write Gillespie and Hadfield, until the opening of the Smock Alley Theatre in 1662, which went on to have a much brighter future than its predecessor. 

More Double Take: The Dublin allotment that was once the Guinness family’s vegetable garden

More Double Take: The Dublin square that was once one of the city’s most crowded graveyards

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