The 1st floor bar area at the Abbey Theatre

The 1st floor bar area at the Abbey Theatre

Sat, 28 Mar - Dublin

Today was Abbey Theatre day. I hadn't intended it to occupy a full day, but that's the way it worked out with an 11.00 am backstage tour followed by a matinee performance of "A Midsummer Night's Dream". Yes, come to Dublin and the two main theatres are doing Shakespeare - the Gate was doing "Romeo and Juliet". A bit incongruous, I thought. 

The Abbey is Ireland's national theatre. It was founded by W B Yeats and Lady Gregory in 1904, largely on money from Annie Horniman, an English theatrical entrepreneur who had given first performances in Manchester to plays by Yeats and Shaw (Arms and the Man). [See footnote] In 1925, the Abbey Theatre was given an annual subsidy by the new Free State, and thereby became the first ever state-subsidised theatre in the English speaking world.

In 1951 the original buildings of the Abbey Theatre were damaged by fire. The Abbey re-located to the Queen’s Theatre. Fifteen years to the day later, on 18 July 1966, the Abbey moved back to its current home, on the same site.

It’s not a particularly imposing building, not helped by the work going on outside with the Luas extensions. As it is, the sound of trams rumbling past is quite audible in the auditorium during performances. But historically it holds an unequalled position in Irish literature, most famously perhaps for riots which greeted first performances of plays by Synge and O'Casey.

The fact that is is not exactly the same building that Yeats, Synge, O'Casey etc bestrode takes a little bit of the gloss off it, but nevertheless the present Abbey is its direct progeny. What we saw on the tour was mainly to do with its present-day operation as a working theatre, but there are a lot of portraits hanging around the place to make it impossible to disregard the history. 

As for the performance? Suffice to say that the gentleman from Galway who was sitting beside me (and who had also attended last night's concert) decided at the interval that it wasn't "working for him", and left. I tended to agree, but stuck it out to the end. All the randy shenanigans and fanciful magic of "Midsummer Night's Dream", in Shakespearean language, doesn't really sit easily with a setting of a mid- 20th century old peoples' home. 

I thought the acting good, with a couple of reservations, but I couldn't quite buy into the directorial concept. Nevertheless, I am happy to be able to say that I have been to a play at the Abbey Theatre. 

Getting back to my hotel was another adventure. As the Luas tram runs just outside the Abbey, I caught it to Connelly station (all of 2 stops) where I caught a DART commuter train to Pearse station (also a mere 2 stops) from which it is maybe 200 metres to the Davenport. 

But that walk passes Il Caffé Di Napoli restaurant (41 Westland Row), which I had planned to use at some stage, so I had an early dinner of their "small" antipasto, as illustrated, washed down with a glass of Chianti.

  • my route to the Abbey passed the GPO, headquarters of the Easter 1916 rebels

  • the "small" antipasto at the Caffé di Napoli


“Ann Horniman, the rather plain-looking daughter of a Manchester tea merchant, was a blue stocking who wore bloomers, rode a man’s bicycle and on her own had crossed the Alps from Italy to Munich. She had asserted her independence early on and at seventeen had acquired her own suite of rooms and smoked cigarettes. 

Throughout her life she was to combine rigid views on the arts with indifferent luck, but as this usually coincided with investments of large parts of her personal fortune she was bound to bring off some winners. She was to finance Yeats’s first play and later purchase him a theatre in Dublin which would become world-famous." 

Quote from Ulick O'Connor 'Celtic Dawn: a Portrait of the Irish Literary Renaissance'.

Roy Foster, in his book 'Vivid Faces', described Annie Horniman as a 'domineering English philanthropist', and 'an enemy to all things nationalist'.


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