By Gerry Moran
Outside of Dublin, Kilkenny possesses the greatest collection of medieval documents and records in Ireland. One of those documents refers to a dramatic presentation at The Market Cross in Kilkenny’s High St in 1553 when a play entitled ‘God’s Promises’ was performed. The play, written by John Bale, the Church of Ireland Bishop of Ossory, was claimed by some to have been the first play in the English language to have been performed in Ireland.
Some 440 years later, in 1993, another ‘dramatic’ event occurred, not far from the same place, when former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, officially opened the Watergate Theatre, in Irishtown. In attendance at the opening were the two, now deceased, bishops of Ossory, the Catholic Bishop Dr Laurence Forristal and Noel Willoughby, Church of Ireland Bishop of Cashel & Ossory. Guest performers on the evening were singer/songwriter Mick Hanley, impressionist Gerry Lavelle and tenor Finbar Wright.
The Watergate Theatre took its name from the Water Gate, one of the 13 gates into our 15th century walled city; of those 13 gates only one, Black Freren Gate, close to the Black Abbey, survives. The theatre, with a seating capacity of 320, was constructed on the site of the Savoy cinema which had closed its doors eight years earlier in 1985. The Savoy cinema had now become Kilkenny’s official theatre; this was an interesting reversal of events as back in the 1950s Kilkenny’s official theatre had become a cinema! That theatre, located in Patrick St, and known simply as ‘The Theatre’, opened in October, 1902 thanks to the vision of Captain Otway Cuffe and his sister-in-law Lady Desart whose money funded the enterprise; capable of seating up to 900 people it was among the top four theatres in the country.
The Theatre was used for plays, concerts, operas, pantomimes and lectures. It hosted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Percy French’s Humorous And Artistic Entertainment to name but a few events. It also served the local amateur drama societies – among them the Ossory Players, St Mary’s Choral Society and the Don Bosco Players.
As ‘moving pictures’ became ever more popular in Ireland. the theatre served a dual purpose as theatre and cinema but predominantly as a cinema in the 1950s. The last live theatrical show in The Theatre, known locally as Stallards, was the final night of the 1963 Tops Of The Town competition which was run by the De La Salle Past Pupils’ Union.
A short time later, in June 1963, the cinema also closed and the property (now Zuni’s restaurant) was sold.
From the closing of The Theatre in 1963 until the opening of the Watergate Theatre in 1993, a period of 30 years,Kilkenny was without a proper theatre. Thanks, however, to local authority and Arts Council funding and a dedicated group of fund-raisers, spearheaded by then Mayor Tommy Martin and local thespian Michael ‘Mock’ Lawlor, a first class theatre under the management of Gerry Cody was finally built in Kilkenny.
Those 30 years without a proper theatre (the Friary Hall was the go-to venue) were challenging times for theatre-folk in The Marble City.
But it hadn’t always been so; for a period of 40 years, from the 1780s until the 1820s, the major social event in Kilkenny was the annual theatre season. During this Golden Age of theatre visiting companies performed in the Tholsel, the Castle and in the courthouse (Grace’s Castle). The Kilkenny Players, gentlemen actors who raised monies for ‘charitable institutions’, founded their own private theatre on The Parade in 1802 which survived for 17 years and it was there that Thomas Moore, the Bard of Ireland, performed and met his future wife Bessy Dyke. His famous song, ‘The Last Rose of Summer’, was composed, reputedly, in Jenkinstown Castle.
The Kilkenny theatre season was one of the highlights of the Irish social calendar with races during the day and balls and concerts in the evenings. It was said that mothers with marriageable daughters found Kilkenny second only to Bath, in England, for finding a suitable husband. Kilkenny, I have no doubt, is still an excellent place for ‘marriageable daughters’ to find a suitable husband.
In the meantime the Watergate is celebrating its 30th anniversary and I wish Manager Joanna Cunningham, and her team, another Golden Age of theatre in Kilkenny.