DWF Venue #5: Smock Alley Theatre (Caoimhe Connolly)

smock-alley-stained-glass-windowWhat (and where) is Smock Alley?

Smock Alley Theatre is a renovated 17th century theatre on the banks of the River Liffey, on Essex Quay.​

What happens there? 

The Smock Alley Theatre of today plays host to a huge variety of events ranging from theatre, dance, music, literature + fine-art to weddings, award ceremonies, conferences, fashion shows, pop-up markets, gala dinners, college society balls, secret gigs, product launches and presentations, film shoots and festivals, right through to murder mystery tours and paranormal investigations.

Can you describe Smock Alley, for someone who’s never been there: what makes it different?

Well it’s a very impressive building with 2 highly atmospheric theatre venues and a quite stunning Banquet Hall which can be hired for private and public events. We pride ourselves on our friendly staff and try to make sure that everyone who comes through the doors feels welcome.

Has it always been a theatre or has it had other identities along the way? Can you talk about how it fits into the history of the city?

Smock Alley was the first Theatre Royal built in Dublin. John Ogilby opened it in 1662 as part of the Restoration of the British monarchy and King Charles II in 1660 along with London’s Drury Lane (1662) and Lincoln’s Inn Fields (1661). It was the first custom-built theatre in the city and still remains in substantially the same form, making it one of the most important sites in European theatre history. ​​

The old theatre closed in 1787. The building was then used as a whiskey store until Father Michael Blake bought it to set a church. When the bell tolled in 1811, 18 years before the Catholic Emancipation, it was the first Catholic bell to ring in Dublin in nearly 300 years. The facade still boasts ornate stained glass windows and the original ceiling plaster work remain in Smock Alley as a witness of this time. 

Smock Alley had been built on land re-claimed from the Liffey, it was unstable and the gallery collapsed twice; it was rebuilt in 1735. The old theatre closed in 1787, where its’ story continued with the ‘church chapters’ of the building’s history. It was a 7 years struggle to raise the funds for the excavation and restorations but doors were eventually re-opened in May 2012 making this month our 2nd birthday (or 352nd!). 

Smock alley theatre

Can you talk about its location (in the heart of Temple Bar, set back from but facing the river), its surroundings and the general atmosphere?  Temple Bar gets bad press sometimes, it’s associated with bars and crowds, with stags and hens, and then there is this extraordinary fusion of past and present, slightly off the beaten track but facing the quays … Do you think people are fully aware that it’s there? Do you think Dubliners have taken it to their hearts?

We’re building our reputation as a great place to spend an evening. The most common reaction of first time visitors is one of shock as they either had no idea ​​we were here or that they didn’t realise how amazing the building is.​ It really is a hidden gem. Although we’re in Temple Bar, we’re in the ‘old city’ area, which is much quieter, so we don’t have issues with marauding hens and stags​.

Can you describe your relationship with the streets outside the walls, your neighbours etc? 

We are very lucky to be situated in such a supportive community, we have excellent relationships with those in our vicinity Dublin City Council, The Gaiety School of Acting, Queen of Tarts, Tamp + Stitch, The Bakery and local businesses round these parts. We also run a series of literary talks with our neighbours The Gutter Bookshop.

What’s your role and how did you get there? 

I am currently the marketing manager. I was originally hired to project-manage the build and development but I loved the building so much I couldn’t leave. ​

What do you love about your job?

The high ceilings, the pace, the volume of people you meet each day, week, year. So much culture, so little time.

What’s your favourite recent event?

We had TEDX Talks here in April talking on the subject of creativity. The energy was electric.

Have you had any disasters?

*Sigh* An old building sometimes has leaky roofs…and walls. But nothing compared to the several gallery collapses in the early years of the original theatre. Due to nature of the land it was built on; marshy and reclaimed from the Liffey, the upper galeries collapsed during a performance, on more than one occasion. ​Quite a number of people died as a result of these collapses. Thankfully these days patrons don’t need to put their lives at risk to come and see a show.

If Smock Alley wasn’t a theatre, or if it hadn’t been rescued and restored, what do you think it would it be?

​Perhaps an absolutely enormous Costa Coffee or maybe some kind of McDonalds mothership… ​

What do you imagine will be here in the future?

After 352 years, I hope and ​suspect we won’t be going anywhere for a while.

Smock Alley Theatre  6/7 Exchange Street Lower, Dublin 8    smock alley map


Free Family Friendly Fun

The Story BirdToday we highlight some exciting free events for children and kids of all ages that will be on offer at this year’s Dublin Writers Festival. Continue reading

The Dublin Bookshop: The Stuff of Dreams

Image-1During the many years when I lived abroad I used to have a recurring dream. The details varied but the theme was always the same: I was in a Dublin bookshop. Usually it was Eason’s but sometimes Greene’s or somewhere else.

I’ve often puzzled over this. What was my subconscious trying to tell me? Even when I lived in some fairly remote, non-English-speaking places, I always managed to find a bookshop, so it’s not like I was being starved of reading material. The only thing I’ve been able to come up with is the Dublin bookshop offers something you just don’t find anywhere else.

Like-minded people, for a start.

Until you’ve been deprived of it, you can’t imagine the frustration of not being able to have a good old chin-wag with a shopkeeper about a particularly beloved volume. Try this: Go into any Dublin bookshop and ask the clerk about the John Banville detective stories that he writes under another name. “Benjamin Black, is it?” they’ll say, and you can pass a good fifteen minutes or more chatting about how The Silver Swan differs from The Sea.

Try that in an American bookshop. Go on. I dare you.

Now, they’ll be willing to help; eager, even. Americans, bless them, have an innate desire to please. But even if they can answer your question, the response is that no-frills sort of information delivered with the sort of smile we’ve come to expect from the staff of no-frills airlines.

It’s just a job, not a passion. If they were selling perfume or shoes they’d bring exactly the same amount of enthusiasm to the task.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There were some great bookshops in, say, Columbus, Ohio. The staff were helpful and reasonably knowledgeable; the supply of books was perfectly adequate—so long as your tastes ran to the American classics or popular literature. And you could find Ulysses and even, if you were lucky, Edna O’Brien, but Frank O’Connor was a bit more of a stretch. As for Flann O’Brien? What did he write? I suppose we could special order it…

I never thought I’d say this, but I missed being able to read as Gaeilge. Now, I’m not trying to kid you: this isn’t something I’d ever been particularly fond of when I was growing up in Ireland. But when you live abroad, when you are the only Irish person you know (despite all popular misconceptions, there are vast swathes of the US where names like O’Reilly and Murphy are unheard of), sometimes you crave things that were part of your youth and education.

You have to remember, this was before the internet put obscure volumes at our fingertips. You couldn’t just ask for a book of Gaeilge poems in the bookshop, you had to have a title, or at least the name of a poet or an editor otherwise you’d get that polite smile and disappointment that they can’t help. Oh you can laugh, but just wait till you’re in the bowels of Idaho and can’t remember the third stanza to Cill Aodain and you’ll know what I mean.
When I came back to Dublin several years ago, Eason’s was one of my first stops. I used to pass it, you see, every day on my way home from school. To slip in for a few minutes—OK, an hour—before I took the bus home was an indescribable treat. I’ve heard Arab nomads speak as lovingly about their favourite oases. Eason’s was where I bought my Enid Blyton books, and the Biggles stories. Then came Nancy Drew and, oh, the Hardy Boys… Later, it was Dickens and Flaubert and Kafka. Oh my.

I hate to hear of bookshops closing. It’s like the death of a relative. One of the nice ones who never gave you socks for Christmas, but an annual like Jackie or the Beano. I’m still mourning the loss of Greene’s of Nassau Street, where I bought all my secondary school books like Soundings.

How lucky are we, though, that many of our bookshops continue to keep their fingers in the dam, holding back the tide of electronic novels? Tell me what happens when you drop an e-book in the bath. Can one cover your eyes against the sun on a beach? How do you get the author to sign it? True, I’d have been glad of even an electronic Antoine Ó Raifteirí during my exile, but I still prefer the touch and smell of a fat volume.

And we still have The Gutter Bookshop in Temple Bar, holding up the end of the Indie bookshop very nicely, thank you. Or if you want your books with a side of nooks and crannies there’s The Winding Stair on the quays. For great staff, comfy seats and an outstanding selection, you can’t beat Hodges and Figgis. For a good bargain there’s Chapters. What else? Cathach Books for unexpected treats and presents, and the Book Upstairs on College Green for a great selection of Irish literature. Each has its specialities and its unique atmosphere.

The Dublin Bookshop. It’s the stuff of dreams.

(G.J. Schear)