The ‘New Theatre’ is a hidden treasure in Dublin’s Temple Bar, built at the rear of the Connolly Book store on Essex Street. By Mick Wallace
The building, the last surviving in the city of a ‘Dutch Billy’ design, is rich in history and is one of the oldest structures on the south side of the river with its original walls, floor beams, roof rafters and stairwell, dating back to 1760. It has served many purposes over the years – was once a Sowing factory, a former tenement, Sir John Rogerson stayed there and at one time it housed the Society for the Propagation of the Protestant Faith in Ireland. In 1975, it became the property of the Communist Party of Ireland who established their headquarters there under the leadership of Michael O’Riordan.
The original New Theatre was a make-shift affair with a galvanized roof, attached to the back of the main building which first served as a meeting room before being turned into a theatre in the early 90s. Then, as now, it served as a venue supporting an abundance of emerging new talent in the city and country, and in particular, productions with a strong social dimension. It gave an opening to many artists that might not otherwise have seen the light of day. Much of this talent may have gone unnoticed in the mad Celtic Tiger days but it never went away.
Speaking of Tigers, it was during these mad days at the beginning of the new century that the structure housing the theatre was reaching dilapidation point. The Communist Party had a valuable site but no money and finding a builder to do business with at this time wasn’t easy. Having just built the Italian Quarter across the river, my company Wallace Construction and architect George Morris were approached by Eugene McCartan and Eddie Glackin of the Communist Party. Following much debate, an agreement to build was reached.
The project was a difficult one. The old building was to be completely renovated and everything of historic value was to be retained or restored in the old style and no cement allowed. At the rear, we had to excavate down to make room for a completely new theatre, which would have apartments overhead. Excavating deep so close to the River Liffey is no joke – much of it carried out with spoons as we uncovered a section of a Viking settlement which was kept intact below the new structure, and as if that wasn’t problematic enough, we also made our way into the Poddle River which flows below Dublin City centre before entering the Liffey at Wellington Quay. Trying to pile both sides of the river, casting huge reinforced beams across same and waterproofing the new structure from the tidal movements of the Poddle proved a challenge of a lifetime, but thankfully a successful one.
The ‘New Theatre’ turned out to be an idyllic small venue seating 70 people. The first play at the rebuilt theatre was ‘The Shadow of a Gunman’ by Sean O’Casey, directed by Ronan Wilmot and produced by Anthony Fox, both of the New Theatre company. The Theatre is presently staging (until September 10th) the Rosemary McKenna directed play ‘Bedbound’, originally written and directed by award winning playwright Enda Walsh, as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2000. More history in the making.