Now the centre of postal activities in Cork, the GPO includes a building that opened as the Theatre Royal in 1760. The theatre occupied the portion of the building on Oliver Plunkett Street (previously George’s Street) which has red sandstone on the upper facade. That theatre replaced an earlier Theatre Royal which was also on George’s Street, at the street’s south-west corner with its junction at Princes Street. The older Theatre Royal opened in 1736 under the control of Smock Alley Theatre of Dublin. It served Cork for over twenty years. As Cork’s population grew throughout the 1700s it was becoming increasingly affluent. By the 1750s a new more spacious venue was required for Cork theatre-goers.
New Theatre Royal, 1760
At this time a new company, the Crow Street Theatre, emerged in Dublin. This new company was headed by the renowned Dublin actor Spranger Barry. He is pictured on the right as Hotspur in a London production of Henry IV, Part 1. Barry had an ambitious enterprise to secure control of all Irish theatres. He brought forward "a proposal for a new playhouse more becoming to the second city of Ireland" (Clark, 1965, p. 80).
Construction of this new theatre was initiated with the assistance of forty subscriptions of £50 each from the Cork gentry. The venture was completed by the summer of 1760. It was modelled on the Crow Street Theatre in Dublin and upon its completion it was "the biggest playhouse in eighteenth century Ireland outside Dublin". The new Theatre retained the name Theatre Royal and opened on 21 July 1760 with a performance of The Orphan by Thomas Otway. Spranger Barry’s new theatre brought six Shakespearean pieces and nine other classics during its inaugural season. The Theatre Royal "introduced the south of Ireland to a much higher level of theatrical entertainment than it had ever previously known" (Clark, 1965, p. 83-4).
The Curious Incident of Patrick Redmond
In 1766, the Theatre Royal had a role in a rather unusual event: A tailor named Patrick Redmond was to be hanged on 10 September 1766 for robbing the house of a John Griffin. During the execution at Gallows Green (modern-day Greenmount and Bandon Road area in the city) rain was threatening, so the city officials and the civil guard departed before confirming that the executioner Jack Ketch had successfully hanged Redmond. After Redmond had been hanging for nine minutes the guard departed and the tailor’s friends carried Redmond to a nearby cabin. Present at the hanging was a well known comedian named William Frederick Glover, whose main occupation was that of a surgeon. He volunteered his services and "proceed by massage and fumigation to restore Redmond’s circulation. The latter soon regained consciousness, sat up, and helped himself to a proffered bottle of whisky." After his miraculous feat Glover set off to the Theatre Royal on George’s Street, to play his role in a benefit performance on the same night. Upon commencing his address to the audience during the performance:
The resurrected tailor, drunk as a fool and waving a shillelagh, thrust himself through the orchestra and scrambled onto the stage. Then he shouted: ‘Good Christians and Honest People, whatever debt Mr Glover there is talkin’ about, 'tis nothin’ at all to what I owe him, for sure he saved my life (Clark, 1965, p. 93-4).
The apparent presence of a dead man on stage caused consternation in the audience, amongst whom was the sheriff of Cork. One report states that the sheriff simply turned a blind eye to events (Cork Examiner, 26 April 1930, p. 14), while others note that the sheriff called out to seize him. However Redmond was removed with great difficulty and brought into concealment. "Eventually he moved to Dublin to become tailor to the ‘Corps Dramatique’ " (Clark, 1965, p. 92 & Edwards, 1792, p. 241).
1840 Fire, and Reconstruction
Throughout the rest of the eighteenth century the Theatre Royal on George’s Street developed a positive reputation for staging interesting plays, and Clark notes that "between 1760 and 1800 every luminary of the English stage who performed in Ireland played on the George’s Street boards sooner or later" (Clark, 1965, p. 145).
The Theatre Royal was, however, to suffer severe misfortune in April 1840 when a fire destroyed the building, including its wardrobe, orchestral instruments, and a valuable collection of old music. The theatre was rebuilt under its new proprietor Mr R. C. Burke and lessee Mr Charles Poole. The new theatre had a capacity of up to 2,000 and opened on 8 June 1853.
During its second spell on this location, Cork audiences enjoyed operas, pantomines, and comedies. Particularly popular was the acclaimed English stage actor Barry Sullivan, a frequent visitor to Cork, the birthplace of both his parents. Another early notable show was The Happy Land by W. S. Gilbert, later of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. This play was subsequently censored for its portrayal of contemporary politicians including William Gladstone.
A notable visitor to the Theatre Toyal was former Young Irelander and organiser of the 1848 Rebellion, John Mitchell. Mitchell returned to Ireland in 1875 after twenty-five years in penal colonies and time spent in the United States. In 1875 Mitchell was elected as an MP to Westminster for Tipperary, a result not officially recognised by the British government, who saw him as a convicted felon. In the same year he landed at Cork following his return from New York. He received a rapturous welcome in Cork, with a torchlight procession at the Father Mathew statute. The following day a huge crowd also gathered to hear him speak in the Theatre Royal on George's Street. The Illustrated London News reported that the audience was:
"cheering and waving hats and pocket-handkerchiefs; but he was evidently in a very weak state of health. He could remain on the stage but a quarter of an hour, and spoke only a few minutes, thanking the people of Cork, as well as those of Tipperary, for the honour they had done him" (Illustrated London News, 1875, p. 230).
A New Post Office
The new Theatre Royal would last for just over twenty years. The Office of Public Works placed a notice in the Cork newspaper, The Constitution of 21 December 1870, requesting ‘"for the purpose of Building Offices for the Post and Telegraph Service in the city of Cork, a site, measuring not less than fifty (50) feet in frontage, and one hundred (100) feet deep. One at the corner of two streets would be preferred."
The post office authorities would later open a new premises on the adjoining Pembroke Street, and the theatre site at George’s Street proved to be exactly what they wanted. As the Theatre Royal neared the end of its time in George’s Street, one monologue entertainer commented on the decorations and spaciousness of the building during a performance. In his impersonation of an Irish peasant he surveyed the site in front of him on stage and proclaimed “O! 'tis a grand place entirely. No wonder the Post Office people want to get hold of it” (Cork Examiner, 26 April 1930, p. 14).
In 1875 the theatre was sold to the post office authorities, and so ended the Theatre Royal’s near 150 year association with George’s Street.
Clark, William Smith, The Irish stage in the county towns 1720-1800 (Oxford, 1965).
Edwards, Anthony, Cork remembrancer (Cork, 1792).
Spranger Barry image courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library