seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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The Cork Opera House Fire

cork-opera-house-fire-1955The Cork Opera House is destroyed by fire on December 12, 1955. It is originally built in 1855, and is built on a template that the architect had used for the exhibition buildings at the Irish Industrial Exhibition. Since then it survives the burning of much of Cork by British forces in 1920.

“The final curtain has fallen. The Cork Opera House is no more. A hundred years of stage history has come to an end. Never had the last moments of any drama, played on this stage, such an audience as last night’s farewell one. In heavy rain, a vast crowd stood silently as flames enveloped a proud landmark in our city. They watched it from the short first burst of fire on its roof until the building crumbled before their eyes.”

So reads the main news in The Cork Examiner on Tuesday, December 13, 1955, after the disastrous fire tore at the heartstrings of the people of Cork, leaving the city without a major theatre for the first time in 250 years. It is the boast of the Opera House that its tradition is continuous. When fighting in the South was at its bitterest, even when most of Cork was burned down, the Opera House kept running, only closing for pantomime rehearsals and in Holy Week. It is during the rehearsals for the forthcoming Christmas pantomime that the fatal fire starts. Fortunately, all people are evacuated, but the building built entirely from wood does not stand a chance from the merciless fire. What begins as an electrical fault blazes into an inferno within minutes. Soon the skyline of the city is lit up as the fire does its worst.

Ten years later, on February 23, 1963, the tender of Messrs. O’Shea, South Mall is accepted for the rebuilding of the Opera House. A month later the work begins and the foundation stone is laid by Lord Mayor Seán Casey on June 21, 1963. The citizens watch the building construction with keen interest as the new building gradually takes shape. Finally the day arrives for the casting aside of hoardings and scaffoldings.

Immediately controversy begins regarding the much disputed North-Wall. Unfavorable comment and criticism is levelled at the lack of architectural or artistic embellishment on the exterior of the new building and the square, squat tower on top of the roof designed to ease set changing. This is a very natural reaction as the old Opera House had a very special place in the hearts of Corkonians of every generation during its existence. Most of the criticism is uninformed, for few are aware of the difficulties, financially and technically, that the project incurred. Despite the criticism about the exterior appearance, everyone who has an opportunity to inspect the interior of the theatre can find no fault. There is nothing but praise for the design, the decor, the layout of the seating accommodation and, above all, the intimate atmosphere which has been a traditional part of the venerable old building, and which is now faithfully preserved in the new.

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Birth of Irish Novelist Arthur Joyce Lunel Cary

arthur-joyce-lunel-caryIrish novelist Arthur Joyce Lunel Cary is born in a hospital in Derry, County Londonderry, Northern Ireland on December 7, 1888. Shortly after his birth the family moved to London.

Cary is born into an old Anglo-Irish family, and at age 16 he studies painting in Edinburgh and then in Paris. From 1909 to 1912 he is at Trinity College, Oxford, where he reads law. Having joined the colonial service in 1914, he serves in the Nigeria Regiment during World War I. He is wounded while fighting in Cameroon and returns to civil duty in Nigeria in 1917 as a district officer. West Africa becomes the locale of his early novels.

Resolved to become a writer, Cary settles in Oxford in 1920. Although that year he publishes ten short stories in The Saturday Evening Post, he decides he knows too little about philosophy, ethics, and history to continue writing in good conscience. Study occupies the next several years, and it is only in 1932 that his first novel, Aissa Saved, appears. The story of an African girl converted to Christianity but still retaining pagan elements in her faith, it is followed by three more African novels — An American Visitor (1933), The African Witch (1936), and Mister Johnson (1939) — and a novel about the decline of the British Empire, Castle Corner (1938). Childhood is the theme of his next two novels, his own in A House of Children (1941) and that of a cockney wartime evacuee in the country in Charley Is My Darling (1940).

Cary’s trilogy on art begins with the first-person narration of a woman, Sara Monday, in Herself Surprised (1941) and follows with that of two men in her life, the lawyer Tom Wilcher in To Be a Pilgrim (1942) and the artist Gulley Jimson in The Horse’s Mouth (1944), his best-known novel. Monday is portrayed as a warm-hearted, generous woman who is victimized both by the conservative upper-class Wilcher and by the talented but disreputable painter Jimson. The latter character is a social rebel and visionary artist whose humorous philosophy and picaresque adventures in The Horse’s Mouth helped make him one of the best-known characters in 20th-century fiction.

Similarly, Cary’s other trilogy is seen from the vantage of a politician’s wife in A Prisoner of Grace (1952), the politician himself in Except the Lord (1953), and the wife’s second husband in Not Honour More (1955).

In 1952, Cary has some muscle problems which are originally diagnosed as bursitis, but as more symptoms are noted over the next two years, the diagnosis is changed to that of motor neuron disease (known as Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) in North America), a wasting and gradual paralysis that is terminal. As his physical powers fail, Cary has to have a pen tied to his hand and his arm supported by a rope to write. Finally, he resorts to dictation until unable to speak, and then ceases writing for the first time since 1912. His last work, The Captive and the Free (1959), first volume of a projected trilogy on religion, is unfinished at his death on March 29, 1957. His short stories are collected in Spring Song (1960).


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Birth of Composer Sir Herbert Hamilton Harty

herbert-hamilton-hartySir Herbert Hamilton Harty, composer, conductor, pianist and organist, is born on December 4, 1879, in Hillsborough, County Down.

Harty’s father teaches him the viola, the piano and counterpoint, and, at the age of twelve, he follows his father’s profession and is appointed organist of Magheracoll Church, County Antrim.

Harty takes further posts in his teenage years as a church organist in Belfast and Bray. While in the latter, he comes under the influence of Michele Esposito, professor of piano at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, who encourages him to pursue a career as a piano accompanist. As Bray is only twelve miles from Dublin, Harty is able go into the city to hear an orchestra for the first time in his life.

After his early career as a church organist in his native Ireland, Harty moves to London
at about age 20, soon becoming a well-known piano accompanist. The Musical Times calls him “the prince of accompanists.” As a composer he writes throughout his career, many of his works being well received, though few are regularly performed in the 21st century.

In his career as a conductor, which begins in 1904, Harty is particularly noted as an interpreter of the music of Hector Berlioz. From 1920 to 1933 he is the chief conductor of The Hallé symphony orchestra in Manchester, which he returns to the high standards and critical acclaim that it had enjoyed under its founder, Charles Hallé. His last permanent post is with the London Symphony Orchestra, but it lasts only two years, from 1932 to 1934, as Harty does not prove to be a box-office draw. According to a historian of the orchestra, Richard Morrison, Harty is “brutally and hurtfully” dropped in 1934.

During his conducting career, Harty makes some recordings with his orchestras. Shortly after his dismissal by the London Symphony Orchestra, Harty begins to suffer the symptoms of a brain tumour. After surgery which includes the removal of his right eye, he resumes his career until 1940, but the tumour returns to cause his death at the age of 61 in Hove on February 19, 1941. He is cremated, and his ashes are interred in the grounds of Hillsborough parish church, near the front door. There is a separate memorial in the church.


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The Opening of the Gaiety Theatre

The Gaiety Theatre, a theatre on South King Street in Dublin off Grafton Street and close to St. Stephen’s Green, opens on November 27, 1871 with John Spencer, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, as guest of honour and a double bill of the comedy She Stoops to Conquer and a burlesque version of La Belle Sauvage. Designed by architect Charles J. Phipps and built in under seven months, it specialises in operatic and musical productions, with occasional dramatic shows.

The Gaiety is extended by theatre architect Frank Matcham in 1883, and, despite several improvements to public spaces and stage changes, it retains several Victorian era features and remains Dublin’s longest-established, continuously producing theatre.

Patrick Wall and Louis Elliman purchase the theatre in 1936 and run it for several decades with local actors and actresses. They sell it in 1965, and in the 1960s and the 1970s the theatre is run by Fred O’Donovan and the Eamonn Andrews Studios, until Joe Dowling, former artistic director of the Abbey Theatre, becomes director of the Gaiety in the 1980s. In the 1990s Groundwork Productions take on the lease and the theatre is eventually bought by the Break for the Border Group. The Gaiety is purchased by music promoter Denis Desmond and his wife Caroline in the late 1990s, who undertake a refit of the theatre. The Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism also contributes to this restoration fund.

Performers and playwrights associated with the theatre have been celebrated with hand-prints cast in bronze and set in the pavement beneath the theatre canopy. These handprints include those of Luciano Pavarotti, Brendan Grace, Maureen Potter, Twink, John B. Keane, Anna Manahan, Niall Tóibín and Brian Friel.

The theatre plays host to the 1971 Eurovision Song Contest, the first to be staged in Ireland, during the Gaiety’s centenary year. Clodagh Rodgers, a contestant in that particular contest, later presents her RTÉ television series The Clodagh Rodgers Show from the theatre in the late 1970s.

The Gaiety is known for its annual Christmas pantomime and has hosted a pantomime every year since 1874. Actor and director Alan Stanford directs both Gaiety productions of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. Irish entertainer June Rodgers stars in the Gaiety pantomime for years, until she begins to headline the equally established Olympia Theatre panto. The Gaiety shows have included Irish performers that appeal to home grown audiences, including a number of Fair City actors. Pantomimes in the 21st century have included versions of Mother Goose (2006), Beauty and the Beast (2007), Cinderella (2008), Jack and the Beanstalk (2009), Aladdin (2010), Robinson Crusoe (2011/12), Peter Pan (2013/14), Red Riding Hood (2014/15).


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Birth of Painter Richard Rothwell

Richard Rothwell, nineteenth-century Irish portrait and genre painter, is born on November 20, 1800 in Athlone, County Westmeath.

Rothwell is born to James and Elizabeth and is the oldest of their seven children. He trains to become a painter at the Dublin Society‘s school from 1814 until 1820 and wins a silver medal for his work. At the age of 24, he is made a member of the newly established Royal Hibernian Academy and exhibits portraits there from 1826 to 1829. He subsequently moves to London and works as a studio assistant to Thomas Lawrence. When Lawrence dies in 1830, Rothwell completes many of his unfinished works and is poised to become the next foremost portrait painter in Britain and Ireland.

According to Leoneé Ormond’s biographical article in the Grove Dictionary of Art, Rothwell “was at the height of his powers from 1829 to 1831” and he “was much influenced by Lawrence, but he lacked the incisiveness and flair of his master.” According to Fintan Cullen‘s biographical entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Rothwell’s “portraits are highly accomplished” and “fine examples” including those of novelist Gerald Griffin and Mary Shelley.

From 1831 to 1834, Rothwell tours Italy to study Italian art so that he can paint history paintings. In the 1830s, he starts painting genre pictures, such as The Poor Mendicants (1837). He usually paints Italian-inspired pieces, such as his semi-nude study Calisto, a work he considers to be his masterpiece. He is furious when the painting is poorly hung at the 1862 International Exhibition in London and publishes a pamphlet on the topic.

When Rothwell returns to London, his popularity has evaporated. He lives and exhibits works in Ireland, the United States, London, and Italy, but he never again achieves the same level of popularity he had reached in the late 1820s.

In 1842 Rothwell marries Rosa Marshall. The couple has several children.  Rothwell contracts a fever while working in Rome and dies on September 13, 1868. Joseph Severn, who painted a portrait of the Romantic poet John Keats, arranges for Rothwell’s funeral and tomb in the Protestant Cemetery, Rome.


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Premiere of “The Quare Fellow”

Brendan Behan’s first play, The Quare Fellow, premieres at the Pike Theatre in Dublin on November 19, 1954, to critical success. The title is taken from a Hiberno-English pronunciation of queer.

The Quare Fellow is initially offered to Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, but is turned down. The play has its London première in May 1956 at Joan Littlewood‘s Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. On July 24, 1956 it transfers to the Comedy Theatre, London. In September 1956 the Abbey Theatre finally performs The Quare Fellow. It has such success that the Abbey’s artistic director, Ria Mooney, pushes the next play back to allow The Quare Fellow to run for six weeks. Its first New York performance is on November 27, 1958 at the Circle in the Square Theatre.

The play is set in Mountjoy Prison, Dublin. The antihero of the play, the Quare Fellow, is never seen or heard but rather functions as the play’s central conceit. He is a man condemned to die on the following day, for an unmentioned crime. Whatever it is, it revolts his fellow inmates far less than that of the Other Fellow, a very camp, almost Wildean, gay man.

There are three generations of prisoners in Mountjoy including boisterous youngsters who can irritate both other inmates and the audience and the weary old lags Neighbour and “methylated martyr” Dunlavin.

The first act is played out in the cramped area outside five cells and is comedic, sometimes rather like an Irish episode of Porridge. After the interval, the pace slows considerably and the play becomes much darker, as the time for the execution approaches. The focus moves to the exercise yard and to the workers who are digging the grave for the soon-to-be-executed Quare Fellow.

The play is a grimly realistic portrait of prison life in Ireland in the 1950s, and a reminder of the days in which homosexuality was illegal and the death penalty relatively common. The play is based on Behan’s own prison experiences, and highlights the perceived barbarity of capital punishment, then in use in Ireland. The play also attacks the false piety in attitudes to sex, politics and religion.

The Auld Triangle“, a song from the opening of the play, has become an Irish music standard and is known by many who are unaware of its link to The Quare Fellow.

In 1962 the play is adapted for the screen by Arthur Dreifuss and stars Patrick McGoohan, Sylvia Syms and Walter Macken. Although the film receives some favourable reviews, it is not regarded as a faithful adaptation of the play.


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Birth of Landscape Painter Francis Danby

Francis Danby, Irish painter of the Romantic era, is born near Killinick, County Wexford, on November 16, 1793. His imaginative, dramatic landscapes are comparable to those of John Martin. Danby initially develops his imaginative style while he is the central figure in a group of artists who have come to be known as the Bristol School. His period of greatest success is in London in the 1820s.

The death of Danby’s father in 1807 causes the family to move to Dublin. He begins to practice drawing at the Royal Dublin Society‘s schools and, under an erratic young artist named James Arthur O’Connor, he begins painting landscapes. Danby also makes acquaintance with George Petrie.

In 1813 Danby leaves for London together with O’Connor and Petrie. This expedition, undertaken with very inadequate funds, quickly comes to an end, and they have to get home again by walking. At Bristol they make a pause and Danby, finding he can get trifling sums for watercolor drawings, remains there working diligently and sending pictures of importance to the London exhibitions. There his large oil paintings quickly attract attention.

Around 1819, Danby becomes a member of the informal group of artists which become known as the Bristol School, taking part in their evening sketching meetings and sketching excursions visiting local scenery. He remains connected with members of the Bristol School for about a decade, even after leaving Bristol in 1824.

The group initially forms around Edward Bird, and Danby eventually succeeds Bird as its central figure. The Bristol artists, particularly the amateur Francis Gold, are also important in influencing Danby towards a more imaginative and poetical style. George Cumberland, another of the amateurs, has influential London connections. In 1820 when Danby exhibits The Upas Tree of Java at the British Institution, Cumberland uses his influence to promote its favourable reception. Danby’s atmospheric work An Enchanted Island, successfully exhibited in 1825 at the British Institution and then back in Bristol at the Bristol Institution, is in turn particularly influential on other Bristol School artists.

The Upas Tree of Java (1820) and The Delivery of Israel (1825) bring him his election as an Associate Member of the Royal Academy of Arts. He leaves Bristol for London, and in 1828 exhibits his Opening of the Sixth Seal at the British Institution, receiving from that body a prize of 200 guineas.

In 1829 Danby’s wife deserts him, running off with the painter Paul Falconer Poole. Danby leaves London, declaring that he will never live there again. For a decade he lives on the Lake Geneva in Switzerland, becoming a Bohemian with boat-building fancies, painting only occassionaly. He later moves to Paris for a short period of time. He returns to England in 1840.

Francis Danby lives his final years at Exmouth in Devon, where he dies on February 9, 1861. Along with John Martin and J. M. W. Turner, Danby is considered among the leading British artists of the Romantic period.