Filed under:Research Sources — posted by Hugh Denard on January 27, 2011 @ 7:41 pm

Just over a week ago, I blogged about the stones of the Old Abbey Theatre lying, unloved, in the Dalkey garden of the late Daithi P. Hanly. Next Tuesday, I will actually get to travel out to Dalkey to see and photograph the stones, canopy, railings, windows and the rest; should be quite an experience!

Archiving Holloway

Filed under:Research Sources — posted by Hugh Denard on January 26, 2011 @ 1:21 am

With project time rapidly elapsing and visiting hours to the Prints and Drawings Department limited to Mondays and Tuesdays, today’s priority was to photograph the 1904 Holloway designs for the Abbey. There’s a form to sign, that assures the Library that any photos I take with my own camera are for my own personal research only and (sorry readers!) will not be shared.

The paper Holloway used is now extremely fragile; not, it would seem, a product designed for long-term preservation. Many of the drawings have distinctly distressed edges, and some of the larger sheets have even cracked apart into two or more separate fragments that have to be reassembled to be understood. Here and there, entire sections of plans are missing.

My time-slot started at 2.30pm but, treating the drawings with the tender care they deserve, it took every moment of 3-and-a-half hours to photograph all 36, including a handful that are double-sided. So, not much time, today, to linger lovingly over them and ponder their secrets.

Enough, however, to note that the collection includes a survey of the “Hibernian Theatre of Varieties, Lower Abbey Street”, as well as a couple of site plans, the all-important seating plans, and floor-by-floor plans and elevations of the “proposed alterations”, including for the canopies over both Marlborough and Abbey Street entrances – the far less ornate design for the “PIT” entrance leaving in no doubt who was (not) at the top of the Abbey’s social pecking order!

There’s just a handful of close-up details, of decorative architectural mouldings, and even of “presses” in the dressing rooms. Oddly, only one of the Abbey drawings is dated (July 7, 1904). An interesting item is a single page of text, being a: “specification of work required to be done according to the accompanying plans…”, signed by Holloway. For fun, the collection concludes with a drawing inscribed “Electric Theatre, Talbot Street Dublin for Electric Theatre Co. Ltd. Proposed New Balcony”, which is signed and (unusually) dated 8/3/12: a gratifying spin-off project for Holloway following the presumable success of his adventures in the Abbey.

I’ve some workaday cataloguing to do, tomorrow, to match my photos with descriptions, and fulfil my promise to Honora to give her an inventory. In the process, I’ll get a chance to spend some more time with the collection and really find out what’s what.

With characteristic kindness, Honora copied for me the list of artists in Holloway’s 1119-strong collection of sketches and paintings, which contains 150 by the man himself, as well as 125 by Frank Leah. There are also pieces by Micheál MacLiammóir and George Russell (AE).

The collection includes an affectionate portrait by Ben Bay (one of 56 items that Holloway collected by Bay) of a bewhiskered Holloway as eternal boy, pictures scattered at his feet like toys on a nursery floor, an oversized volume portentously labelled “Architecture | Ethics” in his hands.

Bay’s drawing, and its title, “When we were boys”, casts a droll, but warm eye on a man who sustained his childlike passion for plays and playhouses through judicious, “grown-up”, labours of love such as his monumental Impressions of a Dublin Playgoer and, of course, his painstaking architectural work on the Abbey itself.


Filed under:Project — posted by Hugh Denard on January 25, 2011 @ 11:58 am

Encouraged by Trinity College researcher, Lisa Coen, I’ve taken the plunge and enrolled the project in the “Twitterverse”:!/OldAbbeyDigital

Holloway’s Plans in the NLI

Filed under:Research Sources — posted by Hugh Denard on January 24, 2011 @ 11:25 pm

I spent a blissful 3 hours in the Prints and Drawings Department of the National Library of Ireland this afternoon, courtesy of Assistant Keeper, Honora Faul. The room is a vastly-ceilinged, tripartite chamber bathed in natural light and punctuated by large, dramatic, white, fluted Ionic columns. Quite a setting!

Laid out for me were three portfolios of Joseph Holloway’s architectural designs for the Abbey, created in 1904. They’re pencil on paper, for the most part, with occasional dashes of pen or coloured ink. Most of them have the quality of working sketches, full of half-erased lines and changed figures. It is thrilling to see and touch Holloway’s process of “inventing” the space of the Abbey; his drawings lend an additional vividness to entries in his journal such as: “Called up with rough sketch plan of the Abbey Street Theatre [The Mechanics] to Camden Street “Theatre” to have a chat over it with Mr. W.G. Fay.” (Journal entry for Friday, April 15th 1904).

The 34 drawings, Honora told me, while they have been numbered (AD 2171-2205), haven’t been individually catalogued, so creating an inventory seems a worthwhile exercise, not least because the process of systematically describing them requires me to pay a quality of attention to small details I might otherwise miss.

Using, for convenience, the fields in the IAA’s inventory of the Scott collection (Number; Description; Inscription; Medium; Scale; Dimensions), and making my own notes for the digital modelling process, I got through the first of the three portfolios today (AD 2171-2179). JH’s jottings in the margins indicate concern with the number of seats required to make the theatre financially viable. One plan of the Stalls and Pit (AD 2175) is inscribed:

“Stalls 230. (£34.0.0) Pit 200. (£10.0)”

A different plan of the seating in Gallery and Stalls (AD 2179) squeezes 15 more into the Stalls, its 245 seats now yielding £36.16.0, at the expense of 14 seats fewer in the Pit (including “Tip up seats”). We don’t know the sequence in which the plans were drawn, but it seems likely that Holloway is doing his best to maximise the number of higher-earning seats at the expense of the cheaper seats in the Pit. (AD 2175, intriguingly, also gives the rows of seats in the Stalls a gentle, classical curve – a solution that evidently did not find favour.)

The largest, most sumptuous and complete of Henderson’s plans is reproduced in the 2006 companion volume, by James Quin, Eílís Ní Dhuibhne and Ciara McDonnell, to the Yeats Exhibition at the National Library. WB Yeats Works and Days: Treasures from the Yeats Collection contains, besides the drawing, photographs of the old Abbey interior, including what looks like a post-fire shot along the balcony (p.81).

Honora was wonderfully helpful, giving me a spontaneous tour of the scope of the Joseph Holloway holdings in the P&D and Ephemera Departments, including a staggering number of theatrical playbills from the Dublin theatre scene, and his collection of sketches and paintings by a small constellation of Irish artistic types, including some 125 by his own hand. There is a digitization project made in heaven just praying to be dreamt of, here.

P&D only admits readers on Mondays and Tuesdays; I’m lucky to have secured an additional slot tomorrow afternoon. Ordering photographs from the NLI’s Reprographics Department (which typically take just a one or two days to arrive) costs between €13 (8″ x 10″) and €32 (24″ x 20″) for black and white images, or between €25 and €38 for sepia/colour. Alternatively, you can request a CD of TIFF images for €19 per image. Requesting permission to publish images requires a separate application.

Coming soon…

Filed under:Research Sources — posted by Hugh Denard on January 22, 2011 @ 11:31 pm

Steve Wilmer suggested I have a look at John Lynch’s 2004 documentary, “The Abbey Theatre: the first 100 years” (Production Company: Subotica) With any luck, the Irish Film Archive ought to have it – I’ll check with them on Monday 24th.

Monday 24th at 3pm: meeting Honora Faul in the NLI Prints and Drawings Department to look at Joseph Holloway’s 1904 architectural plans and drawings for the Abbey.

Wednesday 2nd Feb, morning: meeting Mairéad Delaney, Abbey Theatre Archivist, to look at pre-1951, floor-by-floor survey of the Abbey and surrounding buildings; four portraits originally hung in the old Abbey; whatever additional sources can be found to help us reconstruct the architecture, but especially textiles and colour-schemes, of the 1904 Abbey interior. I’m hoping we’ll manage to find that elusive wooden model of the old Abbey…


Filed under:Research Sources — posted by Hugh Denard on @ 1:10 pm


Silent footage, from 1925, of Irish actors performing and in mufti. Gives a fascinating portrait of acting styles and the social presentation of the actor. Would be interesting to identify the performers and roles – Pathe gives only generic descriptions (“a man playing the role of an old fisherman smoking a pipe and looking grumpy” etc.).


Filed under:Research Sources — posted by Hugh Denard on @ 1:03 pm

NEW ABBEY THEATRE – British Pathe.

Pathe Newsreel from September 1963 of the laying of the foundation stone of the new Abbey Theatre. Contains film footage of the old Abbey, and of a wooden model of the old Abbey.

Irish Architectural Archive

Filed under:Research Sources — posted by Hugh Denard on January 20, 2011 @ 9:40 pm

Back when we met on 14th January, Niall in NOHO pointed me in the direction of the on-line Dictionary of Irish Architects 1720-1940. A search for “Abbey Theatre” turns up the following entries for Marlborough Street, Nos.002-3:

Date: 1904
Nature: Conversion of Mechanics’ Institute into theatre. Gift of Mis A.E.F. Horniman of London. Contractors: R. & E. Farmer.
Refs: Plans and drawings in NLI, AD 2171-2205; IB* 46, 13 Aug,3 Dec 1904, 505, 822

* IB = Irish Builder, a journal that appeared, under various names, from 1859 to 1979.

Date: 1904
Nature: Ground floor windows, for Annie F. Horniman.
Refs: John O’Grady, The Life and Work of Sarah Purser (1996), 246-7

Date: 1934-1937
Nature: Alts. to foyer area including removal of arches inserted by Holloway.
Refs: Drawings, 1934-37, in IAA, Acc. 79/10.13/1-21; John O’Regan & Nicola Dearey, eds., Michael Scott Architect in (casual) conversation with Dorothy Walker (1995), 161

Date: 1934-1937
Nature: Alts. to foyer area including removal of arches inserted by Holloway.
Refs: Drawings, 1934-37, in IAA, Acc. 79/10.13/1-21; John O’Regan & Nicola Dearey, eds., Michael Scott Architect in (casual) conversation with Dorothy Walker (1995), 161

Date: 1958-66
Nature: New theatre, with Ronald Tallon. Consultant Architect: Pierre Sonrel, Paris.
Refs: IB 101, 10 Jan 1959, 9; John O’Regan & Nicola Dearey, eds., Michael Scott Architect in (casual) conversation with Dorothy Walker (1995), 161-170(illus.),234

Clearly the Holloway plans and drawings are going to be the most important, but I thought it’d be no harm to look at the Scott & Good drawings at the Irish Architectural Archive. So, having made an appointment, I took myself off to 45 Merrion Square this morning to see what they’ve got.

The IAI lives in a fantastic Georgian building, with an impressive collection of physical architectural models in the lobby, and the two principal reception rooms, which together stretch from  the front to rear of the house, are laid out as airy reading rooms for the archive’s collection of reference works, portfolios of architectural drawings, and box files of photographs.  Lovely people; lovely place!

Simon Lincoln had set out the Archive’s collection of designs for alterations to the Old Abbey Theatre, 1934-37, by architects Scott & Good, and for €10 camera fee and €2 per item photographed, I was able to take reference photos of everything of interest.

The highlights, for our purposes, are:

79/10.13/1 “Site Map – Proposed alterations to vestibule of Abbey Theatre” (dated 31/8/34)

79/10.13/2 “Map showing Abbey Theatre Property” (dated 20/9/34)

79/10.13/3-5 “Abbey Theatre” (Views of vestibule of theatre; /3 is undated; /4 is dated 1935; /5 is dated 1934)

79/10.13/6-12 A series of plans and sections relating to the proposed alterations to the Vestibule of the Abbey Theatre; dating from between August 1934 and May 1935.

79/10.13/13 “Proposed Canopy for the Abbey Theatre” (dated 3/11/36)

79/10.13/14 “Abbey Theatre, Balcony Railing” (undated; plan, section, elevation of balcony railings.)

79/10.13/15 “Proposed reconstruction of Abbey Theatre” (undated; long section of theatre)

79/10/13/16 “Survey of Abbey Theatre Auditorium” (dated 12/7/35)

79/10.13/17-19 “Proposed Reconstruction of Abbey Theatre” (general, ground floor and balcony level plans; dating between Jan. 1936 and Jan. 1937)

The reference collection of the IAI also includes an intriguing volume: Ryan, Philip B. The Lost Theatres of Dublin (Badger Press, 1998). The pages on the old Abbey contain a couple of useful interior photographs (the staircase from foyer to Balcony, and a rehearsal in progress as seen from the Balcony). But, together with the varied fare of theatrical entertainments that Joseph Holloway documents in his Dublin Playgoer’s Impressions, Ryan’s volume also put me in mind to think more carefully about the place of the old Abbey within the theatrical geography, and culture, of the city as a whole. In addition to the Abbey, Ryan has chapters on: the First, Second and Third Theatres Royal; The Leinster Hall, The Queen’s Theatre; The Tivoli Variety Theatre; The Coliseum; The Capitol Theatre; The Torch Theatre; and Dan Lowrey’s Music Hall.

On the opening of the new Abbey Theatre, a glossy, illustrated booklet, Abbey Theatre – Dublin 1904-1966, was published; the IAI holds a copy. It includes numerous early production photographs, including one of Cathleen ni Houlihan with Lady Gregory in role as Cathleen, playing opposite Arthur Shields as Michael Gillane; as well as a 1904 photograph of the old Abbey vestibule, and the old Abbey stage in the aftermath of the 1951 fire.

Finally, I went through the box-file for Abbey Street and found, in addition to a useful collection giving a good sense of the character and history of that part of town, a couple of useful photos of the exterior of the old Abbey; one, in particular, giving a wider view of its urban setting than the views usually published show.

I’ll need to return to look at the Marlborough Street box file, which was in use elsewhere in the Archive.

In Daithi P. Hanly’s Garden

Filed under:Research Sources — posted by Hugh Denard on January 19, 2011 @ 2:15 pm

Shortly after Christmas, Steve Wilmer mentioned to me that, in 1961, distinguished Dublin city architect and town planner Daithi P. Hanly succeeded in saving the stones of the old Abbey Theatre, which were being dismantled and prepared for dumping, in preparation for the building of the new Abbey on the site. The old Abbey’s front façade and vestibule on the corner of Marlborough Street and Abbey Street, undamaged by the fire of 17th July 1951, had continued in use until 1961 as the ticket office of the Abbey players during their exile in the Queen’s Theatre. At Hanly’s request, the contractor, Christy Cooney, had the stones numbered and transported, along with the old theatre’s canopy, railings, windows, vestibule fittings, and billboards to Hanly’s garden and a former boathouse in Vico Road, Dalkey, where they lie to this day (Sunday Independent, August 7, 1988).

Charles Duggan, Dublin City Council’s Heritage Officer, on learning of the “Abbey Theatre, 1904” project, sent Niall Ó hOisín of NOHO a PDF of documents and press cuttings relating to Hanly’s visionary deed of cultural preservation and his subsequent efforts to find a proper home for the old theatre’s façade. From the mid 1980s until his death in July 2003, Hanly, backed by a cast of Irish theatre notables, from Cyril Cusack to Vincent Dowling, succeeded in generating a great deal of interest in the story both in the media and among potential stakeholders in the proposed reconstruction. While Boston College expressed an interest in acquiring the stones should no home be found for it in Dublin, and exploratory, but ultimately fruitless, discussions took place with Trinity College Dublin about the potential incorporation of the granite façade, measuring 25 feet high and 34 feet wide, into The Lir, National Academy of Dramatic Art, Hanly’s preferred outcome was to have it re-erected close to its original site as an entrance to a proposed National Theatre Gallery or Museum.

It would be a joy to be able to see this “original Georgian façade, with the name ‘The Abbey Theatre’ in dark green letters above the main entrance” (“Where Stands the Abbey?” Dáithi P. Hanly letter to the Irish Times, 30 May 2002), as well as the several other fixtures and fittings preserved by Hanly, and to incorporate them, as virtual objects and textures, in at least a digital rebuilding of the old Abbey Theatre. Perhaps this effort could help to draw attention, once again, to this precious survival and the question of its future.

Meeting Zia Holly

Filed under:Research Sources — posted by Hugh Denard on January 18, 2011 @ 9:06 pm

I met up with lighting designer, Zia Holly, at 3pm this afternoon in the Science Gallery Cafe. Holly wrote a recent BA dissertation on the history of lighting design at the Abbey from 1904 to the present day.* She conducted research in the Abbey Archives, as well as interviewing Leslie Scott who, as the Abbey’s Chief Electrician, oversaw the transfer from the Queen’s Theatre – the company’s home following the 1951 fire – to the new Abbey Theatre in 1966.

Zia gave me a her chapter on the early days of the Abbey, as well as documents describing the various technologies in use during the period with which her research was concerned. She notes that, with Yeats’s emphasis on the primacy of the spoken word: “spectacle was not one of the key concerns of the Abbey in its infancy and it would be some time before the Abbey would seek to encourage or even credit design elements in its productions.” (unpubl. ts. p.7)

Hugh Hunt’s volume The Abbey: Ireland’s National Theatre, 1904-1978 (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1979), carries actress Maire Nic Shiubhlaigh’s recollections of the theatre’s opening night, which gives a vivid impression of Abbey actors frantically doubling up as stage technicians:

“Back stage, Willie Fay, dressed for his part in one of the new plays, a wild wig slipping sideways over his elfin face, swung unexpectedly from a baton high in the flies, arranging the lighting.” (Hunt 1979, p.62)

This additional theatrical role of William Fay was not entirely arbitrary: Holly notes that, before being employed by the Management Committee to advise Joseph Holloway and supervise the renovations of the theatre, Fay had worked as an electrician (unpubl. ts., p.8). But the scene Nic Shiubhlaigh records tends to confirm the impression that the early Abbey was not very much concerned with stage lighting beyond what was required to illuminate the actors.

Indeed, the “modest and unpretentious” space of the proscenium-framed stage, just 21 feet in width by 16 feet in depth (Hunt 1979, p.58), would in any case have afforded limited scope for spectacular effects.

Photographs confirm that footlights were not in use at the Abbey at this time. Actor Udolphus (Dossie) Wright, like Fay, also served in multiple roles including, until 1952 as “master of the switchboard” (Hunt 1979, p.192), “in which capacity he indulged his passion for flooding the stage with amber light” (Hunt 1979, p.68, in Holly unpubl. ts. p.10) – an impression of the Abbey’s approach to lighting which, Holly notes, is borne out by production photographs of the period.

Holly concludes:

“Lighting as an art form relies on attention to detail and at these early stages of development, where design implementation relied on an understanding and mastering of complex and cumbersome technologies for its expression, it was essential, if art was to be the outcome, for its facilitator to have an enthusiastic and focused artistic desire coupled with technical know-how. The practical necessity of role-juggling, inevitably led to lighting being neglected beyond the standards of sufficiency.” (unpubl. ts. 10)

Many thanks to Zia for her kindness in time and access to her dissertation!

* Holly, Zia “Technology and the Rise of Lighting Design in the Abbey” BA Dissertation, Department of Drama, Trinity College Dublin, May 2010.

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image: detail of installation by Bronwyn Lace