By Peggy Doherty
Seventy years ago this month, the Abbey Theatre was having a successful run of The Plough and the Stars by Sean O’Casey. On the evening of July 17th 1951, after the cast and staff had left for the evening, flames were seen by two passers-by after midnight, and soon after, most of the building had been destroyed by fire.
Speaking on RTE Radio after the tragic event, Lennox Robinson, Theatre Producer and Director stated:
Almost to the day in 1904 when the Abbey Theatre was opened, it had been harshly criticised, its players derided and its plays condemned. Now when the building was almost extinct, love, sympathy and offers of help poured in from other theatres, from cinemas, from individuals, not only in Ireland but in England, the United States of America and the Continent. It only needed this little tragedy…the loss of the Abbey building is a small thing in its history compared with the early death of Synge or the death of F.J McCormick to realise how deeply rooted the Abbey Theatre is in the national life of Ireland.
Lennox Robinson, RTE Archive 1951
While all three founders of the Irish Literary Theatre (later to become the Abbey) were deceased by the time of the fire, Lady Gregory, W.B. Yeats and Edward Martyn were indeed witnesses to the criticisms and condemnations referred to by Robinson.
Several days after the very first performance of The Plough and the Stars in February 1926, Lady Gregory was on the train to Dublin when she read The Irish Times’ account of the previous night’s events: Men and women had invaded the stage to attack the actors amid an uproar of stink bombs and violence. Twenty-five years later, the night was to end in flames, rather than with Yeats rebuking the audience from the stage. Given what is known of Lady Gregory’s disposition and dedication, it is likely she would have dutifully begun fundraising to build the Abbey again.
Memorabilia in the Kiltartan Gregory Museum
Memorabilia related to the Abbey, such as first editions of Lady Gregory’s plays, as well as posters and programmes, are on display in the Kiltartan Gregory Museum for viewing. In particular, an original programme from its 21st birthday celebration at the Abbey in December 1925 is in the collection -- an event at which Lady Gregory’s speech was so charming and clever that it drew rapturous applause from the Abbey audience! No doubt a sound she welcomed…
Reopening of the Abbey Theatre 15 Years Later
It is also on this day, 15 years later, July 18th 1966, that President De Valera opens the new Abbey Theatre, check out his speech here.
Sources consulted: RTE Archives, Lennox Robinson Interview, 1951. Lady Gregory, An Irish Life by Judith Hill.