Since 1871, ‘The Grand Old Lady of South King Street’ has remained a vital and ever-changing expression of Irish culture and Irish society, whilst providing a wonderful array of entertainment down through the years, writes Seán Creedon.
The Gaiety Theatre, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this month, is located on Dublin’s South King Street, just off Grafton Street and two minutes’ walk from St Stephen’s Green.
Since 1871, The Gaiety has given the people of Dublin and Ireland opera, musicals, drama, revues, comedy, concerts, dance, festivals and pantomime.
Amid the laughter and tears, through times of war and times of affluence, The Grand Old Lady of South King Street has remained a vital and ever-changing expression of Irish culture and Irish society.
In April 1871 the brothers John and Michael Gunn obtained a 21-year license to establish what they described as ‘‘a well-regulated theatre and therein at all times publicly to act, represent or perform any interlude, tragedy, comedy, prelude, opera, burletta, play, farce or pantomime.’’
The brothers were sons of a Scotsman who had settled in Dublin, where he ran a successful business at 61 Grafton Street selling sheet music, harmonicas and pianos.
The site on South King Street was formerly occupied by grocers and a baker. The builders worked 24-hour shifts and construction of the theatre was completed in just 26 weeks. The architect was C. J. Phipps and the total cost was £26,000.
Charles John Phipps, FSA, generally known as C. J., was born in Bath in 1835 where 27 years later he would be responsible for redesigning the city’s Theatre Royal. After moving to London he established himself as one of the 19th century leading theatre architects, with over 40 theatres throughout Britain built to his design. The Grand Theatre in Wolverhampton, which was built around the same time, is an exact replica of The Gaiety.
In Ireland Phipps also designed the Leinster Hall, which opened in 1886 on the site of the Theatre Royal, and he was also responsible for the design of the Cork Opera House, which was built in 1877 on the site of what had first been the Athenaeum and then the Munster Hall. Phipps’ building in Cork was destroyed by fire in December 1955, leaving the Gaiety as the last remaining example of his work in Ireland.
When it opened, the Gaiety could hold an audience of 2,000 spread over four floors. The capacity has been steadily reduced with each renovation and the capacity is now just under 1,200.
The Gaiety opened on November 27, 1871 with the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, John Poyntz Spencer, as guest of honour. The double programme on the opening night included the comedy She Stoops to Conquer and a burlesque version of La Belle Sauvage.