Limerick Chronicle files: Curtain call for famous city theatre

Sharon Slater, Limerick Chronicle Historian


Sharon Slater, Limerick Chronicle Historian


Limerick's Catherine Hayes performed her home city debut at the Theatre Royal in 1849

Limerick's Catherine Hayes performed her home city debut at the Theatre Royal in 1849

ON the evening of Monday, January 23, 1922, Limerick’s Theatre Royal was destroyed by fire.

During its long career of almost eighty years, many noted figures appeared on its boards. Amongst them were Charles Dickens, Daniel O’Connell, Catherine Hayes, Joseph O’Mara and John McCormack. The theatre was also used to host public meetings and social functions.

In 1841, Joseph Fogerty leased a site on Henry Street at the corner of Mallow Street from the Earl of Limerick. He initially planned to use the site as a circus.

His circus ran for three years before it was announced in the Chronicle on April 6, 1844 that the “Circus, in Henry-street, is being handsomely fitted up as a theatre, by Mr Fogerty, for dramatic performance.”

This theatre became known as the Theatre Royal. It was not the first theatre in the city to bear that name but the third.

Toltenham Heaphy on Lower Gerald Griffin Street erected the first theatre in Limerick to bear the name Theatre Royal in 1770. This theatre, as with its namesake, was destroyed by fire in 1818.

The second began as the City Theatre in 1810, in O’Connell Street, it was later known as the Theatre Royal. It had a very short run, closing after only twelve years. In 1822, the Augustinian Fathers purchased it and converted it into their church. While another Theatre Royal opened in the old Athenaeum building on Cecil Street which ran from 1989 until 1998.

Fogerty’s theatre outlasted the lifespans of all the other Theatre Royals put together by over a decade. This may have been due in part to the variety of events and entertainers he had on his premises. Fogerty as we will see from the reports of the time was very adaptable and changed his theatre to suit all kinds of events.

The Chronicle of April 24, 1861 describes the theatre as “horse shoe shape” which allowed all audience members to view the stage unhindered.

It was “110 feet by 60 feet in the clear; the dimensions of the pit are 50 feet long by 40 feet wide; there is a tier of boxes and a gallery extending round the building”. The dressing rooms consisted of fifteen large boxes for changing. The height of the “first tier from the pit floor is 11 feet; from the floor of the dress circle to the ceiling is 8 feet”.

In order to insure proper ventilation throughout the building there were two windows in the corridor. The corridor extended “all around the boxes, and attached is a spacious saloon, 40 feet by 20 feet and 10 feet high. There are 12 gasifiers, containing 42 lights with glass shades, which produce an agreeable and soft light throughout the house… The stage is 36 feet deep by 45 feet wide.”

One of the first major events hosted in the theatre was a banquet held in honour of Daniel O’Connell and the Limerick Repealers on November 23, 1844. The Chronicle of that evening described the event: “The stage having been remove, the entire space has been floored on a level with the pit, (the boxes being left standing for the accommodation of females) and tables are erected sufficient to dine 750.”

Fogerty’s first brush with fire came in December 1845 when a jar of turpentine was left in the building with a lit candle. The Chronicle of December 6, 1845 picked up the story.

“Monday night some miscreants attempted to fire the new theatre in Henry-street, the property of Mr Joseph Fogerty, Builder. Shortly after the audience retired, Mr Fogerty observed a strong smell of turpentine and on searching the stage, a jar of this powerful liquid was discovered in one of the rooms, upset upon the floor, with a lighted candle thrown over it! The timely discovery of this nefarious act was providential, else, from the quantity of timber in the concerns, the number of gas jets in use, nothing could have saved the theatre from total destruction; but had a conflagration burst forth while the audience were in, the consequences would be lamented, as the house was filled in all parts. The jar of turpentine must have been conveyed in privately, as such a combustible was not required for use. It has been ascertained that a case of pistols belonging to Mr Fogerty, which were placed in a table-drawer, were stolen by the ruffians on the same occasion.”

Joseph Fogerty was a member of the Masonic Order in 1846 he was installed as Master of 73 lodge on Henry Street. He would continue to support the order by hosting their events in his theatre.

The Limerick Chronicle on 16 February 1848 reported: “Mr Joseph Fogerty is fitting up the new theatre in Henry-Street on the grandest scale for the Masonic ball. The whole area of the interior is to be formed into a ball room for dancing and promenade, and the stage is fitted up as a saloon for refreshments, communicating with the ball room by folding doors.”

He held another ball for the Masonic Order on 6 March 1848. This time the theatre was decked out to include full-sized likenesses of members of the royal family, including the Queen, Prince Albert and the Princess Royal. Dancing began at half-past nine that evening and the supper, supplied by John Goggin, was served at one o’clock. The partying continued until four in the morning when the entire party left, filled with merriment and good food.

The Chronicle on March 8, 1848 listed all of those in attendance and it was a who’s who of nineteenth century Limerick society.

1849, was one of the most important years for the theatre’s local audience with the rise of Catherine Hayes in the national arena. In October 1849, the theatre was redesigned for the upcoming concert series.

The designers were Corbett & Son who changed the layout of the boxes and pit, raising the floor so the audience would have an elevated view of the performers.

It had been hoped that Catherine Hayes would launch the new lay out but as the Chronicle reported on October 27 1849 “we understand that it will be impossible, from her numerous engagements for months to comes in the chief cities of Ireland, England and Scotland for Miss Hayes to sing as originally intended at a concert for the public charities of her native city, and, from the same reason, a re-engagement is impossible.”

This impossibility was overcome as Catherine Hayes did return to Limerick two weeks later and gave two concerts which were recorded in the Chronicle on Wednesday, November 14, 1849.

“This expression may appear a solecism to our English neighbours, who know their Philomel is not indigenous to the Irish soil, but no other word in the language is sufficient to convey, by such endearing and truthful analogy, to both countries the exquisitely beauteous melody of Miss Hayes, whether we behold her as a warbler of ‘wood notes wild’ at the pure inspiration of native genius, or the matchless interpreter of the most classical and florid styles of vocalism, which the severe discipline of continental art inculcates, often at the loss of health and life itself."

"Monday evening was fixed for the first appearance of the Irish Prima Donna in the city of her birth. The excitement which engrossed the public mind at this imposing event was never surpassed in Limerick, and many families travelled a distance of fifty miles… to attend the Concert.

"The advent of a great singer to our City would, at any time, create a more than ordinary sensation; but the return of Miss Hayes, connected by birth right and social ties, to ‘home sweet home’ after having acquired a reputation in the great cities of Europe for her transcendent genius, is quite enough to account for that unprecedented popular excitement of which Limerick was focus for the last two days.

"So intense was the desire to be present at the debut of our fair and highly gifted countrywoman, that for three days before the first concert not a stall or reserved seat could be had in the Theatre, and on Saturday and Monday five and six times the original price for a stall or box ticket was offered by several who had not been successful in securing places in time.

"At an early hour on Monday evening the streets were impeded every step by the crowds… anxious, if possible to catch a glimpse of ‘The fair Swan of Erin’ as she left Cruise’s hotel for the performance. Henry Street and the approaches were actually besieged with vehicles.

"It was with no small difficulty the portico of the Theatre was accessible, where a strong barrier had been erected to restrain the multitude outside, with the aid of a strong detachment of the Police; but so dense was the pressure from the early hour of four o’clock, long before the doors were opened that it was really alarming to witness the rush, when the portals, creaking on their hinges, announced the long expected entrée, and the huge living tide rolled in undulating waves to the area within, and in ten minutes every seat in the boxes were occupied, the standing room being immediately after secured by all the less fortunate visitors. Hundreds were sent back to digest the bitter disappointment, with the solace of being in better time on Tuesday…

"The stalls and reserved seats presented an array of rank, beauty, and splendour never before witnessed within the walls of our Theatre, the scarlet and blue uniform of the military blending in picturesque harmony with the gay and varied costume of the civilians.”

As Catherine Hayes arrived, she was greeted with the voices of almost nine hundred audience members cheering for a full ten minutes. There was a pause in the vocal welcome though hats and handkerchiefs continued to be waved.

She began the concert with Casta Diva “with an intensity of feeling and sound that at once assured the audience of the presence of a cultivated singer and artist.” She ended with several encores and left the stage. The audience cheered for fifteen minutes until a member of staff came to the stage to let them know that she had left the building.

The audience then gave three cheers to Miss Hayes and slowly cleared away.

The following night, tickets were being sold on the black market for a whooping £1, though not many of these were bought by even larger crowd that had gathered at the hopes of a glimpse of the songstress. The theatre was rearrange and room increase from 870 persons on the first night to 1100 persons on the second night. As with the Monday night, the crowd cheered and were not in any way disappointed by the performance. They littered the stage with a shower of bouquets.

Before leaving the city Catherine Hayes donated £20 to the charity concert, which was to take place that Saturday, with £10 going to the Lying-in Hospital, £5 to Barrington’s Hospital and £5 to the City Dispensary. She was unable to take part in the charity event due to a prior engagement in Cork.

The April 14, 2018 issue of the Chronicle detailed the visit of Charles Dickens to the theatre in 1858, while in April 1861, the London Opera Company made their Limerick Debut in the theatre.

Throughout the decades, Fogerty opened the doors of his theatre for many charitable events including ongoing support for the Protestant Orphan Society and the Protestant Young Men’s Association.

Joseph Fogerty died at his home on Henry Street on Wednesday September 7, 1887. His funeral took place at St Mary’s Cathedral. He left his widow Martha and son Robert effects valued at over £5,200.

The Chronicle published this obituary the following day: “Death of Mr Joseph Fogerty – With deep regret we announce the death of Mr Joseph Fogerty, proprietor of the Theatre Royal, which sad event occurred last night at his residence. Deceased, who was 83 years of age at the time of the melancholy occurrence, was most charitable. He was also conspicuous by his kindness in giving the loss of a good kind old citizen will, we are sure, be deeply felt by his many friends.” His son Robert Fogerty continued his theatre until Robert’s death in 1907.

The theatre was converted into use as a cinema, this more than likely contributed to the fire, which destroyed it, as early cinema film was highly combustible.