Old Theatre Royal (1736-1750s)

Theatre Royal 1759On the south-west corner of the junction between ‌Oliver Plunkett Street and ‌Princes Street is a site which is part of Cork's theatre history: the site of the city's first purpose-built theatre, the Theatre Royal.‌

William Smith Clark reported that the Smock Alley company from Dublin performed in Cork during the summer seasons of 1713 and 1733 at playhouses in the area of Main Street in Cork. During the 1730s they were replaced as ‘entertainers on the southern circuit' by Theatre Royal, their rival Dublin company.

During winter of 1732-3 the Theatre Royal company made inquires to Sir Edward Lovet Pearce on potential designs for a new playhouse to be built on the Dunscombe’s Marsh area of Cork. The project was carried out over the following three years, with the help of subscriptions form the citizens of Cork and with funds from the estate of former Trinity College provost and Church of Ireland bishop Thomas Elrington, who died in 1732 (Clark, 1965, p. 70-1).

Cork’s Theatre Royal opened for the summer of 1736 with a capacity for 350 theatregoers. The southern half of Princes Street was initially called Playhouse Lane, named after this new establishment. ‌This became the home of Cork theatre for over twenty years. The theatre's location is marked in John Roque's 1759 Map of Cork city, above, with modern-day South Mall at the base of the map detail. At this time ‘the Cork season began in late July or early October 'Joker' Isaac Sparks‌... Three days a week – Monday, Tuesday, Friday – constituted the normal schedule of acting’ (Clark, 1965, pp. 70-1). Among the productions at the Theatre Royal were operas, classics, Shakespearean plays, specialty dancers, as well as charity and comedic performances.

‌Pictured to the left in costume is one of the best-known performers that came to Cork’s Theatre Royal during the 1750s: Dublin comedian, ‘Joker’ Isaac Sparks. He was described as ‘a commanding figure with double chin, mischievous leer, and ingratiating brogue. Fond of clowning in public places as well as on stage, he repaired on off-nights to the Cork Arms Tavern on Castle Street’. A Dublin Gazette report of 23 June 1853 on a performance of The Brave Irishman at the Theatre Royal noted that before ‘a crowded house ... Chief Joker Sparks in the Character of Capt O’Blunder gave the Cork Ladies and Gentlemen such satisfaction as they had never met with before’ (Clark, 1965, p. 76).

With the development of the George's Street area and a rapid increase in Cork’s population during the eighteenth century, a new more spacious venue was required by the end of the 1750s. The Theatre Royal closed and moved to a new venue on the site today occupied by the General Post Office, where it retained the name Theatre Royal.

Old Theatre Royal Site‌A new building was constructed on the site of the Old Theatre Royal in the late 1800s. Decorative features distinctive of late nineteenth-century architecture can be seen on this building today (National Invenrarytory of Architectural Heritage). Directories of Cork confirm that this site, at 58 Oliver Plunkett Street, had many different occupiers over the last one hundred years. In 1891 the premises were occupied by Hosford & Co. grocers, then by Mrs Murphy’s tobacconists, and a newsagent's shop was based there in 1913, while in 1945 the premises was the home of Mrs Cussen’s provisions store called The Farm House. Today this historic site is occupied by the Turkish barber shop, Karizma.

Clark, William Smith, The Irish stage in the county towns 1720-1800 (Oxford, 1965).

Isaac Sparks image courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library

National Inventory of Architectural Heritage: website

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