In 1852, following the Cork Exhibition, the citizens of Cork decided to build a venue suitable for the holding of public lectures, meetings and concerts. The site chosen was the site of the present Opera House adjacent to the Royal Cork Institution, now the Crawford Municipal Art Gallery. The building was designed by Sir John Benson and the contract for construction was given to William Brash, a local builder. Benson's design for the great hall used during the Cork Exhibition furnished a template for the new venue.
The building, which was called 'The Athenaeum', was finished by early 1855. It hosted its first performance on 29 January 1855, a concert in aid of the Blind Asylum. The Lord Lieutenant, George Frederick Howard, the Earl of Carlisle, officially opened the building on 23 May 1855. Nationalist members of the Cork Corporation had protested against the choice of the Lord Lieutenant to perform the official opening.
'The Athenaeum' was renamed 'The Munster Hall' in 1875 and renamed Cork Opera House in 1877 after extensive reconstruction. It became one of the most popular venues in Cork city and hosted touring opera companies, including the Carl Rosa and Moody Manners companies and some of Ireland's best-known actors until it was destroyed by fire on 13 December 1955. The present Opera House was opened by President Eamon de Valera on 31 October 1965.
The Opera House was extensively refurbished in 2000, adding a splendid facade.