Smock Alley Theatre

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Smock Alley Theatre
Smock Alley Theatre Dublin.JPG
Smock Alley Theatre is located in Central Dublin
Smock Alley Theatre
Smock Alley Theatre
Address 6/7 Exchange Street Lower
Dublin 8
Coordinates 53°20′42″N 6°16′10″W / 53.345068°N 6.2695543°W / 53.345068; -6.2695543
Type theatre
Opened 1662
Years active 1662-1787,
2012 to present
Smock Alley Theatre sign

The Smock Alley Theatre is a theatre in Dublin. The original theatre opened in 1662 and operated till 1787.[1] In 2012, after a €3.5 million investment, a new theatre opened on the original foundations and with a lot of the original superstructure.[2]


The Smock Alley Theatre was the second purpose built theatre in Ireland. It was preceded by the Werburgh Street Theatre - which was, however, only active for four years, approximately 1637-1641. That earlier theater came to a sudden end with the outbreak of the Irish Rebellion of 1641. In October of that year, the Lords Justices prohibited playing there. Already shortly afterwards, the building was said to be 'ruined and spoiled', and 'a cow-house made of the stage'. There never was an attempt to renew theatrical activity in that location.

The years of Oliver Cromwell's Puritan rule were a bad time for the theater, altogether outlawed also in England itself. Moreover, Ireland, conquered by Cromwell's troops, suffered various other kinds of harsh oppression. But the restoration of King Charles II - who strongly appreciated French culture, including French theater - saw the swift revival of theater and its flourishing in both England and Ireland. Within a short time of the Restoration of the Monarchy, no less than three major theaters were opened. The construction in London of Lincoln's Inn Fields (1660) (originally a tennis court), and Drury Lane (1661) was closely followed by Dublin's Smock Alley Theatre, the first Irish institute to be dubbed "Theatre Royal".

The Smock Alley Theatre is the only one of these mid-17th Century purpose-built theater buildings which still exists in substantially the same form as in 1662 - while Lincoln's Inn Field was demolished in 1848 and the Drury Lane has been demolished and rebuilt 4 times since 1663.

Original Form[edit]

It was known as the Theatre Royal at Smock Alley when it was built and opened by John Ogilby in 1662. It consisted of a classical proscenium stage, pit, boxes, a middle and upper gallery, lattices (which were a type of box peculiar to Dublin) and a music/orchestra loft above the stage, also the acoustics were said to be excellent. The pit had backless benches and a raked floor that rose toward the back of the audience to help sightlines. Mostly single men sat here, and it was the noisiest, rowdiest area in the theatre. Boxes sat upper class aristocrats—mostly married couples with wives who wanted to be seen. Boxes were luxuriously decorated with velvet drapes should the occupants require some privacy during the evening....for whatever reason. The doors were wider in the boxes to allow access for the voluminous dresses of the ladies. Galleries held the lower class, including servants of the upper classes in attendance. These were the worst seats as they were on the same level as the large chandeliers that lit the theatre. Candles were made of tallow (animal fat) and they were very pungent and smokey. The building was built on reclaimed ground from the River Liffey and due to this, in 1670 and later in 1701 the upper galleries collapsed killing several people inside and injuring many more including the son of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Charles Earl of Middlesex. He was pulled from the wreckage of his box with two broken legs

There was another partial collapse in March 1734 after which it was abandoned for a short while. The major decision was then taken to demolish and rebuild the theatre in 1735 with increased audience capacity.

However a new theatre had opened in Aungier Street and it managed to wrestle the title Theatre Royal from Smock Alley for a time. In 1745 Thomas Sheridan, godson of Jonathan Swift, took on the role of manager of Smock Alley and Aungier Street. He made many improvements and reclaimed the title Theatre Royal for Smock Alley. By 1750 the Aungier Street theatre had closed down. Sheridan was not only director of the theatre, he was also a playwright and strove to improve audiences at the theatre by cleaning up the neighbourhood in which it stood. At the time there were many unsavoury taverns and ale houses as well as many establishments of ill repute that Sheridan successfully petitioned to have closed down in favour of more wholesome and decent businesses. This change in the area encouraged more noble people to again return to the theatre and it once again thrived.

Benjamin Victor was an Englishman who originally visited Ireland in an effort to extend his textile business, but that did not prove profitable, and he eventually gave it up. On 11 October 1746 Victor settled with his family in Dublin as treasurer and deputy-manager to Sheridan at the Smock Alley Theatre. The theatre was for some years fairly successful; but about 1753 Sheridan was at variance with a portion of the theatre-going public, and for two years Victor and John Sowdon, a principal actor in the company, took over its management. On 15 July 1755 Sheridan returned to Dublin, and Victor resumed his old position. Eventually the theatre was closed on 20 April 1759, and Victor returned to England. The theare later reopened, being active until 1787, but Victor did not return - having become involved with the Drury Lane Theatre in his native London.

Theatre at Smock Alley[edit]

While Smock Alley was in operation as a theatre, it gave the world the plays of George Farquhar (The Recruiting Officer/The Beaux Stratagem), Oliver Goldsmith (She Stoops to Conquer) and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, son of Thomas Sheridan (The Rivals/School for Scandal). It was here that the stars of world theatre appeared to much acclaim such as Peg Woffington, Thomas Sheridan, Spranger Barry and Charles Macklin. It was on the stage of Smock Alley Theatre that David Garrick, the greatest actor of the 18th century, first played Hamlet. It was the first time Hamlet had ever been staged in Ireland and some 3,000 customer clambered to get one of only 300 tickets.

It was also the site of some infamous 18th century Dublin riots, the most serious being the Kelly riots of 1747. Thomas Sheridan was manager at the time and had recently banned the presence of audience members on stage and the taking of money for the privilege of going backstage. These rules were for men only and were in place as many actresses had formerly been prostitutes. Indeed, it was under Charles II that the law was changed to even allow women to act on stage. These rules were severely tested by a very drunk Trinity College student named Richard Kelly. Kelly did not appreciate the new rules restricting access backstage and brazenly went back stage.[3]

Smock Alley As A Church[edit]

In 1758 another rival theatre opened up and eventually Smock Alley Theatre closed in 1787. After this, the building was used as a whiskey store until it was bought by Fr Michael Blake and the building was converted into a church between 1811 and 1815. It was named Ss Michael and John's Church after the medieval churches of St Michael of the Hill (now Dublinia) and St John of Booth Street (Fishamble Street). It had a famous stained glass window that is now in Swords. The theatre still boasts ornate stained glass windows and ceiling plasterwork which dates from the turn of the 20th century.

When the bell tolled in 1811, 18 years before Catholic Emancipation; it was the first Catholic bell to ring in Dublin in nearly 300 years. This prompted the aldermen of the city to bring charges against Fr Blake but these charges were dropped when it was learnt that a young and up-and-coming lawyer called Daniel O'Connell was to defend him.

In 1989 due to falling numbers of parishioners the church of St Michael and John was deconsecrated. It was then redeveloped (part of the Temple Bar rejuvenation scheme) into the 'Viking Adventure' which was closed down in 2002.


In 2009, a full archaeological excavation took place under Margaret Gowan Archaeology. The dig revealed part of the foundations from the theatre built in 1662 and the full basement and foundation plan of the 1735 theatre.

They discovered that the theatre was not demolished to build the church as originally thought but had been converted by blocking up windows and doors, taking off the roof, inserting a fine plaster ceiling, stained glass windows and burial vaults.

A total of 229 artefacts were recovered from the excavations, these included medieval and post-medieval pottery, glass finds (mostly wine bottles), clay tobacco pipe fragments, an actor's wig curler, a medieval roof tile, fragments of mosaic floor and lots of oyster shells, remnants of the theatre's colourful past.

Present Day[edit]

After a six-year renovation, Smock Alley Theatre reopened its doors as Dublin's oldest/newest theatre in May 2012. The Smock Alley Theatre site comprises Smock Alley Theatre, 1662 (178 seats), The Boys School (60 - 100 capacity), Black Box (80 capacity), and The Banquet Hall (300 capacity). All spaces in Smock Alley Theatre are available for commercial or private hire. Smock Alley Theatre is currently establishing a series of strategic long term partnerships with theatre/ dance companies, festivals, The National Theatre School of Ireland (incorporating The Gaiety School of Ireland) and others so that over a significant period of time, the opportunity of ongoing association will ensure audiences grow and link the work of a particular company to the venue.

The Banquet Hall is beautiful and impressive with an ornate plaster work ceiling, plastered walls and stained glass windows from the theatre's time as a church. There are wooden floors and oak tables and benches. Dimensions are – width 13M, length 25M, height 6.2M. The space is versatile and easy to change – ideal for conferences and launches – events where are larger capacity are required.

The Boys School has a gothic atmosphere, a more versatile seating option and is easy to change – ideal for experimental shows and productions. A high and ancient church wall creates a dramatic backdrop for performance. A spiral ramp which hugs the wall around the theatre, allows for innovative use of the vertical space and interesting vantage points.

The newly constructed main space is built on the foundations of Smock Alley Theatre of 1662. The walls of our new theatre are the original walls of that famous first Dublin theatre. Newly constructed are the 178 seats, dressing rooms and green room facilities. Spacious and versatile, the Main Space is suitable for lectures and comedy, as well as theatre and musical performance.

Smock Alley is currently a regular venue for Dublin festivals, (Dublin Fringe Festival, Dublin Theatre Festival, Dublin Writers Festival, Dublin Dance Festival, Collaborations, Bram Stoker, St Patrick Festival, New Year's Eve Festival, First Fortnight) launch events, seminars, conferences, training days, private functions and all theatre, dance and music events. For more than a century, Smock Alley put Irish theatre on the European map. Smock Alley Theatre was at the very core of an Ireland striving to find its own voice. If we are to ask historically what makes theatre such an important part of culture today, we need to go back more than two centuries before the founding of The Abbey Theatre, to the Smock Alley Theatre of the 17th century.


  1. ^ Annals of English Drama 975-1700 Alfred B. Harbage, Samuel Schoenbaum - 1964 -"Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin. Built in 1662 by John Ogilby, and used by his company and thatof his deputy and successor, Joseph Ashbury, 1662- a.1700. In type it probably resembled Lisle's Tennis Court. "
  2. ^ Smock Alley Theatre reopening after 225 years - New theatre set to open today on site of original facility which opened in 1662. 17 May 2012 "The theatre closed in 1787, after which it served as a store, a church and a tourist attraction. After a €3.5 million investment and years of research and fundraising, the new theatre is set to open on the same foundations at Smock Alley Theatre was originally based. The walls are the same as those that housed that first incarnation of the theatre, but the new facility has a new green room, dressing rooms and 177 seats in the auditorium."
  3. ^ Moody, T. W.; et al., eds. (1989). A New History of Ireland. 8: A Chronology of Irish History. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-821744-2. 
  • Joseph Quincy Adams, quoting a contemporary manuscript source, in Shakespearean Playhouses: A History of English Theatres from the Beginnings to the Restoration, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1917; p. 419.
  • Simpson, L. (Margaret Gowen & Co. Ltd) Archaeological excavation at the Smock Alley Theatre 17/3/2010
  • Dr. Christopher Morash (NUI Maynooth) Board Member of Smock Alley Ltd
  • Bynane, P. (Prof. Theatre, Texas Women's University) "As Good A Gentleman as You Are." The Kelly Riots at the Theatre Royal, Smock Alley
  • Joseph Quincy Adams, quoting a contemporary manuscript source, in Shakespearean Playhouses: A History of English Theatres from the Beginnings to the Restoration, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1917; p. 419.

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