Curtains up: a nostalgic look at Cork’s old opera house and the Harold Pinter connection

The old Cork Opera House in 1883.
Cork Opera House, 1883 (Robert French, Lawrence Collection, © National Library of Ireland via Flickr). Built as the Athenaeum (a ballroom, lecture hall and concert venue) in 1855, it was extensively repurposed as a theatre and opera house in 1877 but was destroyed by fire in 1955.

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Dr Paul O’Brien takes us on a stroll down memory lane as he peruses some old Cork Opera House programmes featuring Harold Pinter, a luminary in modern playwriting whose prolific career spanned more than five decades.

Not long ago, as I examined my memorabilia, I stumbled upon a stack of Cork Opera House programmes dating to the early 1950s.

Cork Opera House programmes from 1952/53, just two years before the Opera House burnt down.
Cork Opera House programmes from 1952 and 1953, showcasing the Anew McMaster repertory company and featuring well-known names such as Harold Pinter, Barry Foster, Pauline Flanagan and Christopher McMaster (photo: Paul O’Brien).

Fond memories of Tom Donnelly, Fr O’Flynn & the Loft

In those days, Tom Donnelly (1934–2015) – an old school friend from Christian Brothers College and ever the harbinger of cultural enrichment – took it upon himself to initiate me into the realm of Shakespearean drama.

Our gateway into this world was none other than Fr Christy O’Flynn’s (1881–1962) famous acting nursery “The Loft”, located on a side street near the North Infirmary Hospital in Shandon, as I recall.

Fr O’Flynn’s acting school, The Loft, was located above Linehan's Handmade Sweets on John Redmond St, Shandon, Cork city.
Fr O’Flynn’s acting school, The Loft, was located above Linehan’s Handmade Sweets on John Redmond St, Shandon, Cork city (© William Murphy, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0; edited IHN).

At the time, the good priest’s star performers were Abby Hennessy née Scott (d. 2018) and Chris Curran (d. 1996). Today, Curran is best remembered for his role as Fr Jim Johnson of Rugged Island in Father Ted.

Such was my talent, I never even got to be prompter at rehearsals.

Cork Opera House

Tom also took me to plays at the Opera House. I was one of the sad witnesses on Patrick’s Bridge as the opera house building burned down in 1955. Having survived the burning of Cork by British forces in 1920, it succumbed to a combination of faulty wiring and wooden construction.

Only in 1962 did the development of the new Opera House begin, and it wasn’t until 1965 – a full decade after the old building on the same site was destroyed by fire – that its doors opened to the public.

A keen and knowledgeable playgoer, Tom brought me along to numerous performances in the old Opera House. His influential connections often granted us backstage access, where we mingled with the cast.

Little did I know then, but Tom was destined to emerge as a driving force within Cork city’s cultural scene, saving the Cork-based Irish National Ballet Company in the 1970s at the request of Taoiseach Jack Lynch (1917–1999) and later becoming manager of Cork Opera House.

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Harold Pinter & his time in Ireland

While examining the programmes from 1952 and 1953 featuring the Anew McMaster Shakespearean troupe, the appearance of Harold Pinter’s (1930–2008) name caught my attention. According to the programmes, he featured in both Othello and Macbeth. Today, Harold Pinter is heralded as one of the greatest modern dramatists and, in 2005, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Harold Pinter, playwright and actor
Harold Pinter, 1962 (credit: Jack de Nijs for Anefo, via Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0).

A Londoner, Pinter’s affinity for his time in Ireland is well-documented. In response to an advertisement, he found himself undergoing an interview conducted by actor-manager Anew McMaster (1891–1962) himself in a flat located at Willesden Junction, London. McMaster was also from England but was a giant of the Irish stage.

“Mac”, as Pinter fondly remembered him, extended an offer of employment at a weekly wage of £6, touting the affordability of lodgings in Ireland for a mere 25 shillings as well as the cheap cigarettes.

Enthusiastically embracing this opportunity, the young actor signed up and did five seasons with the fit-up company as they toured rural Ireland. Over two years, Pinter played more than a dozen roles and performed in Cork, Skibbereen, Tralee, Dublin, Dundalk, Ballina, Athlone, Mullingar, Sligo and Ballyshannon.

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It was his first real acting job. From McMaster, Pinter learned the art and influence of the dramatic word. His biographer Michael Billington says he also mastered the ability to seize the moment and impose himself upon the audience.

Pinter persuaded McMaster to hire his friend Barry Foster (1927–2002), who also appears as a cast member in my programmes. Pinter met Foster during their tenure at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London.

Foster made his professional stage debut in Cork. He went on to have an illustrious career across stage, radio, television and film. Most famously, he portrayed Bob Rusk in Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy. Another of his roles was as the flinty IRA commander in Ryan’s Daughter.

In later years, Pinter fondly remembered the old Opera House in Cork, especially the backstage bar where the actors could enjoy a quick drink between acts.

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Another actor’s name recorded in my programmes is that of Joseph (“Joe”) Nolan. An unforgettable moment occurred in the Opera House involving Nolan and Pinter, with the latter playing Lord Darlington during a production of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan. Dressed to the nines, Nolan took the stage in front of a full house and halting before Pinter, he whispered, “I’m totally p****d, say something”. In response, Pinter ad-libbed some phrase Wilde had never written, which Nolan seamlessly embraced, ensuring the show continued without a hitch.

The topography of Ireland intrigued Pinter, which seems to have prompted a significant transformation in his poetry between 1951 and 1953, as is evident in works such as “The Islands of Aran seen from the Moher Cliffs”.

Cliffs of Moher, County Clare.
Cliffs of Moher, Co. Clare (© Eugen Butwilowski /

He also fell in love with fellow cast member and Sligo native Pauline Flanagan (1925–2003), another name listed in my programmes. Their mutual fascination with Yeats further deepened their connection. Flanagan, who went on to have a distinguished career on US stage and television, remained a lifelong friend.

>>> READ MORE: Could Church Island be Yeats’ treasured “Lake Isle of Innisfree”?

During his time in Ireland, Pinter read a copy of Poetry Ireland, a magazine edited by Cork-born David Marcus (1924–2009), which featured an excerpt by the then-unknown Dublin writer Samuel Beckett (1906–89). This experience proved to be a revelation for Pinter, significantly influencing his later work.

Writer Samuel Beckett.
Samuel Beckett, 1977 (credit: Roger Pic, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain).

Pinter tried unsuccessfully to contact Beckett. On returning to London, he filched a copy of Beckett’s Murphy from a library and hung on to it. Beckett would later become a personal friend.

A preoccupation with Ireland and the Irish continued to be a feature of Pinter’s work until the late ’70s, according to Professor Harry White, UCD. In his writings, Ireland assumes the dual symbolic role as a conduit for nostalgic reminiscence on the one hand and for potential violence on the other.

In 1966, in a touching memoir to McMaster, Pinter wrote:

“Ireland wasn’t always golden but it was golden sometimes, and, all in all … a golden age for me and for others.”

If you also have memories of the old Opera House in Cork or of seeing Harold Pinter perform in any Irish theatre, please share them with us in the comment section below!

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  1. I worked there from 1985 to 2000. Tommy Burke and Tommy Cuthbert were stage managers and Paddy O Leary was house electrical. Pat Shine, Brendan Shine, Billy Meehan, Seamie Griffin, Sean Griffin and Frankie Griffin, Billy Moore, Brendan Galvin, Pat Talbot all stage techs. Wonderful days were had.

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