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No. 1 The Pre-War Theatre


THERE are thousands of young and middle-aged people in Ulster who have never seen a dramatic play or a stupendous musical comedy performed by a live professional company.

It is not their fault. They have grown up in an age of television -- when mediocre entertainment is brought to them at their own fireside. It is with them all the time-and very often repetitive-but because it is so handy and convenient they watch it continually and being entertained becomes a habit rather than an event.

When I was young things were very different. There wasn't even a radio in the house then. I had to go to a theatre to see a play and if I wanted a variety programme I went to a music hall. In both these places there was a strong atmosphere of gaiety and anticipation. I got away from the domestic scene and mixed with people who had the same interests as myself. I felt close to the actors who were performing on the stage and was fascinated by the strange and interesting lives they led. The living music that carne from the men and women in the orchestra pit played havoc with my emotions.

The theatre and the music hall impressed me deeply because they had abundant life and vitality, They catered for all tastes and moods and there was nothing mass-produced about them. Television has its moments of originality too, but, alas, they are brief and when I compare it to the theatre I knew in Ulster in the twenties and thirties, it is as dead as an unlaid egg in a defunct hen.

In the queue

My first experience of the theatre was in the Grand Opera House in Belfast. When I was at school I was always taken to the annual Christmas Pantomime. With my parents I queued at the early door for the pit. We paid threepence extra and got the front row Then I waited for what seemed an endless hour until the performance commenced. I saw the more prosperous patrons taking their seats in the stalls I listened while the musicians tuned their instruments and at long last the lights went out and the curtains rose, bringing a familiar fairy tale to life with robust humour, happy songs and unforgettable colour.

My early memories of the Grand Opera House also include one of the once famous Ulster Literary Theatre. They were playing The Auction in Killybuck by Louie J. Walsh and drawing good houses. For many years this great Ulster company played seasons in Belfast, Derry and the Abbey Theatre in Dublin but, alas, they faded out long before the last war.

Well-known film stars often went on tour and Belfast was included. They never stayed for more than a week and from the Opera House gallery I watched Mathieson Lang in The Chinese Bungalow, Pauline Frederick in Madame X and Greta Nissen in Romance.

In the mid-thirties when the Abbey Theatre came to Belfast for a short season, they performed three plays a week including the work of Sean O'Casey and Ulster's own George Shiels. And what a cast they had. It included Barry Fitzgerald who shortly afterwards went to Hollywood and became world famous as a film actor. Arthur Shields was also in the company and he, too, went to Hollywood.

At that time the Royal Hippodrome was Belfast's leading Variety Theatre, but about 1933 it became a cinema and from then on the Opera House featured a few seasons of variety each year, presented twice nightly. Sir Harry Louder, Will Fyffe, Billy Bennett, Layton and Johnstone were some of their bill-toppers.

Support was thin

Various attempts were made to form a repertory company in Belfast. Griffths Knight formed his Little Theatre and presented a play each week in the Ulster Minor Hall-now the home of the Ulster Group Theatre. Most of his productions were excellent but support from the public was not great. Mr. Knight's company gave up the struggle, but one of his actors-Harald Norway- re-opened the t h e a t r e as The Playhouse. It continued until early in 1939 when it was succeeded by the Ulster Group Theatre.

As well as that, the late Richard Hayward formed his Belfast Repertory Company and for a few years had short seasons at the Empire Theatre and the Abbey Theatre. He concentrated on the work of Ulster authors and gave great encouragement to new playwrights. He was the first producer to discover one in the Belfast . shipyards. Sandy Row-born Thomas Carnduff was unemployed at the time and wrote three plays, all of which were .presented by Hayward.

Well received

Carnduff's first play-Workers-dealt with industrial conditions in Belfast during that p e r i o d of unemployment and hunger. It was well received in Belfast and Dublin and a year later his second play-Traitors-had the same success. Carnduff then became the first playwright in Belfast to write a historical drama. His " Castlereagh " was set in Mountstewart in 1798 and introduced such characters as Lord Castlereagh, Rev. James Porter of Greyabbey, and Henry Joy McCracken.

Scripts lost

Mrs. Mary Carnduff told me recently that the scripts of all Tommy's plays have been lost. If anyone who reads this article should have a copy, it would be appreciated if Mrs. Carnduff could have it.

The beginning of the war saw the greatest theatrical achievement Belfast has ever known. The amateur dramatic societies-The Jewish Institute Players, The North Irish Players and the Carrickfergus Players -joined together to form the Ulster Group Theatre. Under the guidance of R. H. MacCandless, Harold Goldblatt and J. R. Mageean, the Ulster theatre received international recognition for the first time in its life.

In the next article I will tell you about the theatres of old Belfast and Derry.


BELFAST'S first theatre was opened in Ann Street in 1782. Little is known about it except that it was popular with the citizens of the town and being cultured they enjoyed the fine play acting.

Two years later, an enterprising actor and manager opened the town's second theatre in Rosemary Street. His name was Michael Atkins and he was one of the most go-ahead men in our theatrical history. His Rosemary Street Theatre was bigger and more comfortable than even the established theatres in Dublin. He believed Belfast to be " The Athens of the North " and felt sure' they would appreciate the greatest actors and actresses on the European stage.

He staged the best plays of his day and was the first theatre owner in Europe to use a wax candle for lighting purposes. The tallow candle used in all other theatres melted when the house got warm and the grease dripped on the silks and satins worn by the ladies in the audience.

In 1785, Mrs. Sarah Siddons was acclaimed as the greatest actress in the world. She was at the height of her fame and the rage of London. Mr. Atkins booked her for Belfast and when the news was announced it created a sensation. The town's newspaper appealed to the Sovereign, and the people, to give the town a good clean up before she arrived.

Packed out

On the day of her first appearance there wasn't a room to be had at any of Belfast's hotels. The Donegall Arms in Castle Place was filled with distinguished county families. The George and the Plough in Cornmarket, the Seven Stars and the Highlandman in Ann Street, the North Star, the Eagle and the Cross Keys in North Street, and even the small hostelries in the lanes off High Street, were filled to capacity.

All the big private houses in High Street and Rosemary Street, where the merchants lived, were packed with friends and relations from the country who wee eager to see this great actress. Every attic, barn and shed became a home for servants and coachmen. The cows-owned by many Belfast families-were kept out an milked in the fields around Peters Hill and their byres were used for pinion, pack and post horses.

The county families came by their own private coaches and many of them stayed for Mrs. Siddons' full theatrical season. It is recorded that the Andrews drove in from Comber, the Agnews from Kilwaughter Castle, the Uptons came from Templepatrick, the Rowleys from Langford Lodge, the Fordes from Seaforde, the Brownlows from Lurgan, the Wilsons from Purdysburn and the Gordons from Florida Manor.

The Stewarts of Mountstewart were represented by their son, Colonel Robert-later to become remembered as Lord Castlereagh. A large coach party travelled all the way from Derry and Lady Selkirk and her friends came by boat from St. Mary's Isle in Wigtown Bay.

Among the party Mrs. Siddons played in Rosemary Street were Lady Macbeth and the lead in "The Unhappy Marriage." The audience was deeply moved, and many reactions are recorded. Waddell Cunningham was on his feet three times in excitement. Sovereign John Brown-who had been drinking heavily at Peters Hill-was stone sober at the end of the performance. The Earl of Charlemont sat with Lord Bristol-the Earl Bishop of Derry-and they never once uttered a word or moved their eyes from the stage. Rev. Dr. William Bruce -of the First Presbyterian Church -sighed and groaned. The Rev. William Bristow-Vicar of Belfast-wept openly.

Such was the enthusiasm for the theatre in Belfast 180 years ago. And while Mrs. Siddons' appearance may have been something extra special, the Rosemary Street house continued to be well supported. Indeed, it was unable to hold the crowds, and in 1793 Mr. Michael Atkins built a larger theatre-the first Theatre Royal to stand in Arthur Square. This theatre was destroyed by fire on two occasions but was rebuilt and provided Belfast with drama, musical comedy and opera until 1916.

Warden family

Its ownership passed from Michael Atkins to Joseph F. Warden and later to his son, Frederick W. Warden. As well as operating their Arthur Square theatre they built and controlled the Grand Opera House in Great Victoria Street and the Opera House in Londonderry.

The Wardens had plenty of competition in Belfast. There were the music halls -which I will deal with in my next article-and the theatres and circuses in Smithfield Square.

About 1850, Smithfield had two theatres - the Millgate and the Hibernian. Little is known about the latter but the popularity of the Millgate was great enough to reduce the takings at the Theatre Royal to fifty shillings a night at one period.

It was owned by a Mr. Heffron and held 1,200 people. Performances were twice nightly-at six and nine-and an old theatre bill tells us how hard the actors had to work. One of these twice-nightly presentations comprised of " Julius Caeser," by Shakespeare, dancing by Mademoiselle Angelique, songs by Irish tenor Mr. Ryan, and a new laughable farce.

Sometimes variety programmes were presented at the Millgate Theatre. And in an advertisement for one of these Mr. Heffron stated: The whole company has had the honour to appear before the Royal Family at Astley's in London so they are quite respectable enough to appear in Smithfield, Belfast.

Now in 1966, the Belfast theatres exist very uneasily. Numerous reasons have been given as the cause of this but the answer surely is that Ulstermen and women lack the love and enthusiasm their grandparents had for the live theatre.