The bishop, the box and the shining orbs: the many ghosts of the Gaiety

Former archbishop John Charles McQuaid is among those roaming the theatre long after the curtain comes down, say the theatre's backstage staff

Agatha Christie's whodunnit The Mousetrap might have been running in London's West End for roughly a thousand years now, but Susan Hill's ghost story, The Woman in Black, is not that far behind it. The play has been running for 27 years in London, and has reportedly been seen by seven million people to date. There is also a touring version of the show, and this is the one that is coming to the Gaiety for a week in March.

The Gaiety is a venue rumoured to host a few ghosts of its own. One night recently, I went to the theatre after the show had come down for an after-hours tour with people who have spent many years working there. Former stage manager, George McFall (88), knows the Gaiety possibly better than anyone alive. He worked there for 48 years, and reluctantly retired some 20 years ago.

Tonight he is back. McFall, along with Alan McQuillan, theatre manager, and his deputy, Carol Patridge, have ghost stories they want to tell. We begin in the empty theatre, with its now-unoccupied 1,007 seats. An empty theatre at night is a disconcertingly silent place. Even though we are in the middle of the city centre on a Thursday evening, no sound leaks in from the street.

“Micheál Mac Liammóir told me one night that there had been so many great performances on the Gaiety stage that the performers had to have left something behind of themselves,” McFall recalls.

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They want to show me box number nine in the dress circle, which is reputed to be haunted. We all crowd into it. There is an identical box on the opposite side of the aisle.

Touching on head

“So many people have asked to be moved from here,” Patridge says. “They say they feel like someone is touching them on the head.” I make a note not to sit in the box when I’m next at a Gaiety show.

“The orbs were all around here one night,” McQuillan says matter-of-factly. The other two just nod their heads sagely in agreement, as if orbs are as common as dust.

“What orbs?” I ask.

“About five years ago, I got a call from the stage door to come down and have a look at something on the monitor there,” says McQuillan. “They didn’t know what they were looking at.

“There were these white orbs going up and down the stairs, as if they were the legs of something. Round white things, moving around. He indicates one of the lovely glass light shades in the upstairs foyer. It’s large, about the size of a rugby ball. “About that size. They looked confused, as if they were trying to get out. Orbs, they were. I haven’t seen them for a while now.”

I am digesting the idea of orbs, when McQuillan goes on to tell me about other inexplicable things that have gone on in the Gaiety when the audiences have departed.

“See those doors?”

The doors he is pointing to are big and heavy, and held in place against the wall by special magnets. “They are fire doors, and they are only meant to close by themselves if the fire alarm goes off.” He bends down and shows me how tricky it is to manually release the door from the magnet fastening. “There have been nights when I am the last person in the theatre, and those doors have closed by themselves behind me. Once, I was coming up the stairs and I heard something, and as I arrived on the landing, the doors were closing.”

Patridge has something she wants to show me.

"Look," she says. It's a charming period portrait of the opera singer Margaret Burke Sheridan, who died in 1958.

“She bothers the cleaners.”

“How?”

Trying to make contact

“It happens every so often. One of the cleaning staff will report that she is trying to make contact with them. Usually when they have forgotten to polish the glass. Once, at 5am in the morning, one of the cleaners swears that she saw Margaret behind her, dressed in white.”

Back in 1959, the Gaiety put on JP Donleavy's The Ginger Man, with Richard Harris in the title role. McFall was working there at the time.

“There was a scene with a mattress,” as he puts it.

“A sex scene,” Patridge clarifies, in case I was thinking it might be a mattress scene involving someone asleep and snoring their head off.

“So who appears in the theatre but archbishop John Charles McQuaid, to complain,” McQuillan says. “He had the show closed down after only three nights.”

The archbishop complained about the mattress scene in which the actors were not asleep, to Louis Elliman, the theatre's then chairman and managing director. Elliman's portrait hangs in the public stairwell that goes from foyer to the dress circle landing.

“Louis has been seen several times,” McFall says functionally. Elliman has been dead since 1965. Nonetheless, he has since been seen many times, either in the theatre’s board room, or by the fireplace in the dress circle bar, where he liked to sit.

Supernatural contretemps

McQuaid had words with Elliman. The show closed. “McQuaid’s been seen a few times,” McQuillan. He means his ghost.

“Where?” I ask. I am imagining a supernatural contretemps in the foyer; the theatre’s managing director advocating for freedom of speech and artistic expression, and the formidable archbishop saying Down With This Sort Of Thing.

“In the Green Room bar.”

“In the bar?!” I say. I’m actually shocked. “What is the ghost of the archbishop doing in a bar?”

“I don’t know, but that’s where he has been seen, just inside the door, near the counter. That’s the only place he’s ever been seen.”

So who knows? Maybe someone backstage at the Gaiety next week will see The Woman in Black in the Green Room bar having a drink with the late Archbishop John Charles McQuaid.

The Woman in Black is at the Gaiety from March 13th-18th. Gaietytheatre.ie