Long-running farce with large cast of characters


ANALYSIS:IT HAS been a long-running farce with a large cast of characters, including five ministers for the arts, one taoiseach, a theatre director who lost the run of himself, a billionaire financier and a bewildering number of scene changes.

Redevelopment of the Abbey Theatre on its existing site was first mooted by then minister for arts Síle de Valera in June 2000. It was believed the work would take two years to complete, with the new theatre would open by December 2004 to mark its centenary.

The existing building, designed by Michael Scott and Partners, had long been recognised as inadequate, primarily because of its poor sightlines and remarkable lack of backstage space.

Plans were drawn up by McCullough Mulvin Architects for a stacked theatre, rising to the equivalent of nine storeys, on the current restricted site. The architects came up with a notional “concept scheme” showing a southerly extension to Eden Quay.

Then the Dublin Docklands Development Authority offered a free site at Misery Hill, in the Grand Canal Docks, and the Abbey’s then director, Ben Barnes, was immediately smitten. Indeed, the theatre’s board approved his notion of defecting to the southside. But neither Barnes nor his board had taken into account the acute sensibilities of taoiseach and northsider Bertie Ahern, who publicly voiced his “disappointment” over the idea.

A confidential report by the Office of Public Works – so confidential it was likened to “the third secret of Fatima” – recommended the Abbey should remain in the city centre, at a location yet to be identified. Ahern claimed this was “not my business”.

The Carlton cinema site in O’Connell Street was widely supported, with Barnes describing it as a “distinct possibility”, but it was ruled out because of legal wrangles over ownership, and a decision was made to rebuild on the existing site.

But John O’Donoghue, the new minister for arts, said in November 2002 this would have to be done as a public-private partnership project as the government was strapped for cash. Less than two years later, he was talking about other sites.

These included the Carlton site (if the legal wrangling could be resolved) and the former Coláiste Mhuire buildings on Parnell Square. Then Fine Gael spokesman and now Minister Jimmy Deenihan wanted him to rule out redeveloping the existing site “once and for all”. Mr O’Donoghue “reluctantly decided” in October 2004 to go along with Deenihan’s view, on the basis that any redevelopment there would involve the acquisition of adjacent properties – including the buildings now purchased on Eden Quay – which would be too costly.

The site of Hawkins House, ugly headquarters of the Department of Health and previously occupied by the Theatre Royal, was thrown into the mix. Meanwhile, efforts to acquire a building adjoining Coláiste Mhuire ran into problems over its cost.

In March 2005, still under O’Donoghue’s watch, the idea of relocating to George’s Dock was mooted, after being suggested by billionaire financier Dermot Desmond, whose headquarters are in the South Block of the International Financial Services Centre, adjoining the dock.

Two years later, the late Séamus Brennan announced an international design competition for the new Abbey. His successor, Martin Cullen, suggested relocating the Abbey to the GPO.