Great ‘Shakes’ – Gerard Smyth on Jack Hoey and the Dublin Shakespeare Society

An Irishman’s Diary

In his recent one-man show Walking With Ghosts, the actor Gabriel Byrne recalled his early experiences and roles as a member of a troupe of amateur acting enthusiasts in the 1970s. He did not identify this band of thespians but his initiation into theatre involved the Dublin Shakespeare Society which has been championing the Bard since 1907 and is still going strong in the Teachers' Club in Parnell Square.

Byrne was not the only distinguished Irish actor whose career began with the “Shakes”, as it is known. The great Donal McCann was among several others.

If my memory from those long-ago days is not misleading me, McCann's name and the promise he was already showing was mentioned in my English class in James Street Christian Brothers school in the Sixties.

That was because our teacher, Jack Hoey, was also a member of the society and a very active one, having directed and performed in several of the society’s productions since the late 1950s.


Jack Hoey was a man known to and remembered by many as I have discovered over the years since my schooldays, and only recently described to me by the writer Jack Harte "as a man who was high in all our affections".

Others too, who crossed his path in the DSS, have spoken fondly of him when recollecting those productions.

And it was not all Shakespeare; according to the records, Jack Hoey also directed plays by Ibsen, O’Casey and Synge.

I have frequently thought about the serendipity of having so devoted a Shakespearean as my teacher at such a formative time

I doubt if Mister Hoey, affectionately referred to as Jack by students and who later became the first lay principal of James's Street CBS, was ever aware of the influence he had on my future and the course of my life. Unless, of course, he came across the elegy I wrote in his memory rather prematurely while he was still very much alive but long retired from teaching (why did we so often mistakenly think our teachers were much older than they actually were?).

That elegy was also a memory poem, recalling his spell-binding ( to me at least) classes on the poets included on our Leaving Cert course: Shakespeare, the English Romantics, Milton, Hopkins and Yeats.

Those were the pre-Soundings days of the Dead Poets' Only Society.

If there was an altering moment in my young life it was probably during the last two years of my secondary education when I had the good fortune to encounter this inspiring teacher and experience his rhapsodic devotion to those poets and their work, or as I put it in that untimely elegy he “brooded over Matthew Arnold/and Samuel Coleridge/ during the last lesson of the day/when in a voice that was ceremonious/ he created the atmosphere of the lakes/just by saying Windermere . . . ”

I have frequently thought about the serendipity of having so devoted a Shakespearean as my teacher at such a formative time, a factor that no doubt instigated my own life in poetry, literature and the arts and also, in consequence, as a journalist.

As for the Dublin Shakespeare Society, it had been around since the beginning of the 20th century but quite nomadic judging from the variety of venues it used over time.

In the Sixties it had a base north of the Liffey in 50 North Great Georges Street and it was to that basement theatre that Jack Hoey took us to see the works of Shakespeare. That was the beginning of a personal long fidelity to the English poet and playwright.

No doubt he was right about a fair few of my fellow travellers in English class having their minds on matters other than poetry

What I never knew, until many years later, was that our English teacher was himself a poet, something I discovered when I came across a 1978 copy of The Education Times (an offshoot publication of this newspaper, edited by John Horgan ) in which John V Hoey featured on the cover as the author of a poem titled History Lesson (placed next to a caricature of my old teacher by the artist Henry Sharpe). A note on the page revealed that the Profile Press of Clondalkin "hoped" to publish a collection of his work.

Alas, no such collection was ever published and as far as I know Jack Hoey did not join the ranks of published poets.

His poem in The Education Times opens with the line, “I take the place vacated by a cleric” – perhaps a reference to that first lay principal role in a school run by the Brothers – but goes on to describe a classroom scene in which he is confronted by “the boredom in their youthful faces” and feels that he has “lost their interest” because they are musing on worldly distractions – discotheques, dance halls and “that cool blonde to show off on a date”.

No doubt he was right about a fair few of my fellow travellers in English class having their minds on matters other than poetry, but I never experienced a moment’s boredom or disinterest as he discoursed on a Shakespeare sonnet or the intoxicating language of a Hopkins poems.

In the years after school we never again met but I often think back to my good luck in having this man with a passion for Shakespeare and poetry in general as my English teacher and how he ignited an interest that would become such a significant part of my life.

In a recent poem, Olympians, I speak of him as: . . . the teacher/who introduced us to crazed Macbeth,/who conjured rainy Inverness/on a Dublin afternoon: I owe him/more gratitude that I possess.