The history of Galway City in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is not complete without reference to the Racquet Court theatre in Middle Street, the social hub of the community for over a hundred years. With the Act of Union in 1800 and the dismantling of the Irish legislature, Ireland’s capital shed some of its pre-eminence. Before the advent of rail travel in the 1850s, Dublin was a two day journey from the western seaboard, and Galway, a prosperous trading and fishing port, was the focus for provincial society in Connacht. Landowners and wealthy merchants kept town houses in the cosmopolitan city where foreigners were part of the landscape; its architecture, with narrow streets and courtyards, and its population still reflect a strong Spanish influence.
The Court changed ownership over the decades, adapting to the times and the changing needs of its clientele. At the centre of the city, there was, at one time, a glass-roofed racquet court. Later, as an assembly room, the Court provided space for concerts and balls. In 1820, historian James Hardiman, evoking images of past glories, concisely outlined the context:
A new theatre, however, in an open and central situation appears necessary. The assembly-room in Middle Street frequently displays an assemblage of native beauty, elegance and fashion, which would grace the drawing rooms of a court.
These with occasional concerts and incidental public exhibitions are the only species of amusement which engage the attentions of the inhabitants of Galway.
For a brief period the theatre was named for a popular Lord Lieutenant, the Earl of Eglinton (1850, 1858-1859) and known as the Eglinton Racquet Court. The 13th Earl, a Tory grandee from a prominent Scottish family, enjoyed his years in Ireland, maintaining large racing stables and entertaining lavishly.
The Court boasted fifteen rooms, including two licensed bars, two billiard rooms, a proscenium and toilets. The auditorium, with its long low room and four square windows, seated five hundred. At the back of the building there was a large yard and stabling facilities for visitors. In August 1875, the Galway Express recorded that a subscription was raised by the residents for a new roof.
In 1846, Salter’s Directory listed William Keogh as the proprietor of the Racquet Court and Billiard Rooms. Almost fifty years later, in 1894, the directory entered Thomas O’Connor as the proprietor, and the ephemeral ‘Eglinton’ has been dropped. Four years later, 5 March 1898, the Court was up for sale but it seems there were no interested parties. A Mr Sullivan reopened the theatre later that year with several acts by Fred Smith’s Dramatic Company and Gentleman Joe’s group.
Thomas O’Connor died in 1906 at the age of forty-one. He was married and his mother Ellen, witnessed his death. Already, in 1902, the Valuation Office documented that the publican, Peter O’Shaughnessy,* held the lease on the Billiard Rooms, 22 Middle Street and the Court theatre, 22a Middle Street. By 1911, the street numbers had changed and the Racquet Court’s location is given as 16 Middle Street. Peter, his wife and growing family continued to live at 2 Ely Place until 1906 and provided lodgings for a stage carpenter, a billiard maker and two porters.
Peter O’Shaughnessy and his wife, Eileen, put a new face on the Court. Eileen, christened Emily, was born in 1876 in Agra, British India. Her father, Sergeant-Major Thomas Power (1843-1901) was a native of Ballinasloe. At the age of sixteen, he joined the 59th Regiment of foot, 2nd Nottinghamshire Brigade, when the regiment was recruiting in Ireland. He was posted to India and there met and married local teenager, Elizabeth Deveay Quinn. The union produced many children, but in an era of high infant mortality, only six survived to adulthood. Thomas transferred to the Army Service Corps, provisioning in India, Ceylon and Afghanistan. A sergeant-major in the ASC was as high as a non-commissioned officer might rise in the British army, and the family was very proud of his achievement, noting his rank on every birth, marriage and death certificate. In the spring of 1881, he was posted back to England. The UK census in April that year records that he and the family were housed in the New Barracks at Alverstoke on the south-east coast.
In May 1881, after 21 years and 100 days service, Thomas was retired to pension. His discharge was cancelled in August. In 1883 he returned to Ireland and settled in Galway City. On 1 April 1885, he was promoted to Barrack Sergeant Major. Initially the family lived in 8 William Street, later 11 Augustine Street. Elizabeth, known to all as Gabby, ran a small business next door, selling tea. Her daughter, Everina, as ‘shop attendent’, served behind the counter. The eldest boy, John, joined the Irish Rangers and served in South Africa.
Thomas Power kept close contact with his roots in Ballinasloe.** His father, Patrick, had been employed in the town and both his parents appear to have died young, leaving three boys. John and Thomas Power, his uncles, were tenant farmers in nearby Ballygill. John had served in the Connaught Rangers and had lost a leg in combat. His landlord was Dudley Persse, the father of Lady Gregory, author and patroness of the arts.
Uncle John’s daugher, Honoria, married a Brady from a neighbouring townland, who took over the Power farm. Two of their daughters, Norah and Agnes, moved to Galway to help out in the O’Shaughnessy’s large household. In the 1901 census returns, Norah, twenty-one, is listed as governess and Agnes, eighteen, as nursemaid. Their brother, Frank Brady, stayed at home to run the farm.
The Powers showed a great interest in the performing arts. Eileen, now Mrs O’Shaughnessy, displayed outstanding management skills, her sister Mary, ‘Birdie,’ a teacher, had a beautiful singing voice and Everina, Eva, played the piano. In the age of the music hall, live shows of touring musicians, singing and variety artistes ensured a lively programme. As early as 1897, the Galway Observer reported that the Court hosted the ‘renowned cinematographie’, ‘the first scene shown was the departure of employees from a Manchester factory, followed by a picturesque scene in a barber’s shop, and another amusing scene in which a gardener was seen watering flowers.’
The Irish Literary Theatre, later renamed the Irish National Theatre Society, was founded by W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory and Edward Martyn and staged new Irish plays in Dublin. The INTS was committed to touring Ireland with its productions and put on many plays in the Court, including Yeats’ and Lady Gregory’s Cathleen Ni Houlihan, The Pot of Broth, and AE Russell’s Deirdre. When Robert Hogan interviewed Michael Conniffe, Dr Seamus O’ Beirn, the Gaelic playwright, entered the narrative. Conniffe went on to mention the Seaghan na Scuab production in 1904 in the Racquet Court:
… and that’s the first place that we met that noble gentleman and patriot, Sir Roger Casement. Sir Roger Casement was so full of enthusiasm for the players that he joined them the next day on the sidecars into the village of Tawin fourteen miles away, and travelled on the sidecars with us. And the countryside applauded.
Sir Roger Casement, diplomat and revolutionary, was a popular figure in Galway. He was executed by the British in August 1916 and is Yeats’ sixteenth man in the poem, ‘Sixteen Dead Men’.
In September 1906, Lady Gregory’s comedies, Spreading the News, and Hyacinth Halvey, were performed on the Court’s stage.
On the first Sunday of February 1907, when many of the Powers were in Dublin for Birdie’s wedding, a ‘sacred concert’ was held in the theatre. The Irish Times reported that at 3 a.m. a fire broke out. It started in the main billiard room, spreading to the second billiard room, close to the auditorium. Scenery and props were destroyed. Firemen worked tirelessly but the bar under the billiard rooms was gutted.
The Court was quickly restored. It had just been painted, when, less than a year after the fire, J.M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea was performed 6-10 January 1908 on its 32ft x 30ft stage. After the riots provoked by The Playboy of the Western World‘s première in the Abbey, it was considered unwise to stage Synge in Dublin. Lady Gregory, regarded herself as a Galway woman and had a hand in arranging the engagement, ‘I suppose Lady Gregory will go to Galway, the date is the 6th of January.’
The Abbey’s manager, Frank Fay, did not have an easy relationship with Lady Gregory, and there was a disagreement about the programme content. She wrote to him, ‘I particularly didn’t wish to have “Gaol Gate” [in Galway] in the present state of agrarian excitement, it might be looked on as a direct incitement to crime.’ However, she was in the audience on the Thursday and Friday nights of the five day run, and her Nationalist friends were encouraged to attend. Fears of a violent reaction from the public came to nought, and, disappointingly, the company played to poor houses. Fay resigned a few days later.
The Court’s programme was catholic. Samuel Franklin Cody and his man-lifting kites entertained local audiences. Kodak gave a photographic demonstration and a display of Dekko printing to a large gathering. A young John McCormack sang there in 1909. Shakespearean actors, ‘Terry, Benson and Martin Harvey … giants of provincial touring days’, performed on its stage. But, in a very short time, the watchdogs of the vigilance associations would make life difficult for strolling players, vaudeville and popular theatre.
A university city, Galway had a large population of students, and billiards was extremely popular. The Mechanics Institute, in Middle Street, with a radical clientele, was close by, and the two billiard rooms were constantly in use. Boxing contests were held in the auditorium. One event, ‘a theatrical disturbance of another kind’, caused quite a stir. The Freeman’s Journal, 17 November 1908, described the ‘Scene in Galway Theatre’:
On Saturday night there was a considerable uproar at the Court theatre, Galway, owing to the failure of one of the parties in a boxing contest for £15 a side failing to put in an appearance. The students of the Queen’s College, who attended in large numbers, started by throwing chairs from the auditorium to the stage, and the ‘gods’ threw seats from the gallery. Later on the students and the ‘gods’ got into handigrips, with the result that the students were routed from the theatre and chased through the streets. A number of persons were struck with stones. The police dispersed the crowds in the street and escorted the students to their homes.
In August 1910, Peter O’Shaughnessy, only thirty-eight years of age, died in Galway County Hospital. Eileen, now widowed, was running the business with her mother and sisters. Ursula, the youngest girl, had very poor health. Her illness, recorded as tuberculosis of the bowel on her death certificate, was long and painful. Her death, in 1916, at the age of twenty-three, was a release. Agnes Brady, their second cousin from Ballygill, served in the mineral bar. Eileen continued to rent 11 Augustine Street after her father’s death in November 1901 and also 6 Victoria Place. Both premises had large yards for storage purposes.
From October 1911, the Court showed films nightly, and the silent feature length adaptation of Dion Boucicault’s The Colleen Bawn, shot on location in County Kerry, drew packed houses. 6 Victoria Place would later be used as a cinema.
Walter Macken, a stage carpenter, actor and musician, was one of the company and appeared in many productions. In 1911, he married Agnes Brady and the union was blessed with three children. He enlisted with the Sixth Royal Fusiliers to fight in the Great War and wrote regularly to his wife, ‘My dearest Agg’, from the front line in France. In his letters he asked after Ursula and Mrs O’C and the Racquet Court:
How is Mrs C and all at the Racquet Court. I hope they are all well. Did poor Ursula come out of hospital yet? How is she? Remember me to them all.
How is Mrs O’C and all the Racquet people getting on remember me to them. Are the pictures [films] doing well?
He was killed in action at St Eloi, 27 March 1916. His epistolary greeting. ‘Remember me to them all’ has, with hindsight, an elegaic ring.
Walter and Agnes’s youngest child, named for his father, probably took some of his first eager steps in the Racquet Court. Young Walter went on to work in the Irish language theatre, An Taibhdhearc, which was established in 1928 in Middle Street across the road from the Court. He moved for a time to the Abbey, and later to Broadway and Hollywood, before returning to Ireland. An actor, famed for his beautiful speaking voice, he wrote plays, novels and short stories. His historical novels, with Irish themes, have been translated into many languages and enjoy world-wide popularity. Ireland’s libraries and bookshops always hold copies of his well-loved works.
Eileen’s youngest brother, Patrick, also died in the Great War. Despite his mother’s entreaties, he enlisted with the Connaught Rangers. He died in France, 1 June 1915, and was buried near Vimy Ridge. His cousin has his medal and a photograph of his grave. There were great sadnesses in a decade that devastated so many communities. Family, friends and acquaintance died in battle. Many more succumbed to the ‘Irish disease’ tuberculosis or fell victim to the 1918 pandemic, the Spanish ‘flu.
‘Mrs O’Shaughnessy’s’, with a hard ‘g’, the familiar name for the Court, was at the heart of the city. Political meetings were held in the large auditorium, and the Galway Worker’s and General Labourer’s Union (GWGLU) first came together there in 1911. Later the GWGLU affiliated with the Liverpool-based National Union of Dock Labourers. The Galway Women’s Suffrage Society met there. In the summer of 1919, members of the Discharged Soldiers and Sailors Society gathered at Mrs O’Shaughnessy’s.
Thomas Power, Mrs O’Shaughnessy’s father, had two brothers. His older brother, Robert, emigrated in the late 1850s and worked on the docks in Liverpool. With the outbreak of the American Civil War, job opportunities became scarce and he sailed on the Liverpool-Charleston line to fight with the Confederate army. Liverpool, with it cotton trade, had a strong affiliation with America’s south. Mills closed as the supply of cotton dried up, and Confederate flags flew from the roof tops of Liverpool, demonstrating solidarity with the beleaguered southern states. Augustine Birrell, Ireland’s most sympathetic Chief Secretary, recounted an incident in Liverpool when, as a small boy, he was severely pinched for expressing a liking for the Union’s Abraham Lincoln.
Robert Power survived the conflict and, according to Power family history, acquitted himself well. He travelled west and, later, spent some years in Australia before returning to Galway in the early 1900s when Thomas was dying. A swashbuckling uncle, he entertained his nephews and nieces with tales of his adventures and twirled his pearl-handled pistols, cowboy style, for their amusement. A seasoned soldier, always alert for an intruder, he slept with the guns under his pillow. He was a colourful addition to the company of the Court.
Thomas’ younger brother, John, remained close to the family and travelled to Galway often during his brother’s illness and after his death. John, who had made a name for himself in the world, was now John O’Connor Power. O’Connor was his mother’s maiden name. He was born near her home in Clashaganny, County Roscommon, and, for a time, a hill in nearby Carns was known as the O’Connor Power hill.
John followed his brothers to England in 1860. In Lancashire he worked as a house painter in a family business and, in the winter months, found employment as a mill hand. He joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood and recruited across the north of England, ‘and there are scores of Irishmen today, who can tell how they were, in years gone by, led into the National Fold by his teaching.’ He continued his studies in the Mechanics Institute in Rochdale, which provided classes and reading rooms for working class men. A meeting place for Irishmen and Englishmen, eager to improve their lot in life, the Mechanics was fertile ground to engage with dissidents.
John O’Connor Power was credited with organising the raid on Chester Castle’s arsenal in February 1867. A thousand men marched on the city, ostensibly to attend a prize fight. It was planned to take arms and ammunition, board the boat train to Holyhead and sail to Ireland for the proposed Rising. When it was learnt that an informer had disclosed the plot to the authorities, the raid was swiftly aborted. Without loss of life, the men, singing ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’ returned to the ‘little Irelands’ in the towns and cities of England’s industrial north.
This was only the beginning of a fifty year career. With the support of the IRB in England, O’Connor Power, ‘a student at St Jarlath’s, the recognised head of the Fenians in this country’, was elected as a Home Ruler in Mayo in 1874. He was re-elected in 1880, topping the poll. He lost his seat in 1885 but continued to lobby British policy makers for the next thirty years. His contemporary, Frank Hugh O’Donnell, a distinguished graduate of Queen’s College Galway, writes in The History of the Irish Parliamentary Party that O’Connor Power ‘was universally recognised as an able and conscientious worker in all English and Irish reforms …’ As a barrister, influential journalist, literary critic, prison reformer, he pursued the national goals of land reform and self-government with ‘a dogged tenacity of purpose’.
Acknowledged as one of the great orators of the late nineteenth century, he was ranked with Gladstone and Disraeli. In his classic The Making of an Orator (1906) he quotes a reviewer, ‘Nor is any man a great orator who has not the gifts of a great actor …’ And adds:
This is well said, but the writer might have gone further, and insisted that the great orator must be not only an actor, but a dramatist as well. He must, indeed, have the dramatic instinct in the first place, the power of conceiving the parts and inventing the situations of which he is the interpreter to the audience.
A political strategist, of the first order, O’Connor Power, if things had been different, might have been an impresario and an actor. His happiest hours were spent in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese tavern, off London’s Fleet Street. For centuries, the Cheese was the haunt of barristers, newspapermen and authors. In the eighteenth century, Irishmen Edmund Burke, Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Oliver Goldsmith gathered there with Dr Johnson and talked at large. In O’Connor Power’s day it was the favourite watering-hole of Wilkie Collins, George Moore and Arthur Conan Doyle, Yeats’ ‘Companions of the Cheshire Cheese‘.
O’Connor Power, a friend of playwright, Dion Boucicault, a former Young Irelander, loved the theatre. George Moore’s unfriendly composite in ‘The Patriot’, a sketch in Parnell and his Island, places James Daly/O’Connor Power backstage in the company of the cast. He is remembered by his family as a man of great generosity, and, no doubt, he gave encouragement and support to the Racquet Court. After Thomas’ death he spent some time in Galway and, as a prominent member of the United Irish League, had plans to run for the Galway seat. However, he had a wife, a stepson, a legal career and many responsibilities, professional and political, in England.
Mary Power, Birdie, married Thomas Stanford, a sergeant in the Connaught Rangers, stationed at Renmore barracks. The wedding, with Eva as bridesmaid, took place in Rathmines parish church. Mary sang in musicals in Simla. While serving on the North West Frontier, Thomas, age thirty-five, died from heat stroke, in record breaking temperatures. Mary was left a widow with three children. She remained in India until, with an end to travel disruptions in the aftermath of the Great War, she secured safe passage home. She stayed with the family in Galway and, a year later, moved to Dublin for her sons’ education. There she took parts in Dublin Rathmines and Rathgar Society musicals. Her son married a daughter of Séamus O’Beirn, the founding member of An Taibhdhearc. Their mothers had been at school together and arranged the match at Galway races.
In 1920, Eva moved to Dublin to live with Birdie. She married John Joseph O’Connor*** and ‘ran away to the music halls in England,’ where she provided musical backdrop for variety artists and the early silent movies. She died in 1927 and her five year old daughter, Terry, returned to Dublin to live with Birdie and her family.
Eileen, Mrs O’Shaughnessy, put the Court up for sale in 1920. The auction took place in Eyre Square on 30 July. Again there were no takers. Eileen, who had been ill for some time, died in 1924, a few months after her mother, at the Fair Hill home of her son-in-law, John Goulding. The residence given on both death certificates is Middle Street.
Thomas O’Connor, the former proprietor of the Court, had a mother who survived him. Was his mother, Ellen, the Mrs O’C of Walter Macken Senior’s letters? Were these O’Connors related to the Powers? They certainly worked together for a time.
I could find no photographs of the Racquet Court or of Eileen O’Shaughnessy. It is said that her children moved to New York, but one of her sons was in London in the early 1960s and made a brief contact with his cousins.
I interviewed a Galway actress, born in 1922, who told me she was often sent to Mrs O’Shaughnessy’s to bring her father home for his dinner. A family story of Galway races, related with glee, described how Birdie’s children gave up their beds and slept on the billiard tables and in the bath tub in the late 1920s. In its declining years what remained of the Court was used as a bicycle repair shop. Charlie Byrne’s bookshop marks the site. Tom Kenny, Galway historian and bookseller, sent me an image of a crumpled poster which may be the only relic of a once vibrant centre for the arts.
*Peter was originally from Turloughmore, County Galway, home to a famous horse fair. He and Eileen ran a public house there before moving to the Racquet Court.
**Thomas Power gives his birthplace as Ballinasloe, County Galway on all legal documents. John O’Connor Power, approximately three years younger than his brother, gives Roscommon as his place of birth.
*** John Joseph O’Connor, son of Thomas O’Connor of the Racquet Court, died in England, 8 July, 1968, aged 81. He is buried in Scunthorpe with the descendants of Mary Power. In the 1901 census, age 13, he was living in his maternal grandfather’s home, 32, the Long Walk, Galway City. Peter Kelly, age 64, was a mason. Thomas O’Connor, 35, John’s father, is listed as a general labourer.
Owned by a Mrs O’Shaughnessy, the Racquet Court ‘Cinema’ Theatre was a theatre utilised as a cinema with a capacity to seat 500 people. This was similar right across the cinema world at that time with concert halls being utilised for film shows. While there were live musical performances before the film, at first people paid little attention to the musicians and singers as they were totally focused on what they were about to see on the screen and the story line didn’t really matter. Two of the entertainers were Eva Power on the piano and P. Larkin playing the violin, both excellent performers.
William Henry, Galway Independent, Talking History, 22 October, 2014.