The Abbey Theatre has made several journeys over the last decade – on paper and feasibility studies at least – but with the €1.5m acquisition of a property adjacent to the theatre, their travels end right where they began.
Throughout years of speculation, during which Hawkins House, the Carlton Cinema, Coláiste Mhuire, the Dublin Docklands and, most recently, the GPO have been suggested as potential sites for the National Theatre’s location, the issue has resembled a distracting past time, with each alternative venue either architecturally inadequate, enormously costly, wholly impractical or politically suspect. Making little public comment on the plans of successive Arts ministers and programmes for Government, the board and management of the theatre often resembled bewildered bystander as others determined its fate, but that silence now seems like a mark of canny restraint.
The two most significant things about the purchase of 15-17 Eden Quay, the long uninhabited site beside the Abbey which addresses the River Liffey, are that the Abbey’s board and management conducted the purchase independently (the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaelteacht was consulted), and that the €1.5m cost of the building, for which the theatre acquired a mortgage, was enabled by its fundraising activities. If the issue of the Abbey’s wandering location had long resembled a political football, the theatre demonstrated its autonomy and itself halted play.
The purchase brings both immediate and long-term consequences for the theatre. Jimmy Deenihan’s response, as Minister for Arts, seized on the necessity of the Abbey’s fundraising over subsidy, and the importance of “delivering the maximum amount of private support possible to allow for development to take place on this site over time.” He continued, “That fundraising challenge can't be underestimated. I have allocated additional resources for the Abbey this year to help deal with the asbestos issue at the building, but in the time ahead the level of taxpayer resources that are available for the theatre will - as is the case with all institutions - be under very serious pressure.” In other words, they’re on their own.
The Abbey’s director, Fiach Mac Conghail, already seemed to be advancing plans, describing the development of three spaces within the new complex – with 600, 300 and 100-seats respectively – as well as a restaurant and other facilities, while expecting to turn the sod on Easter Monday 2016, the anniversary of the Rising. There are no confirmed interim plans for the derelict Eden Quay space, although the Abbey expect the cost of its maintainance to be minimal.
Until 2016, then, new speculation about the Abbey’s future appearance can run riot, safe in the knowledge that, finally, the National Theatre isn’t going anywhere.
Peter Crawley is News Editor of Irish Theatre Magazine