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A history of Birr Theatre & Arts Centre (part 4)



In the final installment of our glorious history, Patt Grogan details the revival of Oxmantown Hall after a period of neglect and, with the unweavering support of the local community, its phoenix-like rebirth as Birr Theatre & Arts Centre.



Final installment "The revival of the hall and the birth of Birr Theatre & Arts Centre"


Under the stewardship of it's new owner J.J. Murphy, the ethos of the hall remained the same. In 1934 Birr Little Theatre, who had regularly rented The Oxmantown Hall, moved its performances to their new theatre on Emmet Street, The Little Theatre Company formed by J. |. and Isabelle Fanning and the premises was owned by the Fanning family. This move was a blow to the theatre.

The Oxmantown Hall continued to be a popular venue for travelling “Fit Up “groups and highly respected performers, such as, Maureen Potter, Jimmy O’Dea and Anew Mc Masters. Tony Hogan (2008) informs us that although big travelling shows were restricted to Summer performances (and these became less frequent as Birr now had two venues) the hall maintained its popularity, as a dance hall. The “One and Threepenny Hops” were held on Fridays from eight until eleven. Although the hall did not have a bar license, O’Brien’s Bar on Main Street transferred theirs for these occasions.


During the 1940s the recently formed Wilmer Lawn Tennis Club held its Annual Dinner Dance in “The Hall” on New Year’s Eve. The death of J.J. Murphy occurred in October 1950. Ownership passed to his son Kevin who continued his father’s stewardship.

Tony Hogan (2008) also tells us that in 1954 The Marian Hall opened and most of the roadshows and bands who had previously played “The Hall” now played The Marian Hall. Around that time extensive renovations were carried out on “The Hall” The old stage was removed and replaced by a smaller one. A new maple floor, considered one of the best examples of its kind was installed by Mr Jim Eades of Seffin.


Income from the hall diminished during the next years and keeping in good repair became more and more difficult. “The Hall” was regularly vandalised and the roof deteriorated. Windows were broken on a regular basis thus allowing birds to fly through and nest in it. Deery (2001) suggests that Wilmer Tennis Club continued to use the hall for Badminton. Insurance cover became very expensive and difficult to acquire.


The revival of the theatre, according to Tony Hogan (2008) was as a result of Birr being declared a heritage town in 1993. A group of concerned locals met to discuss the future of the building, under the chairmanship of Salters Sterling of Trinity College. Offaly County Manager, Mr Sean Mc Carthy guaranteed £20,000 of public funds to aid the purchase. The remaining £22,000 was donated by Salters Sterling, Stephen Grant, Arnold Fanning, Michael Hanna, Michael Ramsden, Lord Rosse and Julia Trench. This group became known as The Oxmantown Management Committee.


In February 1995 Frank McNamara, on behalf of Birr Stage Guild, contacted the OxmantownHall Management Committee with a view to leasing the hall. Following this, a company, Birr Stage Guild Ltd was incorporated with Frank and Marcella Corcoran Kennedy as Directors. A 105 year lease was granted at a nominal rent of €1:27 (£1) per year. For the second time fundraising began, to bring The Oxmantown Hall into the 21st Century. Tony Hogan (2008) states that Derek Coulter was appointed architect and Gordon Campbell, quantity surveyor. The total cost of restoration was estimated €711,000.


Despite grants from The Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, Offaly Leader 2 company, Offaly County Council and The Arts Council as well as intensive local fundraising, there remained a debt of €90,000. Birr Stage Guild continued to contribute generously from the proceeds of their productions. Many and varied fundraising events were organised. When the debt finally reached €30,000 Offaly County Council provided funding for the outstanding amount.



Tony Hogan (2008) informs us that Paddy Mc Intyre’s tender was accepted and work commenced in September 1999. Retractable seating was installed a feature which enables the hall to be used for exhibitions, displays and classes, dancing, yoga and other events.


Birr Theatre & Arts centre Official opening programme

The first performance at Birr Theatre and Arts Centre, was in July 2000 — a performance by international violinist Liz Carroll. Birr Theatre and Arts Centre was officially opened by President Mary McAleese on 29" June 2004.


Patt & Mary, a meeting of minds!
Patt Grogan & Mary McAleese, a meeting of minds! - President Mary McAleese Officially opens Birr Theatre & Arts Centre on 29" June 2004.

In conclusion, to build a purpose built theatre in a small country town in the 1880s may seem foolhardy but it is a testament to the people of Birr and to its owners through the years that the building has survived. Since it’s rebirth as Birr Theatre and Arts Centre has gone from strength to strength and is a vibrant part of the artistic and cultural life of Birr and the surrounding area.



Bibliography:

1. Kings County Cornicle, 17 January 1889 & March 15" 1934

2. Midland Tribune, 10 February 1889

3. Irish Times, 2 February 1934

4. Deery, Oisin, (2001) A compact History of Birr, Tama Books, Ireland

5. Hogan, Margaret, (2016) Drama in Birr, Oxmantown Hall 1889-1916, Arts

Council.

6. Birr Stage Guild, (2008) Celebrating 50 Years, Shannon Development

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