As actor and playwright Thommas Kane Byrne walks down Buckingham Street in the north inner-city, he’s greeted by passersby.
He’s a familiar face, having grown up nearby.
He reaches 45 Buckingham Street Lower, facing Connolly Station. Today, it holds the offices of Ervia – formerly Bord Gáis – the parent company of Irish Water.
Back in 1956, it was “the ballroom of romance”, the Macushla.
In the ’50s and ’60s, “Teddy Boys” and “Judies” from across the city dressed to the nines, gathered for nights of dancing and mingling. Later, after the ’70s, it became another social apex of the northside: a bingo hall.
“It was the epicentre of the community,” said Kane Byrne, earlier, in a cafe-bar close to where the Macushla stood.
“Even when they started moving people out of the city, the “schemes” as they called it, they would still come back once or twice a week to play bingo,” he says.
Kane Byrne is about to stage his fourth play, set on the final night of the bingo centre, Mrs Macushla.
In it, the audience is invited to play a round of bingo, discover the talents of Shirley Bassey, and look at the north inner-city up close.
The Macushla Ballroom opened in December 1956.
Billed as a “luxury ballroom”, it was owned by Belfast businessman Eric Lavery and decked out in oak panelling, with a suite of dance studios, and a ballroom for 400 couples with “exotically-patterned wallpaper in blues and greens” and a gleaming crystal ball, the Evening Herald reported at the time.
Several famous showbands performed there.
As a local kid in the 1950s, historian Terry Fagan remembers watching the “Teddy Boys” and women queue up outside ready for a night of dancing.
Many would have met their partners there, he says. “It was the ballroom of romance.”
The ballroom reflected a changing Ireland, says Fagan. Dancing “got up the noses of the Church. A certain hierarchy in the church was against it.”
It was also the scene of a “revolt” in 1961 by members of An Garda Síochána. Hundreds of gardaí gathered in the Macushla for a protest meeting over pay discrepancies between young and older officers, and working conditions.
The “unauthorised” meetings in the Macushla led to the dismissal of 11 gardaí, which was widely criticised. (They were later reinstated.)
The ballroom was used for bingo games as early as 1965, adverts in newspapers show. Lavery was still applying for a public-dancing licence for the Macushla until 1977.
Bingo was held four nights a week, according to an Irish Times report from 1996. It was a place where women could socialise, smoke, trade gossip and win money.
“My wife went to it a couple of nights of week,” says Fagan, the local historian. “It was a big deal. If someone won a top prize, it actually spread through the community.”
“You can’t hide anything,” he says.
It would also be where the public would attend anti-drugs meetings, with sometimes up to 1,500 people, the Herald reported in 1996.
In 1997, Allen and Townsend auctioneers began advertising the building’s sale, and it was eventually bought by Bord Gáis, and turned into a four-storey office block.
For One Night Only
Kane Byrne’s play, part of the THISISPOPBABY theatre festival, unrolls on the last night of the Macushla.
Protagonist Gert is obsessed with bingo – a bingo caller at the Macushla, who shouts out the numbers to players.
“She has nothing going for her,” says Kane Byrne. “Being a bingo caller is her whole, whole life.”
The audience get to join in. They’ll be able to play a real game of bingo with Gert, while the story unfolds.
“Gert is kind of holding the audience hostage in a sense,” he says. “Blaming them for letting the men in the suits come in and take over and ruin Dublin.”
“She is the one that needs the Macushla the most,” says Kane Byrne.
Says Ronan Phelan, the play’s director, later: “She feels herself to be stigmatised because she’s cross-eyed.”
“She’s always been sidelined as an idiot or a fool because, for all intents and purposes, she doesn’t look smart,” says Phelan.
Phelan says he’s seeking to make the bingo game “active and alive” for the audience. “We want the audience to feel involved.”
The costumes and feel of the play will evoke the early ’90s, says Phelan.
Bringing Stories to Life
The Macushla, Kane Byrne says, was before his time. But stories from his two grandmothers and great-grandmother and neighbours brought it to life.
For the play, Kane Byrne interviewed women who had fond memories of bingo at the Macushla.
Some of their words are woven in the dialogue. ‘‘Everything was done and said at the bingo,” said one.
“Gert is a microcosm for the community when the Macushla’s been taken away and a microcosm of Dublin when it starts to be gentrified,” he says.
Most of Kane Byrne’s plays are set in the north inner-city.
Depictions of these neighbourhoods on stage aren’t always authentic, says Kane Byrne. “They’re through the middle-class gauze, as I like to call it.”
For Kane Byrne, choosing who to play Gert was easy. He sought out actress Hilda Fay, who he’d admired since seeing her when he was seven years old in a Dublin-set production of Playboy of the Western World.
“When you’re younger, you think acting is like British and Shakespearean,” he says, putting on an affected accent. “It was the first time I’d heard anyone speak like me.”
It was inevitable that he would create a character for her, he says.
Kane Byrne weaves extracts from his childhood into the play. Gert idolises Welsh singer Shirley Bassey, thanks to “my nanny Kane”, he says. His idol makes an appearance.
As an outsider, Gert “steels herself” through her love of Bassey, says Phelan, the director.
“Shirley has a very particular life story. She was mixed-race in Cardiff in the 1960s, growing up in a place called Tiger Bay, which was notorious.”
Says Phelan: “There are parallels in the same prejudice that people would have against those from Dublin 1.”
The play doesn’t just have one Shirley. It has three versions – played by Jessica Cervi, Jade Jordan and Ericka Roe.
The three actresses also play other characters, like Gert’s abusive mother, her mother’s friend, and the priest who Gert is madly in love with, says Phelan.
In Honour Of
Kane Byrne says he’s been proud to bring in people who can see themselves on stage.
With Ericka Roe, the actress, and others, he runs the Breadline Collective theatre company.
“I love Hecuba and Macbeth but I don’t know them, I don’t live beside them you know what I mean?” he says.
Later, Kane Byrne texts to say that the play is in honour of the women who gave him his love for the area.
“Mrs Macushla is dedicated to my grandmothers. Jenny Kane, Spider Byrne and Mary Dunne,” he says. “Three incredible Dublin women who inspire me every day, and who encompass everything that made Dublin what it was.”
Mrs Macushla was scheduled to run on 20 and 21 March as part of THISISPOPBABY! in Project Arts Centre. But the festival, and therefore these performances, has been cancelled due to the coronavirus.
[UPDATE: This article was updated on 13 March 2020 at 12:02 to note the cancellation of the theatre festival, and the play’s planned dates in March.]