Down Back Lane off Nicholas Street on the edge of the Liberties, a crowd of some 20 people shuffled into Tailors’ Hall on a Sunday evening in mid-May.

The former guild hall once served as a courthouse and an army barracks. In the 1980s, it was a venue for trad concerts, local historian James Madigan told attendees.

But on this, the last day of the Culture Date with Dublin 8 festival, the audience were there for a conversation titled “A Culture of Care for the Liberties”.

Cultural space, or the need to remedy the lack thereof, in Dublin 8 was the focus of the discussion co-organised by Madigan.

The scarcity of studios or performance spaces ran the risk of depriving the Liberties of the next Imelda May or Liz Gillis, he said.

A member of the audience raised her hand to query whether the National College of Art and Design (NCAD), with its campus on nearby Thomas Street, was being engaged on this.

Madigan pivoted to talk about the Rupert Guinness Theatre.

The 600-seat venue had slipped in and out of use over the past 20 years. Most recently, it had been loaned to NCAD by Diageo to use as a lecture hall.

Opening the theatre would be a real boost to the Liberties, Madigan said. “Having a space to show off the kids’ singing or dancing? That would be one small idea.”

A spokesperson for NCAD said that the last time the Rupert Guinness Theatre was used was before the Covid-19 pandemic. “Investment would be required for internal refurbishment to bring the space into College or public use.”

It is in talks, though, with Diageo about the future, including the possibility of broader community usage, the spokesperson said.

In its heyday

At roughly 1pm on the Friday after the Tailors’ Hall discussion, Madigan stepped out of the former Bank of Ireland on James Street.

Rechristened The Bank, the fresh grey limestone building is now an exhibition space, displaying works by artists in the local FLUX studios, formerly known as Block T. Madigan, as he stood out by the front gates, praised the idea.

“This is the start of repurposing those old buildings and there are loads of them,” he said, as he turned the corner onto the sloping Watling Street to inspect the Rupert Guinness Theatre, a white three-storey building with a parapet roof.

A blue shutter was rolled down over the front door, above which is mounted the Guinness Harp insignia. Through a window on the first floor, a light was on inside.

The Rupert Guinness Theatre opened in May 1951 and took its name from the second Lord Iveagh, Madigan said, as he ambled down Watling Street. “It was for opera, for drama. It would have been hugely important.”

The hall’s first production was Seán O’Casey’s play The Shadow of a Gunman. Then, from July to September 1951, the Abbey Theatre occupied the premises after a fire broke out in their own, and they staged another of O’Casey’s plays, The Plough and the Stars.

It was multi-purpose, Madigan says. “In my memory, there was the Tops of the Town there, the little local variety shows, and I met the Guinness Choir when they rehearsed there.”

The choir performed in the venue through the 1950s, sporadically over the next four decades, and one last time in 1994.

In 2002, the Teachers’ Musical Society used the hall for its production of Oklahoma! and the following year for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

By 2009, it was used much less, according to the Liberties Local Area Plan, a detailed council document which lays out a vision for the neighbourhood’s future development.

A vacant space

When the local area plan was published, the idea was for the Diageo Ireland-owned theatre to be revived, staging shows and acting as a rehearsal space once again, by 2020.

In 2015, Diageo leased the theatre to NCAD as a 300-seat lecture hall. Some repairs were necessary to bring it up to health-and-safety standards, NCAD Director Declan McGonagle said at the time.

Then, in September 2016, the theatre was reopened as a lecture hall.

For the next three years, it held lectures and keynote talks. But according to an NCAD spokesperson, they stopped using it before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. “There were issues with leaks, and these have been addressed.”

By the time Bill Harris enrolled at the college in September 2019, the hall was out of bounds, he says, while exiting the college on a sunny Thursday at lunchtime. “I would love to have engaged with this space more.”

Bill Harris outside the Rupert Guinness Theatre. Credit: Michael Lanigan

Harris’ only meaningful interaction with the theatre came during his work on his graduation piece. He sought to capture what a derelict building sounded like, he says, to create an auditory experience of the gentrification process.

He got the nod to go into the theatre, he says, and last December he captured its sounds. “There’s a urinal that never stops dripping. There’s just a random beep that happens every now and then.”

Public use

As a child, playwright Veronica Dyas performed regularly in the Rupert Guinness Theatre, she says. “I was a part of the Liberties Music and Drama Group. It was gorgeous, like the one in Busáras. Compact, but beautiful.”

She remembers the talent competitions, she says. “We did end-of-season shows, the Liberties Festival all the time, and that was lovely.”

Dyas’ last play, My Son, My Son was staged in May 2018. Inspired by Bertolt Brecht’s The Mother, the drama was set on Meath Street. Of its three showings however, not one was put on in the Liberties.

There isn’t really a space in the area today for her to bring her plays to a local audience, she says. “There are stages in places but most of them are busy and used in community contexts. There isn’t really anywhere I can think of.”

The Liberties Local Area Plan set out that the Rupert Guinness Theatre would be open for public use and “firmly in the diary of theatre goers” by 2020. But this hasn’t happened yet.

During a council meeting in September 2018, Willie White, chief executive of the Dublin Theatre Festival, pointed out that the city needed a large multi-purpose space with a capacity of 400 to 500 people.

Dublin City Council’s Heritage Officer Charles Duggan identified two vacant theatre spaces, one of which was the Rupert Guinness Theatre, according to the minutes.

An NCAD spokesperson says the college is at the moment negotiating with Diageo for the future use of the hall. “That would have the possibility of broader community usage.”

“Investment would be required for internal refurbishment to bring the space into College or public use,” they said.

What would work there?

At the council’s arts and culture committee on 22 May, members were presented with a report by the City Arts Office Ray Yeates on a potential 500-seat multi-purpose venue for the city.

The council has hired consultants to do up a feasibility study, Sinead Connolly of the City Arts Office told the committee. That should be done in June, the Arts Office report said.

Green Party Councillor Donna Cooney asked if the study was to consider existing venues in the city, such as Liberty Hall or the Ambassador Theatre on O’Connell Street.

“We do actually have theatre spaces. They’re just underused,” she said.

Connolly said that, based on feedback from the sector, current venues aren’t sufficient for what the report framed as the “City Theatre of Tomorrow”.

“The likes of Liberty Hall, while it is a wonderful resource to the city, the stage itself is very extremely limited,” she said.

After the committee meeting, White said similar about the Rupert Guinness Theatre. It is perhaps too conventional a venue to be a multi-purpose space, he said. “I’m not sure how fit for purpose it is in terms of contemporary theatre.”

The location is good, he said. “But my understanding is that the size is not the answer. It’s a raised stage and the room is not very wide.”

“But there is a theatre there that is not being used in the context of what I believe is a great need,” said White.

A spokesperson for Dublin City Council said that the theatre is being considered in its feasibility study.

But, they said, the privately owned building has heritage value and has not been used in some time, which could add greatly to the cost of refurbishment.

“This theatre is a classical proscenium arch theatre and this would have to be considered in the modern context and modern performance space demands,” they said.

Michael Lanigan is a freelance journalist who covers arts and culture for Dublin Inquirer. His work also appears in Vice, Totally Dublin, and the Business Post. You can reach him at

Join the Conversation


  1. The Rupert Guinness Theatre was used by the resident musical society from Guinness’ called Arthur’s Team in the 1980s and 1990s and also by St Michaels Musical Society Inchicore for productions of Kiss me Kate and Cabaret. Also many happy seasons of Tip Tops for youngsters as well.
    Frank Foley
    National Secretary
    Association of Irish Musical Societies
    Founding member Kilmainham Inchicore Musical Society

    1. This theatre is needed so much in the liberties. It will help this area so much and really help the community in the area. It was so sad to see the Tivoli go. Too many hotels n student accommodation been built in the liberties now and it’s ruining the heart of Dublin. We need this theatre so much to bring some life back into the liberties.

  2. This was a wonderful facililty that we had in our wonderful Liberties and I had the pleasure of performing in it a couple of times in the past, it is greatly needed in the area, I am an afterschool manager and community worker in the Liberties area and we are always looking for space to showcase the childrens Talent.
    We have a fantastic stage school called ‘Atomic’ under the Direction of a local man called Mark Kennedy in our area, that hosts fantastic shows and award cermonies catering for hundreds of children and adults, I have seen some of these shows and they would be as good as westend productions but they have to put them on miles away and the people of the community are missing out.
    Also we have other colleges in the area that could avail of this beautiful theatre like liberties college who do performing arts and BIMM who have lots of students studying music and production. These students are paying a fortune for space to showcase their musical skills also.
    We also have the annual Liberties festival (one of the longest running festivals in Dublin) where people from all over the world and the community contact us to showcase their talents whether it be poetry ,dance,singing, acting or art and we cannot facilitate them all due to no theatre space.
    The Rupert Guinness Hall is an invaluable asset to our Community and it would be fantastic to see it open again!

  3. It would be amazing for this to reopen my younger years we’re spent in this hall performing on the mini tops dancing competition such amazing memories

  4. Enjoyed a wonderful production of 7 Brides for 7 Brothers there presented by SMCo , late 90s.
    Wonderful venue.

  5. A potential opportunity that should not be missed . All interested parties should meet up and thrash out something that will accomadate all. Ps. Great to see you Paul still active in the Arts.

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