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The History Of The Olympia Theatre

The building first opened as “Dan Lowrey’s Star of Erin Music Hall”, designed by John J. Callaghan, a well-known architect at the time, for Dan Lowrey. Lowrey had been very successful in the UK, where he ran a number of venues in the burgeoning business of Music Hall Theatre. However, he decided to make it his personal ambition to bring this popular form of entertainment to Dublin. He opened the doors for the first time in 1879, on Monday 22nd December.

It was subsequently re-branded as “Dan Lowrey’s Music Hall” in 1881, and again re-branded as “Dan Lowrey’s Palace of Varieties” in 1889 by his son, Dan Lowrey Junior, who had taken over the business.    

  Front in 60's New exterior 
 Olympia Exterior in 1960'sOlympia Exterior in 2011 

The building however had a more significant make-over in 1897, closing as a Music Hall, and re-opening as a theatre, “The Empire Palace”, with the Lowrey family no longer at the helm, and the nature of the shows being presented began to change. This name survived through the Great War, the Easter Rising, and the dissolution of the large Moss-Stoll theatre empire, as the entertainment industry changed significantly in Ireland and the UK.

These were turbluent times in Ireland. The below photo was taken on 11th July 1921, the day of the Truce of the War Of Independence, and shows crowds gathering outside the theatre, in front of Dublin Castle. This image is reproduced with permission of Mercier Archives, Mercier Press, Cork.


In 1923, the venue had yet another re-invention, this time emerging as The Olympia Theatre, presenting drama, opera, ballet, as well as films, oratorio, pantomime, although with a mainstay of revenue and variety.

In 1952, a pair of more drama oriented producers, Stanley Illsely and Leo McCabe, took over and were in management for 12 years, during which time The Olympia was essentially a playhouse.

 Old seats Seats
Seated layout in 1960'sBrand new seating layout in 2016

It was in the early 1960’s that a group of London-Irish businessmen bought the building and the land on which it stood. They sought permission to demolish the building entirely and erect an office block. While their application was being prepared and perused, Brendan Smith, a theatre producer active in Dublin at the time, made contact with these new owners and secured a lease on the building, forming a new company called Olympia Productions Limited, with fellow directors Jack Cruise, Lorcan Bourke and Richard Hallinan, and with Brendan Smith as Chairman.

This original lease continued and was renewed and extended repeatedly as the landlords continued to pursue planning permission to demolish and re-develop, until eventually, the tenant company acquired an on-going right of renewal, which protected the building as a theatre provided that the tenant company could continue to operate commercially. This frustrated the attempts of the landlord owners to demolish the building.

 Pros Stalls 
Proscenium arch in the 1960'sProscenium arch in 2016 

However on 5th November 1974, disaster struck when, during a rehearsal break prior to the opening night of a production of West Side Story, the proscenium arch of the theatre across the width of the stage collapsed and, literally, the roof fell in. Sadly the theatre remained closed for nearly two and a half years. It was due to the generosity of Dublin City Council, Corporation and, indeed, the Dublin people and members of the Irish theatre community, but especially the tenacious efforts of the Board of Olympia Productions and the staff, led by Dr Brendan Smith, that the theatre was re-opened on 14th March 1977.

Olympia Productions Limited continued to be the operating company, and in the mid 1980’s Gerry Sinnott, Pat Egan and a number of other new directors joined the Board and took over the running of The Olympia. This newly rejuvenated Board enjoyed an 18 year reign until 1995, when it was bought by Denis Desmond & Caroline Downey.

 No canopy Canopy launch
Front of theatre without canopy in 2004Front of theatre with renovated canopy in 2007

Over its formative years many world famous names in the theatre and film world have appeared on the stage in the Olympia.  These include Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Harry Lauder, Tyrone Power, Noel Coward, Alec Guinness, John Gielgud, Dame Edith Evans, The Lunts, Jean Vilar and his world famous company Theatre Nationale Populaire, and the incomparable Marcel Marceau.

The Olympia has continued to play host to some world renowned theatre productions such as The Walworth Farce, Howie The Rookie, Ballyturk, The Night Joe Dolan’s Car Broke Down, Tom Crean – Antarctic Explorer, Jersey Nights, Guerrilla Days In Ireland, Brigit & Bailegangaire to name but a few! We’ve been privileged to host such uniquely talented actors as Brian Dennehy, Cillian Murphy, Stephen Rea, Brendan Gleeson, Brian Gleeson, Domhnall Gleeson, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, and the list goes on.

The stellar reputation of the theatre is proved time & time again when world famous acts request intimate shows here for their Irish fans. Through Denis & Caroline’s ownership of MCD, they have brought in big names such as David Bowie, Adele, REM, Mumford & Sons, Kings Of Leon, Michael Buble, The Script, Blur, Snow Patrol, Bryan Adams, Muse, Foo Fighters, Kodaline, Radiohead, Morrissey, Arcade Fire, Florence & The Machine, Hozier, The Killers, and much more, all of whom chose the relatively small venue to host shows here when they could have sold out large arenas.

Recent Refurbishments

Between 2015 & 2016, the owners Caroline Downey and Denis Desmond to date have invested €4 million into the theatre to bring The Olympia back to her former glory. The theatre has undergone refurbishment in various areas and is looking beautiful.  

 Bar MB
Old photo of Maureen's Bar in 2011Newly refurbished Maureen's Bar in 2016

Areas completed include:

  • an extensive technical refurbishment and upgrade 
  • behind the scenes works this includes ceiling & electrical works, new medical & staff area
  • bespoke new seats in the Stalls area offering improved comfort and leg room
  • improved facilities for those with special needs
  • new carpets & flooring throughout the venue
  • All 4 bars have been  refurbished to the highest standard while keeping the integrity of the theatre
  • new shops in the Stalls and Circle levels 

Over the coming months in 2016 we will continue with refurbishment of other areas of the theatre to complete the project.

Caroline & Denis would like to say a huge thank you to the staff at Divine Design for the interior design at The Olympia Theatre, and all the various contractors involved who have made this all possible while the theatre remained opened.

Also Gwen Kenny and her team at Interiors Refurbishment & Design by Divine Design.

 Circle Portrait
The Circle of The Olympia in 2016The Portrait Bar of The Olympia in 2016

The ornate doors of The Olympia Theatre (formally The Star Of Erin Music Hall) have been open & welcoming patrons for the last 138 years.

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