A Brief History of the Dean Crowe Theatre

by Gearoid O’Brien

It is difficult for us to believe today that this Theatre started life as the parish church for St. Peter’s parish. The old church appears to have been built in two phases, the first as early as 1795 when it would have been no more than a small chapel. Harking back to the Penal era it was built in a quiet backwater away from the hustle and bustle of daily life. It was then enlarged in 1809 and served as the parish church until the completion of SS Peter & Paul’s in 1937.

The state of Catholicism in the parish at the time this church was built was quite deplorable. Dr George Plunkett became Bishop of Elphin in 1814 and served until 1827. He described the parish priest of St. Peter’s when he came into office in 1814 as “a timid man lacking the capacity for the job who never officiated in the parish church”. He went on to claim that hundreds of persons in the parish had not been to confessions for twenty years. Hundreds of couples were married who had never made their first communion. Attendance at Sunday Mass, not to talk of festivals, was disregarded by many and innumerable couples lived as man and wife who had never been married, and many other in “flagrant and notorious adultery”.

This church was described by Isaac Weld in his Statistical Survey of the county of Roscommon (1832) thus:

“The Roman Catholic chapel, on the slope of the hill, rather to the westward, stands in an open space which is supposed to have been within the limits of the ancient abbey, it is a capacious edifice”.

The ‘ancient abbey’ referred to my Weld was the Cluniac Abbey of de Innocentia or the Abbey of S.S. Peter & Paul, a twelfth century foundation located on the site of the present St. Peter’s Girls’ N.S.

When Fr. J.J. Kelly (later Dean Kelly) was appointed administrator of St. Peter’s parish in 1889 the church was considered to be in poor shape and inadequate for the needs of the parish. Dean Kelly set up a fund to build a new church but he himself had neither the energy or the commitment to see this project to fruition. He was a nationalist, a poet and historian and was involved in local politics and the Irish language movement. When he died he left the bulk of his estate to the parish to go towards the church building fund.

The young John McCormack was a choirboy in this church in the 1890s, while his family were living nearby in Goldsmith Terrace, and here under the watchful eye of the talented choir-master, Michael Kilkelly, he was encouraged to take his singing seriously and to consider making a career of it.   If it were not for the encouragement of Michael Kilkelly, a pawn-broker in Bastion Street, John McCormack may have joined the civil service as his father hoped he would, and may never have become a professional tenor.

Old St Peters Church

Photo: The Old St. Peter’s Church Building from ‘Athlone in Old Picture Postcards’ by Gearoid O’Brien, (European Library, 1996). Courtesy of the author.

In more recent times the novelist John Broderick gave us a vivid description of the church in an article which he first wrote for The Irish Times and which was included in a volume of essays ‘Irish Midland Studies’ which was published in commemoration of N.W. English in 1980. Broderick described the church thus: “The inside of this old building was most unusual; and in many ways pre-dated today’s idea of gathering a congregation close about an altar. In St. Peter’s this was achieved by means of galleries. The altar, raised high with some eight or ten steps leading to it, was placed against the wall in the middle of the church instead of the end. The seats were arranged in three sections, in front and at both sides of the altar; and over these were the galleries. … They were known as the organ gallery, the old men’s gallery and the grand gallery…”.

John Broderick in the course of his article went on to describe those who frequented the galleries. Of the grand gallery he said it had “something of the air of the Royal enclosure at Ascot. It was heavily patronised by the more fashionable female section of the parish, and was a brave sight at Easter, full as it was of new hats of herbaceous variety. No new outfit could possibly be worn without first being displayed in the grand gallery of old St. Peter’s”.   Of the organ gallery which, he remembered to be presided over by the famous “Dinkie” Donnelly he had this to say: “This was a rather mixed section, much in favour with the young bloods and more advanced maidens of the town, who indulged in a certain amount of giggling and pinching under the cover of the organ music”.

When the new church of SS Peter & Paul was built in the 1930s this building became a parochial hall for St. Peter’s Parish.   It was a favourite venue for dancing and other forms of entertainment. Among those who attended dances here were some of the German spies who were once held prisoner in Custume Barracks.   In 1959 the hall was renovated by a local builder Mr John O’Gorman, and re-named The Dean Crowe Memorial Hall in memory of Dean John Crowe a beloved pastor in St. Peter’s who had died four years earlier. It soon became a venue for a multitude of local and national events, ranging from the annual production of Athlone Musical Society to The All-Ireland Drama Festival. It also catered for less cultural events including the annual parish ‘Sale of Work’ featuring a variety of stalls and an endless supply of raffles for prizes such as: ‘a ten-shilling note’, ‘a pair of chickens or ducks’, ‘a calf’ or ‘a load of turf’.

It was at the All-Ireland Drama Festival in 1959, the first held in this building, that John B. Keane first came to prominence when the Listowel Drama Group won the Esso Trophy for their production of ‘Sive’. Over the years many of our most talented actors, musicians, comedians and singers have appeared on this stage. Over the years the facilities in the hall became inadequate for the audience needs. Year after year journalists and those who wrote ‘letters to the editor’ in both the local and national press decried the conditions endured by patrons of the dramas and musicals. The lack of adequate toilet facilities, proper dressing rooms, comfortable seating and refreshment facilities all added up to a decline in the use of the hall.

In 1992 a decision was taken to refurbish and extend the old Hall to create a modern Theatre. The late Colm Kelly organised a small working party in 1993 and two years later a formal committee was put in place to further this cause. Later the Bishop of Elphin, the most reverend Dr. Christy Jones, agreed to extend a 99-year lease to the newly formed Dean Crowe Theatre Trust and thus the proposal at last became a possibility.   A three-phase development plan was conceived by the architect, Mr Brian Brennan (who had been a member of the original cast of ‘Sive’) and fund-raising plans were put into place.

After a successful fund-raising appeal, it was agreed to combine phases 1 & 2, a local architect Mr Gerry Daly was engaged to become involved in the project.   With the support of our local T.D. Minister Mary O’Rourke, and Minister Sile De Valera an application for E.U. funding was successful thus enabling the work to begin.

Local builders T. Murray & Sons were engaged and the final product was even better than we anticipated.   Enthused by the success the Trust quickly turned to Phase 3, the refurbishment of the stage and back-stage facilities and once again an application for E.U. funding was successful. The final phase commenced in 2001 was completed the following year.

The newly refurbished and extended theatre was officially opened in October 2002 by the Athlone-born tenor, the late Louis Browne. It is one of the largest theatres in provincial Ireland. It featured the Elan Auditorium with seating for 466 patrons. The ancillary accommodation included an enlarged foyer space, the refurbished and extended stage, state of the art stage lighting, magnificent dressing rooms and green-room.   The AIB Gallery is a multi-function facility situated at first-floor level which combines both gallery and tea-room. It has also been used for meetings, poetry-readings and a range of youth activities. The theatre is licensed and includes generous lounge facilities at ground-floor level. The renovations also included an orchestra pit, something which was considered a necessary addition to the theatre.

In 2017, the Dean Crowe Theatre started a process to upgrade facilities once again. Funding was secured from the Department of Culture, Heritage and An Gaeltacht and Clann Credo. Local firms Malachi Cullen Consulting Engineers and IN2 Design Partnership led a significant refurbishment to the front of house areas of the Theatre. Dunnes Building Services were engaged and work was completed in the summer of 2019. This refurbishment re-laid the floor of the main auditorium, improved accessibility issues, increased the capacity of the ladies’ toilet area and improved the equipment and décor in the bar, AIB Gallery, foyer and front of house areas.

Now with a fine and adventurous programme of activities, something indeed to suit all tastes, the theatre is attracting patrons from all over the midlands. Few of those who sit in the comfort of this modern theatre would ever suspect that it started life as a penal chapel.

Dean Crowe Theatre Construction
Dean Crowe Theatre Construction
Dean Crowe Theatre Front