The Athenæum

Published in Gems of Architecture, Issue 5 (September/October 2016), Volume 24

Castle Street, Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford

By Sarah Buckley

Above: The hall was named after Athena, Greek goddess of arts and wisdom, and was inspired by classical architecture. (NIAH)

Above: The hall was named after Athena, Greek goddess of arts and wisdom, and was inspired by classical architecture. (NIAH)

A meeting on 4 February 1891 set in motion plans for an important public building in Enniscorthy, one intended for the cultural improvement of the town and its people but which became a centre of revolution in 1916. At the meeting, Revd William Fortune (1848–1925) expressed the need for ‘a new town hall for Enniscorthy’ where young Catholic men could assemble and apply themselves to the arts, literature and science, saying that ‘a good reading room is almost as indispensable to social life as a good schoolmaster is to a school’.
A committee was elected and two sites were inspected. The choice was a vacant plot opposite the National Bank of Ireland in Castle Street, which was then leased from the earl of Portsmouth, ground landlord of Enniscorthy. Joseph Kelly Freeman of Dublin submitted the design in March 1891, along with estimates and a fee of £35. A tender for £2,207-5s-2d from local contractor Michael Lynch was accepted.
The hall was named the Athenæum after Athena, Greek goddess of arts and wisdom, and, inspired by classical architecture, the Castle Street façade presents a temple-like appearance. A contemporary newspaper described it as having

‘… a well-designed circular-moulded pediment with a piercing in the centre, in which, if feasible, the committee may yet fix a clock. The moulded fascia beneath this, which bears the name and date, rests on six pilasters with richly foliated capitals, and below the fascia the observer notes three large circular-headed windows which light the main hall … Underneath the three circular windows is a very handsome balustrade with splendidly moulded bases, and the lower portion of the frontage beneath is neatly worked out in cement.’

The entrance hall, reading room, two billiard rooms and smoking room were on the ground floor, with the main hall above.

The Athenæum was a centre of social activity for 70 years, hosting leading touring companies that staged concerts, dances, operatic recitals and variety shows, but by far the most significant event was political. The Emmet Commemoration Concert and Oration of 1 March 1916 saw one of the most impressive gatherings ever held in the main hall. The orator was Patrick Pearse, who spoke passionately about Robert Emmet and his dedication to the cause of Irish freedom. In the audience were Volunteers of the Enniscorthy circle of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, who provided Pearse’s guard of honour and secured the Athenæum to prevent interference from the Royal Irish Constabulary or any other authority. Pearse informed the Volunteers that orders for an armed uprising would be coming soon.

Enniscorthy was the only town outside of Dublin occupied by the Republicans during the 1916 Rising. Early on Thursday morning, 27 April 1916, the Athenæum was occupied by Irish Volunteers and became their headquarters in the town. Members of Cumann na mBan raised the Tricolour on the building’s flagpole and shots were fired in salute. On 1 May, however, the British Army regained control of Enniscorthy.
The heyday of the Athenæum had passed by the late 1960s and it closed in 2004. In 2008 the Athenæum Restoration Fund Committee was formed and the Athenæum reopened its doors as a dedicated 1916 Museum on 27 April 2016. The museum is open daily.

See http://enniscorthyathenaeum.com.

Sarah Buckley is a Culture and Heritage student at Wexford Campus, IT Carlow, and has recently completed an internship with the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage. Series based on the NIAH’s ‘building of the month’, www.buildingsofireland.com.

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