Tegan Tuesday: Backstage Beauty

The joy of doing gig work in the performing arts means that sometimes you are in non-public facing areas of interesting places. Now, I am someone who likes both history and architecture, so it’s not always hard to find something I’d consider interesting, but the specific quality of hidden or forgotten parts of a place that only exist once you’re past the ‘Employee Only’ door are always unexpected and sometimes truly bizarre. I know when I worked in the box office of a theatre in Boston I’d find abandoned safes, decades-old and abandoned merch, and we had a collection of several hundred CDs collected over the years. If I looked hard enough, I’d also find tape cassettes and inside jokes from dead actors scrawled on the walls.

This week I am in and out of Ireland’s National Concert Hall in Dublin. I had actually attended concerts here prior to my ever going ‘backstage.’ But this building has only loosely abandoned its earlier uses. Let’s take a brief photo journey through some NCH history.

The first image is a modern picture of the National Concert Hall from the street.

An image of a stone building, taken at a slight angle. It has columns and wings extending beyond a central point, and there are three visible floors.

This next image is one that’s posted in the upstairs hallway of an earlier life of the building. The accompanying caption reads: The Royal University Dublin pre-1908. During major University College Dublin reconstruction work, the campanile was dismantled and removed to the Royal College of Science in Dublin’s Merrion Street around 1915.

A photo of the previous building, clearly an older version. There is a front section with a cornice and pillars that is missing from the modern image.

That’s right! The NCH used to be one of the buildings for University College Dublin (one of the Irish state schools, along with others like UC Cork and UC Limerick) back when all of the Dublin universities were downtown. It makes sense that a state-owned building would remain a state building when UCD moved to their Belfield-area campus in the 1970s. According to wikipedia, the building was originally an exhibition hall until it was repurposed into a university in the late 19th century, so going from university to concert hall is hardly its first rebranding.

Just being an old school building or exhibition hall isn’t particularly fancy, as any number of buildings are abandoned schools, or churches, or supermarkets. It’s probably more common for a building to have had multiple uses throughout its life than to remain one single entity forever. The Boston theatre mentioned previously had been a church in its past, for example. But like so many areas of downtown Dublin, there were important connections to the Irish civil war too.

A black and white photo of a large room with molding on the walls and in archways. The room is full of benches and chairs, mostly visible from the back.

The caption accompanying this picture states: Council Chamber of UCD, now the Kevin Barry Room, where the Treaty debates took place between 14th December 1921 and 10th January 1922. On the reverse of this photograph, it was noted at the time ‘would not be allowed take photo during sitting.’ There are actually quite a few photos on the walls of civil war and independence relevant images and details, and so even wandering the halls can be an interesting experience. But notice the benches in that photo of the Council Chamber?

A photo of a hallway painted pink and white. Distinctive benches made of oblong planks are visible running the length of the hallway.

Those benches are still here! This is one end of the first floor hallway, each of these rooms are currently small rehearsal spaces and lesson rooms. They could of course be repro, but they are such an unusual shape I feel like it would be easier to just re-use old benches rather than source a modern recreation. It does look like some of the hardware has been changed, but the overall appearance is the same.

I have, however, saved the best secret for last. Any building can have a past. Any building can reuse furnishings from said past. But let’s take a peek out the windows of that hallway with all of the benches.

A photo of an outdoor area with low brick buildings and a driveway.

See it yet?

A zoomed-in photo of the previous driveway are, however the doorway in the back is visible and labled 'Pathology.'

A pathology lab! This UCD building had been where medicine and engineering studied and these traces are absolutely everywhere that concert patrons are not. Many of the rehearsal rooms and offices are labeled as the offices of former professors or different departments or specific classes. As many of these doors are starting to lose some of their letters, and I was technically working, I only snapped one quick photo of a particularly nice example of this.

A photo of a set of double doors. The focus is on the label 'Physiology' written on the glass above the doors.

Isn’t that just so charming? I love how the professors and students stepped out of this building one day and the building has waited for their return. As the main concert hall only opened in 1981, a friend of mine said his father had attended UCD when it was here, and that the concert hall was the exam room. It had apparently made for a nervewracking first concert experience, trying to overcome the training of four years worth of fear and stress that lurked behind the doors to that room.

What history is hidden in the buildings you frequent? Even the simplest thing gains shine when viewed from decades away, and it is often a fun game to try and find the evidence of the past.

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  1. Katydid says

    That was a great post, thanks! I take it you’re recovered from Covid and hope you’re doing great.

    I love historic places that have been used for many things over the years. As an aside, when I went to Ireland on vacation, I loved walking in the old graveyards and seeing people born and died before the USA was even a country. I also loved walking around ruined castles and thinking about the people who had walked the same path hundreds of years before.

  2. billseymour says

    I wish I knew more about architecture.  If I did, I’d probably be interested in old castles and churches; but since I probably wouldn’t know what I was looking at, the building itself would have no draw for me; and I have no interest in the lifestyles of rentiers and the infamous.

    Your point about finding surprises in buildings that were repurposed is interesting; but I’m guessing that such buildings are still in use and that such areas, as you said, are not normally open to the public.

  3. says

    Thankfully, Tegan’s symptoms had been gone for several days before mine showed up. These things are always easier when one of us is well enough to do a little nursing.

    I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

    I’m bad at getting myself out of the house, but over this winter I’m planning on checking out at least some of the sights around here. A combination of my own hermetic tendencies and COVID lockdown meant that I didn’t really check out Scotland while I was there. Gonna try not to repeat that in Ireland 😛

  4. Katydid says

    What I enjoyed about the west of Ireland was how simple it was to drive. If you want to go to Village X, you take the road that says Village X. Map? You don’t need a map!

  5. Katydid says

    There’s a British series called “Escape to the Country”. Every episode, you’ve got a couple (or, rarely, a single person) who wants to move from one part of Britain to another. In theory, they also handle Northern Ireland, but none of the episodes I’ve seen have gone there–usually it’s England, less-commonly Wales, and even less-commonly, Scotland.

    Often the home-hunters say they want a “quirky” and “older” property (when shown one, they usually change their mind). In the USA that might mean 1980s, but on Escape to the Country, some of the houses go back to the 1700s. Often they spent time as a pub or started out life as a row of miner or factory-workers’ cottages that were joined into one home. Often they have a huge fireplace that was meant to heat the entire home. Or low beams. Or are laid out for a lifestyle that made sense in the 1700s, but not now. It’s interesting to see how they’ve been updated (or not).

  6. billseymour says

    I’d be interested to know how modern plumbing gets distributed through an older house.  I’m guessing that it’s mostly on the surface of the walls.

  7. says

    Our house definitely isn’t that old, but the drains run down the outside of the building. You can tell that it basically never freezes here!

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