Past the pigeons skulking for scraps and commuters seated in the main hall of Busáras, down the dimly lit stairway towards the toilets, take a left.
At the women’s lavatory look left again. There’s a door that’s locked most days, and behind it, below the station, a defunct theatre.
Artist Gavin Murphy knows the old Eblana well by now. He’s spent the guts of three years researching it, trawling through the archives to recover something of this lost part of our cultural history.
Opening at Temple Bar Gallery + Studios on 14 September, Double Movement, the result of his research, is an examination of the theatre’s importance and of the much-contested, but visionary scheme of Busáras itself.
“I was actually reminded of the Eblana at a panel talk at the top-floor restaurant in Busáras,” says Murphy, logging into his laptop upstairs at the Fire Station Artists’ Studios, a stone’s throw from Busáras, on Friday afternoon.
Only as his research progressed – with help from the Irish Theatre Archive and the Irish Architecture Foundation – did Murphy find out that the Eblana hadn’t been gutted and turned into a left-luggage facility as he’d previously been led to believe, but was still down there, a theatrical tomb gathering dust.
“It’s like a time capsule, a mix between the Mary Celeste and an Egyptian tomb,” he recalls. “You descend down into the space and with every footstep there’s dust rising, no electricity.”
The Eblana closed its doors in 1995, having opened in 1959. The flyers from the last production lie scattered still on the floor, says Murphy.
It was home to the Gemini Productions the founder of which, Phyllis Ryan, is synonymous with the old Eblana.
At a time when the Abbey Theatre weren’t commissioning new plays or playwrights Gemini, housed at the Eblana, led the charge, debuting plays by then-burgeoning playwrights like John B. Keane, Brian Friel and Hugh Leonard.
It’s worth a reexamination, says Murphy, to try “to fill the gaps in our cultural memory”.
So forward thinking was the Eblana – staging productions challenging the Catholic church, and breaking other taboos – that it’s important to remember what Ryan and her company did at that time, says Murphy.
Double Movement‘s main feature will be a documentary film about the theatre’s history and about Busáras itself. In addition, Murphy’s made use of voiceover, performance, dance, sculptural installation and photography.
“It’s to remind people that it was there, what kind of plays took place and, within our very recent history, what kind of Ireland it was,” says Murphy.
In the Wings
Actor Des Nealon recalls the Eblana fondly.
Architect Michael Scott originally envisaged the space as a basement newsreel cinema when Busáras first opened in 1953. That never took. Another use had to be found.
In those years the Abbey Theatre was running “fairly unadventurous” programmes, while the Gate Theatre stuck mainly to the classics, Nealon recalls. “Phyllis then arrived on the scene,” he says.
And when the opportunity arose, he and three others took over the running of the theatre from Ryan for two years between 1969 and 1971. “We kept going and we did a lot of innovative works for the period, plays by Joe Orton that hadn’t been seen,” says Nealon.
Despite the late nights, and earning below the minimum wage, the 244-seat space was worth it, he says. “It was wonderful to play because it was so intimate,” says Nealon. “The acoustics were excellent in it, it was beautifully built.”
The size, however, meant compromise. Dressing rooms consisted of two boxes. There was no space in the wings, recalls Nealon. If an actor had to exit right they’d have to cling to the wall until they were back on. “If you wanted to go to the loo during the show you were in big trouble because there was nothing backstage,” he laughs.
Funding for the arts is far better in 2017 than it was in 1969. Were the Eblana Theatre reopened, arts grants “could keep the thing afloat”, says Nealon. “With new companies cropping up all the time they’d have a regular platform,” he says.
Double Movement, explains artist Murphy, is as much about the building in which the Eblana was housed as it is about the old underground theatre.
Busáras was, after all, one of the first major civic construction projects in Europe following the Second World War. It took six years to build, between 1947 and 1953, cost over £1 million to complete and became a subject of consternation among the Irish public even as its architectural significance gained recognition abroad.
“When you look at the original photographs, the attention to detail, the materials, they brought in Venetian tiles, Portland stone, they brought in tiles from Holland,” says Murphy. “There was an immense amount of pride to the building.”
But it could be argued that that pride never transferred to the general public. And today, grey, stained, its toilets in a sorry state, it seems Busáras never reached the metropolitan peak architect Scott envisioned.
“It’s seen as such a functional building, either a beautiful piece of architecture or a lump depending on your point of view,” says Murphy. “But it relates to what kind of Ireland was forming at the time. It was at a very early stage in our republic.”
Double Movement opens 14 September and runs until 18 November.