The Athenaeum is a nineteenth-century architectural gem tucked away on a traditional terraced street in Enniscorthy. The Grand Old Lady of Castle Street is a theater and town hall built in 1892 at the behest of the Roman Catholic Administrator of St Aidan’s parish, Reverend William Fortune. With a strong history and even stronger roots!
Michael Lynch of Court Street won the contract to build the Athenaeum according to the plans of architect J.K. Freeman. The total cost of construction was £2,207- 5s – 2d which is the equivalent of €1,628,157 in 2016. All of the money to cover these costs was raised by the men and women of Enniscorthy and district.
As a theatre, it was hugely successful with traveling dramatic companies or ‘outfits’ featuring theatrical greats like Anew MacMaster, Mícheál Mac Líammóir and Hilton Edwards. Local drama and musical groups performed in the Athenaeum some winning All-Ireland awards.
In 1916 the Irish Volunteers chose the Athenaeum as their headquarters. They thought that the castle was too exposed and would be an easier target for British artillery.
At daybreak on Thursday 27th of April, the fourth day of the Rising in Dublin, the Enniscorthy Volunteers gathered at Keegan’s at 10, Irish Street, collected their arms and marched to the Athenaeum where they set up their command center. The reading room was used as a guard room; the billiard rooms were used as office space; Cumann na mBan established a hospital in the auditorium and the stage and dressing rooms were prepared as dormitories with commandeered mattresses, blankets and pillows.
The leaders of the Enniscorthy garrison were: Robert Brennan, P.P. Galligan, Séamus Rafter, Séumas Doyle, Richard King and Michael de Lacy. The Volunteers occupied many of the important buildings in the town and set up outposts on all approach roads to the town and strategic sniping posts.
After four days of a practically bloodless rebellion, the County Wexford Volunteers in the Enniscorthy garrison were forced to surrender on 1st May on direct order from Pádraig Pearse in his cell in Arbour Hill Prison. The surrender notice was given to Colonel French, a retired British army officer who lived in Newbay House, Wexford. The leaders were marched from the Athenaeum and conveyed to the military barracks in Wexford town.
The Athenaeum was evacuated before the arrival of Colonel French and the Connaught Rangers. A general round-up of the Volunteers took place and three hundred and seventy-five rebels were arrested. Many were deported to prisons in England, some without trial. Others were released from Dublin prisons.
The Athenaeum continued to hold a prominent place in Enniscorthy social and educational circles.
Due to the withdrawal of the Fire Safety Certificate in 2004, the Athenaeum was closed. The town was at the loss of their theater for the first time in one hundred and twelve years.
A New Beginning
In 2008, a voluntary committee was put together and worked to raise money to have the building opened again to the public. After seven years of fundraising, the Athenaeum was nominated by the 1916 Commemoration Committee as the flag-ship project for Enniscorthy’s 2016 commemorations. As a result, central government allocated almost one million euro for the total refurbishment of the building.
The Athenaeum has been resurrected in honor of the Irish Volunteers, thespians and community people, to proclaim their legacy nationally.