Luke’s Liberties: Inside Dublin 8’s red brick which once housed Dubliners’ Luke Kelly
No1 Hanover Square, Patrick Street, Dublin 8 Asking price: €395,000 Agent: Sherry FitzGerald (01) 496 6066
When Bronx-born actor and singer Deirdre O’Connell met steel repairman and banjo balladist Luke Kelly, “the attraction was instant and terminal,” his sister Geraldine wrote.
In the early 1960s, Ireland was about to embark on a revival of traditional Irish music led by bands such as The Dubliners and The Clancy Brothers.
The first had just emerged from the core of the Ronnie Drew Ballad Group (misrepresented in at least one city as the Ronnie Drew Ballet Group). He had just been joined by Kelly who was returning from London.
Reading James Joyce Dubliners, Kelly suggested acquiring its holder.
From the flats of St Laurence O’Toole, the fiery-haired, gravel-voiced banjo picker had made a name for himself in the London emigrant ballad scene where he first met O’Connell (although some also say they met at O’ Pub Donoghue’s).
Born in the South Bronx to Irish parents, O’Connell’s first forays into acting in New York were spotted by Lee Strasberg who persuaded her to study with him at his Stanislavski method school. While studying and sharing a flat with Barbara Streisand, O’Connell was already planning to “return” to Ireland to open a school and a Stanislavski theater there.
Kelly and O’Connell married in 1965 at Whitehall Church, the year they moved into No1 Hanover Square, a former retail space near Patrick St in Dublin 8. It was also the year the Dubliners signed their first recording contract.
After opening his Stanislavski Acting Studio in Ely Place in 1963, O’Connell invested his and Kelly’s money in establishing a 76-seat theater in a dilapidated clothing label factory at 6 Pembroke Place. The Focus theater was born in 1967, opening with the play by Doris Lessing Play with a tiger.
Meanwhile, The Dubliners, with Kelly at her creative peak, went international with appearances on top pops and The Ed Sullivan Show in the USA.
The couple were now at the heart of Dublin’s ballad social scene in the 1960s and early 1970s. He, the drunken, confused troubadour and she, the queen of avant-garde theatre.
In his book, Children of the Far, her sister Geraldine Cusack O’Connell writes, “She (Deirdre) walked down Leeson Street with imperial grace, her red mane high, capes and cloaks billowing in the wind, her eyes staring before her, lost in thought. Black was the color she wore; flowing black skirts, black tights, black pumps and black shawls.
It was always a tumultuous relationship and the couple separated after seven years in 1972, after which O’Connell would devote himself to Focus. His theater became famous for its moving avant-garde productions and gave a big head start to screen names such as Gabriel Byrne and Bosco Hogan.
Kelly continued her tour with the Dubliners, but later encountered health problems. He succumbed to a brain tumor in 1984, aged just 44, and his death affected O’Connell immensely.
From her home in Dartmouth Square, O’Connell continued to lead the performing arts through The Focus until she died suddenly at home in 2001, aged just 61.
President Michael D Higgins has since described her as “the greatest influence on Irish theater since the 1960s”. Without its energetic director, The Focus lost its way and finally closed in 2012.
Today the house at 1 Hanover Street, where the couple spent their tumultuous beginnings together, went up for sale, having been renovated by its current owners.
They were planning to emigrate but Covid intervened and they found themselves stuck between Airbnbs and crashing with their family.
After seeing No1 Hanover Square for sale, the couple fell in love with it and it became their foreclosure project.
When they bought it, it was a meditation center and needed a lot of work.
They invested in a new roof, replaced the plumbing and had it rewired. They reworked the building to let in more light. There was a covered courtyard which they opened up and installed glass doors. Then they went up to the attic and also opened it up, installing skylights in it. They installed a new kitchen, a combi boiler and underfloor heating on the ground floor.
The owners only discovered the Kelly/O’Connell connection after moving in. Half of the couple, who have been involved in acting and also play the banjo, said “it was like fate”.
The property measures 840 m² and comprises an entrance hall, a kitchen with access to the courtyard, a living room with storage mezzanine and a bathroom. There is a utility room which also serves as a guest WC and two bedrooms, one of which is currently used as a studio.
The living room has its original wooden floor, an exposed brick wall, three windows with working shutters and the attic is accessed by a ladder.
The No1 is just off Francis Street in the Liberties area of Dublin, famous for its art galleries, antique shops and cafes, and close to BIMM University of Modern Music, St Patrick’s Park, Grafton Street and St Stephen’s Green. The green and red Luas lines are within walking distance.
It is still surrounded by old cobblestones. At the end of the adjoining driveway are stables from which a horse-drawn carriage leaves every day. Sherry FitzGerald is asking for €395,000.
The former Focus site at 6 Pembroke Place has since been reborn as the Mutiny Boutique Theater and Cinema for Hire.
No1 Hanover Square also happens to be an iconic address in O’Connell’s native New York; as the long-time home of the famous Harry’s Bar and, since the mid-2000s, also of Ulysses Bar and Irish performance venue Folk House.