48 – It’s Horse Show Week so let’s … go to the Abbey Theatre?!

Last week, I set off for the city centre on the most Irish of errands: buy a proper rain jacket for my holiday. But when I got as far as Merrion Road, the traffic was at a standstill. It was a Sunday afternoon, but there were hoards of people, Gardaí in their luminous best with batons, and the odd horsebox trundling along towards the traffic lights. It took me a few moments to understand the delays and diversions; Horse Show Week at the RDS had begun.

You’re wondering how Horse Show Week is connected to the Abbey. But sitting in the traffic, I had plenty of time to add up the many references to this gala week in the archives that I’ve been plundering. And as my car inched forward, I found that the families in jeans and tracksuits crossing the road were morphing into women in felt hats and ankle boots, or men with polished shoes and smart coats …

At an early evening Board Meeting upstairs in the Abbey in July 1937, the directors (including Yeats, Higgins and Walter Starkie) discussed a play called ‘Nostalgia’ submitted by a Miss O’Callaghan, before going on to review arrangements for the social outing to Horse Show Week. This was a fancy jaunt with afternoon tea and a few pints of porter; it was the Abbey Company on display. I can see Frolie and Aideen swanning around in the sunshine inside the VIP enclosure. These days, they’d be photographed for the back pages of Social and Personal magazine. (The Irish won the Aga Khan Trophy in 1937, which can have only added to the excitement.)

Do you remember the divorced man by the name of Bob that Aideen met in Chicago during her first tour? Well, in considering the best time for him to meet her family and show off Dublin at its finest, she settled quickly on the Dublin Horse Show in August.

While there may have been porter and much gallivanting at the RDS during the day, the evenings of Horse Show Week brought all of the Company back to the theatre. That week was a particularly busy time for the Abbey and the repertoire was carefully chosen to please the crowd. It was an event that brought many sophisticated visitors to Dublin, and the RDS was close enough to the city to bring them to the theatre in the evening.

The inaugural Abbey Theatre festival was held in 1938, planned by Lennox Robinson to celebrate thirty years of Irish drama, with seventeen plays presented to an international audience. The event, which would see the premiere of Purgatory and Yeats’ last appearance on the Abbey stage, was deliberately scheduled to coincide with which major sporting event? That’s right: the Dublin Horse Show.

The scrapbook that sits in the National Library with the name Frolie Routledge-Mulhern on the inside cover also contains an odd tribute to Horse Show Week. Frolie kept the book during her first tour of the US, when she and Aideen were nicknamed “the babies” of the company and it’s the usual collation of reviews, social columns and grainy newspaper photographs. But the first page is reserved for a photograph of a smart young man on a horse. He is Capt Frederick Aherne, a free state officer. There is no date. When I met with Frolie’s (now elderly) niece, we debated the origin of this photograph. Despite racking her brains and checking with other family, she couldn’t prove that he was a cousin or other relative to the Mulhern family.

On line later, I found this: Military Archives document

It’s the military report on the 1934 Horse Show.

Before setting off for the US in September 1934, the girls attended the Horse Show. It may have been their first time as ‘Abbey celebrities’. On the second day of the week, Capt Aherne (Fred to the boys) won the International Military Jumping Competition riding a horse called Blarney Castle.

After the presentation of the trophy, he spotted a pretty dark-eyed girl in the stands. He bustled through the crowds to find her and offered her a cigarette. He wanted to go for a drink, but she had to perform in a few hours and he was due back at the barracks.

Is that Frolie and Fred I spy – slipping out of the RDS deep in conversation?

I don’t have time to check. The traffic lights turn green and I have to carry on to 2013…

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