The Stairs to Hell

You never know what you might find in the middle aisle in LIDL. Nowhere is this more true than the one on Aungier Street in Dublin.

The steps to “Hell”
Image my own.

If you have visited the new LIDL on Aungier Street, near St. Enda’s School, you will have no doubt noticed the two large glass windows in the floor, giving a glimpse of the well preserved ruins below.

Each of the two windows reveals a different story.

LIDL Aungier Street

One shows two sets of brick steps facing each other and the other an arrangement of boulders.

These were both discovered when they were making the excavations for the new supermarket and they tell us about two very different times in Dublin’s past.

The brick steps, pictured at the top, date from the 1730’s. Where LIDL stands today was the Aungier Street Theatre. It was built while it’s nearest rival, Smock Alley Theatre, was being rebuilt.

In 1745, Jonathan’s Swift’s (Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral and author of Gulliver’s Travels) nephew, Thomas Sheridan was the manager there.

RTÉ News Report on the Find

Sadly the theatre didn’t last long and closed it’s doors for good in 1750.

So, what were these steps all about? Well, you might think that theatre in the 1600’s and 1700’s was mostly people standing onstage reciting long speeches and not much else.

Nothing could be further from the truth. What really got an audience excited were . . . . special effects! And that’s where these steps come in.

To make the plays really come alive for the audience, some of the effects popular at the time were to do with the weather. If you have ever read or seen a Shakespeare play or film there’s a good chance there was a storm in it at some point.

Back then they would use all sorts of clever tricks to bring the storm to the stage.

Cannon Balls were rolled across the floor above the stage to sound like thunder. For lightning dried resin from tree sap was thrown on candles which flashed brightly.

They even sometimes attached a firecracker to a cut-out of a lightning bolt and put it in a wire so it would shoot across the stage.

Smoke of different colours was used too and smells! Sulphur, which smells like rotten eggs might be used if a ghost or a witch walked onstage.

Lots of theatres also had a “Heaven” and “Hell”. Gods, heroes, ghosts of the good would often be lowered by wire from a trapdoor way above the stage.

This was “Heaven” and they might “fly” down in the middle of a shower of petals.

The villains, bad spirits, devils and the like would come from “Hell” and that’s exactly what these steps were there for.

These steps sat underneath a trapdoor in the stage of the Aungier Street Theatre. When the “baddie” of the piece needed to magically appear the trapdoor would open, smoke would pour out, maybe that rotten egg smell too and the actor who had been hiding, crouched down at the bottom of those steps would suddenly leap out onto the stage as if they were emerging from hell itself!

What about the other window with the circle of stones?

Well, that is older than the steps.

Much, much older.

These go back around 1,000 years! This was a house or building built by some of the earliest Vikings to settle in Dublin.

It sits near what was a large pool of water, behind where Dublin Castle is today.

The water there came all the way down from the mountains and was stained brown because it had a lot of tannin in it from the peat and bogs it went through on the way down from the mountains. Tannin is what makes tea brown too.

People named the area after this black, murky pool of water. Dubhlinn, or “black pool” was the name given to it and it’s where Dublin got it’s name.

Listen to how special effects were made in Shakespeare’s Time

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