By Frank O’Shea
There is regret, almost remorse,
For Time long past. (Percy Bysshe Shelley)
The Victorian town of Lilydale is about an hour’s drive north-east of the Melbourne CBD. A medium-sized town, Travel Victoria says that its population in 2016 was 16 500. It is the site of the historic Athenaeum Theatre, which runs three full-length plays each year: June, August and November.
The town’s most famous visitor and the theatre’s most famous performer over the years was Dame Nellie Melba, whose father had a business association with the area. She appeared at the Athenaeum on more than 15 occasions, all of them itemised in a magnificently-produced three-volume history, Lilydale Icon.
Even a casual reading of the story is a reminder of a more innocent past, though with hints of occasional disturbance of social cohesion that varied from irritation to potential conflict. An Irish reader would note that both Archbishops Carr and Mannix visited the theatre as part of their support for local fundraising efforts for the Catholic parish and school. During his after-performance speech, Mannix was reported to have ‘expressed his sincere thanks to the members of the Protestant denominations who had given unstintedly of cash and kind towards this carnival.’
That was in 1924, but relations may not always have been as cordial. There is an account of a concert at the hall by the Hibernian Australasian Catholic Benefit Society (HACBS) exactly 30 years earlier. The report in the Lilydale Express makes interesting reading.
Long before the doors of the Athenaeum were opened people began to assemble, and quite a rush was made for seats when the opportunity was afforded. The curtain rose upon a house, nearly every seat in which was filled with an appreciative audience, and the committee put forward a bill of fare surely sufficient in quality and quantity to satisfy the most fastidious.
The principal performers were Miss Josephine O’Brien and Mr Morris Mahon, each being ‘recalled and called again.’
However, the evening was not without incident.
It is only fair to mention that there was a slight disturbance at the doors at one time, which it was said was caused by a number of irate fathers who had come armed with brickbats to heave at the performer, owing to the noise made by the audience having awakened all the babies on the Cave Hill Road.
One imagines that this may have been a diplomatic colouring of the reason that had the fathers agitated into brickbat-fury. Nevertheless, if it is tempting to applaud the fact that in those distant times, men were paternally attentive to the peaceful sleep of local babies. As Shelley put it,
There were sweet dreams in the night / Of Time long past
Two years after these events, the Sisters of Mercy opened their convent and school. Over the years, the Athenaeum was used for bazaars and other fundraising activities for the school as well as providing a place for graduation and other special ceremonies for the girls
It was also regularly used as the place where St Patrick’s Day concerts were held. A report of one such, in 1908, contains a carefully mild remonstration of some members of the audience.
Some (presumably) young fellows could be heard distinctly indulging in absurd inanities while the most enjoyable numbers on the bill were being rendered. The comfort and convenience of players and people alike would be greatly enhanced if offenders in this respect were taught a salutary lesson.
Thus writes someone who, when all is said and nothing done, will have to live in the same town as these boisterous, (presumably) young fellows.
Apart altogether from the interest which books like these must have for residents of an area, they provide delightful little peepholes into the day-to-day lives of people more than a hundred years ago.
Like the ghost of a dear friend dead / Is Time long past.