On Thursday 26th May 1988 the 150 year old Fethard mill which ceased operation in 1936 was reopened. It reopened its doors as a centre for the performing arts in Fethard. Seating 150, it provides a venue not only for plays and musicals but also a film club, folk club, school plays and shows, variety shows, classical musical ensembles, large meetings and lectures.
Located beside the Augustinian Abbey and known as Coffey's Mill, it stood empty and derelict for many years. Built in 1791 and reconstructed in 1847 by a Mr. Richard Harvey, the mill passed to the Coffey family early in the century. The mill gave employment to about 14 people and was used to grind corn but also included a creamery, bakery and shop which sold everything from groceries to hardware.
The idea of having a permanent theatre in Fethard was first discussed in 1983. Premises considered at that time were, Holy Trinity Church of Ireland and the Town Hall. Work commenced in the Town Hall (then closed due to fire regulations) with the installation of fire escapes etc. After being allowed to reopen, various organisations started using the hall again, so it was decided to look further afield. Pauline Coffey in Burke Street was then approached about acquiring the old corn mill. Her generosity resulted in the formation of a special committee, known as the Mill Restoration Committee. The committee elected at a public meeting consisted of: Austin O'Flynn (chairman), Gemma Kenny (secretary), Agnes Evans (treasurer), Joe Kenny (pro), Jimmy O'Shea, Marian Mulligan, Billy McLellan, Carmel Rice, Billy Kenny, Michael McCarthy, Jimmy Connolly, Fr. Ormond O.S.A., Noelle O'Dwyer and Jimmy McInerney. The Mill Restoration Committee was a voluntary non-profit making organisation, which was later formed into a company, limited by guarantee and with charitable status. The members mainly comprised of representatives from the Fethard Players Drama Group, the Hogan Musical Society, Macra na Feirme and local schools in the area.
In May 1983 the dilapidated mill was handed over to the committee and by September, local voluntary workers had the building cleaned out. An application was made to ANCO in the same month. Fourteen months later, in January 1985, the first of the 80 young people who took part in the Youth Training Programme started work under Tom Burke the foreman from Ardfinnan. The same Tom is presently foreman of the Town Wall Restoration Project.
A number of other professional people and skilled tradesmen gave time and expertise. These included Tony Lawton, structural engineer; Mattie Shinners, Architect; and Don O'Connell, electrical contractor. Then there was the help and co-operation received from all the State and Semi-state bodies along with all those companies and individuals who gave financial support - Merck Sharp & Dohme £1,000, Smurfitts £1,000, Irish American Fund £6,500 and Shamie Dineen, a personal donation of $500 much appreciated by the committee.
In July 1987, the Mill Project was the joint winner in the South Tipperary Community Endeavour Award sponsored by The Nationalist and the Trustee Saving Bank. By December 1987 income for the restoration of the Abymill amounted to almost £96,000 while expenditure totalled £117,650. Expenditure to date has exceeded £160,000 but only about £5,500 remains to be paid off. Not bad when you realise that the town of Fethard now has the Abymill Theatre which is valued at £250,000 and the building is used for the benefit of the area and the community.
One of the most disheartening experiences the committee had was when the much publicised Lotto grant of £10,000 never materialised, after waiting for months, less than £2,000 was eventually handed over, with the balance awarded to the Inland Revenue. A strange way to treat a non profit making community group doing the work that the Government should have been doing with the Lotto Funds.
The Mill Restoration Committee, following long hours of voluntary work and countless meetings, can now look back with pride on the finished building. One man in particular deserves special mention for his foresight, dedication, work and worry. He is Austin O'Flynn. The former owner Pauline Coffey must also be complemented for her co-operation and support.
The Board of the Abymill Theatre is as follows: Austin O'Flynn (administrator), Michael McCarthy (chairman), Marian Gilpin (secretary), Agnes Evans (treasurer), and Board members: Joe Kenny, Eileen Maher, Bernard Walsh, Jimmy O'Shea, Carmel Rice, Mary McCormack, Noelle O'Dwyer and John Cooney. Contact: Austin O'Flynn, Abbey Street, Fethard, Co. Tipperary. Telephone: 052 31254