Like most countries in Europe after the end of the Second World War, Ireland approached the fifties with a sense of renewed enthusiasm and self-belief. Although emigration was to leave its devastating mark on the landscape during this decade, the country saw the establishment of many festivals which were set up to help promote the fledgling tourist industry as well as to enhance the well-being of local communities.
In 1952 Cecil Salkeld, Cultural Director of the National council of An Tostal (a network of local festivals), came to Athlone seeking a venue for a proposed national drama competition. With the help of such local personalities as P J Lenihan, Alfie Faulkner and Brendan O'Brien, a committee was formed and plans to host the event were put in motion.
With funding from the Arts Council, the first All-Ireland Drama Festival was held in Athlone in April 1953 at the Sprotex Hall, a facility attached to the Gentex factory, then Athlone's leading employer. It comprised competition in 3-Act, (Open and Rural) 1-Act, (Open and Rural) and Verse. The festival was officially opened by Dr Hanly, Bishop of Elphin and the adjudicators were Maureen Delaney, Lennox Robinson and Garriel Fallon.
In 1959 the festival moved from the Sportex Hall to its present location at the then known Dean Crowe Memorial Hall. This was also the year when Esso became the first sponsors whereby they presented a perpetual cup to the festival which was known as the Esso Trophy. The first winners of the trophy were a group from Listowel, Co Kerry presenting a play by a little known budding playwright by the name of John B. Keane. The play was called “Sive”.
The competition streamlined itself into the 3-Act Open Finals from 1969 and remained in much the same format as today with the number of finalists reduced in 2004 from twelve to nine. In 1999, the hall underwent major renovation and refurbishment opening its doors in 2000 as the Dean Crowe Theatre and Arts Centre, presenting a modern, fully-equipped venue fit to bring the festival into the 21st century.
Esso ceased its long association with the festival in 1999, making way for Ericsson to become main sponsors from 2000 to 2003. In 2004 RTÉ stepped on board with the festival getting major prominence thanks to the facilities provided by the national broadcaster.
In 2005 the final awards ceremony was held at the Radisson SAS Hotel, Athlone, marking the first time such an event was held outside the theatre.