Note: This article originally appeared in SET, a quarterly publication concerned with the relationship between cinema and its architecture. Check them out and give them a ‘Like’ here.
In 1961, Ireland was changed forever with the launch of Telefís Éireann, a national state television station. Lagging behind the rest of the world, television was something of a cultural shock in Ireland, with one conservative politician boldly stating that “there was no sex in Ireland before television.” If television brought the world into Irish homes, it also had some negative effects, in particular playing a central role in bringing about the demise of the suburban cinema phenomenon.
Dublin was home to a staggering sixty cinemas in the mid-1950s, between city and county. Jim Keenan, who has produced a comprehensive pictorial history of these cinemas, has noted that “today, the Savoy in O’Connell Street is the only cinema to survive from that era.” Suburban cinemas do still exist in Dublin today, though rather than the architecturally interesting picturehouses that once dotted Dublin, they are largely confined to shopping centres and run by multinational companies.
Dublin’s first full-time cinema opened its doors to the public in 1909, named the Volta, after a picturehouse in Trieste. Overseeing the entire project was a certain Mr. James Joyce, who had been inspired by his continental travels. A small plaque marks the location of this cinema today on Mary Street in the heart of the city centre, though it makes no mention to the fact for Joyce it was a failed and costly commercial enterprise! None the less its place in history was secured, and it was the first of a wide range of purpose-constructed cinemas that would emerge in the city, being followed for example by the Grafton Cinema on Grafton Street in 1911 and the Dorset Cinema on Granby Row in that same year. Within five years of Joyce’s enterprising idea, Dublin had its first cinemas beyond the city centre with a cinema opening in the wealthy and fashionable suburb of Blackrock (Blackrock Cinema Theatre, 1914) and another in Phibsboro (Phibsboro Cinema, 1914). Sadly demolished in 1953, Keenan has noted that the Phibsboro cinema “had an attractive brick and terracotta facade and an auditorium richly embellished with fibrous plasterwork.”
Many of Dublin’s suburban cinemas were constructed in the decades that followed Irish independence, both in middle class and working class districts, with a golden age of construction in the 1920s and 30s. In some cases the premises’ were designed with multiple functions in mind, for example the Stella cinema in Rathmines which included a dancehall within it. Opened in 1923, it was envisioned as something of a luxurious cinema, though simpler cinemas were constructed in working class districts. Cinemas in Dublin thrived despite an aggressive conservative Catholic agenda in sections of society that viewed them with distrust, with both the Catholic Truth Society and the Dublin Vigilance Association lobbying for strict film censorship in the 1920s. The pressure of bodies like these contributed to the passing of an incredibly restrictive Censorship of Films Act in 1923, allowing the film censor to refuse certificates to films deemed “indecent, obscene or blasphemous.” While the cinema, jazz music and drinking were all condemned by conservative elements in Irish life in the 1920s and 30s, historian Diarmaid Ferriter has correctly and light-heartedly noted that “It is surely ironic, given the constant references to ‘alien influences’, that the Irish population became one of the heaviest cinema-going populations in the world, and were keen to drink as much as possible and dance from one end of the country to the other.”
From Maureen O’Hara to the Ramones: The Cabra Grand
As a case study, the Cabra Grand cinema in the working class Dublin 7 suburb of Cabra is worthy of examination. Dublin Corporation had constructed hundreds of homes for the working class of the city here in the early 1930s, moving Dubliners from dilapidated tenement accommodation in the city centre into a new expansive suburban environment which would continue to grow in future decades. The opening of the Cabra Grand cinema in 1949 was the subject of much excitement in the suburb, captured in the pages of the local and national media. The Lord Mayor of Dublin formally opened the cinema, while a local parish priest was on-hand to bless the premises, indicating the strong role the church continued to play in Irish life, and a cooling in church opposition to the cinema industry.
A 1,600 seater cinema, the Grand was managed by a veteran of the Easter Rising named Louis Marie, and opened with a feature film starring the ever-popular Maureen O’Hara. The Grand was capable of drawing very significant crowds throughout the decade that followed its opening, though interestingly one official warned in 1959 that the biggest problem for it and other cinemas in Ireland “would be the advent of television on a national basis.”
The Grand was one of several suburban cinemas that were bought in 1975 for the purpose of becoming bingo halls, and it still cuts an imposing shape on Quarry Road in Cabra, where the historic signage remains visible through bingo advertising. In addition to welcoming in gambling grannies, it also became a popular location for concerts, with legendary U.S punk rockers The Ramones performing there in 1980, at a gig marred by violence in the vicinity of the venue. So legendary was the violence at punk and rock concerts at the Grand that Dublin District Court decided in 1980 that no further rock concerts could be held at the venue. Other bands to have taken to the stage of the one-time cinema in Cabra include Siouxsie and the Banshees, while an up-and-coming boyband named Boyzone packed a thousand people into the venue in 1995. A surprisingly (and impossibly) high number of people claim to have been there to see The Ramones of course, a significant event in the folklore and mythology around the cinema, while witnesses to Boyzone’s sold out concert are somehow harder to come by.
The uncertain future for Dublin’s suburban cinema buildings.
Like clockwork, many of Dublin’s suburban cinemas closed their doors in the early 1970s, unable to survive in a changing world where visual entertainment could be obtained without stepping outside the front door. Evidently, suburban cinemas also struggled to compete with those in the city, with the owners of several suburban cinemas jointly claiming to the media in 1973 that “discriminatory practices by certain major film distributors were resulting in a delay of up to nine months before new films shown in city-centre cinemas could reach the suburbs.” Fergus Linehan, a film critic with The Irish Times, wrote in 1974 that cinema going had become a “lost habit” in Ireland, and complained that with the exception of the O’Connell Street area, there wasn’t a cinema to be found on the northside of Dublin still in operation. Linehan drew on British statistics, which showed that “in 1952 there were 1,312 million cinema admissions in Great Britain, and 9.3% of British homes had television. By 1962 admissions had declined to 395 million – but 77.1% of homes had TV.” A similar correlation could be drawn in Ireland, though television was a slightly newer phenomenon.
In recent years, the architectural merit of many of these cinemas has finally been acknowledged, though historical neglect has contributed to the speedy demise of some buildings. The beautiful historical signage has been removed from some cinemas, with Stella in Rathmines only losing its signature signage in December 2013. Modern developments saw shopping centres and Tesco’s emerge on the site of old cinemas, while some remain in limbo, for example The Gala in Ballyfermot, a fine cinema premises opened in 1955 that later became a bingo hall and snooker hall but has closed its doors in recent times. An integral part of its community, locals still recall the famed (and rather portly) cinema usher ‘Harry The Hippo’ of the 1960s and 70s with great affection!
The suburban cinema, from the late 1920s through to the 1970s and in some cases beyond that, was an integral part of many Dubliners lives, across socio-economic classes. Of course communities today do not feel the same connection to suburban cinemas that are awkwardly lumped in with multi-million Euro shopping centre developments in Blanchardstown or Clondalkin. By the turn of the millennium, there were only 10 single-screen cinemas remaining in Ireland, with multiplex (and multinational) operations removing smaller competitors en masse. For younger generations of Dubliners, stand-alone suburban cinemas are now just unusual and decaying features of the landscape around them.