Ag dul chuig pictiúrlann, 1/2

Most Saturday afternoons, from the age of eleven, I used to take the bus into Dublin city centre. O’Connell Street was my bailiwick – a magical, enchanting place at that time. A southsider like me entered via O’Connell Bridge, as wide as the street itself, and that was pretty wide. The first feature to catch the eye was Nelson’s Pillar, positioned right in the centre of the boulevard, and by far its tallest structure. Other famous landmarks nearby were the Gresham Hotel, the General Post Office, and Clery’s department store.

This last was the focus of O’Connell Street’s status as the capital’s premier shopping district. If Clery’s was Dublin’s queen of retail, it was surrounded by the lesser nobility, a wide variety of food emporiums, cafés, jewellers, and high end haberdasheries. Entertainment was plentiful also. Revellers could dance their cares away virtually any night of the week in the Metropole or Clery’s ballrooms. But it was the cinemas that drew me to the city centre.

From early childhood, a visit to the cinema with my father was the highlight of the week. Our usual destination was the Grafton near Stephen’s Green. The programmes in most of the city’s picture houses consisted of one or two full-length feature films. The Grafton, however, was unique in that it presented a continuous programme of short films, newsreels, and cartoons. Anytime from 10:00am onwards, one could enjoy hours of Speedy Gonzales, The Three Stooges, the Pathé newsreel, and many other similar delights. That grounding set me up for my career as a solo cinephile.

Cash was short in those days - not enough in our household to provide me with pocket money. But my duties as a Mass server sometimes paid off. If I were fortunate enough to be asked to serve at a wedding Mass on a Saturday morning, I would receive a tip of maybe ten shillings or even a pound from the best man. That was enough to fund several trips into town, including a visit to the cinema and an ice cream in Cafolla’s café. And along O’Connell Street and its offshoots, a plethora of picture houses offered an enticing range of films, from epic Hollywood blockbusters to broad British farces.

The Metropole, the Carlton and the Savoy were the big three in O’Connell Street proper. But a few yards off the main thoroughfare were the Ambassador in Parnell Street, the Adelphi in Abbey Street, the Capitol in Prince’s Street, and the Corinthian on Eden Quay. So when I got off the bus I could choose between seven screens, all within a few minutes’ walking distance of one another.

In those pre-multiplex times, these picture houses seemed almost like magnificent palaces. In each one an elaborately-uniformed commissionaire presided over the vestibule from where the box office queue wound its way out onto the street. Smartly-dressed, flashlight-wielding usherettes were on hand to guide patrons to their seats inside the auditorium. Once seated, the audience would chatter away until the lights dimmed and the huge curtains were slowly drawn back for the start of the show.

The licensing arrangements meant that each of the big cinemas had exclusive rights over the latest movie. For instance, My Fair Lady with Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison (in Super Panavision!) opened at the Ambassador on October 15th 1965. Such was its popularity with Irish audiences that it ran there until May 5th of the following year. The average ticket price was about ten shillings, but even the cheapest seat was four shillings and six pence, too rich for my pocket. Nevertheless, a reported 300,000 patrons flocked to see the film at the Ambassador, which for those six-and-a-half months was the only cinema allowed to screen it.
One of my favourite venues was the Carlton, located opposite the Gresham Hotel. This cinema specialised in British horror, with productions from Hammer Films or its main rival, Amicus, as the regular fare. The programme changed each week, so there was always a new double bill of the latest Dracula or Frankenstein chillers to lure me into town.

I also frequented the Capitol, which had several balconies. The higher up I was prepared to climb, the less I had to pay for my ticket. From the front row in the “gods”, as the top tier was known, I could peer down from a vertiginous height into the well of the auditorium. But usually I was focused on the screen. One memorable visit occurred when I went to see a revival of The Longest Day on Saturday June 6th 1964, the twentieth anniversary of the D-Day landings depicted in the film.

My cinema memories derive from a golden time before the destruction of Nelson’s Pillar in March 1966. After that O’Connell Street went into a slow decline as one cinema and retail store after another was closed down or demolished. So I feel lucky to have had the freedom to make my own way through the centre of my native city, when it was safe and pleasurable for a young boy to do so.