Cinema mogul and soccer player of distinction
Leo Ward, who has died aged 94, was a co-founder of the Dublin Cinema Group, which controlled half the Irish cinema market and owned Dublin’s oldest cinema, the Savoy. It was recently announced that the group is to be split following a long-running internal dispute.
Ward also was the oldest holder of an FAI cup-winner’s medal. Although he was once signed by Manchester City, he spent most of his footballing career with Drumcondra FC in the League of Ireland.
In the early 1990s his football medals were stolen in a burglary at his Rathmines home. His old club replaced them on the occasion of his 93rd birthday. Born in Fairview, Dublin, in 1919, he was one of 10 children of John Ward and Martha Anderson. Both his parents were twice married and he was the first child of their second marriage. He was educated at O’Connell schools.
Having played soccer at juvenile level, he won FAI junior cup medals with Drumcondra FC in 1939 and 1940. During the second World War he returned from Manchester to Dublin. He made his League of Ireland debut for Shamrock Rovers, for whom he played three times, before returning to Tolka Park to play for Drumcondra. Playing senior football, at either outside right or outside left, earned him £8 a week. He won two FAI cup-winners’ medals with Drumcondra, in 1943 and 1946, and won a league-winners’ medal in 1949. He also won inter-league honours on several occasions.
He said: “In 1945 when the war ceased, the director of Manchester City came across to Ireland and asked me to go back to England but I told him I had lost the best football years of my life and I was now involved in the film business and would no longer be interested in being a full-time professional.”
Following a spell with Waterford, he hung up his boots to devote himself fully to his business career.
With his half-brother Kevin Anderson, in 1955 he bought the first of a string of cinemas, the Premier in Lucan, Co Dublin, for £18,000.
He travelled the country, striking deals with small-town cinema owners. “I was 11 years in distribution before we started up an independent distribution company called Abbey Films and the earliest films we bought were The Hills of Donegal, Danny Boy and the Rose of Tralee.” He secured the Irish agency for Anglo Amalgamated film distributors, that distributed the Carry On films.
He pulled off another coup by securing the Irish rights to the first seven James Bond films, which he showed back-to-back at the Green cinema on St Stephen’s Green.
In 1983 the Dublin Cinema Group bought the Savoy and Odeon cinemas from the Rank organisation. Ward was proud: “The number one screen in the Savoy is one of the best cinemas in Great Britain and Ireland.”
Ward’s love of films began in childhood, and he rated Gone with the Wind, The Quiet Man and Titanic as the best he had seen. Humphrey Bogart was his favourite actor.
In 2008 the Jameson International Film Festival presented him with a Volta award. Ward continued to work a 12-hour day well into his 80s but reduced his day-to-day involvement in recent years.
Predeceased by his wife Vera in 2004, he is survived by his daughters Carol and Jean and son Paul.