An Irishman's Diary

 

IT IS ALL of 100 years now since an Irishman living in Italy became so impressed with the potential of a new, fast-growing entertainment medium that he decided to introduce it to his home country. So in October 1909, he went back to Dublin to make the arrangements. And two months’ later, a week before Christmas, he opened Ireland’s first dedicated cinema at No 45 Mary Street.

It was not exactly a success. Partly because all the films he arranged to screen were in Italian, the cinema struggled. But undaunted, the would-be impresario – James Joyce – returned to Italy and went on to make quite a name for himself in another of his big interests, literature.

Fast-forward almost half a century and a not dissimilar drama played out in a small, north Tipperary town called Borrisokane. Too late for Joyce, Ireland’s love-affair with the movies was by now in full bloom, consummated nightly in such vast picture palaces as Dublin’s Carlton and Adelphi. But like many rural towns, Borrisokane still didn’t have a cinema, until one man determined to change this.

The unlikely Joycean figure was the local parish priest, Canon Cahill, who – defying the clergy’s traditional suspicion of the medium – decided that the town would have a silver screen. The priest was a cultured man, but also a steely one: known for his habit of swimming daily in Lough Derg, even in the winter of 1963 when the lake froze and he had to bring a pick with him to break the ice.

He was used to getting his way; so the necessary money was soon raised. And in April 1957 the Stella Cinema opened in Borrisokane’s Clarke Memorial Hall.

With a proper sense of occasion, Canon Cahill made a speech beforehand on the cultural importance of film, a medium that – at 60 – was about the same age as himself. He paid tribute to the pioneering Lumière brothers. And with a warning to the audience not to clap too hard – “It’s a very old building”, he brought the lights down on Marching Along, a musical biopic about bandmaster John Philip Sousa.

There were many better films shown during the Stella’s heyday – Casablanca, The Third Man, and All Quiet on the Western Front, to name just a few; along with such less celebrated classics as Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman. But it was a short heyday.

As mass entertainment, cinema-going had already peaked by the 1960s. Television was on the rise. And in May 1967, barely 10 years after it opened with great hoopla, the Stella closed almost unnoticed.

Its story is similar to many others in small-town Ireland. We might have heard nothing more about it but for two locals. One was Michael Doorley who, in 2002, wrote a book called Stella Days, a glowingly affectionate tribute to the old cinema. The other was a woman called Mary Anne Phelan.

The latter had emigrated to the US many years before, where she became Mrs Estevez. Her children were called Estevez too. But she is better known to posterity as the late mother of one of Hollywood’s greatest actors, whose stage name is Martin Sheen: a man deeply proud of his Tipperary roots and – incidentally – now about the right age to play Canon Cahill.

One thing led to another. And although the details are still being sorted, it is hoped that filming of Stella Days, directed by Thaddeus O’Sullivan and with a cast including Sheen, Stephen Rea and Romola Garai (of Atonement and Inside I’m Dancing) will begin soon, shot partly on location in and around Lough Derg.

Sheen is not Borrisokane’s only link with Hollywood, as it happens. Although born in Dublin, the once famous silent-movie director Reginald Ingram Hitchcock – Rex Ingram for short – spent formative years in the Tipperary town, where his father was Church of Ireland rector.

Not to be confused with the actor of the same name, Ingram reached his peak with such films as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse(1921) and The Prisoner of Zenda(1922). A contemporary film-maker once called him “the world’s greatest director”.

But that was arguably not the greatest compliment paid him.

Unsurprisingly, he also came to the attention of the aforementioned Irish-Italian cinephile, Mr Joyce: earning a reference in Finnegans Wake as “Rex Ingram, pageant master”.

Of course, Finnegans Wakeis widely regarded as a heroic failure, a bit like Joyce’s Volta cinema. For more encouraging omens, Borrisokane and the makers of Stella Days might look to another Italian source, the 1988 film Cinema Paradiso. Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, this concerned a veteran cinematographer’s return to his Sicilian birthplace for the funeral of an old friend, the projectionist in the local picture house who had inspired him as a child to make movies The film is about friendship, coming of age, love, and loss: all considered against the background of a small-town cinema. It did poorly on initial release in Italy. Then the producers cut half an hour out of it for international release, and it took off: winning the special jury prize at Cannes and the best foreign film Oscar, en route to earning status as a popular classic and reviving the Italian film industry.