PHIL Young vividly remembers the day she knew she had found “the one.” It happened, of course, at the movies.
Phil, born Phil O’Connell in Dunmanway, moved up to Cork city to work in the 1960s. She met Keith Young, who was visiting from South Wales, in a chance encounter in a Cork dance hall. Staying in touch by letter, the pair reignited their mutual interest when Keith paid a second visit to Cork in 1965.
Nervously anticipating their first date, Phil booked tickets for them to watch a film called The Night Of The Iguana, starring Richard Burton and Ava Gardner, in The Pavilion cinema. But whether or not she enjoyed the film, she really can’t say.
“I have absolutely no recollection of what it was about,” Phil says.
“All I know is that I fell in love for the first time that afternoon, and I think he was also badly smitten.”
Now, 54 years later, Phil and Keith are “still in love, and still enthusiastic cinema-goers,” she says.
“Some day I’ll sit down with him and watch The Night Of The Iguana and finally find out what it was all about!” she laughs.
In the heyday of Cork cinema-going, tales of courting like these were common. Meeting at one of Cork’s cavernous, dimly-lit movie theatres, which included The Savoy, The Pavilion, The Lee Cinema and The Academy, saw romance blossom both on and off the big screen.
Many Corkonians might have a tale or two to tell, but maybe it’s fitting that it’s Phil and Keith’s daughter, Gwenda Young, who is seeking Cork’s movie lovers to contribute their stories to Movie Memories, a project documenting the Rebel County’s love affair with the Silver Screen, this Valentine’s weekend.
Gwenda, with her documentary-making colleague Dan O’Connell, both lecturers in UCC’s Department of Film and Screen Media, have been involved in an extensive project compiling the memories of rural cinema-goers in Co Cork from the 1940s until the present day, and now they’re extending the project to include Cork city.
While Gwenda and Dan’s touching 40-minute documentary premiered at Fastnet Film Festival in Schull in 2018, such has been the response and the interest in the project that it has rapidly developed into an online archive, Gwenda explains.
“The whole project got legs and we found we had a lot of footage left over, and as people heard about the project there was more interest in contributing memories from people in the city and county, so we developed the web archive,” she says.
The popularity of the project is a testament to how memories of cinema-going can ignite people’s imagination, she believes. And as it happens, tales of romance feature heavily in Cork’s cinema-going memories.
“The cinema was the perfect place to go courting; a lot of them, including The Pavilion and The Savoy, had a really nice café to extend a date into a big evening out,” Gwenda says.
“A lot of the memories have to do with being on first dates and going to meet someone and being so nervous that they don’t remember the film. People possibly censor themselves a bit too; they might say, ‘oh yes, we got up to all sorts of things,’ but they’ll also say that it was really all very innocent.
Ireland was a Catholic country and it was frowned upon to be getting up to too much.
“A lot of interviewees have said that, even if they’d wanted to get up to hanky panky, the aisles were being patrolled by an usher.”
As well as tales of courting, memories of early childhood visits to the movies were particularly alive for those interviewed for the project.
“Often, the person may remember the surroundings, the sound, the smell or the excitement more than they remember the film,” Gwenda says.
“People will remember their first childhood visit to the cinema as this quite overwhelming experience.”
Gwenda and Dan’s film, funded by UCC and the Creative Ireland fund, charts the legacy of cinemas county-wide, where rural theatres were important social hubs in towns like Dunmanway, Youghal and Kanturk.
The collective experience of going to the movies is a common theme.
“It’s been really rewarding to meet people and hear what they have to say,” Gwenda says.
“Some of the memories are really surprising, but there are also a lot of really similar stories. It was always a social event. They were watching the films and they were in their own dream world and imagining themselves as cowboys, but they’d still all leave the cinema together and then start talking about the film and playing at being cowboys outside.”
This is a far cry from how people often watch movies in total isolation nowadays, since the rise of on-demand streaming services on the internet.
“Now, one person could be watching television and another person in the room might not be watching the same thing at all,” Gwenda says.
“They can be watching a different screen. So it seems like that collective element is being lost, which is a real shame because one of the things that came out really strongly from the memories is how immersive an experience it was: a vast experience, a barrage of sight and sound.
“The seating, the sticky floors, the smell of disinfectant or urine: not all of the experiences were nice, but there was a sense that everyone was in it together and it would be a shame to lose that.
“Looking at the past could help us appreciate what cinema is and what we’ll lose if we just stream films on-demand on individual screens.”
Gwenda and Dan credit the work and research of local author John McSweeney, who wrote a comprehensive history called The Golden Age of Cork Cinemas, as helping them hugely in their project.
“With the archive, we’re also trying to map out the cinemas in Cork city and trying to evoke something about what they would have looked like, right from the very first cinema to open down on Maylor Street in a re-purposed warehouse,” she says.
“The Electric opened in December, 1909, and only lasted about four months. We also have information on the first screening of film, before the days of a purpose-built cinema.”
With reports in January that plans to develop the Savoy building may include a future cinema, Gwenda says that there’s still a place in Corkonian hearts for the old movie theatres they loved and dreamed in.
“A lot of Cork cinemas were bought by the same conglomerate, who eventually closed them all down, so you see cinemas changing and moving to the suburbs in Mahon Point and Douglas, into generic, modern buildings,” she says.
But this trend could be inverting; the recent stunning restoration of boutique cinemas including The Regal cinema in Youghal and, further afield, The Stella in Dublin has shown that there’s still a hunger for the movie experience of days gone by.
“I think people will still go if they get a unique experience and I think the trend towards boutique cinemas shows that,” says Gwenda.
“The real heyday of cinema-going in Cork city was probably from the ’40s to the ’60s, and there actually wasn’t a lot of choice in entertainment. Now we have everything on demand, we need to be lured back into the cinema.”
Cork Movie Memories exhibition opens at Cork City Library on Thursday, February 13, running until mid-March. Cork people are invited to contribute their own memories and memorabilia.