My mother went into labour at the cinema

Memories of the old cinemas, in small Cork towns, villages and rural areas, is the focus of a new film, writes COLETTE SHERIDAN
My mother went into labour at the cinema
Fionnghualla Smith in Cobh Cathedral.

MOVIES have always loomed large in Cobh-based Fionnghualla Smith’s life. She has such a close connection with one of her town’s former cinemas, The Arch, that her story features in a new film, Movie Going Memories which will be screened at the tenth Fastnet Film Festival in Schull on May 25.

The film, made by Dan O’Connell and Gwenda Young of UCC, takes a nostalgic look at the memories of film fans living in small towns, villages and rural areas of County Cork from the 1940s onwards.

Sixty-two year old Fionnghualla’s late mother, Breda, went into labour with her in The Arch. Almost two weeks overdue, she was fed up of being at home, on constant standby. There was a new western showing at the cinema so she decided to go to the matinee screening. Not long after the screen lit up with cowboys on horseback, Breda went into labour.

“She didn’t remember the movie and blamed me ever since for having to miss most of it!” laughs Fionnghualla. In her high heels and fur coat (everyone dressed up for the movies in those days), Breda managed to get a taxi and said that ten minutes after arriving in the maternity ward of Cobh Hospital, she gave birth to Fionnghualla. It was an auspicious start for the new baby, one of six children in the Smith family, of whom just three survived.

The Cosey Cinema
The Cosey Cinema

Fionnghualla’s dramatic entry into the world in the east Cork town was the start of her love affair with Cobh. Her Cobh-born parents moved to Birmingham in the 1950s, looking for better work. Fionnghualla was 18 months at the time. Her late father was assistant manager of the Commodore Hotel in Cobh but was ambitious and got a job with the International Labour Organisation, which involved foreign postings. The family lived in Mauritius, the Seychelles and Burma.

During the summer months, the family came back to Cobh. Returning to their base in Birmingham after the holidays, Fionnghuala used to be in tears. She hated leaving Cobh where she had relatives and memories of great times. She was torn between her two identities, feeling “slightly displaced”.

“I feel I have a lot of English upbringing in me,” she says.

But she is now very much part of the Cobh community, running her own photography business, Cobh Pastimes, in the town. She specialises in nostalgic photography, photographing people dressed up in period costumes with suitable backdrops evoking different eras and famous movies such as Titanic.

Fionnghuala came back to Cobh when she was aged 20. She did a secretarial course at Skerry’s College in Cork city and started working with Marks & Spencer. She ended up as a recruitment training manager. After 26 years with the company, she took early retirement and then went on to work in administration for eight years. She has been married and divorced and doesn’t have children.

A keyhole at the cinema in Dunmanway.
A keyhole at the cinema in Dunmanway.

A visit to America was the catalyst for setting up her photographic business. Photographic studios trading in nostalgia are commonplace in the US. Fionnghualla says she is the only person in Ireland running such a business.

“My dad wrote plays and my uncle set up the Haulbowline Theatre Group. I love photography and my business ties into drama and theatre.

“I got a grant from the local enterprise office. The business is good for tourism and we photograph locals as well. I’m re-enacting things like Peaky Blinders (starring Cillian Murphy) at the moment.

“We also do photo restoration work. This kind of business is big in America.”

Fionnghuala’s life is full of movie-going memories.

“When I’d come over from England to Cobh in the summer, I’d go to the Arch Cinema. In those days, there was never any film certificate. Children could go to anything.

“My grandmother brought us to Dracula and Frankenstein movies. She loved them. They were real horror stories. I first saw Dracula when I was five or six and I’ve never been able to look at a horror movie since.

“Myself and my younger brother would be walking home from a horror movie and we’d pick up lollipop sticks from the street and make them into crosses to keep Dracula and Frankenstein away. We used to sleep in the same room. We’d stay up all night after a horror movie, petrified.”

But mostly, the movies were a source of joy for Fionnghuala.

 Mary Crowley watching the cinema.
 Mary Crowley watching the cinema.

“I was brought up when Indiana Jones came out. I loved that. I don’t know how everyone else feels but if I’m feeling a bit down, I’ll black out the room and put on a good old DVD. I’ll get stuck into it with packets of sweets and junk that I wouldn’t normally eat.”

While home viewing is popular, Fionnghuala says nothing beats the cinema experience.

“There isn’t a cinema in Cobh now, unfortunately. But there is a cinema club that shows fringe stuff. I go to Mahon Point or Midleton if I want to see a film.”

Today’s cinematic experience is different to what it was back in the 1960s.

“People used to call cinemas ‘flea pits’. How often did people have baths in those days? But it didn’t bother us. There would be usherettes selling ice-cream.

“When we got a little bit older, we’d try to sneak into the cinema for free. There would be an emergency door near the toilets. There were also really big seats for courting couples.”

The Irish are said to be the biggest cinema-goers in the world.

“I still get excited when I go to the cinema,” adds Fionnghuala. “You can’t beat the cinema for films such as Pirates Of The Caribbean. I’m interested in adventure movies, something like the latest Indiana Jones.”

Cobwebs on the seats in one of Cork's old cinemas.
Cobwebs on the seats in one of Cork's old cinemas.

Cobh has its place in cinema history. When it was known as Queenstown, members of the American film company, Kalem, disembarked the White Star Line’s Baltic, on August 13, 1910. The company’s chief director, Sidney Olcott, shot some footage of the town with its brightly painted houses and towering cathedral. He then travelled to Blarney, West Cork and Kerry. His company based itself in the village of Beaufort and there, using stories from Irish history, filmed some of the earliest fiction films produced in Ireland.

By the mid-1920s, Cobh had its own picture house, the Cinema Hall at West Beach. With the arrival of the ‘talkies’ in 1927, ‘going to the pictures’ became one of Ireland’s most popular leisure activities.

Cobh was home to several cinemas over the years. As well as the Arch Cinema, there was the 500-seater Atlantic Theatre. The Tower opened in 1945. It changed its name to the Ormonde and continued as a venue until the early 1990s.

The Coliseum was also listed in newspapers of the 1940s. Cobh cinemas transported their prints from Cork.

They usually offered a full programme of entertainment including shorts and newsreel, before the main feature.

The Abbey group took over the Ormonde Cinema and ran it as part of a chain that included cinemas in Midleton and Bantry. The Ormonde screened its last film, The Fisher King, before closing its doors in 1993.

Cobh has not had a cinema since. But, as Fionnghuala Smith reveals, there are treasured memories of the cinema in the town. Roll it there, Fionnghuala!

MORE ABOUT THE FESTIVAL

The 10th Fastnet Film Festival runs from May 23-27. In celebration of the 10th year, they will screen 10 feature films, run 10 workshops and 10 seminars in 10 pop-up cinemas around the village.

One of our most popular events is the Long Island Cinema, the most isolated cinema in Ireland. Cinema-goers will take the 10-minute ferry ride to Long Island, followed by a two-minute walk to a house. The Bedroom Cinema seats 24 and refreshments are followed by an hour-long programme of short films.

Visitors will then spend a few minutes soaking up the island’s beauty before returning by boat to Colla Pier.

The organisers have received an unprecedented 344 short film submissions for competition, from over 31 countries worldwide. Of the 344 shorts viewed by the judging panel, 200 will progress for screening at the festival.

This year the standard of films is extraordinarily high. Alongside the screenings, they will provide high quality children’s activities, including Puppet Making, Batik, Film Animation Workshops, Storytelling, Drama Workshops, Cinema Club and T-shirt Painting. Guests can enjoy live music around town or a Café Viewing experience at one of the many restaurants and pubs in Schull. Fringe events include the Filmmaker’s Hub, live performances and more.

The Fastnet Film Festival is a major showcase for Irish and International short film production. It focuses on the craft of film and has gathered increasing respect and a strong reputation from local, national and international filmmakers since its inception in 2009.

This year’s line-up will include a series of Seminars, Masterclasses and Workshops covering, Stunt work, Production, Funding, Screenwriting, Casting, Auditioning, Score Composition, Animation, Creating Content on Your Mobile Phone, Set Design, Shorts to Feature, Costume and much more.

The festival is sponsored by William and Judith Bollinger, RTÉ Supporting the Arts, Fáilte Ireland, The Arts Council, Cork County Council, Benny & Cliona McCabe, The Irish Film Board, Screen Training Ireland, The Sunday Times, Viv Nathan, Michael Satke, Ulrike Crespo, IMRO, Tomar Trust, Ken Kilkenny, Denis & Mary Ryan and Peter and Sabine Kelly, and huge private support from friends and local businesses. See www.fastnetfilmfestival.com.

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