Fred Diviney’s ‘Cinema paradiso’

Fred Diviney (far right) with (second left) manager of the Claddagh Palace Marie Francoise Chevalier,  and (left) actor Ray McBride, director Joe Comerford, and Lelia Doolan, producer of the 1987 film Reefer and the Model, shown at the Film Fleadh that year.

Fred Diviney (far right) with (second left) manager of the Claddagh Palace Marie Francoise Chevalier, and (left) actor Ray McBride, director Joe Comerford, and Lelia Doolan, producer of the 1987 film Reefer and the Model, shown at the Film Fleadh that year.

One of Fred Diviney’s scariest moments (Fred was a cinema projectionist in Galway for almost 40 years ), was in 1978. The Deerhunter, with its haunting theme, and stars Robert de Niro and Meryl Streep, was the must-see movie of the year. There was huge excitement when the Claddagh Palace announced that it would show the film on Friday. The queue was down to Murray’s at Nile Lodge, but there was panic in the tiny projection room at the Palace. In those pre digital cassette days, the film arrived in 12 reels, late that afternoon. As Fred lined them up for the projector he saw that reel five was missing. He phoned the film distributors, Ward Anderson, in Dublin. They told him not to worry. The missing reel would be sent down by taxi.

The film was to start at 7.30pm, and the cinema was jammed. Six-thirty came, and there was no reel. Again Ward Anderson told Fred it was on its way. Seven-thirty and still no reel. Ward Anderson told Fred not to panic, but start the film and the missing reel would arrive on time. The cinema staff warned Fred there would be a riot if he didn’t start the film, and it would be all his fault. Poor Fred was miserable as reel after reel flew through the projector. Incredibly, with less that five minutes before the end of reel four, Patricia Feeney rushed up the stairs with the missing reel. “ If I didn’t get a heart attack that day,” said Fred. “I never will.”

There were further panics during the early days of the Film Fleadh. Fred acknowledges that the Fleadh is now an international event, and magnificently organised. But in the early days punctuality was thrown to the wind, and the emphasis appeared to be on fun and chaos. One year the director of Bonnie and Clyde, Arthur Penn, was the guest of honour. His famous 1967 crime thriller film was to be shown. There was some kind of mix up with the film, and Fred was sent the reels out of sync. It took him more than seven hours to put it all in order, way past the scheduled starting time. But the audience was in good form and no one seemed to mind. Lelia Doolan, the founder of the Fleadh, kept Fred’s morale up by popping into the projection room with comments like: “ Will it be done by next year?”

At the end she settled just to show the opening titles, the actor’s names, and when the director Penns’ came up on the screen, she whisked the startled man off the to the Ardilaun Hotel for a very late dinner. Lelia and the Fleadh, however, appreciated Fred’s efforts. Over the years he was introduced to all the film personalities including Maureen O’Hara, Oliver Reed, Pierce Brosnan, Brendan Gleeson and many others. But it was the local personalities that gave him the biggest laugh. Little John Nee doing a magnificent Gene Kelly take off while, literally, singing in the rain; and Michael D Higgins, the minister for arts and all things cultural, arriving as guest of honour in a vintage car, Hollywood style.

Lion and the Unicorn

Fred, was born in Sickeen, Woodquay, and always had a passion for films. As a boy he’d hang around the Savoy cinema and eventually struck up a deal with the staff: That he would help them out when they were stuck, in exchange to be allowed see the films for free. His real opportunity came when in 1969 Paddy Cunningham in the Town Hall was looking for a trainee projectionist. Fred got the job. He not only learned to work the projector, but collected the film reels from the station in a van. Martin Crowley was in charge of the station deliveries. He made a fuss if Fred was ever late. Mr Crowley would always say that he had an important appointment (ie. the pub ) which he had to attend, before he went home for his tea.

Fred also worked in the little shop beside the Town Hall ticket office. Shops were important with cinema goers. Directly opposite the Town Hall ticket office was a slightly bigger shop owned by Mrs Ridge, and bigger still was Kirwans on the corner which sold such luxuries as oranges.

The quality of the film cellulose in those days left a lot to be desired. Galway was not on the main route for new films, and many films arrived months old, and badly scratched. A lot of cutting and sticking had to be done. The Town Hall eventually became unsuitable for films. While tidying up with PJ Ruane backstage, Fred discovered a large stone sculpture of the Lion and the Unicorn, part of the British royal coat of arms, left over from the time when the building dispensed justice for the British crown. No one seemed to want it. With the help of John Monaghan, and Pete Cloherty, they brought it up to the university where it rests today outside the president’s office.

The Ward Anderson group bought the old Estoria cinema in Lr Salthill (owned by the Mulligans of Ballina ), and turned it into Galway’s first plush cinema, appropriately called The Claddagh Palace. It may have been comfortable for the cinema goers, but the projectionist’s room was tiny. Mark Anderson climbed up to see him at work one evening, and remarked that the space was a ‘step back in time’. Fred welcomed him to his ‘Claddagh Palace paradiso.’

Old fashioned courtesy

The Ward Anderson group pride themselves in providing every comfort for their clients. Paul Anderson, director, gets cross if he see a client’s feet on another seat. When in Galway he visits his cinemas, and if he sees someone with their legs draped over another seat he politely asks: “ Excuse me. Is your seat not comfortable enough?” Fred had the same habit. There was a lot of old fashioned courtesy in the cinemas of the 1970s and 80s. Seats could be booked in advance, and the usherettes would guide you to your seat. But if there was a group of boys talking or messin’ Fred would be called down. He’d shine a torch on them every time they’d speak, And when they were leaving, he’d tell them they were banned! The boys would be horrified. To be hanged, drawn and quartered would have been preferable to be banned from the pictures. If Fred met any of those boys out in town they’d plead with him to be let back. They always were, and “There wasn’t a geek out of them.”

It wasn’t only the boys who misbehaved. There was a group of girls talking, loudly, and smoking one evening. Fred was sent for. They soon quietened down with Fred watching over them. Years later Fred met and fell in love with Mary Leaper. After their first night out together she said to him; “ Remember those girls you gave out to all those years ago? I was one of them. And I thought you were the grumpiest man in Galway.”

Actually they were one of the happiest couples you could have ever met. Sadly Fred lost his lovely Mary to cancer about this time last year. Fred is one of the nicest men in Galway, with great stories to tell. He is retired now, and enjoys his grown up children Daniel and Tereasa, and his one grandchild, with the lovely name Erinlee.


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