One hundred years of cinema in Galway

The earliest reference to ‘moving pictures’ in Galway that I have come across dates from 1909, when The Enterprise Animated Picture Company came to the Court Theatre in Middle Street with its cinematography performances and variety entertainments. “Rarely has such an opportunity been given to the people of Galway of viewing in animated pictures the most sensational events of real life and drama. Those from real life included Boxing Champions and Logging in Sweden, while other titles included Nocturnal Thieves, A Constable Please, The Pony Express, and Fairy Presents. The pictures come in ever-changing variety and there are no exasperating delays.” The Court Theatre had 500 seats and was also known as The Racquet Court.

In November 1912 the original Irish Animated Picture Company announced a one-week programme in the Town Hall showing “entirely new and interesting pictures, the hall will be heated and we expect crowded houses”. The Town Hall was originally built as the Town Courthouse (opposite the County Courthouse ), and when it became superfluous it changed into a variety theatre about 1895. The Hardiman family ran it from 1916 to 1967. ‘Galway’s Cosiest Cinema’ closed in 1993.

These early films were silent, so the theatres would have live musical accompaniment. The New Galway Cinema Theatre was beside the GPO with an entrance from William Street and it advertised not only the best and latest in pictures, but also the “best provincial orchestra of seven musicians and the latest music”. This theatre (seating accommodation 1,050 ) was later known as The Gaiety and later still as The Empire. In 1937 it was changed back to a skating rink.

The Savoy (for a while known as The Corrib Cinema ) opened on Christmas Eve 1934 with a concert by John McCormack. The first film shown there was Flying Down To Rio and it played in front of a full house of 1,239 people. It was the biggest cinema in Connacht, had an art deco facade, and a floor that sloped upwards towards the 21’ by 16’3” screen. The projectors were Simplex with RCA sound. There were four shops on the Eglinton Street frontage, one of which, The Magnet, had a hatch into the spacious foyer. There was a tea lounge on the first floor. Prices were two bob for the balcony, 1/4d and 9 pence, and the programme was continuous from 4pm. They knew how to advertise ... a film called Forgotten Men was promised to be “Soul-searing and nerve shocking, but true. You’re in every scene with the cameraman who died making it. Every scene is real, not staged. A drama of a world aflame. Even if it makes you shiver, you must see it.” The Savoy closed in 1976.

The Estoria (Galway’s Luxury Cinema ) opened on November 22 1939. It had 776 seats, two showings a night at 6.45pm and 8.45pm, with matinees on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday, and holy days. Some of the most popular films shown there were Gone With The Wind, They Died With Their Boots On, and Phantom Of The Opera. The first Technicolor film was Trail Of The Lonesome Pine. John Wayne was easily the most popular actor. After the war cinemas had to include a live show to avoid tax, so Peg Folan used to play the Estoria, Johnny Cox the Savoy, and Des Fretwell the Town Hall. The large posters for outside the cinemas and for various billboards around town were painted by Frank Devlin, and put up by Ned Joyce, the billposter. Frank Wrafter, who managed the Estoria, often brought all the boys from the Industrial School and the girls from St Anne’s to matinees. The Estoria closed in 1975 and became the Claddagh Palace, which closed in 1995.

For many young Galwegians of that era no Sunday afternoon was complete unless one got into the ‘fours’ (fourpenny seats ) to watch the serials, also known as the ‘follier uppers’, featuring the likes of Tom Mix, Pearl White, Roy Rodgers, The Cisco Kid, Don Winslow of the Coast Guard, Hopalong Cassidy, The Man in the Iron Mask, Captain Marvel, The Perils of Pauline, Tarzan, etc. These weekly episodes invariably ended up with our hero or heroine barely hanging on to a flimsy branch sticking out of the side of a steep cliff, or tied to a railway track with a steam train coming, or about to be trampled by a buffalo stampede. “Tune in next week and see if our hero gets the bad guys,” so we all galloped home to save our 4d for the following Sunday. The excitement and noise levels when the Lone Ranger was catching up with the crooks was almost unbearable. Trying to get in for nothing was a Galway pastime.

There were very few other forms of entertainment, apart from dancing, at the time. It was in the cinema that a lot of people did their courting, and there was no point in asking many of those what the film was about.

Galway City Museum currently has a wonderful exhibition of posters, memorabilia, photographs, etc, relating to the history of the cinema here. It is full of nostalgia, and will bring back a lot of memories and is worth a few visits. You can see Donal Haughey’s documentary on the closing of the Claddagh Palace, and watch Fred Diviney talk about his career as a projectionist in a number of Galway cinemas.

Our first photograph shows Fred Diviney at work in the Estoria.

Our second shows Ronnie Burke working in the projection room of the Town Hall. He later worked in the Claddagh Palace from 1978 to 1993, and then worked part time in the Omniplex.

Finally, a 1934 drawing of the proposed Corrib Cinema — later the Savoy — about to be built in Eglinton Street.

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