A History of Cinema in Laois

First published in the Leinster Express on 23rd June 2020

The technology that enables us to go to the cinema goes back to 1827, when Nicéphore Niépce pointed his camera obscura, a wooden box with pinhole used to direct light from a bright source, on to a metal plate covered in a type of tar. After 8 hours, an image of his back garden began to appear upon the plate. Far from taking an instant selfie, but from this humble and archaic method, an entire industry sprung up in the decades that followed. 

Photography came to Laois in 1858 when the Geary Brothers of Dublin brought their equipment to the Court House in Abbeyleix to photograph ‘the nobility and gentry of Abbeyleix and its vicinity’. Their cheapest photograph, readers of the Leinster Express were informed, would be 1s. 6d. – quite the sum of money only 11 years after the worst year of the Famine.

The concept of motion pictures came with the placing of photographs taken within moments of each other side by side in the 1840s. 

It was not long before an invention that could move images before a light source, replicating motion on a screen would be invented. The true birth of cinema came with the invention of the cinematograph in Lyon in the 1890s by the Lumiére brothers. They presented their invention to over 200 people in Paris in 1895 – the first ever film screening. 

The following year they travelled all over the world screening simple films for stunned audiences. The subject matter was dull compared to even the most mundane of modern-day productions – workers leaving a factory, or a baby eating breakfast – but it was such a novelty that news spread rapidly of this incredible invention. Several people who viewed these films established their own cinemas. Ireland’s first cinema, the Volta, was opened by none other than James Joyce in December 1909.

One of the first cinemas in the midlands opened in Carlow in 1912 when the Silvester Brothers converted the Old Assembly Rooms into a picture house. Despite initial derision that the people of Carlow would have no interest in going to movies every night, by 1914 the Carlow cinema was very successful – their efforts in filming events around Carlow ensured that locals filled the building up to three times a day in an attempt to see themselves on the big screen. 

On Monday, 23rd November, 1914, cinema came to the Queen’s County (Laois). The Maryborough (Portlaoise) Electric Cinema, on the Well Road (where the Rose Palace Chinese Restaurant is currently located) was established by Paul Delany, and was built by William Carroll. Paul’s brother, Patrick, was also noted at the time as being co-founder. The Aldritt’s Engineering firm fitted out the building with electrical lighting and projectors. 

The first film shown was Joan of Arc, ‘one of the greatest Picture Dramas yet shown’. Also on the first night was Baxter’s Busy Day (likely to have been one of Charlie Chaplin’s Busy Days movies), Bunny’s Suicide, and On the Tom Tom. Music for these silent films was provided by R. P. Bannan’s Orchestra, and admission for opening night was 1s. 6d – ironically, the exact price that was charged for the first photographs 56 years earlier in Abbeyleix.

Elsewhere in Laois, the appetite for cinema was being catered for by travelling cinema companies. The Silvesters, who had set up the first cinema in Carlow, had begun to put their resources into their travelling outfit as they toured the smaller towns of Carlow, Kildare, and Laois. Their permanent cinema was wound down, as another cinema opened up on Burrin Street. Whilst a profitable endeavour for the brothers, there were great hazards involved in hauling around the heavy equipment required to put on a show.

In September 1916, the Silvesters came to Abbeyleix. Working for them as a labourer at the time was Patrick Byrne, from Luggacurran. As showtime approached, and with the screen not yet erected, Byrne grew frustrated with his colleagues at their slow progress. Byrne lifted a cart containing the equipment required a foot and a half off the ground on his own, to the dismay of a colleague. It usually took a number of men, and a jack, to lift the cart. The strain caused Byrne an internal injury and he was brought to the local Union Hospital, from where he would never leave. He died a few weeks later.

During the War Years, the Electric Cinema thrived. The 1s. 6d. opening night price was now split between the premier seats which stayed at that rate and 3d. for the cheaper seats. In July 1915, the cinema showed its first sporting event – a recording of the Frank Moran vs. ‘Bombardier’ Billy Wells boxing bout from that March in London. It was noted as being the finest piece of film shown in the cinema since its opening. The crowd were mesmerised by the to and fro of the enthralling bout as the Irish man, Moran, pulled off a knock-out victory. Despite the result being known for months, the cheers that erupted in the cinema were every bit as loud as what had been heard in the arena itself.

At a time when films were very short, as short as five minutes in some cases, the potential for the telling a long tale was often impossible. As the Electric Cinema moved into its third year, however, they announced to their excited patrons that they would be showing a serialised story, The Master Key, which was shown over 15 weeks and was a commercial success that was the talk of the town.

Immediately after the end of the War, cinemas began to pop up in rural towns all over Ireland. Laois’ second cinema was opened in 1918 in Mountmellick by the Catholic Young Men’s Society. The CYMS Cinema operated in the Owenass Hall and could cater for over 300 patrons at a time. In the following years cinemas of various shapes and sizes opened up in Stradbally, Mountrath, Rathdowney, Timahoe, and Portarlington. Just before Christmas 1923, a new cinema opened in Abbeyleix. Thomas Shakespeare, who ran the Abbeyleix venue, within a few months of commencing his role, had left to take up a position with a more prominent picture house, but he was universally praised for doing so much for the town in such a short space of time.

Shortly before the Civil War, Mr. Bannan, whose orchestra had been providing accompaniment sound for the Electric Cinema, applied to the Maryborough Town Commissioners for a license to establish a cinema himself in the Town Hall. Two years later, he returned to the Town Commissioners and resubmitted proposals. On both occasions, however, there were concerns over safety, and the potential inability of people to evacuate the building in the event of fire.

By their very nature, cinemas were prone to fire – smaller venues were often operating with older, second hand projectors that easily overheated causing the highly flammable film reels to catch fire. All cinemas in Ireland had to apply for a licence before opening. In order to attain a licence, projectors had to be encased in a fire-proof booth and the building had to have a number of fire exits. Whilst larger cinemas in urban centres such as the Electric Cinema strictly adhered to licensing rules, smaller venues and ad-hoc cinemas often ignored the guidelines.

In October 1924, the cinema in Roscrea was badly damaged by fire. Valentine Powell’s film reels, seats, and stage were all burnt, causing £2,000 worth of damage. Just after Christmas 1925, the Star Cinema in Kildare burned to the ground. A spate of cinema fires occurred in the summer of 1926. In July, the Victoria Cinema in Galway was destroyed. Within the same week, disaster was averted in the Tivoli Cinema in Limerick when crowds stampeded out as the theatre filled with smoke when the projection room caught fire.

Despite the warnings that there was the potential for tragedy, little in the way of pressure came from the Cumann na nGaedheal government upon County Councils to ensure that guidelines were being met. The inevitable happened in the small village of Dromcollogher, Limerick, in September 1926. A local hackney driver organised for a projector and a copy of The Ten Commandments to be brought from Cork for an impromptu showing in a rented room in the village after mass. 150 people made their way from the chapel and thronged the small venue as the projectionist set up the film reel by the aid of candlelight. The film reel caught fire, which ignited other small fires. Within moments, an inferno engulfed the building. 48 people died.

It was the Free State’s worst disaster since the Civil War. The spotlight fell sharply upon unregulated cinemas. Within days of the disaster, on the order of the County Council, all cinemas in Laois were closed. It transpired that a cinema license had neither been renewed nor fully granted in ten years. The majority of cinemas in the county had never acquired a license.

A few venues were granted licenses immediately, such as the Electric Cinema in Portlaoise. The CYMS in Mountmellick closed for several weeks to carry our remedial works in order to meet requirements. However, there were a few cinemas that the County Council could not, in good conscious, re-grant a license until far more extensive issues were addressed.

Thomas Kelly’s Crystal Cinema in Mountrath was one such venue. It was a wooden structure situated over a store-house, very similar to the ‘cinema’ in Dromcollogher. Access to the cinema was via ladders. Exit from the cinema was via small doors, one little more than a trapdoor. Despite the rickety structure, the cinema could sell up to 200 tickets for a single showing. Unsurprisingly, the license was not granted until safety issues were addressed.

Delany’s Electric Cinema in Portlaoise was rebuilt in the late 1920s and by 1931 it was ready to create another piece of cinematic history. On Easter Sunday 1931, the first ever ‘talkie’, a movie with sound, was shown in Laois. Crowds from all around the county thronged the cinema to see and hear the spectacle of Count John McCormack in Song O’ My Heart.

The technology for talkies soon spread to other cinemas in the county. Just after Christmas 1933 in Kelly’s new Cinema Hall in Mountrath, patrons were treated to sound and vision from the previous years’ Eucharist congress. Meanwhile, Portlaoise became a two cinema town in 1936 when the Coliseum joined the Electric. An 18 year old Jimmy Ryan, who was collecting tickets on opening night would become the beating heart of the Coliseum over the course of an extraordinary 63 years with the venue. 

The Emergency barely put a dent in the growth of cinema-going in Ireland. Although, some of De Valera’s laws introduced to ensure Ireland’s neutrality did have an effect upon the selection of films that could be shown. For example, one of the most famous movies from the time, Casablanca, was banned as it was deemed to portray Nazi Germany and Vichy France in a bad light. Once the Emergency ended an edited version of Casablanca was released. De Valera may have been happy with the movie by then, but the other great authority in Ireland, the Church, ensured that a scene in which two characters discuss their affair was cut. It was shown in Laois for the first time in September 1946 in the Electric.

The 1950s were marked by contrasting fortunes for two of Laois’ premier cinemas. Mountmellick’s cinema moved from the Owenass Hall to a newly built structure at a cost of £22,000. The state of the art cinema, which could seat 800 patrons, was opened by President Seán T. O’Kelly in April 1951. The project was spearheaded by Fr. Tom Burbage, a friend of the President from the days of the independence struggle. 

The other cinemas in the county had to react to Mountmellick’s new state of the art facilities. The Coliseum in Portlaoise underwent refurbishment in 1952 which was ready for the busy Christmas and New Year season. 

On 7th January 1953, during a showing of A Woman of Distinction, 16 women began to feel unwell in the theatre. They stumbled out and fell violently ill. One woman walked in a daze a hundred yards before collapsing. She was promptly given a lift home and as she alighted the car she collapsed again. Four women, among them Carmel O’Brien, Mary Brophy, and Anne Browne, had to be hospitalised. The incident garnered a lot of unwanted attention for Sean Bunny, owner of the cinema. The Irish Press covered the story on their front page under the ominous headline ‘Mystery Gassing in Cinema’. It transpired that gas had leaked from Bunny’s new heating system. Undeterred by the inconvenience of a near catastrophe, movies were being shown in the cinema the day after the incident.

The 1950s turned out to be the last great decade for the cinemas of Laois. The Leinster Express advertised the schedules of The Electric and The Coliseum in Portlaoise, other Coliseum cinemas in Mountrath, Rathdowney, and Abbeyleix, the Savoy in Portarlington, the CYMS in Mountmellick, and a small cinema in Borris in Ossory, along with the New Cinema in nearby Roscrea.

With the commencement of Irish television from New Year’s Eve 1961, the fortunes of these cinemas began to wane. Cinemas closed and re-opened under new names with tidal regularity. The Coliseum in Mountrath became the Elite Cinema. Abbeyleix’s Coliseum became the Milo. 

By the 1970s, however, cinemas began to close and not re-open. In 1977 Rathdowney’s cinema closed and the building was eventually converted into a community hall. The Electric Cinema closed its doors after nearly six decades of business. With the closure of its rival, the Coliseum thrived until it was destroyed by fire on December 9th 1985. The destruction of the Coliseum coincided with the periodic closure of other cinemas in Laois, leaving the county without a cinema for the first time since 1914. Cinema goers were briefly forced to travel to Carlow, Tullamore, or Athy to see a film, before the Coliseum re-opened as Laois’ first two-screen cinema.

The CYMS in Mountmellick and the Savoy in Portarlington both closed in the 1990s, but not before the latter was host to one of Laois’ most famous cinematic moments. Much of the 1992 film Into the West was shot in Portarlington, and the famous scene when the white horse, Tír na nÓg, goes to the movies was shot in the Savoy. Last year, a mural of the movie was created on the façade of the Savoy building by the artist ADW.

The cinematic landscape of Laois that we know today came about in the year 2000 with the closing of the Coliseum and the opening of Storm Cinema in Portlaoise. The ‘Col’’s final performance was a showing of Road Trip, in December 2000. At the same time, Storm was opening its new five-screen theatre on Church Street. It was the second Storm Cinema to open in Ireland, the first being opened in Cavan earlier in 2000 to much acclaim. Now owned by the Odeon group, in the 20 years since its opening it has served as the principle cinema for the county serving patrons from all over Laois to, on one famous occasion, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. 

The rise of streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, a renewed focus upon television drama with acclaimed shows such as Succession and Game of Thrones, and the impact of COVID19 restrictions have all dealt a blow to the cinema industry in Ireland and around the world. 

But as those of us who have been lucky enough to emerge from a period of self-imposed hibernation with our health and spirits intact, one of our first ports of call should be to our nearest cinema. There is nothing quite like the feeling when the lights dim and extinguish entirely in a cinema. What appears on the screen may have changed but the hair raising moments shared by generations in the 106 year history of cinema in Laois has not - whether you were in the crowd on the opening night of the Electric in 1914; whether you were there to see the first talkie or the first technicolour production; whether you were there when the trumpets of a John Williams score boomed out for Star Wars, or the distinctive sound of a ocarina whistling the start of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly; or whether you were in the back seats with little interest in what was happening on screen at all. For anyone who has enjoyed these moments, there is a duty of care to ensure that they continue on into the 2020s and beyond.