(pic: Kieran Gleeson from The Classic Cinema, Listowel)
Keeping it in the family – Independent Cinemas in Kerry
Kieran Gleeson loves movies and is a consummate storyteller, he fondly recalls stories of his grandfather, who loved movies too and started in the film business way back in the 1930’s. His grandfather didn’t own a cinema then, he toured from parish to parish with a mobile projector and set up in parish halls. He didn’t have a screen. He didn’t need one. The walls of the halls would do and, if they didn’t, a quick lick of whitewash would soon see them right.
Listening to Kieran, you can almost see the people of rural Ireland gathering in the parish halls to see his grandfather’s movies. You can almost hear the ring of their boots on the wooden floor. You can imagine the anticipation and the jostling for position as the tell tale clatter of the projector rang out over the crowd.
Television was available then… if you lived in the UK or the US and you were a millionaire. And while there may have been cinemas in the larger towns and villages of Ireland, smaller parishes relied on the travelling cinema and Kieran’s grandfather provided the only visual contact many of the people had with the outside world.
Things have changed enormously since then. Time has passed and people have passed too. Kieran’s grandfather passed away but not before passing his love of movies onto his father. His father, in turn, passed a love of movies on to Kieran, an accountant by trade, who bought his cinema, The Classic Cinema, in Listowel, County Kerry in 1987, two years after his father passed away. And he has run it ever since offering new releases seven days a week. He noticed a niche in the market, however, and started a film club in 2005 which screens independent films, every Thursday night.
“I love the pictures,” says Kieran. “Always have. And I spend a lot of time researching the films I screen in my film club to make sure that the audience enjoys them too. There’s nothing wrong with a Hollywood film, but I love the personal non-polished feeling you get from French and European cinema, one of my favourites was the recent ‘The Concert’, it’s a lovely uplifting film full of humour, it’s almost like a Russian / French ‘Blues Brothers’. I was in stitches laughing at it and the music was outstanding.”
This dedication to his craft is evident from the films he screens at the film club, from main-street independent American fair such as ‘The Social Network’ to overlooked American gems like ‘City Island’ by way of independent European films and world cinema like ‘Fauberg 36’, ‘The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest’, and of course the aforementioned ‘Le Concert’.
(pic: Francis O’Sullivan from The Phoenix Cinema, Dingle)
While Thursday’s are all about Listowel, every Tuesday night punters from right across Kerry converge on a small family run business in Dingle. The Phoenix Cinema is run by proprietor Michael O’ Sullivan who, like Kieran, personally introduces the film, son Francis sells the tickets, daughter Kathleen works the concession stand selling the best choices in all Ireland, and son Sean prepares the complimentary teas and coffees before heading up to the booth to start the projector.
Francis, like Kieran, has been a life long film fan, “I always went to see pictures, the cinema was always there, we’d go every Friday night during the school year and, during the school holidays, we’d go a couple times a week.”
Francis’ family bought the cinema in 1979 and opened it for business in 1980, starting a film club in 1989, and screening films that included ‘My Life as a Dog’ and ‘Babette’s Feast’ in the first season.
And while people have a choice of hundreds of television stations nowadays, they will still travel far and wide to see a film they like. “I remember one lady in particular,” says Francis, “who arrived when we were screening ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’, she arrived just in time and sounded out of breath so I jokingly said to her that she must have run a long way to see the film – I was stunned when she said that she had come all the way from Mallow, which is 80 miles away!”
And it’s easy to see why people travel to both cinemas, the personal touch that is missing from so much in today’s world is plainly evident. But there’s more. There’s something almost ritualistic about people gathering in a public place to share stories and watch magic unfold before their eyes. Humans have a fundamental need to share experiences and have gathered together since time immemorial to hear each other’s stories. In the Stone Age it was around fires. In 1930’s Ireland it was at travelling cinemas in parish halls and nowadays, in Kerry, it’s in independent cinemas in Listowel and Dingle.
There’s a distinct family feeling to both these Kerry cinemas, with a love of film and movies being passed from generation to generation. And, thankfully, the tradition seems set to continue with Kieran’s son Ciarán already a committed film fanatic at the ripe old age of seven. There’s life to independent cinema yet!