The Magic of the Cinema Long Ago

By Tom Ryan

No child of modern times could imagine the magic long ago attached to going to the pictures. We had no television in Ireland in the fifties and radio was operated with wet and dry batteries, which our family bought in O’Donoghue’s Electrical in Thurles.

Classrooms were boring and the only excitement was in bracing yourself for a few slaps of the cane or the leather for being late for school or not knowing this or that. Money was scarce and you saw few, if any, holidays, bar day trips on buses or trains to school hurling matches.

We played games from hurling and ‘tig’ to marbles and bowley racing and cowboys and Indians and pirates out on Butler’s Island on the edge of Thurles. Bowleys were old cycle wheels you drove down the roads with a big stick and if you had a tyre on them you had the magic of the cinema long ago a Merc! Spinning tops and yo-yos were all the rage, too.

For magic, excitement and adventure, we went to the cinema. Today, DVDs of my favourite movies of the fifties and sixties have a precious place in our sitting room. The magic and the excitement of the silver screen was something special to make us forget miserable days at school or the lack of money and the problems of adults struggling to make ends meet. A politician whose party I once criticised for not telling the truth about the sorry state of the economy laughed and looked at me like I came down on the last shower.
“Sure, people don’t want the truth. ‘Tis too much for them and would depress them. They want illusions and dreams. And that is what we are giving them – promises.”
“What kept all of us going as young lads in dark times?”
“I’ll tell you,” he added. “The cinema.”
“You could go in there and fantasise forever to your heart’s content and enjoy yourself. It brought you completely out of yourself and away from reality, and didn’t we love the cinema for doing that?” There were social and educational aspects to going to the flicks.

You had your buddies with you and you swapped comics and marbles and you had lots of sweets, fizz bags, gobstoppers, liquorice sticks and Cleeves toffee, bought in McKenna’s corner shop. You could fall in love with the glamorous movie girls up on the screen. You had a close up view of them as you sat on wooden seats in the pit, which had the cheapest seats in the cinema. When you got older and quit drooling at the ladies of the screen, you wanted the real item. I fell in love with Jeannette McDonald in “Maytime.” Others I was madly in love with included Ava Gardner (“For Whom the Bells Toll”), Vivienne Leigh (“Gone With the Wind”) and Barbara Stanwyck of numerous westerns.

Years later, I was told that my wife is the spitting image of Jeannette. I always felt I could have got on really well with Jeannette in those days when romance smelt as sweet as roses and cherry blossoms and… bring on the violins!

Some fell in love with Maureen O’Hara of “The Quiet Man,” as I did myself after that famous love scene in the graveyard when O’Hara and John Wayne were madly in love in the thunder and lightning and rain. Surely the most romantic love scene of all time in the cinema. I thought Doris Day was great craic but not to be taken seriously, and Marilyn Monroe was unattainable. The cinema was nothing if not romantic. The big picture followed cartoons like “Woody Woodpecker,” “Tom and Jerry” or short movies like “The Three Stooges,” “East Side Kids” or “Bowery Boys.”

Romance was more comfortable in the cinema than in the laneway down by the river, especially on a cold winter’s night. Anyway, we were told that the boy would never bring the girl down the Watery Mall. He’d have more regard for her.

After the pictures, particularly after Roy Rogers and Trigger, the Durango Kid, Cisco Kid and Gene Autry, the lads wanted to play cowboys. Then the rowing started. “I want to be the boy.” “You can be Smiley Burnett and make us laugh. Be the boy next week.”

So, with two hands joined together, the boy hero leaped up into the air, pretending to be riding Trigger, the horse, and, slapping his side, off he went into the sunset, to the Watery Mall and home. The serials were brilliant and Flash Gordon was magic in his flying machine. We loved Tarzan, Frances, the Talking Mule, and Donald O’Connor, and later, as teenagers, we liked Jimmy Cagney, John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Sterling Hayden, Robert Taylor and Frank Sinatra (the music of “From Here to Eternity” sends me into raptures of romance still).

The theme music of many films was wonderful – “Showboat!,” “Oklahoma,”
“From Here to Eternity,” “Gone With the Wind,” “The King and I,” ”My Fair Lady,” “High Society” and “Calamity Jane.”
Every time I think of such movie music I recall different girls at different times of my life. How many feel the same? Probably millions.
I remember 3D and we were given those blue/red glasses. There was some excitement when arrows and spears started flying in our direction from the screen!

The cinema shop was an integral part of our lives. If we had a few pence between us we would go to the shop at the interval between the trailers and the big wan to buy a packet of smarties or fruit gums, or a fizzy lollipop. The comics such as “Film Fun” featured our boyhood heroes, Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin and Bud Abbot and Lou Costello, and I swapped many a classic and sixty-four pager for a “Film Fun.”

There was a mobile cinema in Glengoole where one woman of my acquaintance met her future husband. You also had mobile shops and later a mobile library. While in the Gaeltacht in Cul Aodha, I thumbed my way to a mobile cinema in Macroom, only to find I had thumbed a taxi!
Later, the travelling cinema came to Ballyvourney. You had to fight for your place in the queue as space in the picture house (and it was a house) was scarce.

On Wednesdays we went to the flicks in Thurles CBS Primary School for thruppence (hard seats) or a tanner (soft seats). We enjoyed the antics of “Popeye the Sailor Man,” “Laurel and Hardy” and westerns such as “Winchester 73.” They were a break from leathers and canes and school-day chores. We would panic and groan whenever our joy was interrupted by technical breakdowns, perhaps because of changing film reels or projector problems.

To get to the pictures when money was scarce at home, we young ones did
messages, saved hay, sold minerals on trains, played pool, played pitch and toss, snagged beet, sold our comics, swapped our beauts and glossie marbles for a tanner and many other things to make up the price of a trip to wonderland.