1950s Limerick - how the movies came to Farranshone

Peter MacNamara

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Peter MacNamara

1950s Limerick - how the movies came to Farranshone

The poster for The Bridge On The River Kwai, which Peter remembers from a cinematic childhood in Limerick

Peter MacNamara recalls a childhood in the city which was made all the more memorable by the home movies his father screened in Belfield Gardens

NEVER mind about 3D cinema complexes, Netflix, 800 TV channels or movies on demand - turn your mind back to 1950's Limerick.

Here, in the days before national television, when evening entertainment was confined to Benediction followed by bedtime stories or a play on Radio Eireann, is a story of how the movies came to Farranshone. 

The precursor to home entertainment was introduced to Limerick by my late father, Stephen J. MacNamara in the form of "home cinema", a first for the city.  

With neighbours and friends invited to our house in Belfield Gardens on Sunday evenings to watch such epic productions as It Came from Beneath the Deep and The Bridge on the River Kwai, we tuned off from day to day cares and enjoyed the action displayed on a large bedsheet stretched across the front door.

One summer evening as I was putting additional defences onto the tree fort in the front garden, I heard my dad calling “Here, one of ye, take this speaker inside”.  

Dad was prone to forget the names of his children at times – and rather than go through a litany of eight names which mother often did, would call out “here ye”.  

This was normally enough to spring at least two or three of us. This time myself and Frankie answered the call and to our delight we saw in the boot a film projector, speaker, large amplifier, loads of cables and several rolls of 16mm films in grey cans.

Without any delay we lugged the lot into the hallway of 'Marianella'.

My father had been given the projector by Stephen Dinneen, his second cousin recently returned from California to retire in Caherdavin. Stephen had moved his entire house contents back to Limerick and these included a Bell & Howell 16mm film projector.  

As it no longer worked, Dad offered to fix it, wrote to the manufacturer to order an exciter lamp. Once this arrived, the projector worked perfectly and Stephen kindly offered it to my Dad as he thought the children would love seeing movies at home.

All work in the kitchen and homework stopped and before long the entire contraption was being assembled between the kitchen and hallway.  

The entry of my mother, preceded by “who is minding Rosie” put a stop to the activity as she demanded from dad – “Stephen, the cakes in the oven will be ruined and there will be no dinner if you don’t stop this codology at once”. 

My dad just grinned and said “Chrissie, look what I have here."

Mum’s face softened as she saw what turned up, so dinner was served and eaten in double quick time and then with the lot of us scurrying around a large white bed sheet was nailed to the inside of the front door, we arranged cinema-style seating and waited patiently for the entertainment to begin. 

I’ll never forget the excitement as we heard the hum from the sound system – Frankie was in charge of turning the volume knob and had it on maximum.  An ear-splitting shriek suddenly filled the house as dad grabbed the volume control in one hand and Frankie in the other. Luckily the noise abated just as suddenly and we saw a light appear on the sheet.  Impatience mounted as we heard music and then - oh joy of joys - we saw a picture ...

Suddenly we were transported to Hawaii. To say we were enthralled was a massive understatement; we were spellbound and awed by this flickering screen showing undreamed of people and places.

Many films followed and by time we got some real movies. Titles such as Rio Grand, The African Queen and The Day the Earth stood still were interspersed with more travel movies courtesy of PaAm and Air France and one about the life of Don Bosco, which moved my mother to consider having one of the boys become a priest!

One of the most memorable was called The Thing from beneath the Deep, featuring a terrible octopus-type monster which pulled ships down for supper. It was a huge success.  This film caused not only awful nightmares for the whole family for days afterwards but was to be discussed by the entire neighbourhood for weeks.

Soon the home movies became a magnet for the whole neighbourhood. We were not aware of this at first. Then, I noticed silent shapes begin to emerge from the street and stop to sit on the garden wall beside our front gate.  

I called mum and together we tried to identify these nocturnal guests as best we could in the twilight, while all the time blood-curdling shrieks and gunshots from the movie echoed across the hallway.

We kept this a secret for a while longer while mum derived much pleasure from casually enquiring how the neighbours were and hoping they would not mind the noise from our house some evenings.  

This amusement lasted a few weeks and was finally broken one night when dad was with friends in a local pub.  

“What’s this we hear about you opening a cinema”, one of the slightly tipsy friends asked.  

After that we sometimes invited neighbours to watch from inside. However with space limited we had to carefully manage invitations.

We already had invited the Cowies from next door and the Hennesseys were regular guests as Kitty was my sister Nuala’s best friend.  Best friends of my parents, John and Peggy Kirby from across town in New Street, often came too.

Eventually all the neighbours - the Tuohys, McFaddens, Frawleys and McGuigans - came along. Sometimes extra lemonade and scones were handed out.  Sunday evenings were very special for all the children and I think the adults too.

So successful were the home cinema evenings that dad decided to go on the road with the idea.  He now had access to really good films and a demand seemed to be there.  

At this time TV had not yet made an appearance, tests were under way for the soon-to-be-launched national black and white channel Radio Telefis Eireann, and reception of UK stations was only possible with huge aerials by people on the east coast or close the border with Northern Ireland. 

Now it wasn’t as if he had nothing to do in the evenings, but nevertheless he went ahead and arranged halls all over county Clare to show films - usually to an audience of 100 or more villagers. The admission fee was 6d in old money – this bought a packet of fags or two pints and was affordable to most. Places like Broadford, Feakle, Scarriff, Tuamgraney and Tulla were regular stops on our schedule. 

I came along several times and was adept at threading the film onto the projector and splicing it when it broke – which was quite often - to be greeted by howls of abuse.  

However as front of house manager I excelled and was soon promoted to this spot with the reward being a lemonade afterwards while dad unwound in the local pub.  

My introduction was shaky, however, as one the first occasion I performed I was asked was the film a “cowboy story”.  

Instead of agreeing and satisfying the questioner, I ventured to suggest it might have “some kissing in it”.  Uproar followed and it took my father half an hour to restore calm and offer money back if they didn’t like it.  

In truth we could have shown flies climbing up a wall, so great was the demand, but this film actually was a cowboy love story and a huge hit to boot.  

Coming home that night, seeing the lights of Limerick reflected in the clouds as we crossed the Clare hills, will always seem to me as a threshold crossed in growing up.