Walking back through Limerick cinema’s golden age

Jennifer Purcell


Jennifer Purcell

Randal Hodkinson, president of the Thomond Historical and Archaeological Society, addressing the group assembled in Pery Square for the tour. Below, Joe Coleman, from Meelick, author of the book House Full and Tom English, O'Connell Avenue. Pictures:  Dave Gaynor
A NEW walking tour provides a sentimental and nostalgic look back at the glory days of Limerick cinema, writes Jennifer Purcell.

A NEW walking tour provides a sentimental and nostalgic look back at the glory days of Limerick cinema, writes Jennifer Purcell.

ON a chilly Wednesday evening, people begin to gather at the flower beds laid out across Pery Square. There’s a mix of all ages here - friends, family, enthusiastic young adults and those of the golden ages.

It’s a little on the quiet side but eager tour guide Joe Coleman proceeds to hand out large printed images of old cinemas and theatres as he prepares to take us on a trip down memory lane, which promises to bring the history and heritage of old cinemas and theatres in Limerick alive.

Based on his CV, Joe is the perfect man for the job - he is, after all, author of the best selling book, House Full, which is an affectionate look back and historical account of the famous old Limerick cinemas and theatres.

It’s now 7.15pm and a huge crowd had formed around Joe as he tugs and pulls at his portable PA system.

Suddenly, a screeching roar bursts from the sound system that has us all reaching for our ears for a brief moment.

“Testing, one, two,” says Joe, and we’re good to go!

Joe emphasises that the tour wouldn’t be possible without the Thomond Archaeological and Historical Society, who came up with the bright idea of the tour, entitled In The Footsteps Of Old Limerick Cinemas.

With a quick glance around at my company, it’s safe to say I’m the youngest on tour! Our first stop is Tait’s clock where we look over to what is now a casino, but once was the charming Lyric Cinema.

Joe tells of the ‘carry on’ of the people attending the cinema, joking that he wouldn’t dare repeat the shenanigans of those heady days. The cheeky smiles and giggles reveal a few guilty parties in the crowd.

“They showed Hollywood films such as King Kong, which the church wasn’t too happy about. A local cleric, to a half empty congregation said: “Ding dong, ding dong, the church is empty, King Kong, King Kong, the Lyric is full,” Joe points out.

We hustle along to our next couple of stops as Joe gives us an insight to the story behind each marking along the way.

“Where would the Limerick cinemas be without the Limerick Leader?” he says firmly. “We used to pick it up just to grab the cinema listings.”

As we stroll on, the now close-knit walking tour group share memories of each place along the way. We quieten momentarily to hear the history of theatre behind the much loved Belltable.

Joe’s ability to remember each and every date for every single event from a 400 year period is remarkable.

“In the 1970s a particular disability was being diagnosed, dyslexia. Richard Harris himself had fierce trouble with scripts and one day he was told: ‘Go home boy and learn to speak properly.’”

There are three siblings on the tour together, and one sister Eileen shares the story of her first date, which was of course, to the cinema.

“We went to the City Theatre to see Henry Fonda,” she recalls fondly.

Her brother Joseph tells of his weekly visit to the Savoy on a Sunday.

“You had to book it, if you wanted to go of a Sunday,” he points out.

What is most fascinating about the tour is that at almost every second stop there is a tale of a fire, destroying the golden cinemas. “Just a coincidence,” insists Joe, as we poke questions at him while he tugs along the make-shift PA system.

We stand at sites that no longer exist as Joe brings us back through time as if we were almost standing in the queue to get into a cinema of the 1940s. He speaks of the famous Harry Houdini, the great opera singer Catherine Hayes, and all those who have contributed to the makings and storied history of Limerick’s greatest theatres and cinemas.

The variety of ages shows the popularity of different cinemas throughout different decades. Seemingly the Savoy and the Carlton were most popular.

Our final stop at the site of the Royal Cinema sparks memories of a different time, and then we are handed a little pink ticket at the box office before being kindly told to “enjoy the show!”