Written by Barry Lally (Originally Published in Aug/Sept 2012 issue of Ballinasloe Life Magazine)
At the junction of the Market Square and Main Street, near the upper end of the Lazy Wall, for several decades a hoarding rested against the lamp-post. Popularly known as the Picture Board, it was used to display large, hand-painted posters advertising the current attractions at the Plaza Cinema.
The hoarding’s situation in the middle of Ballinasloe could be taken as symbolizing the central position then occupied by film-going in the leisure activities of the town and its surroundings countryside.
The public house was still a male preserve, but everybody “went to the pictures”, all classes, men and women, old and young. At a time when the generality of homes were less warm and comfortable than they are today, the cinema offered a welcome refuge where a good seat could be had for the price of a pint of beer. With the assiduity of something akin to a religious obligation, many people attended the cinema once or twice a week regardless of “what was on” and were in no way deterred by the prospect of having to watch the screen through a fog of cigarette smoke. Although normally featuring the least attractive films of the week, Sunday nights saw the both the Plaza and Central Cinemas packed to capacity, with seats unobtainable booked before midday.
While censorship was draconian, with some films so severely cut as to render their plots incomprehensible, this didn’t seem to greatly bother audiences at the time. It was enough that the cinema offered glimpses of a world of glamour, colour and excitement so much – and so pleasurably – at odds with everyday life. As the late John McGahern wrote in one of his novels: “All pictures were marvellous. People who said one was good another bad had some secret knowledge.”
Thursday and Saturday matinees in the Central (Now Utah Outlet on Society Street) with a serial as part of the programme, seldom failed to draw in the town’s youngsters in their droves. A schoolboy nonsense rhyme that went the rounds in those days suggests the pervasiveness of cinema culture amongst the local children:
I went to the pictures tomorrow.
I took a front seat at the back.
I fell from the floor to the gallery,
and broke a front bone in my back.
On certain Church holidays, such as Corpus Christi, altar boys were sometimes rewarded with complimentary tickets, or “passes”, as they called them, to the Plaza, (The Town Hall Theatre) then under parochial management.
This cinema began operating in the Town Hall in the 1920’s, spanning both the silent era and the age of the “talkies”. Sunday matinees used to be part of its programme but were abandoned for some reason in the early ’50s. The Plaza underwent a change of name in the 1975 when it was taken over by a cinema chain and became known as the Aisling. It closed in June 1983 with a screening of David Attenborough’s Ghandi. The Central, colloquially referred to as “The New Hall”, opened its doors in Society Street in 1932 on the site of Harpur’s Dance Hall, and continued in business up to the spring of 1997, closing with The Man in the Iron Mask.
When Telefís Éirann was launched in 1962 there was no sudden, dramatic drop in cinema attendance. Nevertheless, it marked the start of a steady decline in audience numbers extending over three decades. People lost the habit of regular movie-going, preferring instead to stay in and watch the magic box in the corner of the room. A modest increase in personal incomes in the ‘60s made possible domestic improvements, encouraging a stay-at-home attitude. Soon the serried ranks of country folk’s bicycles stretching from the wall of Fallon’s pub in Main Street to the edge of the pavement were no longer a sight to behold on Sunday evenings. The cinemas were dealt another blow in the early ‘80s with the advent of videos, enabling people to view the movies of their choice while relaxing on their living-room couches.
Cinema-going experienced a revival in the 1990s when the multiplexes came on the scene. These were large cinemas, each comprising a number of auditoria, thus allowing for the screening of several films simultaneously. However, this development had a disastrous effect on the single-screen houses because of an arrangement whereby the film distributors would not release prints of movies until the multiplexes had done with them. As a result, there are few if any old-style movie theatres left in Ireland at present.
In recent years a new cinema was mooted for Ballinasloe in relation to the Dunlo Retail Park. Sadly the downturn in the economy seems to have slowed the arrival of the screens. However, when things improve, as the surely must, hopefully the plans will again be taken out and progress made in ensuring their realisation.
A cinema would constitute a considerable asset for the town and while it might never again play the important role on the local recreational scene as represented by the old “Picture Board”, its value in making Ballinasloe a more attractive place to live and work in can scarcely be in doubt.