Sunday 23 October 2016

Eyes down, spirits up - how bingo halls became part of Dublin life

The Cabra Grand
The Cabra Grand
The Savoy Cinema in 1973

Sometimes the very first film shown in a new cinema can be an omen of what is to come.

The Camden Picture House owners surely hoped that their back rows would become sexual dens of iniquity when they opened in 1912 with a screening of Dante's Inferno.

A year later, the owners of the Bohemian perhaps envisaged what sort of business consortia might eventually demolish many of Dublin's ornate cinema palaces - their first feature was entitled In the Hands of London Crooks.

When the 1,650-seater Cabra Grand cinema opened in 1949, the owners surely felt they had found the perfect first film - the Maureen O'Hara comedy Sitting Pretty. With popular cinema attendances so high in Dublin that the Cabra Grand needed to change its programme three times a week, it seemed that anyone who owned a cinema was sitting pretty on a cash cow.


Sadly, this was not the case. The Cabra Grand owners chose an equally appropriate film to close down the building as a cinema just 21 years later: it bowed out as a cinematic venue in 1970 with the appropriately titled The Big Gundown.

A lot of big gundowns and big showdowns occurred in Dublin cinema during the early 1970s, as television entered the picture. In 1972 the Casino Cinema in Finglas was turned into a supermarket by Fergal Quinn.

Years afterwards, while shopping in that supermarket, I would find myself pausing in the aisles to look towards the balcony where I once held my mother's hand while she - and every other mother in Finglas Park - silently cried their way through the 1966 weepie Madame X.

Mr Quinn had previously transformed the Sutton Grand Cinema in the same manner.

The 1916 Rising had surprisingly little impact on cinema in one way, in that - apart from Neil Jordan's Michael Collins - there have been few cinematic representations of it. But it had a huge impact on Dublin cinema in a different way.

If the Helga gunship hadn't shelled the area around the GPO then the Granville Hotel on O'Connell Street would not have burnt to the ground.

In its place rose the magnificently ornate Savoy.

Like many city-centre picture palaces, The Savoy had classical facades and lavish interiors. Suburban cinemas in the 1940s were more workaday buildings, but these local landmarks soon became the hub of their neighbourhoods.

The Cabra Grand was also at the hub of the neighbourhood's biggest riot when in 1950 two well-meaning middle-class ladies collecting signatures for a petition calling for nuclear disarmament needed to seek refuge there.

Hordes of local women besieged the two peace petitioners (who needed to be rescued by the gardai) after deciding that anyone seeking world peace must be a communist agitator.

The Cabra Grand later saw some wild nights when punk bands including Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Ramones strutted their stuff on stage and mods and skinheads clashed.


The punks may not be around in as great numbers these days, but the women continue to descend upon the Cabra Grand - though these days they're less concerned with communism and more concerned with bingo.

While many local Dublin cinemas have been demolished, both the Cabra Grand and Whitehall Grand were taken over by Gael Linn as bingo halls. Against all the odds they have survived as great examples of 1940s architecture.

Thankfully, it seems that many features of the Cabra Grand will survive, because Dublin City Council has added this landmark to its list of protected buildings.

A trip to a wondrous building such as The Plaza in Stockport in England shows what can be done to create an innovative civic space when an old cinema is properly preserved.

For now, the City Council are shying away from any such investment. However, this preservation order would be a triumph and not just for environmentalists but for many women - like my late Aunt Brigid - to whom bingo was a way of life and a vital social outlet to meet old friends.

It may lack the grandeur of the sort of casino that Michael Lowry hoped to see in the fields of Tipperary, but the Cabra Grand has something greater than grandeur. For women of a certain generation it has camaraderie and friendship, shared laughter and company.

They take their bingo seriously in Cabra, Finglas and Whitehall and it would be a tragedy of sorts if the day ever came when the last place left where they could play bingo was The George - the gay bar on George's Street where Shirley Temple Bar acts as bingo caller.

Maybe we might see one great merging of cultures if the Cabra Grand were to ever close as a bingo hall.

Last weekend showed that Ireland is ready to embrace the gay world.

However, I doubt if the gay world is ready to match the skills of bingo players who honed their skills in the old cinemas of Dublin.

Let's hope we don't find out just yet and the Cabra Grand continues for years to come.

Dermot Bolger's new novel, Tanglewood, is out now

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