The telly only had two channels when Eoin O’Mahony left Cork for the Big Smoke. He tells rabble how he tried to hide the whack of Benjy with Gauloises and angsty French fillums in the soon to be demolished Screen Cinema.
I had a real fondness for the Screen. When I was rent from the Real Capital of Ireland to Dublin in the late 1980s, the 84 from my far flung suburb ended up on the top of Pearse Street. I spent hours on the concrete anti-riot space in the front of the Screen waiting for that infrequent bus home.
This is not an appeal for the retention of the building as some kind of heritage. It stands on ground once occupied by the Theatre Royal, itself the object of much hand-wringing by Georgian Society types over the built environment in the late 1960s.
The entire block of buildings between Hawkins Street and Townsend Street and Apollo House is slated for demolition and reconstruction. The Screen cinema building is a reminder not only that Dublin is locked into these cycles of capital formation but also that a collective pursuit called “cinema’s best days” are behind it. Smaller features are finding it harder to get screened.
In the days before the IFI, the Screen was an arthouse cinema. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Screen (once The New Metropole) showed more foreign language flicks than most other places. Swapping Hollywood fare for Polish and French productions made it pleasingly less glamorous.
Too far from O’Connell Street and Stephen’s Green, the Screen was out of the way. Overshadowed by the sickest building in the country, Hawkins House, the Screen is positioned in a nowhere space. The grey facade, brightened only in recent years by neon, was a commitment to something other than the usual fare. The building didn’t matter: the film did.
The entire area was once a vital crossroads and the effective edge of the Norse city. The Long Stone was the boundary marker, east of which is now largely reclaimed land. John Speed’s 1610 representation of the city shows nothing of value east of where Trinity College is located.
Speed’s map shows a hospital where the Department of Health now administers a crumbling public healthcare system. Until the late 1950s, the Crampton Memorial marked a crossroads: the commercial city lay west of this point, the docks and fishing village of Ringsend to the east.
College House (1974) on Townsend Street, Hawkins House (1962) and the Screen (1972) were all the product of the imagination of Thomas Bennett (b.1887). The British colonial powers did much to erase the old city since 1757. It was Bennett that was brought across the sea in his dotage to echo the New Town movement of post-war British reconstruction in Dublin. After all, who could trust the independent natives to redesign a city block?
The brutalist exterior stands in contrast to the claustrophobic lobby. Going up the intimate stairs deceptively implies that the building was entered through some kind of basement. The two screens were comfortable and small. The suited ushers and torchlights survived after others had gotten rid of theirs. One rakish ticket checker kept an eye on proceedings with an efficiency that bordered on menace. The Screen was a cinema for pretentious college types like me who wanted to be treated like a grown up.
It had enough self-confidence not to acknowledge the O’Connell Street columnated cinema glitz. Surrounded by drab office buildings, coming here for cinema made it feel more like a political project than an effort at visual distraction. The Screen never invited you in, but it was where you wanted to go and see a movie.
Photo by Paul Reynolds.