10 January 2020

The faded elegance
of the Savoy Cinema
in Portarlington

ADW’s mural of ‘Into the West’ still decorates the façade of the Savoy Cinema in Portarlington (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

I was born between a laundry and a synagogue on Rathfarnham Road, in a house across the road from the Classic Cinema in Terenure. So, I suppose, it was natural for me to wonder at times why so many cinemas had names with classical resonances, such as the Adelphi, the Corinthian, the Metropole or the Odeon.

Paris has the Panthéon and the Louxor Palais du Cinema, Berlin has its Babylon.

Many of these cinemas had faux-classical or Egyptian-style Art-Deco façades.

Other cinemas had names chosen to convey a sense of royal elegance: Lichfield had its much-mourned Regal Cinema (1932) on Tamworth Street; Rathmines had its paired Stella and Princess cinemas; the Palace Cinema on Cinema Lane was Wexford Town’s first proper cinema and opened in 1914 with a screening of The Old Maid’s Baby (the Capitol Cinema opened in 1931 and the Abbey Cinema in 1947).

Others remember cinemas that tried to convey royal elegance with names such as Deluxe, Rex, Royal, Tivoli and Savoy.

Tivoli outside Rome has given its name to gardens and cinemas around the globe. It is known for the falls on the Aniene River, its proximity to the Sabine Hills, and its panoramic views across the Roman Campagna. From the early Renaissance period, it was favoured by cardinals and popes, and its villas include the Villa d’Este.

Perhaps there were so many Savoy Cinemas throughout these islands because Italy was seen as producing the best in cinema and the name Savoy at one time embodied Italian regal elegance.

The House of Savoy was one the longest-reigning royal house in Europe, and, although most of Savoy has long been incorporated into modern France, the House of Savoy became the Italian royal family from 1861 to 1946, just at a time when many cinemas were being built.

The Savoy Cinema opened on the Market Square in Portarlington, Co Laois, in 1945, just a year before a referendum abolished the monarchy in Italy in 1946.

The cinema stood beside the former Saint Michael’s Church, also known as the ‘English Church’ and now used as a community hall. Today, both look forlorn, standing behind the equally forlorn-looking Market House on the Square, caught in the trap of a traffic island in a one-way traffic cinema.

The Savoy Cinema opened in Portarlington in 1945 and was listed in the Kinematograph Year Books from 1950 to 1962. It had an Ernemann sound system in 1950 but by 1954 it had changed to RCA. It closed in 1989, was taken over by a new operator and reopened in 1990.

The Irish-produced film Into the West’ was partly filmed on location in the Savoy Cinema and at nearby Lea Castle in 1992. It tells the story of two Traveller boys Ossie (Ciarán Fitzgerald) and Tito (Ruaidhrí Conroy) and their epic adventures with their steed Tír na nÓg.

In one memorable scene, filmed in the Savoy in Portarlington, Ossie and Tito bring their horse to a cinema matinee.

The Savoy closed soon after and for more than quarter of a century it has been boarded up and vacant.

But the Savoy Cinema in Portarlington experienced a remarkable transformation last summer when a wonderful mural was created by the local resident and street artist ADW on the façade of old cinema in anticipation of two screenings of Into the West.

ADW’s mural was launched on 15 June last as part of a Laois-wide celebration of Cruinniú na nÓg, a national day of free creativity for children and young people. The site-specific mural pays homage to the 1992 movie and turned into a trip down memory lane for many local people who were extras in the making of the film.

ADW is from Dublin and now lives in Portarlington. He has been painting under the moniker ADW since 2008 when he first picked up a scalpel and tin of spray-paint and began creating his own images. Now known internationally as a 3D artist and muralist, his mural in Portarlington was his biggest to date.

The project was supported by Laois County Council and Creative Ireland. ADW hoped it would inspire and add some colour to the area while helping local people to appreciate the town’s cinematic history of their town.

At the time, the Savoy was in terrible condition and ADW spent two days preparing the walls before starting to paint the main image. New Savoy letters were also cut and installed. The whole project took six days from start to finish – one day for power washing, one day of priming and four days painting the image – after many months of planning.

A once old and drab building that had been closed for more than 25 years ago in the centre of the town was transformed and brightened up Portarlington.

But in some ways the Savoy also figuratively represents the fate of the House of Savoy. Its name was tainted of the role of its princes and dukes in the massacre of the Waldensians in 1655, the massacre of protesters in Milan in 1898, and collaboration with Mussolini and the Fascists in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s in not only in Italy but also in Croatia, Albania, Ethiopia and Greece.

The cut-out letters placed on the façade of the Savoy had gone before the Christmas lights were put up beneath last year’s street art – a faded memory like the House of Savoy.

The former ‘English Church’ beside the former Savoy Cinema … ‘Into the West’ was screened here last summer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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