Silver screen legend Kieran helped us to dream in Listowel
Published 25/01/2016 | 02:30
Kieran Gleeson's eyes lit up as he explained the background to the film he was showing, and you could see he was excited - excited about sharing all he knew with his audience there in his three-screen cinema in a small country town.
There was always an introduction before his cinema club films on a Thursday night. This was his night, the night when he got to choose the films he loved. Kieran spoke as all the knowledgeable do - in simple, easy-to-understand language.
Kieran has been in love with the cinema ever since he stood up on the piled-high metal boxes that were used for storing magic reels. There, he was the spellbound kid looking out through the porthole in the projectionist's room with his dad and grandad in their country cinema in Cappamore, County Limerick. Afterwards, he would be full of excitement and full of talk.
Kieran 'the man' is still 'the boy' in the projection room. Often, we would be kept on after the crowd had gone home for a discussion about the movie he was showing. He knew his stuff, did Kieran. There was no showing off, just teaching and sharing. The soft, gentle but passionate voice, hoarse from too much talk, is gone for good now.
Kieran's life is a silent movie. He breathes with the help of a machine. Our small town hero's chest rises and falls with every breath. It's as if he's a marathon runner at the end of a gruelling race. Kieran Gleeson - who rescued, owns and loves our local cinema here in Listowel - has advanced Motor Neurone Disease.
But he's still communicating. Kieran writes a little, but only with great effort. He sends text messages, nods in agreement or moves his eyes towards something he wants you to read.
Kieran writes '29' on a sheet of paper and hands it to his wife, Teresa. Did you ever notice it when two people feel and read each other's thoughts? They seem to instinctively know what the other person is thinking. The bond has to be strong, but there's more than just tuning in. The two must share the dream.
The 29 refers to January 29, 1987 - the day the cinema in Listowel reopened under Kieran's management.
The cinema had been closed for two years. Kieran was driving by one day with his mother and he noticed a 'For Sale' sign up over The Astor Cinema. There and then, he made up his mind to buy the rat-infested wreck. A local businessman told Kieran he was "absolutely mad" - and maybe he was. Small town cinemas were going the way of small shops. There are only a few independent cinemas left in Ireland. The prophesy of failure made Kieran all the more determined to succeed. He worked day and night and, bit by bit, the cinema began to pay for itself. His mother helped out every Sunday when the cinema was at it's busiest.
Kieran opened three screens and he had the best of films showing at the same time as the big cities. He was one of the first to embrace digitalisation and encouraged Jimmy Deenihan, the then Arts Minister, to provide grant assistance to a number of cinemas.
Hard-up parents were given deals. Kids who didn't have enough money were never refused. Kieran often declined the big money-making movies if he felt they were bad. He never overcharged for tickets, sweets or popcorn. Director Ger Barrett - who is now about to release his third movie, 'Brain on Fire', later this year - was allowed in for free.
Ger premiered his last movie, 'Glassland', in Listowel - and the night was turned into a tribute to his mentor and friend. Actor Jack Reynor came along and Kieran was so buzzed up that the illness was put into remission for a night. It was like the football coach who sees the player he trained as a kid step up to collect an All-Ireland medal.
I was only three, but I remember being brought to The Astor for 'Summer Holiday' by Bernie Buckley - who was babysitting me then, and still does. Dad and I cried when Davy Crockett died at the Alamo. It was here I had the first lip-kiss in the back seat.
Sometimes, when our kids were young, we'd be there at the pictures and, out of the corner of my eye, I could see Kieran standing in the aisle at the back, taking it all in. He was enjoying the kids enjoying the picture show. The light flickered over his smiling face and, if ever there was man who was happy at work, well, it was him. There and then, and always. After all, he gave up his studies in accountancy to help run the family cinema in Cappaghmore when his dad died suddenly from a heart attack.
There have been tough times and, last year, thousands of euro were stolen from the safe by heartless thieves. Teresa is trying to get to grips with the details of running a cinema, but she's learning fast. Best of all, she and Kieran are determined to keep the cinema going. "Our staff have been so good to us," she says.
Kieran had been checking out the possibility of live streaming concerts and sporting events. He had big plans.
The kids come in from school and Kieran gets a smile out. Teresa, I know, struggles to come to terms with how it is that such a decent man suffers so much. She is loyal to him as a full-time carer on a break from her job in the civil service, and loyal to his vision for the family-run cinema. Such is the practicality of true love and mutual respect.
Teresa sent me a link to a Radio Kerry interview with John Herlihy, where Kieran speaks of his love of the sounds of the old cinema projection room with the 35mm reels. "We treasure that now," she says. "It's all we have of his voice."
He shuffles in his wheelchair to attract my attention. He shows me the screen on his phone. This week, Kieran is showing 'The Revenant' and 'Creed', as well as kids' movies. Still promoting his cinema as he fights for every movement. There is such a powerful, undefeated will within him. As I leave, I kiss my friend gently on the head and thank him for all he has done for all of us.