Joyce's picture-house flop

James Joyce discovered the delights of the cinema when he eloped to Trieste and became convinced it was just what Dublin needed, writes Hilary A White

The magic of seasonal bustle or a shopping scrum. Views of the last-minute festive buying frenzy are as individual as people themselves. If, however, you need somewhere to catch your breath and nurse the bruises inflicted by frantic buyers, and you're in the Henry Street area of Dublin, stop outside Penneys on Mary Street. There you will notice a plaque on the wall. You'll probably be the only person looking at the unassuming memorial which was unveiled on Bloomsday, 2007, but in 50 or so words, it outlines a colourful and embryonic corner of Irish entertainment history.

Our love affair with the big screen places us among the great per-capita cinema-going nations. A trip to "the pictures" is still seen as something of an occasion in this country, a communal, indoor spectacle in an age when you can find yourself cursing a poor internet signal while watching YouTube on the Dart.

A look at Kevin and Emer Rockett's book Film Exhibition And Distribution In Ireland, 1909-2010 shows the population's annual cinema visits spiking in the 1950s at some 50 million. Just when the activity had become habitual, TV made a belated arrival to these shores. Cinema outings plummeted and it took the advent of multiplexes in the Nineties to get figures back to respectable levels.

Today, we have around 400 cinema screens, usually positioned in larger population hubs or near shopping districts in order to piggyback on consumer activity. But back in the old days, most towns had their own picture houses. The remnants of these still stand out on streetscapes; blocky, rectangular constructions, often with a crude apex over the doorway portico.

As that Penneys plaque hints, all this began in 1909 with the opening of the Volta Cinematograph. Ever since, film attendances and production have strode hand-in-hand, each affecting the other to the point that, like any other medium that involves the transmitting of a story to its ultimate effect, this small nation punches above its weight. Jordans, Sheridans, McDonaghs and Abrahamsons have made, and are continuing to make, award-winning movies that break free of geographical confines. Tinseltown's red carpets are familiar with the footsteps of our thesps, animators, screenplay writers and production leaders.

That the Volta Cinema itself was the brainchild of Ireland's gift to modernist literature, James Joyce, is almost the stuff of tourist-baiting Blarney. In 1904, Joyce and wife Nora eloped to Italy, to the then Austro-Hungarian port city of Trieste. Five years of working as an English teacher there saw Joyce become something of a man about town. He was also going to great lengths to share a piece of his dolce vita with his siblings.

Senator David Norris paints a picture: "He did everything he could to try and help his family. He brought over two sisters and his brother Stanis. Joyce wasn't as callous or unfeeling as people made out, but he had to save himself and extricate himself from Dublin. It was one of those sisters, Eva, who said to him: 'Isn't it extraordinary that we're in this backwater of Trieste and they have loads of cinemas, but there isn't one in the length and breadth of Ireland?' Joyce was great at picking up other people's ideas. He always said that."

By that time, he had published one collection of poetry (1907's Chamber Music) but his attempts to get Dubliners released and kickstart a writing career proper were failing to catch fire. He sniffed a money-making opportunity in Eva's remark and duly approached a ring of four small-business owners who had thumbs in various movie-theatre pies around Trieste and Bucharest. The Dubliner pitched the idea that his native city, a capital of half-a-million people, was crying out for a cinema and that they'd be wise to strike while the iron was hot.

Plans were put in motion, with the 27-year-old Joyce on the ground in Dublin overseeing the project in return for 10 per cent of the profits. He returned on October 21, and soon sourced a site at 45 Mary Street, the former premises of a builder and ironmonger. In November, three of his Triestine venture capitalists came over to suss out the additional potential of Cork and Belfast, but to no avail.

Work commenced in transforming the building into a 420-seat auditorium and the Volta Cinematograph (named after an existing venue in Bucharest) opened on December 20, 1909, the same year Parliament regulated the industry with the passing of the Cinematograph Act. The event was met with much excitement. The Royal Irish Constabulary were even needed to monitor the big crowds jostling for access.

The bill featured short movies such as The Bewitched Castle, The First Paris Orphanage and The Tragedy Of Beatrice Cenci, with shows running in constant rotation every hour from 5pm until 10pm. A string quintet supplied the soundtracks to these silent films.

A fortnight after seeing the fruits of his labour actualised, Joyce insisted on returning to Trieste to consult a doctor about his recurring vision problems and settle a rent dispute with his landlord there. He left one of the Italians – bike shop owner Francesco Novak – in charge.

It's possible Joyce got the hump. Senator Norris recalls meeting Volta projectionist Lenny Collinge at a Joycean conference in Trinity in 1977, who suggested as much. "I asked him if he remembered Joyce in those days. He said: 'Ah poor Mr Joyce. He was a gentleman, but he wasn't able for them Italian electricians.' Collinge thought Joyce was being diddled by them. Joyce wanted to employ Irish workmen but the others insisted on bringing their own crew over from Trieste. They were suspicious that he would waste their substance. They didn't think he was dishonest but they probably thought he was a bit flahulach."

Kevin Rockett, Professor of Film Studies at Trinity, backs this theory. "From his letters to Nora, he clearly had little time for the Dublin theatre audience. He didn't like the crude way they responded to shows. Bear in mind the Volta was located on the edge of a tenement district, so there were probably a lot of boisterous children in, so that's fair. Joyce also thought he should get more money. He probably worked extremely hard, and his highly inflated expectations of getting profits out of the cinema were of course not realised. But Joyce's many money schemes, of which this is just one, usually ended in failure."

Without much support and barely any English, Novak couldn't address a handicap of the Volta, namely its reliance on Italian and French releases with non-English intertitles that required the distribution of printed synopses. These just didn't have the pulling power of dashing American productions.

It also didn't help that at the same time, cinemas were opening on the more salubrious Sackville (O'Connell) Street. These had lush interiors, attractive bills and more expensive pricing policies aimed at targeting those middle classes who would have been reluctant to venture down to Mary Street.

After seven months, Joyce had washed his hands of the Volta, and his failure as a cinema magnate would become a layby on his journey to the literary pantheon. The investors sold the loss-making business to the British company Provincial Cinematograph Theatres. In 1921, it was re-launched with added seating as the Lyceum Picture Theatre. Years passed, the business changed hands, reverted to its original name again and the venue finally wound up in 1948.

All the while, it had remained open and functioning, which is a key fact in any discussion of its significance. The truth is debate exists as to whether it was, in fact, the first cinema in Ireland. In his 2007 Film Ireland piece The Volta Myth, Denis Condon disputes the claim persistently. He cites the opening two years before the Volta of the 1,000-seater People's Popular Picture Palace at the Queen's Theatre on Brunswick (Pearse) St, as well as two similar venues in Belfast.

We also know that Dublin's first real cinema mogul was one James T Jameson, who screened seasons of films in the Rotunda, Rathmines Town Hall and Pavilion in Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire).

The Volta, however, is distinct from these ventures, as Dr Rockett explains. "I think the best way to say it is that it was the first full-time, continuous, dedicated cinema. There were screenings in the Rotunda which sometimes ran for months and there were other music-hall programmes of varying length in Dublin and Belfast during the previous decade, but bear in mind the Volta opened in 1909 and continued as a cinema until the late 1940s."

What was once a cinema became a drapery shop, before the building was finally demolished in the Sixties and turned into the first Penneys department store in 1969.

There may not be much else to say about the saga in terms of its influence on the Irish cinema industry.

But as a new year peeks over the horizon and challenges and opportunities unknown are hinted at, the Volta makes for a poignant allegory at a time when inspiration is most needed; Joyce tried and failed, but tried nonetheless.

In a 2003 article, economist David McWilliams used the tale to insist that James Joyce actually typified the highest qualities of the entrepreneur.

"Joyce, arguably our finest and definitely our most celebrated writer, saw no contradiction between the artist and the entrepreneur. Rather they are complementary and at their root the artist and the entrepreneur are similar. A fine business brain is as interested, irreverent, creative and alert as a fine artistic mind."

With thanks to Dr Kevin Rockett, Sen David Norris and the Irish Film Archive