Monday 14 October 2019

Declan Collinge: 'The novelist, the projectionist and a portrait of the artist as a young cinema manager in Dublin'

My grandfather's boss in 1909 was tall, thin and reserved - and a master writer in the making, writes Declan Collinge

James Joyce by Helena Perez Garcia
James Joyce by Helena Perez Garcia

Declan Collinge

'In my Bethel of Solyman's I accouch my rotundaties.' My father and grandfather were talking about a writer named James Joyce and I was a puzzled nine-year-old listening to their heated conversation.

The strange incomprehensible line was from Finnegans Wake and my father went on: ''This is supposed to be about Bethel Solomons, master of the Rotunda and it's apparently about him delivering babies but how the Hell could anyone understand this even if they were from Dublin and God help anyone that wasn't!"

My grandfather was quick to defend Joyce: ''That may well be the case but I think it's up to the reader to follow the master!'' The argument continued with both men agreeing to disagree.

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My grandfather had reason to be a Joyce devotee: in 1909, as a young electrician recently out of his time, he answered an advertisement for the job of projectionist in the Volta, the first dedicated cinema in Ireland which was about to open in December of that year at 45 Mary Street, Dublin. He was to see a Mr Joyce who would interview him for the job. My grandfather could speak a little French which he had learnt in the Christian Brothers in James's Street and this was of great assistance in securing the job, as the Italian technicians who had come over to Ireland for the project, spoke little or no English.

On December 20, 1909, the cinema opened and it was resplendent in crimson and light blue. There were long queues outside and also ''sandwich men'' who advertised the cinema wearing placards which hung around their necks. The films shown were in Italian or French and they included Beatrice Cenci, The Enchanted Palace and Devilled Crab, not to mention the Chaplinesque comedian Tontolini.

Initially, the project was a great success and Joyce, as yet an unknown writer, thought that, as a business project, it would help him financially since he was trying to provide for his partner Nora and his two young children whom he had left in Trieste.

My grandfather remembered him as a tall, thin, quiet-spoken young man who was very reserved and who took a back seat, generally. On one occasion however, my grandfather and some of his colleagues were discussing those very sandwich men who had walked about as living advertisements for the cinema. The consensus was that such a job was very demeaning indeed but Joyce was not persuaded. He argued that every job, no matter how menial, was worthwhile and preferable to being idle. These sandwich men would later appear in the early chapters of Ulysses walking about, advertising for Helys of Dame Street.

After about seven months Joyce returned to Trieste when the business began to slow down and the Volta was taken over by the British Provincial Cinema Company. My grandfather left his job and enlisted in the British Army after which he survived World War I. By 1922, and the publication of Ulysses, Joyce had become a celebrated writer. My grandfather went on to read all his works with great enthusiasm, given that the writer had once been his manager. The Volta continued to do business until 1948.

In the 1970s my grandfather, now in his 80s, was ''discovered''. As one of the few surviving people who had known Joyce, he was interviewed by RTE's Frank Hall as well as doing interviews for the BBC and CBS. As a very outgoing and sociable man, he was thrilled at this new-found attention and said: ''It's like the Resurrection!''

The cinema archivist Liam O Leary had my grandfather open his exhibition Cinema Ireland in 1976. He was feted then by scholars and was even quoted by the eminent Joycean scholar, David Norris, who did a mean impression of his Dublin drawl! In June 1979 he was asked to open Bloomsday at the Joyce Museum in Sandycove and he delighted the audience of Joycean enthusiasts there with his Dublin wit and humour. He passed away six months later, in December of that year, at the age of 90. His photo now appears in the Joyce Museum under the caption: Lennie Collinge, projectionist in the Volta 1909 and student of the master.

When I was in my teens I began to read Joyce, starting with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I was almost moved to tears when I read about the innocent Stephen Dedalus being ''pandied'' unjustly by the sadistic Fr Dolan - especially since corporal punishment was then still a daily occurrence even in secondary school. At UCD I studied Joyce further and was lucky to have the distinguished academic Professor Declan Kiberd, lecturing on Ulysses. In time I went on to lecture American students myself on Joyce in Maynooth University.

''In my Bethel of Solyman's I accouched my rotundaties.'' On Bloomsday today the words still bulk large in my memory of my earliest introduction to ''the master'', James Joyce. When I was writing some of my earlier poems I was privileged to have the late academic and author Nuala O Faolain read them and offer useful advice on form and content.

She suggested I write a poem about my grandfather and Joyce, using projection as metaphor. The following short lyric was the result:

Lennie and Joyce

(To my grandfather who died in December 1979, aged 90)

He always spoke of how

he worked with Joyce,

learning his up and coming

trade, beaming

Dublin's first images of cinema

in the Volta.

Small talk with the master

was his enlarger:

a Liberties man,

he knew his pictures well

and spooled them to the full.

As I serve my time,

I hear the man in the box

drawl Joyce into my ear

and I project the unbroken

beam, over the faceless crowd

onto the page.

(From Fearful Symmetry 1990)

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