The Magic Cinema

According to an article in the annual Leitrim Guardian, the first cinema to travel regularly to Co. Leitrim was called The Magic Cinema in the early 1900s. It was run by the Clarke family who, in a very circus like way, would erect a tent, or weather permitting, set up in the open air. They would hang a large canvas screen and attach it to a frame and source seating locally, often just long planks of wood resting on tree stumps.

It is known that as late as 1936 it showed a print of The Dawn by the famous early Irish film maker Tom Cooper. Cooper was a Kerry garage owner who had no film-making training and shot his films with amateur actors in a home made studio rigged with converted trawler lights and developed his film stock in a local chemists shop.

From the 1930 onwards small rural towns throughout the country began to get their own small cinemas, including The Roxy in Drumshanbo and the Gaiety in Carrick-on-Shannon. After these closed down in the 70’s and 80’s and no other private company took their place, Leitrim County Council paid for a mobile cinema to be purchased and operated so that its people would continue to be entertained, informed and have their imaginations fueled by cinema. In 2007 Carrick got a 5 screen multiplex. Around the same time the Mobile Cinema became Cinema North West and serviced the whole region while still being very much based in Co. Leitrim. One of the many important legacies of this initiative will no doubt be considered its raising of awareness of the dangers of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) of shale rock for gas. They did this through repeated screenings of Gasland (2010), a documentary on the subject, throughout the county, direct to the public in parish, village and town.

More recently as technology got cheaper and projectors more common, Leitrim is now said to have the most private home cinema clubs in the country. In 2012, with The Magic Cinema in mind, I decided to take my regular home screenings for friends a little more into the public domain. Although perhaps with more in common with The Roxy than the original Magic Cinema, I begin to again show films under this name in Drumshanbo in what used to be a shoe shop, now the Yellow Ducati Bazaar. On a good night you can squeeze about 20 people into the space with a lively chat (aided with drinks from the neighboring Welcome Inn) ensuing after usually 2 films, often a documentary or short and main feature.

In July 2013, to tie-in with the Guide, a screening of Man of Aran (1934) and How the Myth Was Made (1978) was held.  Man of Aran was made by Robert J. Flaherty and was billed as a documentary at the time but would prove to be more fictionalized than real. While over the years its audience found many poetic truths in it that refuse to die, in 1978 a documentary was produced which revisited the island and its people some 40 years later and set much of the record straight. (Stephen Rennicks)

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Jerry Garcia visit

In 1993 Jerry Garcia (1942 – 1995) of the Grateful Dead visited the west of Ireland on a two week sketching and painting holiday. One of his paintings from that time, Irish Tree, can be seen at this link. I had heard he was spotted out one night in Monica’s pub in Drumshanbo on this trip and that he told the young guy who recognized him that up to that point he had gone totally unnoticed. He admitted that while he was happy to be anonymous it was also kind of nice to talk with someone who knew who he was as well. He is thought to have hired a car in Dublin airport and probably stayed at Paddy Macs B&B just along the street from the pub they were in. He is said to have been really taken with the town’s high street and Monica’s pub in particular and asked a lot of questions about both. He also talked about his father being half Irish and how he had never visited Ireland before but had often imagined what it might be like.

Late in the night he is said to have made a strange analogy between Leitrim and the LSD experience. They no doubt had a very profound conversation from that point on, one sentence of which the guy remembered and wrote down on a card which he brought into Monica the next night. He must have managed to convince her of the importance of the American customer from the night before as she did agree to put it on the wall behind the bar. Sadly it’s no longer there but I’m told it read ‘“What I got from my first trip was that my little personal fiction was just that. It was a fiction.” Jerry Garcia, Drumshanbo 1993’ (Stephen Rennicks)

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1798 – The Year of the French

‘The Year of the French’ is a phrase that I have been familiar with since I was 9 as a TV mini series was made with that title and subject beside where I grew up outside Navan, Co. Meath. It chronicled the failed Irish rebellion of 1798. For one of its locations they used the local big house, Ardbraccan House, its avenue and the disused church which adjoins its grounds. I watched the series the following year it was shown on RTE and today can remember little or nothing of it. I do however have very vivid memories of watching the week or so they spent filming. Only through researching this article I realised it was the great Robert Stephens (1931-1995) who I met at this time, who must have been one of the principles of the cast. It’s very difficult to know for sure but he may have been playing the part of John Moore who joined the French forces and was made president of the short lived ‘Republic of Connaught’. As my family lived so close to the church we were welcome onto the set and standing at the back waiting in full costume and somehow exuding star quality that even I could recognize was someone who to me was an old man (he would have been 50). I could also tell that the crew were a little bit nervous and in awe of him but maybe this was just my perception. Perhaps for this reason he talked with me, it struck me he was relieved to get to talk light heartedly as you would to a child. I remember his very dignified English accent and that he was very self-depreciating and one line I remember him telling me that, “this acting is a funny business”.

The series has never been repeated on TV and has yet to be made available on video or DVD. I couldn’t even find a still or any image from it online (only this reference) so it is really like it has disappeared almost without a trace and exists only in the memory of those who made it, saw it or heard about it. Which is fitting as the latter way is how the period of Irish history the production tried to portray is remembered now anyway.

An important aspect of A Guide to Here Nor There is very much about how fiction is inherent in any retelling of history and how that becomes a very subjective truth in the process, history then like acting is a very funny business indeed. Therefore my following brief description of what happened can’t tell you what really happened but only indicate what may have. I would also recommend Remembering the Year of the French: Irish Folk History and Social Memory (2009) by Guy Beiner which tackles just this subject.

A troop of just under a thousand French soldiers led by General Humbert landed at Killala on 22nd August 1798 and joined up with many rebels from the non sectarian United Irishmen. They had some victories against the English at first and even declared a ‘Republic of Connaught’ after one early battle in Castlebar. Leaving a small force behind they marched through Co. Mayo and into Co. Sligo where they were taken by surprise outside Collooney on 5th September. Bartholomew Teeling bravely managed to kill one of the English gunners and this turned the fray to Humbert’s forces favour. A statue of Teeling marks the spot today. They next marched to Dromahair where they crossed the border into Co. Leitrim in the early morning of Thursday the 6th. They had a short rest and are said to have drank wine in Villiers castle there. Humbert split his army and sent a small advance guard north towards Manorhamilton but this was only to give the impression to the British they were going north, they actually turned south and went to Drumkeeran and presumably the other group rejoined them by a circuitous route. The advance guard of the pursuing army caught up with the rear of the march along this part of the route. In fact they were hot on their trail and fighting with the rear column at points all the way through Co. Leitrim. Many Irish volunteers joined the march as it passed by and Leitrim was no exception.

At the front Humbert had time to camp on high ground in front of Drumkeerin village. The local people are said to have brought them milk, meat and potatoes and they were very impressed with the hospitality of the people there. They left again and continued south to Drumshanbo. A second army was now coming at them from the west and had reached Carrick-on-Shannon. Humbert had to get to the base of Lough Allen at Drumshanbo or risk being trapped. By midday of 7th September they reached the relative safety of the town and are said to have rested on the high ground where Laird’s jam factory would one day be and is now an industrial park (The Food Hub) which has the best view in the town in my opinion.

They managed to repulse the attack in Drumshanbo but didn’t delay long and left the town via the hilly road. I live on this road and knowing this now I cannot help but imagine what it must have looked like to see them marching past my front door pursued by the English, fighting as they went. The farmhouse I own appears on very early maps just after this period so it may well have been there at that time. An even more ancient ring-fort is also very close-by and is positioned to overlook the road which may also testify to its age. They next got to the townland of Roscarbin and went along the road skirting Lough Scur (where a battle is said to have also taken place), then through Keshkerrigan and onto Castlefore. Things were quickly falling apart by now, certainly in the rear and the skirmishes were getting bigger as the pursuing advance guard caught up, overtook and killed any stragglers they came across.

Humbert was trying to get to Granard where he thought that up to 2000 United Irishmen volunteers would be waiting but unknown to him they had already been defeated in a battle there. In the townland of Cloodrumin Humbert again split his forces to confuse the enemy of his intentions. One division got to Fenagh and fought a battle there before joining up again and fighting another battle at Carrigallen. They got through and made it to Cloone where they rested. Tradition has it that they used the iron gates from the graveyard as a grill to cook meat. The second approaching army had gotten as far as Mohill and they were still being closely pursued from behind. This combined force came to 23000 and by now Humberts forces were something under 2000. They were finally caught up with for the Battle of Ballinamuck on Saturday morning the 8th where their defeat was swift and inevitable.

They had just left Co. Leitrim, while they had been here there had still been a vain hope, but this was the last battle of the campaign. A much more detailed but still subjective version of them in Ireland can be read here. Another good guide to this subject is by local historian Father Liam Kelly in his A Flame Now Quenched Rebels Frenchmen in Leitrim.

The French had come in too small numbers and too late. If things had turned out differently the country might be a very different place today (we would have had our revolution earlier along with France and America). Perhaps this failure and the heroic myths and legends that would grew around it in the retelling were necessary to inspire others to success in the years to come? (Stephen Rennicks)

Magnum Photo Essay on Co. Leitrim

“With photography, I like to create fiction out of reality. I try and do this by taking society’s natural prejudice and giving this a twist.”
Martin Parr

One of the biggest selling issues in the history of Magnum photography magazine featured a photo essay on the west of Ireland entitled A Fair Day. The piece was by the now famous English photographer and photojournalist Martin Parr. His piece in Magnum was a series of shots he took here between 1980 and 1983. Some of the photographs which featured most prominently were from a dance at the Mayflower Ballroom, Drumshanbo, in 1983. He also showed images of a phenomenon of the time called bungalow bliss and general rural life. Many of his strangely prescient images of abandoned houses and rural decay could have been taken today. This article alone is said to have brought hundreds of new-comers to Co. Leitrim during the 1980’s. You can view more of his published images over two pages at this link. (Stephen Rennicks)

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Will Oldham

On 15th April 1996 Will Oldham played a live solo show as Palace in Whelan’s, Dublin. A show I was at as it happens and took this picture. Upstairs in the backstage room after the gig he met a fan from Drumshanbo that he got on with and took his number. Will had just two more dates to complete on the tour (France and Spain) which he was doing with Bill Callahan aka Smog. After these he arrived back in London and noticed he had a few days in a row spare between various press interviews, a guest recording session with Briana Corrigan (who would end up living in Ireland herself not much later and I would share a mutual friend with, shows how small Dublin is). he then had one more final gig in London on the 28th of the month before going home.

He wanted to record some demos of new material and do it somewhere else than London and decided to ring his new friend who agreed to the visit. Engineer Ken Heaton, who was in the city to discuss the upcoming Broken Giant soundtrack project with him, decided to come over with him to try out ideas for that release and record whatever else might go down. He simply brought a mini disc recorder with a good microphone which meant they could go anywhere. They stayed with Matt (who was on the traditional Irish music course run by Leitrim VEC at the time) and he brought them to an abandoned large estate house just outside the town. They reportedly loved the atmosphere and went there for 2 days in a row. One night Matt brought them to a weekly traditional music session in Monica’s on the high street of the town where it sounds like he played ‘Ohio River Boat Song’ but they mostly drank Guinness and enjoyed themselves. After 3 days in Drumshanbo they got a lift into Carrick-on-Shannon and the train back to Dublin where they stayed one night (and were seen out and about) and then flew back to London.

I had heard at the time from the promoter (who was a friend) that Will had been back in the city a week after his Dublin show and that he had been in Co. Leitrim recording. As nothing seemed to back this up over the years I thought nothing more of it until I met Matt about two years ago. Somehow Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy came up in conversation and that’s when he told me the above story. He wasn’t sure if anything from the session had ever came out himself but I figured out from the dates and Ken Heaton’s involvement that two tracks did indeed emerge from it in 1997 on a Drag City 7” (pictured). They were ‘Patience’ and ‘Take However Long You Want’.  I already had the single which gives no details of the location of the recording. The music is, as you would expect, very bare with just voice and guitar. Both tracks would be included on Will Oldham’s Guarapero: Lost Blues 2 in 2000. The soundtrack for the film Broken Giant, under the name Palace Soundtrack, came out in late 1996.

I visited the house and found it still abandoned and from looking in the windows it appears in fairly good condition considering how long it must be empty now. There is original furniture and moldy old books and who knows what else lying stacked about with two broken down cars outside and lots of rusting tractors and other farm machinery lying about the grounds. It’s very ghostly but I could see why they liked it; surely the house could be saved and developed into something like the Tyrone Guthrie Centre perhaps. I have heard it has been a bit of a squat party house in the past but it is locked up now and I have a feeling no one has come here to party for a long time. It’s not for sale but the land around it is still farmed. (Stephen Rennicks)

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Drumshanbo Hustle

In the early 1960’s Van Morrison played in the Mayflower ballroom in Drumshanbo with his showband The Monarches. Legend has it that there was some disagreement between band and promoter (which was common at the time)and he entitled the song ‘Drumshanbo Hustle’ with this incident in mind. The lyrics to the song are more general however, being about how an artist has little choice but to sign a standard contract when the opportunity arises but gets ripped off by the record company/business in the process. The track was recorded in late 1972 for the Hard Nose the Highway album, his seventh solo album, but would not come out until he released, The Philosophers Stone, a collection of outtakes in 1990.

I found this rare image of how the venue would have looked at the time and a link to the song. The venue is still there and is used by a well respected traditional music course run by Leitrim VEC, where today Morrison would no doubt be happy to hear that each year a representative of the Irish Music Rights Organisation (IMRO) comes to give a talk to its students. (Stephen Rennicks)

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Zoroastrian Fire Temple

After a forest clearing outside Drumshanbo in 2007 a number of puzzling old stone buildings were revealed on a slope leading to Acres Lough. Archeologists were invited at the time to investigate and were surprised to identify the main building at the top of the site as the remains of a Zoroastrian fire temple. They thought that the other rooms attached to it were used as living quarters and for food preparation. There are other ruins on the large site too but only one other building is left standing, closer to the lake shore which may have been used for meditation and prayer. There are also two very thick lines of stones running down the slope to the shore line as well (one of which goes through a gable wall of the other building). These are thought to be from an earlier megalithic age and may have been built by the same people who built the cairns at Sheemore and Sheebeg which can both be clearly viewed from the site. They appeared to be too low and thick for walls and their purpose could not be determined by the archeologists. From this it appears that a small community of followers of the Zoroastrian religion of ancient Persia settled here in the 1600’s or earlier and chose an already possibly sacred site to do so. No documented record of them living here is known to exist.

In the Zoroastrian religion fire and water are agents of ritual purity and considered life-sustaining, and both water and fire were represented within the precinct of their fire temple. Zoroastrians usually prayed in the presence of some form of fire (which could be considered evident in any source of light), and the culminating rite of their principle act of worship constituted a “strengthening of the waters”. Fire was considered a medium through which spiritual insight and wisdom was gained, and water was considered the source of that wisdom. The site they picked here is perfect for this and I can imagine them being very content here. Ahura Mazda was their God and was seen as the beginning and end, the creator of everything that can and cannot be seen, the Eternal, the Pure and the only Truth. In this way Zoroastrianism, which dates from 1000 BC, has been seen as a precursor to Christianity and perhaps they were accepted here because of this.

There is an intriguing account of WB Yeats visiting the region for a few days with other members of the Dublin Hermetic order in 1886 and enquiring about the whereabouts of an ancient sacred site outside Drumshanbo. I wonder if they located it?

Trees have again been planted on the slope and around the buildings but no further archeological investigations are due to be carried out on the site. Within a few more years the site will again be hidden from view and it shall again begin to fade from memory. When it again emerges I wonder how much of it will be left and what type of people will rediscover it? (Stephen Rennicks)

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