Irish Cinema Audiences (1950-1960) – Dr Sarah Culhane
FORMER CAROLINE MSCA COFUND AWARDEE
The period from 1950 to 1960 represents a significant moment in Irish cultural history when, prior to the widespread adoption of television, attendance at Irish cinemas peaked with people frequenting the cinema on average 18 times per year. With the advent of digital technologies, viewing habits have undergone significant change since that moment of peak cinema attendance. Recent studies show that today, Irish people attend the cinema on average just 3.3 times per year.
Irish cinema Audiences (1950-1960): Engaging older audiences and sustaining cultural heritage, was a CAROLINE MSCA COFUND project, active from 2018 to 2021, led by Dr Sarah Culhane, and hosted by Maynooth University in collaboration with Age Action Ireland. It investigated the social and cultural role that cinema played in the everyday lives of Irish audiences of the 1950s by addressing the pressing need to preserve the memories of that generation of cinemagoers. The outcomes of the research are based on 230 questionnaires and 25 interviews collated from participants from around the country, as well as on archival research using the Liam O’Leary collections at the National Library of Ireland.
The most significant impact of this project was its dynamic outreach programme which allowed non-academic audiences to participate in the research through a series of public engagement events. These events, consisting of talks, interviews and film screenings, were held by the awardee in collaboration with University of the Third Age (U3A) groups around the country. Free screenings of 1950s films such as Calamity Jane (1953), The Student Prince (1954) and Pillow Talk (1959) enabled a wider audience to come together to share their memories of films and stars of this era, and the cinema-going experience linked to them. In October 2019, as part of Age Action Ireland’s Positive Ageing Week Programme, the project held a free cinema afternoon at the Stella Theatre in Rathmines, with the audience treated to a screening of the 1953 class Roman Holiday starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. These film screenings and memory sharing events reinstated the importance and value of communal cultural gatherings in the face of a growing tendency towards the solitary consumption of today’s digital platforms’ content.
These events also served as a recruiting ground for interview participants whose rich oral history testimony is an integral part of the project’s data. These oral histories have been crucial for bringing an Irish perspective to international research communities such as the HoMER network and the European Cinema Audiences project in which Ireland had been largely absent from disciplinary discussions around research on cinema audiences in the 1950s.
One of the outputs of Sarah’s project was a collaborative website that represents a rich cultural heritage resource where the public can learn about the impact that cinema has had on Irish society and about the rituals and experiences of cinema-going, alongside the social and political climate that surrounded the practice of visiting the cinema regularly.
200 Age Action members attended the Stella screening of Roman Holiday
A 2019 article from RTE’s Brainstorm covered her project’s findings on the Swinford Lyric cinema:
“Among the fascinating stories that emerged from Sarah’s research there is the history of the Lyric cinema in Swinford in County Mayo. The Lyric first opened its doors to the public in September 1940 with a screening of the 1938 musical Sweethearts starring Jeanette Mc Donald and Nelson Eddy. Established by local businessmen, the Lyric boasted a state of the art, luxury design with “five hundred new double sprung seats” all of which were said to “command a perfect view of the programmes”. Press reports at the time described the new venture as ‘an ornament of the town and a credit to its promoters” (The Western People, 21 September 1940).
The site of the former Lyric cinema in Swinford in 2019
“Recalling the opening night and the cinema’s plush interiors and atmosphere, one interviewee commented that “you’d think you were in America” once inside the Lyric (female, born 1936, Mayo). However, others remember the Lyric as a slightly more spartan affair, like the woman who used to bring a hot water bottle and a rug due to the lack of heat (female, born 1933, Mayo). Indeed, the running of the cinema was impacted by electricity rationing in the mid-1940s as a result of the Second World War.
The programming was not just limited to films; the Lyric also played host to a series of non-cinematic events including concerts, plays, quizzes, magic shows and illustrated lectures. Contrasting with magic performances, and reflecting the political and religious climate of the post-war period, a series of anti-communist lectures were also held at the Lyric. In February 1952, L.F. Harvey delivered an illustrated lecture on the “Communist War on religion” and the “atrocities behind the Iron Curtain”.
Historical flyer from the Lyric Cinema, reading: “Lyric Cinema, Swinford, Wednes. 20th Feb — ‘The Story of Fatima: Our Lady’s Message and Warning’ — Illustrated Lecture by Mr . F. Harvey, M.A.”
“Sarah’s research provides a fascinating insight into the multifarious functions of rural cinemas, which were not just outlets for escape and entertainment, throwing light on many of the social and cultural mores of the new state.”
The Irish Cinema Audiences 1950-1930 project attracted interest from popular media, with her research outcomes disseminated through radio interviews for the ‘Paul McKenna Afternoon Show’ on LMFM Radio, ‘The Tommy Marren Show’ on Midwest radio, and in RTE’s Brainstorm.
My MSCA CONFUND CAROLINE fellowship, awarded through the Irish Research Council, was a very stimulating and rewarding chapter of my academic career. As a researcher, it pushed me out of my comfort zone and allowed me to develop new skills. Coming from a humanities background, the CAROLINE scheme made me keenly aware of how all aspects of research can be enriched by collaborations with a range of partners. Through the CAROLINE fellowship and the collaboration with my partner organisation Age Action Ireland, I had the opportunity to develop and deliver a wide range of outputs including articles, websites, and an extensive community outreach programme. The collaborative nature of the CAROLINE scheme has allowed me to share my research with a wider public in a series of creative ways. The experience will undoubtedly shape how I approach future research projects.
A screening event held in Swinford, Co. Mayo in February 2019
Dr Sarah Culhane
Dr Sarah Culhane holds a BA in Italian and Film Studies from Trinity College Dublin (2010). She completed an MA in Italian at UCD in 2013 before moving to the University of Bristol to undertake a PhD in Italian Studies. She conducted her PhD research as part of the Italian Cinema Audiences project (AHRC 2013-2017). Upon completion of her PhD, Sarah worked as a Research Assistant for the CineRicordi project at Oxford Brookes University and later joined the Italian Department at the University of Bristol as a Teaching Associate. From 2018 to 2021 she was a CAROLINE Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow in Media Studies at Maynooth University where she led the Irish Cinema Audiences project. She joined the Italian department at UCD in September 2021.
The CAROLINE MSCA COFUND scheme funded experienced researchers from any discipline to conduct research relevant to the themes of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for shared economic prosperity, social development, and environmental protection. The scheme ran from 2016 and featured three separate calls, which concluded in 2022. A key feature of the programme was a collaboration between the academic sector, non-governmental organisations, and international organisations. The scope of organisations for intersectoral collaboration in terms of their mission was intentionally broad and spoke to one or more of the 17 goals under the 2030 Agenda, which are of interest to researchers with diverse career objectives in mind, including those within academia, civic society, and industry. Across three CAROLINE funding calls, there were 49 funded projects, and the total value of the programme was €10.6 million.
CAROLINE has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 713279.