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Double Take: The surprising site of the first Irish cinema that was set up by James Joyce

It’s likely that you’ve been on the site of Ireland’s first cinema without knowing.

penneys Source: Google Maps

IF YOU’RE A Dubliner (or if you’ve ever been to Dublin), it’s likely that you visited the site of the first Irish cinema without knowing it.

What’s known today as Penneys on Mary Street – an institution in itself – was once the home of the first Irish cinema – The Volta Picture Theatre – set up by none other than James Joyce.

The idea to open a cinema in Dublin came from Joyce’s sister Eva after they arrived in Trieste, Italy in September 1909. The pair learned that there were 21 cinemas in Trieste at the time and none in Dublin, and Eva thought a Dublin cinema would be a “successful venture,” according to JamesJoyce.ie.

Below is a composite image of The Volta and Penneys as we know it today:

Joyce went on to meet with a group of businessmen who had opened cinemas in Hungary and Italy, and they agreed to invest money for cinemas in Dublin, Belfast and Cork. While nothing ever came of the plans to open cinemas in the latter two locations, just a few weeks later the poet returned to Dublin to begin his new project.

After deciding on 45 Mary Street as the location, The Volta Picture Theatre opened on 20 December 1909 with an audience capacity of 420. Films screened there included Pathé’s Bewitched Castle, The First Paris Orphanage and The Tragic Story of Beatrice Cenci, according to the Irish Times. The cinema was decorated in light blue and crimson, while admission ranges from two to six pence.

v1 The plaque commemorating the site of the first Irish cinema can be seen to the right of the Henry Street entrance to Penneys. Source: Google Maps

However, Joyce’s dream for an Irish cinema proved to be short-lived as the theatre was sold at a loss just six months later for £1,000 to the English Provincial Cinema Company, reports the Irish Times

Under new ownership, The Volta continued to run for another decade before it closed in 1919. It opened again as the Lyceum Picture Theatre in 1921, before closing for good in 1948. The first Penneys store opened there in 1969. 

Nowadays, only the facade of the two upper floors survives, while a small plaque marks the site’s significance in Irish cinema. However, its name lives on in the form of The Volta Award, which was introduced in 2007 by Dublin International Film Festival to honour those who have made a significant contribution to the world of film. Recipients include Al Pacino, Julie Andrews and Danny DeVito.

More Double Take: The ‘smallest cemetery in Ireland’ that’s in one of Dublin’s most popular spots

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