Visiting the Volta

Volta then and now

I’m back from few days in Dublin, and naturally I paid a visit to 45 Mary Street. Why so? Because it was here in December 1909 that Dublin’s, indeed Ireland’s, first cinema was situated, manager one James Joyce. The author of Ulysses‘s contribution to literature is rather more considerable than his contribution to cinema history, but it is nevertheless a diverting tale.

Joyce was living in Trieste, Italy, and ever on the look-out for money-making schemes, when he fell in with a group of businessmen who ran a group of cinemas in Trieste and Bucharest, and teasingly told them that he knew of a city of half a million inhabitants without a single cinema. This was Dublin, of course, which had had plenty of film exhibitions before 1909, but no dedicated venue for film up to that date. A contract was signed between them in October 1909, and Joyce was sent over to Dublin to prepare things. He found a suitable venue at 45 Mary Street, off Sackville Street, and spent the next two months preparing what was named the Volta Cinematograph. He hired the staff, oversaw the fitting out of the venue, and heavily promoted the coming attraction with sandwich board men, press notices and the like.

The Volta opened on 20 December 1909, with this programme (correct original language titles and credits in brackets):

  • The Bewitched Castle (possibly Le Chateau Hanté, Pathé 1909)
  • The First Paris Orphanage (possibly La Première Pierre d’un Asile pour Orphelins, Pathé 1908)
  • Beatrice Cenci (probably Beatrice Cenci, Cines 1909)
  • Devilled Crab (possibly Cretinetti ha ingoiato un gambero, Itala 1909)
  • La Pouponnière (Une Pouponnière à Paris, Éclair 1909)

The Volta seated about 600-700 (200 kitchen chairs were at the front for those paying the top prices). It was a simple shop conversion i.e. no racking, and only the plainest of comforts. Doors opened at 5.00 pm and there were continuous 35 to 40-minute programmes every hour up to 10.00 pm. One extraordinary feature was that the titles of the films were all in Italian – Joyce received the films direct from the Trieste source rather than through English film exchanges, and so handbills were given out with English translations. Music was supplied by a small string orchestra, led by Reginald Morgan. Tickets were 2d, 4d and 6d, children half price.

Joyce did not stick around for long, leaving the cinema in the hands of one Francesco Novak, while he went back to Trieste on 2 January 1910. So his involvement in the actual running, and programming, of the cinema was minimal, though he did remain in touch with the business for a few months as it staggered along, hampered by poor presentation, competing attractions, and undoubtedly a paucity of American films. The business was sold at a loss to the British company Pronvincial Cinema Theatres in June 1910, and continued as a cinema (known for a while as the Lyceum, before it became the Volta once more) until 1948.

There has been quite a bit of interest among some academics in Joyce’s association with the Volta, as reported in an earlier post. This centres on the degree to which Joyce’s “choice” of films might be reflected in his writings (unlikely – he had little to do with the selection of films, which were simply the titles generally available at the time) and how much the idea of cinema itself can be found in his art (a stronger line of enquiry – he was always an enthusiastic filmgoer). As you will see from the photographs, the Volta has not fared as well as some of Dublin buildings associated with Joyce. The site is now part of Penney’s department store, and is not recognisable as having once been a cinema with a unique literary association.

There is a new book, An A to Zed of All Old Dublin Cinemas, collated and self-published by George Kearns and Patrick Maguire. It is mostly a collection of contemporay clippings and photographs, and has useful information on the Volta, including two photographs that I’ve not seen before, both from the 1940s, as is the left-hand image above. Sadly, no photograph of the Volta from the time when Joyce was there is known to survive.

But why not go along for yourself this June? Bloomsday (16th June, the day on which Ulysses is set) is always celebrated with a range of events, and this year these include a tour of Dublin cinema sites, including the Volta, led by Marc Zimmerman, author of another (forthcoming) book on Dublin cinemas. Here the blurb from the James Joyce Centre site:


Start: James Joyce Centre, 35 North Great George’s Street
Duration: ca. 90 minutes
Finish: Irish Film Institute/Cinema, 6 Eustace Street

Tour: This tour visits James Joyce’s Volta cinema (opened 1909 as Ireland’s very first dedicated picture house) as well as a further 15 historic cinemas in Dublin’s city centre ranging from early conversions of Georgian buildings to lavish Art Deco venues, giving a detailed account of their cultural history, architecture and significance. The tour will be illustrated with numerous historic and interior photographs.

Guide: Marc Zimmermann is a building conservation engineer and the author of The History of Dublin Cinemas (book out in May and avail. during the tour). He founded the Cinema Heritage Group in 2006 and issues a free e-newsletter, The Cinematograph [subscribe from:]

Date: 14th June 2007 & 17th June 2007
Time: 7.00pm (14/6) & 2.00pm (17/6)
Venue: James Joyce Centre, 35 North Great George’s Street
Tickets: €10 / €8conc.
Advanced booking advised

There are other Joycean film-related events taking place.

4 responses

  1. Pingback: The Green Cinema « This Sort Of Thing - The Irish Cinemas Blog

  2. There’s some discussion going on following an article in Film Ireland which indicates that the Volta was not Ireland’s first cinema. It certainly wasn’t the first place to show films – they had featured in Dublin variety theatres and halls and such like for several years, but it all boils down to how you define cinema. The Volta was a humble shop conversion, but so were many of the first ‘cinemas’, and evidence has turned up of one or two places that preceded it. None of which changes the interest or importance of Joyce’s involvement in the film exhibition business, but it’s still important to get things right. See the discussion here:

  3. Pingback: Joyce & the Volta « dublinlit+

  4. Pingback: C'era una... Volta in Ireland: il cinema irlandese online grazie a Element Pictures | Italish Magazine

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