Reeling in the years: A look back at the early days of the Cork Film Festival

John Daly looks back at the halcyon days of the Cork Film Festival in the 1950s and ’60s when the Rebel City became a Technicolor wonderland of enchantment and exoticism.

The opening night of the first Cork Film Festival in 1956.

THERE was a time in Ireland when the word ‘glamour’ really measured up to its definition — and nowhere was it more stunningly displayed than at the Cork Film Festival during its heyday in the 1950s and ’60s.

Picture the organised chaos of Patrick Street back then, with ten thousand spectators swelling the pavements in a sea of flatcaps and headscarves, hundreds of gardaí forming human barriers and hordes of photographers poised to snap — all waiting hours for a glimpse of the stars as they alighted from luxury limousines to an explosion of flashbulbs on the red carpet.

It was an era when the tuxedo was king, paired with mink coats, ball gowns and diamonds — lots of diamonds — as the royalty of Hollywood descended on Cork for a cavalcade of premieres and pleasure.

At a time when the fledgling Irish state was still tottering upright on its newfound legs, the Rebel City became a Technicolor wonderland of enchantment and exoticism in an era otherwise marked by a uniform grey of social conservatism.

In an epoch when star power burned brightest in Hollywood, visitors like Gregory Peck, Sophia Loren, James Mason, Peter Finch and luminaries of the Irish stage like Noel Purcell and Milo O’Shea regularly stopped traffic during the week as they strolled about the city’s bars and cafes, approachable and at ease.

Directors like Francois Truffaut, Richard Lester, Vittoria de Sica, Otto Preminger, John Huston and Walt Disney were all regular visitors, talking business in a fog of cigar smoke, each at the head of studio entourages hanging on their every word.

Vittorio de Sica Italian director of the Bicycle Thieves leaving the Savoy after a personal appearance

“It was a time of incredible glamour,” former festival chairman Charlie Hennessy recalled of those halcyon days.

“The Savoy cinema, which could hold up to 2,000 people, was packed to bursting point for all screenings, and Patrick Street came to a total standstill during the evenings. Here amongst us were these stunning creatures of the silver screen, tanned and beautiful, and stepping down briefly from their gilded pedestals to walk the same pavement as us mere mortals. The whole city, rich and poor, was captivated by the romance and mystique of it all.”

A large crowd gathers outside the Savoy Cinema on Patrick Street to welcome the stars, Virginia McKenna and Peter Finch, who were arriving for the Irish premiere of ‘A Town Like Alice’

Like many an inspired idea, the notion that Cork could host its own film festival fell mostly on deaf ears back in the grim days of the 1950s.

When a small group of visionaries gathered to weigh the odds of getting such a dream off the ground, they encountered two implacable obstacles: could Cork seriously compete with the cultural firepower of Cannes, Berlin and Venice, and would the absence of an airport limit the chances of attracting the big stars? Into this yawning chasm of uncertainty jumped Dermot Breen, manager of The Palace cinema and ultimate godfather of the fledgling venture.

Convincing the conservative city fathers that the idea was culturally worthwhile and then persuading the International Producer’s Association to grant Cork official status as a festival venue, he was never less than certain of his goal: “Cannes is commercial and Venice is semi-commercial,” he declared.

“Cork will have a prestige festival, and we will have practically no opposition.”

Walking the thin line between optimism and reality, Breen laid out his stall with a delicate hand: “We don’t wish to be classified as long-haired cranks of the cinema, we are merely trying to organise a week devoted to all that is good and entertaining in the cinema, and I am not going to allow a ballyhoo of stars to overshadow the importance of the films.”

Always attuned to discovering optimum means of publicising the festival, Breen organised a special train from Dublin to Cork for visiting dignitaries.

Immediately dubbed the Star Express, it became another unique selling point for the festival, and one where its Bord Fáilte sponsorship ensured that social conviviality was the order of the day as it chugged its merry way across the Irish midlands on route to a heroes welcome at Cork.

On one such trip, actors June Thorburn, Maureen Swanson, Tony Wright, John Gregson and Noel Purcell were happily ensconced in the dining carriage, when future Oscar winner Peter Finch declared: “Cannes was, Venice is and Cork will be the fairest of the three.”

Crowds surround a visiting starlet.

Irish actor David Kelly recalled the journey as the perfect appetiser for a week of fun: “Irish hospitality was at its finest on that train, an elegant Orient Express atmosphere wrapped in a thoroughly Celtic welcome that made strangers who got on in Dublin lifelong friends by the time it arrived in Cork. Revelry and romance are the two words that come mostly to mind when I recall the journey,” he smiled.

That same revelry was doubly on display at the Festival Club — centre of all social activity during the week, and with a door policy that was surprisingly democratic.

“All the stars along with the great and good of the city went there — due in no small part to the club having a bar free from any kind of closing time,” Cork actor Michael Twomey remembered.

“There was a great air of informality there, it really was possible to chat with Hollywood legends. Even by the standards of global hospitality these people were used to receiving, Cork certainly made a name for itself as a decidedly fun festival.There were a lot of interesting situations in that club where people well and truly let their hair down,” he said with a wink.


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