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Memories of a Multiplex: The Gaiety Cinema, Sligo

I took a trip down to Sligo with the better half at the weekend there. I grew up in the city, but I haven’t found myself visiting too often. There’s something strange about returning to the town where you grew up. Everything seems smaller, even if there are far more shopping centres and recognisable brands around the place. It was good to go back and to see it all again. And my better half was so kind that she suggested that we go to the local cinema and catch a screening. And so we attended a showing of The Fighter at the Gaiety Cinema Sligo.

I must concede that it wasn’t quite as powerful an emotional experience as that portrayed in the superb Cinema Paradiso. In the film, a successful film director returns to the small village where he grew up to mourn his mentor. He finds things have changed, and not necessarily for the better. The cinema where he grew up, where he learnt to love films and movies and stories, is to be demolished to make way for a carpark. What follows is a scene of emotional catharsis, one which I won’t spoil for the uninitiated. Suffice to say, if you don’t cry a little bit at that finale, you have a heart of at least a little stone.

The Gaiety Cinema was, I am glad to say, still there. The recession had been no harsher on it than it had on any of the surrounding businesses. It still stood tall and proud in the centre of town. It was still busy, bustling with activity. Kids and teenagers and group outings and even the odd adult couple flocked through the lobby, chatting and joking amongst themselves. There had been a few cosmetic changes (a lot more red than there used to be, and larger screen numbers, for example), but she was still the movie house I remembered. As I stepped inside the building, I was surprised at the potency of the memories which came flooding back to me.

I remembered my first time in the cinema, or at least I think I did. I was going to see the re-released Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back with my father and my brother. My dad had regarded seeing the original Star Wars trilogy in the cinema as a wonderful memory, and wished to share it with us. Much as he decided to share the time-honoured James Bond cinema trip with us by taking us to see Tomorrow Never Dies in Enniskillen. I really appreciate that, Dad, in case you happen to log on to see what I’m blogging about.

I was young at the time, but I remember much. I remember there being a walk up to the old cinema building. I remember red, everywhere – an attempt to give the place a sense of class, I suppose. I remember those sticky floors that people always talk about. But, here’s the thing, I’m not sure how much of that I actually remember – or how much I’ve subconsciously inserted into my memories to make them conform to me expectations. As far as I am aware, that was my only time inside the old Gaiety building. It was taken down and extensively remodelled before the release of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.

The new building was state of the art, for the time. It was shiny and new – all whites and greys with rounded edges. It was the sort of smooth style which I had only ever seen during trips up to Dublin, but it was now right here on my doorstep. There was a short slope up towards the lobby, lined with posters for mysterious coming attractions. This was, of course, in the era before the internet was everywhere – I used to sneak past the lobby once or twice a week to see what would be showing in the coming weeks. It was a nice place and, to be honest, one I applied to for summer work several times. I never got the job though, and perhaps that’s for the best – it might have ruined the magic to peer behind the veil.

I remember a lot of those cinema experiences when I was younger. There really wasn’t too much to do for a teenager in Sligo, so I went to the cinema twice or three times a month with friends. I smiled at the memory of that time my premature goatee getting my into a showing of the over-18s Blade II, while my friends had to endure Crossroads. It wasn’t all clear sailing – as that time Johnny and Brian convincing me to go see Jackass with them, instead of just seeing Equilibrium came to mind. I remember the only film I think I ever left, Underworld, for a friend’s sixteenth birthday. We all agreed silently that it wasn’t going anywhere we were interested in accompanying it.

I won’t pretend that we were so wholesome that the cinema was all we did, but I have fond memories of that time and place. I remember the late night conversations in Four Star Pizza on the river bank, late into the night. It was there that I discovered that barbecue sauce could work on a pizza, and also that movies made philosophers out of people bored to death in tired and awkward English classes. I recall discussing the many paradoxes at the heart of The Matrix Reloaded with Stephen, and him having a far better grasp of the metaphysics than I did. I think it was little moments like that which led me to fall in love with the medium, to be honest. The sense that cinema is the artform which makes literature students of all of us, even in a late night pizza parlour.

These are all memories that ran through my head as we took our seats, waiting for the trailers to start. I found the seats just as comfortable as I had left them. And, with some hint of warmth and pride, I noticed the cinema fill up quite a bit – especially for an Oscar contender in early Spring. If this screening was any indication, things were going good for the cinema, and well they should. The old girl had certainly earned it.

It’s strange how a building can feel like an old friend, bringing back so many stories and recollections, or maybe I’m just getting romantic as I enter my mid-twenties. Either way, it was pleasant to see it after all these years, and the memories that came with it – I was glad to see that it was getting by. It was also good to know that I was always welcome back.

Maybe it was as emotional as Cinema Paradiso after all…

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