On this day…20 December

On 20 December 1909 the Volta cinema opened.

The Volta Cinema, Dublin, opened on Monday 20 December 1909 to a select audience, and opened to the general public the following day. It was the first dedicated cinema in Dublin.

Up to 1909, films had only been seen in Dublin as part of variety performances in theatres, but Joyce’s sister Eva had suggested the idea of a dedicated cinema for Dublin. Through his friend Nicolò Vidacovich, Joyce found a group of Triestine businessmen willing to fund the venture, and he arrived in Dublin at the end of October to start looking for suitable premises.

Joyce settled on a building at 45 Mary Street and set about making structural alterations. Once completed, the interior was decorated in crimson and light blue, and had a capacity of 420. The films were to be shown daily between 5 and 10pm, and admission cost between three and six pence. The silent films were accompanied by a string quartet, and the programme was to be changed twice weekly.

Two of the Triestine businessmen, Machnich and Rebez, arrived in November. Neither of them could speak any English, and it was probably Machnich that John Joyce described as ‘that hairy mechanic in a lion-tamer’s coat’! Novak, the manager, arrived from Trieste at the beginning of December with the projectionist, Guido Lenardon, and the imminent opening was announced in the English film magazine, the Bioscope, on 9 December: ‘The International Cinematograph Society Volta is about to open a branch in Dublin,’ it declared.

On the evening of the opening, the Monday of Christmas week, the electrician disappeared and Joyce had to go out in search of another. By the time he returned, the crowd was so large that the police had to be called to restore order. Among the first films shown were The First Paris Orphanage, La Pouponnière, and The Tragic Story of Beatrice Cenci (which the Freeman’s Journal claimed ‘was hardly as exhilarating a subject as one could desire on the eve of the festive season but it was very much appreciated and applauded’).

The Freeman’s Journal also claimed that the special feature of the cinema ‘is that it is of Italian origin, and is in that respect somewhat out of the ordinary…As an initial experiment it was remarkably good…’ Over the following weeks the Italian films included Nero, Manoeuvres of the Italian Navy in the Mediterranean, Alboino, Fatal Forgetfulness, The Abduction of Mrs Berrilli, Bewitched Castle, and Devilled Crab.

Perhaps it was the programmes of Italian films that put off Dublin audiences, or perhaps it was Novak’s dislike of the Irish climate, but the partners were soon talking about selling out, and in June 1910 the Volta was sold to the British Provincial Cinema Company at a loss of £1,000.


Sources & Further Reading:

Hutchins, Patricia: James Joyce’s World, London: Methuen, 1957.

McCourt, John: The Years of Bloom – James Joyce in Trieste, 1904-1920, Dublin: Lilliput, 2001.

 – -: (ed.): Roll Away the Reel World – James Joyce and Cinema, Cork: Cork University Press, 2010.

Zimmermann, Mark: The History of Dublin Cinemas, Dublin: Nonsuch, 2007