Lelia Doolan, once described by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid as “mad, bad, and dangerous,” has left an indelible mark on Ireland’s arts and culture. She is now struggling to build in Galway a cinema complex for the people of the west of Ireland.
The actress Fionnula Flanagan was searching for words to describe Lelia Doolan. It’s not so easy to capture the essence of a woman who at the short end of her seventies is still bringing the same dervish energy and intelligence to countless endeavors as she has done for many decades.
“She has such brio and has been relentless and tireless in the service of so many great things,” Flanagan says. And then she remembers that the conservative archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, once described Lelia Doolan as “mad, bad and dangerous.” Flanagan adds, “Now there’s a badge of honor!”
Doolan has made a remarkable and often unheralded contribution to so many parts of Irish life. In theater (the first female artistic director of the Abbey Theatre); film (she revived the Irish Film Board and relaunched Irish independent film); television (she produced the most inventive dramas and public affairs shows in the early days of Irish television); and the environment (she led a successful ten-year battle to save the Burren’s unique ecosystem). And this leaves out an awful lot, including a recent multi-award-winning documentary film she made about Bernadette Devlin.
When we met recently she had just attended a screening of Bernadette at New York’s Irish Film Festival, where she and the film received standing ovations from the full house. Doolan is a trim and lively presence with a laser intelligence, roguish sense of humor and an almost girlish enthusiasm for the challenge at hand. She moves easily across different circles and classes, always eschewing negativity, cynicism and conventional wisdom.
Never one to dwell on accolades, Doolan wanted to talk about a challenge that is preoccupying her: building in Galway a community cinema complex for the people of the west of Ireland. “Right now, if you want to see an Irish-made film you mostly have to make a three-hour drive to Dublin,” Doolan says.
Doolan calls her Galway cinema complex the Picture Palace and believes that it should be a non-commercial community project. The actor Gabriel Byrne shares Doolan’s sense of the importance of a cinema born out of a community. “The Picture Palace has been a dream of hers for a long time. Lelia knows that when you put a cinema in a town you open up awareness of everything from history to politics to morality. You reach people’s imaginations by exposing them to other visions, other cultures and the common universal heartbeat.”
Doolan recruited Tracy Geraghty, a brilliant young arts executive and film buff, to devise a strategy to get the Picture Palace off the ground. After many spreadsheets and meetings, and designs, and more meetings and submissions, a number of government agencies agreed to fund a spectacularly designed three cinema complex with a cafe bar, film library and shop in Galway, near the city’s historic Spanish Arch.
The project had started construction when two related events almost brought it to an end. The project’s construction company went belly-up — a not uncommon event when Ireland’s economy tanked after its property bubble burst. And the bigger problem: A cash-strapped Irish government started to falter on the financial commitments it had made to the Picture Palace.
The end result — after companies had to re-tender for the construction contract —was that the project was now a million euros short. To make matters worse, the government warned that if Doolan and Geraghty couldn’t find that million they would lose the rest of the promised money. The situation was not for the fainthearted: the entire project was on the line and construction had already started.
Fionnula Flanagan, now a member of the Picture Palace’s board, is emphatic about the nature of the problem: “This is the result of mismanagement of the arts by the Irish government,” she tells me. “Lelia’s really up against it. And this is such an important project for a woman who is the godmother of independent Irish film.”
Undaunted, Doolan set out to raise the money and save the project. Her commitment to any undertaking is never half-hearted. Gabriel Byrne remembers the incredulous Hollywood executive who told him about the gift bag of Irish bacon and sausages that landed on his desk “from a crazy woman in Galway” as an inducement to fund an independent film she was producing. The executive came up with the financing.
Doolan has a special association with the west of Ireland, where she lives in a traditional thatched cottage on an inlet of Galway Bay. Her parents came from nearby County Clare, and most of her endeavors over the last 30 years have been centered in what is for many the cultural heartland of Ireland.
At University College Dublin, Lelia studied modern languages. “But I spent more of my time at the college drama society than anywhere else. Friday afternoons were spent at the cinema. They were changing films and you could watch three for the price of one at 2:00 pm, 4:20 and 6:10, and be home in time to fool your mother that you had been studying.”
“My father was a widely read, curious man and there was always a lot of music in the house — my mother played the piano. My father and mother loved one another and it was a very settled place, a very happy home.” That happiness was shattered when during Lelia’s second year in college her father died suddenly. “It was a terrible trauma, a shocking time. My mother was 54, and how she got over it I don’t know — she didn’t, really. You just keep going.”
Lelia got a scholarship to Berlin to study at the Free University for a a year. She spent a lot of time at Bertolt Brecht’s legendary theater in East Berlin. “You could scoot across and get a ticket to attend rehearsals. It was frightening in a way — it was very militarized with Russian soldiers, their guns pointed everywhere.”
While the 21-year-old Irish student watched, Brecht was directing rehearsals of The Playboy of the Western World. “It was a Playboy without any poetry of any description. There were song performances between scenes, and characters commented on what was going on,” she remembers. “It was played in a neo-realist style — provoking people to question their reaction to this young man who had killed his father,” she said.
At the beginning of the 1960s, the advent of RTE, the first Irish television network, excited Doolan and many others with its possibilities. Doolan’s ground-breaking work in both television drama and public affairs shows made a big impression.
But RTE was born into a visegrip of government, which saw the station as an instrument of public policy and commerce. Management bureaucracy increasingly devoted itself to satisfying these two powerful masters. Unhappy with the direction of the station, Doolan co-authored a book about RTE and then resigned from the station.
There followed a stint as artistic director of Abbey Theatre — the first woman to hold this most exalted post in Irish theatre. Doolan wanted to inject some European influence into a repertory that was dominated by mostly tired revivals of Irish classics. It was a battle she lost. “I think it was the only place where she was truly unhappy,” Irish film critic Patsy Murphy says.
Doolan shook off the disappointment of the Abbey and — never a woman of limited interests — went off to Belfast to do a doctorate in anthropology at Queens University.
She arrived in Belfast when sectarian assassinations were at their height. Typically, Doolan spent most of her time working with the radical priest Fr. Des Wilson, whose Ballymurphy parish was the cockpit of the war between the IRA and the British Army. “I learnt how utterly, shockingly complacent and unaware I was about the North,” Doolan says.
Nearly five years in Belfast were followed by work with an anti-poverty agency in the west of Ireland and with homeless women in Dublin. She also began teaching media studies, but brought her own spirit to the table. “She took what was ordained to be a very pedestrian media diploma and turned it into a dynamic film and journalism course,” says Murphy, who also lectured with Doolan at Rathmines College in Dublin.
In the late ’80s Doolan moved back to the west of Ireland and settled in Galway. She was there in 1993 when Michael D. Higgins, then a new Irish government culture minister (and now President), asked her to revive the Irish Film Board. She says she agreed to do so “only if it was based in Galway.”
It was a very unusual demand, because most people would have seen a Dublin posting and its establishment milieu as part of the prize. But Lelia insisted and despite opposition from industry insiders, she got her way.
One typical Doolan innovation was to found Cinemobile, a hundred-seat cinema on wheels. The most successful of Ireland’s Millennium projects, twelve years on, Cinemobile still brings films to the schools and market squares of small towns and villages in rural Ireland. Cinemobile is the first time many of these communities can watch independent Irish and international films.
Although Lelia had been a founder of the Galway Film Fleadh, now Ireland’s premier film festival, Galway was still lacking a cinema that was not dominated by the Hollywood fare shown in cineplexes across the western world. “[Film] was such an important piece of the cultural jigsaw,” she says. “It was from that practical need that the idea of the Picture Palace was born.”
Construction is already under way on the cinema. Lelia has begun an international campaign to find the additional money for the project. Having a cinema seat engraved with your name is one of many attractions for donors to the Picture Palace.
Fionnula Flanagan hosted a Los Angeles fundraiser for the Picture Palace — a screening of Bernadette — and believes that Lelia will succeed. “She is relentless, smart as a whip and she finishes what she starts. What she is building for the people of Galway is hugely important because we need a venue that will show Irish and international films. Build it and they will come. And Lelia will build it.”
Gabriel Byrne agrees. “She can plamás (Gaelic for ‘flatter’), cajole, beg, borrow and sweetly bully. She is passionate about what she believes in but never self-serving,” he said.
Doolan acknowledged that it was “tough being so deeply involved in a project of this magnitude without knowing the final outcome. But,” she added, “it will be done and it will be a beautiful and permanent addition to the life of the west of Ireland.”
Once our conversation was finished she was rushing down a subway stairs on her way to visit a recuperating Fr. Daniel Berrigan in the Bronx, with a bottle of liquor in her bag that she hoped to smuggle in to the 92-year-old peace activist. You knew she would succeed.