Community shares ideas to make ‘heart of town beat again’ with help of state redevelopment fund
AN EXPLORATORY meeting on the possible regeneration of the old Astor Cinema building in Scariff heard hopes that “the heart of the town may soon beat again”.
The Zoom gathering was convened last Saturday night by community activist Eoin O’Hagan, former chair of Clare Tourism.
Mr O’Hagan is the driving force behind a bid to make a large-scale application to the Department of Rural and Community Development.
Earlier this month, government unveiled a plan to reinvigorate rural Ireland by transforming disused derelict buildings into remote working hubs and community venues.
He outlined how the venue, if redeveloped, could even accommodate a performance stage capable of catering to audiences inside and outside of the building.
“A stage that could be opened to the outdoors could cater for festivals of all kinds. This could be a truly flexible venue for all kinds of groups and events,” he said.
Hopes of redeveloping the Scariff venue have been given a huge boost by the announcement, earlier this month, by Minister Heather Humphreys, of €75 million for 24 landmark projects.
Funding has been provided for the regeneration of a range of buildings, including old cinemas, market houses, convents, hotels and other facilities.
A number of those attending the remote meeting referred to projects such as the restoration of the old Ritz Cinema in Ballybofey-Stranolar, which has just received over €8 million for conversion into a remote working hub.
“If we can obtain access to the Astor building, either by paying a peppercorn rent to the private owner, or through Clare County Council, that gives us potential to create a multi-purpose community resource,” said Mr O’Hagan.
Among those who attended were a number of people who detailed the role of the Astor building in Scariff over the years.
The building had been both a dance hall and a cinema between the late ‘40s to the end of the ‘60s.
John Kelly, retired principal of Scariff Community College, outlined how the venue was used for six months in 1964 for classes for the former St Caimin’s Secondary School.
“We held all of our school concerts there until we got the new hall built,” he noted.
Tom Hanley of Clare Drama Festival outlined the links between the venue and numerous theatrical productions up to the mid-1980s.
Among the notable productions was one of Equus, which he described as “reasonably controversial” and which attracted huge crowds.
Liam Dowling also told the meeting how The Midnight Court Film Society had used the Astor over the years between 1997 and 2011. “We operated at first in the hotel across the road which is owned by the same person. The owner then gave us access to the Astor and put a reasonable amount of money into it for us.”
Mr Dowling outlined how a 24 x 12 foot screen had been put in, as well as seating from the Irish Film Institute (IFI) in Temple Bar, Dublin. He also paid tribute to the generosity of the owner of the building.
The presence of asbestos in the roof the building was noted during the meeting.
“There are specific companies who would be able to deal with this safely if the funds could be secured,” Mr O’Hagan noted.
“The conversation about redeveloping this venue starts tonight.”
Among the community representatives who expressed an interest in accessing any new facility, was Jordan Cassells of Scariff Foróige.
“At the moment, we’re in the Teagasc building,” he said. ‘We are looking for a venue and very aware that there isn’t a single community centre in Scariff. We would be very interested in sharing a new space and it’s great to hear the history of the Astor.”
Also in attendance were Olivia King from Kilkishen Development Association and Mary Coffey from Tuamgraney Development Association.
Ms King outlined how access had been secured to the disused Church of Ireland building and how funds had been raised, while Ms Coffey offered to advise community leaders in Scariff on relevant sources of grant support.
Marketing and PR professional, Claus Eckhard Kraemer noted that, despite the challenges, the redevelopment project offered huge potential.
“There are many possibilities,” he said. “Scariff deserves a centre like this.”
Ruth McMahon outlined the affection with which local people regard the Astor.
“There is a tremendous multi-generational attachment to the Astor, for reasons of romance, fun and performance,” she said.
“There’s tremendous goodwill. My own parent’s budding romance started there. For so many, the memories are heart-warming, sustaining and life-changing. There is such an energy and attachment to this building.”