The Ritz cinema: an open letter

from a young Donegal emigrant on the subject of the proposed demolition of the Ritz cinema — one of Donegal’s oldest and iconic buildings which currently sits on Ballybofey’s main street. Originally printed in Finn Valley Voice, afterwards republished online.

Will I ever feel how it was to walk into the Ritz excited by the flickering light of the old film projectors? Or feel the floorboards, showing their age with a creak? Or wonder at the dramatic photographs hung on the entrance hall? The consensus seems to be that the Ritz’ condition has almost passed being repairable and so the short answer is, probably no. So will we be destined to meekly walk around another glass panelled and concrete clad building with light that doesn’t allow any shadow?

So I have to ask: Is this the mark of our generation — tearing away what’s left of the town’s character all in the name of “progress”? It’s easy to get sucked into this rampant regeneration — of building, expanding, developing, or whatever buzz-word business slang it’s covered in — but how much of it is enlightening?

It’s buildings like these that stand through time and show the marks of years gone by. It physically reminds us of our past that can be smelled and touched. Especially for young people growing up in the Twin Towns, this building may well be the key to feeling closer to Ballybofey’s past. The unique design, location, and saturation of the name in our minds creates a sense of wonder and delight.

Many memories have been awakened, photographs and documents have been shared on campaign groups online. Photos of the drama club on the front steps in 1950s, the running list of films like Casablanca, Hitchcock’s Rear Window and John Wayne in The Searchers projected in widescreen Technicolour . For me, it all smells of a romanticism of a different time.

And aside from the stories, memories and photographs of the people, this building is about the only place left with atmosphere and history that could connect new generations to the achievements of their ancestors. This inspiring feeling of being part of something could even become a reason for young people not to emigrate and to instead stay to give back to their home-place.

Capitalism and big business are fast becoming unpopular in today’s generations — especially in the wake of RTÉ Investigates’ recent programme on local council governance. Rather, we’re more interested and excited by experiences. Experiences which in turn can be broadcast to our friends on social media. Experiences that we can share in a building in which our ancestors shared theirs.

I feel it’s important for us to take time from our ever busier lives and campaigns on the internet to confront this. With the development of more housing and commercial buildings around the town, there seems to be a lack of provision for our social needs as a community. Being social online only augments real human interaction, and homes for this interaction are disappearing.

Does the Twin Towns really need another character-less commercial building — whose future may look similar to the other desolate buildings on the main street? There have been numerous suggestions shared online to use the building as a cafe, art gallery, training centre, restaurant, museum, or an all-encompassing community centre. Or something to help empower young people to leave their mark on this town too.

I take this as a wake-up call for us to defend a necessary element of any society — a platform for people to share and learn together, and to welcome all and every necessary voice from all ages in the debate.

Either that or let the character of the Ritz be wiped away as one of the last pieces of our heritage and shorten the historical legacy of Ballybofey’s main street.

Even, as a people — does the footprint of our generation come close to leaving behind landmarks like the people of the 1930s left us — this beautiful art-deco style theatre and cinema for us to come together to share ideas and be transported to different worlds.

Here’s some links to the wider story:
- Share your ideas on “What should happen to the Ritz?” Facebook group.
- Sign the petition — “Butt Hall Committee: Save the Ritz from being Blitzed”
- Join the public meeting — details here.

This story has been republished here.

UPDATE: The County Council rejects planning permission for demolition on grounds of the building being listed and as an “eye catching element of the architectural heritage of Ballybofey.”

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