Cover of the King Kong program for the Cork Film Festival


History does not record how Jean Kennedy Smith, the US Ambassador to Ireland, reacted to the sight of an inflatable King Kong atop the Cork Opera House, where she opened the 39th Annual Film Festival from Cork on October 2, 1994.

The original King Kong will forever be associated with the golden age of Hollywood talkie cinema, which his father, Joseph Kennedy, played a big part in creating.

The 1994 festival’s opening film, however, had nothing to do with King Kong; Whit Stillman’s Barcelona was a ‘doomed bourgeois-amorous’ dramatic comedy, chosen by festival director the late Donal Sheehan. The reference to King Kong instead comes from the festival poster, designed by a young graphic designer from Bishopstown named Kieran O’Connor.

O’Connor had several years of experience with the festival at that time, having been recruited by Sheehan’s predecessor, Mick Hannigan. “I started out as a general office factotum,” says O’Connor. “But I had just graduated from fine arts school and was very interested in design. The festival acquired an Apple Mac, which would now be considered a very primitive computer, but I fell in love with it and started doing all the graphics for the festival. After a while, I was trusted to design the poster, which I first did in 1990. ”

O’Connor’s first poster designs were collages, but the King Kong poster began life as a painting, which he still has in his possession. He reimagined Cork city center as a movie set, with a film crew of the legendary gorilla riding on St Anne’s steeple, Shandon.

“I was trying to connect Cork to the world of cinema,” he says. “So I had this classic image of King Kong on top of an iconic building, with all the lights and cameras, and the janitor sweeping behind the scenes.”

Cork’s ties to the film industry were tenuous to say the least when the festival was founded by Palace Cinema director Dermot Breen in 1956. But in the years that followed it drew stars of the caliber of Gregory Peck , Dawn Addams and James The Mason. Walt Disney came, and John Boorman and John Huston were regular visitors.

By the mid-1980s, however, the festival was at its lowest, financially and artistically. There was talk of winding him up, but the board then appointed Hannigan and Theo Dorgan as co-directors. The two brought the festival to a wider audience and forged new relationships with the business world.

“Mick and Theo brought the festival back to life,” says O’Connor. “In the early 90s it had once again become an important part of the social calendar in Cork. Murphy’s Brewery came in as a sponsor, so there was some money around, for the first time in years. This is how the festival could afford to put King Kong at the top of the Opera House.

King Kong on Cork Opera House for the 1994 Cork Film Festival.

The festival has served as a springboard for several prestigious artistic careers. By 1994 Hannigan and Dorgan had both moved to Dublin, Dorgan to become director of Poetry Ireland and Hannigan to work as a film director with the Irish Film Institute. He would return later to the Cork Film Festival, as a director until 2013. He opened the Kino arthouse cinema on Washington St in 1996.

O’Connor credits the festival with the kick-off of his own career as a graphic designer. His posters and graphics brought him to the attention of other arts organizations and businesses around Cork, and he was quickly in demand.

“For better or for worse, it put me on my current career path. I was also working for the Triskel Arts Center at that time, programming their film screenings, but eventually gave up both to focus on my design work. But I still love cinema, and I miss it, to be honest.

These days, O’Connor does design work for organizations such as his alma mater, Crawford College of Art, as well as Triskel Arts Center and Crawford Art Gallery. He has continued to support the festival, and although he moved to Cobh with his family earlier this year, he intends to attend the 2021 edition as much as possible.

“I was really excited when I saw that Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was on the program for this year, with new live music from Irene and Linda Buckley. I booked tickets for this right away, and I’ll see what else I can do. For me, the festival is a treat like it never has been.

  • Cork International Film Festival runs November 5-21

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