“Leaning towards the Spectacular”: The Suppression of the Sinn Fein Review in April 1919

Drogheda Advertiser 19 Apr. 1919: 3.

On the evening of Wednesday, 16 April 1919, Head Constable John Orr arrived at the Boyne Cinema in Fair Street, Drogheda, accompanied by a squad made up of all the available Royal Irish Constabulary men in the town’s Westgate and South Quay barracks. As Orr recorded in his official report of events, caretaker Thomas Borden told him that manager Joseph Stanley was not present and initially refused to give the policemen the key to the projection box. However, when Orr threatened to break in the door with a heavy hatchet he had instructed be brought from the barracks, Borden relented and opened the door. Seizing two reels of film that made up parts 1 and 2 of the Sinn Fein Review that had been produced and supplied to the cinema by Norman Whitten’s General Film Supply (GFS), Orr brought them back to Westgate barracks to await further instructions (CSORP).

Poster seen on 29 Mar. 1919 by Inspector Herbert of the Dublin Metropolitan in the window of the General Film Supply offices in Dublin. Courtesy of the National Archives of Ireland.

This dramatic raid was the end point of a process that began two-and-a-half weeks earlier, when a poster in the GFS office window at 17 Brunswick had caught the eye of Inspector Herbert of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) as he had been strolling past between 10 and 11am. Making this his business, Herbert had quizzed an unnamed GFS employee about the poster and had been told that the film showed “a number of incidents in connection with the Rebellion of 1916, its leaders, and the Sinn Fein movement generally which have been shown from time to time have been put into one film in review form” (CSORP).

What happened between these two police actions has been well known in Irish film studies since the late 1980s, thanks to Kevin Rockett’s detailed account in Cinema and Ireland, the first systemic book in the field (Rockett, Gibbons and Hill 34-6). Rockett based his account on a file in the National Archives of Ireland (NAI) that covers the banning of both the Sinn Fein Review in April 1919 and Ireland a Nation in January 1917 (see an account of the latter film here). As such, this file offers the richest detail of any official document of the period on the British authorities’ regulation of Irish cinema in the late 1910s, between the Easter Rising and the War of Independence. Rockett charts how the police and military authorities consulted on what to do, and citing the precedent set by the Ireland a Nation case, the police sent two detectives to view the Sinn Fein Review. Their report led to the conclusion that it should be banned because it was “Sinn Fein propaganda pure and simple.” When the police arrived at the GFS offices to seize the film, they were told that copies had already been despatched to Drogheda, precipitating the raid on the Boyne Cinema.

Ian Macpberson was appointed Chief Secretary of Ireland in January 1919; from Century Ireland.

The details provided by the detectives of Irish Events films and local newspaper accounts of the events in Drogheda deserve more attention than they have had, but it’s worth first saying something about the kind of source this file is. It is part of the Chief Secretary’s Office Registered Papers (CSO/RP), the surviving documents held by NAI that went through the Dublin Castle office of the British cabinet minister with responsibility for the administration of Ireland. In April 1919, the post of chief secretary was held by Ian Macpherson, but as the two-year gap between the Ireland a Nation and Sinn Fein Review cases suggests, cinema-related cases only rarely crossed Macpherson’s desk.

The IVA advertises a 1919 funding drive; Freeman’s Journal 21 Jun. 1919: 4.

The day-to-regulation of cinema was done at a different level of government, by local councils under the powers provided by the 1909 Cinematograph Act. That act originally focused on the very real danger of loss of life from cinema fires caused by the bringing together of highly combustible nitrate film and light sources that produced high heat or even used a naked flame. As a result, regulations initially provided for fire-proof projection booths and auditoria with adequate provision for escape in the event of fire. The employees of the council who were given this responsibility typically belonged to the public health or sanitation department, such as Limerick Corporation’s sub-sanitary officer Solomon Frost, who in February 1919 prosecuted the Athenaeum Hall and Coliseum for overcrowding, or Dublin Corporation theatre inspector Walter Butler who in April 1919, brought similar charges against the Sackville Picture House, Pillar Picture House, Mary Street Picture House and Electric Theatre (“Limerick News,” “City Picture Houses,” “Picture House Crowding”). However, Butler was not just Dublin Corporation’s theatre inspector. His duties increased considerably in June 1916, when in response to the incessant lobbying of by the Catholic-church-based Irish Vigilance Association (IVA), the Corporation appointed him and Councillor Patrick Lennon film censors.

Frank Leah’s caricature of Eugene McGough; Irish Limelight Jun. 1918: 1.

When it became clear that Butler and Lennon could watch only a fraction of the films exhibited in Dublin, the IVA again successfully lobbied the Corporation for the appointment as additional censors of IVA members Eugene McGough and AJ Murray, “two gentlemen of education and standing in the City who are willing to devote their spare time to carry out the work, without fee or reward, solely in the interests of the citizens” (Dublin Corporation). In May 1919, the IVA claimed that McGough and Murray had watched over 700 films in the previous year, spending “2,100 hours of their time viewing these films before they were presented to the public, which meant that they were engaged for seven hours a day cutting out of these films whatever was objectionable” (“Worthy of Support”).

The definition of what was objectionable differed between the IVA-enhanced Corporation censors and the British officials at the CSO. In January 1918, McGough had clarified his and the IVA’s view that “pictures dealing with sexual matters should be prohibited by law and the house showing them should be heavily penalised” (“Our Cinema Censors”). This is shockingly clear; moving pictures should not treat sex or sexuality in any way. Historical or newsreel films such as Ireland a Nation and the Sinn Fein Review were beyond this kind of reproach, but they attracted the attention of the Castle authorities for political content that had the potentiality to cause disaffection among the majority nationalist audience. Nevertheless, politically contentious films that required the involvement of the CSO were rare, in part because the authorities used banning as a way of warning off distributors and exhibitors who may have seen a commercial opportunity in screening politically controversial material in times when Irish audiences appeared to be especially receptive to advanced nationalist, anti-British opinions.

Frank Leah’s caricature of Frederick Sparling, who was best known as the proprietor of the Bohemian Picture Theatre in Phibsboro, Dublin, but who had hired the larger and more centrally located Rotunda to show Ireland a Nation. Irish Limelight Aug. 1917: 1.

In this sense, distributor Frederick Sparling was doing the government’s work for them by keeping the Ireland a Nation case in the public eye. Not that that was his aim: the banning of the film had cost him a considerable sum in securing the distribution rights and in hiring the Rotunda, Dublin’s largest cinema at the time, in which to show it. Understandably, he sought compensation for the banning of a film that the press censor appointed under the Defence of the Realm Act had initially passed for exhibition. But by seeking redress from the War Losses Commission in January 1918 and when this proved unsatisfactory, prompting Irish Parliamentary MP Jeremiah McVeagh to ask a question about it in the House of Commons in February 1919, Ireland a Nation became exemplary of the difficulties over years that distributors could face if they released politically contentious material (“‘Ireland a Nation,’” “Irish Questions”).

Norman Whitten was well aware of these developments, but he had good reason to think that the Sinn Fein Review would not receive such treatment. For a start, the film was a newsreel compilation consisting almost exclusively of short items concerning Sinn Féin that had already been shown as part of Irish Events, and none of these individual items had been banned. The only non-Irish Events items were a couple of films that predated the start of Irish Events in July 1917 and the first film of Sinn Féin president Éamon de Valera since his daring escape from Lincoln Prison on 3 February 1919. Perhaps the de Valera film so prominently featured in advertising was the problem. If the police couldn’t recapture de Valera, they could capture his image. In any case, as the poster spotted by Inspector Herbert indicates, Whitten clearly made no secret that he was compiling the film and intended to offer it for sale. Fingal, the new writer of trade journal Bioscope’s “Irish Notes,” had mentioned it in his/her column of 10 April. “Mr. Whitten’s biggest scoop recently has been the filming of the Sinn Fein ‘President,’ Mr. de Valera, in his hiding place near Dublin after his escape from Lincoln Gaol,” Fingal observed. “This is being included in a film survey of the Sinn Fein movement since the Dublin rebellion in 1916, and is being released under the title ‘Sinn Fein Review’” (“Irish Notes”).

Fingal gave some attention not only to this first Irish newsreel compilation but also to other ambitious film projects that Whitten had in train. These included the feature-length hagiography In the Days of St Patrick, the first scenes of which Fingal had seen and praised as “strikingly picturesque.” But Fingal began the column with the political events that GFS’s Irish Events newsreel covered more generally. “The Irish people have a decided leaning towards the spectacular,” the column began.

Which is a good thing for the makers of topical films.

“Irish Events” is never short of good topical material, and is very popular with audiences in this country. […] At the present moment the most dramatic and picturesque incidents are being provided by the Sinn Feiners.

Fingal probably did not get a chance to see the full Sinn Fein Review, and it does not survive, but Inspectors George Love and Neil McFeely wrote a detailed description of it in their report of a special screening at the GFS offices on the morning of 12 April 1919. “The Film is in two parts and it takes half an hour to show,” they began, before describing the items in each part. Paraphrasing them slightly, these were:

Part I

  1. The annual Republican pilgrimage to Wolfe Tone’s grave at Bodenstown, including a scene at the graveside.
  2. The first Sinn Féin electoral victory in the North Roscommon by-election on 5 February 1917, featuring successful candidate Count George Plunkett.
  3. Scenes at the East Clare by-election after the declaration of the poll on 11 July 1917, showing successful candidate de Valera in uniform alongside Plunkett and Sinn Féin leader Arthur Griffith.
  4. The Sinn Féin Convention at Dublin’s Mansion House on 25 October 1917, showing delegates leaving.
  5. Scenes at the East Cavan by-election of June 1918, showing senior Sinn Féin member Father Michael O’Flanagan and crowds outside the White Horse Hotel.
  6. The funeral procession in Dublin on 17 November 1918 for journalist and author Séumas O’Kelly, who had edited the Sinn Féin newspaper Nationality after Griffith’s arrest
  7. The procession from Dublin’s Westland Row railway station and scenes outside Fleming’s Hotel after the arrival of amnestied Easter Rising prisoners on 18 June 1917, and the reception of Countess Constance Markievicz after her release four days later.

Part II

  1. General election events in Dublin in December 1918, including scenes outside the polling booths, the declaration of the poll at Green Street, and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington congratulating Alderman Thomas Kelly.
  2. The anti-conscription meeting at Ballaghadereen on 5 May 1918, showing Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Dillon and de Valera addressing the audience from the same platform.
  3. Irish Women’s Anti-Conscription Procession in Dublin on 9 June 1918.
  4. Crowds outside the Mansion House on the occasion of the first Meeting of Dáil Eireann on 21 January 1919, with a group portrait of key figures.
  5. First film of de Valera after his escape from Lincoln Prison on 3 February.
  6. Markievicz exhibiting a picture she painted in Holloway Prison, entitled “Easter Week”; also the Countess engaged in gardening and painting a picture.
  7. De Valera’s first appearance in Dublin after his escape, showing his arrival at the Mansion House with Cathal Burgess [Brugha], footage of the Lord Mayor and his two daughters, and de Valera leaving the Mansion House.

Both parts were no doubt close to the standard 1,000-foot reel length, running about 15 minutes. As such, each numbered item ran an average of two minutes, but some were likely the one-minute standard of newsreel items while items taken from newsreel specials were probably over two minutes. Apart from the two final films of de Valera (II 5 and 7) and possible the one of Markievicz (II 6), it is probable that all the other films had been shown previously, as Whitten told the two detectives. Certainly some of them are readily identifiable as films discussed here previously, such as the newsreel special of the first Dáil.

While the structure of the film may seem a bit haphazard, it appears to sacrifice a strict commitment to chronology to a progress towards emotionally charged climaxes. Part I begins with a key annual event in the Republican calendar, the pilgrimage to Wolfe Tone’s grave in June, but the likely film used here was not the oldest Sinn Féin film but probably the film shot on 29 June 1918. Following it, the film proceeds chronologically through items I 2-6 of the by-elections, convention and Séumas O’Kelly’s public funeral. The final item of the triumphant return of the 1916 rebels from prisons in Britain is most clearly out of chronological order but is placed at the end of the reel because this event had such a strong emotional charge and showed the popularity of figures such as Markievicz.

The chronology of part II is not as disturbed, but it begins with the December 1918 general election, at which Sinn Féin had been so successful, before including events earlier in 1918 and finishing with de Valera’s reception at the Mansion House. The fact that Irish Events had two films of de Valera during his period after his escape from prison suggests a close connection between GFS and Sinn Féin, a convergence of the filmmakers’ leaning toward the spectacular and the politicians’ need for publicity. It is also interesting to note the prominence of Markievicz and other women activists again in this half of the film. “The Film as it stands,” Love and McFeely’s report concluded, “is a glorification of Sinn Fein and wherever exhibited would, no doubt, be good Sinn Fein Propaganda, and might in that way be objectionable to members of an audience holding different political views” (CSORP).

Handbill for the exhibition of the Sinn Fein Review at the Boyne Cinema. Courtesy of the National Archives of Ireland.

It was unlikely that many of the members of the Boyne Cinema’s audience held different political views, or at least were not aware in advance of the kind of film that the Sinn Fein Review was. Whether the GFS poster was used in Drogheda is not clear, but the cinema did issue a handbill that survives in the NLI file on the seizure of the film. The handbill also stresses de Valera’s name among all the Sinn Féin leaders who are connected to the movement’s history since 1916. The cinema itself had substantial 1916 connections, having been established by Joseph Stanley, the proprietor of the radical Gaelic Press in Dublin’s Liffey Street and printer of such key 1916 Rising documents as the Proclamation and the Irish War News. Stanley had been among the activists imprisoned in Britain, and Constable Orr in his report on the raid on the Boyne described him as a “Sinn Fein suspect, now living in Drogheda,” a phrase that may explain the heavy-handedness of the seizure.

The Boyne Cinema’s opening programme; Drogheda Independent 25 Jan. 1919: 1.

Although the Boyne seems largely typical of the many small cinemas of the period, Stanley’s radical politics marked it out in certain ways. When it opened on 27 January 1919, the Drogheda Independent reported that it would be run under “Irish-Ireland management” (“New Picture House”). This was immediately evident in the presentation of the opening programme, which was topped by the “Irish-made screamingly funny comedy” Rafferty’s Rise (Ireland: FCOI, 1917) and featured among its supplementary attractions the dancing of gold-medal Irish dancer Greta Daly. As a man under surveillance, Stanley’s choice of a film poking fun at the foibles of a rural constable may not have been wholly accidental. This level of Irish content was not long maintained, however. During the second half of the opening week, the programme was topped by American comedy The Clodhopper (US: Kay Bee/New York, 1917), but perhaps there was more continuity in Charles Ray’s performance of the country bumpkin than initially seems. “People who foolishly imagine that a ‘Clodhopper’ cannot get on in other spheres of life,” the synopsis in the Drogheda papers warned. “should have their minds disabused by a view of th[is] famous comedy film “(“Only a ‘Clodhopper’”).

Drogheda Independent 19 Apr. 1919: 3.

The appearance of the Sinn Fein Review must have been a gift for Stanley, but audience reaction is a little more difficult to judge. Local newspapers carried no ads for the film, but they all reported differently on how waiting patrons reacted to the police raid on the cinema. “At the time of the seizure there was a large crowd outside waiting to gain admission,” the Drogheda Advertiser observed, “but there was little or no display on their part with the exception of cheering” (“Boyne Cinema Raided”). “The seizure was effected quietly, and without any excitement,” the Drogheda Argus reported. “The management, however, carried on to full houses during the evening with other pictures, as if nothing had happened” (“Sinn Fein Review Film Seized”). This impression that the audience was little disturbed by the seizure is contradicted by the Drogheda Independent, which suggested that the audience were hostile to the police actions: “the crowds in waiting accompanied their [the police’s] movements with shouts and jeers, interjecting as well remarks that seemed suited for the occasion” (“Picture Film Seized in Drogheda”). Even if the “excitement called up by the incident was short-lived,” this account suggests that it at least provided an occasion to express disapproval of the police.

While these different accounts would bear some more examination in relation to the editorial persuasion of Drogheda’s newspapers, they show that the Sinn Fein Review had at least brought Irish audiences’ leaning towards the spectacular onto the streets.

References

“Boyne Cinema Raided.” Drogheda Advertiser 19 Apr. 1919: 3.

“City Picture Houses: Alleged Overcrowding.” Dublin Evening Mail 25 Apr. 1919: 3.

CSORP/1919/11025. National Archives of Ireland.

Dublin Corporation, Reports, 1917: 173.

“‘Ireland a Nation’: Why Military Authorities Banned the Film.” Evening Telegraph 29 Jan. 1918: 3.

“Irish Notes.” Bioscope 10 Apr. 1919: 119.

“Irish Questions.” Cork Examiner 28 Feb. 1919: 4.

“Limerick News.” Cork Examiner 1 Feb. 1919: 5.

“New Picture House.” Drogheda Independent 25 Jan. 1919: 2.

“Only a ‘Clodhopper.’” Drogheda Argus 25 Jan. 1919: 1.

“Our Cinema Censors: The Difficulties They Have to Contend With.” Evening Herald 31 Jan. 1918: 2.

“Picture Film Seized in Drogheda.” Drogheda Independent 19 Apr. 1919: 2.

“Picture House Crowding in Dublin.” Dublin Evening Mail

Rockett, Kevin, Luke Gibbons and John Hill. Cinema and Ireland. Routledge, 1988.

“Sinn Fein Review Film Seized.” Drogheda Argus 19 Apr. 1919: 2.

“Worthy of Support: Activities of the Vigilance Association Outlined.” Weekly Freeman’s Journal 3 May 1919: 1.

Searching for “Screen Fein” in January 1919 and January 2019

Reproduced from the British Newspaper Archive.

In late November 1918, the editorial writer of the British trade journal Bioscope made reference to Sinn Féin, Ireland’s radical independence party, while warning cinema proprietors against involvement in the upcoming “khaki” election – so named because mass demobilization of military personnel had only begun and many voters remained in uniform. “Confound Their Politics!” the article’s main title read – meaning the policies of all political parties – while the subtitle suggested that the trade should remain focused on a result favourable to “Screen Fein: For the Cinema Alone.” The article noted the inevitability that “the moving picture, whose power as an agency for propaganda has been amply demonstrated in the war, would quickly be wooed as a new electioneering instrument by the existing party organisations.” But the writer argued that these parties should be treated warily by the trade: cinema should be politically unaligned.

An Illustrated London News photograph of the first meeting of Dáil Éireann; reproduced from Century Ireland.

Nevertheless, the writer chose to make a bilingual punning reference to Sinn Féin, albeit s/he did feel it necessary to remind his/her reader of how to translate it. The writer didn’t mention Irish politics any more explicitly in the course of the article: Irish politics was both familiar enough to serve as the basis of a pun and fraught enough to be beyond further consideration. Nevertheless, Screen Fein is too suggestive a term not to be reappropriated from this context in which it received little attention. Among its many more contemporary resonances is the recent rebranding of the Irish Film Board as Screen Ireland, which in the longstanding naming practice of Irish public institutions are known by the bilingual titles Bord Scannán na hÉireann/Irish Film Board and now Fís Éireann/Screen Ireland. But it might be more appropriate to repurpose Screen Fein for the intensely political Irish context of late 1918 and early 1919 that saw the electoral triumph of Sinn Féin. Did an Irish screen culture exist that responded to or participated in these events? That is, of course, one of the questions that this blog as a whole attempts to address, and it would consequently answer “yes” and add “but it’s complicated.” An illustration of both the yes and some of its complications can be seen if we focus on cinema’s role in one important historical moment that has received considerable attention a century later: the founding in Dublin on 21 January 1919 of Dáil Éireann, the independent parliament of an Irish republic.

President Michael D Higgins arrives at Dublin’s Mansion House to deliver a keynote address to both house of the Oireachtas on the occasion of the centenary of the first Dáil. Image: president.ie.

In a televised event on 21 January 2019, President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, led speeches to a joint session of the Oireachtas at Dublin’s Mansion House to mark the centenary of the first sitting of Dáil Éireann. Film cameras had also captured the proceedings at the Mansion House a century earlier, when 27 of the members of the Sinn Féin party who had been elected in the December 1918 general election fulfilled their electoral promise by not going to the British parliament in Westminster and instead constituting the parliament of the Irish Republic that had been declared at Easter 1916.

Screenshot of the British Universities Film and Video Council’s record of Topical Budget’s issue on 27 January 1919, featuring Sinn Fein Parliament as item #3.

One of the five items on Topical Budget’s newsreel released on the Monday following events at the Mansion House was the Sinn Fein Parliament, “the first newsreel to report the establishment of the Dáil” (Chambers 89). Topical Budget may have been the first of the British newsreel companies to show these events, but the Irish Events newsreel appeared on the same day as Topical Budget and gave them far greater prominence. As one film among five, this Topical Budget’s item would have run about a minute in the middle of four other one-minute items. By contrast, for Norman Whitten, proprietor of the Dublin-based General Film Supply company that produced Irish Events, the developments at the Mansion House were not only the most important events of the week but so important that he devoted the full issue of Irish Events to them. Unfortunately, despite its acute historical interest, the film of the first Dáil – in either its Topical Budget or Irish Events form – does not survive to illuminate that historical moment. Nevertheless, in 1919, many people from all over Ireland unable to attend the Mansion House watched the Irish Events version of what had occurred. While they would already have been well informed by the extensive newspaper accounts, in watching the film, they became the kind of mediated eyewitnesses to events that only moving pictures could have facilitated.

The cover of the May 1918 issue of Irish Limelight carried an ad for Irish Events that listed some of its subscribers around the country. Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

The Irish Events newsreel of the first Dáil was shown as the weekly edition of Irish Events beginning on Monday, 27 January. It would have been seen by patrons at the cinemas all over Ireland that subscribed to this newsreel. How many cinemas exactly this was in January 1919 is not clear; an ad in the December 1917 issue of the Irish Limelight had put the number of subscribed exhibitors at 50, and a May 1918 ad in the same publication had named 35 premises in 27 Irish cities and towns that offered it. “I would be almost safe in saying,” the Bioscope’s Irish correspondent Paddy speculated in September 1918, “that there is hardly a theatre left in Ireland which does not show it.” This was an exaggeration, but it is likely true that the number of subscribers had at least remained at a high proportion of Irish cinema from when Paddy had made that remark, in the week that the 60th weekly edition of Irish Events (IE 60) had just been released to the release of the first Dáil film as Irish Events no. 81 (IE 81).

This ad for IE 57 is unusual in the detail it provides about the content of this newsreel focused on one of the country’s biggest horse races, the Galway Plate. Dublin Evening Mail 16 Aug. 1918: 2.

Although Irish Events had become an expected part of many cinema’s offerings, its content was rarely mentioned after its first few weeks of novelty in July-August 1917. This is because like the British newsreels Gaumont Graphic, Topical Budget and Pathé Gazette that were also regularly shown in Irish cinemas, it was a five-minute digest of five one-minute social and political news stories that formed part of a two-hour programme headed by a fiction feature. Nevertheless, Irish Events was distinguished from the British newsreels in that its contents were at least occasionally mentioned in ads and notices. On Saturday, 29 June 1918, for example, Dublin’s evening papers named two of the items that were to appear in the following Monday’s edition of Irish Events (IE 51): the Irish Derby and the annual republican pilgrimage to Wolfe Tone’s grave at Bodenstown. A month and a half later, many newspaper ads revealed that IE 57 consisted of just one item: a film of the Galway Plate horse race. “It clearly depicts the entire race through from start to finish,” an ad for Dublin’s Dorset Picture Hall reported, “including the wonderful escapes from death of the various jockeys whose mounts came to grief.”

Ad for Dublin’s Rotunda with the Irish Events special Sinn Fein Convention; Dublin Evening Mail 26 Oct. 1918: 2.

IE 57 was unusual in focusing on one story, but it appeared as the regular edition of Irish Events that week. Other special films were issued in addition to the numbered weekly edition, and these had to be advertised to alert exhibitors and audiences to their existence. Whitten had a reputation that predated Irish Events for the “hustle” with which he could shoot, process and print a film in time for exhibition just hours after an event had occurred, and he continued this practice after the introduction of Irish Events. “There was a stop-press edition of ‘Irish Events’ issued last Thursday,” the Irish Limelight commented in November 1917. “The Sinn Fein Convention was filmed at 10.30 a.m. on that day, and screened at a Dublin cinema on the same evening. Some hustle!” (“Stop Press”). Instead of holding over the film of the Sinn Féin convention for IE 16, which would be issued on Monday, 29 October 1917, Whitten rushed the film out on the night of 25 October.

Several Dublin cinemas advertised the Irish Events film of the sinking of the Leinster, Dublin Evening Mail 14 Oct. 1918: 2.

It seem anomalous, then, that Whitten had not rushed out the Dáil special on the evening of 21 January 1919 but had instead held it over for almost a  week and issued it as Irish Events’ regular Monday release on 27 January. To a degree this may be explained as an increasing practice of Irish Events over the course of 1918. The Irish Events film of the aftermath of the sinking of the Irish mail boat RMS Leinster appeared as IE 66 on Monday, 14 October 1918, several days after the ship had been torpedoed by a U-boat on 10 October. However, the quite detailed press ads also show that the film remained newsworthy on the Monday of its release because it included footage of the weekend funerals of some of the victims.

Ad for Bohemian Picture Theatre programme featuring the Irish Events newsreel of the first meeting of Dáil Éireann; Dublin Evening Mail 27 Jan. 1919: 2.

This does not seem to have been the case with the film of the Dáil, which looks like it would previously have been seen as a good opportunity for a “stop-press” issue. Much of the information that survives about the film comes from an ad and a brief review of its screenings at the Bohemian Picture Theatre in the Dublin suburb of Phibsboro. The ad reveals that it was indeed an Irish Event special and that it consisted of scenes at the Mansion House, including a group shot of the Sinn Féin members of the Dáil. The review in the Irish Times reported that it was “a special Irish events topical ‘Dail Eireann,’ depicting the principal scenes at the Mansion House on the occasion of the Sinn Fein Assembly” (“Bohemian Picture Theatre”). Little other surviving notice appears to have been taken of the film during the week in which it was on release as IE 81.

Ad offering the film of the sinking of the Leinster to exhibitors who were not Irish Events’ subscribers; Irish Independent 14 October 1918: 2.

Nevertheless, this was unlikely to have been the end of the screening life of this film or of the others Irish Events films mentioned here. As well as releasing his films on the circuit of subscribed cinemas, Whitten also offered then for individual sale, as he did when on 16 October 1918, he placed ads in the Irish Independent for the film of the sinking of the Leinster. Whitten advertised his newsreel specials long after their original newsworthiness had vanished, boasting on one memorable occasion that that his specials “will attract a larger audience than a six-reel exclusive.”

“Behind the Screen” item on “A National Film Library”; Irish Limelight Oct. 1917: 6. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Beyond these commercial afterlives, the newsreels were seen by some commentators as historically important documents. “The successful launching of the Irish News Film ‘Irish Events,’” observed the Irish Limelight’s “Behind the Screen” columnist in October 1917,

has given a fillip to an interesting suggestion made some time back involving the establishment in this country of a Department of Record whose duty it would be to see that nothing of importance happens in any field without being filmed. (“National Film Library.”)

The writer saw the main advantages of such records in writing and learning history but concluded with the intriguing notion that “the establishment of a department such as suggested would secure for future generations the ability to live, as it were, with those who preceded them.”

“Behind the Scenes” item on first anniversary of Irish Events; Irish Limelight Jul. 1918: 4.

At a more mundane level, the notion of Irish Events as a repository of Ireland’s history persisted and re-emerged on the occasion of the newsreel’s first birthday in July 1918. “Always a lusty infant,” the “Behind the Screen” writer noted, “it has – during its first year of life – succeeded in accumulating a veritable film library of happenings of intense national importance, the preservation of which were alone well worth while” (“Irish Events”). It is certainly true that Irish Events accumulated a vast amount of newsreel footage on Ireland during what is now being commemorated as the Decade of Centenaries.

However, despite the ability of some contemporary observers to see its importance as historical document, no real vision or infrastructure for preservation existed in the 1910s, nor would they co-exist in Ireland until the founding of the Irish Film Archive (IFA) as part of the Irish Film Centre, now Irish Film Institute (IFI), in 1992. As a result, no more than a few fragments of Irish Events still exists, the vast bulk of which is more than likely lost forever. None of the material so far mentioned in this blog survives – or is known to survive – beyond 30 seconds of the Sinn Fein Convention that remains in the IFA’s Sean Lewis Collection. Working from a roughly calculation that each weekly episode of Irish Events lasted 5 minutes, the newsreel had by the time of the appearance of the special on the first Dáil for IE 81 released 6 hours and 45 minutes of edited footage, and this does not count the stop-press issues that appeared in addition to the regular weekly issues or the two further years of material that appeared after IE 81.

Among this lost material is an important document of Irish feminism, which is mentioned in the January issue of the suffragist Irish Citizen. The paper recorded that in the December 1918 election, the first election after women had won the franchise, “veteran Irish suffragist leader” Anna Haslam

recorded her vote in the midst of an admiring feminine throng to cheer her, was presented with a bouquet in suffrage colours for the occasion, and was snapped by an enterprising film company as one of the “Irish Events” of the Election.” (“Activities.”)

Like the Dáil film, this key moment of Irish social and political history captured in moving pictures exists now only in brief written records.

Introductory page to the Irish Independence Film Collection on the IFI Player.

Despite such great losses, it is heartening to be able to finish this blog by acknowledging that all is not lost, and that 2018 saw the arrival of two particularly useful online resources for Irish cinema history: the IFI’s Irish Independence Film Collection (IIFC) and the British Library’s digitization of the Bioscope. One of the 13 collections of Irish films that are available on the online viewing platform and app IFI Player, IIFC provides access to 139 British Pathé and Topical Budget newsreels items on Ireland from the period 1900-30. Access to these films is not geoblocked; they are readily and freely available through the IFI’s website and app.

A comparison of the quality of the available copies of this 1913 British Pathé film of Jim Larkin shows the undoubtedly better quality of the IIFC copy (right) than the version available on Pathé’s YouTube channel (left).

Some of Pathé’s surviving Irish material has been available on the company’s website and YouTube channel, but IIFC is not just a case of the IFI hosting existing material on its player. For a start, the quality of the new IIFC copies is far better than the material previously available, the result of rescanning the film elements to produce high-definition copies. This increased quality has already revealed and will continue to reveal previously indiscernible details. Although taking the Irish material from Pathé’s website decontextualizes it from that production milieu, historians Lar Joyce and Ciara Chambers provide it with an Irish perspective that is quite different from the British one the newsreels themselves espouse. In the process, they frequently correct misidentifications of people, places and incidents, as well as improper cataloguing for these and other reasons. As the scholar who has done most to analyze the surviving British newsreels’ representation of Ireland through her 2012 book Ireland in the Newsreels and the 2017 television series Éire na Nuachtscannán, Chambers offers particularly incisive commentary on how British newsreels presented a view of events in Ireland favourable to the British establishment.

Comparison of images taken from the newly digitized Bioscope and its microfilmed predecessor; 7 Dec. 1916: 1031.

The different kind of coverage provided by Irish Events during much of the Irish revolutionary decade is not mentioned in IIFC, but it can be glimpsed through the pages of such trade journals as the Bioscope. The most important of British trades for the 1910s, the Bioscope offered significant coverage of Ireland, and it has now been digitized. This has implications not only for searching but also for images, which are barely visible on microfilm but are readily useable from the high-quality scans.

While this is a great improvement on the existing situation, it is not of the standard set by the Media History Digital Library (MHDL), Eric Hoyt’s University of Wisconsin project to digitize media trade journals and fan magazines. While MHDL is a free resource, the digitized Bisocope is only available with a subscription to the British Newspaper Archive (BNA), a digitization partnership between the British Library and the genealogy company findmypast. But by paying the subscription, you do not gain access to a better technology. As well as being free, MDHL allows greater interaction – searching, navigating and downloading – with the scanned volumes than does BNA. For those with a BNA subscription, the two projects can be compared directly because MHDL has digitized a few early1930s’ volumes of the Bioscope that are also part of BNA. Nevertheless, Irish subscribers to BNA also have access to many Irish newspapers, both national and local, that have been and continue to be digitized as part of the project.

Despite some reservations, all of these resources are helping to reveal aspects of Screen Fein, Ireland’s own cinema of a century ago.

References

“Bohemian Picture Theatre.” Irish Times 29 Jan. 1919: 2.

British Newspaper Archive. Find My Past/British Library. www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk

Chambers, Ciara. Ireland in the Newsreels. Irish Academic Press, 2012.

“Confound Their Politics! The Trade’s Election Prospects: ‘Screen Fein’: For the Cinema Alone.” Bioscope 28 Nov. 1918: 4.

“‘Irish Events.’—Many Happy Returns.” Irish Limelight Jul. 1918: 4.

Irish Independence Film Collection. Irish Film Institute, ifiplayer.ie/independencefilms.

“A National Film Library.” Irish Limelight Oct. 1917: 6.

Paddy. “Irish Notes: The General Opinion.” Bioscope 5 Sep. 1918: 91.

“Stop Press.” Irish Limelight Nov. 1917: 13.

Tracy, Tony. “Goodbye Irish Film Board, Hello Screen Ireland.” RTÉ, 23 Nov. 2018, rte.ie/eile/brainstorm/2018/1122/1012662-goodbye-irish-film-board-hello-screen-ireland.

Irish Cinemas Catch Strike Fever in Autumn 1918

In the Bioscope‘s lead article on 12 September 1918, Ireland was a troubling place.

On 12 September 1918, the lead article in the British trade journal Bioscope concerned a “bombshell from Ireland.” “The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union [ITGWU],” it reported, “a powerful labour organisation with offices, singularly enough, at Liberty Hall, on Thursday last served a demand upon the proprietors of every cinema theatre in that part of the Kingdom which we can only describe as a monstrous one” (“Exhibitor His Own Enemy”). The ITGWU’s monstrous demand was for more pay for all cinema workers, which the leader writer saw as class war in the most literal terms. S/he urged the cinema owner “to answer the call of reason and gird on his armour against the foe that is ever present in our midst. We refer to the repeated upheavals in the domain of labour.”

The first item in the inaugural “Picture in Ireland” column concerned cinema in Galway; Bioscope 29 Feb. 1912: 593.

The Irish cinema industry had rarely featured so prominently in the Bioscope, where news from Ireland was usually corralled in the once regular column “Picture from Ireland” by a contributor or contributors identified as “Paddy.” Appearing first in the 29 February 1912 issue and thereafter regularly if not in every issue of the weekly trade paper, “Picture in Ireland” had for many years been the best source on Irish cinema. The information that the column provided was only superseded when Ireland’s first cinema magazine Irish Limelight appeared in January 1917. Even then, the weekly reports could catch things that the monthly Limelight missed.

Godfrey Kilroy Roll of Honour Bio 22 Oct 1914

Godfrey Kilroy was listed among the staff of the Bioscope who had joined the army on 22 Oct. 1914: 361.

For a brief period in 1916, Paddy was explicitly identified as Godfrey Kilroy, a fact already noted here, but the recent availability in the Bioscope in digital form – a development long wished for! – allows us to trace Kilroy’s name more forensically in the magazine’s pages. Born to a farming and land-agent family in Meath in 1890, Kilroy ended his career as the manager of a bank in Dunmanway, Co. Cork in 1955, but in the 1910s, he worked in the film business. Indeed, he may have been the original “Paddy” in 1912 because he was identified as an employee of the Bioscope in 1914, when his name appeared on one of the magazine’s “Roll of Honour” articles as a member of its staff who had enlisted. Kilroy’s period of military service must have been short because he was named as the Irish distribution agent – with an address at 34 Windsor Road, Dublin – for several film companies in late 1914, in 1916 and again in 1919.

Godfrey Kilroy Mailing List Bio 17 Dec 1914

This mention of Godfrey Kilroy asking to be placed on mailing lists suggests that he set up as a distributor in late 1914; Bioscope 17 Dec. 1914: 1187.

As an Irish-born and Dublin-based distributor, Kilroy no doubt had an intimate knowledge of the business in Ireland that informed the Paddy column and how it covered developments such as the strike in 1918. However, by September 1918, the column – now simply “Irish Notes” – was appearing less regularly, and indeed, after the 12 September issues, it did not appear in the journal again for the rest of the year. But on 12 September, Paddy did also discuss the strike at length, providing details that the leader writer left out.

Not surprisingly, the tone of the two articles was quite different, with the lead article delivering its news from Ireland as an admonition. Ireland’s cinema employers had apparently demonstrated too little organization in the face of a threat that in some respects “must be considered as coercive beyond degree, which is somewhat remarkable for the inhabitants of a land who never tire of crying out against anything in the least savouring of this type of oppression.” This latter general snipe about the Irish dislike of oppression was fuelled by the Irish industry’s preference for a separate Irish representative organization, the Dublin and South of Ireland Cinematograph Exhibitors’ Association (DSICEA), instead of membership of the Cinematograph Exhibitors’ Association (CEA), whose organ the Bioscope was. “[I]f anything could awaken them to the danger of longer holding aloof from the C.E.A.,” s/he contended, “this certainly should do so.”

Frank Leah’s caricature of Charles Grattan, manager of Dublin’s Picture House, Grafton Street; Irish Limelight 2:5 (May 1918): 1. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Other evidence suggests that Irish cinema employers had no problem in organizing in their own interest against labour. In May, the Irish Limelight had observed that “Mr. Charles Grattan, of the Grafton Picture House, certainly did the right thing when he convened an exhibitors’ meeting with a view to obtaining unity of action by cinema proprietors on the occasion when organised labour registered its protest against conscription” (“Notes and News”). The Limelight didn’t specify what the employers had done during the trade unions’ general strike against conscription on 23 April, “the most successful demonstration of workers political power in the revolutionary decade” (Yeates). Nevertheless, the employers had clearly acted together and seemingly effectively.

“Enough Said: ‘E looked at me, an’ I looked at ‘im.'” This cartoon commenting on how workers striking on the home front were letting down troops winning the war on the battle front carries a representation of working-class British speech in its caption, but it was reproduced in the Dublin Evening Mail 25 Sep. 1918: 3.

Following the general strike in April 1918, labour activity in Ireland certainly increased, and the cinema workers’ dispute in September was part of a much wider series of pay claims and strikes by workers in several industries. And this labour activity was by no means an Irish aberration; British workers were also engaged in major strikes,which many in the mainstream press saw as a malignant disease. “The strike fever is spreading in Dublin,” the Dublin Evening Mail’s editorial on 31 August observed, “and following a course similar to the recent influenza epidemic” (“Strike Fever”). At that point at the end of August, the Evening Mail noted disputes in the building and printing trades and among hotel workers; strike fever was about to become a lot more virulent. Under the 14 September headline “Industrial Unrest in Ireland,” the Irish Times focused on the threat of strike by national teachers but also reported on disputes by hotel and restaurant workers, printers, paper-mill employees, checkers at one of the steamship companies, flour-mill workers, tramwaymen, picture-house employees, Cork dockers, assurance agents, Derry bakers, and coalminers. In this context, the picture-house workers’ demand “for increased wages and shorter hours of duty” seem far from monstrous and instead appear wholly in step with workers’ demands in many other fields.

In the event, despite the Bioscope leader writer’s inflation of the strike for his/her own purposes, the dispute seems to have been relatively short lived and reasonably easily resolved, if its representation in the mainstream Irish press is any indication. Reporting that the DSICEA met the representatives of the ITGWU on 23 September to address the workers’ pay claim,  the Irish Times observed that “[t]erms were amicably agreed upon at the conference, and there is no prospect of any dislocation of business arising over the matter” (“Dublin Labour Disputes”).

rewind boy classified ad it 6 jan 1919p1

Small ad from Dublin’s Masterpiece Picture Theatre seeking a rewind boy; Irish Times 6 Jan. 1919: 1.

The Irish newspapers did not specify the terms of the resolution or the degree to which the workers’ terms were met, and the issues of the Irish Limelight for the latter half of 1918 are unfortunately not extant. However, Paddy’s Bioscope article is intriguing for publishing the terms that the workers were looking for. The leader writer had mentioned these to pour scorn on the ludicrousness of their claims, but Paddy’s commentary was more measured. While he also judged the claims to be excessive, he observed that they were just the starting point for negotiation, and as such were “doubtless somewhat higher than the employees actually expected to receive.”

Paddy’s article reproduced the pay claims of Irish cinema workers in two sections, the first relating to operating staff; Bioscope 12 Sep. 1918: 87.

Beyond the figures, the article is intriguing for the fact that it offers unique details on the number and kinds of workers who worked in cinemas and the hierarchy that existed among them. That hierarchy is represented most obviously by the splitting of the claims into two sections, the first of which deals with operating staff – those who worked in the projection booth – and the second with ground staff – all other picture-house and distribution-company employees. This hierarchy favouring projectionists was not new or necessarily erosive of workers’ solidarity. When in September 1913 picture house staff made pay demands in the course of the Dublin Lockout, the operators joined the ITGWU-affiliated National Association of Theatre Employees (NATE) so that their powerful voice could be joined with workers in less skilled and so less secure picture-house jobs: doormen, inside attendants and cash-box girls, as they were specified at the time.

Dublin’s Dorset Picture Hall advertised for a variety of staff with this small ad in the Irish Times 20 March 1911: 1.

But the relationships among these different groups of workers – and in some cases even the existence of an identifiable job around which a profession formed – has received little attention. In previous blogs, musicians, operators and doormen have received some attention but other professions have had at best passing mention because they were almost never discussed by commentators such as Paddy/Kilroy. One of the most important pieces of information previously discussed here in this regard is a March 1911 Irish Times small ad inviting applications for a variety of jobs at William Shanley’s newly establish Dorset Picture Hall. These jobs included two ex-policemen to act as uniformed doormen or outside attendants; an unspecified number of “Attendant Ticket Checkers, Window Billing”; one lady pianist; two young women to sell tickets and refreshments; an experienced assistant operator; and a certain number of boys to sell programmes. As noted previously, the gendered nature of these jobs is very striking. Estimating that two ticket checkers and two programme sellers were employed, ten people were sought by this ad for the relatively large (800-seat) early cinema in 1911. But other key staff – some of whom are known – must already have been employed at this point or have been sought by other means. Paddy made frequent reference to manager Frederick William Sullivan, who would have had at least a secretary for administrative support, and the chief cinematograph operator, whose name is not known, had also likely been hired already.

Legal notice of a theatrical patent application for Dublin’s La Scala, Irish Independent 24 Sep. 1918: 2.

This was still a relatively modest operation in comparison to the one suggested by the 1918 pay demands seven and a half years after the opening of the Dorset. But this increase in employment is not surprising in the context in which Irish cinemas were on the cusp of becoming much larger than they had ever been. This was signalled in September and October 1918 when the company promoting a large theatre called La Scala on one of the sites beside the GPO on O’Connell Street destroyed during the 1916 Rising went through the theatrical patent process. The company was led by Frank Chambers, proprietor of the Carlton Cinema on O’Connell Street, and during the patent hearing, it was claimed by competitors that the La Scala company intended to run the 3,000-seat premises as a picture house rather than providing any kind of live theatre. Although the company representatives denied this, when La Scala opened in 1920, it would indeed operate solely as a cinema and use its theatrical patent to circumvent some of Dublin’s cinema-licencing restrictions, particularly those relating to Sunday opening in the city centre.

Section II of the pay demand related to all cinema staff other than those in the projection box; Bioscope 12 Sep. 1918: 87.

In this evolving context, the ITGWU saw cinema as an industry with the potential for further employment growth, with a wide range roles offering good pay and conditions for its members.  The pay demand specified a 48-hour working week for all these workers, with hours in excess of this to be paid at an overtime premium. It laid a strong emphasis on the demarcation of particular jobs whose duties were not to be performed by workers in any other role. However, it was really only the chief and assistant operators’ jobs that were described, with the chief operator being distinguished from the assistant by the inclusion of responsibilities beyond projection for the whole electrical apparatus of the picture house. The 1918 operating room envisaged by the union had not only to accommodate a chief operator earning £3 and an assistant operator at £1 15s but also, at the very least, a rewind boy and ideally, an apprentice, each of whom would take home 10s.

The operator was expected to run not only the projectors but also all the picture house machinery. Bioscope 17 Jul. 1913: supp.

Outside the operating box, the picture-house wage hierarchy was to be topped by the first doorman earning £2 5s (45s) and a second doorman earning £1 15s; male attendants should receive £1 10s (30s), while female attendants should receive £1 5s (25s); cashiers were to take £1 10s; and the workers who were to earn less than a pound included film runners and charwomen on 15s and chocolate boys on 7s 6d plus commission. The usually anonymous workers at the distribution companies or film renters are revealed to be the chief and second despatch clerk, who would earn £2 5s and £2 (40s) respectively, if one was considered senior to the other or £2 2s 6d (42½s) each if they were on an equal footing; the messengers with a projected pay of £1 10, a rate also applicable to film repairers. Finally, casual men in either picture houses or distributors should receive 1s an hour.

Ad for a bioscope school to teach people regardless of age or gender how to operate a projector. Bioscope 3 May 1917: 471.

Many of these jobs remained strictly gender defined, and those that weren’t, no doubt had strong assumption as to gender suitability. The remuneration of male and female attendants is a useful illustration of how men were paid more for doing identical work to women colleagues. However, the shortage of men because of the war had the salutary effect of disrupting these expectations to a large degree. Conscription in Britain meant that the operating room which had previously been an almost wholly male preserve as well as the location of the most lucrative non-management picture-house jobs became open to women for a few years at least. The Bioscope held a considerable debate on the issue in early 1916 (see, for example, Barber). Whether women operators were paid at the same rate as male ones is not clear. In any case, in Ireland, despite voluntary enlistment, there is little evidence of a similar change. The only known woman operator in the country during the 1910s was the wife of operator and manager Alf Thomas. “The Victoria Cinema boasts the only lady operator in the West, and perhaps in Ireland,” reported the Connacht Tribune in September 1915, “Mrs. Alf. Thomas who is as deft in the handling of the machine as the most efficient male operator in the land” (“Victoria Cinema”).

The autumn 1918 wage claim reveals intriguing details about the many otherwise anonymous people who worked in Ireland’s early picture houses, offering insights into their struggle to better at least some aspects of their working conditions.

References

Barber, James W. “Help in Trouble.” Bioscope 23 Mar. 1916: 1269.

“Dublin Labour Disputes.” Irish Times 28 Sep. 1918: 2.

“The Exhibitor His Own Enemy: A Bombshell from Ireland and Its Cause.” Bioscope 12 Sep. 1918: 4.

“Industrial Unrest in Ireland.” Irish Times14 Sep. 1918: 2.

“Notes and News.” Irish Limelight 2:5 (May 1918): 11.

Paddy. “Irish Notes: Threatened Cinema Strike in Ireland.” Bioscope 12 Sep. 1918: 97.

“The Strike Fever.” Editorial. Dublin Evening Mail 31 Aug. 1918: 2.

“Victoria Cinema.” Connacht Tribune 25 Sep. 1915: 4.

Yeates, Padraig. “‘Have You in Ireland All Gone Mad’: The 1918 General Strike Against Conscription.” Century Ireland. http://www.rte.ie/centuryireland//images/uploads/content/Ed125-ConscriptionStrike1-Yeates.pdf

Cinema on the Brain in August 1918

Mary Street

Mary Street Picture House sometime in the 1950s. Image from Pintrest.

On the 3 August 1918, five boys aged between 11 and 14 were convicted before Dublin’s City Commission court of having stolen a film from the Mary Street Picture House, one of the cinemas owned by Alderman John J. Farrell and managed at the time by William Bowes. Charles and Thomas Boland, Laurence Fitzgerald, James Gaffney and John Dillon (for brevity, the Boland gang) broke into the cinema on 3 July and took the 2,000-foot film to a vacant room in nearby Jervis Street.

Census return Charles and Thomas Boland extract

Extract from the 1911 census return of the family of Charles and Thomas Boland, who were 4 and 6 years old at the time and living with their parents in a tenement room at 23 Greek Street, Dublin.

While their three co-defendants pleaded guilty, the Boland brothers denied the charge, claiming that they had merely found the film in a cellar, and Charles had then brought a portion of it to Bowes, which is how their role in the incident was discovered. However, all the boys were found guilty, with Justice Pim freeing them on the undertaking that their families would ensure their good behaviour for two years (“Dublin Boys Steal a Cinema Film”).

Dublin Evening Mail 3 Aug. 1918: 3.

The incident was a minor one, and only received more than passing mention from the Dublin Evening Mail because of a detail the editor no doubt thought would amuse his/her readers. Offering some insight into the boys’ motives for the theft, arresting officer Constable Holmes claimed to laughter from the court that they had intended to transform their vacant room into a picture house of their own.

John Dillon Green Street Census 1911

Extract from the 1911 census return for the family of John Dillon (4 at this time), the only other one of the convicted boys who can be readily identified in these records. The nine members of his family were living in two tenement rooms at 16 Green Street, across the road from the courthouse in which the boys were tried.

In the context in which picture houses were owned by such prominent businessmen as Farrell, it did seem incongruous that a group of pre-teens from the tenement slums might establish a cinema in an abandoned house. However, inconveniently for such businessmen, the story also suggests that cinema had not yet escaped its public association with criminality, and particularly the criminal behaviour of working-class boys. The most highly publicized case of this in Ireland had been the crime spree by Clutching Hand gangs in 1916.

Irish Limelight Feb. 1917: 9. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

And beyond picture-house proprietors, this continued presentation of cinema as a juvenile-delinquent medium in 1918 would doubtless have caused chagrin to such promoters of the industry as the cinema magazine Irish Limelight. Ridiculing these tropes in an editorial a year-and-a-half previously, it had observed that  “[t]he ‘Saw it on the Pictures’ plea has now lost its force as an argument against the Cinema as a favourite excuse of parents who have neglected to control their erring boys” (“Lesson from History”).

The awful state of housing for Dublin’s working-class families was revealed by a Dublin Corporation report in 1914, which included this image of dilapidated houses in Jervis Street. The report is available here.

It’s not clear if the Limelight commented on this incident because its issues for August and September 1918 are not extant, but it is worth pausing on it to distinguish between the different ways boys may have been said to have erred in their interactions with cinema at this period. The “Saw it on the Pictures” plea was just one of those interactions, but it does seem to be operating in the case of the Clutching Hand gangs, where the screen actions of a master criminal provided an imaginative resource to be emulated. While the Limelight and others were right to point out that blaming the cinema for criminal behaviour had become a cliché, often sensationalized to a moral panic, they were not right to imply that no behaviour treated as criminal was inspired by film viewing Watching films did at least occasionally have a demonstrable effect on audience members.

A 1913 photograph of a tenement room in Dublin’s Francis Street with poor furnishings but some images on the walls; from the Royal Society of Antiquaries in Ireland’s Darkest Dublin (RSAI DD) collection, available here.

In relation to the indictable behaviour of the Boland gang, however, what was on the screen seems less important than the presence of the Mary Street Picture House close to where they lived. The advent of cinema brought picture houses into local communities where venues providing professional entertainment had never existed before and at a relatively low cost. In this regard, the case resembles the conviction of four other Dublin boys for property damage following their night at the Brunswick Street Picture House in October 1916, after which they camped out in an uninhabited and condemned house they were later convicted of damaging.

A single tenement room in the Coombe area of Dublin in 1913; RSAI DD, No. 83.

But the Boland gang differed from these 1916 boys in having committed their crime in the picture house itself. Not that stealing from picture houses was unprecedented. Indeed, Thomas Murphy of 7 Jervis Street had stolen the safe from the Mary Street Picture House in April 1915, a case notable because he was convicted on fingerprint evidence (“City Cinema”). They weren’t even the first Irish boys to steal a film. On 9 October 1917, a boy named David Kennedy of Downing Street, Belfast, was successfully prosecuted in the city’s Custody Court for having stolen a film from the Great Northern Railway Company. The staff at the company’s parcel office had given him the film because they recognized him as having collected films for the Princess Picture Palace in the past. His father told the court that his son had “pictures on the brain” and wanted to go to the pictures all the time. It’s not clear if this compulsion to go to the cinema was the motive for the theft and subsequent sale of the film in Smithfield market for 2s 6d. If it was, Kennedy had undervalued his loot. ”The film was a ‘Chaplin’ one,” the Northern Whig noted, “and worth about £20” (“Belfast Police”).

Nevertheless, regardless of how little of their plan they realized, the Boland gang members contrast with Kennedy in their deeper engagement with cinema. They did not have just pictures on the brain; they had the wider institution of cinema on the brain. They had stolen the film as part of the procurement process that would allow them to set up their own alternative picture house. Given that the Mary Street management valued the film at £90 – an amount, incidentally, at odds with £20 mentioned in the Belfast case – robbery was really their only option to get control of cinema.

Aug 29 1918 DEM Airship

One of a series of ads promoting recruitment to the air force and navy; Dublin Evening Mail 29 Aug. 1918: 4.

As well as these poor boys, promoters of military recruiting in Ireland also had cinema in their sights, if not on the brain, at the end of August 1918. Earlier in the year, the British government’s attempted introduction of conscription of Irishmen into the British army had been defeated, or at least postponed, by the unprecedented alliance of all elements of nationalist Ireland, but this had not stopped regular voluntary recruitment. Appealing to a widespread interest in such new technologies of war as the submarine, the airship and the tank, an extensive summer press and poster campaign attempted to suggest that the air force or navy might be more acceptable alternative forms of military service to the army for Irishmen.

Aug 24 1918 DEM Lynch O'Grady

Ad for the first of the mass recruitment meetings on Dublin streets by Arthur Lynch and James O’Grady; Dublin Evening Mail 24 Aug. 1918: 4.

Two Westminster MPs of Irish descent came to Dublin to make a personal, oratorical appeal to “patriotic young Irishmen” to join up but were forced to use the cinema as an alternative way of reaching their audience. Australian-born Colonel Arthur Lynch, who had led an Irish brigade against the British during the Boer War and was MP for West Clare, and Captain James O’Grady, an English-born Labour MP, first addressed a meeting outside the Recruiting Office headquarters in Kildare Street on 24 August. Following its success, they organized a series of mass recruitment meetings on the city streets: at the Fountain in James Street on 27 August, on Amiens Street on 28 August and at Smithfield on 29 August. Others around the country were to come.

First Irish Conscript PC Whites auctioneers

A cartoon postcard circulating in Dublin in July 1918 expressing the counterproductiveness of forcing conscription on Ireland. Joseph Holloway’s reproduced a copy in his diary on 6 July; this copy is available here.

However, Sinn Féin protestors successfully disrupted the James Street meeting by drowning Lynch out “in a hurricane of groans, shrieks, ‘voices,’ and discordant cat-calls” (“Recruiting Campaign”). Indeed, when Lynch and O’Grady had left the scene, Sinn Féin speakers made speeches from the lorry that had been brought as their platform. “Soon recruiting meetings will be proclaimed,” Joseph Holloway commented wryly in his diary, “as they are providing splendid Sinn Fein demonstrations.” When the Amiens Street meeting delivered a similar occasion, the Smithfield meeting was abandoned, and Lynch complained he had been denied free speech and sought in vain a public debate on recruiting with Sinn Féin representatives.

Lynch Slide DEM 30 Aug 1918

The text Lynch intended to project on Dublin cinema screens to attract recruits to his Irish Brigade; Dublin Evening Mail 30 Aug. 1918: 3.

But he also made plans to use the picture houses, which everybody seemed to agree had a particular attraction for boys and young men. On 30 August, the Dublin Evening Mail included the text of a “message to Young Ireland” to join Lynch’s Irish Brigade that he intended to “be flashed on the screen at cinemas in Dublin and afterwards throughout Ireland” (“Colonel Lynch on the Screen”). But Lynch’s cinematic adventure went beyond a text-based ad. “A film has also been taken of Colonel Lynch and Captain O’Grady,” the Mail report concluded, “and this will also be displayed on the screen in Dublin next week, and afterwards throughout the various picture halls in the country.”

No surviving evidence appears to exist to confirm that the ad and/or the film were shown in Dublin the following week. Although propaganda films were not uncommon, the controversy Lynch and O’Grady caused in the streets might have been enough for nervous cinema managers to keep them off the screen. In any event, the summer of 1918 saw Irish politicians and military recruiters join boys from the tenements in trying to hijack the cinema for their own purposes.

References

“Belfast Police – Yesterday.” Northern Whig 10 Oct. 1917: 3.

“City Cinema Broken into and Robbed: Evidence of Finger Prints.” Evening Telegraph 29 Apr. 1915: 3.

“Colonel Lynch on the Screen: His Message to Young Ireland.” Dublin Evening Mail 30 Aug. 1918: 3.

“Dublin Boys Steal a Cinema Film: To Start Their Own Picture House.” Dublin Evening Mail 3 Aug. 1918: 3.

Holloway, Joseph. Holloway Diaries. National Library of Ireland.

“A Lesson from History.” Editorial. Irish Limelight Feb. 1917: 1.

“Lure of the Films: City Boys Who Wanted a Cinema of Their Own.” Evening Telegraph 3 Aug. 1918: 1.

“Recruiting Campaign: Colonel Lynch Denied a Hearing.” Evening Telegraph 28 Aug. 1918: 3.

When Did Love Come to Gavin Burke? An Irish Film Finds an Audience in Early Summer 1918

Brian Magowan played a prominent role in When Love Came to Gavin Burke; Irish Limelight Dec. 1917: 6. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

On 12 November 1917, the Freeman’s Journal announced that the Film Company of Ireland (FCOI) would “shortly reproduce a strong Irish drama, in six reels, entitled ‘When Love came to Gavin Burke.’” This article was part of the company’s increased publicity as it finally prepared to release the films it had shot that summer. The immediate occasion of the article was the release that day of Rafferty’s Rise, but it also mentioned the imminent appearance of three other FCOI films or film series: Knocknagow, which would open in Clonmel on 31 January 1918, “10,000 feet of Irish Scenery, showing mountain, river and town in all parts of the country,” and When Love Came to Gavin Burke. Probably because Knocknagow was such a priority, When Love Came to Gavin Burke seems to have been relatively neglected by FCOI, and the title does not show up in any newspaper searches for winter 1917.

Galway Express 27 Apr. 1918: 4.

Indeed, there are just a few mentions of Gavan Burke in Irish newspapers in 1918. “The idea of a single picture programme is a good one,” a reviewer in the Galway Express observed at the end of April 1918. “It obtained in the Town Hall with regard to ‘Knocknagow’ […], and ‘When Love Came to Gavin Burke’ is also a seven-part film that takes hours to screen.” Galway’s Town Hall was having a season of the work of FCOI, the epic Knocknagow having screened for the first three days of that week, When Love Came to Gavin Burke for the latter three and Rafferty’s Rise at the weekend. While Knocknagow and Rafferty’s Rise have been treated in some detail here already, When Love Came to Gavin Burke is in some ways a more obscure film, particularly in regards to when it was released and how widely it was shown in Ireland. It is also lost, like all FCOI’s feature films apart from Knocknagow, Willy Reilly and His Colleen Bawn (1920) and one reel of the two-reel comedy Paying the Rent (1920). This post will try to draw together some of the surviving information to try to establish when love actually came to Gavin Burke.

This Irish Limelight article from June 1916 refers to the shooting of When Love Came to Gavin Burke.

Some of these bits of information suggest that When Love Came to Gavin Burke was not so obscure in 1917-18. It was certainly well known to readers of the December 1917 issue of the Irish Limelight who could have read a detailed plot summary of the film. We’ll return to it shortly, but even more intriguingly, the only extant account of FCOI actually shooting a film on location undoubtedly refers to the production of Gavin Burke. This two page article in the June 1917 Limelight offers a unique glimpse of FCOI at work, with text by the Evening Telegraph’s critic JAP and four illustrations: a large photograph and three Frank Leah caricatures.

When Love Came to Gavin Burke was announced on the cover of the June 1917 Irish Limelight.

Beyond these two substantial articles, very few other details of the film’s production and exhibition are extant. Unsurprisingly then, the standard reference work on Irish cinema is a little vague on when exactly Gavin Burke was released. Kevin Rockett’s Irish Filmography and its online version put the film’s Irish premiere at an unspecified date in December 1917. This is plausible: it tallies with the Freeman’s Journal article, which implied that it would have its run before Knocknagow, stating that “[a]s soon as this drama [Gavin Burke] completes its run in Dublin they will be ready with their super-film, ‘Knocknagow’” (“Picture House Novelties”). It also corresponds with the publication of the film’s synopsis in the Limelight’s December 1917 issue.

Ad for what may be the first public screenings of “the most remarkable of all Irish films” at Limerick’s Gaiety, Limerick Chronicle 13 Apr. 1918: 3.

But no evidence appears to exist that it was actually shown in late 1917. Perhaps appropriately for a tale of love postponed, the film appears to have been held over until summer 1918. The first extant newspaper ads or notices related to screenings of the film date between April and December 1918 in Limerick (Gaiety: 18-20 April), Galway (Town Hall: 25-27 April), Dublin (Pillar: 24-26 June; Rotunda: 9-11 September; Sandford: 23-25 September) and Derry (St Columb’s Hall: 19-21 December). On the available evidence, the run at Limerick’s Gaiety was when the public first saw the film. However, the Limerick press paid the film scant attention. Gavin Burke seems to have received little love from Limerick’s popular audience. This was also the case for the other venues; just the already discussed Galway notice provides anything beyond the barest details. Even the film’s length is not consistent between the surviving sources, with an ad on the cover of the June 1917 Limelight putting it at four reels, the Derry Journal mentioning “five acts,” the Freeman’s Journal calculating six reels, and the Galway Express estimating seven reels. That would put the running time of the film at anything between about 67 minutes for four reels and 120 for seven, assuming the unlikely scenario that the film was projected at a consistent or average 16 frames a second.

Extended synopses in Irish Limelight Dec. 1917.

If the synopsis in the Limelight is anything to go by, the narrative included enough twists and turns to fill two hours. As a phenomenon, the extended narrative synopsis was an established genre of film trade journalism, and the Limelight carried a number of them in each issue. For example, the page before the Gavin Burke article carried a synopsis of Rasputin (US: World Brady, 1917) and the page after it offered a synopsis of Treason (US: Universal, 1917). What distinguished these films from Gavin Burke, apart from the fact that they were American productions, is that they had already been booked to play at one of Dublin’s major cinemas, and this was mentioned alongside the synopsis to publicize the upcoming run. FCOI appears to have had no bookings of Gavin Burke to publicize in December 1917.

These actresses played different stages of Grace’s life in When Love Came to Gavin Burke; Irish Limelight Dec. 1917: 7.

Fred O’Donovan directed and starred in Gavin Burke, supported by such familiar members of the FCOI stock company as Brian Magowan, Nora Clancy, Queenie Coleman and Valentine Roberts, as well as the less familiar Stephen Gould and the child actress Oonah Halpin. To synopsize the synopsis, the film is set on the banks of the Liffey in the late 19th century and tells the story of poor farmer Gavin Burke (O’Donovan) who becomes embittered when his sweetheart Kate (Clancy) rejects him for a comfortably off hotel owner (Gould). The hotel owner turns out to be a drunken wastrel who is accidentally killed while bringing their sick daughter Grace (Halpin) to the doctor, and the girl is taken in by Burke, who had parleyed his bitterness into material wealth but is nevertheless charmed by Grace. He makes a deal with Kate that he will raise Grace as his own daughter provided the now impoverished Kate never sees her again. Time passes and a mature Grace (Coleman) faces a similar choice to her mother but unlike Kate, chooses Jack Devine (Magowan), the poor man she loves, rather than Tom Ryan (Roberts), the man who seems to offer material comfort. Burke dispenses words of wisdom when the rivalry leads Ryan to unsuccessfully attempt to kill Devine, gives his wealth to Grace at her wedding, and has his offer of his love accepted by Kate despite the fact that he has voluntarily returned himself to the poverty of his younger days.

Two points seem noteworthy about the way the film negotiates familiar elements of the romance. The first is the way in which women are seemingly offered agency in their ability to make choices in their romantic relationships but that these choices are illusory because the choice of following one’s heart is always right. The second is the way in which the right choice is linked to a rejection of material comfort in favour of the frugal life of the small farmer. Neither of these points makes the film particularly Irish; indeed, Gavin Burke seems to owe as much to Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff as to the peasant plays of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre with which the director and cast were familiar. Again, it is to be expected that a romantic drama would raise issues of gender and class, but the lack of more information on the film’s exhibition hinders a more specific reading of it in relation to struggles over women’s role in Irish society and/or the ideological investment in an ascetic rural life.

Frank Leah’s caricature of Robert Justice operating the camera for Gavin Burke; Limelight Jun 1917: 10-11.

The paucity of exhibition details is disappointing, but JAP’s Limelight article on Gavin Burke does allow us to say something more about FCOI’s filmmaking procedures. It too, however, is written as a humorous account of a day’s motoring excursion with a group of friends rather than a more informative, if less entertaining, documenting of what he saw. Much of the humour is at the expense of the “Artist Person,” presumably Frank Leah, who provided the accompanying caricatures. The only member of the party named is “friend Haigh,” presumably photographer Charlie Haigh, who was the Irish manager for the Triangle Film Company and may have been responsible for the poorly reproduced photograph that accompanied the article. Leah’s caricatures are informative at least in indicating that Robert Justice was the cinematographer; other details of the production team are lacking, especially the identity of the scriptwriter. The actual filming location that JAP’s party drove to is not made clear; he reveals only that their journey ends “fifteen miles from everywhere” at as an old-fashioned house with an ancient summer house.

Leah’s caricature of a love scene between Brian Magowan and Kathleen Murphy; Limelight Jun 1917: 10.

In the summer house, he spies

Miss Kathleen Murphy, dark-haired, tragic-eyed, gazing fondly up into the honest open countenance of Brian Magowan, and […] the gallant youth gazing lovingly down into the star-like orbs of la petite brunette. Even as we interlopers looked upon the scene their faces approached together, their lips—

Apparently I was the only person present possessing the instincts of a gentlemen.

“We are intruding,” said I, “let us retire quickly and quietly before we are observed.”

But the Artist Person, with a coarse laugh, produced a section of millboard and a pencil, and proceeded to rapidly sketch the affecting tableau upon which we had stumbled so suddenly.

Leah’s caricature of Fred O’Donovan directing ; Limelight Jun 1917: 11.

This, of course, turns out to be scene from the film FCOI are shooting, with Fred O’Donovan directing. “‘Place you hand upon her shoulder, Brian. Put your right hand on his shoulder, Miss Murphy. Now kiss – a good long one.’” This scene may not, however, be from Gavin Burke. Kathleen Murphy is not mentioned in the cast listing for the film in the Limelight synopsis, where Magowan’s Jack Devine should be romantically paired with Coleman’s mature Grace. As such, it may be from an unknown subplot of the film or from a different and unfinished film, which would be a shame because “[t]hey had to go through that touching scene three times before Fred O’Donovan was satisfied. I never saw a man with such particular notions about love-making.”

Other scenes he mentions seem to be more clearly from Gavin Burke. A “most realistic and lady-like dispute” between Nora Clancy and Queenie Coleman, does seem to match the casting of the film, where these women played Kate and her grown-up daughter, respectively. And a lengthy anecdote about Magowan and Valentine Grant being swept away by the Liffey as they filmed a fight scene throw light on how Grant’s Tom Ryan attempted to kill Magowan’s Devine. JAP finished on a more serious note, praising the progress FCOI had made in the bare year since the company was founded. “These Irish Players have completely got the hand of the business by now,” he contended. “When you consider that they practically had to teach themselves the business, the progress they have made is really marvellous.”

However, another year on as Gavin Burke was released in the summer of 1918, it was not at all certain as JAP claimed, that FCOI’s films “can compete with the very best films produced in Great Britain.” Even in its home market, Gavin Burke seems to have received very little love.

References

JAP. “With the Film Co. of Ireland:  A Day with the Producers.” Irish Limelight Jun. 1917: 10-11.

“Picture House Novelties: New Productions of Film Company of Ireland.” Freeman’s Journal 12 Nov. 1917: 4.

Rockett, Kevin. The Irish Filmography. Dublin: Red Mountain, 1996.

“When Love Came to Gavin Burke.” Irish Limelight Dec. 1917: 6-7.

“A Photo-Play of Unique National Interest”: Seeing Knocknagow in Irish Cinemas, January-April 1918

On 22 April 1918, Knocknagow  (Ireland: FCOI, 1918) opened at Dublin’s Empire Theatre after a tour of many of Ireland’s towns and cities.

Ad for Knocknagow in the Irish Limelight Feb. 1918: 10-11.

In inviting Irish exhibitors to the trade show of the long-awaited Knocknagow on 6 February 1918 at Dublin’s Sackville Street Picture House, the Film Company of Ireland (FCOI) described the film as “a photo-play of unique national interest.” Knocknagow would become the most significant film made in Ireland during the silent period. Appearing just over two months after the three-reel comedy Rafferty’s Rise, Knocknagow was very different from anything FCOI had yet released. An epic nine-reel (8,700-feet or 2 hours 25 minutes at 16fps) adaptation of the best-selling Irish novel of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Knocknagow was by far the FCOI’s most ambitious work to date. Part of the national interest of the film may have been in making accessible a novel that some critics have argued was very widely bought but very little read (Donovan). Indeed, when in August 1917 the film was announced and a stage adaptation was proving popular, the Evening Herald’s Man About Town wondered “what the opinion of the author of Knocknagow would be if he saw his novel on the cinema screen, or its dramatized version drawing crowded houses in the theatres throughout the country.”

Tailor Phil Lahy (Arthur Shields) fits out Mat the Thrasher (Brian Magowan) for a new coat in Knocknagow. Image and essays on the film available here.

One of the things he would likely have thought is that the film was very selective in what it took from the novel. “The story meanders along through over six hundred pages its placidity disturbed by very little of what the playwright dubs ‘action,’” the Evening Telegraph critic JAP noted of the novel in his review of the trade show.

To extract from the [novel’s] 600 pages enough incidents for a photoplay – which, above all things, must have virile action, – and to contrive that there should be sufficient continuity to sustain interest throughout a half-dozen reels, was a task to daunt the most expert scenario writer. (“Gossip of the Day.”)

Although impressed by the film in other ways, particularly the acting, JAP did not seem to think that the scenario attributed to Mrs. N. T. Patton had been particularly successful in delivering virile action. Indeed, two weeks later, although no long referring to Knocknagow, he argued that “the best books should not be filmed. To turn a book into a photo-play must be always an unsatisfactory business” (27 Feb.). However, in the trade-show review, he advised that “the action could be brisked up by sub-editing it down from eight reels to six, the sub-titles would be improved by more frequent quotations from the book and better choice of incidents would have helped to get more of the ‘atmosphere.’”

J.M. Carre as the villainous land agent Beresford Pender.

The version of Knocknagow that survives today is about an hour shorter than the original cut. As a result, it is difficult to say exactly what Irish audiences saw in early 1918, but a general description probably captures many of its essential features. Set in 1848, the film concerns the relationships among a large cast of characters who live on or adjacent to the lands of the absentee landlord Sir Garrett Butler, particularly in the village of Kilthubber and the hamlet of Knocknagow. Prominent among these are Mat “the Thrasher” Donovan (Brian Magowan); the tailor Phil Lahy (Arthur Shields), whose sickly daughter Nora (Kathleen Murphy) is betrothed to turfman Billy Heffernan (Breffni O’Rourke); large tenant farmer Maurice Kearney (Dermot O’Dowd) whose daughter Mary Kearney (Nora Clancy) is attracted to theology student Arthur O’Connor (Fred O’Donovan, who also directed); and villainous land agent Beresford Pender (J.M. Carre), who schemes to remove tenants from the land to make way for more lucrative cattle grazing. The film interweaves scenes of rural work and leisure (ploughing, tailoring, Christmas celebrations, a wedding, a hurling match, a fair) with more strongly plotted sequences, such as the developing love stories or Pender’s strategies to evict certain tenants and frame Mat for robbery. “With a true appreciation of the artistic,” the reviewer in Cavan’s Anglo-Celt contended

the various degrees of tone have been lifted from the novel, and placed on the screen just as Kickham would have done it himself. The happy peasantry, the prowess of the youth at the hurling match, the hammer-throwing contest, the unexpected “hunt,” the love scenes and the comedy – the life as it was before the agent of the absentee landlord came like a dark shadow on the scene, and with crowbar and torch, laid sweet Knocknagow in ruins – all were depicted by the very perfect actors who made up the cast. (“‘Knocknagow’ on the Film.”)

Pender’s eviction of the Brians, a farm labouring family, is depicted in detail, with titles superimposed on the images of the land agent dancing before their burning cottage.

Apart from transposing a bestselling Irish novel into an accessible screen format, two other definitions of “national interest” seem to be particularly relevant to thinking about the release of Knocknagow in early 1918: the commitment to local exhibition and the politics of Irish nationalism. The first of these is illustrated by the fact that the trade show had, unusually, followed rather than preceded a special premiere run in Clonmel from 30 January to 2 February, and the film’s first run after the trade show would not be in the cities of Dublin or Belfast but in Carlow on 18-19 February. The Clonmel opening was designed to acknowledge that the film had been shot almost entirely in the Tipperary locations of Clonmel and Mullinahone associated with Kickham’s source novel. However, given that audiences not only in Clonmel and Carlow but in many other small towns saw the film before it opened to the public in Dublin on 22 April underscores FCOI’s commitment to a definition of national interest that associated it first and foremost with small-town Ireland.

The importance of the Tipperary landscape is emphasized at several points of the film, including a sequence of iris shots in which Mat says farewell to Ireland as he makes ready to emigrate.

Other aspects of the exhibition of Knocknagow deserve discussion, but the 22 April opening date of the film in Dublin also marked a turning point in Irish national politics. That day was flanked by two days of demonstrations against the conscription of Irish men into the British army. Sunday, 21 April represented a particular Catholic church influenced protest, with mass meeting and fiery speeches in every parish in the country, while Tuesday, 23 April was the day chosen by trade unions for a general strike that meant, among other things, that “there were neither newspapers nor cinema shows” during a “universal cessation of work throughout Nationalist Ireland” (“Labour’s Protest”). The British government’s determination to extend conscription to Ireland would finally succeed in uniting the warring factions of Irish nationalism against it.

Newsreel special of the by-election in South Armagh, Dublin Evening Mail 4 Feb 1918: 2.

This turning point of the conscription crisis came after the film’s release in much of the country, however, and it was in a political context of the rise of Sinn Féin that the film was produced and initially exhibited. In late 1917 and early 1918, the long stable link between the achievement of nationhood and the Home Rule of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) was severely under threat from the vision of a more radical independence offered in the wake of the 1916 Rising by the new Sinn Féin party. The set pieces of this struggle from the time Knocknagow began shooting in Tipperary in the early summer of 1917 and through the period of its exhibition in late winter and spring 1918 were a series of six by-elections in which Sinn Féin ran candidates in constituencies where the IPP had previously held Westminster seats, winning three of them. After losing four seats in all to Sinn Féin in 1917, the IPP may have seemed to be regaining the momentum by winning the three by-elections in early 1918, but one of these included the Waterford seat left vacant by the death on 6 March of the man most associated with Home Rule, IPP leader John Redmond. Cinema audiences could follow these developments through the newsreel footage of the by-elections and Redmond’s funeral provided by Irish Events and exhibitors such as William Kay of Dublin’s Rotunda who filmed these events.

General Film Supply sought sales of its film of the Funeral of the Late John Redmond, M.P. beyond its usual Irish Events network by placing this ad with the entertainment ads in the Evening Telegraph of 11-12 Mar. 1918.

As well as these party-political events, Knocknagow was released in a country that was experiencing increasing incidents of local unrest of many kinds, with a large number of prosecutions for cattle driving and for illegal drilling by Irish Volunteers, as well as a hunger strike by Sinn Féin prisoners in Mountjoy Jail. In early March, County Clare was placed under martial law, and Major-General W. Fry issued a proclamation “prohibiting the holding of any meeting or procession within the Dublin Metropolitan Police Area between March 6 and March 27,” a period that included St. Patrick’s Day (“Proclamation”). In one high-profile case, men arrested for illegal drilling in Dundalk refused to recognize the court and sang “The Soldier’s Song” to disrupt proceedings. This tactic became so common that one defendant (Michael Murray) in a Clare cattle-driving case refused to recognize “this concert” (“Court Scene”). However, when during the Dundalk case, a variety company sang the same “Sinn Féin” songs at one of the local picture house, a section of the audience left in protest (“Round Up”). More seriously, members of an audience at Limerick’s Tivoli Picture House on 4 March became victims of violence when 15 to 18 soldiers who had been involved in running battles with young men in the street burst into the auditorium and attacked the crowded audience at random with sticks and truncheons, injuring many, including the musical director (“Soldiers & People in Conflict”).

Mat leads the Knocknagow hurling team for a match that the Derry Journal reviewer thought was “a topsy-turvey affair, resembling a rugby scramble more than a game of caman” (“‘Knock-na-Gow’ at the Opera House”). Some more on that aspect of the film here.

In these circumstances in which, it seems, politics could irrupt into the auditorium at any moment, Knocknagow looks like quite an indirect, even tame intervention. The FCOI’s choice of Kickham’s novel as the basis for its first landmark film seems, on the one hand, an overtly nationalist statement: its author was a former president of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and one of the best known Irish revolutionaries of the latter half of the nineteenth century. On the other hand, the nature of the book – rich in detail of Irish country life in the 1840s but also sprawling and sentimental rather than overtly political – was such that it could be adapted without courting political controversy. As such, the film contrasts with the films made in Ireland between 1910 and 1914 by US filmmakers Sidney Olcott and Gene Gauntier for Kalem and subsequently their own production companies, some of which openly feature armed political rebellion against Britain, albeit that these films are also set in the past.

ArthurO’Connor and Mary Kearney pursue their romance.

This is not to argue that FCOI was politically conservative but that the company had to negotiate strict censorship. The attempt to show Ireland a Nation (US: Macnamara, 1914) in Dublin in January 1917 or even the more recent controversy over the potential banning of the Finn Varra Maa pantomime had shown that to have produced a film that the authorities judged to have been overtly nationalistic would undoubtedly have been to see the film immediately banned under the particularly strict wartime censorship provisions of the Defence Against the Realm Act. Apart from anything else, the banning of Knocknagow would have been a financial disaster for the already struggling FCOI.

Scenario competition in Irish Limelight Dec 1917: 11.

In this context, Kickham’s work took on a renewed importance in its ability to subtly re-articulate a familiar set of representations in a political way through its association with the author’s republicanism. Despite its setting in the mid-19th century, Knocknagow still resonated with Irish audiences, as the popularity of the stage adaptation shows. And 1918 would be the year of Kickham film adaptations: with a similar setting in time and place, Kickham’s other major novel Sally Cavanagh would be adapted by J. A. McDonald for a scenario competition run by the Irish Limelight in early 1918. Given that Knocknagow’s director Fred O’Donovan joined Limelight editor Jack Warren in judging the competition, it is perhaps not surprising that McDonald’s scenario, Untenanted Graves, won, but its seems never to have been produced (“Untenanted Graves”).

Films made in Ireland by US filmmakers Sidney Olcott and Gene Gauntier for Kalem dominated this list of Irish films available to Irish exhibitors through Dublin-based General Film Supply; Irish Limelight Dec. 1917: 18.

As the Kickham film that was made, Knocknagow in itself, and in the company’s rhetoric around it, emphasized its embeddedness in particular Irish locations that were different from the ones popularized by previous, foreign filmmakers in Ireland, especially the Killarney of the enduringly popular Olcott-Gauntier films. Unlike Olcott and Gauntier, the FCOI filmmakers were – predominantly – Irish born, and the company was based in Dublin. In keeping with this rhetoric, local exhibition was of more than usual importance to Knocknagow. FCOI had opened previous films in regional picture houses, despite the claim by the Dame Street Picture Theatre in Dublin that all the company’s productions could be seen there first. But for Knocknagow, regional exhibition was a part of its national significance.

Ad for premiere of Knocknagow at Magner’s Theatre, Clonmel; Nationalist 26 Jan. 1918: 6.

Indeed, successful regional exhibition in Ireland was to be part of the promotion of the film with audiences and exhibitors abroad. On 13 April, while Knocknagow was showing in Derry, Dublin’s Evening Herald published a brief interview from its drama critic Jacques with FCOI producer James Mark Sullivan. Sullivan was on the cusp of bringing the FCOI films to America (on the film in America, see here and here), and Jacques quoted him on the company’s intentions:

“We desire,” he says, “to show Ireland sympathetically; to get away from the clay pipe and the knee breeches; to show Ireland’s rural life, with pride in the same; to show Ireland’s metropolitan life intelligently, depicting the men and women of the 20th century – in short, Ireland at its best in every walk of human endeavour.”

This may have been his desire but if it had any basis in a reality beyond advertising rhetoric, it must have referred to the earlier FCOI films and not Knocknagow. Knocknagow persisted in representing the Irish of the mid-19th century and doing so in familiar ways, including costumed in knee breeches. In addition, Sullivan made specific claims about the way that Knocknagow was being welcomed in Ireland “like no other picture was ever received in Ireland or out of Ireland before. From every place where it has once been shown,” he contended,

we are receiving return bookings—a remarkable thing in the case of a picture, though very ordinary in that of a play or opera. For instance, the city of Limerick gave us four bookings, and I question if any other picture every received over two. The same is true of Waterford, Clonmel, Cork, Carlow, and other towns. This week we are breaking all records in Waterford. I mention these facts to indicate that there is prospect of promise and permanency in our enterprise.

The ad for Knocknagow at Derry’s Opera House was dwarfed by an ad for the opening of the city’s newest picture house, the Rialto, on 29 April. Derry Journal 12 Apr. 1918: 2.

Although the surviving evidence in Ireland’s regional newspapers does not quite support Sullivan’s attempts to boost Knocknagow in advance of its Dublin opening, the film had been shown – or in the case of Limerick, was about to be shown – in the towns he named. To clarify, before its week-long run at the Empire Theatre in Dublin (22-27 Apr.), the film was shown at Magner’s Theatre in Clonmel (30 Jan.-2 Feb.), the Sackville Picture Theatre in Dublin (trade show, 6 Feb.), the Cinema Palace in Carlow (18-19 Feb.), the Town Hall Cinema in Cavan (25-27 Feb.), the Cinema in Kilkenny (6-7 Mar.), the Opera House in Cork (18-23 Mar.), the Coliseum in Waterford (1-6 Apr.), the Opera House in Derry (8-13 Apr.), the Empire Theatre in Belfast (15-20 Apr.), the Shannon Cinema in Limerick (15-17 Apr.) the Picturedrome in Tralee (18-20 Apr.) and the Town Hall in Galway (22-24 Apr.).

Anglo-Celt 23 Feb. 1918: 7.

A survey of the reception of Knocknagow in the run up to the Dublin opening has shown something of the way in which the film resonated with audiences around the country. It makes clear that the film was certainly popular with Irish cinemagoers, with local critics consistently praising its fidelity to Kickham’s novel, the quality of the acting and the beauty of the Tipperary scenery. However, few reviews mentioned the film’s contemporary political relevance. Indeed, some suggested that audiences abroad would be particularly impressed by the film, including the Anglo-Celt‘s reviewer, who subtitled his/her notice “A Picture Play that Will Create a Furore in America” (“‘Knocknagow’ on the Film”).

Despite such potentially politically sensitive scenes as the eviction, this was probably due to the fact that such events were depicted in the past, safely distanced, with Cork Evening Echo emphasizing that the film would attract “all those who take an interest in the economic and social development which has taken place in this country during the past two generations” (“Opera House”). These events had happened “many years ago” even for those such as the Evening Herald’s Jacques, for whom the film vividly recalled personal memories of “the cabin doors broken and the furniture flung out, and the poor half-dressed occupants lying on the roadside amid the wreckage of their home.”

An illustrated intertitle introduces the eviction scene, emphasizing its importance.

It was only really in Galway that a critic saw the film’s immediate political relevance by arguing that it

pointed a topical moral at the present time. We saw the evictions, the crowbar brigades, the burnings, the landlord oppression of 70 years ago, the attempt to wipe out a race. Such memories – only of the other day – as it revived scarcely accommodated the mind of the beholder to the nation of conscription. (“Town Hall.”)

By the time this reviewer was writing on or about 26 April, conscription had become the politically unifying issue for nationalists that it had not been earlier in Knocknagow’s run.

While FCOI could not have foreseen such events, the company enhanced its connection to the local audience in many of the places Knocknagow was shown by having members of the cast sing at screenings. This was a unique feature of the film’s exhibition in Ireland. Film actors had on rare occasions attended screenings of their films, but they did not contribute to the events’ live music. Brian Magowan, the film’s main star and an actor familiar with musical theatre, appeared most often, regularly accompanied by fellow cast member Breffni O’Rourke. This was not Magowan’s first vocal accompaniment of a FCOI film; he had sung at the premiere of the company’s first film, O’Neill of the Glen. In the case of Knocknagow, however, the FCOI gave this feature special prominence by having Magowan and O’Rourke, dressed in character, sing folk songs connected with the film. Although they did not appear at every venue where the film was shown, and of course, they could not have when the film was showing simultaneously in geographically remote locations, Magowan’s and O’Rourke’s live appearances were regular features of the first run of the film in Ireland.

While ploughing a field with a view of Slievenamon (mountain), Mat pauses to sing “The Farmer’s Boy,” with an intertitle helpfully providing musical notation and the song’s refrain.

Their earliest appearance seems to have been in Cavan, where the Anglo-Celt reported that “[a]n interesting feature of the entertainment was that Mr. J. McGowan, who, as ‘Mat the Thrasher’ was the hero on the film, appeared each evening in the flesh and sang some old Irish ballads in very charming voice, while Mr. Breffni O’Rourke (‘Bill Heffenan’ in the play) gave some traditional Irish lays and witty stories” (“‘Knocknagow’ on the Film”). Magowan most important contribution was “Slievenamon,” a song about the Tipperary mountain whose lyrics Kickham had composed. The centrality of this song to the FCOI’s conception of the ideal accompaniment of the film is underlined by the reproduction of Magowan’s arrangement of the song for voice and piano that was included in a programme for a later (probably 1919) run of the film (NLI).

The film has many musical scenes, including this one in which Billy Heffernan plays the flute while the Lahys dance.

The reviews are unclear on whether they sang before, after or during the projection of the film, but the film itself includes moments that motivate vocal accompaniment. In an early scene of the film, Mat is introduced by an intertitle and then shown ploughing a field in long shot. In a mid-shot, he turns around to the camera, and an intertitle appears with a musical stave and the refrain from the folk song “The Farmer’s Boy.” The cut back to Mat shows him singing animatedly before he returns to his ploughing in the shadow of Slievenamon. These on-screen cue might provide the place for Magowan to sing or they might encourage the audience to sing these popular tunes. A similar series of shots occurs later when tailor Phil Lahy sings “The Black Horse,” whose opening lines are printed on an intertitle.

Made and released during a fraught historical moment, Knocknagow sought to engage its audiences with a bestselling literary text and popular songs and involve them in the process of readjusting the representation of the Irish on screen.

References

“Court Scene: Clare Cattle Drivers Refuse to Recognise ‘this Concert.’” Dublin Evening Mail 16 Mar. 1918: 3.

Donovan, Stephen. “Introduction: Ireland’s Own Film.” Screening the Past 33 (2012). Available at <http://www.screeningthepast.com/2012/02/introduction-ireland%E2%80%99s-own-film/&gt;

Jacques. “Knocknagow Filmed: Wonderful Irish Picture of Storied Incident.” Irish Limelight Apr. 1918: 5.

JAP. “Gossip of the Day: Film Version of Kickham’s Most Famous Novel.” Evening Telegraph 7 Feb. 1918: 2.

—. “Gossip of the Day: The Present Fashion in Films.” Evening Telegraph 27 Feb. 1918: 2.

“‘Knock-Na-Gow’ at the Opera House.” Derry Journal 10 Apr. 1918: 4.

“‘Knocknagow’ on the Film: A Picture Play that Will Create a Furore in America.” Anglo-Celt 2 Mar. 1918: 6.

“Labour’s Protest.” Freeman’s Journal 24 Apr. 1918: 2.

The Man About Town. “Thing Seen and Heard.” Evening Herald 22 Aug. 1917: 2; 9 Mar. 1918: 2.

NLI (National Library of Ireland). MS 50,000/272/82, Liam O’Leary Archive. Programme for Knocknagow, n.d.

“Opera House.” Evening Echo 14 Mar. 1918: 2.

“Proclamation: Processions Forbidden for the Next Three Weeks in the Dublin Area.” Dublin Evening Mail 7 Mar. 1918: 3.

“A Round Up: Many Volunteers Arrested.” Evening Telegraph 12 Mar. 1918: 3.

“Soldiers & People in Conflict: Scenes in Limerick.” Irish Independent 6 Mar. 1918: 3.

“Town Hall.” Galway Express 27 Apr. 1918: 4.

“The Untenanted Graves.” Irish Limelight Apr. 1918: 13.

Censoring the Fairies: Finn Varra Maa, the Irish Santa Claus and the Military Authorities in January 1918

It’s that time of year, so Early Irish Cinema takes a trip to the theatre to experience an Irish Christmas pantomime.

Woods Leah ET 12 Jan 1918

Frank Leah’s caricature of Assistant Provost Marshal Captain William Woods, Evening Telegraph 12 Jan. 1918: 5.

On the evening of Tuesday, 8 January 1918, Captain William A. Woods, assistant Provost Marshal of the Dublin garrison, complained to Theatre Royal manager J.H. Hamilton about Finn Varra Maa, the Irish fairy pantomime that had been playing matinees at the theatre since 26 December. Woods told Hamilton that the play contained passages he understood – apparently not having seen it – were insulting to the RIC and detrimental to recruiting and these must be removed. As a senior figure in the military establishment, Woods’s powers to censor theatrical productions had been considerably enhanced by such wartime measure as the Defence against the Realm Act, or Dora. Hamilton replied that he had nothing to do with the play beyond leasing the theatre to the independent production company who were putting it on, but he nevertheless undertook to tell the producers that the offending lines had to be removed. It would become a case of what the Freeman’s Journal called “Censoring the Fairies.”

TH Nally ET 29 Dec 1917

Frank Leah’s caricature of playwright Thomas Nally, Evening Telegraph 29 Dec. 1917: 4.

Dublin theatregoers then as now were well used to the Christmas pantomime season. At this time, the stages of the city’s theatres and halls would be dominated by large casts singing and dancing, elaborate sets and costumes, and scripts based on folktales, often with a fantastical element, but also containing comic interludes referring to events of the day. In 1917-18, the professional theatres offered Cinderella (Gaiety), Little Boy Blue (Empire) and Little Jack Horner (Queen’s). At the city’s other multi-use halls, productions were even more numerous, with companies presenting Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp at the Father Mathew Hall, Red Riding Hood at the CYMS Hall, Robinson Crusoe at the Pioneer Hall and Mother Hubbard at St. Teresa’s Hall.

Mildred Telford ET 5 Jan 1918p4

Mildred Telford played the part of the girl Befind MacHugh in Finn Varra Maa; Evening Telegraph 5 Jan. 1918: 4.

Finn Varra Maa differ from all these in one crucial respect: it was – or claimed to be – the first wholly Irish pantomime. “Written by a Dublin man [Thomas Nally], with music by a Irish composer [Geoffrey Molyneaux-Palmer] and presented by a company all Dublin from the tiniest tot who romps in Kyle-na-Sheeogue [Wood of the Fairies] to the mature artistes who rule in royal grandeur in Fairyland,” enthused the Irish Independent’s theatre critic Jacques, “this beautiful play marks the high-water mark of native artistic endeavour in the music and dramatic revival in Ireland” (“Beautiful Fairy Play”). It was loosely based on the legends of Finn McCool, played by Breffni O’Rourke, recently seen on screen in the Film Company of Ireland’s Rafferty’s Rise (Ireland: FCOI, 1917). O’Rourke led Finn Varra Maa’s large cast that included 100 children. Its title referred to Finn as “the old Irish equivalent of ‘Santa Claus’ – long before that gentleman was heard of in this country” (“Finn Varra Maa” 22 Dec.). The fairy world was connected to the human world through a storyline in which the young girl Befind MacHugh (Mildred Telford) was abducted by the fairies, and 12-year-old Padhar Bawn (Gerald Rock) decides to rescue her.

Ireby Cape ET 3 Jan 1918p4

Frank Leah’s caricature of Finn Varra Maa producer T. Ireby Cape, Evening Telegraph 3 Jan. 1918: 4.

If the authorities would become concerned about representation of the police and the military, the producers, led by British impresario T. Ireby Cape were initially more worried that a play based in pre-Christian Ireland would be condemned by the clergy at this religious time of year. To forestall this, they invited clergy from around the country to the dress rehearsal on Christmas Eve to assure them that the show was not indulging too deeply in paganism. In the play, the audience was guided in how to correctly interpret events by the Irish vocalist T. O’Carroll Reynolds who played the allegorical part of Tradition. “Finn died an unrepenting Pagan,” the Freeman explained,

but, in view of his many virtues, was according to ‘Tradition,” as represented on the stage merely condemned to an indefinite period of existence in fairyland. The play shows him as King of Fairyland warring with Aobhill, the deposed Fairy Queen who typifies the spirit of Evil.

Ad announcing that Fred O’Donovan was replacing Dermot O’Dowd in Finn Varra Maa’s key role of Caoilte; Dublin Evening Mail 2 Jan. 1918: 2.

“A Dublin Priest” reviewing the opening day pointed out that this battle between good and evil was Christianized by the fact that Finn was not the play’s only – or even main – heroic characters. He was rescued from Fairyland by his kinsman, the Christian knight Caoilte MacRonain, played by Dermott O’Dowd. When Ireby Cape was recalled to London and O’Dowd had to focus on stage managing Finn Varra Maa, Abbey Theatre manager Fred O’Donovan replaced him on stage in the role of Caoilte. These development coincided with – but seem to have been unconnected to – William Woods’s attempts to censor the play.

Finn Varra Maa censored II 10 Jan 1918p2

Ad announcing the censoring of Finn Varra Maa following Woods’s intervention; Freeman’s Journal 10 Jan. 1918: 2.

The producers appear to have negotiated potential difficulties with the legendary elements of the play successfully at Christmas, but William Woods was more concerned with the depiction of current events. In particular he targeted what several papers called the “low comedy” provided by a country policeman (Bryan Herbert) and the bailiff Sheumas Pat (J.P. MacCormac). Although issues of class and respectability were bound up in the phrase, the use of the word “low” was meant not as a value judgement but descriptively, contrasting this kind of laugh-out-loud knockabout comedy with, for instance, the “quaintly humorous” songs of O’Carroll Reynolds (“Dublin Priest”).

Finn Varra Maa 3 FJ 11 Jan 1918p4

In the wake of the controversy, newspapers published the censored lines. Freeman’s Journal 11 Jan. 1918: 4.

The Finn Varra Maa lines that Woods found offensive concerned the conscription of the play’s RIC constable into the British Army to fight in France. “You’re in the Force, God help you Keogh,” Bailiff Sheumas Pat tell him, “And you’ll be bound some day to go. / They want to let the Germans see / Our sable-belted R.I.C.”  When Constable Keogh protests his dislike of killing, Sheumas Pat replies: “’Twould be a dreadful sight to see, / ’Tis riddled like a sieve you’ll be, / Just lying in a heap out there, / Without a mother’s son to care.” On the 9 January, the actors playing Keogh and Sheumas Pat avoided the Assistant Provost Marshal’s wrath by substituted for this speech lines that began with Keogh warning Sheumas Pat: “Stop! Not a word about the war.” Sheumas Pat replies: “Now, what on earth am I to say? / The Censor’s cut my lines to-day.” Keogh answers: “The Provost Marshal says, ‘Curtail! / Your next four speeches, or in jail / You’ll soon be lodged, on my advice.’” Sheumas Pat inquires in conclusion: “Is this the work of Major Price?” (“Censoring the Fairies”).

Finn Varra Maa censored EH 11 Jan 1918p2

A day after the censorship was announced, it was withdrawn; Evening Herald 11 Jan. 1918: 2.

The answer to this last question is “no.” Woods was apparently acting beyond his authority in calling for the play to be censored, as his superior, Provost Marshal Major Ivon H. Price, made clear in a press statement. “[A] mere verbal order would not be sufficient,” Price pointed out, “and the Provost Marshal would have no power to make any such order” (“Finn Varra Maa” 11 Jan.). Price went further than this in distancing himself from Woods’s actions, assuring the Freeman’s Journal that “members of his family had gone to see ‘Finn Varra Maa,’ and had found it highly amusing and entertaining, and he hoped to have the pleasure of seeing it himself.” The nationalist press enjoyed Woods’s humiliation. “The Finn Varra Maa revelations – that word is not too strong? – caused amusement yesterday,” J.H.C. observed in the Irish Independent’s “To-Day & Yesterday” column. “Self-importance does not always keep within the limits of self-control.”

Overall, this was a minor incident that probably served more than anything else to generate publicity for the pantomime as it entered its last week of production. But it was an early indication from the field of popular culture about thr direction from which Irish public resistance to conscription would come.

References

“Beautiful Fairy Play.” Irish Independent 27 Dec.1917: 2.

“Censoring the Fairies: Funny Men’s Quaint Substitute for Deleted Lines.” Freeman’s Journal 10 Jan. 1918: 2.

“Christmas Week Amusements: Cead Mile Failte for Irish Pantomime.” Evening Telegraph 27 Dec. 1917: 3.

A Dublin Priest. “Finn Varra Maa: First Performances.” Freeman’s Journal 27 Dec. 1917: 6.

“Finn Varra Maa: Irish Fairy Pantomime at the Theatre Royal.” Freeman’s Journal 22 Dec. 1917: 7.

“Finn Varra Maa: Censorship Denied by Authorities: Funny State in Fairyland.” Evening Herald 10 Jan. 1918: 2.

“Finn Varra Maa; The Censor, the Provost-Marshal and the Fairies.” Freeman’s Journal 11 Jan. 1918: 4.

“Records of Irish Police Forces in the War.” Irish Times 8 Dec. 1917: 8.

“To-Day & Yesterday: The Lines Restored.” Irish Independent 12 Jan. 1918: 4.