The decision of Dublin picture houses at the end of August 1913 to screen such social events as the Horse Show and the Neptune Rowing Club’s At-Home rather than the iconic opening sorties of the Lockout is indicative of the place that cinema as a cultural institution was coming to occupy in the Irish mediascape. Although not universally true for all picture houses – and as places of employment, some became sites of the ongoing labour disputes – picture houses were businesses owned and managed by men (almost exclusively men) who either already belonged to or who had ambitions to belong to the “respectable” classes. The Phoenix Picture Palace’s activities in relation to the Church Street Disaster in the first week of September 1913 gives some evidence of this.
Few events early in the Dublin Lockout better underscore the dire conditions in which many of the city’s workers lived than the Church Street Disaster. These events have been widely written about and will be commemorated this weekend, 6-7 September 2013 by the Stoneybatter and Smithfield People History Project. In brief, at about 8:30 on the evening of 2 September 1913, two tenement houses in Church Street collapsed, killing seven people. The most affecting story to circulate in the aftermath of the collapse was that of 17-year-old Eugene Salmon who saved several members of his family from one of the collapsing buildings but died while attempted to save his sister, Elizabeth. The newspapers were happy to make Salmon the tragic victim of the slums, and Dublin Corporation eventually felt pressured into setting up a Local Government Board inquiry (Nov 1912-Feb 1913) into the housing of the working class (extracts here). Neither the newspapers nor Jim Larkin as the representative of the striking workers made much of the fact that Salmon was a locked-out worker from Jacob’s biscuit factory. This allowed employers, led by newspaper owner William Martin Murphy, to claim solidarity with slum dwellers by condemning living conditions in the tenements, supporting an inquiry and initiating a relief fund for the survivors of the collapse (Corlett).
Among the many contributions to the relief fund established by the Freeman’s Journal/Evening Telegraph newspaper group were the proceeds from a benefit night on Tuesday, 9 September at the Phoenix Picture Palace. The Phoenix was located well out of the city centre, on Ellis’s Quay, about 10-minutes walk from Church Street. It was owned by the Phoenix Picture Palace, Limited, who directors were David Frame, Henry Grandy, John MacKay and Andrew Wright (“World of Finance”). When these proprietors reported on the progress of the Phoenix’s construction in July 1912, they projected that its 1,500 seats would mainly be occupied by the working-class residents of the surrounding district (Paddy, 4 July). The rising popularity of cinema would allow such large entertainment venues to operate in residential areas of the city and its suburbs. The proprietors also clearly assumed that as the Phoenix was located on a tramline just minutes from one of the city’s main railway stations, Kingsbridge, they could rely on significant passing trade from travellers using the Great Southern and Western Railway’s lines to and from towns and cities in the south and west. For the benefit night on 9 September, the Phoenix added live acts to the previously booked films, including singers (the “distinguished artistes” Maude Harrington Clancy – a recent Feis Ceoil medal-winner – contralto Madame Gill-Gorevan and baritone Albert Vine Sanderson), humorist Chris Bruton and the “manager of the Phoenix, Mr. Cathal MacGarvey, [who] will also make a re-appearance on the concert platform for this deserving charity” (Church St. Disaster”). The nature of the event and the tone of the newspaper coverage – which made no mention of the films – suggest that this was not designed to bring together the tenement dwellers but rather represented an occasion for a middle-class audience to display their charity. As such, it was successful. A “large audience was present, including several clergymen” (“Dublin and District”), and 353 shillings and sevenpence was donated in the Phoenix’s name to the relief fund (“Freeman-Telegraph Fund”).
There was nothing particularly unusual in this; it was how successful business men drew positive attention to the social good their companies represented. In May 1912, the Electric Theatre in Talbot Street – a picture house in which David Frame shared an interest with then-Lord Mayor of Dublin John J. Farrell – had gained publicity by holding a benefit for the Titanic relief fund (Paddy, 30 May). For Frame and his partners in the Phoenix, the social respectability that came from the benefit for the Church Street victims was timely. Indeed, the 9 September was a big day for this group of businessmen, whose newest venture, the Coliseum in Cork, also opened on that day.
“Church St. Disaster.” Evening Herald 5 Sep 1913: 5.
Corlett, Chris. “The Church Street Disaster, September 1913.” History Ireland 17:2 (Mar-Apr 2009).
“Dublin and District: Aid for the Church Street Sufferers.” Irish Independent 10 Sep. 1913: 5.
“Freeman-Telegraph Fund.” Freeman’s Journal 12 Sep. 1913: 7.
Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 30 May 1912: 639; 4 July 1912: 25.
“World of Finance.” Bioscope 18 Sep. 1913: 933.