“The Wonder-Seeking Mind of the Peasant”

By October 1913, picture houses had begun to be a permanent presence not only in such Irish cities as Dublin, Belfast and Cork but also in towns with even as few as 5,000 inhabitants. In such places, the film show would be the first professionally produced mass entertainment available on a long-term basis. However, many towns still relied on travelling companies to bring professional entertainment of any kind, including film shows. Clearly, population was not the only factor, but it was very likely in 1913 that a town with 10,000 people or more would have had at least one permanent picture house, but only some towns of around 5,000 had a dedicated film venue, and most of the latter were likely to be served by travelling picture or picture-and-variety shows. However, market towns of 5,000 might have a dedicated picture house if they also had a good train service and a local person or persons with access to capital who saw the opportunities being exploited successfully elsewhere.

In early October 1913, Paddy, the Irish correspondent for the British trade journal Bioscope reported on a film-and-variety show by Clarence Bailey in Ballina, Co. Mayo:

To County Mayo is rather a far cry. Nevertheless, picture shows go there from time to time, and no touring show is thought so much about as the “livin’ pictur’” one. At Ballina recently, we had Clarence Bailey’s show, a mixture of variety and films. Some of the latter included the “Derby of 1913.” Wild West subjects naturally predominate in travelling shows of this nature, the breathless rush over the dusty plains appealing to the wonder-seeking mind of the peasant (Paddy).

This piece’s use of brogue and mention of “the peasant” was typical of Paddy’s humorous condescension in covering small-town and rural Ireland. Peasants are hicks who live in the far-away west, unsophisticated provincials who lap up Westerns and out-of-date news and in so doing, provide a telling contrast to the readers of Paddy’s column as well as demonstrating the increasing reach of the metropolitan film business. Nevertheless, Paddy also provides some unique details of film exhibition in the west of Ireland a century ago. Travelling shows such as Bailey’s are very difficult to track because they often did not advertise in the local newspapers of the towns they visited, and consequently, the newspapers – the source most likely to provide details of local reception – frequently ignored them unless something else newsworthy occurred. The September-October issues of the Western People and Ballina Herald do not mention, let alone give details of the programme. Clearly, Bailey was not in the first rank of Irish travelling exhibitors, which included the town-hall showman James T. Jameson and the fairground exhibitor John Toft. Bailey’s name is known to film scholars (Barton 14), but Paddy allows us to place him in Ballina showing Westerns and the newsreel of the Epson Derby that retained some interest four months after the race not only because of an abiding interest in horseracing among an audience who had not yet seen these moving pictures but also because this was the race at which suffragette Emily Wilding Davison was killed by King George V’s horse (some fascinating discussion of this case here and here).

Ballina had recently experienced its own suffragette controversy, when Irish Women’s Franchise League members Helen Chevenix and Clara Moser visited the town on 14 August to organize a town-hall meeting for 2 September. When the women held an impromptu meeting in the street, the conservative Protestant Balina Herald claimed that “though on the whole the crowd seemed sympathetic, some unruly parties kept interrupting, and on one occasion an egg or an orange – we don’t quite know which – was flung and narrowly missed one of the ladies” (“Lady Suffragettes in Ballina”). At the September meeting, the Western People explained that the women lost the sympathy of the largely nationalist audience by a “very ill-timed reference to the assistance ladies in the North were giving Sir Edward Carson in his swash buckling campaign against Home Rule [which] made many persons think that the lady who unburdened her mind in this manner came there to preach the cause of Unionism, under the guise of a Suffragette” (“A Suffrage Meeting”). The People strongly denied the “statement that the motor car conveying the Suffragettes and their friends was stoned as it left the hall after the meeting,” all that occurred being “confined to derisive booing and shouting” (ibid.). How these local incidents may have affected reception of the film, or how the film may have cast new light on the local events, or even which film of the Derby was shown is difficult to say, but the picture shows by travelling exhibitors such as Bailey provided the opportunity, at least, to re-examine them.

Toftpwp358

John Toft’s fairground cinematograph show at Tramore, Co Waterford, in 1901. From National Library of Ireland’s catalogue.

With a population of 4,662, Ballina did not have a dedicated venue at which such opportunities might arise on a regular basis. However, Ballinasloe, a town with the slightly larger population of 5,608 was in October 1913 awaiting the opening of a long-running, if not permanent, film venue. Although in the western county of Galway, Ballinasloe is located along the Galway-Dublin road and rail line, at the terminus of the Grand Canal. It is on the eastern border of that county, which means that it was and is nearer to the middle of the country than the west coast, and as such has long been an important meeting point between east and west, epitomized in its longstanding October fair, one of the oldest in Ireland. The town transport links and the fair’s large crowds drew travelling entertainers, so that in September 1913 alone, two travelling film companies visited before John Toft arrived to take part in the fair.

Cirque and Tofts Ballinasloe 1913

Circus and fairground shows with film: Morgan’s Cinema Cirque and Toft’s Amusements in Ballinasloe, autumn 1913. Ads for the East Galway Democrat 13 Sep. 1913 and 20 Sep. 1913.

Toft displayed a remarkable ability to manage publicity and consequently increase his audience. The East Galway Democrat praised his “readiness to aid every good work” that included his

“Benefit Night” this week in aid of the Temperance Hall, his generous subscriptions to the Nursing Fund, the Fund for the Poor, and the Gaelic League, as well as his kindness in giving the patients and inmates of our public institutions a little enjoyment. […] It is not to be wondered at that Mr Toft’s Amusements are well patronised, and that he makes friends wherever he goes (“Local Topics: Deservedly Popular Show”).

However, when Toft travelled on from Ballinasloe a few day after the end of the fair, local businessmen John Thomas Greeves-O’Sullivan and Timothy J Dolan opened a winter season of their Greeves-O’Sullivan and Dolan Picture and Variety Company, running at the Town Hall from 24 November and over the Christmas period. “No expense has been spared to provide first-class pictures,” the Democrat revealed, “and the machine to be used for the purpose of showing them is one of the latest on the market. An experienced operator has been engaged, and the Ballinasloe Orchestra will discourse selections during the entertainments” (“Local Topics: Picture and Variety Co. for Ballinasloe”).

Dec 20 1913 EastGalway Democrat

East Galway Democrat 20 Dec. 1913: 4.

The company advertised regularly in the press and were acknowledged with notices, including one on 6 December that appears to bear out their claim that they changed films nightly: “to-night (Friday) a grand feature film, ‘Heartt [sic] of the First Empire or The Days of Napoleon,’ a splendid Military Drama; Sunday 7th Dec., ‘The Kerry Gow,’ a three-reel Irish Drama, Monday, 8th Dec., ‘Woman’s Heart,’ and on Friday, 12th Dec., ‘District Attorney’s Conscience,’ a splendid emotional drama” (“Living Pictures”). Despite the use of “variety” in their name, the company appears primarily to have shown pictures and their variety seems to have been limited to selections from the orchestra between films, with the piano selections of Eddie Kelly being particularly singled out in one notice.

The use of such local resources as the orchestra for commercial gain was the main criticism of the company expressed in the press. In an exchange of letters with Greeves-O’Sullivan, the orchestra’s conductor James Roche refused to participate in the venture, explaining that although he had been working with orchestra for a year without remuneration, he was not prepared to continue unpaid “where the band was being used for a private commercial speculation” (“Correspondence”). Greeves-O’Sullivan replaced Roche with local hairdresser Patrick Burke and seems to have gone on using the orchestra, but the exploitation by local businessmen of such community resources as orchestras and town halls for their own profit did cause conflict elsewhere during this period in the development of cinema.

References

Barton, Ruth. Irish National Cinema. London: Routledge, 2004.

“Correspondence.” East Galway Democrat 13 Dec. 1913: 5.

“Lady Suffragettes in Ballina.” Ballina Herald 21 Aug. 1913: 3.

“Living Pictures.” East Galway Democrat 6 Dec. 1913: 5.

“Local Topics: Deservedly Popular Show.” East Galway Democrat 18 Oct. 1913: 4.

“Local Topics: Picture and Variety Co. For Ballinasloe.” East Galway Democrat 15 Nov. 1913: 5.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 2 Oct. 1913: 31.

Phelan, Martin. “Emigration.” East Galway Democrat 15 Nov. 1913: 7.

“A Suffrage Meeting.” Western People 6 Sep. 1913: 6.

4 thoughts on ““The Wonder-Seeking Mind of the Peasant”

  1. John Thomas Greeves-O’Sullivan was my father’s uncle. He also was the proprietor of the East Galway Cycle Works on (I am told) Dunlo St in Ballinasloe!

  2. I do not know a great deal about him; this was the first I had heard about his involvement in cinema. By this time, he was deeply involved in Republican politics (I have a photo of him and the Ballinasloe Volunteers about 1914.) He joined the Connaght Rangers (1914) and fought in the Great War. He returned to Ballinasloe in 1919 and died in 1924.

  3. Pingback: Kinemac, Pulsocon, Skibbereen: A New Lexicon for Irish Cinematic Sensation | Early Irish Cinema

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