The Constant Watchfulness of Irish Cinema in March 1916

Irish-American James Mark Sullivan, who co-founded the Film Company of Ireland in March 1916. https://www.loc.gov/item/2002706157/

Irish-American James Mark Sullivan, who co-founded the Film Company of Ireland in March 1916. Image from the Library of Congress.

Although Ireland is celebrating the centenary of the 1916 Rising in March 2016, Easter was celebrated in 1916 in late April. Nevertheless, March 1916 saw such momentous cinematic events as the founding of the first major indigenous film production company. And even if Easter itself was still some way off, Irish cinema hit the beginning of the Easter season. In what was clearly a coordinated move by the Irish Catholic hierarchy, several bishops mentioned cinema in their Lenten pastorals, the letters from them read out on 5 March 1916 in churches in their dioceses to mark the start of the 40-day fasting period leading up to Easter. “Immodest representations in Theatres should be reprobated by every good man, and every effort should be made to discountenance them,” ordered the Bishop of Cork, but he had a particular warning about cinema:

We desire to direct your attention particularly to cinematograph and picture shows. The films come from outside, and from places where what concerns Christian modesty is made little of, and there is always a danger that what is unfit to be seen may be exhibited unless constant watchfulness is exercised to exclude what is objectionable and offensive in a Catholic country.(“Lenten Pastorals.”)

This call for “constant watchfulness” was an intensification of the hierarchy’s involvement in the church’s efforts to control cinema. If the church could not prevent people going to picture houses altogether, it was determined that it would shape what, where and when people would watch. The initially mainly lay Vigilance Committees had in late 1915 been put under centralized clerical control as the Irish Vigilance Association, which held a mass meeting at Dublin’s Mansion House that sent a renewed demand for the introduction of a specifically Irish film censorship (“Mansion House Meeting”). The many local campaigns against the opening of picture houses on Sunday were also led from the altar. “At different Masses on Sunday last in the four parish churches, as well as in the Black Abbey and Capuchin Friary,” reported the Kilkenny People, “a strong appeal was made to the people to abstain from attending the local Picture House on Sundays, particularly during Lent” (“Sunday Cinemas in Kilkenny”).

Ad for Stafford's Longford Cinema in St Patrick's week included an episode of The Exploits of Elaine (US: Wharton, 1914), the serial that featured the master criminal the Clutching Hand. Longford Leader 11 Mar. 1916: 3.

Ad for Stafford’s Longford Cinema in St Patrick’s week included an episode of The Exploits of Elaine (US: Wharton, 1914), the serial that featured the master criminal the Clutching Hand. Longford Leader 11 Mar. 1916: 3.

In making their calls for vigilance, the bishops could indicate the harmfulness of cinema by citing the ongoing trial of a gang of boys in Mullingar who had committed robberies inspired by onscreen criminals. The papers reported many similar cases including the prosecution of 20-year-old ex-sailor James J. Sloan who told the Belfast Assizes that his house-breaking equipment was “the materials Charlie Chaplin works with” (“Items of Interest”). The prominence of such stories led James Stafford of the Longford Cinema to refute publicly the claim made by a boy charged with larceny at the local petty session that he had committed the robbery to get money to go to the pictures. “I have made it a point not to admit to the Longford Cinema Theatre boys of this class,” Stafford contended, “and this boy in particular is one of several of his class whom I frequently refused admission” (“Unfounded Allegation”). As the Mullingar case suggests, the class he referred to was the poorest of the working-class.

The cinema industry long feared the imposition of crippling taxes, going so far in this cartoon as to identify the British government with the zeppelin raids then terrorizing southeast England. Bioscope 7 Oct. 1915: 16c.

The cinema industry long feared the imposition of crippling taxes, going so far in this cartoon as to identify the British government with the zeppelin raids then terrorizing southeast England. Bioscope 7 Oct. 1915: 16c.

The British government also had a vigilant eye on the cinema industry in Britain and Ireland as a way of raising needed war funds. Months before the imposition of an amusement tax in the May 1916 budget, there was much discussion of its likely effects on the industry and how it was to be collected. “The view which at present commends itself to the authorities,” reported the Irish Independent, “is that the Government should print the tickets for the cinema shows, and these should be purchased from the Government by the trade at a price which would cover the tax” (“Proposed Cinema Tax”). As well as further binding the cinema industry to the British war effort, the tax would alter the working-class nature of cinema. “Upon the injustices of a penny per seat tax there can be not two opinions,” argued Frank W. Ogden Smith in the trade journal Bioscope,

and if such a tax be allowed to pass unchallenged this point must be borne in mind – when we revert to peace times it will mean the cinema as a poor man’s amusement and recreation will have ceased to exist, for the Government having tasted the fruit and found it refreshing in actuality not theory, will not be likely to relinquish the tax. (“Passing of the Penny Cinema.”)

Longford and Mullingar were just two of the Irish places where this process could be most clearly seen in March 1916.

Metro ad featuring Ruffells’ parrot, Dublin Evening Mail 6 Mar. 1916: 2.

Metro ad featuring Ruffells’ parrot, Dublin Evening Mail 6 Mar. 1916: 2.

The industry as a whole – including the Bioscope – had long courted an audience far beyond the penny cinemagoer, and it did so in a climate in which many doubted that cinema represented a quality contribution to culture. At a meeting of the Cork County Council, the chairman complained that the large amount of money spent on technical education was wasted because “the people for whom it was intended showed no disposition to profit by it.” Instead, the popularity of Charlie Chaplin and picture houses were proof, he believed, of the failure of the art classes provided to raise the public taste (“Cork County Council”). Publicity strategies to counter such views and promote films and picture houses as quality entertainment were important, and one ad campaign stood out in Ireland in March 1916. Metro’s British agent Ruffells’ Exclusives was pioneering in marketing film brands to the Irish public. Ads for Metro had been appearing in newspapers for some time when the Bioscope reported that Ruffells in Dublin abandoned their trademark parrot for another animal in order to stage a spectacular publicity stunt: “This consisted of six donkey carts, all passing the leading station and advertising on large boards the display of Metro pictures. The houses showing the films were the Bohemian, the Carlton, the Grafton Street and Grand” (“Trade Topics”).

Evening Telegraph 16 Mar. 1916: 4.

Dublin’s Carlton showing Metro drama Cora. Evening Telegraph 16 Mar. 1916: 1.

These named picture houses were among Dublin’s most prominent cinemas, and each watched what the others were doing. What they were doing to ensure success was to provide lavishly comfortable buildings, feature such highly publicized films as Metro’s and offer novel musical accompaniment. Located in Phibsboro outside the city centre, the Bohemian had attracted patrons since its opening in 1914 by advertising the best musical attractions in the city. The Bohemian’s orchestra consisted of 16 musicians under musical director Percy Carver. With the increasing competition for cinema patrons in the city centre, the Carlton as the latest-opened picture house sought to secure its audience by adding to its musical attractions. Beginning on Patrick’s Day, 17 March, the Carlton challenged the Bohemian’s musical pre-eminence by engaging the concert violinist Erwin Goldwater. The Irish Times called this “[a] new departure in connection with cinema entertainments [that] takes the form of a violin recital by Mr. E. Goldwater, a pupil of Sevcik, and formerly first violin at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden. Mr. Goldwater will conduct the orchestra at the Carlton” (“Platform and Stage”).

Clontarf reopens 17 Mar 1916 ET

Ad for reopening of the Clontarf Cinema; Evening Telegraph 17 Mar. 1916: 1.

Goldwater’s engagement was not the only significant event that picture-house proprietors planned for the holiday of the Irish patron saint. A company led by I. I. Bradlaw, David Frame and Henry Grandy reopened the Clontarf Cinema in the former Clontarf Town Hall. “It has been re-decorated and reconstructed throughout in the most luxurious manner,” the Evening Telegraph announced, “and will be found to be equal in every respect to the very best picture houses in the city” (“The Cinema, Clontarf”). Several picture houses offered special programmes of Irish films and/or music. Perhaps the most surprising of these was at Belfast’s CPA (Central Presbyterian Association) Assembly Hall. “Five reels of well-selected cinema were screened, and the premier place amongst these was taken by “Brennan of the Moor,” a three-part filmisation of the Irish story,” revealed the Northern Whig. “Mr. F. J. Moffett presided at the organ, and also acted as accompanist. Mr. W. R. Gordon sang several Irish folk-songs in a most pleasing manner” (“C.P.A. Entertainments”).

“Mr. Erwin Goldwater.” Irish Limelight May 1917: 17.

Although Brennan of the Moor (US: Solax, 1913) was revived on occasion, the most popular films to constitute an Irish programme were still those made by Sidney Olcott and Gene Gauntier for Kalem and other companies in Ireland between 1910 and 1914. Nenagh’s Ormond Kinema Company provided films – including an unnamed Chaplin and The Colleen Bawn (US: Kalem, 1911) – free of charge to the Toomevara and Nenagh Hurling Club after their fund-raising concert in Nenagh’s Town Hall on 17 March (“St. Patrick’s Night’s Concert”). “Some unique films of the famous Tubberadora, Toomevara, and Thurles Teams” were also shown (“The Coming St Patrick’s Night Concert”). The Colleen Bawn was the most popular of Dublin-born Dion Boucicault’s stage melodramas, but productions of his more political Arrah-na-Pogue and The Shaughraun were particularly evident in March 1916. In early March 1916, The Shaughraun (US: Kalem, 1912) – which featured an escaped Fenian – was revived at both Dublin’s Rotunda and Bohemian; during the same period, a stage version was produced at Dublin’s Father Mathew Hall by the Barry Sullivan Society, while at the Hibernian Hall, Parnell Square, the Hibernian Players staged Arrah-na-Pogue. The Olcott and Gauntier’s Arrah-na-Pogue (US: Kalem, 1911) was shown at the newly refurbished Omagh Picture House on St Patrick’s night (“Omagh Picture House”). The Rotunda’s programme for St Patrick’s day and the two days following included two other of Kalem’s Irish-shot films: the 1798 drama Rory O’More (US: Kalem, 1911) and The Fishermaid of Ballydavid (US: Kalem, 1911).

Small ad from the Film Company of Ireland seeking Irish scenarios; Freeman's Jorunal 9 Mar. 1916: 2.

Small ad from the Film Company of Ireland seeking Irish scenarios; Freeman’s Jorunal 9 Mar. 1916: 2.

The Kalem films were so regularly revived in part because no fiction films had been shot in Ireland since Olcott had stopped coming to Ireland following the outbreak of the war. In March 1916, this situation was about to change with the founding of the most important indigenous Irish film production company of the silent period. On 2 March, Irish American lawyer and diplomat James Mark Sullivan and Henry Fitzgibbon registered the Film Company of Ireland (FCOI) at Dublin’s Companies Registration Office. The FCOI had little early press coverage. “The objects are to establish, organise and work in Ireland the manufacture and construction of cinema films of every description,” reported the Freeman’s Journal, seemingly reproducing the information on the company registration form,

and to engage in the making of scenic and dramatic moving pictures, and in the sale and exchange of cinema pictures, and to engage in the employment of skilled and unskilled labour, and of all such artistes, authors, and performers as the development of the business may require. (“An Irish Film Company.”)

Ads that appeared in the papers on 9 March specifically sought authors of “photo play scenarios, preferably with Irish atmosphere and background.” These ads gave the address of the FCOI’s offices as 16 Henry Street, uncomfortably close to the GPO, soon to be the major site of the Easter Rising.

J. M. Kerrigan with Sara Allgood in a 1911 Abbey touring production of The Playboy of the Western World. Image from Wikipedia.

J. M. Kerrigan with Sara Allgood in a 1911 Abbey touring production of The Playboy of the Western World. Image from Wikipedia.

The FCOI also sought actors, and here Joseph Holloway’s diary offers an intriguing early insight. When actor Felix Hughes answered an FCOI ad for actors, he “was astonished on entering the manager’s room to see Joe Kerrigan quite at home there with his back to the fire – the manager was seated at a table & spoke with the twang of a Yankee.” Kerrigan was one of the Abbey Theatre’s leading actors, and Hughes was surprised to encounter him seemingly embedded with Sullivan in the FCOI. However,

Kerrigan spoke up for him & said to the manager, “he’s the very one we want,” (evidently K is to be the star actor in new Co. & has some monetary interest in it as well.) “He has played at the Abbey & travelled with Co to London.” So the manager said, “We must have Felix,” & entered his name & address & said, “he would hear from him in the course of four or five weeks time when all arrangements were fixed up to begin operations. (Holloway, 21 Mar. 1916).

As its operations began, the FCOI gave the hope that cinema would not just be something that the authorities constantly surveilled but would produce challenging films for burgeoning Irish audiences at a historical moment.

References

“The Cinema, Clontarf.” Evening Telegraph 16 Mar. 1916: 2.

“The Coming St Patrick’s Night Concert.” Nenagh News 11 Mar. 1916: 4.

“Cork County Council: Annual Estimate.” Cork Examiner 1 Mar. 1916: 3.

“C.P.A. Entertainments.” Northern Whig 20 Mar. 1916: 7.

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

“Items of Interest: A Youthful Burglar” Irish Independent 17 Mar. 1916: 4.

“An Irish Film Company.” Freeman’s Journal 4 Mar 1916: 2.

“Lenten Pastorals: Diocese of Cork.” Cork Examiner 6 Mar. 1916: 7.

“Mansion House Meeting: Message from the Pope.” Freeman’s Journal 14 March 1916: 3.

Ogden Smith, Frank W. “The Passing of the Penny Cinema.” Bioscope 9 Mar. 1916: 1008.

“Omagh Picture House: Extensive Alterations.” Ulster Herald 18 March 1916: 5.

“Platform and Stage.” Irish Times 18 Mar. 1916: 7.

“Proposed Cinema Tax.” Irish Independent 23 Mar. 1916: 4.

“St. Patrick’s Night’s Concert.” Nenagh News 18 Mar. 1916: 3.

“Sunday Cinemas in Kilkenny.” Kilkenny People 18 Mar. 1916: 5.

“Trade Topics.” Bioscope 30 Mar. 1916: 1377.

“An Unfounded Allegation Contradicted.” Longford Leader 25 Mar. 1916: 2.

Irish Cinema Catches the Public Eye in February 1916

Audience P&Pg 19 Feb 1916p475

Voices filling the dark; Pictures and the Picturegoer 19 Feb. 1916: 475.

At the end of January 1916, cinema-trade-journal Bioscope’s Irish correspondent Paddy congratulated George Hay, manager of Waterford’s Broad Street Cinema, on his catchy new programmes. “‘The Picture and Picturegoer’ is on sale in the theatre,” he observed, “and Mr. Hay has had his entire programme printed on the front page. This catches the public eye, and moreover, when the paper is left lying about at home it catches the eye of other members of the family.” Getting and remaining in the public eye was important to the cinema business, but much of the publicity it garnered in Ireland in February 1916 was negative.

Elaine Hand Sep 2 1915 Bio

Eye-catching ad for The Exploits of Elaine incorporating the cluchching hand motif; Bioscope 2 Sep. 1915: 1127.

Cinema’s “Clutching Hand” certainly caught the public’s eye in February 1916. The Exploits of Elaine (US: Wharton, 1914) serial had been showing in many Irish picture houses, including Dublin’s Rotunda, which had shown the first episode, “The Clutching Hand,” on 18 October 1915. The plucky Elaine’s (Pearl White’s) repeated imperilling by master criminal the Clutching Hand (Sheldon Lewis) and rescuing by scientific detective Craig Kennedy (Arnold Daly) proved a lucrative formula. Showing one episode a week, the Rotunda reached the 14th and final episode, “The Reckoning,” on 20 January 1916. “Those who have followed the various episodes in this serial picture must not omit to visit the Rotunda,” a newspaper article warned, “and witness the first dénouement of the Clutching Hand, in which the culprit is revealed through his inadvertence in referring to the hidden treasure” (“The ‘Clutching Hand’ Revealed”). “Thus far,” the Irish Independent observed, “‘Exploits’ may claim to have established a record in general interest, and increased attendances are like to be experienced as the story reaches its climax” (“Dublin and District”).

Exploits_of_Elaine_-_The_Devil_Worshippers_(1914)

Poster for the episode of The Exploits of Elaine in which the Clutching Hand’s identity is revealed. Source: Wikipedia.

Other picture houses were not far behind the Rotunda. On 10-12 February, Cork’s Coliseum showed the 13th episode, “The Devil Worshippers,” in which the identity of the master criminal the Clutching Hand is revealed. Smaller towns started the serial later, with the first episode being offered to audiences in Ballina in June 1916 and in Longford town in July 1916. Seeing its success, producers Wharton Studios had quickly followed it with The New Exploits of Elaine (US: Wharton, 1915), and the Rotunda and others would begin showing this as soon as the original concluded. As a result, the phrase “Clutching Hand” was in circulation in Ireland as a synonym for criminality throughout 1916. Calling for an enquiry into the military killing of civilians during the Easter Rising, for example, Dublin alderman Laurence O’Neill described himself as having “the clutching hand of the military authority upon him” (“Action of Corporation”).

Pictures and the Picturegoer 26 Feb. 1916.

Pictures and the Picturegoer 26 Feb. 1916.

We have seen here that White’s Elaine offered young women an adventurous role model, but court cases reveal that the Clutching Hand proved equally inspirational for the criminal careers of Irish child gangs. A writer in the Southern Star noted that “the Exploits of Elaine, or the Clutching Hand, is drawing crowded houses at the local Kinema” in Kinsale, Co. Cork. As a result, “[a]ll our youth are now budding Sherlock Holmes.” But the influence of the serial was not so clear cut:

This habit of observation properly cultivated is a very useful thing and fits the youngster for life’s battle, but, judging by the cases before the local court on Saturday last the Clutching Hand is also in evidence. A month was the reward in this case. (“Kinsale Notes and Notions.”)

Cinema could be educational by providing “useful lessons by ocular demonstration” but the “Clutching Hand remains.”

The Southern Star writer did not provide details of the case in Kinsale, but more evidence exists for those the Clutching Hand inspired in Newry and Mullingar. On 9 February 1916, seven boys and one girl were each sentenced to five years in various reformatories and industrial schools for stealing from shops in Newry. As each child was sentenced and put in a room beside the court, they sang the popular World War I song “Are We Downhearted? No!” – a song that begins by mentioning Pat Malone of the Irish Fusiliers – and cheered.“[A]s each fresh defendant came from the magistrates’ hands he was received with the sign of the ‘Clutching Hand,’ and solemnly responded” (“Boys and the ‘Clutching Hand’”). Sentenced to five years at Philipstown Reformatory for stealing 16s 7d and some handkerchiefs on 14 January, Bernard Hughes described how

they planned the robberies, and with the proceeds went to a picture palace, in the café of which they had tea, bread and butter, lemonade, chocolate, wine, and cigarettes. After sleeping in “Duck” Marron’s common lodginghouse all night at 4d. each, they visited Warrenpoint next day, where they were arrested.

The rich food and lodgings they experienced on their spree contrasted markedly to the conditions in which at least some of them lived. Head Constable Mara gave evidence of having been invited by accused James O’Hare’s father, a sailor home on leave, to see how his children were living:

They were covered with vermin, and their mother was drunk. The house was filthy, and nothing in it but a dirty sack for five children to sleep on. [Another accused John] Hanratty, it was stated, lived in the worst house in Newry, with his mother and his sister.

Such testimony does not appear to have influenced the magistrates towards any more leniency than extended incarceration. Nevertheless, the solidarity between the children in court seems remarkable. By mentioned just these signs of defiance in court without the details of their desperate living conditions, most papers presented the case as a commentary on the antisocial nature of cinema.

The Exploits of Elaine showing in Mullingar. Westmeath Examiner 26 Feb. 1916: 8.

The Exploits of Elaine showing in Mullingar. Westmeath Examiner 26 Feb. 1916: 8.

Reports of the Newry case, or similar cases elsewhere, may have inspired the behaviour of the 12-year-old John Connor, Thomas Keena and Michael Creevy who on 26 February 1916 were arrested for stealing in Mullingar. Sergeant Campbell informed the petty sessions that having been told by J. F. Gallagher that £1 10s had been robbed from his shop, he went to Healy’s Picture House and found the boys in possession of the remainder of the money. Although the chairman of the petty sessions seemed inclined to grant Creevy’s mother’s request for bail for her son, the boy himself asked not to be sent home but to go to a detention home with the other boys. While in the cells at the police barracks, the boys reportedly sang “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and shouted “Hurrah for the Clutching Hand” (“Robbery in Patrick Street”). The magistrates hearing the boys’ case sent a resolution to the Mullingar Town Commissioners urging them not to renew picture house licences until the proprietors undertook not to show any film that depicted burglary to children under 16 (“Youths Charged with Robbery”). The Commissioners simplified this by barring boys under 16 from evening performances (“Mullingar Town Commissioners”).

These cases lent fuel to the campaigns to regulate – or eliminate – cinema. “What is really a little alarming,” argued a writer in the Irish Times citing the Newry case,

is the prospect of a gradual Americanisation – and a very cheap sort of Americanisation at that – of all our English and Irish ideals and of the whole British outlook on things in general. To-day the picture-house does little or nothing for patriotism; it is not helping us to victory in the field. (“American Films.”)

This writer supported H. G. Richards’ suggestion in the London Times that the importation of all foreign – mainly American – films be banned, including raw film stock. Richards argued this move would save £2 million, free up space on cargo ships, encourage the British film industry to expand, and make films more educational. Considering some of the economic and moral arguments for and against a ban, the Sunday Independent seemed to come down against it. “Naturally for the defence,” an editorial item observed, “we have the sound standing arguments of the public need of diversion in war as well as peace-time, and the benefit to temperance of the competition of the Cinema theatres with the publichouses.” The writer seemed to consider something of a clincher the fact “that on each of the British battle cruisers which await the appearance of the German fleet is installed a picture show for the amusement of the fighting men” (“The Passing Show”).

Few in the industry shared Richards’ views. Fan magazine Pictures and the Picturegoer pointed out that while British audiences were staunch supporters of British films, domestic companies could not supply the market. “[U]nfortunately, the [British] films that are worth much would not go far to feed the four thousand odd theatres,” s/he observed. “Indeed, if all the British film companies suddenly decided to work day and night in order to turn out films with the rapidity of a munitions factory, the output would provide but a mere drop in the ocean” (“Don’t Close Our Picture Theatres”). As the article pointed out, the dearth of people and materials in wartime made it unlikely that the British industry could expand to any great degree.

While these kind of arguments were unlikely to convince those intent on reshaping a mainly entertainment medium into a mainly educational one, other government priorities militated against a film-import ban. The Irish papers prepared their readers for the imposition of an amusement tax in the upcoming budget as a much-needed revenue-raising measure. Cinemagoers would feel the clutching hand of the war economy in May.

References

“Action of Corporation: Petition to House of Commons.” Freeman’s Journal 3 Aug. 1916: 7.

“American Films.” Irish Times 14 Feb. 1916: 4.

“Boys and the ‘Clutching Hand’: Remarkable Case at Newry.’” Irish Times 10 Feb. 1916: 6.

“The ‘Clutching Hand’ Revealed.” Irish Times 20 Jan. 1916: 9.

“Don’t Close Our Picture Theatres: ‘Movies’ the War-Time Medicine of the Masses.” Pictures and the Picturegoer 26 Feb. 1916: 494.

“Dublin and District: Rotunda Pictures.” Irish Independent 20 Jan. 1916: 5.

“Kinsale Notes and Notions.” Southern Star 5 Feb. 1916: 7.

“Mullingar Town Commissioners: Cinemas and the Youth.” Westmeath Examiner 18 Mar. 1916: 6.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 27 Jan. 1916: 344.

“The Passing Show.” Sunday Independent 13 Feb. 1916: 4.

“Robbery in Patrick Street: Extraordinary Performance of Boys.” Westmeath Examiner 4 Mar. 1916: 8.

“Youths Charged with Robbery: Cheering for the ‘Clutching Hand.’” Westmeath Examiner 18 Mar. 1916: 6.