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