Political violence associated with the Irish War of Independence impinged on Irish cinema with force in February 1920. It did so in a number of ways, most tragically in the death of cinema attendant Lena Johnson but also in the use of cinema in describing the violence that was occurring on the streets. For newspapers, cinema had become the ready metaphor to describe incidents of heightened excitement or danger, as is evident in the Irish Independent’s description on 26 February of police and military attempts to recapture army deserters as “incidents worthy of a cinema episode” (“Exciting Chase after Deserters”). Why the men deserted is not clear, but the episode had reached the pinnacle of excitement in the newspaper account when the deserters were identified at Dublin’s port, tried to get away across the rail lines, and a group of them “had a miraculous escape from being run over by a passing train.” Chases, hairbreadth escapes and the train as the epitome of human frailty in the face of modern technology had long been the cinema’s stock-in-trade.
What was new now was the metaphor’s application to conflict between the police and British army, on the one hand, and Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers, on the other. On 7 February 1920, the Independent reported on an incident in which an armed detective chased a man who pointed a revolver at him in the street into a shop in Dublin’s Coombe and was himself restrained by the shop keeper who said he mistook the detective for an armed robber. The incident “had features resembling a sensational cinema story,” the report surmised (“Sensational City Scene”). If it was a sensational cinema story, that story now concerned the escalating violence of the War of Independence in which armed conflict in the streets of Ireland’s cities, as well as skirmishes in the countryside, were becoming increasingly common. And the story had an openly political character. Whoever the initial man with the revolver had been, shop keeper Patrick Horan, “an ex-soldier wearing the 1915 ribbon,” and his mother Mrs Donnelly, who was serving in the shop, were identified by the detective as Sinn Fein supporters “and they have obstructed me in the discharge of my duty.” Horan’s identification as a decorated soldier and a Sinn Féin supporter suggests some of the complexities of the situation.
Writers in the Independent was not alone in implicating cinema in accounts of political violence. Describing an incident in Dublin in mid-February, the Freeman’s Journal suggested that the cinema had so come to dominate the ways that even experienced journalists saw the world that actual violent confrontations between Irish republican forces and those of the British state was distorted and exaggerated beyond credibility. Seeking to correct Irish and British press reports of a supposed attack by a large number of armed Irish Volunteers on a heavily guarded escort bringing the court-martialled Sinn Féin MP Robert Barton to prison, the reporter observed that accounts of the alleged incident made the “military act like cinema stars” (“North Side Hold-Up”). The incident was “like a cinema scene,” no doubt a sensational one. “Eyewitnesses described the scene,” the writer commented, “which indeed had something in it to stir the imagination of a generation accustomed to the thrilling scenarios of the film-play dramatists.” Nevertheless, s/he claimed that while an attack on a car carrying military personnel did occur, all aspects of the story as reported were exaggerated and were not attributable to major republican groups. “The facts of the affair subdue the high lights, and raise the substantial doubt which, while leaving the authors of the incident in obscurity, utterly demolish the suggestion that Irish Volunteers or any similar organisation was concerned in it. […] There is something wrong with the story.”
In the case of the shooting of Lena Johnson in Limerick on 2 February, the interaction between cinema and the War of Independence were far from these metaphorical references to stardom and thrilling scenarios. A cinema attendant in her 20s who lived with her family in Thomondgate, Johnson was crossing Sarsfield Bridge on her way home from work at the Coliseum between 10.30 and 11pm when she was hit by a stray bullet fired indiscriminately at a taunting crowd by members of the RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary). Much public sympathy was shown to Johnson and to publican Richard O’Dwyer, the two people fatally shot that night, and who had had no part in any demonstration in the streets. Johnson’s funeral “was one of the most impressive funerals that has taken place in Limerick for a number of years, and all classes joined in paying fitting tribute to a young lady who enjoyed general popularly, and whose death under such peculiarly sad circumstances produced universal grief” (“Limerick Shootings”).
At the subsequent inquest, the RIC witnesses tried to blame British soldiers stationed in the city for firing on the crowd after an armed man had fired on them first, and much of the coverage of the inquest focused on the contradictions between the evidence of the police and the military. The inquest jury, however, rejected the police’s attempts at exculpation and found “that Helena Johnson met her death by shock, the results of the effect of a bullet wound caused by a rifle bullet fired by police without orders from their superiors, which we strongly condemn, because there was no provocation for what the jury consider murder in the case of Helena Johnson” (“Contradictory”).
Cinema and those associated with it – including such workers as Lena Johnson, audiences and filmmakers – were only rarely the targets of fighting during the War of Independence. Like the population at large, however, those involved in cinema faced the increasing dangers and restrictions of a society openly in conflict, and these affected how they went about their ordinary activities. One of the new restrictions introduced to Dublin in February 1920 was a curfew between midnight and 5am. Announced by Major-General Gerald Farrell Boyd, the General Officer Commanding the Dublin District, it was made under the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), many of whose wartime powers remained in use in Ireland. Describing the first night of martial law, the Freeman’s Journal observed that “for some time before the military put in an appearance the streets were practically deserted. Up to 11 o’clock, however, the city might be said to have worn its normal aspect. When the theatres, picture houses and other places of amusement emptied themselves there were the customary scenes of animation” (“Plunged into Complete Darkness”).
Censorship restrictions had long limited what Irish filmmaker could portray. Although indigenous production companies were making films at the time, they were not telling the contemporary sensational stories of life in Ireland, regardless of how much the press touted these stories’ cinematic character. Early 1920 saw the release of two of the major Irish feature films of the silent period: the General Film Supply’s In the Days of St Patrick/Aimsir Padraig and the Film Company of Ireland’s Willy Reilly and His Colleen Bawn, which will shortly receive their due attention here in blogs to mark the centenaries of their releases. It is worth noting, however, that these were historical dramas because when these companies turned to the depiction of the politics of contemporary Ireland, their films were seized by the authorities.
None of these factors were affecting the boom in cinema building in early 1920, but some local councils did see that boom as detrimental to the much-needed construction of housing. At a meeting of Belfast Borough Council on 2 February 1920, Councillor J. Baird sought unsuccessfully to halt “the erection of motor garages, public-houses, picture theatres, factories, extensions of shops and other buildings which could be described as luxuries until the people of the city were supplied with the necessary housing accommodation” (“The Housing Problem”). A meeting of Cork Corporation on 1 March 1920 took a similar view of the cinema-licence application by “three ladies and a gentleman who had made a little capital in Cork, and who wished to invest it in Cork for the benefit of the workingmen of the city” by opening a cinema at 1-2 Winthrop Street (”Cork Corporation”). Lord Mayor Tomás MacCurtain “objected to sanctioning luxury entertainment whilst there were people in the city who hadn’t houses to live in.” Nevertheless, the Corporation’s Law and Finance Committee chaired by MacCurtain subsequently granted a licence not only to those applicants but also to four others for new cinemas at 80-82 Patrick Street, 40-42 Grand Parade, another in Winthrop Street and 26 Cook Street (“Cinema Licences in Cork”).
MacCurtain’s murder by the RIC on 20 March 1920 had nothing to do with these decisions, but it was certainly part of the political violence that also impinged on Irish cinema a century ago.
“Cinema Licences in Cork.” Evening Echo 2 Mar. 1920: 3.
“Contradictory: Inquest on Miss Johnson.” Limerick Echo 17 Feb. 1920: 3.
“Cork Corporation.” Cork Examiner 2 Mar. 1920: 7.
“Exciting Chase after Deserters.” Irish Independent 26 Feb. 1920: 6.
“The Housing Problem: Shortage in Belfast.” Belfast News-Letter 3 Feb. 1920: 5.
“Limerick Shootings: Funerals of the Victims.” Limerick Leader 6 Feb. 1920: 3.
“The North Side Hold-Up: Military Act Like Cinema Stars.” Freeman’s Journal 13 Feb. 1920: 3.
“Plunged into Complete Darkness: Military Patrols Move Through Deserted Streets.” Freeman’s Journal 24 Feb. 1920: 3.
“Police Fired without Orders or Provocation.” Freeman’s Journal 14 Feb. 1920: 5.
“Sensational City Scene: Commotion in a Shop.” Irish Independent 7 Feb. 1920: 4.
“Tragic Incidents Further Described.” Cork Examiner 5 Feb. 1920: 5