About EarlyIrishCinema

I am a lecturer in cinema at Maynooth University, Ireland .

A New Industry: The Film Company of Ireland’s First Season

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A photograph of Kathleen Murphy advertised the beginning of the Film Company of Ireland’s 1917 production season; Evening Telegraph 7 Apr. 1917: 4.

In April 1917, the Film Company of Ireland (FCOI) began publicizing the fact that they were beginning a second season of production. On 7 April, a photograph of Kathleen Murphy appeared in the Evening Telegraph‘s “Music and the Drama” column, with a caption indicating that she was playing the part of Nora Lahy in a film adaptation of Charles Kickham’s Knocknagow that was already in production. Based on Ireland’s most popular novel of the late-19th century, Knocknagow on film would be an ambitious undertaking, and it would be popular with contemporary Irish audiences. And because it – along with Willy Reilly and His Colleen Bawn (1920), is one of only two FCOI films that survive in a substantially complete form, it is relatively well known, at least by film scholars (see here, for example). However, the film of Knocknagow would not reach Irish audiences until early 1918.

Irish Independent 10 Nov. 1917: 2.

FCOI made two other feature films during the summer production season of 1917: the comedy Rafferty’s Rise and historical romance When Love Came to Gavin Burke. However, despite the fact that the May 1917 issue of Irish Limelight published photographs from Rafferty’s Rise, the release of these films would also take many months. As a result, the FCOI’s 1916 films continued to circulate and represent – indeed, to constitute – the company’s released output for much of 1917. Nevertheless, beyond O’Neil of the Glen and perhaps The Miser’s Gift – both of which have already been written about here – very little is known about the other 1916 films. This is not surprising because surviving information on them is scant. In marked contrast to the barrage of publicity that heralded the release of O’Neil of the Glen and, to a lesser extent, The Miser’s Gift, the later 1916 films seem to have appeared with little fanfare. Nevertheless, bringing together some of surviving information reveals hitherto unknown aspects of these obscure but important early Irish films and the company that made them.

FCOI advertised upcoming releases in the Irish press on 14-15 August 1916. This one appeared in the Irish Times 14 Aug. 1916: 4.

Even the number of films they made in 1917 is not entirely clear. With O’Neil of the Glen newly released and creating a stir in August 1916, the company announced in the Irish dailies that it had a further four films ready for release in September: The Miser’s Gift, Woman’s Wit, Food of Love and An Unfair Love Affair. As well as these presumably complete or almost complete films, it listed nine other titles that it had in production: The Upstart, Blarney, The Irish Girl, a series called Shanachies Tales, Irish Jarvey Tales – possibly another series – Bye Ways of Fate, Treasure Trove, Willie Reilly and The Girl from the Golden Vale. With so little surviving information, ads such as this have often been taken as confirming that these films were actually made. These films appear in the standard Irish and British filmographies – Kevin Rockett’s Irish Filmography and its online version, and Denis Gifford’s The British Film Catalogue, as they do in the books that take these reference works as a source.

Trade journals and local and national newspapers fill in some – but by no means all – of the details of FCOI’s filmmaking and exhibition exploits from the summer of 1916 to the summer of 1917. These sources show that all four films from the first group were subsequently released, albeit not in September 1917. Of the second group, only Willie Reilly is readily recognizable as an FCOI title – Willy Reilly and His Colleen Bawn – but it would not be released until April 1920. Some of the other eight films named in this ad may be working titles for the films that FCOI did release in late 1916 and early 1917. There is substantial evidence that in addition to the five films already named, the company released four others in this period: Puck Fair Romance, A Girl of Glenbeigh, The Eleventh Hour and Widow Malone.

Ad for FCOI films released in 1916 and made in 1917. Irish Limelight Dec. 1917: 16.

None of these corresponds exactly to the in-production titles mentioned in the ad, but some are close, such as the in-production titles The Girl from the Golden Vale and The Irish Girl which bear a similarity to A Girl of Glenbeigh. These were, of course, Irish versions of titles in the format “An X Girl” or “The Girl of X” that had been internationally popular for decades. However, as A Girl of Glenbeigh specifically names a place in Kerry, it is unlikely to have morphed from The Girl from the Golden Vale – with its reference to the rich farmland in the counties to the east of Kerry. But the film may have begun life under the less specific title The Irish Girl. That said, the in-production titles that include Irish place names suggest a different geography from the four that were finally made. Blarney and The Girl from the Golden Vale indicate a company working in Cork, while A Girl of Glenbeigh and Puck Fair Romance are firmly located in west Kerry.

The issue of the films’ geography deserves further discussion, but this blog will work on the basis that FCOI did not make all the films named in the 14-15 August ad. Evidence suggests that the company released not fourteen films but nine in its opening season, which nonetheless represents a substantial output. For clarity, those nine films are: O’Neil of the Glen, The Miser’s Gift, Woman’s Wit, Food of Love, An Unfair Love Affair, Puck Fair Romance, A Girl of Glenbeigh, The Eleventh Hour and Widow Malone. Although this blog will have something to say about the first two, it will mainly focus on the latter seven.

J. M. Kerrigan

J. M. Kerrigan, Irish Limelight January 1917: 3.

All nine of these films appear to have been directed – the contemporary term, confusingly, was “produced” – by Abbey Theatre actor J. M. Kerrigan, who also starred or at least had a prominent acting role in many of them. Kerrigan was one of FCOI co-founder and producer James Mark Sullivan’s earliest recruits to the company; he was already working with FCOI in March 1916 – the same month as Sullivan and his partner Henry Fitzgibbon registered the company – and may even have invested money in it (Holloway, 21 Mar.). Kerrigan was soon joined by other actors from the Abbey and other theatres, most frequently by Fred O’Donovan, Kathleen Murphy and Nora Clancy, and more occasionally by Brian Magowan, J. M. Carre, Irene Murphy, Valentine Roberts and others. Also a star of the Abbey, O’Donovan would take over as FCOI’s actor-director for the 1917 production season when Kerrigan left Ireland for the United States in early 1917 on a career path that would eventually see him become a well-loved Hollywood character actor. His permanent departure seems to have come as a surprise to some in the press. On 12 April, Paddy reported that Kerrigan “has left America on his return voyage, and is expected to arrive almost any day now.” A report a week later suggested that he had little thoughts of returning to Ireland. “He has ‘made good’ out there in a surprisingly short space of time,” J.A.P. (Joseph A. Power) noted in the Evening Telegraph on 20 April, referring to reviews of Kerrigan’s early US stage performances. “It is only a few months since he left Ireland, yet here are the blasé Yankee journalists hurling bouquets at him with all the vigour of the great American language” (“Gossip of the Day”).

Engaging prominent Abbey actors bolstered FCOI’s claim that it was the Film Company of Ireland and was extending into the new cinematic medium the Abbey’s project of representing Ireland differently. “With the assistance of such artists as they had associated with them,” Fitzgibbon was reported as saying at a press luncheon in June 1916 to celebrate the launch of O’Neil of the Glen, “with Irish scenery and Irish literary talent, they were bound to succeed and be proud of the enterprise in which they were engaged” (“New Irish Industry”). If anybody was well placed to revise the representation of Irish people through performance, it was Kerrigan and this group of Irish actors who were intimately familiar not only with the plays and acting styles of the Irish revival developed at the Abbey but also with the modern drama represented by Shaw and Ibsen. But the company was also open to performers from beyond Ireland: “In the next film,” the Irish Times reported, “Mrs. H. M. Fitzgibbon, a vivacious French lady will make her appearance” (“Irish Film Production”). Although FCOI publicity made much of the claim that their films were “all Irish,” Fitzgibbon’s wife Peggy Darval was mentioned among the cast on occasion (“Back from Kerry”). This remark about his marriage to an actress also suggests that Fitzgibbon, about whom little else is known, may have had a personal motivation for getting involved in the film business.

FCOI seeks scriptwriters: Irish Independent 28 Mar. 1916: 1.

But actors alone were not enough for the company’s success. When Fitzgibbon mentioned the “Irish literary talent,” he must have been referring in part to Bernard Duffy, the writer of several one-act rural comedies for the Abbey who had also attended O’Neil of the Glen’s launch. Duffy praised FCOI for its “wholesome desire to reproduce the atmosphere of the country, and the motive was not purely mercenary. A vast field of folk literature was yet to be explored and utilised” (“Irish Film Production”). Nevertheless, sourcing new or adapted stories seems to have been difficult, and few if any Abbey playwrights were involved in the company. FCOI advertised more frequently in the press in 1916 for scenario writers than for other kinds of collaborators.

Following the destruction of its offices in Henry Street during the Rising, FCOI moved to Dame Street. Dublin Evening Mail 12 May 1916: 7.

Discussion of the company often mentions the destruction during the Rising of FCOI’s offices at 16 Henry Street but less frequently reveals the names of the people who worked there or in their new offices at 34 Dame Street. All the 1916 films were shot by John A. Bennett, who had worked for many years as the chief projectionist – or “operator” – and sometimes cameraperson for James T. Jameson’s Irish Animated Film Company based mainly at Dublin’s Rotunda, as well as later acting as the Dublin manager for the distribution company Films, Limited (Paddy, 18 Nov.; 13 Jul.). However, by January 1917, Bennett was seeking other work, presumably because he was not being paid by FCOI (Paddy, 11 Jan.). In any case, FCOI’s camera work in 1917 was first taken up by the company’s secretary Robert Justice – he featured in a June 1917 Irish Limelight article in this role – before Pathé camera operator William Moser became the company’s cinematographer (“With the Film Co. of Ireland”).

Joseph Boland Irish Limelight Jun. 1917: 6.

Among the other identifiable members of the company in 1916 and early 1917 were the sales and marketing operatives Mr. Coen, Joseph Boland and Ben Cowan. These men were vital to FCOI’s success, and although usually ignored by later film historians, they received considerable attention from contemporary trade journals because these were the people that journalists and cinema managers were most likely to meet. Coen was the company’s sales agent in Ireland until September 1916 when he was replaced by Boland, who for some years had been the travelling representative for General Film Supply (GFS), Ireland’s other major film production company of the period (Paddy, 28 Sep.). Boland appears to have had a good reputation in the industry in Ireland; the distributor M.P. Sales tried unsuccessfully and publically to lure him away from GFS in early 1916 (Paddy, 17 Feb., 24 Feb., “Bioscope Parliament”). Cowan – one of a number of Russian Jews working in the early Irish film industry – ran Express Film Agency, the Irish agent for several British distributors, and he acted as publicist for the very successful 7 August launch of O’Neil of the Glen. Following this, he told reporters that “he intends to introduce many novel ideas in the advertising line. Another Trade show will shortly be held, at which it is Mr. Cowan’s intention to screen two more subjects” (Paddy, 27 Jul.). In the event, the second trade show on 17 August 1916 at the Dame Street Picture House would feature just The Miser’s Gift.

FCOI was intensely busy in August 1916. In Dublin, Cowan was publicizing the five complete or nearly complete productions shot earlier in the summer, as well as the other eight titles notionally in production. The Miser’s Gift was trade shown three days later. At some point in early August, Sullivan and Kerrigan brought the cast and crew to Kerry to shoot the four fiction films that would actually make up the second half of their 1916 production season. The date of departure is not clear, but if Puck Fair Romance was actually shot at Killorglin’s Puck Fair in 1916, then the company would have to have been in Kerry before 12 August because the fair took place between 10 and 12 August. They were certainly in Kerry by 20 August. An article in the Kerry News reported on a fundraising concert that FCOI mounted on 3 September to clear the debt from Glenbeigh’s Catholic church. It observed that the company “came to Glenbeigh two weeks ago where they opened a tour of the Kingdom’s beauty spots, and at present they are staying at O’Sullivan’s hotel, Muckross, having the scenes in several new films laid in and around Killarney” (“Film Company of Ireland”). If “two weeks” here is to be taken literally, the company reached Kerry on or about 20 August, but this seems like a flexible temporality. Nevertheless, the concert does seem to have marked the end of FCOI’s visit to Kerry. By 5 September, Dublin’s Evening Herald was reporting the company’s return to Dublin (“Back from Kerry”).

This suggests that the production unit had left Dublin before the publication of 14 August ad mentioning the eight films that were not subsequently made, as well as the Miser’s Gift trade show. Poor communication might explain why on 14 August, the company’s publicist did not have the titles for the scenarios that had begun shooting that week nor the locations at which they were being shot. But if this is true, then the production unit, which included Sullivan and possibly Fitzgibbon – it certainly included his wife – must have been surprized by the announcement of those eight titles in the national press. The tight timeframe also suggests that at least some and possible all of the scenarios were not carefully prepared and honed in advance but were hastily written on location. Only for The Eleventh Hour was a writer subsequently identified: Mark Coakley (“New Irish Film”).

Whatever FCOI’s reason for the eventual choice of Kerry above other parts of the country, accounts in the Kerry papers of FCOI’s filmmaking are very reminiscent of Sidney Olcott and Gene Gauntier’s filmmaking adventures in Ireland between 1910 and 1914. Making films for the Kalem Company and later for themselves, Olcott and Gauntier had repeatedly gravitated back to the Killarney area, often basing themselves in the village of Beaufort and taking advantage of the rugged mountain, lake and seashore landscapes available in west Kerry. Their dramas of rural life, emigration and historical rebellion had been very popular with Irish audiences, making this region the most identifiable early Irish cinematic landscape. The Post, however, chose to compare Olcott and Gauntier’s films unfavourably to the as-yet-unseen filmmaking efforts of FCOI. “We are glad that at length an Irish Company has appeared,” a columnist commented. “The misrepresentation of Ireland and her people were the aims of most of those who took up work such as this in the past. The production created a feeling of resentment and indignation” (“Notes on News”).

The last day of The Food of Love‘s run at the Dame Street Picture House; Dublin Evening Mail 4 Nov. 1916: 2.

Nevertheless, this does not look like FCOI offering radically new representations of Ireland. With at least some of their first five films shot in Wicklow – this certainly seems to have been the case with O’Neil of the Glen and The Food of Love whose publicity made much of “the lovely scenery around Glendalough” – and the final four shot in Kerry, FCOI was once again exploiting Ireland’s most reproduced picturesque locations (“Irish Film Production”).

Kerry location at which FCOI shot in August 1916.

That said, there may be some novelty in the choice of southwest Kerry locations, which can be established readily from the titles and synopses of the films. The Bioscope short synopsis of Puck Fair Romance – which it titled A Romance of Puck Fair – gives little indication that the film was actually shot at Killorglin’s famous festival. “He was addicted to walking tours, she was an artist,” it begins. “They met in the country, on a farm, She thought him ‘a farmer’s boy,’ he thought her a farmer’s daughter. They canoodled and when their separate ways, he regretting having left her, she sorry to have deceived him. When they met in town it was all right” (“Condensed Film Critiques,” 28 Dec.). Little is made here of the fair, with its central feature: the electing of a billygoat as King Puck and parading him on a raised platform. Nevertheless, the critic was complementary, if not completely positive, judging that it was “quite pretty, set in delightful Irish scenes, and there are two other nice people in it, his pal and her model, but they could not be expected to complete their romance in the same reel.”

Derry Journal 10 Jan. 1917: 2.

Killarney is most famous for its lakes, and as such, the lakeshore setting of The Eleventh Hour may be deemed clichéd. On the other hand, Coakley’s scenario – “in which the paternal instinct is the moving force” – was shot around the lesser known Caragh Lake, a scenic spot on the road between Glenbeigh and Killorglin (“New Irish Film”). A Girl of Glenbeigh indicates its setting in its title. Joseph Holloway’s comments on it when he saw it at the Rotunda on 15 Feb 1917 indicate how romance and landscape worked together. He observed in his diary that “[i]t told an interesting & effective love story that did not run smoothly, nicely amid beautiful scenery & surroundings – O’Donovan was the love in the story who had two strings to his bow – a farmer’s daughter & a lady. The latter two were played by the Miss Murphys.” Where Widow Malone – the fourth of the Kerry films – was shot is not clear from surviving sources. The Bioscope described its “simple” plot, in which

[p]retty widow Malone is counted by the political town councillor, the local schoolmaster and the village blacksmith. The two former are after her snug fortune, and are a couple of windbags, but the hearty smith, loyal when her fortune is supposed to be lost, wins Nora without much difficulty.” (“Condensed Film Critiques,” 14 Dec.).

While the period in Kerry was a busy one for the company, the return to Dublin seems to have put an end for some time to the involvement of many of the actors. Certainly, by the 25 September, Kerrigan and O’Donovan were back in Dublin and acting – in a special arrangement with FCOI – in John Bull’s Other Island, the opening play of the Abbey’s autumn season (“What’s on in Dublin”). There are some indications that the break up of the acting company was not altogether amicable. Holloway had a conversation with Abbey director John A. Keogh on 1 November 1916, who told him that “the Film Co. Of Ireland had burst up & the members all seeking engagements at the Abbey – O’Donovan had left it some time ago to join the Abbey Co.” Keogh comments may have to be treated with caution; he had hostility towards FCOI because of the special arrangements he had to make to be allowed to cast Kerrigan. Nevertheless, he did have information from the actors, so it may be true that “[f]unds had become low owing to the films released not catching on as was thought.”

Those involved in production may have been at a loose end by the start of September, but work for other elements of the business was increasing. At the end of August, Dublin Corporation considered an application from FCOI to build a studio on Pigeon House Road; the outcome of the application is not clear, but these studios were not built. Nevertheless, the Bioscope reported in September that FCOI “are fitting up very elaborate developing-rooms, etc., in their premises at 34, Dame Street, Dublin. Mr. W. James, chief operator at the Bohemian Theatre, Dublin, is in charge of the wiring and other electrical fittings” (“All-Irish Films”). This short item also renewed a call for scenario writers to “submit [FCOI] a sample of their work. The Scenario should preferably have Irish atmosphere, but this is not absolutely essential.”

Dublin Evening Mail 24 Oct. 1916: 4.

With this fit-out of post-production facilities underway, it took some time for the release of the remainder of the season’s films. The company’s first priority was the Irish market, and Boland appears to have been busy selling to cinemas all over the country. Despite the Dame Street Picture House claim in late October 1916 that it had secured “the initial presentation of all the films produced by the Film Co.,” the films premiered all over Ireland. Even FCOI’s long-heralded second release, The Miser’s Gift, had its first public viewings at Cork’s Coliseum on 12-14 October and a three-day run at Tralee’s Picturedrome (19-21 Oct.) before it had its Dublin debut at the Dame on 26-28 October. The Food of Love similarly premiered at the Coliseum on 23-25 October before appearing at the Dame for the three-day run of 2-4 November. However, Widow Malone was FCOI’s third release when it appeared at Kilkenny’s Cinema on Sunday, 22 October 1916 for a special benefit screening for the Gaelic League. The film had a more conventional three-day run at Belfast’s Kinema House later that week, beginning on 26 October.

Puck Fair Romance premiered in Belfast’s Kinema House; Belfast News-Letter 9 Nov. 1916: 1

Indeed, Belfast, with the largest cinema-going population in the country, could not be and was not ignored in the awarding of premieres. Audiences at the Kinema House were the first to be offered Puck Fair Romance from 9-11 November. The Dame does seem to have debuted An Unfair Love Affair on 23-25 November. A Girl of Glenbeigh, however, premiered in Kerry, at Tralee’s Picturedrome on 27-28 November. The Dame also had the first viewings of the final two releases of the year. It opened The Eleventh Hour – FCOI’s second three-reel film –on 30 November 1916 for a three-day, end-of-week run. It was nearly a month later when the final release of the season, Woman’s Wit, had its debut at the Dame on 26 December.

Much more remains to be discovered about this initial period of FCOI and the films they made in 1916, not least their November 1916 distribution deal with Davison’s Film Sales Agency and the patterns of exhibition in Britain. Let this attempt to bring together some of the newspaper and trade journal sources mark a start of that more complete account.

References

“All-Irish Films.” Bioscope 28 Sep. 1916: 1285.

“Back from Kerry: New Films Produced by Irish Company.” Evening Herald 5 Sep. 1916: 2.

“Bioscope Parliament.” Bioscope 2 Mar. 1916: 967-68.

“Condensed Film Critiques.” Bioscope 14 Dec. 1916: i; 21 Dec. 1916: iii; 28 Dec. 1916: i.

“Film Company of Ireland: Church Debt Wiped Out.” Kerry News 6 Sep. 1916: 4.

Gifford, Denis. The British Film Catalogue, vol. 1, Fiction Film, 1895-1994. 3rd ed. London and Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2001.

“Gossip of the Day.” Evening Telegraph 20 Apr. 1917: 2.

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

“Irish Film Production.” Irish Times 30 Jun. 1916: 6.

New Irish Film.” Evening Herald 1 Dec. 1916: 3.

“New Irish Industry: The Film Co. of Ireland: A Promising Enterprise.” Freeman’s Journal 30 Jun. 1916: 6.

“Notes on News.” Kerry News 1 Sep. 1916: 2.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 18 Nov. 1915: 841; 17 Feb. 1916: 717; 24 Feb. 1916: 812; 13 Jul. 1916: 173; 27 Jul. 1916: 359; 28 Sep. 1916: 1285; 11 Jan. 1917: 194.

Rockett, Kevin. The Irish Filmography: Fiction Films, 1896-1996. Dublin: Red Mountain, 1996.

“What’s on in Dublin Next Week.” Evening Herald 23 Sep. 1916: 2.

“With the Film Co. of Ireland: A Day with the Producers.” Irish Limelight Jun. 1917: 10-11.

Shadows of Revolution in Irish Cinemas, March 1917

Among the offerings at Dublin’s Bohemian Picture for the first three days of the week beginning 19 March 1917, was footage of the Tsar of Russia; Dublin Evening Mail 19 Mar. 1917: 2.

“Things are very quiet in Dublin film circles just now,” observed the columnist of “Screenings: Kinematograph Notes & News” in Dublin’s Evening Telegraph on St. Patrick’s Day 1917, “but some big things are on the way.” The seeming quite may have been deceptive because big things were already underway in the shape of social upheaval in Russia, which Irish newspapers had first called a revolution the previous day. This was an event that was momentous even in a time of war, and cinema would, at the very least, provide moving images for Irish people to picture these developments. On 19 March, Dublin’s Bohemian Picture Theatre featured the “Latest Exclusive Pictures of The Czar of Russia,”  and the Dublin Evening Mail reviewer thought they “should prove a source of great attraction” (“Bohemian Picture Theatre”). Despite this, no reviews of the films appear to exist by which public reaction to them might be judged. In any case, while an undoubtedly old film of the Tsar might pique the curiosity raised by unfolding events, it was unlikely to have satisfied the desire to witness recent developments. But Dublin was not alone in this. “Russian pictures have been going strong in London since the Duma won through to victory,” the “Screenings” writer noted. “And now arrangements have been made to show in the Russian provinces a kinematograph film of the revolution in Petrograd” (“Screenings,” Mar. 24).

The shadow of revolution was also closer to Ireland than this. The Irish administration feared that the first national day after the Easter Rising would occasion some “big things” in the shape of subversive activity and as a result, had put all public buildings in the city under military control for St. Patrick’s Day (“Patrick’s Day”). However, in stark contrast to occurrences in Russia, the main leaders of Ireland’s rebellion had been executed, and many rank-and-file participants remained in prison, a fact raised in speeches at Westminster comparing Ireland and Russia by such Irish MPs as John Dillon and Joseph Devlin (“Broken Pledges”).

Laurence O’Neill (centre with moustache) attending a GAA match at Croke Park, c.1919, in the company of Arthur Griffith, Eamon DeValera and Michael Collins. Wikimedia Commons.

While the question of Irish political prisoners was being discussed, many believed that a scarcity of food was a more immediate potential cause for social unrest. Earlier in March, before the strikes and demonstrations in Russian had become a revolution, Dublin’s lord mayor, Laurence O’Neill, had invoked the French Revolution to warn of the dangers in the city caused by “unemployment and the scarcity and inflated prices of foodstuffs.” “[O]ne of the principal causes of the French Revolution was the luxury of the upper classes and the poverty of the poor,” he observed, “and the lesson of that Revolution was that no matter in which age the authorities or upper classes ignored their duties to the poor, there was bound to be discontent” (“Lord Mayor”).

The first two workers’ budgets from the Leo Guild; Evening Telegraph 24 Feb. 1917: 1.

Contemporary statistics on the living conditions of Dublin’s working poor support O’Neill’s warnings. In a series of newspaper articles between February and April 1917, these statistics were presented in the form of household budgets provided by the Leo Guild, a Catholic organization interested in the welfare of the deserving poor. Named after Pope Leo XIII – the “working-man’s Pope” – the Irish branch had been founded in Dublin in 1912 to counter the increasing influence of socialism and radical labour activism among Irish workers (“Father Mathew Hall”). Members of the Guild conducted research among the poor, and although they published them anonymously, the people featured in the budgets

were not chosen as being exceptional cases of distress, but because after investigation, they were considered to be typical specimens of their class. None of them belong to the class of poor who apply to the union or the charitable institutions. They are all hard working, sober, respectable and self-respecting folk.” (“How the Poor Live.”)

The Guild’s first budgets focused on two households: that of a labourer and that of a sweated seamstress. Neither of these households had discretionary income to spend on the cinema or other entertainments. The commentary on the budgets concluded, for instance, that the labourer – earning £1 a week to support himself, his wife and seven young children – had outgoings of £1 3s 4d: “The meaning is obvious and tragic. Rent is a fixture, coal can hardly be reduced. The only thing which can be reduced is food, which is spared to stretch over the following week.”

The Guild’s statistics were prepared as part of the Catholic Church’s struggle against organized labour, but they offer some insight into who could or who likely could not have attended the cinema in early 1917. Other writers offered different views on whether or not the working poor attended cinema in 1917. In an article in the third (March 1917) issue of the recently launched cinema journal Irish Limelight, Stephanie de Maistre suggested that they could, and indeed did, form a particularly notable part of the cinema audience. Discussing her dissatisfaction with theatre and music hall and preference for cinema, she focused on one particular unnamed picture house that, “whilst always well patronised in the higher priced seats, became a popular haunt for the working man, his sweetheart or his wife and family.” Maistre’s article addresses an audience perceived to be, like herself, middle class, capable of occupying the higher-priced seats and making entertainment choices not available to working people. Her self-consciously literary account constructs cinema as a place where harmony between the classes is achieved by a cross-class interest in the entertainment provided and by an accepted stratification of the audience based on one’s ability to pay for a seat among one’s social peers. But she sees films as particularly beneficial to the working class:

You see people happy, contented: something has come to break the monotony of their lives; to give them a glimpse of the wonders of the world; to bring sentiment and poetry into drab and barren existences, and who shall say what hearts have been touched, appealed to and changed “in the shadows”?

Chaplin Count Framegrab

Eric Campbell, Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance in The Count (US: Lone Star, 1916).

Dublin picture-house owners’ choices of films for St Patrick’s Day suggest that they perceived their audiences to be substantially working class and interested in Irish films. Class was central to The Count (US: Lone Star, 1916), Chaplin’s latest Irish release, which ended its first Dublin run at the Pillar Picture House on 17 March. “The management of the Pillar Picture House, O’Connell street, was largely responsible for the introduction of Charlie Chaplin to the Dublin public,” the writer of “Screenings” reported on 10 March, “and they are still first in the field locally with pictures of the little comedian.” In the film, a tailor (Eric Campbell) pretends to be a count to attend a society party but finds that his employee (Chaplin) has beaten him to it and is chats up both the cook and the rich hostess (Edna Purviance) until the real count unexpectedly shows up. In the week leading up to and including St Patrick’s Day, several other picture houses showed Chaplin’s The Floorwalker (US: Lone Star, 1916) and The Fireman (US: Lone Star, 1916), including the Rotunda Pictures, where it accompanied popular but sometimes controversial The Rosary (US: Selig Polyscope, 1915), the “Original Irish-American Drama.”

Chaplin was also a favourite among the children of the Irish in Britain. A 12-year-old Irish girl was one of the three London schoolgirls who in mid-March 1917 appeared before the Cinema Commission, a body formed by the National Council of Public Morals that began its inquiry into cinema’s public influence in January 1917 (“Mr. Goodwin’s Striking Figures”). When asked about the kinds of films they liked best, the girls choose Westerns and Chaplin comedies. However, they and their friends were not so enthusiastic about newsreels. “‘Sometimes when they have a Topical Budget,’ confessed one of the girls, ‘the Boys get up and go out’” (“At the Pictures”).

Boh Cleansing Fires ET 15 Mar 1917

In the three days up to St Patrick’s Day, the Bohemian showed two Irish films: the newly released Cleansing Fires (Ireland: FCOI, 1916) and The Eleventh Hour. Evening Telegraph 15 Mar. 1917: 2.

As well as the Irish-American Rosary, picture-house managers also followed the well-established practice of choosing Irish-shot films for St Patrick’s Day. In 1917, some of these were more authentically Irish shot than others. Cleansing Fires, the last of the ten films that the Film Company of Ireland (FCOI) made in 1916, featured at the Bohemian for 15-17 March. Of all the FCOI films, Cleansing Fires is the one about which the least information survives; even a bare plot summary seems not to exist. Nevertheless, it was undoubtedly shot in Ireland in the summer of 1916. On its Dublin premiere, Cleansing Fires headed a programme that also included another of the FCOI’s 1916 productions, the already released The Eleventh Hour.

Film Fun July 1916: np.

Although not quite coinciding with St Patrick’s Day, The Innocent Lie (US: Famous Players, 1916) a “magnificent five-part Irish film,” opened on 26 March 1917 at Dublin’s Town Hall, Rathmines. This was the film’s second in Dublin; its first had been at the Grafton Picture House in January 1917. Given that it had been directed by Sidney Olcott and starred Valentine Grant and Jack Clark, Irish audiences would not have doubted that it had been, as the Evening Telegraph claimed, “produced amidst beautiful scenery in the South of Ireland” (“Screenings” Mar. 17). Olcott had shot many films for Kalem and other companies in Ireland, and these had been particularly popular around St Patrick’s Day. In 1915, for example, Dublin’s Masterpiece Cinema had run an Irish Week, at which Olcott’s The Colleen Bawn (US: Kalem, 1911), Ireland the Oppressed (US: Kalem, 1912) and The Mayor from Ireland (US: Kalem, 1912) were shown along with other Irish-shot or Irish-themed films (“Masterpiece Irish Week”). Olcott had made these films in Ireland, but the danger of U-boats on the Atlantic crossing meant that he could not do the same for The Innocent Lie. “The exteriors were photographed in Bermuda,” revealed George Blaisdell in the Moving Picture World before its US release on 8 May 1916, “and they are not only picturesque, but in atmosphere vividly remind of the land and shore of the troubled island they are intended to simulate.”

All in all, it seems things were not as quite as they may have seemed in Irish cinema in March 1917.

References

“At the Pictures: What School Girls Like.” Evening Telegraph 20 Mar. 1917: 2.

Blaisdell, George. “‘The Innocent Lie’: Valentine Grant Makes Good in Her Debut in Famous Players Five-Part Subject.” Moving Picture World 20 May 1916: 1349.

“Bohemian Picture Theatre.” Dublin Evening Mail 20 Mar. 1917: 5.

“Broken Pledges—Empty Threats: Mr. Dillon’s Indictment of the Government.” Freeman’s Journal 21 Mar. 1917: 5.

“Father Mathew Hall: ‘Are Irish Catholics Good Citizens.’” Freeman’s Journal 18 Sep. 1912: 5.

“How the Poor Live: Typical Budget: A Crying Grievance: Result of Leo Guild Inquiry.” Evening Telegraph 24 Feb. 1917: 1.

“The Life of the Poor: More Leo Guild Budgets: A Pressing Problem.” Evening Telegraph 17 Mar. 1917: 4.

“Lord Mayor and the Distress in the City: Gravity of the Situation Stated in Plain Terms.” Evening Telegraph 12 Mar. 1917: 1.

De Maistre, Stephanie. “In the Shadows.” Irish Limelight 3:1 (Mar. 1917): 4.

“The Masterpiece Irish Week.” Evening Telegraph 16 Mar. 1915: 6.

“Mr. Goodwin’s Striking Figures: Evidence of Film Industry’s Magnitude: First Sitting of Cinema Commission.” Bioscope 11 Jan. 1917: 96.

“Patrick’s Day: Quiet Observance in Dublin.” Evening Telegraph 17 Mar. 1917: 1.

“Screenings: Kinematograph Notes & News.” Evening Telegraph 17 Mar. 1917: 5; 24 Mar. 1917: 5.

Exhibiting Tanks to Irish Cinema Fans, February 1917

A tank goes into battle in The Battle Ancre and Advance of the Tanks (Britain: British Topical Committee for War Films, 1917) from the Imperial War Museums.

A tank goes into battle in The Battle Ancre and Advance of the Tanks (Britain: British Topical Committee for War Films, 1917); Imperial War Museums.

Cinema was so popular in Ireland in February 1917 that the press had to search for a name for its adherents, and they found it in American vernacular. “This morning there is a heart-cry from a cinema fan,” the “Gossip of the Day” columnist in the Evening Telegraph noted on 21 February 1917:

He doesn’t know that he is a cinema fan, and that is the crux of the trouble – he is ignorant of the great American language. I gather from his pathetic note that he is a regular patron of the “silent drama,” yet he finds a difficulty in understanding the explanatory inscriptions with which American producers seek to help the intellects of those who sit in the outer darkness.

Although cinema was primarily a visual medium and as such offered the promise of an international language, it still required words to specify the meaning of what might otherwise be ambiguous images. The silent film’s intertitles carried those words, but they were often in a dialect not universally understood. The columnist was surprised at this because s/he believed that “regular patrons of this form of amusement were able to understand any announcement on the screen from the ‘slick’ slang of East Side New York to the weird attempts at English of the Italian, French and Danish producers.”

Most of the films that Irish cinemagoers saw were indeed American, but it was a British film that sought to attract as many Irish cinema fans as possible in February 1917. Monday, 19 February saw the Irish opening of The Battle of the Ancre and Advance of the Tanks (Britain: British Topical Committee for War Films, 1917), a War Office-sponsored propaganda film more often called simply The Tanks. Despite this foreshortened title, tanks featured only occasionally in the film. “Throughout the five scenes,” the Evening Herald’s Man About Town complained, “the Tanks are seen about four times altogether, each time only for a very brief passing moment.”

Whatever about the coming disappointment, anticipation for the film could build on tantalizing glimpses of this new war machine that had been accumulating for several months. In autumn 1916, Irish people had read about the first battlefield deployment of tanks, and in November 1916, Dubliners had even had the opportunity of seeing a tank film, albeit it the animated Tank Cartoon (Britain: Kineto, 1916). The cinema trade press had also informed its Irish readers about the shooting of the War Office tank film (“About Those Tanks!”).

faugh-a-ballaghs-il-feb-1917

The Dublin Evening Mail appears not to have been exaggerating when it noted that the “coming of the “Tanks’ Film’ to Dublin has been eagerly anticipated.” Publicity for the film could draw on what appears to have been a widespread fascination with this new weapon, in a similar way to which the earlier propaganda films had focused on artillery or aircraft. Previewing the coming shows at Dublin’s Theatre Royal, the city’s largest entertainment venue, the Mail writer observed that the “film portrays the most interesting happenings during the Battle of the Ancre, when the Tanks were first heard of, and promises to prove one of the most successful of the many interesting war films already seen in Dublin. The Battle of the Ancre stands out as one of the most striking phases of ‘The Big Push’” (“‘The Tanks’ at ‘The Royal’”).

Indeed, the Royal starting advertising the film as early as 10 February, when a short item warned patrons to book the film to avoid disappointment: “Your remember the trouble you had getting a seat at the ‘Battle of the Somme’ films, but you say to yourself that there will be no difficulty with ‘The Tank’ films, and you delay booking only to find yourself in the same position as before” (“‘The Tanks’ Film at the Theatre Royal”). The added attraction of The Tanks was that it included footage of Irish soldiers: “There were no Irish regiments shown in the Somme film, but Lieut. Malins, who took the pictures, succeeded in getting some splendid films of our gallant Irish Brigade.” Despite such extensive publicity of the film, the Royal only showed it at matinees (beginning at 2.30pm), except on Wednesday, when the film replaced the Royal’s two evening variety shows (beginning at 6.45pm and 9pm). Nevertheless, the film was presented at the Royal with “special music and effects that […] should help one to realise ‘what it is like.’ The band of the famous Faugh-a-Ballaghs will play at every performance” (“‘The Tanks’ at ‘The Royal’”). Unfortunately no review of the Royal shows appears to exist that specifies what effects – presumably sound effects imitating exploding shells – were used during the shows and how the audiences responded.

tanks-grafton-dem-21-feb-1917

Dublin Evening Mail 19 Feb. 1917: 2.

The Royal was far from the only Dublin venue showing the film that week. Another large theatre, the Empire, showed the film all week alongside a somewhat reduced variety programme. Several of the most prestigious picture houses also screened it, with the Bohemian, Carlton, Masterpiece and Town Hall, Rathmines showing it for the first three days of the week, and the Grafton retaining it into the second half of the week. The Bohemian managed to show the film four times daily at 3, 5, 7 and 9, but this was eclipsed by the six shows that the Grafton managed to squeeze in at 1.45, 3.15, 4.45, 6.15, 7.45 and 9.15, “so that business men and others can all have an opportunity of making acquaintance with these new machines of war, of which Sir Douglas Haig says he cannot speak too highly” (“Grafton Picture House”).

While Dublin’s newspapers reviewed the film positively – even the Herald‘s Man About Town, despite his disappointment about the little screen time devoted to the tanks themselves – the Irish Times printed the longest review, and it was most forthright in clarifying the film’s ideological intent. Its “exhibition creates many thrills, and gives a very vivid conception of the war in all its phases,” the writer argued. S/he admitted that this had been done before, most notably by the very popular Battle of the Somme (Britain: British Topical Committee for War Films, 1916), but it had been criticized for showing British soldiers being killed. “[I]n the Tank films one is spared the somewhat gruesome side of the fighting. The tanks are awesome but not gruesome” (“‘Tanks in Action’”). In the face of so much evidence to the contrary, the film therefore helped recruiting by propagating a myth of British military invulnerability. “Should they stimulate our young men to help those Irishmen whom they see manning the trenches,” the Times writer concluded a lengthy review, “‘The Tanks in Action’ will be doing good work in Dublin.”

ultus-sydney-master-dem-24-feb-1917p2

Dublin Evening Mail 24 Feb. 1917: 2.

The Times did not usually offer extensive reviews of films, but other newspapers were taking cinema increasingly seriously. On 19 February, the Evening Telegraph – the evening edition of the Freeman’s Journal – resumed publication after a hiatus caused by the destruction of its premises during the Easter Rising. Among its innovations was a Saturday column entitled “Kinematograph Notes and News.” The first series of notes on 24 February included both international items and some of particular Irish relevance. The latter included a notice that Aurele Sydney, star of Ultus series, would attend the Masterpiece Cinema during the following week’s screenings of Ultus and the Secret of the Night (Britain: Gaumont, 1917). Another note concerned the views of John Bunny, a film star who had visited Ireland five years previously and discussed the possibilities for film production in the country. Given that it made no mention of the Film Company of Ireland’s recent filmmaking efforts, the reason for the inclusion of the note on Bunny is unclear, unless it was to quietly contradict the claim made in the Masterpiece’s ad that Sydney was the first cinema star to visit Ireland.

This column was praised by a writer in the Irish Limelight, the cinema magazine that had begun publication in January 1917. “Readers of the Saturday Evening Telegraph got an agreeable surprise recently when they found that cinema notes were introduced,” “Movie Musings” columnist Senix observed. The surprise that the staff at the Limelight got on seeing the column may not have been all that agreeable, given that a weekly newspaper column might steal much of the thunder of the monthly journal. Nevertheless, Senix took it to be a positive development, commenting that “[t]his recognition of the people’s amusement proves pleasant reading after the many bitter attacks which have been made in the local Press. And the fact that it comes so soon after the appearance of the Irish Limelight sets us thinking.”

Dublin Evening Mail 17 Feb. 1917: 2

Dublin Evening Mail 17 Feb. 1917: 2

Despite Senix’s optimistic reading of the appearance of the Telegraph‘s column, bitter attacks on cinema were still very much evident in February 1917, both in the press and in the auditorium. When the “Gossip of the Day” columnist had attempted to define “cinema fan” for his/her readers, s/he speculated that “‘fan’ must be American for ‘fanatic,’ as it is used to designate people who are peculiarly addicted to any pastime.” However, there may be reasons for distinguishing between cinema fans and cinema fanatics. Certainly serial protestor William Larkin was a fanatic often to be encountered in cinemas but not a cinema fan. Since 1914, Larkin had mounted periodic protests in Dublin’s picture houses against films that he and the Catholic Irish Vigilance Association (IVA) considered to be morally dubious. These protests occurred in the auditorium during the screening of the films and involved Larkin shouting about the need for a Catholic-influenced Irish censorship and/or throwing ink at the screen. Larkin sought arrest to magnify the reach of the protest through the newspaper reports of the disturbance and subsequent trial. He had usually found that the magistrates treated him leniently – even indulgently – but in December 1915, he had been jailed when he refused to pay a fine imposed for a cinema protest.

After a period of apparent inactivity during 1916, Larkin’s latest – and last for some years – cinema protest took place on 21 February 1917 during a screening of The Soul of New York (US: Fox, 1915; released in the US as The Soul of Broadway) at the Pillar Picture House in Dublin city centre (“City Cinema”). It followed a well-established pattern. At about 10.25pm, the picture-house porter heard a commotion in the auditorium, found that Larkin had thrown “a blue liquid” at the screen and went to get manager J. D. Hozier. Larkin made no attempt to escape and admitted to having thrown the liquid, which not only caused damage estimated at £30 to the screen but also “bespattered” the instruments and clothes of musicians Herbert O’Brien, Joseph Schofield and Samuel Golding in the orchestra (“City Cinema Scenes”). After several court appearances, the case seems to have been struck out at the end of March.

Evening Telegraph 22 Feb. 1917: 1.

Evening Telegraph 22 Feb. 1917: 1.

Although this “exciting episode” certainly garnered press coverage, how Larkin’s direct-action methods complemented the Irish Vigilance Association’s ongoing campaign for cinema censorship is not clear. Indeed, despite his previous affiliation with the IVA, Larkin may have been acting on his own in this instance. The IVA’s well organized political lobbying for the introduction and effective exercising of film censorship was well advanced by February 1917. In June 1916, Dublin Corporation had appointed Walter Butler and Patrick Lennon as film censors, and in January 1917, it had engaged two women as “lady inspectors” of picture houses (“Amusement Inspectors,” “Dublin Lady Censors”). The IVA found a ready welcome at Dublin Corporation. On the last day of February, its Public Health Committee (PHC) invited a seven-member IVA deputation to address them on Sunday opening (“Cinema on Sundays”). Answering the deputation’s complaint that many cinemas opened at 8 o’clock on Sunday evenings, thereby intruding on hours set aside for Catholic devotions, PHC chairman and former mayor Lorcan Sherlock assured the deputation that the Corporation would enforce a 8.30pm Sunday opening.

Therefore, Irish cinema was engaging both fans and fanatics in February 1917.

References

“About Those Tanks! Extraordinary Interest of the Latest ‘Big Push’ Films.” Bioscope 12 Oct. 1916: 121.

“Amusement Inspectors: Reports to Be Made on Dublin Performances.” Evening Herald 10 Jan. 1917: 3.

“Cinemas on Sundays: Vigilance Association and the Hours of Opening.” Evening Telegraph 1 Mar. 1917: 2.

City Cinema: Exciting Episode: Blue Liquid Thrown.” Evening Telegraph 22 Feb. 1917: 1.

“City Picture-House Scene.” Dublin Evening Mail 28 Feb. 1917: 2.

“Dublin Lady Censors: Names Submitted.” Freeman’s Journal 15 Jan. 1917: 4.

“Gossip of the Day: Comments on Current Events.” Evening Telegraph 21 Feb. 1917: 2

“Grafton Picture House.” Dublin Evening Mail 17 Feb. 1917: 5.

“Kinematograph Notes and News.” Evening Telegraph 24 Feb. 1917: 5.

The Man About Town. “Thing Seen and Heard.” Evening Herald 19 Feb. 1917: 2.

Senix. “Movie Musings.” Irish Limelight 1:3 (Mar. 1917): 3.

“‘The Tanks’ at ‘The Royal.’” Dublin Evening Mail 17 Feb. 1917: 4.

“‘The Tanks’ Film at the Theatre Royal.” Dublin Evening Mail 10 Feb. 1917: 5.

“‘Tanks in Action’: Cinema Pictures in Dublin.” Irish Times 20 Feb. 1917: 3.

“Would We Ever Have It in Reality?” Ireland a Nation “For Two Days Only” in January 1917

Joseph Holloway spent the last evening of 1916 wandering around Dublin, celebrating the end of a momentous year in Ireland, when he came across a poster for Ireland a Nation (US: Macnamara, 1914). “For a week or more,” the architect and theatre buff observed, “I’ve been reading on the hoardings on a large 15 feet by 9 feet poster bordered with shamrocks – with large ones at angles & printed on green which tells me of the finest picture film ever produced / Ireland a Nation / Nothing like it has been seen before!” (Holloway, 31 Dec. 1916: 1608).

Ad for Ireland a Nation in New York and Chicago-based Motography 26 Dec. 1914: 22.

Ad for Ireland a Nation in New York and Chicago-based Motography 26 Dec. 1914: 22.

When Waterford-born but New York-based scriptwriter and producer Walter Macnamara had made Ireland a Nation in 1914, the film reflected a very different political situation. Macnamara conceived a film that would trace the history of Irish struggles against British rule from the passing of the Act of Union by the Irish Parliament in 1800 to the passing of the Home Rule bill by Westminster in 1914. He had shot historical scenes – among them the Irish parliament, Robert Emmet’s 1803 rebellion and Daniel O’Connell’s duel with political rival D’Esterre – on location in Ireland and at studios in London, but the film had ended with actuality footage of crowds of Irish nationalists jubilantly welcoming what they thought was the achievement of Home Rule.

The film had been shown in US cities, debuting at New York’s Forty-Fourth Street Theatre on 22 September 1914, but it had not been seen in Ireland (McElravy). The outbreak of World War I had not only caused the suspension of Home Rule, it had also delayed the Irish exhibition of Ireland a Nation. “When Dame Fortune refuses to smile upon a venture,  things will somehow manage to go wrong if only out of sheer cussedness,” commented an article in the second issue of Ireland’s first film journal Irish Limelight on the sequence of events that prevented Ireland a Nation reaching the country to date. Two prints of the film sent to Ireland had been lost en route: “[I]t is understood that the first copy dispatched by [the Macnamara Co. of New York] was lost with the ill-fated Lusitania; a duplicate copy was substituted, but as this also failed to successfully run the submarine ‘blockade,’ it became necessary to forward a third” (“Between the Spools”).

Masthead of the Irish Limelight, Feb. 1918. Courtesy of the National Library.

Masthead of the Irish Limelight, Feb. 1918. Courtesy of the National Library.

These delays meant that it was to a Dublin with many new hoardings erected around buildings destroyed during the Easter Rising that the film returned in late 1916. A large green poster with the slogan “Ireland a Nation” emblazoned on it meant something different in this context. “You read it & wonder when it is to be shown & what is to be the nature of it!” Holloway marvelled. “I have heard it whispered that it is a fake – there’s no such film at all, but those who love Ireland thought that a good way to keep ‘Ireland a Nation’ in the public eye. And the wideawake authorities haven’t tumbled to its purpose!”

A week later, however, a new poster near Holloway’s home on Haddington Road confirmed that this was, in fact, a film by providing more details of the coming exhibition. “I saw on hoarding near Baggot St end of Haddington Rd. that – ‘Ireland a Nation’ for ‘one week only’ was announced for Rotunda commencing Monday next & week,” he noted, “& I thought would we ever have it in reality – for ‘one week only’ even.” (Holloway, 5 Jan. 1917). Holloway’s melancholy reflection related to the distant possibilities for a self-governing Irish nation beyond filmic representation, but even a film of Ireland achieving nationhood would prove impossible to show in January 1917.

ireland-a-nation-home-rule

Framegrab from Ireland a Nation, preceded by the intertitle: “A New Hope 1914. / A Home Rule Meeting.”

Frederick Sparling was responsible for this poster campaign, after he secured the British and Irish distribution rights to the film in March 1916. The imposition of martial law in the aftermath of the Rising in April made it impossible to screen the film until late in 1916, when Sparling submitted the film to the military press censor (“Irish Film Suppressed”). The censor wrote back to Sparling on 1 December 1916, allowing exhibition if six cuts were made:

  1. Scene showing interruption of a hillside Mass by soldiers.

  2. Scene showing Sarah Curran roughly handled by soldiers.

  3. Scene of execution of Robert Emmet – from entry of soldiers into Emmet’s cell to lead him away.

  4. Scene of Home Rule Meeting in 1914.

  5. Telegram from Mr. Redmond.

  6. Irish Flag displayed at end of the performance.

The following should also be omitted:—from the titles of scenes shown, (in addition to all titles referring to portions of the film which have been censored as above,) “A price of £100 dead or alive on the head of every priest.” (CSORP.)

This constituted much of the contentious political material, including the actualities of the Home Rule meeting, but Sparling had no choice but to make the cuts. And although he was the proprietor of the suburban Bohemian Picture Theatre, he hired Dublin’s largest picture house, the city-centre Rotunda, which had a capacity of 1,500 people, a third more than the Bohemian (“Irish Film Suppressed”).

Ad for Ireland a Nation; Dublin Evening Mail, 8 Jan. 1917: 2.

Ad for Ireland a Nation; Dublin Evening Mail, 8 Jan. 1917: 2.

Prominent press ads that followed the poster campaign ensured that potential patrons far and near were well informed of the coming shows. Although the Dublin Evening Mail published these ads, this did not stop a Mr Whitehead from the Daily Express office, which published the Mail, writing to the Chief Secretary’s office, enclosing a copy of the ad and warning that “[i]t is an American Cos film & is of a bad type, indeed, the man in charge of it expresses astonishment that it has passed the British Censor” (CSORP). Inspector George Love of the Dublin Metropolitan Police attended the 2-3pm show on the opening afternoon, Monday, 8 January 1917. Love reported that Sparling had adhered to the censor’s stipulations, but his most interesting comments were those about the effect on the audience:

About 100 persons were present at the opening production and the Picture was received with applause throughout, except some slight hissing, when Lord Castlereagh and Major Sirr were exhibited.

The Films deals mainly with Rebel Leaders and their followers being hunted down by the Forces of the Crown and Informers, and has a tendency to revive and perpetuate, incidents of a character, which I think at the present time are most undesirable and should not be permitted.

While Chief Secretary Edward O’Farrell considered Love’s suggestion that the film be banned by the authorities – and a military observer reported on the opening night to Bryan Mahon, the General Officer Commanding British forces in Ireland – Holloway went to another afternoon screening that had a far larger attendance than the sparse 100 that Love reported at the 2pm show. Indeed, because of the queue at the box office of the ground-floor “area,” Holloway ended up on the balcony. However, the film did not impress him. It reminded him of the increasing repertoire of Irish nationalist history plays by Dion Boucicault, J. W. Whitbread, and P. J. Bourke that had been staples of Dublin’s Queen’s Theatre for decades. Holloway had long been a regular at the Queen’s, but he favoured the kind of restrained acting introduced by the Abbey Theatre. The gestural melodramatic style used by Queen’s actors in the film also contrasted with evolving screen-acting practices. Nevertheless, the film uniquely preserves Irish melodramatic performance of the period.

Other commentators provided more positive reviews than Holloway’s. Perhaps not surprisingly for a nationalist newspaper whose slogan was “Ireland a Nation,” the reviewer in the Freeman’s Journal was enthusiastic, calling the film “[f]rom a historical standpoint, and indeed, from the standpoint of realism, […] undoubtedly excellent” and bound to “attract numerous visitors to the Rotunda during the week” (“Irish History Films”). Although not so wholeheartedly appreciative, the reviewer at the unionist Irish Times confirmed its popularity, noting that “[t]he film, which treated the rebel cause with sympathy, and the music, which included a number of Irish patriotic tunes, were received with loud and frequent applause by the audiences” (“Rotunda Pictures”).

Framegrab from Ireland a Nation, in which Irish revolutionary Robert Emmet (Barry O’Brien) is astonished by the help Napoleon agrees to send for an uprising in Ireland.

Framegrab from Ireland a Nation, in which Irish revolutionary Robert Emmet (Barry O’Brien) is astonished by the help Napoleon agrees to send for an uprising in Ireland.

Holloway suggested that although the audience was aware of the film’s limitations, it was determined to make the most of this opportunity to celebrate a still imagined Irish nation. “The audience was willing to applaud national sentiments,” he noted, “but was far more impressed by the words card on the screen than by the way the various characters played their parts before the camera.” Indeed, he believed that the film’s title and intertitles carried particular importance. “Truly the man who thought of the title ‘Ireland a Nation’ was worth his weight in gold to the Film Co that produced it,” he argued. “It is the title and not the film drama will attract all patriotic Dublin to the Rotunda during the week.”

Indeed, he was in no doubt that the film did draw unprecedented crowds to the Rotunda. Passing the picture house again later on Monday evening, he recorded:

I rarely saw anything like the crowds that stormed the Rotunda about eight oclock seeking admission. I am sure several thousands were wedged up against the building […].  The night was piercingly cold but the patient waiters kept themselves warm and in good humour by cheering all who left the building & made room for others behind.  On the other side of the streets around the Rotunda crowds of people stood looking at the dense black masses clinging on to the walls of the Rotunda like barnacles to the bottom of a ship.

When these later audiences got inside, they were more rowdy than those earlier in the day had been. Love reported that “the Picture was received with applause throughout, except some slight hissing, when Lord Castlereagh and Major Sirr were exhibited” and Holloway that the Irish airs played by the augmented orchestra “were taken up by the audience & sung.” As the evening wore on, audience behaviour grew more explicitly political. “At the last performance of the film on Monday night,” the Bioscope reported, “a large section of the audience sang the song, ‘A Nation Once Again’” (“Irish Film Suppressed”). The military observer advised Bryan Mahon that “the film in question was likely to cause disaffection, owing to the cheering of the crowd at portions of the Film, the hissing of soldiers who appeared in the Film and the cries made by the audience” (CSORP).

As a result, Mahon decided to ban the screenings, but on finding that Sparling had sought and got permission from the military censor, he agreed to try cutting the film further and observe how the Tuesday night screening would be received. “The result of the reports of Tuesday night were more adverse than those of Monday night,” O’Farrell noted, “and in consequence Sir B. Mahon issued an order prohibiting the performance of the Film throughout Ireland, which was served on Mr. Sparling at about 1 o/c on Wed. Afternoon” (CSORP).

The order served to Sparling made clear that the audience’s behaviour caused the prohibition:

The reports received from witnesses, of the affect produced on the audience at the display of the above Film last night, the 9th inst., and the seditious and disloyal conduct apparently caused thereby, make it clear that the further exhibition of the Film in Ireland is likely to cause disaffection to His Majesty, and to prejudice the recruiting of His Majesty’s forces.

I therefore forbid any further exhibition of the said Film in Ireland, and hereby warn you that any further such exhibition will be dealt with under the Defence of the Realm Consolidated Regulations, 1914.

“The Military only allowed Ireland a Nation ‘for two days only,’ at Rotunda,” Holloway lamented. He also pointed out that even the posters did not escape the general prohibition: “In O’Connell Street a man was pasting green sheets of paper on the announcement on the hoarding of IRELAND A NATION.  Only a field of green would soon show where Ireland a nation once proclaimed itself.”


Despite the authorities’ efforts to cover over all traces of the film, it continued to be discussed in the following weeks and years. Indeed, Ireland a Nation was and is one of the most significant films of the 1910s in Ireland. In part, this was because its title made it a particular attraction for nationalists at this historical moment, as Holloway suggested, but there are other reasons. Its fascination for nationalists in the aftermath of the Rising made it also of interest to the police and military, who rarely gave much attention to films. As a result, the nature and extent of the surviving sources on the film – particularly Holloway’s diary entries and the official police and military documents – are unusually varied and comprehensive. They allows us to say something about individual screenings of the film in Dublin on 8 January 1917, especially in relation to audience response, which is often the least documented element of an individual film showing.

Ireland a Nation also appeared in Ireland at a significant moment in the press engagement with cinema. The Freeman’s Journal, one of the country’s main daily papers, published an editorial on cinema on 6 January, the Saturday before the film opened. This was not, however, focused on the film, but on the fact that since cinema had taken the place of live theatre, it was “imperative that we should consider how the new theatre can be made subservient to the public utility” (“Cinema”). Nevertheless, with the excitement caused by the release of Ireland a Nation and then its prohibition, cinema had unprecedented visibility on the editorial and news pages of Dublin’s and Ireland’s newspapers well into mid-January.

The debut of the Irish Limelight in January 1917 clearly represented an extremely significant development, not only in its contribution to cinema’s visibility that month but also in its promotion of a more extensive and sophisticated public discourse on cinema over the three years it remained in print. The Limelight was published by Jack Warren, the editor of the Constabulary Gazette, who “for a very long time has taken a serious interest in the cinema world” (Paddy). Because it was a monthly journal, however, the first issue was published before the Ireland a Nation controversy at the Rotunda. The February issue, however, included two significant items on the film: one on its historical inaccuracies and the other – already mentioned – on its ill-fated Irish exhibition. With Warren’s police contacts, the latter could no doubt have provided more insight into the banning than attributing it to the workings of “Dame Fortune.”

As was the case for most of the articles in the Limelight, no author was named for the historical inaccuracies piece, which was instead attributed to a “Student of Irish History” who had sent in a letter in the wake of the banning. Although this correspondent detailed the film’s historical mistakes, s/he nonetheless considered them “too patently ridiculous to call for serious criticisms.” Not that s/he thought the film irredeemably bad, arguing that “the theme was treated by both producer and players with every sympathy and respect, and with a clear eye to propagandism as well as simple picture setting.” Such errors as showing revolutionary priest Fr John Murphy reacting to the 1800 Act of Union when he had been executed in 1798 would have been obvious to any contemporary Irish person with an interest in history. Having pointed out such anachronisms, the writer accounted for them as arising from “a desire to get in prominent figures in the Ireland of the period and weave them into a complete story without any regard for chronological order or historical connection” (“Irish Film Suppressed”).

ireland-a-nation-erin-sculpts

Erin, the figure of Ireland, inscribes Emmet’s epitaph onto his headstone in Ireland a Nation.

Ireland a Nation argues that the telling of tales is a political act, and that was certainly the case in Ireland in 1917. But this was not the end of the film in Ireland or indeed in America. It was revived – indeed reinvented – first in America and then in Ireland. One of its most vivid storytelling motifs relates to Robert Emmet, who having being condemned to death, famously declared that his grave should be unmarked: “When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth,” he ordered in his famous speech from the dock, “then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written.” In the film, a woman representing Erin, the embodiment of Ireland, inscribes an epitaph onto Emmet’s gravestone because with Home Rule, Irish nationhood had seemingly been achieved. When Ireland a Nation was revived in America in 1920, this material was out of date, and Ireland had not been granted Home Rule. As a result, later newsreel footage of Sinn Féin leader Eamon De Valera’s visiting New York in 1919 to seek recognition of an independent Ireland was added as a further inscribing of the national story. Later again, newsreel of the Irish War of Independence and the funeral of republican hunger striker Terence McSwiney was included.

It was only with the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922 that this film – an incomplete version of which still survives – could be shown in Ireland. The political situation had again changed dramatically in the aftermath of the debates on the Anglo-Irish Treaty by the Dáil (Irish parliament). At least part of Ireland was in some way independent, and one of Dublin’s largest cinemas celebrated by giving an uninterrupted run of Ireland a Nation.

References

“Between the Spools.” Irish Limelight 1:2 (Feb. 1917): 19.

“The Cinema.” Freeman’s Journal 6 Jan. 1917: 4.

CSORP/1919/11025. National Archives of Ireland.

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

“The ‘Ireland a Nation’ Film: Criticisms of Historical Inaccuracies.” Irish Limelight 1:2 (Feb. 1917): 3.

“Irish Film Suppressed: ‘Ireland a Nation’: Military Stop Exhibition at Dublin.” Bioscope 18 Jan. 1917.

“Irish History Films: ‘Ireland a Nation’ at the Rotunda.” Freeman’s Journal 9 Jan. 1917: 3.

McElravy, Robert. “‘Ireland a Nation’: Five-Reel Production Giving Irish History in Picture Form.” Moving Picture World 3 Oct. 1914: 67.

“Rotunda Pictures.” Irish Times 9 Jan. 1917: 3.

Irish Cinema and Population Control in November 1916

District Attorney Richard Walton (Tyrone Power) stands over the body of his wife (Helen Riaume), whom he has thrown to the ground after learning she has had multiple abortions in Where Are My Children? (US: Universal, 1916). Image from the Women Film Pioneers Project.

District Attorney Richard Walton (Tyrone Power) stands over the body of his wife (Helen Riaume), whom he has thrown to the ground after learning she has had multiple abortions in Where Are My Children? (US: Universal, 1916). Image from the Women Film Pioneers Project.

Cinema representations of birth control and abortion caused anxieties in Ireland a century ago, illustrating some of the class and gender questions the new medium brought to the fore in late 1916. “All thoughtful citizens look forward to the day when the cinematograph will be a great instrument of public education,” began a lead article in the Irish Times of 2 November 1916. “When it claims the right, however, to deal with moral and medical questions of the utmost gravity and delicacy we confess to misgivings” (“Morality Films”).

The occasion of these misgivings was the 8 November exhibition in London of Where Are My Children? (US: Universal, 1916). This film had been co-written and co-directed by Lois Weber, one of the most prominent of early women filmmakers, whose adaptation of the opera The Dumb Girl of Portici (US: Universal, 1916) was on release in Ireland at this time. That Where Are My Children? – or indeed The Dumb Girl of Portici – had been made by a woman writer-director was not the issue or even mentioned by the writer in the Times, who was probably not aware of the fact; even the British trade journal Bioscope misnamed her Louis Weber (“‘Where Are My Children?’”). The Times’ problem was that taboo subject matter was being treated by a popular media form and therefore risked being seen by the wrong sorts of people and in contexts in which it could not be properly controlled by the established authorities in the area, doctors and clerics.

An ad for a powder that relieves a

The cinema was the occasion for another medical intervention in late 1916, when this ad suggested that a cinemagoer take Daisy powder to relieve her “cinema headache.” Sunday Independent 10 Dec. 1916: 5.

However, the first exhibition that the Times referred to was to be to a “distinguished audience” that included “the Duchess of Marlborough, Lady Sydenham, the Bishop of Barking, the Chief Rabbi, the Rev. F. B. Meyer, Sir Home Gordon, Sir John Kirk, Mr. Joynston-Hicks, M.P., Dr Saleeby, Principal Garvie, and many others” (“The Birth-Limitation Picture”). Despite this litany of the thoroughly right people from the aristocracy, government and clergy, the Irish Times was not impressed that the film had been passed by the National Council of Public Morals, which

can furnish no guarantee that the public exhibitions of this film which illustrates “the wrecking of happiness and health,” will always be confined to spectators who are interested in “social uplifting.” There is a danger, it seems to us, that such exhibitions may tend, in the main, to give a stimulus to prurient curiosity.

where-are-my-children-bn-9-mar-1918p5

The first Irish screenings of Where Are My Children? appear to have been at Belfast’s Grand Opera House in early 1918; it seems not to have been shown in Dublin. Belfast News-Letter 9 Mar. 1918: 5.

To prevent such prurience even in its own readers, the Times was a little coy in describing what the film’s problematic subject matter actually was, merely quoting a synopsis that called it “a social photo-drama dealing with some of the causes and effects of the declining birthrate,” Apart from the concern to avoid crudity, this coyness was also no doubt due to the fact that the writer had not seen the film, and indeed probably never saw it because it seems never to have been publicly shown in Dublin. Even though s/he also had also not seen it at the time of writing, a writer at the cinema trade journal Bioscope was more explicit: “The plot, we understand, introduces the subject of illegal operations, and treats boldly of their physical and moral results.”

The Irish Times was not above joining in with the frivolity offered by cinema. The Weekly Irish Times printed episodes from the serial The Red Circle (US: Balboa, 1915) while it was showing at Dublin's Dame Street Picture House and Electric Theatre, Talbot Street. Ad for the Irish Times 4 Nov. 1916: 4.

The Irish Times was not above joining in with the frivolity offered by cinema. The Weekly Irish Times printed episodes from the serial The Red Circle (US: Balboa, 1915) while it was showing at Dublin’s Dame Street Picture House and Electric Theatre, Talbot Street. Ad for the Irish Times 4 Nov. 1916: 4.

Although the Times considered issues of sexual health and mores to be beyond the competence of a cinema whose “uses are still mainly frivolous,” the leader writer indicated several areas in which cinema was making progress as a public educator. The epitome of this role was “[t]he official films from the various battle fronts[, which] illustrate the methods of modern war for the stay-at-home taxpayer.” Certainly, The Battle of the Somme continued its triumphant progress among not only taxpayers in the cities but also those in towns across the country, with well-advertised runs in November at Mullingar’s National Picture Palace (9-11 Nov), Jameson’s Picture Palace in Queenstown (Nov. 27-29), Carlow’s Burrin Street Picture House (Nov 30-Dec 2), Kildare Picture Palace (Nov 30-Dec 2) and Omagh’s Picture House (Dec. 4-6).

Dublin's Theatre Royal showing matinees of the official Italian war film On the Way to Gorizia; Dublin Evening Mail 6 Nov. 1916: 2.

Dublin’s Theatre Royal showing matinees of the official Italian war film On the Way to Gorizia; Dublin Evening Mail 6 Nov. 1916: 2.

Meanwhile, war films continued to premiere at special matinees at Dublin’s Theatre Royal. In November 1916, these including the official Italian war film On the Road to Gorizia (Nov. 6-11), which was exhibited under the patronage of the Lord Lieutenant and the Italian ambassador, and the French war film The Allies on the Eastern Front (Nov. 27-Dec. 2), which was shown with Tank Cartoons, about which the Dublin Evening Mail enthused – quoting the publicity material – the “[t]he man who invented the tanks, whoever he may be, is a genius, but the man who conceived this film is more – he is a genius, a humourist, and an artiste rolled into one” (“War Films at the Theatre Royal”).

For the Times writer, this kind of film – but perhaps not the at-least-somewhat-frivilous cartoons – provided a model for cinema’s wider role as the public educator of the near future. “When peace returns the State should be able, by the same means,” s/he argued, “to instruct the public in matters concerning trade policy, the opening of new markets, and the development of national industries.” As well as this, “the cinematograph may be in general use in the technical schools and universities for the teaching of mechanics and engineering.”

But the cinema had not yet attained this role of general usefulness to the state, and the picture houses remained too likely to be the refuge of shirkers and of idlers rather than of citizens informed about imperial economics and of scholar-technicians. In mid-November 1916, the Weekly Irish Times reprinted a report from the London Times on the halt in Irish recruiting: “[in Dublin,] a man of military age, even if he be a young man of the cap brigade, may loiter at street corners, saunter about the city, or seat himself in a Picture House or Music hall in the full confidence that no recruiting sergeant, official or self-appointed, will come along to trouble him” (“Recruiting in Ireland”). Not enough was, apparently, being done in Dublin to force young working-class men onto the battlefields, but with growing ubiquity of propaganda film, the picture houses were presumably not the refuge they once might have been.

The map shows the location of Asylum Yard (ringed) and the Brunswick Street Picture House (red block) that

This map shows the location of Asylum Yard (ringed) and the Brunswick Street Picture House (red block).

Nevertheless, four Dublin working-class teenage boys – William Byrne, Patrick Carey, Edward McDonnell and Myles Brady – seem to have enjoyed an evening at the end of October at a picture house, likely the one at 30 Great Brunswick (now Pearse) Street, which was the one nearest to where they lived. However, the reason that a record of their outing survives is that the events of their evening landed them in court and the case was reported in the newspapers. Arriving home late to their homes in the area between Townsend Street and Brunswick Street, Byrne, Carey, McDonnell and Brady found themselves locked out. They took shelter in 12 Asylum Yard, burning floorboards and window sashes to keep warm (“After the Pictures”). In a sense, the press accounts provide just one more of the numerous reports of the period that invoke the increasingly inevitable constellation of young working-class boys/men, picture houses and criminality (see here, here and here). Despite potential, cinema was still a juvenile, delinquent medium; it needed to mature and be disciplined.

Report of the Departmental committee appointed by the Local government board for Ireland to inquire into the housing conditions of the working classes in the City of Dublin

From the Report of the Departmental committee appointed by the Local government board for Ireland to inquire into the housing conditions of the working classes in the City of Dublin (Dublin, 1914). Available from Dublin City Libraries’ Derelict Dublin collection.

Some of the details of the case, however, point the finger of criminality in another direction. The name Asylum Yard was among those that became notorious in the aftermath of the 1913 collapse of tenements in Church Street. Asylum Yard housed more than a hundred people in 20 unsanitary dilapidated cottages, 15 of which – the highest number of any street in the city – had been condemned by Dublin Corporation in 1912 as unfit for human habitation and ordered to be demolished if not repaired within a given time (“Tenements Unfit for Habitation”). When on 1 November 1916, the four boys appeared in the city’s Southern Police Court charged with causing malicious harm to 12 Asylum Yard, it was also revealed that this cottage was owned by Arabella Mitchell of Tivoli Terrace, Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire). The contrast in housing standards between Tivoli Terrace and Asylum Yard – and the inequalities of the people who lived in them – would have been difficult to exaggerate.

Cinema features strongly among the small ads in the Irish Independent, 2 Nov 1916: 2.

Cinema featured strongly among the small ads in the Irish Independent, 2 Nov 1916: 2.

If cinema played some part in relieving the misery of the lives of those forced to live Dublin’s slums, it was worth defending.

References

“After the Pictures: City Boys’ Night Out.” Dublin Evening Mail 1 Nov. 1916: 2.

“The Birth-Limitation Picture: Delicate Subject Discussed on the Screen.” Bioscope 9 Nov. 1916: 561.

“Cinema and Youths.” Evening Herald 1 Nov. 1916: 2.

“Morality Films.” Irish Times 2 Nov 1916: 4.

“Recruiting in Ireland.” Weekly Irish Times 18 Nov. 1916: 3.

“Tenements Unfit for Habitation: Corporation Inaction: Instructive Figures on Death-Traps.” Irish Independent 11 Sep. 1913: 5.

“War Films at the Theatre Royal: The Allies on the Eastern Front.” Dublin Evening Mail 17 Nov. 1916: 5.

“‘Where Are My Children?’ Special Review of Remarkable Film Sermon.” Bioscope 16 Nov. 1916: 631.

Watched by Millions of Eyes: Irish Cinema’s Manifold Potentialities in October 1916

British military personnel sift through the wreckage of Airship SL11, shot down near Cuffley, Hertfordshire, on 3 September 1916. Image from Europeana.

British military personnel sift through the wreckage of Airship SL11, shot down near Cuffley, Hertfordshire, on 3 September 1916. Image from Europeana.

“The potentialities of the picture-theatre are truly manifold,” a writer in the Belfast Evening Telegraph contended in a lengthy article at the end of September 1916. “The cinematograph is the popular drama of the day,” s/he argued; “it arrests the eye, and is led by its avenues straight to the heart. It has touched a public which every day is growing vaster.” Although the ability of cinema to show things that could only be told about on the stage was particularly highlighted by the article’s subheading – “Shows What Theatre Only Tells” – the potentialities were widespread, ranging from the cheapness and comfort of picture-house seating, through the advantages of its complete darkness to a young man and his sweetheart, and on to cinema’s promotion of temperance among the poor. Cinema’s commercial nature and its potential for harm were also addressed, with the article concluding that “[b]eing a commercial concern […] the entrepreneurs of cinemas provide the people with what is most likely to pay, and, as in the boxing ring, where the cry is for gore, so in the cinema the authorities find it in their interests to yield to the popular clamour for sensation” (“Cinema’s Popularity”).

Film lover Dr Knott. Holloway Diaries.

Joseph Holloway sketched film enthusiast Dr John Knott in his diary in August 1914. National Library of Ireland.

In the course of a chat on the tram into Dublin city centre on 26 October 1916, architect and diarist Joseph Holloway heard from his young neighbour Jack Murray that the growing popularity of cinema over theatre had to do with the speed of the new medium. “Then he told me,” Holloway wrote, “he was mad on Movies & went at least twice a week to see them. He saw Bella Donna on the pictures & afterwards saw it at Gaiety when he found it hard to sit out,– it dragged so & was so slow.” When Holloway told Murray that several prominent Dublin citizens also had a picture-house “infatuation” – including dancing teacher Professor Maginni, authors Æ and D. J. O’Donoghue, and Dr John Knott – “he said he was pleased to be in such good company in his taste” (Holloway 26 Oct 1916: 1002).

Leaflet issued by the National Union of Women Workers of Great Britain and Ireland. Available at Century Ireland.

Leaflet issued by the National Union of Women Workers of Great Britain and Ireland. Available at Century Ireland.

“Comedy, tragedy and melodrama,” the Telegraph writer observed on cinema’s potential for speed; “[t]he picture palace caters for the whole of these, and they pop up successively in the space of a few minutes.” Not everyone was so impressed by this potentiality. At a meeting of the Dublin branch of the National Union of Women Workers (NUWW) of Great Britain and Ireland, the Hon. Mrs. Frankland argued that “it was not good for children to see different things as quickly as they did in picture houses.” Unlike the working-class Irish Women Workers’ Union founded by Delia Larkin in 1911, the Dublin branch of the NUWW had been “formed at a Drawingroom meeting held, by invitation of Lady Wright, in November” 1915. At a subsequent meeting in June 1916, Wright was elected president of the branch, “and a resolution was passed urging the appointment of women police in Dublin, submitted by the Irish Girls’ Protection Crusade”. By the time of the October meeting, picture houses had come to the NUWW’s attention as suitable for patrols. “With regard to cinemas,” Frankland reported, “about which people were thinking a good deal, though they had their educational value, they also had possibilities for harm.” A model for activity in Dublin was provided by branches in Britain, where “[s]ome of the police authorities had asked the Union to lead some of their patrols to go round to cinemas and report on various questions, such as lighting, general control of buildings, etc.” (“Union of Women Workers”).

However, British exhibitors vigorously opposed the activities of “lady inspectors.” Noting that a Birmingham cinema owner had been pleasantly surprised by the lady inspector who visited his business, Rambler in the Bioscope’s regular “Round and About” column on 19 October 1916 commented rhetorically that “[t]here is no reason to doubt the charm and tact of lady inspectors; the point is, are they properly qualified to give an opinion on the suitability of films?” The title of another article in the same issue described lady inspectors of another organization, the Women’s Local Government Society, as “Spies Manufactured Wholesale!” with the unambiguous subtitle “A Glimpse of the British Prude Factory at Work.” “It is a colossal outrage,” it concluded, “that a crew of impertinent idlers should be allowed to make themselves public nuisances in the name of public interest. And this is war-time?”

The appointment of lady inspectors of cinemas would take some time in Dublin, but concern about cinema’s potential for harm manifest itself in renewed efforts to introduce Irish film censorship in October 1916. “I am gratified to observe that the crusade against sheer indecency in our theatres has promptly borne fruit,” columnist the Man About Town told readers of Dublin’s Evening Herald on 6 October:

I know one cinema house where a certain picture which claimed to be artistic, but was nothing but an appeal to the lowest human passions, was not shown after the “trial” exhibition. Cutting down and chopping was no use. The film was considered valueless without the objectionable features!

The crusade against indecency in cinemas was waged with particular vigour by the Catholic Irish Vigilance Association (IVA), which in June had welcomed the appointment by Dublin Corporation’s Public Health Committee of building inspector Walter Butler and Councillor Patrick Lennon as film censors. At the same time, the IVA had criticized the delay in putting the censors to work, which required the confirmation of the whole Corporation, and this did not happen until the 2 October. On that day, a deputation of lay and clerical members of the IVA addressed the meeting. Canon Dunne urged that the wording of the Corporation’s licence be emended to ensure that the job could not be done by “a man from some other country, a man from the Continent, or a man who was connected with some of these [picture] houses.”  IVA solicitor Thomas Deering appealed to the nationalism of the majority of councillors: “When the English Parliament put this power into their hands he did not see why the Council should hesitate to exercise this small measure of Home Rule” (“Censorship of Films”).

On 9 October 1916, the Corporation effectively introduced local film censorship by adopting the Public Health Committee’s report but with the IVA’s emended stipulation that “[a]ll films exhibited shall bear the mark of the Censor of Cinematograph Films for the City of Dublin or any censor duly appointed in Ireland pursuant to the Cinematograph Act, 1909” (“Cinema Films”). The IVA condemned the four councillors – out of 47 – who voted against adoption of the report. One of these, Councillor John Ryan wrote to the Freeman’s Journal explaining that he voted against the appointment of Butler and Lennon not because he opposed censorship but because “it is impossible for two men to examine and pass (or otherwise) all the films shown in twenty-six picture houses simultaneously.” He explained that

[t]he films arrive in Dubllin on Monday and Thursday mornings and are screened at one o’clock thus leaving about three hours for examination. As it takes about two hours to show a programme in each house, viz., fifty-two hours in all, I cannot yet see how two men are to accomplish it. (“Cinemas and Censors” 17 Oct.)

This was a legitimate point, albeit with some exaggeration. However, the IVA disputed it without addressing Ryan’s argument about the sheer number of films but by merely asserting that such unimpeachable authorities as Dublin’s Archbishop, Alderman Lorcan Sherlock and the two censors themselves said it could be done (“Cinemas and Censors” 20 Oct.).

Cinema’s potentialities were evident to the newspapers, who in their reporting of film censorship and other cinema-related matters in October were also positioning themselves in relation to the new medium. Most of the Catholic nationalist papers, including the Freeman’s Journal, Irish Independent and Evening Herald positioned themselves in opposition to cinema by actively supporting the campaign to introduce film censorship. A Herald editorial, for example, noted with satisfaction Home Secretary Herbert Samuel’s speech on 23 October, in which he undertook to introduce a centralized official film censorship (“Censorship of Cinemas”). Such a stance did not mean that these newspapers in any sense rejected the revenues from cinema advertising on their entertainment pages. Such ordinary business pragmatics were not to be disrupted by the introduction of film censorship. Indeed, Deering in his address to the Corporation argued that Irish picture-house owners would not be adversely affected by censorship because “there were hundreds and thousands of people in the City of Dublin who would neither go to picture houses themselves, not allow their children to go, on account of a certain class of pictures shown there (hear, hear)” (“Censorship of Films”).

Dublin audiences could first experience The Diamond from the Sky serial in written form before seeing it on screen at the Masterpiece and Camden. Dublin Evening Mail 28 Sep. 1916: 8.

Other papers allied themselves more closely with cinema in autumn 1916. These included the Protestant unionist Dublin Evening Mail – along with its sister papers the Daily Express and Irish Weekly Mail. “Now that ‘serials’ are the fashion in the moving picture world,” the Evening Mail observed, “it is gratifying to be able to recommend to the attention of serial readers and picture-goers the wholesome story and film to be published and exhibited in Dublin under the title of ‘The Diamond from the Sky’” (“Diamond from the Sky”). Film serials were by no means a new phenomenon; they had been showing in Ireland since November 1913. And The Diamond from the Sky was not wholly new either; it had already been shown in Irish cities and in such towns as Tralee (beginning 29 May 1916) and Cavan (beginning 10 July 1916). Serials that appeared in newspaper at the same time as they were being screened in the picture houses were also as old as 1913’s What Happened to Mary. The novelty in autumn 1916 was that the story appeared in an Irish paper rather than in a British one.

Lottie Pickford in The Diamond from the Sky (US: American, 1915)

Lottie Pickford in The Diamond from the Sky (US: American, 1915). Image from Wikipedia.

Beginning on 2 September 1916, the story was serialized in weekly episodes in the Irish Weekly Mail. Although “[c]rowded with sensational incidents and full of that ‘punch’ which successful films and stories must always possess,” it was “absolutely free of crude sensationalism, and anything ‘grisly’ in the nature of crime” (“Diamond from the Sky”). Starring Lottie Pickford, sister of the more famous Mary, its title referred to a diamond found in a meteor that became an heirloom of the aristocratic Stanley family, who to ensure a male blood line fatefully buy a baby boy from an unscrupulous gypsy. This wholesome subject matter first hit the screen of the Masterpiece Theatre on, Monday, 4 September to coincide with the story’s release in the previous Saturday’s Weekly Express. It was also being serialized at the same time in the Westmeath Exminer and the Mullingar Cinema Theatre (“Mullingar Cinema Theatre”). The film had a second Dublin run at the Camden Picture House beginning on 29 September, by which point the tie-in with the Express was well out of sync.

With The Miser's Gift, the Dame Street Picture House became the cinema that premiered the Film Company of Ireland's productions. Dublin Evening Mail 26 Oct. 1916: 2

After The Miser’s Gift, the Dame Street Picture House became the cinema that premiered the Film Company of Ireland’s productions. Dublin Evening Mail 26 Oct. 1916: 2

Although not noted in contemporary sources, the film The Diamond from the Sky had local interest in its Carlow-born co-director William Desmond Taylor, but more obvious Irish filmmaking interest was raised by the October release of the Film Company of Ireland’s (FCOI’s) second film The Miser’s Gift (Ireland, 1916). The film premiered at Cork’s Coliseum on 12 October, ran at Tralee’s Picturedrome 19-21 October, before opening at Dublin’s Dame on 26 October 1916. In its advertising of the film, the Dame announced that it had secured the “initial presentation of all the films produced by the Film Co.” (“Dame Street Picture House”). The FCOI’s third film, The Food of Love, would open there on 2 November. This arrangement with the Dame seems to have been part of the arrangements that FCOI made in the successful wake of their first film. At the end of September, Paddy, the Irish correspondent at the Bioscope, revealed that they had fitted out their offices at 34 Dame Street with developing rooms and advised that “[s]cenario writer could do very much worse than submit them a sample of their work” (Paddy 28 Sep.). For aspiring scenario writers, the Irish Times recommended J. Farquharson’s Picture Plays and How to Write Them, which included Benedict James’s film scenario for Arthur Pinero’s The Second Mrs Tanqueray, which was on release at Rathmines’ Princess Cinema for the three days beginning Monday 23 October 1916 (“Picture Plays”).

Paddy – identified for the first time in the Bioscope of 28 September 1916 as Godfrey Kilroy of 34 Windsor Road Dublin – assessed The Miser’s Gift as “greatly in advance of the first [film] as regards the quality and if this company stick to their guns they should still be well in the front rank of British producers.” Seeing it at the opening screening, Joseph Holloway noted that Abbey actor J. M. Kerrigan, who also directed,

played the role of miser. It was a story of dreaming of Fairy gold three times & the miser giving as wedding gift the contents of the crock he came by owing to his dreaming. It was effective & interesting & many scenes in the fair at Killaloe etc were really delightful glimpses of country life.

Others were more forceful in promoting the film’s potential to raise the general quality of cinema offerings. “I do not really think that the majority of people can be so degraded n their tastes as to prefer the rubbish trans-Atlantic films to really good pictures,” wrote HTH in a letter to the Evening Herald. S/he thought that by encouraging home produced film such as those from the FCOI, “in time, they would tend to oust numbers of inanities and vulgarities which at present fill up the programmes of nearly every cinema theatre. Such pictures would elevate the mind as well as to amuse, and they would be clean” (“Clean Amusement”).

James J. Fisher wasthe Irish agent for the official war films; Dublin Evening Mail 31 Oct. 1916: 2

James J. Fisher was the Irish agent for the official war films; Dublin Evening Mail 31 Oct. 1916: 2.

While the potential of Irish film production was just beginning to be realized, cinema’s role in wartime propaganda was quickly developing with a realization that military technology offered opportunities for the kind of spectacle that could harness the popular audience to the war effort. Newspapers that had long carried sensational stories of submarines, airships and airplanes now added accounts of such innovations as tanks – first mentioned in mid-September 1916 – and flamethrowers (“German Flame Attacks”). Artillery, tanks and flamethrowers would remain battlefield weapons, but long-range weapons that brought the war to civilian populations had a particular ideological charge that could be exploited by filmmakers. Nevertheless, the press remained the fast news medium, with newspapers offering lengthy and vivid accounts of successes against the feared airships. On the night of 1 October, an airship downed near London was reported to have been “watched by millions of eyes as it fell, lighting up earth and sky like some great celestial torch” (“Another Zeppelin”). This and other reports appeared in Irish papers on 2 October, and although by the following day, Dublin’s Picture House, Grafton Street and Masterpiece Theatre were showing a film of downed Zeppelins, it was  The Wrecked Zeppelins in Essex (Britain: Gaumont/War Office, 1916), which had been filmed the previous week.

Beyond their news value, however, the official war films were also popular in Ireland, following the success of The Battle of the Somme (Britain: British Topical Committee on War Films, 1916). The War Office and film companies recognized the high demand for such films, and in October, James J. Fisher – “military correspondent and author of the work entitled ‘Immortal Deeds of Our Irish Regiments’” (“Battle of the Somme”) – was appointed Irish agent for the British official war films. Fisher premiered the films at Dublin’s largest theatre, the Theatre Royal, usually with military bands providing accompaniment. Despite incidents of Republican attacks on soldiers in the streets of Dublin, several picture houses also exhibited the films. When William Kay took over management of the Rotunda Pictures on 2 October 1916, he arranged with Fisher to show the recently released French film of the battle of the Somme for the week beginning 30 October 1916. The programme included “the wonderful cartoon showing how Lieut. Robinson, V.C., brought down the Zeppelin,” the first official film from the Egyptian front, music by the band of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, and recitations by Sergeant W. H. Jones of the 5th Lancers (“An Attractive Programme,” “Platform and Stage”).

These were just some of cinema’s manifold potentialities in October 1916.

References

“An Attractive Programme.” Dublin Evening Mail 26 Oct 1916: 5.

“Another Zeppelin Brought Down in Flames Near London.” Dublin Evening Mail 2 Oct 1916: 3.

“Censorship of Cinemas.” Evening Herald 24 Oct. 1916: 2.

“Censorship of Films: Deputation to the Corporation.” Freeman’s Journal 3 Oct. 1916: 2.

“Cinema Films: Corporation and Question of Censoring.” Evening Herald 9 Oct. 1916: 2.

“Cinemas and Censors.” Letters. Evening Herald 17 Oct. 1916: 2; 20 Oct. 1916: 2.

“Cinema’s Popularity: Manifold Potentialities: Shows What Theatre Only Tells.” Belfast Evening Telegraph 29 Sep. 1916: 4.

“Clean Amusement: Chance for Good Irish Films.” Evening Herald 23 Oct. 1916: 3.

“Dame Street Picture House.” Dublin Evening Mail 24 Oct. 1916: 4.

“Diamond from the Sky.” Dublin Evening Mail 30 Aug. 1916: 4.

“German Flame Attack: Driven Off by the British.” Dublin Evening Mail 16 Oct. 1916: 3.

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

“Ireland’s Claim.” Dublin Evening Mail 21 Oct. 1916: 2.

The Man About Town. “Things Seen and Heard.” Evening Herald 6 Oct. 1916: 2.

“Mullingar Cinema Theatre.” Westmeath Examiner 7 Oct. 1916: 5.

“Picture Plays.” Irish Times 21 Oct. 1916: 9.

“Platform and Stage.” Irish Times 28 Oct. 1916: 8.

“Provincial.” Weekly Irish Times 28 Oct. 1916: 3.

Rambler. “Round and About.” Bioscope 7 Sep. 1916: 869.

“Spies Manufactured Wholesale!” Bioscope 19 Oct. 1916: 224.

“Union of Women Workers: Meeting of the Dublin Branch: The Work of the Women Patrols.” Irish Times 21 Oct. 1916: 4.

“The Birth of a Nation” in Ireland, Autumn 1916

Theatrical poster; Wikipedia.

Theatrical poster; Wikipedia.

D. W. Griffith’s racist epic The Birth of a Nation (US: Epoch, 1915) caused a sensation when it finally reached Ireland in the autumn of 1916, more for its epic ambitions than for its racism. It played exclusively at just three venues: first, at Belfast’s Grand Opera House, for the three week from 7 to 26 August; next, at Cork’s Opera House for the week of 28 August-2 September; and finally, at Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre for a two-week run from 18 to 30 September. Clever marketing to middle-class tastes, a mastery of filmic spectacle and even its title in a country consumed by a struggle for or against the birth of a more-or-less autonomous nation propelled it into the Irish consciousness like few previous films.

“‘Ireland will never be fit to take its place among nationalities, big or small, until it is recast and remade. It is in the melting-pot now…. What picture of the process of remoulding will the historian of the future give his generation? ” This question from US senator Patrick J. Maguire appeared as “To-Day’s Thought” at the top of the Man About Town’s “Seen and Heard” column in the Evening Herald on 26 September 1916.  In the column’s “Afterthought,” the Man About Town answered: “Why a moving picture, of course – another ‘Birth of a Nation.’” As writers in the Bioscope and Dublin Evening Mail had earlier in the year, the Man About Town thought that the historiography of the near future would be written not on the page but on the screen, with the light of the film camera and projector. Unlike these previous writers who had discussed British propaganda films, the Man About Town was referring to the fictional Birth of a Nation, which was then starting the second of its two-week run at the Gaiety.

Dublin Evening Mail 16 September 1916: 2.

One of a series of large display ads for The Birth of a Nation in the Dublin Evening Mail, this one appeared on 16 September 1916: 2.

“By the way, have you seen it – the ‘Birth of a Nation’ at the Gaiety?” the Man About Town continued, clearly somewhat overwhelmed by this version of the American Civil War and period of Reconstruction that followed it. Focusing on the Northern Stoneman and Southern Cameron families, Griffith depicts the Civil War as a national tragedy, that was followed by the assassination of Abraham Lincoln which allowed such radical Republicans as Austin Stoneman (George Siegmann) – a fictional version of Thaddeus Stevens – to unleash on the defeated South a plague of carpetbaggers and state legislatures of freed blacks incapable of governing even their own behaviour never mind a state. Order could only be restored when Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) founded the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), which restores order and rescues white women from the sexual depredations of black men. Awed by the film’s technical achievements, Irish journalists tended to treat it as a factual retelling of events. “If you fail to see it you are missing a part of your education,” the Man About Town warned. “I have sat out some kinema shows in my time, but nothing to come near this. It’s the greatest screened drama that ever came to Dublin.”

Childhood friends but belonging to opposing Union and Confederate armies, the youngest sons of the Cameron and Stoneman families meet on the battlefield and die in each other's arms.

Childhood friends but belonging to opposing Union and Confederate armies, the youngest sons of the Cameron and Stoneman families meet on the battlefield and die in each other’s arms in The Birth of a Nation.

Under the title “Absolutely It,” Jacques’ review at the Evening Herald concluded that it was “the most enthralling thing in film land ever presented to a Dublin audience” and declared the reviewer lost for words. “If you ask me to give a full and detailed account of all the characters, love stories, historical incidents and thrilling incidents that occurred during the two hours that ‘The Birth of a Nation” reel kept spinning at the Gaiety Theatre last night,” he confided, “I’m sorry to say I can’t do it.” He nevertheless usefully provided what he called “but the baldest outline”:

The film shows us with almost overwhelming detail life in America, both North and South, just previous to and during the course of the Civil War. Mixed up with the fighting we follow the fortunes of two families united by ties of friendship but on opposite sides in the struggle. Then, when the war is over, we see the rising of the blacks, who, thanks to the slushy policy of the North, get all the power into their own hands and become bestial tyrants in consequence.

Kindly before our eyes is pictured the inception of the biggest secret society the world has ever seen, for it embraced every white in the South and yet remained secret. Finally we see how this society – the Ku-Klux-Klan – by the employment of mailed glove methods and working on negroid superstition, was enabled to stamp out the black peril and permit the whites in the Southern States to live without the men carrying their lives (and their six-shooters) in their hands.

Jacques was somewhat unusual among Irish reviewers in focusing on the second, more audaciously racist part of the film, which deals with the Reconstruction, and his use of such terms as “bestial tyrants,” “negroid superstition” and “the black peril” leaves little doubt that he accepted the film’s racism.

The very picture of imperilled femininity, Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish) awaits her forced marriage to the mixed race Silas Lynch in The Birth of a Nation.

In just one climactic instance of racially imperilled femininity, Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish) awaits her forced marriage to the mixed race Silas Lynch in The Birth of a Nation.

The Man About Town largely avoided explicit white-supremacist phrasing but made clear that the film’s affective power – frequently evoked with images of imperilled femininity – was deployed to ensure that the audience identified with Southern whites:

It gives you every emotion in the human gamut. One time you marvel at the beauty of the sunny cottonfields, then you smile at the quaint costumes. You want to kiss and cuddle the sweet young person loved by heroic young men. You feel an all-overness when you see howling mobs surging in flaming towns; you grip yourself at the sight of men amuck smashing and tearing houses above the heads of cellared women; you feel the shock of battle. You laugh and cheer and cry. It’s better than a good play. It’s a marvel.

The reviewer at the Belfast News-Letter contended that the emotional charge was intensified over the film’s three-hour span in order to offer the audience a final release by cheering the KKK. “Historically of the greatest value,” s/he claimed,

“The Birth of a Nation” holds the audience enthralled for over three hours, and the enthusiasm of the spectators waxes stronger and stronger with each succeeding scene, until, towards the close, they seize the opportunity afforded by the thrilling exploits of the Ku Klux Kan [sic] to give vent to their long pent-up emotions in frequent and hearty outbursts of applause. (“Grand Opera House”  BN.)

Only the reviewer at Cork’s Evening Echo in any way questioned the film’s racial politics. “The southern cotton planters were persuaded nature intended the negroes to be bought and sold and to cultivate cotton,” s/he observed, commenting that the “outlook of these planters appears peculiar at the present day,” but undermining what may be a mild criticism by adding that “one can to some extent understand it” (“Opera House”). “Mr. Griffith, it is easy to see, has a strong Southern bias,” the Northern Whig reviewer pointed out, “but this would not matter if it did not lead him to overstate an excellent case.” This overstatement was particularly evident in the depiction of the KKK: “to represent [the KKK] as a new order of chivalry is simply fantastic.” However, the writer’s problem appears to have been historical accuracy – the fact that it “is tinged too deeply with melodrama” – and not racist ideology: “If the Ku-Klux-Klan cannot be adorned with a halo, Mr. Griffith uses it to produce some splendid sensational thrills and the final fight for Piedmont is as good a realistic spectacle as one has ever seen staged” (“Grand Opera House” NW 8 Aug.).

It is possible to track these difference in reception of The Birth of a Nation because it received so much newspaper coverage, and this in turn was because it played exclusively at three of Ireland’s most prestigious theatres rather than at Belfast’s, Cork’s and Dublin’s picture houses. This formed part of a deliberate international exhibition strategy designed to distinguish The Birth of a Nation as a cultural event unlike any previous film screening. Rather than be distributed through existing distribution companies, the film was exhibited in a “road show” format, brought to the cities in which it was to be shown by a travelling company of technical crew and musicians. The company’s arrival was heralded by an elaborate marketing campaign that included large newspaper display ads describing – or rather exaggerating – the film’s unprecedented scale (Stokes 121). The claim repeated most often in Irish newspaper ads related less to the film’s narrative than to the assertion that the extent of the production needed to be measured in the thousands:  18,000 people, 5,000 horses and £10,000 costs.

This ad quoted the overwhelmingly positive reviews in Belfast's papers; Northern Whig 9 Aug. 1916: 7.

This ad quoted the overwhelmingly positive reviews in Belfast’s papers. Notable missing is the nationalist daily Irish News, which did not advertise or review the film. Northern Whig 9 Aug. 1916: 7.

Every ad also carried a note from director D. W. Griffith guaranteeing that “‘The Birth of a Nation’ will never be presented in any but the highest-class theatres and at prices charged for the best theatrical attractions.” Theatrical prestige was financially lucrative. “At both houses yesterday large audiences attended,” the Irish Times’ reviewer noted in the course of a comparatively short review of the Gaiety shows, observing that luxury and expense were sometimes forced on “later comers at the evening performance [who were] unable to obtain admission, except to the dearer parts of the theatre” (“‘Birth of a Nation’” IT). The Irish exhibition of The Birth of a Nation awaited a British road-show company that came – according to the ads – “direct from its sensational success at Drury Lane, London.” As a result, the film had taken a year and half to reach Ireland.

Belfast News-Letter 15 Aug. 1916: 1.

The Panopticon’s “mirth of a nation”; Belfast News-Letter 15 Aug. 1916: 1.

The attempt to suggest that the prestige theatres should be the exhibition spaces for prestige films was, not surprisingly, resisted by picture-house owners. During the Belfast run, the rival Panopticon advertised that if not “the birth of a nation,” it was providing “the mirth of a nation,” albeit that its main feature Burnt Wings (Britain: Broadwest, 1916) – in which a woman adopts her husband’s illegitimate child – does not seem altogether mirthful (“Panopticon”). For distributors of other high-profile films, the choice of picture house or theatre appears to have been more pragmatic. When the most ambitious of the British government’s propaganda films The Battle of the Somme finally opened on 11 September, it was first shown in Dublin at a theatre, the Theatre Royal, but in Belfast, it was shown at the luxurious Picture House, Royal Avenue. “[N]ever have the facts of war been more vividly brought home to people living far away from the scene of action,” the Belfast News-Letter commented. “For this latter feature we are indebted to the pictures which have from time to time been obtained by means of the cinematograph [… F]rom the moment of preparation, all through that deadly, but glorious, First of July, on to the crash of victory, the story is unfolded in all the strength and simplicity which such photography can give ” (“Battle of the Somme”).

Dublin Evening Mail 26 Aug. 1916: 2.

Carmen, a silent-screen opera; Dublin Evening Mail,  26 Aug. 1916: 2.

Undoubtedly, certain picture houses were capable of mounting productions that rivalled the theatres’ biggest spectacles. In the week beginning 28 August, Dublin’s Bohemian capitalized on its acknowledged superiority in musical attractions by exhibiting the opera film Carmen (US: Lasky, 1915), directed by Cecil B. DeMille and starring Metropolitan Opera diva Geraldine Farrar in her first film role. Farrar did not, of course, appear at the Bohemian to sing her part, but the live musical accompaniment by the Bohemian orchestra was supplemented by both concert instrumentalists Achille Simonetti and Clyde Twelvetrees and vocalists Belgian tenor Carlo Berckmans and Irish basso Irvine Lynch.

Although it did not have such vocal attractions, The Birth of a Nation outdid all of these in other ways. One of these was its exceeding length, running almost three times longer than either Carmen or The Battle of the Somme. Indeed, its running time of over three hours was 50-100% longer than most picture-house programmes, which usually consisted of several films. And however exaggerated the figures that appeared in its ads, local reviewers recognized it as an unusually lavish production. “The Grand Opera House was filled to overflowing last night,” the Belfast News-Letter‘s reviewer observed,

and collectively and individually, without exception, the members of the huge audience that peopled the vast auditorium were thrilled to the very core by the stupendous historical drama that was unfolded before their eyes. “The Birth of a Nation” is unquestionably the finest cinematograph production ever seen in this city, but it represents far more than that; it is one of the mightiest and most moving spectacles ever seen upon any stage, and its creation is an epochal event in the history of the art of cinematography. (“Grand Opera House” BN.)

Joseph Holloway saw several films apart from The Birth of a Nation in September 1916, including a second viewing of the Film Company of Ireland’s O’Neil of the Glen, at which he sketched actor J. M. Carre.

Joseph Holloway saw several films apart from The Birth of a Nation in September 1916, including a second viewing of the Film Company of Ireland’s O’Neil of the Glen, at which he sketched actor J. M. Carre.

However, it seems that audiences in Dublin and those in Belfast interpreted the spectacle in different ways. Writing of Dublin, Nicholas Andrew Miller has pointed out that “[i]f the film produced a local political impact on the Irish audience, then, it is not because it narrated Irish historical experience, but because it created a discursive space in which local Irish references – and memories – could appear in the guise of spectacle” (115). Citing the diary of inveterate theatregoer Joseph Holloway, Miller shows that members of the Gaiety audience used the film to criticize post-Easter Rising Ireland. Holloway had attended the Gaiety on 20 September, when he thought the film “stupendous […] & to say that I was thrilled by visiting it is to state but downright fact. It is a story of the War between North & South & its after effect until the negroes were again put in their proper place.”  Holloway also reports that his neighbour Miss Conroy told him of shouts at one of the screenings concerning British Army commander John Maxwell, who had imposed harsh martial law on Dublin in the aftermath of the Rising and had executed 15 of the leaders. The comments came during a scene in the film in which

Lincoln refuses to deal harshly with the Southern Leaders, & says, “he’ll treat them as if nothing occurred at all!” – on a shout coming from one of the audience “where is Sir John Maxwell to hear that?” followed by great approval & the contrary, till she got quite frightened of there being a row.

(The barber’s assistant, who was present at opening show first night, said one on gallery called out after seeing the above incident – “For our second Cromwell!”). (Holloway.)

For Miller, the memories and local references the film evoked related to nationalist politics, in this case, the Easter Rising.

This film ad openly praised the Ku Klux Klan; Belfast News-Letter 3 Aug. 1916: 7.

This film ad openly praised the Ku Klux Klan; Belfast News-Letter 3 Aug. 1916: 7.

The Belfast context was quite different. As no equivalent of Holloway’s diary exists for Belfast and as the Irish News – the city’s main nationalist newspaper – did not advertise or review the Grand Opera House shows, the surviving responses to The Birth of a Nation come from the city’s unionist newspapers. As well as this, the film opened on 7 August, more than a month earlier than in Dublin, putting it in the high summer, when an exodus from the city to seaside resorts was being reported (“Holiday Scenes in Belfast”). “Even in such hot weather as we have been experiencing recently a visit to the Opera House to see the ‘Birth of a Nation’ will not be regretted, but on the other hand will long be remembered with much pleasure by all who pay it” (“Birth of a Nation” NW). Despite this, the film ran for three weeks, a week longer than in Dublin, and the papers reported that the enthusiasm of Belfast audiences had not waned even by its third week, “which finds the film in higher favour than ever. […] Not only is Mr. Griffith’s spectacle continually drawing new admirers but a great many people are discovering that it well repays a second and even a third visit” (“Grand Opera House”  NW 22 Aug.).

For the reviewers in Belfast, the outstanding feature of local relevance in The Birth of Nation was its depiction of war, which made it particularly timely given that the papers were elsewhere reporting on the battles of the Somme and Verdun and at one point, on the increased use of non-white soldiers in battle (“Coloured Men and the War”). “The battle of Petersburg, in which the Federal troops sustained their greatest and final defeat, caused great interest on account of the close analogy it bears to the fighting on the Western front to-day,” the Belfast News-Letter observed, “it was one of the earliest, if not the first occasions in history, on which the contending armies entrenched in the open with the opposing lines only a few yards apart” (“Grand Opera House” BN).

However, the film’s contemporary relevance came  not just for these battlefield details but also from the depiction of the emotions felt by soldiers’ families.

The departure of the troops for the scene of action, the pathos of parting from their friends and relatives, the tragic letters which tell of their devotion and sacrifices, the sorrow and suffering that are bravely endured by grief-stricken parents who have given their sons to their country – all these things are typical of what is happening at the present time. No one can witness this mighty spectacle without being moved to tears. There are scenes of indescribable pathos, and there are also scenes of surpassing beauty and of infinite sweetness and tenderness. (“‘Birth of a Nation’” BN.)

Although a greater emphasis fell on the war scenes in Belfast – “where picture houses thrive and claim thousands of habitués” – it was also true of Dublin and Cork that “[t]he prophesy that the film would create a sensation wherever it was produced has been fulfilled to the letter” (“Grand Opera House” NW 15 Aug.). Irish filmgoers – but not cinemagoers – thronged to see Griffith’s massive spectacle in the autumn of 1916, were duly impressed by it and few had qualms about its racism.

References

“The Battle of the Somme: Historic Film to be Exhibited in Belfast.” Belfast News-Letter 18 Aug. 1916: 8.

“The Birth of a Nation.” Northern Whig 12 Aug. 1916: 6.

“‘The Birth of a Nation’: Impressive Spectacle at the Grand Opera House.” Belfast News-Letter 12 Aug. 1916: 2.

“‘The Birth of a Nation.’” Irish Times 20 Sep. 1916: 3.

“Cinema’s Popularity: Manifold Potentialities: Shows What Theatre Only Tells.” Belfast Evening Telegraph 29 Sep. 1916: 4.

“Coloured Men and the War.” Belfast News-Letter 4 Aug. 1916: 8.

“Grand Opera House: ‘The Birth of a Nation.’” Belfast News-Letter 8 Aug. 1916: 2.

“Grand Opera House: ‘The Birth of a Nation.’” Northern Whig 8 Aug. 1916: 7; 15 Aug. 1916: 7; 22 Aug. 1916: 7.

Holiday Scenes in Belfast: Big Exodus to the Seaside: The Railway Stations Besieged.” Belfast News-Letter 8 Aug. 1916: 4.

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

Hughes, Tom. How Belfast Saw the Light: A Cinematic History. Belfast: Hughes, 2014. Pp. 237-40.

Jacques. “Absolutely It: Amazing Realism at Gaiety Theatre: ‘Birth of a Nation.’” Evening Herald 19 Sep. 1916: 3.

The Man About Town. “Things Seen and Heard.” Evening Herald 26 Sep. 1916: 2.

Miller, Nicholas Andrew. Modernism, Ireland and the Erotics of Memory. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002).

“Opera House: ‘The Birth of a Nation.’” Evening Echo 29 Aug. 1916: 2.

“Panopticon.” Belfast News-Letter 15 Aug. 1916: 2.

Stokes, Melvyn. D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation: A History of “the Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time.” New York: Oxford UP, 2008.