An earlier blog here looked at two new indigenously produced Irish fiction films released in early 1920 – Aimsir Padraig/In the Days of St Patrick and Rosaleen Dhu – and indicated that a later blog would focus on the third new Irish feature of 1920, Willy Reilly and His Colleen Bawn. This is that blog. As a surviving work and arguably the most technically accomplished of Irish films up to 1920, Willy Reilly has received gala screenings over the years, including those by the Irish Film Institute (IFI) with a new score composed by Bernard Reilly in 2007 and in several European cities in 2013. It is frequently shown with a short propaganda film usually called the Dáil Bonds or Republican Loan film, which was made alongside Willy Reilly in the grounds of the Hermitage in Rathfarnham, Dublin, a manor house associated with several executed revolutionaries: it was the home of Sarah Curran, secret lover of leader of the 1803 rebellion Robert Emmet, and the house later became the site of St Enda’s School/Scoil Éanna, the Irish-language school founded on radical educational principles by 1916 rebels Padraig Pearse, his brother Willie and Thomas MacDonagh. Before COVID-19 restrictions made it unfeasible, the IFI planned to mark Willy Reilly’s centenary with an accompanied screening at St Enda’s, now a public park and museum to Pearse.
Produced by the Film Company of Ireland (FCOI), the most important Irish feature producers of the silent period, Willy Reilly is a largely faithful adaptation of William Carleton’s novel Willy Reilly and His Dear Coleen Bawn: A Tale Founded Upon Fact (1855). Directed by John (Jack) MacDonagh, a theatre director and brother of Thomas MacDonagh, the film is set in Co. Cavan during the 18th century when the Penal Laws restricted Catholics’ legal rights. It tells how Catholic landowner Willy Reilly (Brian Magowan) falls in love with Helen Folliard/the Colleen Bawn (Frances Alexander), the daughter of a misguidedly bigoted Protestant landowner Squire Folliard (Dermot O’Dowd) who will only sanction their marriage if Reilly converts. When Reilly refuses, the Squire reluctantly favour the Colleen Bawn’s other suitor, Sir Robert Whitecraft (Seamus MacBlante/Jim Plant), a persecutor of Catholics, who conspires with local bandit the Red Raparee (Barrett McDonnell) to prevent Reilly and the Colleen Bawn eloping and to seize control of Reilly’s land by having him declared a criminal. Whitecraft’s plot is eventually defeated, significantly through the aid of Willy’s Protestant neighbours, including Hastings (Frank Walsh) and Reverend Brown, a clergyman who declares in an intertitle: “I am a Minister of God, Reilly, and I abhor persecution, but rising above ever consideration, is the fact that we are fellow Irishmen.”
Willy Reilly has received considerable attention from those writing about Irish film history. Among the best of that writing has focused on how the film, despite its historical setting, provides a commentary on the politics of Ireland during the War of Independence (1919-21). This blog will take a different tack by focusing on little-considered details of the film’s genesis and circulation. While much ingenious interpretation of the film has speculated on how audiences would have read certain characters and events, few writers have paused to consider who actually saw the film at the time of its release. The recourse to textual interpretation in lieu of contextual exploration is in many ways understandable because although the film’s survival presents us with an unmistakable artefact from the period, much about the making and showing of the film is obscure. One detail of the film’s circulation that is not particularly obscure but that tends to get overlooked is the fact that it did not premiere at Dublin’s Bohemian Picture Theatre on 19 April 1920 in order to coincide on 24-29 April with the anniversary of the Easter Rising (Rockett, Gibbons and Hill 27). The film did first play before a paying audience in Dublin at the Bohemian on 19-24 April 1920, but this was not the film’s premiere. The film had premiered in Manchester almost four months earlier.
This is an intriguing detail. Given how much the Film Company of Ireland (FCOI) had always stressed its all-Irishness, why did it premiere Willy Reilly and His Colleen Bawn (Ireland: FCOI, 1920), the film that would prove to be its last major feature, at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall on 5 January 1920? This seemingly anomalous decision right at the start of the film’s public life seems to epitomize the dilemmas of a company with stated ambitions to represent the nation in the commercial art form of cinema. Two years earlier, the company had been so concerned with the significance of place that it had premiered its previous epic, Knocknagow (Ireland: FCOI, 1918), not in any of Ireland’s cities where it could draw its audiences from populations in the 100,000s – at least in Dublin and Belfast – but in Clonmel, a town with a population of little over 10,000 people but which was intimately connected with the novel on which the film was based and with its author and revolutionary, Charles Kickham.
Clearly a different logic was at work with the distribution and exhibition of Willy Reilly, one that although not entirely clear, appears to have been a concession less to the expression of national – or even local – culture than to FCOI’s need for audiences abroad to ensure its commercial viability. From a business point of view, FCOI appears to have opted for what it hoped would be an opening that would attract large audiences and considerable advertising. In terms of sheer numbers of people, Manchester had a population larger than Belfast and Dublin combined and a substantial Irish community. Why the company did not pursue the even larger audiences in Liverpool, which was regarded as an even more “Irish” city, or indeed, the potentially vast audiences of London, the heart of British cinema, is a mystery.
Also puzzling is the fact that, rather than securing a deal with a British distribution company, FCOI opted to distribute the films itself. Whether this was a decision based on principle or because no British distributor would take the film at a rate acceptable to FCOI is not clear. Davison’s Film Sales Agency had distributed some of the films FCOI had made in its first production season in 1916, but its 1917 productions appear not to have been released in Britain, except for Knocknagow, which was belatedly trade shown at London’s New Gallery on 10 October 1919 and reviewed in the Bioscope the following week as a “Native Irish production fully flavoured with political sympathies – interesting production needing thorough revision” (“Forthcoming Trade Shows,” “Knocknagow”). It fared little better among Manchester’s exhibitors when shown with Willy Reilly in January 1920. “The Irish film ‘Knocknagow,’” wrote the Bioscope’s “Manchester Notes” columnist, “which is being shown to the public at the Manchester Free Trade Hall this week, is not likely to set the Thames on fire. Many local exhibitors who have visited the hall are unanimous in their lack of praise for the subject.”
Despite this none-too-favourable reception, the release of Knocknagow in Britain does show FCOI functioning by continuing to distribute its existing films as well as in producing and releasing new work such as Willy Reilly. This was a positive sign for the company after a year that had been commercially chaotic and personally tragic for some of its key members, as we’ll explore further. But as well as this, Irish commentators were already preparing to counter a similarly negative reception of Willy Reilly in the British press. “One would hardly think that England would be the most fruitful ground for the presentation of an Irish production, especially such a thoroughly Irish story as Carleton’s ‘Willy Reilly,’” a writer, possibly JAP, in Dublin’s Evening Telegraph commented at the end of January 1920,
and yet the Film Company of Ireland did not hesitate to put the picture to the severe test when, for the first time, it was shown in the free Trade Hall, Manchester, perhaps the largest assembly hall where a picture can be shown in Great Britain, and the marvel is that all records were broken in attendance. Our Irish company outstripped the success achieved in the same place such world-known films as “The Life of Kitchener,” “The Birth of a Nation,” “Intolerance,” and “Civilisation.”
This was staunch support for FCOI from the Telegraph and particularly JAP, if it was he, because he had been critical of Knocknagow, particularly its script, on its release in 1918.
While the Manchester premiere suggests that FCOI did expect England to be fruitful ground for Irish films, it might be worth asking who was deciding on the company’s strategy. But lack of documentation make this difficult to establish. Ongoing changes suggest that it would be wrong to emphasize continuity: the FCOI that released Knocknagow into the British market in October 1919 and premiered Willy Reilly in Manchester in January 1920 appears to have been a substantially different entity to the one that had released Knocknagow in Clonmel in January 1917. Founded by James Mark Sullivan and Henry Fitzgibbon in Dublin in March 1916, the company had initially been wound up in order to be restructured in June 1917, on foot of a case taken by Sullivan’s wife, Ellen O’Mara Sullivan. As a substantial investor in a company with considerable debt, O’Mara Sullivan sought to remove Fitzgibbon, whose absence in America with no plans to return had legally paralyzed the company. That action provides early evidence that O’Mara Sullivan was centrally involved in running FCOI in mid-1917, making her Ireland’s pioneering woman film producer. As several writers have shown, O’Mara Sullivan ran the company alongside her husband, with the most substantial documentary evidence coming from their promotion of FCOI films in the United States in mid-1918 to early 1919 (Casella, Felter &Schultz, Schultz & Felter).
Her tragic death prevented O’Mara Sullivan involvement in the production of Willy Reilly. Shipping and civil records show that in mid-January 1919, O’Mara Sullivan returned to Ireland, where she tended one of their children, Donal Dhu, who was serious ill and subsequently died on 10 April. “The sympathy of the Trade in Ireland will be extended to Mr. and Mrs. Sullivan of the Film Company of Ireland, upon the death of their son James, aged eight,” Fingal wrote, somewhat erroneously, in the Biosocpe (“Irish Notes” 17 Apr). Sullivan arrived back in Ireland a week later, but O’Mara Sullivan herself died of typhoid on 17 May 1919. “The sympathies of the Trade not only in Ireland, but across the Atlantic, will go out to Mr. James Mark Sullivan, managing director of the Film Company of Ireland, on the death of his wife,” commented JAP, in what was her most extensive trade obituary.
It is not many weeks since Mrs. Sullivan had to meet her husband at Liverpool on his return from America (where he had been marketing “Knocknagow,” and other Irish-made films), and break to him the news of the death of their young son. It is possible that the strain of nursing the boy through this last illness had an injurious effect upon Mrs. Sullivan’s own health. She passed away in her native city of Limerick, where her people have been prominent in civic life for generations.
Mrs. Sullivan took a very keen interest in the business of the Film Company of Ireland, and delighted to acquire an intimate knowledge of every detail of production. Her death will delay slightly the company’s projects for this summer, but they will not be abandoned. (“Irish Notes” 5 Jun.).
Some pre-production work had been undertaken by the time of the O’Mara Sullivan’s death, but it seems unlikely that she or Sullivan can have been much involved at that point given her own illness and given the recent death of their son. Nevertheless, it was to Sullivan’s imminent arrival back in Ireland and FCOI’s activities during the summer production season that Fingal devoted much of a Bioscope “Irish Notes” column on 24 April. “Already the Film Co. of Ireland are engaging their artists,” it revealed. “Bryan McGowan, whose Matt the Thrasher was a feature of the ‘Knocknagow’ film, Breffni O’Rorke one of the foremost Irish actors who has many English and Scottish tours to his credit, and Mrs. O’Rorke are amongst the players who will appear in this firm’s next productions.” These few details were all Fingal knew of the production at this stage, not even a title was mentioned, and some of these casting decisions would turn out to be mistaken or to have changed by the time of shooting. Although Brian Magowan would star as Willy Reilly, neither Breffni O’Rorke nor his wife Alice Cole would feature.
Few other details of the production were mentioned in the press during the summer of 1919. This contrasts markedly to Norman Whitten’s generation of publicity during the making of Aimsir Padraig/In the Days of St Patrick in the same period, when Whitten courted the press even to the extent of having journalists act in crowd scenes and was rewarded with a steady stream of mentions in newspapers throughout the production period. A very different dynamic of secrecy existed around the set of Willy Reilly and FCOI in general. This is usually explained by the fact that several members of the cast and company were well-known Republican activists associated with Sinn Féin and the Volunteers/IRA at a time when the authorities were attempting to suppress the organization. One of the most prominent was director John MacDonagh, who also appeared on screen as Tom the Fool. MacDonagh was an Irish Volunteer who had fought under the command of his brother Thomas and John McBride in Jacob’s Factory during the 1916 Rising. When Thomas had been executed along with McBride and 12 other leaders, John had been imprisoned in Britain along with many other Volunteers. John’s 1951 statement to the Bureau of Military History is informative on this period of his life (BMH WS0532).
MacDonagh’s writings about the filming of Willy Reilly offer the only extant account of what happened on set and among the few of what happened afterwards. Some of his reminiscences are quite well known, but others have remained unexploited. The well-known ones appeared as the article “Film Production in Ireland in the Early Days” in a pamphlet published by Liam O’Leary in 1976. In it, MacDonagh discusses his experiences as a scriptwriter in New York in the early 1910s before coming back to Ireland and shooting Willy Reilly. The most quoted of these stories is not about Willy Reilly itself but the Dáil Bonds film, which advertised the sale of bonds to support the Dáil, the illegal assembly founded by Irish republicans and nationalists in early 1919. The film features Michael Collins selling the bonds to the elected members of Sinn Féin and several of the widows and mothers, as the film presents them, of executed leaders of the 1916 Rising. MacDonagh reveals that the two films were made at the same time at St Enda’s because he came to shoot Dáil Bonds still dressed in the costume and makeup of Tom the Fool and attempted to deceive Collins and Arthur Griffith.
In many ways a straightforward advertising and propaganda film, Dáil Bonds is remarkable not only for showing many of the major Irish republican figures of the period but also for the far-from-straightforward way in which it was distributed and exhibited. “In those dangerous and exciting times no cinema owner wold dare risk exhibiting the Republican Loan films,” MacDonagh explains,
so it was planned for a few volunteers in fast cars to visit certain cinemas, rush the operator’s box, and, a gun-point force the operator to take off the film he was showing, and put the Loan Film. On the appointed night, all went smoothly as arranged, and the volunteers got safely away before the British forces discovered the plot. (MacDonagh 11.)
Fascinating as this account is, its anecdotal nature makes it difficult to discern when it occurred, how widespread the practice was and whether it happened on more than one night as is implied here. The film itself offers one clue as to its date. In the opening shots, Collins reads a letter from Michael Fogarty, Bishop of Killaloe that appears on screen showing the date of 8 October 1919, dating the filming to late 1919. One other witness corroborates this. As part of his statement to the Bureau of Military History, John Plunkett, brother of executed 1916 leader Joseph Plunkett, reveals that “in the autumn of 1919, probably in November, I was asked – I can’t remember by whom – to collect a Dáil Loan propaganda film from Joe McDonagh who with his brother Jack and some others had been running a company called the Film Company of Ireland” (BMH WS0865 12).
Plunkett had some knowledge of FCOI, even claiming to have taken a small part, along with another brother George, in When Love Came to Gavan Burke. He had a different role with Dáil Bonds, overseeing its distribution in Kerry. “I was asked,” he claims, “to take the film to Killarney and Cahirciveen and, as far as possible to arrange for its showing in any other worthwhile towns. I know it was also shown in Listowel.” In Killarney, he liaised with Dick Fitzgerald and Tom Cooper, “who afterwards produced the film dealing with the Tan war, called the ‘Dawn,’” leaving the film with Cooper to have it shown in Listowel some days later. He notes that the Kerry distribution operation was relatively successful in comparison to some other unspecified part of Ireland, where “those who went round with the film were unsuccessful in having it shown” (BMH WS0865 13).
In his published account, MacDonagh discusses his own role in exhibiting Willy Reilly in Scotland, to which we will return, but some of his unpublished manuscripts held in the National Library’s Liam O’Leary Archive (LOLA) have more to say about the structure of FCOI in later 1919 and Sullivan’s role as producer. Sullivan, he writes, “was a man of great mental and physical energy, and his hustling methods swept people off their feet. He got a group of Irishmen together, my brother Joe, JJ Walsh, minister of posts in the 1st Free state govt, Senator George Nesbitt, and Dan Harrigan, a Glaswegian bookmaker” (MS 50,000/272/44). These must be the directors of the company in early or mid-1919 after Sullivan’s return to Ireland and the death of O’Mara Sullivan.
If the MacDonaghs and these other new collaborators were avowedly Republican, Sullivan also drew on his contacts in Ireland’s sporting world. An article in Sport on the shows at Limerick’s Theatre Royal in mid-April 1920 drew readers attention to the number of sportsmen in the cast, including Nesbitt, who
was for many years a prominent member of Bective Rangers F.C. Mr Hastings is portrayed by Frank Walsh, ex-light-weight champion of Ireland. Jim Plant and James Barret McDonnell, Sir Robert Whitecraft and the Red Rapparee respectively, need no introduction to Irish supporters. J. Nugent and P. Day, celebrated the world over as purveyors of the thoroughbred, helped not a little by courteously placing their stables at the disposal of the producers and anybody fortunate enough to see the film this week in Limerick will appreciate the leaping blood of Mr. Hasting’s mount in his ride across country to save the Colleen Bawn from Sir Robert Whitecraft.” (“Theatrical Topics” 10 Apr.).
MacDonagh says of his own role that “I was to write scenarios and direct the filming with Sullivan” and then crosses out the “with Sullivan” by hand. He presents Sullivan as an initiator of projects that he claimed would make his collaborators rich but that were subsequently completed despite his profligacy. “We finished making our first film, ‘Willie Rielly,’” he writes, “in spite of Sulivan’s orgies or entertainment, and lavish spending of money. However, as we were soon all to make thousands, he was given a free hand, and often I had a job getting the people ‘on location’ after a particularly riotous night.” This was illustrated when the company travelled to London to film the interiors at the Waltardaw studios in Walthamstow, where “Sullivan had all the English staff his slaves by knocking off in the middle of every shot for refreshments” and partied with actor Jim Plant, “a notorious Dublin character.” Sullivan had told FCOI investors that “he had fixed up with an American co to take all our films” but then Willy Reilly was finished and sent to America “though it was exhibited extensively, we never succeeded in collecting a cent, and suffered a heavy loss” (MS 50,000/272/44).
This does not sound like FCOI was keeping a low profile during production, but MacDonagh’s published article insists that “we were working with great difficulties at that time, tension in the city and country was mounting daily. Our directors were ‘on the run’” (MacDonagh 11). Although the exact period is not specified here in an article possibly composed in the 1940s and published in the 1970s decades after the events, he may be referring to the end of 1919 and start of 1920 and to the increasing conflict of the War of Independence. However secretive, the release of Dáil Bonds may also have made him a target. In this context, FCOI faced difficulties in distributing Willy Reilly, and MacDonagh was given a warning. “Michael Staines, who later became the first Commissioner of Police under the Free State Government, came to tell me that my name was on a list for arrest,” he reveals, “and advised me to lie low, so it was fixed for me to go on a cattle boat to Gourock, Scotland. We were showing our films in Scottish Town Hall in various cities and towns at the time” (ibid.).
Ads and notices in local newspapers allow us to trace something of the film’s exhibition in the north of England and Scotland in 1920. After the Manchester Free Trade Hall shows on 5-10 January, Willy Reilly and Knocknagow were both shown at Sunderland’s Victoria Hall for the week of 2-7 February. Although the ads in Sunderland were not explicit about this, it is likely, because this is the pattern followed elsewhere, that Willy Reilly played for the first three days of the week, and Knocknagow played for the second three. The following week, the films were at Burslem’s Queen’s Hall. There is then a gap in the ads until the week containing St Patrick’s Day (17 March), when the first Scottish shows are advertised. Willy Reilly played at Motherwell’s Town Hall from 15-17 March, with Knocknagow featuring there on 18 March. The following week, Willy Reilly played 22-24 March at Port Glasgow’s Town Hall, with Knocknagow playing later in the week on 27 March. That same week, Tipperary’s Tivoli Theatre had the first Irish public showings of Willy Reilly for three days beginning 25 March. The film was then advertised for a three-day run at Galway’s Empire Theatre on 4-6 April, followed by Easter 1916 anniversary week runs in the week beginning 19 April at Dublin’s Bohemian, Limerick’s Theatre Royal, Sligo’s Picture Theatre and Derry’s Empire.
At the end of April, attention returned to Scotland and the north of England with a charity screening in aid of the YMS at Kilmarnock’s Palace Theatre on 30 April. A four-day run at Coatbridge’s Town Hall began on 5 May, followed by a week-long run at Burnley’s Mechanics’ Institute beginning on 17 May. Beginning on 21 May Liverpudlians finally had a chance to see the FCOI films when Picton Hall hosted three days of Willy Reilly followed by three days of Knocknagow. From 21 May, Liverpudlians finally had a chance to see the FCOI films when Picton Hall hosted three days of Willy Reilly followed by three days of Knocknagow. And on 21-23 June, Kilmarnock’s Empire Picture House featured Willy Reilly. The currently digitized newspapers show no ads for the rest of the summer, but there were autumn screenings at Edinburgh’s Picturedrome (c. 18 September), Kirkintilloch’s Town Hall (8 October) and the Pavilion in Forfar (25 November).
Undoubtedly, this does not account for all the British screening of Willy Reilly in 1920. MacDonagh, for example, “remember[s] giving a special matinee for school children in the Paisley town hall,” but no record of it appears to survive (MacDonagh 11). He gives few other details of the Paisley show, but he spends some time describing a marketing coup of his own. “I got the idea of presenting a sprig of shamrock straight from Ireland to every member of the audience on the even of the festival,” he comments of a strategy hardly novel but nonetheless effective, the shamrock being supplied from Ireland by JJ Walsh. MacDonagh claims that its success allowed him to return to Ireland by securing distributor in Scotland, when the manager of the agency “saw the crowds fighting to get in. […] He knew nothing about the shamrock, but took on the agency for Scotland and I came home” (MacDonagh 12). If his memory is accurate, this must have occurred during the run at Motherwell.
We know virtually nothing about what audiences in Scotland and the north of England thought of Willy Reilly in 1920, but we do know that they were the first to see this new Irish film. This seems to have happened because of chaotic management of FCOI in Ireland, some of which arose from the difficulties the directors had in running a company while also engaging in revolutionary politics. For MacDonagh, certainly, Scotland, was a kind of asylum, and therefore fruitful ground in which to show his new film, Willy Reilly and His Colleen Bawn, in 1920.
BMH WS0532. Dublin, Bureau of Military History, Witness Statement 532: John MacDonagh. <http://www.militaryarchives.ie/collections/online-collections/bureau-of-military-history-1913-1921/reels/bmh/BMH.WS0532.pdf>
BMH WS0865. Dublin, Bureau of Military History, Witness Statement 865: John Plunkett. <http://www.militaryarchives.ie/collections/online-collections/bureau-of-military-history-1913-1921/reels/bmh/BMH.WS0865.pdf>
Casella, Donna. “Ellen O’Mara Sullivan.” Women Film Pioneers Project. <https://wfpp.columbia.edu/pioneer/ellen-omara-sullivan/>
Felter, Maryann, and Daniel Schultz. “James Mark Sullivan and the Film Company of Ireland.” New Hibernia Review 8:2 (Summer 2004): 24-40.
“Film Company of Ireland: Screening of ‘Willy Reilly.’” Dublin Evening Mail 3 Jan. 1920: 3.
“Forthcoming Trade Shows.” Bioscope 2 Oct. 1919: 118.
“Irish Notes.” Bioscope 17 Apr. 1919: 105; 24 Apr. 1919: 78; 5 Jun. 1919: 98.
“Knocknagow.” Bioscope 16 Oct. 1919: 58.
MacDonagh, John. “Film Production in Ireland in the Early Days.” Cinema and Ireland, 1895-1976, edited by Liam O’Leary. Dublin Arts Festival, 1976: 10-12.
“Manchester Notes.” Bioscope 15 Jan. 1920: 109.
MS 50,000/272/44. “Film Company of Ireland.” Liam O’Leary Archive, National Library of Ireland.
“Post and Paddock.” Sport 13 Dec. 1919: 1; 10 Jan. 1920: 1.
Rhodes, Gary D. “The Film Company of Ireland and Irish-American Press.” Screening the Past 33 (2012) <http://www.screeningthepast.com/2012/02/the-film-company-of-ireland-and-the-irish-american-press/>
Rockett, Kevin, Luke Gibbons and John Hill. Cinema and Ireland. London: Croom Helm, 1987.
Schultz, Dan, and Maryanne Felter. “The Making of an Irish Nationalist: James Mark Sullivan and the Film Company of Ireland in America.” Screening the Past 33 (2012). <http://www.screeningthepast.com/2012/02/the-making-of-an-irish-nationalist/>
“St. Joseph’s Y.M.S. Entertainment.” Kilmarnock Herald 30 Apr. 1920: 2.
“Theatrical Topics.” Sport 10 Apr. 1920: 10.