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

Was England the “Most Fruitful Ground” to Show the Irish Film Willy Reilly and His Colleen Bawn in 1920?

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.

Willy Reilly framegrab Willy intro

The film’s opening shots introduce Brian Magowan as Willy Reilly. Screenshots from the tralier.

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 framegrab 3

Frances Alexander as Helen Folliard/the Colleen Bawn.

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.

Daily Herald 2 Jan 1920: 2.

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.

Willy Reilly framegrab Red Raparee

The Red Raparee (James Barret McDonnell) prepares to waylay Squire Folliard.

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.

Willy Reilly framegrab 2

Willy and the Colleen Bawn get close.

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).

Dail Bonds Group1

The “Interesting Group of Sinn Fein Notabilities” who gathered to be filmed buying Dáil bonds from Michael Collins (foregroud centre). The location on the steps of St Enda’s was imbued with republican significance, underlined even by the furniture, the table being “the block upon which Robert Emmet was beheaded.” Framegrab.

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.

Dail Bonds Kathleen Clarke

Kathleen Clarke, referred to in an intertitle as the “Widow of Tom Clarke,” was among several prominent women Republicans who featured in the film.

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.)

Dail Bonds Fogarty Letter 1

The film features a letter from Michael Fogarty, Bishop of Killaloe, showing the support of senior members of the Irish Catholic hierarchy.

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).

Dail Bonds Joseph MacDonagh

Among the elected members of Sinn Féin who buy bonds in the film is MacDonagh brother, Joseph MacDonagh, also a member of FCOI.

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.

‎Willy Reilly Theatre Royal LL 19 Apr 1920p3

Ad for Willy Reilly at Limerick’s Theatre Royal, where it shared a bill with an Irish Events newsreel of the release of Sinn Féin prisoners who had been on hunger strike at Mountjoy prison, a film that underlines the difficulties the Republican directors of FCOI faced. Limerick Leader 19 Apr. 1920: 3.

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.).

Willy Reilly Whitecraft at Willy house

Sir Robert Whitecraft (Jim Plant) orders his soldiers to raid Willy Reilly’s house.

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.).

Map of Willy Reilly exhibition in Britain in 1920

Google map showing the towns and cities in England and Scotland in which shows of Willy Reilly were advertised in 1920. Full map here.

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.

Willy Reilly Motherwell Times 12 Mar 1920p1

This ad for FCOI films at Motherwell’s Town Hall shows the priority given to Willy Reilly, which was typically shown on the first three days of a run, with Knocknagow featuring for a fourth day or in the second three days of a week-long run. Motherwell Times 12 Mar. 1920: 1.

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.

Willy Reilly Boh ET 19 Apr 1920p2

Dublin’s Bohemian Picture Theatre was one of the first Irish cinemas to show Willy Reilly.Evening Telegraph 19 Apr. 1920: 2.

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.

References

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.

Irish Events Newsreel Shows an IRA Raid, a Wedding, College Capers and a Religious Procession in June 1920

Evening Herald 8 Jun. 1920: 2.

During the week of 7-12 June 1920, ads and brief notices for the Bohemian Picture Theatre in Phibsboro, Dublin offered an unusual amount of detail on the latest issue of the Irish Events newsreel. The newsreel was part of the programme supporting the Bohemian’s main feature, Modern Husbands (US: National, 1919), starring Henry B. Walthall, and Walthall’s name and that of the film dominate the text of the ad, as expected, but the bottom part of the ad is taken up completely with a description of the items making up week’s Irish Events.

Motion Picture News 26 Apr. 1919: 2674.

Irish Events is a popular topic in this blog. Begun by Norman Whitten’s General Film Supply company, Irish Events had been quietly running since July 1917. But apart from the opening month or so, individual items that the newsreel covered were very rarely mentioned, as has already been detailed. Irish Events specials – longer newsreels of typically 10 minutes focused on a particular topic – required extra publicity to encourage local exhibitors to book them and some of that material does survive and has been discussed here. But the normal weekly newsreel that appeared every Monday was generally just mentioned, when it was mentioned at all, as “Irish Events,” with no details of the subjects shown. In some ways, this lack of attention is understandable for a five-minute segment of a two-hour show in which people were most interested in the fiction feature film. Nevertheless, that five minutes of non-fiction film provided glimpses of Irish politics and culture not available anywhere else in the programme. This rare insight into what Irish Event was showing is therefore very welcome.

The programme at Galway’s Victoria also included Irish Events supporting the Monday feature The Profiteers (US: Astra, 1919), where it also shared the bill with the 14th episode of The Great Secret (US: Quality, 1917) serial, an unnamed Billie Rhodes comedy, Pathé Gazette and Marvels of the Universe (US: Bray, 1920). Connacht Tribune 5 Jun. 1920: 4.

The events covered in Irish Events that week, which was the 152 week of the newsreel (IE 152), seem to have been the mixture of politics and social events from the previous week that was the common format not only of Irish Events but also of Pathé Gazette, Gaumont Graphic and Topical Budget, the British newsreels that were also regularly shown in Ireland. All of IE 152’s items had been covered in newspaper, and most had also been illustrated with photographs in those Dublin dailies that regularly included photos, that is, the Irish Independent and Freeman’s Journal. The quality of these photographs is poor on the digitized versions of the newspapers that are accessible at the moment with the archives closed, but they are included below as at least some indication of how these events were visualized in contemporary media.

Evening Telegraph 8 Jun. 1920: 2.

IE 152 included the newsreel standard five items, no doubt running about a minute each. The items were, according to an ad in the Freeman’s Journal and Evening Telegraph:
1. Kilmallock Scenes
2. “King’s Inns Raid”
3. Wedding at Ranelagh / Daughter of Sir J. Downes
4. Trinity Week Comedy Scenes
5. Corpus Christi Procession in Galway

“Scene at Kilmallock, showing the houses opposite the R.I.C. Police Barracks, marked with arrows, where the attacking party took up their positions.” The photo is attributed to Horgan, the photographers and cinema owners in Youghal, Co. Cork. Freeman’s Journal 31 May 1920: 3.

The first two were certainly related to sensational acts of rebellion that formed part of the War of Independence, albeit that they showed the aftermath of these events. The Kilmallock Scenes followed an IRA raid on the RIC barracks in the Co. Limerick town on 27-28 May 1920. Cutting off communications to the town, a party of between 50 and 100 men laid siege to the barracks for several hours, exchanging gun fire with the occupying policemen. The burned remains of Sergeant Thomas Keane and Constable Joseph Morton were found in the building’s ruins. The newsreel may have shown either the town itself or the funerals of Keane and/or Morton. Photos of both town and funerals appeared in the Independent and the Freeman’s Journal.

“Entrance view King’s Inns, Henrietta St., the scene of yesterday’s sensational raid.” Irish Independent 2 Jun. 1920: 3.

“King’s Inn Raid” was the aftermath of the IRA’s daring daylight raid on the afternoon of 1 June 1920 on the King’s Inns on Dublin’s Henrietta Street, which was being used by the British Army to store arms. The armed raiders drove two cars up to the building, while others in groups of four or five converged on it from all directions and carried out an operation that was described as planned with military precision. No shots were fired, and the raiders made off with machine guns, rifles and a large quantity of ammunition. The Irish Independent quoted an unnamed demobilized officer who witnessed: “‘For coolness, reckless daring, and downright audacity,’ this officer remarked, ‘I have never seen anything to beat it—it was like a cinema scene’” (“Amazing Raid”).

Two images from a society wedding in Dublin; Irish Independent 3 Jun. 1920: 3.

Following these two minutes of revolutionary activity, the other three one-minute items were of less sensational social and cultural events that made it seem that life was carrying pretty much as usual. As part of the essential variety nature of newsreel, they also addressed segments of the audience not interested in politics. The first of these was “Wedding at Ranelagh / Daughter of Sir J. Downes,” in which Rita Downes of the baking empire married barrister JCR Lardner and in the process offered images of the Irish middle class in their finery.

Trinity students yesterday varied their usual celebrations of Trinity Monday by a comic representation of Queen Elizabeth and her Court. The royal procession made a gay parade, and Shakespeare contributed to the comedy by the distress he caused the Queen in reading poems. Irish Independent 1 Jun. 1920: 3.

If such society events were to your taste, you may also have enjoyed “Trinity Week Comedy Scenes.” This item showed scenes from 1920’s Trinity Monday, the day on which the Trinity college’s scholars and fellows are publicly announced from the steps of the Examination Hall. It was also a day that student were known to go on the rampage through the city, but they don’t seem to have done in 1920 or if they did, this was not filmed. “Trinity College students provided a good deal of mirth in the College grounds this afternoon,” the Evening Herald explained, “and if the scenes were more restrained and less boisterous than on former Trinity Mondays, they were none the less entertaining for the large number of spectators” (“Trinity Monday”). The spectators weren’t alone: “Photographers and cinema operators were busy, and had much picturesque material to select from.”

Brief review of the programme at the Bohemian at which IE152 was shown; Irish Times 8 Jun. 1920: 4.

Although it also involved people parading around in their finery, the final IE 152 item, “Corpus Christi Procession in Galway,” likely appealed most strongly to the devout Catholic segment of the audience. The Galway Corpus Christi procession took place on Sunday, 30 May 1920, and was one of the very many such processions that took place around the country that week. No photo seems to survive of the events, but the Connacht Tribune carried a lengthy account of the proceeding (“Galway Procession”).

Brief review of the programme at the Bohemian at which IE152 was shown; Freeman’s Journal 8 Jun. 1920: 6.

The brief reviews in the Irish Times and the Freeman’s Journal are fascinating for the way in which they answered the question of what events in Ireland over the previous week they thought their readers would be interested in and/or should have their attention directed to. The liberal unionist Irish Times observed that the “programme includes Irish events, wedding at Ranelagh, Trinity Week comedy scenes, and the Corpus Christi Process in Galway.” The nationalist Freeman’s Journal noted that “Irish events were also exhibited and included Kilmallock scenes and incidents following the King’s Inns raid.”

While it is a shame that so little of the Irish Events newsreel survives today for us to see how it represented the evolving political and social landscape of the country, we can occasionally get an insight into that process from the traces that they left behind. Doubtless, this IE 152 with its mix of politics and social and religious events is  remarkable only for the publicity that lets us reconstruct it a century later.

References

“Amazing Raid for Arms in Dublin: Machine and Lewis Guns Taken.” Irish Independent 2 Jun. 1920: 5.

“Galway Procession: Eurcharistic Adoration Draws Large Crowd.” Connacht Tribune 5 Jun. 1920: 5.

“Trinity Monday: ‘The B’hoys in Royal Procession’: Comic College Scenes.” Evening Herald 31 May 1920: 1.

“Excellent Irish Entertainment” on Irish Screens for St Patrick’s Day 1920

I planned to research and write this blog in mid-March 2020 because it is about Irish cinema in March 1920 and particularly the films released for that year’s St Patrick’s Day (17 March). But things didn’t turn out as planned. I do a significant part of the research for these blogs on newspapers and archive materials at the National Library of Ireland (NLI), the Mothership. The COVID crisis closed the NLI to researchers in the crucial week from 12 March, and I have deferred this blog a long time in the hopes of a reopening of the library and access to my own office and books, but I am now finally finishing it under quarantine conditions. I have always used online sources alongside printed ones in these blogs, but in this case, they are almost the only sources. Expect some revision later, but in the meantime, I especially welcome comments on this blog to correct the errors and fill in some of the gaps.

Ira Allen as St Patrick in Aimsir Padraig/In the Days of St Patrick. Standard 17 Mar. 1961: 1.

St Patrick’s Day and the week in which it fell were often the occasion for Irish cinemas to show films with Irish content of some kind, but St Patrick’s week 1920 uniquely saw the premieres of two new indigenously produced feature films, Aimsir Padraig/In the Days of St Patrick (Ireland: General Film Supply, 1920) and Rosaleen Dhu (Ireland: Celtic, 1920)), albeit that there is some doubt about the latter premiere. Neither of these films was made by the Film Company of Ireland (FCOI), which had dominated the production of indigenous fiction films since its founding in 1916 and whose awaited production of Willy Reilly and His Colleen Bawn was being held for a symbolically significant late April release coinciding with the fourth anniversary of the 1916 Rising. Spring 1920 was indeed a rich one for new Irish features.

The cover of John Denvir’s play Rosaleen Dhu, which was published in his pamphlet series Denvir’s Irish Penny Library: Google Books.

Of the St Patrick’s Day releases, Aimsir Padraig (I will use this shortened form of the title from now on) is today by far the better known, largely because it still survives and has been shown on such occasions as the 2017 St Patrick’s Festival at Dublin’s Irish Film Institute with live accompaniment. Directed and starring Bray, Co. Wicklow barber William J. Power based on the eponymous 1874 play by John Denvir, Rosaleen Dhu is the more obscure film because it is believed lost and as a result, nobody has seen it in nearly a century, but it has received attention from several historians and critics of Irish cinema, including most recently Debbie Ging, who offers insights into the film’s gender dynamics based on her analysis of the synopsis published in Kevin Rockett’s Irish Filmography (Rockett 9 and online). Paraphrasing Rockett’s pithy synopsis, Ging observes that the film tells the story of how

“a young Fenian emigrates after being evicted from his home during the Land Wars. He joins the French Foreign Legion and marries a local woman in Algeria, only to discover on his return to Ireland that his bride is the kidnapped heiress of an Irish estate. His masculine virility is thus recouped through his own existential actions, while the matter of wealth and property ownership is taken care of by forces beyond his control. (Ging 44.)

So although Rosaleen Dhu is a relatively obscure lost Irish film, it is still being used in some very interesting contemporary work. Something also might be said about the film’s own Orientalist indulgence in colonial adventuring, and particularly the representation of Algeria, a feature unique in Irish film and one that caught the attention of the reviewer in the December 1919 issue of Ireland’s first film magazine Irish Limelight. “The plot centr[es] chiefly around the love affair of a most captivating young Irishman,” s/he reveals.

As a result of the machinations of the villain of the piece, the hero has to take flight from Ireland, and the final phases of the picture depicts most realistic and highly exciting incidents in Algiers, where exciting encounters, captures and rescues are the order of the day.

Our hero finds his bride, and finally all return to a happier Ireland, the villain having met with his just deserts. (“Celtic Film Company’s ‘Rosaleen Dhu.””)

It is striking that the Limelight writer doesn’t describe the hero – Stephen Burke, as in Denvir’s play – as a Fenian, a member of the secret Irish republican organization responsible for notable revolutionary actions in the 1850s and 1860s. Indeed, s/he very carefully frames the political context in which the action takes place by observing that it is a “delightful portrait of Irish life in the middle of the last century, [portraying] in the most faithful manner the exciting phases of the lives of the people in the early days of the Land War.” That setting would have been anachronistic for a faithful adaptation of Denvir’s play, which had been published five years before the Land War began in 1879. Nevertheless, having located the film in the context of a key Irish political struggle, the reviewer disavows any substantial ideological content, commenting that “happily anything that could be objectionable in the way of political controversy or class hatred is completely absent from the picture.” The frequency with which statements like this formed part of the contemporary commentary on the film suggests that they were part of the film itself, perhaps as introductory intertitles, and/or travelled with it as part of the material the producers provided for the press. As has been noted here a number of times, producers of Irish films denied that they were politically partisan in order to avoid censorship. This seeming neutrality was often a conservative political accommodationism, as it had been in the Irish play, the genre of 19th-century melodrama to which Denvir’s play belonged and of which the work of Dion Boucicault is the best remembered. And as in the case of the Irish play, neutrality in both colonial and class politics was good for business in not alienating any sector of the potential audience. Nevertheless, as with Boucicault and other popular Irish dramatists, a seemingly conservatism overall could conceal but not wholly contain the presentation of radical ideas in the course of the play. In any event, stressing the “all Irishness” of the production may be as far as an Irish film could have gone to make a political point at a time when the Irish War of Independence was becoming increasingly violent. As the ad for the Sligo run put it: “All Irish Artists. All Irish Scenes. From an Irish Story. By an Irish Author.”

Ad for the premiere of Rosaleen Dhu at Sligo’s Town Hall Cinema on 17-18 March 1920. Sligo Champion 13 Mar. 1920: 4.

Indeed, this Sligo run at the Town Hall Cinema on 17-18 March 1920, seems to have been the public premiere. Although Rockett lists the premiere as 16 December 1919, this is likely the trade show at Dublin’s Carlton Cinema that the Limelight advertised for that day. Although the Sligo Town Hall management was not above making exaggerated claims about the exclusiveness of the films it showed, searches in the currently digitized newspapers yield no mentions of screenings in late 1919 and early 1920 before those in Sligo, the publicity for which claimed that it was the first run in Ireland. “The management of the Town Hall Cinema is to be congratulated on having secured for Sligo people the first exhibition in Ireland of the famous Irish film, ‘Rosaleen Dhu,’” a preview in the Sligo Champion declared. “It is interesting to note that the picture has been produced wholly in Ireland. The settings are principally laid amongst the beautiful mountains of Co. Wicklow, and the introduction of the Algerian desert sand scene provides an atmosphere of reality which makes the picture doubly interesting” (“‘Rosaleen Dhu’”). The lack of political controversy was also stressed in Sligo: “It is a picture of intensely human interest, free from any tinge of politics, and can be seen by all creeds and classes of Irish people with an interest which brings home to them real Irish life in every scene.”

The film remained faithful to the play, but as the mentions of Wicklow indicate, it was shot on the east coast and not on the West of Ireland locations mentioned in Denvir script. While the film’s Irish scenes still supposedly took place in Connemara – the play’s subtitle The Twelve Pins of Bin-a-Bola incorporates the English and Irish names of a Connemara mountain range – director and star William Power shot in scenic Wicklow locations that were within easy reach for him and his Bray-based collaborators. The most extensive synopsis of the film, published in the Nationalist and Leinster Times before a run at Carlow’s Cinema Palace in 1922, shows that Power altered the play only so that he could produce a coherent silent film from the dialogue-heavy play. The largest alteration, therefore, was the inclusion of a prologue showing how the villainous steward Mark Luttrell’s conspires with his henchman Ned Malone to murder landlord Sir Hugh Dillon, his wife and their daughter, Rosaleen Dhu, while on a voyage to Spain, but how Malone in bad conscience spares Rosaleen Dhu life and instead sells her to “Ben Mouza, an Arab Chief” (“Rosaleen Dhu”).

Most of what is known of Power’s filmmaking activities comes not from contemporary sources directly but from Padraig O’Fearail’s 1977 Irish Times article “When Films Were Made in Bray.” Some 57 years after the events, O’Fearail not only used 1919-20 local newspaper articles but also interviewed people who had been involved in the making of Rosaleen Dhu and the other films produced by Power’s Celtic Cinema Company. The accounts of Power’s young assistant Bob Tobin and his female lead Kitty Hart (formerly Scarff) allow O’Fearail to offer a vivid account of local filmmaking in Ireland as the 1910s became the 1920s.

Mac’s, or the Picture House, Quinsboro Road, Bray, Co. Wicklow was located in the town’s former Turkish baths. Mac himself – J.E. McDermott – is probably the man leaning against the façade. Irish Limelight August 1917: 16.

From his article we learn that Power was a barber working from a shop at 1 Novara Avenue in Bray, which became the production office during shooting, with barrels for processing film in its yard; that Tobin’s blind brother Matthew operated the camera at times when all that this required was for him to turn the handle moving the film through the camera at a steady pace; that Power’s first film was the one-reel comedy called Willy Scouts While Jessie Pouts; that Power collected Kitty, an experienced amateur actor, from her tobacconist’s job when the weather was good for filming; and that he died on 20 June 1920 from injuries sustained while shooting a racing scene at Leopardstown race course for An Irish Vendetta, his follow up to Rosaleen Dhu. O’Fearail is less interested in the exhibition of the film, merely quoting Bray native Christy Brien’s claim that it was shown at Mac’s in Bray at an unspecified date and speculating that it was screened at other cinemas in Wicklow and probably beyond.

Rosaleen Dhu’s Dublin premiere at the Rotunda; Evening Herald 1 May 1920: 5.

By the time of the Sligo premiere, the Irish film community would have known of the film from articles on it in the Limelight and Bioscope, but there were few advertised runs of the film in 1920. Among those few screenings were its Dublin and Belfast premieres. Tom Hughes shows that the Belfast premiere happened sometime in March or April as part of a series of Irish films at St Mary’s Hall, a church venue that had decided to run as a full-time cinema and booked the three new Irish films to launch the enterprise (Hughes 281-82). The Dublin premiere was later, at the Rotunda, where “packed houses witnessed the screening of the Irish-made film ‘Rosaleen Dhu’ when Mr. Kay reopened the Ro[tu]nda last week” (“Irish Notes” 13 May). Kay clearly saw that run as successful because he brought the film back for a three-day engagement beginning on 8 July 1920.

Extract from a Dublin high court case to establish the ownership of Rosaleen Dhu. Evening Herald 4 Jun 1921: 3.

Few other screenings are registered in 1920, which may not be surprising given Power’s unexpected death in June. This was not the end of the film’s screening life, however. The Celtic Film Company under whose name Power produced his films was a partnership involving 15 other Bray residents, and in April-June 1921, they sought to have their rights to all copies of the film and business to do with it asserted in the face of Ellen Power’s insistence that her husband owned the rights. She lost the case, and the company put the film back into circulation. It was subsequently shown – among other places, no doubt – in Skibbereen in August 1921, Cork city in October 1921 and Carlow in April 1922.

Ads for Dublin cinemas showing Aimsir Padraig/In the Days of St Patrick in Dublin Evening Mail 15 Mar. 1920: 2.

Aimsir Padraig/In the Days of St Patrick suffered none of Rosaleen Dhu’s struggles to make news in 1920. “Quite the most important feature of this year’s celebration of the National Holiday in the Irish Capital,” the Sligo Champion commented,

was the presentation, in picturized form, of the Life of St. Patrick – the National Apostle. This may seem rather an extravagant assertion, but when one considers the tremendous power for good or for evil possessed by the cinematograph, and when one sees the power being moulded by native talent in the service of purposes of national religious advancement, the success of the experiment becomes a matter of very grave concern. In the leading Dublin cinemas we are delighted to say the wonder film, ‘In the Days of St. Patrick,’ has proved a tremendous success.” (“The Life of St. Patrick.”)

In Dublin itself, the Freeman’s Journal noted in a roundup of events for St Patrick’s Day that “there will be special matinee performances in the various city theatres; and the Irish film, “In the Days of St. Patrick,” will be screened in a number of cinema houses” (“Festival”).

Following its premieres not only in Dublin but also in Limerick and Derry during St Patrick’s week 1920, the film had subsequent runs in the weeks and months that followed, and enjoyed some distribution in Britain and the United States. Although Aimsir Padraig resembled Rosaleen Dhu in being a first feature for its production company, it enjoyed much wider exposure because that production company was Norman Whitten’s General Film Supply, which had been active in film production and distribution for much of the previous decade. As such, Whitten had well-established contacts in the press and in the film industry in Ireland and London, including a network of Irish cinemas that subscribed to his Irish Events newsreel and relationships with some large British distribution companies.

Cover of the Irish Program dated 18 March 1920 featuring an ad for Aimsir Padraig with Ira Allen in the title role.

Having made newsreels, advertising films, a religious pilgrimage films, Ireland’s first animated film and propaganda films, all genres that supported the main feature, Whitten chose the life of Ireland’s patron saint to make his feature debut. A veteran of the Irish trade, he had every reason to think this film would be popular in Ireland and with at least the Irish abroad. Given the focus on a religious figure, it was unlikely to be banned by the authorities, as his Sinn Fein Review had recently been. While the film played to Whitten’s exhibited strengths by tackling religious subject matter, it was also ambitious in not only recreating the biographical details that would have been well known to Irish people but also attempting to represent the miracles Patrick allegedly performed and aiming for an epic portrayal of Ireland’s ancient past. Somewhat jarringly from the perspective of a century later, he concluded the film with newsreel of religious sites, events and figures associated with Patrick, such as Cardinal Logue, the head of the Irish Catholic church. Whitten was, after all, the producer of the Irish Events newsreel, so he had this non-fiction material to hand. But this kind of narrative strategy seems to have been similar to Ireland a Nation (US: MacNamara, 1914), which had also used concluding newsreel to link the historical struggle for Irish self-determination with current events.

T. Carroll Reynolds as Niall of Nine Hostages in Aimsir Padraig. Standard 17 Mar 1961: 1.

To give a brief summary of the film: it begins with Patrick’s birth surrounded by angels, a scene that forms a sort of angelic prologue before scenes of Patrick’s early life with his family near the sea in Gaul, including his baptism and his first miracle in which he kindles ice to make a fire. He is then kidnapped by Irish raider Niall of the Nine Hostages and shipped to Ireland, is sold at a slave market and becomes a swineherd, learning Irish in the process. A vision of the angel Victor tells him to leave Ireland. He becomes a priest in Gaul, has a vision that Ireland needs him, is ordained bishop in Rome and lands with followers in Ireland. He makes his first conversions and lights a Paschal fire on the hill of Slane, unwittingly breaking a proclamation of High King Laoghaire of Tara. Patrick successfully confronts the force Laoghaire sends to arrest him, drinks poisoned wine at Tara without harm and converts Laoghaire. The film finishes with two sequences, one showing other important elements of the Patrick legend and the other an epilogue of newsreel featuring sites associated with Patrick, the 1919 Pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick and Cardinal Logue at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh.

GFS cameraman J. Gordon Lewis shot Aimsir Padraig; Irish Limelight Jan. 1918: 10.

Irish cinemagoers would been familiar with the ancient world of Rome depicted on screen, and Ireland’s distant history had been portrayed on Irish stages, including in Ira Allen’s 1917 drama Tara’s Halls, or, St. Patrick and the Pagans. Indeed, Allen and his play were key contributors to Aimsir Padraig, with Allen taking the part of the adult Patrick. As the play text does not survive, it is difficult to establish how closely the film follows it. In one of the earliest extant references to the film, Bioscope then Irish correspondent Fingal reported in April 1919 that Allen was taking the title role and that “the scenario is by Mr. McGuinness, manager of the G.F.S., Mr. Norman Whitten is the producer, and the camera man is Mr. J. Gordon Lewis” (“Irish Notes” 10 Apr). Some early scenes had already been shot, and “these earlier episodes were taken amid snow-covered country, which forms an effective background for the dark habits of St. Patrick and his monks.”

JAP would take over the “Irish Notes” at the Bioscope at the end of May 1919 and provide further reports from the Aimsir Padraig set as production continued. Whitten began using the term Eire productions for his new fiction film venture, and he seems to have developed studios at his offices in Great Brunswick (now Pearse) Street, which “will enable interiors to be filmed all the year round” (“Irish Notes” Apr 17). He later changed to Killester productions, as he was building “a fine studio, in admirably picturesque enclosed grounds” in that suburb of north Dublin (“Irish Notes” Sep. 25).

Images from the slave galley and possibly Patrick confronting Laoghaire’s troops; Bioscope 30 Oct. 1919: 52.

The lack of and necessity for the controlled environment of a studio was underlined by JAP’s stories from the set and his experiences as an extra. The film’s three most spectacular scenes were of the galley that brought Patrick to Ireland, the market where he was sold as a slave and the lighting of the Paschal fire. “During a scene which represented the landing of St. Patrick in Ireland,” he revealed,

the sea showed the rough edge of its temper unexpectedly, and St. Patrick and the company had a pretty severe buffeting. To add to their troubles, a modern fishing smack ran down the ancient galley, which was conveying the saint (then a youthful slave) and the other slaves to land, and various of the players were spilt into the waves. (Ibid.)

Patrick’s sister Lupita (Alice Keating) is sold at an Irish slave market.

Among those injured was Alice Keating, who played Patrick’s sister Lupita. “The chain which fettered her wrists caught in one of the oars or ‘sweeps’ of the galley as she was thrown into the water, and the oar struck her on the head, inflicting a nasty scalp wound. Pluckily, however, she insisted on going on with her part.”

One of the king’s chariots arrives at the slave market.

Not that the studios at Killester guaranteed perfect health and safety, as an anecdote about the use of chariots at the slave auction there suggests. “King Melchio […] having read, presumably, the auction advertisements, turns up in state to see if the goods are up to the shout,” JAP related.

He is accompanied by the Queen and the Princess, and they arrive in three separate and distinct chariots.

They rehearsed this incident so many times that the three horses drawing the King’s chariot got tired of it, and created a ‘divarshun’ by bolting. Mr. Mackie, who was disguised as charioteer, stuck on, and a moment later was flung into a bunch of bushes as the chariot upset. (“Irish Notes” 25 Sep.)

An article in the Irish Times suggests that this incident occurred on 11 September, when “about 200 men and young women posed for the cinematograph, and subsequently there were chariot races on the strand at Portmarnock” (“General Film Supply”).

JAP witnessed the production as participant as well as observer when he took the role of extra – or “super” – in the scene of the lighting of the Paschal fire on the hill of Slane. He published a page-and-a-half account in the Bioscope on 30 October 1919, but a photo that appeared in the Evening Telegraph on 11 October indicates that the scene was shot three weeks earlier on 10 October. “The first job I got,” he reveals after having been costumed and made up, “when we climbed to the top of [Slane] hill was gathering wood. The camera took up its stand in a strikingly picturesque corner of the fringe of a wood, and the programme was that some of the other supers and I should emerge from the trees, bearing bundles of brushwood and logs.”

A production still from Aimsir Padraig that appeared in the Evening Telegraph on 10 Oct. 1919. The caption reads: “On the Hill of Slane and in its vicinity a number of scenes were taken yesterday of the all-Irish film, ‘In the Days of St. Patrick.’ They included the Lighting of the Paschal Fire by the Saint on the exact spot on which the tradition says it was lit by St. Patrick in the Fifth Century. As the result of the lighting of the fire the Saint was summoned to the Court of King Laoghaire. Our picture shows the King and Queen, with their guard, awaiting the arrival of Patrick, his disciples, and converts.

However, he suffered an unfortunate costume malfunction, when he discovered the sandals that he had been given were too small. “I was wrestling with them when the megaphone began to shout insistently,” he admits. “There was nothing for it but to revert to the customs of my far-distant ancestors, so I made my appearance bare-footed. It was some consolation to find that my neighbouring convert – a prominent Dublin exhibitor – was in a similar plight.” Despite the humorous tone of the article, the presence of so many other members of the industry willing to make up the crowd scenes suggests that it was widely regarded as an important undertaking. “We were a light-hearted band of moderns as we climbed that Hill of Slane,” as JAP puts it.

We realised that we were engaged on a task that was something more than the making of an ordinary motion picture. We were producing a film that would be have special appeal for millions of people scattered over the earth. Our task was to visualise for them one of their most intimate traditions; to bring before their eyes a personality vastly more real to them than any other figure in history. We – all of us, from the producer to the most insignificant super – were determined to do it to the best of our ability.

Ad for rights to distribute Aimsir Padraig abroad; Bioscope 13 Nov. 1919: 111.

An unnamed writer at the Irish Limelight witnessed but seems not to have participated in the same scene, observing that it “created a remarkable impression, which is bound to gain rather than lose in force when it is reproduced on the screens of the world.” For this writer, the film represented the start of a new kind of entertaining and informative filmmaking: “In this sphere a wide field of activities opens itself for Irish producers, who can, at the same time, satisfy commercial needs, and teach the history of an ancient civilisation to the people of Ireland as well as the people of the world” (“In the Days of St. Patrick”).

St Patrick banishes Ireland’s snakes: a scene whose realism one critic thought would cause hysteria among unsuspecting ladies. Standard 17 Mar. 1961: 1.

Two other notable features of the production – the treatment of miracles or other fantastical happenings and its use of Irish – were mentioned in JAP’s last 1919 Bioscope item on Aimsir Padraig. The shooting seems to have gone on for most of 1919, only finishing as JAP’s 13 November column appeared. Some of the most famous scenes were saved until last. “The other day St. Patrick, in accordance with tradition, drove the snakes out of Ireland,” JAP recorded. “Howth Head, some nine miles from Dublin, was the scene, and the exit of the reptiles was so realistic that some ladies walking along the cliff path and coming unexpectedly on the sight, might be pardoned for hysterics.” The specifics of Howth as a real Irish place is apparent here as it had been with Slane, Tara and Killester. Not that these places were all connected with the historical Patrick, but they were the actual places in which the film was shot and in which some unsuspecting contemporary ladies might be disturbed by the appearance of seemingly real snakes. But this reality and geographical specificity was also linked to metaphysical power and to the ability of Irish filmmakers to reproduce such power on the screen. This was guaranteed in part by mostly unnamed historians and clerics. Whitten “has had expert advice at every stage of the production, and a well-known ecclesiastic who is an authority on the Saint’s life, personally supervised some of the more important scenes.”

Whitten was very clearly making a political film, but one very different from his banned Sinn Fein Review. Aimsir Padraig was political in appealing to an Irish separatism based not on the politics of Sinn Féin and the IRA but on Catholicism and Gaelic culture expressed in the speaking of Irish or aspiring to. “The titles and sub-titles will be in Gaelic and English,” JAP explained in the same Bioscope item, “and here again the expert is employed, the Irish translations having been supplied by one of the best Gaelic scholars in Dublin.” The film’s titles were specially designed by William J. Walsh, and an opening title listed the Irish translator as Fiachra Eilgeach. The increasingly politicized Gaelic League, the body promoting Irish learning, had been declared illegal in September 1919. The learning of Irish is depicted in the film in a scene that is Patrick’s only really positive experience as a slave in Ireland. Working as a swineherd, Patrick “learns the Irish Language at the foot of Mount Slemish from his companions” (intertitle). Patrick is shown attempting to pronounce the Irish words they mouth for him, and they laugh heartily. The film’s bilingualism is its most obvious uniqueness because it is present from the moment one sees or hears its title. To some extent this bilingualism is a feature of many Irish film, such as Rosaleen Dhu or Willy Reilly and His Colleen Bawn with their conventional Anglicizations of Irish phrases. Aimsir Padraig moves beyond these conventions well known from the Irish play, albeit that it brings many others with it, as we have seen.

Ad for trade show of Aimsir Padraig/In the Days of St Patrick, Irish Independent 27 Jan. 1920: 4.

Given the interest and involvement in the production, it is hardly surprising that the trade show at the Grafton Street Picture House on 30 January 1920 received a high degree of attention not only in the trade press but in the Irish dailies more generally. JAP covered it for the Bioscope on 5 February and was doubtless responsible for the unsigned article on the trade show in the Evening Telegraph on 2 February. “It got a remarkably good reception from a crowded audience,” he revealed in the Bioscope, “which included practically every representative of the Trade in the Irish capital, a very large number of clergymen, and some of the principal members of the Film Company of Ireland.” “The life of Ireland’s patron saint has been filmed before now,” he noted in the Telegraph, referring to the 1912 Life of the St. Patrick: From the Cradle to the Grave by J. Theobald Walsh for the New York-based Photo-Historic company. However, “anything previously attempted fades into insignificance compared with this picture. ‘In the Days of St. Patrick’ is remarkable, not alone for its historical accuracy – in the matter of setting and costumes as much as in its strict adherence to the known facts of the Saint’s life – but for its wonderful photography” (“Irish Film Production”). Nevertheless, he was not wholly complimentary, commenting in the Bioscope that it “is not wholly free from the blemishes incidental to a first production – some scenes would bear cutting – notably that which shows St. Patrick being made a bishop,” a scene that certainly feels too long in the IFI Irish Film Archive’s surviving print.

Programme for Galway’s Victoria Cinema featuring Aimsir Padraig; Connacht Tribune 24 Apr. 1920: 3.

As a result of this publicity, the film had momentum behind it when it opened for the public on 15 March 1920 at Dublin’s Phibsboro Picture House, Rathmines Town Hall and Kingstown Picture House, as well as at Limerick’s Theatre Royal and Derry’s St Columb’s Hall. Other well-advertised runs followed at Sligo’s Town Hall (24-26 March), Cork’s Washington Cinema (5-10 April), the Picturedromes in Clonmel and Tipperary (5-7 April), Waterford’s Broad Street Cinema (15-17 April), Belfast’s St Mary’s Hall (19-24 April), Galway’s Victoria Cinema (26-27 April), Kilkenny’s Empire Theatre (3-5 May), Castlebar’s Ellison Cinema (7-10 May) and Carrick-on-Suir’s Park View Cinema (30 June-1 July).

Liverpool Echo 29 Jul. 1920: 1.

While Irish screenings became more sparse after this, British dates began to appear, with Liverpool’s Picton Hall advertising it for two weeks beginning 1 August, then retaining it for a third when a Liverpool Echo ad claiming that “the hearty and reverential spirit of this Picture has aroused large audiences to highest pitch of enthusiasm. The Picture is one of engrossing interest and educational value.” It also had a four-day run at Motherwell’s Town Hall beginning on 15 November 1920. But Whitten’s ambitions for the film were larger still. He advertised the American and colonial rights for sale, and at the end of June, JAP reported that he had taken the film to the United States some months earlier and was still there. “He has visited Los Angeles and all the big film-producing centres,” JAP revealed. “In a recent topical film from the United States of America, his friends in this country were amused to see N.W., ‘as large as life,’ figuring as a spectator just behind De Valera” (“Irish Notes,” 24 Jun.).

Aimsir Padraig at Ellison’s, Castlebar; Connaught Telegraph 1 May 1920: 2.

If he was away so long, it is not clear how much of the film’s Irish reception Whitten experienced first-hand. No doubt he or someone at GFS sent out press releases with materials on the film to the cinemas and newspapers in the towns in which the film screened. In several towns, the newspapers published this material at some length and with regional variations. Fewer places reviewed the film in a way that gives an indication of local reaction beyond the press. The first of these came from the Evening Herald, which published a notice of the opening day at the Phibsboro Picture House that is worth quoting at length for the details that are included in other articles on the film. “The Killester super-film, ‘In the Days of St. Patrick,’ was witnessed at each presentation yesterday by full and appreciative audiences,” it begins.

The film is all that has been claimed for it, and is one of transcendent beauty. Many of the actual spots in our isle hallowed by the footsteps of our National Apostle are included in the production, and each and all the participants in the magnificent presentation show a carefulness regarding histrionic detail that invests each scene unfolded with charm. The epilogue to this great picture is most interesting – showing St. Patrick’s grave at Downpatrick, some relics of the Saint, last year’s pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick, the Armagh Cathedral, and our Apostle’s successor, his Eminence Cardinal Logue. It may be mentioned that the descriptive particulars of the scenario are in both Gaelic and Bearla [English]. The orchestral selections were in harmony with the picture. Included in the programme were the Houdini serial and a side-splitting Chaplin comedy, “Charlie’s Night Out.” (“The Phibsboro’.”)

Cork Examiner 5 Apr. 1920: 4.

Many of the details are familiar from other previews and reviews: the size and appreciation of the audience, the beauty of the images, the use of locations associated with Patrick, the interest of the newsreel and the bilingualism. Many notices more strongly emphasized the “all Irishness” of the production, notwithstanding Whitten’s own English origins. The Cork Examiner’s review of the shows at Cork’s Washington Cinema claimed that the film was “a truly All-Irish film, the artistes, photography, scenery and titles all being Irish. It is claimed to be the only All-Irish masterpiece yet produced” (“Washington Cinema”). Both the Washington and the Phibsboro chose to programme Aimsir Padraig with a Chaplin comedy, but fuller details in such areas as the actual names of the appropriate music provided in Phibsboro and elsewhere would be welcome. In Castlebar, Ellison’s promised “a grand concert each night, the services of Mr. Michael Maguire, Dublin, a famous baritone, having been engaged” (“Wonderful Picture”).

St Patrick’s Day programme at St Columb’s Hall, Derry; Derry Journal 15 Mar. 1920: 4

Only at Derry’s St Columb’s Hall on St Patrick’s day did an Irish programme support Aimsir Padraig to provide what the review called an “Excellent Irish Entertainment.” In this case, a concert of Irish songs, many of them in Irish and by singers who specialized in Irish-language material, preceded the screening of Aimsir Padraig. Vocalists Maud Clancy and Jack Collins were advertised for the full week, but on St Patrick’s night, they were joined by Maighread Ní L’Annagain and Seamus de Clanndíolun. “The possessor of a sweet and tuneful voice,” Ní L’Annagain “sang several numbers in delightful style. She gave most successful renderings of ‘Una Bhan,’ ‘The Peasant’s Bride,’ ‘Jackets Green,’ ‘Cleim an Fhiadha,’ ‘The Minstrel Boy,’ ‘An Rois Geal Dubh,’ and her efforts met with unstinted and well deserved admiration.” Dancing of jigs and hornpipes followed the singing before the film screening was accompanied by unspecified “Irish selections by the orchestra, directed by Mr. J.S. O’Brien.”

Albeit that it was rare, the release of two new Irish films created the possibility that Irish picture houses in 1920 could provide what contemporary observers thought was an excellent Irish cinematic entertainment.

References

“Back to the Fifth Century: Our Irish Representative Makes His Debut as a Film Actor: A Pressman in Ancient Ireland.” Bioscope 30 Oct. 1919: 52.

“Celtic Film Company’s ‘Rosaleen Dhu.”” Irish Limelight Dec. 1920: 19.

Denvir, John. Rolsalee Dhu; or The Twelve Pins of Bin-a-Bola. Denvir, 1874.

“Excellent Irish Entertainment in St. Columb’s Hall.” Derry Journal 19 Mar. 1920: 8.

“Festival: Engagements in the City and throughout the Country.” Freeman’s Journal 17 Mar. 1920: 5.

“General Film Supply: Preparing ‘In the Days of St. Patrick.’” Irish Times 12 Sep. 1919: 6.

Ging, Debbie. Men and Masculinity in Irish Cinema. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Hughes, Tom. How Belfast Saw the Light: A Cinematic History. Hughes, 2014.

“In the Days of St. Patrick.” Irish Limelight Nov. 1920: 10.

“Irish Film Production: Wonderful Picture of the Life of St. Patrick: Splendid Photography.” Evening Telegraph 2 Feb. 1920: 2.

“Irish Notes.” Bioscope 10 Apr. 1919: 119; 17 Apr. 1919: 104-05; 25 Sep. 1919: 105; 30 Oct. 1919: 53, 54; 5 Feb. 1920: 113; 13 May 1920: 112; 24 Jun. 1920: 105.

“The Life of St. Patrick.” Sligo Champion 20 Mar. 1920: 4.

“Notes and News.” Irish Limelight Dec. 1919: 3.

O’Fearail, Padraig. “When Films Were Made in Bray.” Irish Times 16 Aug. 1977: 8.

“The Phibsboro’.” Evening Herald 16 Mar. 1920: 3.

Rockett, Kevin. The Irish Filmography. Dublin: Red Mountain, 1996. Expanded online as the basis of Irish Film and TV Research Online. Trinity College, Dublin. https://www.tcd.ie/irishfilm/.

“‘Rosaleen Dhu.’” Sligo Champion 13 Mar. 1920: 4.

“Rosaleen Dhu.” Nationalist and Leinster Times 8 Apr. 1922: 2.

“St. Patrick’s Day: Celebrations in Cork: Imposing Procession: Clergy and Corporation.” Cork Examiner 18 Mar. 1920: 5, 8.

“Washington Cinema.” Cork Examiner 6 Apr. 1920: 4.

“A Wonderful Picture.” Connaught Telegraph 8 May 1920: 2.

“Features Resembling a Sensational Cinema Story”: Political Violence in Irish Cinema in February 1920

Part of the 1911 Census return for Lena (here: Elenia) Johnson and her family. Full record available from the National Archives of Ireland: http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/reels/nai002751044/.

Political violence associated with the Irish War of Independence impinged on Irish cinema with force in February 1920. It did so in a number of ways, most tragically in the death of cinema attendant Lena Johnson but also in the use of cinema in describing the violence that was occurring on the streets. For newspapers, cinema had become the ready metaphor to describe incidents of heightened excitement or danger, as is evident in the Irish Independent’s description on 26 February of police and military attempts to recapture army deserters as “incidents worthy of a cinema episode” (“Exciting Chase after Deserters”). Why the men deserted is not clear, but the episode had reached the pinnacle of excitement in the newspaper account when the deserters were identified at Dublin’s port, tried to get away across the rail lines, and a group of them “had a miraculous escape from being run over by a passing train.” Chases, hairbreadth escapes and the train as the epitome of human frailty in the face of modern technology had long been the cinema’s stock-in-trade.

Irish Independent 7 Feb. 1920: 4.

What was new now was the metaphor’s application to conflict between the police and British army, on the one hand, and Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers, on the other. On 7 February 1920, the Independent reported on an incident in which an armed detective chased a man who pointed a revolver at him in the street into a shop in Dublin’s Coombe and was himself restrained by the shop keeper who said he mistook the detective for an armed robber. The incident “had features resembling a sensational cinema story,” the report surmised (“Sensational City Scene”). If it was a sensational cinema story, that story now concerned the escalating violence of the War of Independence in which armed conflict in the streets of Ireland’s cities, as well as skirmishes in the countryside, were becoming increasingly common. And the story had an openly political character. Whoever the initial man with the revolver had been, shop keeper Patrick Horan, “an ex-soldier wearing the 1915 ribbon,” and his mother Mrs Donnelly, who was serving in the shop, were identified by the detective as Sinn Fein supporters “and they have obstructed me in the discharge of my duty.” Horan’s identification as a decorated soldier and a Sinn Féin supporter suggests some of the complexities of the situation.

Freeman’s Journal 13 Feb. 1920: 3.

Writers in the Independent was not alone in implicating cinema in accounts of political violence. Describing an incident in Dublin in mid-February, the Freeman’s Journal suggested that the cinema had so come to dominate the ways that even experienced journalists saw the world that actual violent confrontations between Irish republican forces and those of the British state was distorted and exaggerated beyond credibility. Seeking to correct Irish and British press reports of a supposed attack by a large number of armed Irish Volunteers on a heavily guarded escort bringing the court-martialled Sinn Féin MP Robert Barton to prison, the reporter observed that accounts of the alleged incident made the “military act like cinema stars” (“North Side Hold-Up”). The incident was “like a cinema scene,” no doubt a sensational one. “Eyewitnesses described the scene,” the writer commented, “which indeed had something in it to stir the imagination of a generation accustomed to the thrilling scenarios of the film-play dramatists.” Nevertheless, s/he claimed that while an attack on a car carrying military personnel did occur, all aspects of the story as reported were exaggerated and were not attributable to major republican groups. “The facts of the affair subdue the high lights, and raise the substantial doubt which, while leaving the authors of the incident in obscurity, utterly demolish the suggestion that Irish Volunteers or any similar organisation was concerned in it. […] There is something wrong with the story.”

Limerick Leader 4 Feb. 1920: 3.

In the case of the shooting of Lena Johnson in Limerick on 2 February, the interaction between cinema and the War of Independence were far from these metaphorical references to stardom and thrilling scenarios. A cinema attendant in her 20s who lived with her family in Thomondgate, Johnson was crossing Sarsfield Bridge on her way home from work at the Coliseum between 10.30 and 11pm when she was hit by a stray bullet fired indiscriminately at a taunting crowd by members of the RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary). Much public sympathy was shown to Johnson and to publican Richard O’Dwyer, the two people fatally shot that night, and who had had no part in any demonstration in the streets. Johnson’s funeral “was one of the most impressive funerals that has taken place in Limerick for a number of years, and all classes joined in paying fitting tribute to a young lady who enjoyed general popularly, and whose death under such peculiarly sad circumstances produced universal grief” (“Limerick Shootings”).

Limerick Echo 17 Feb. 1920: 3.

At the subsequent inquest, the RIC witnesses tried to blame British soldiers stationed in the city for firing on the crowd after an armed man had fired on them first, and much of the coverage of the inquest focused on the contradictions between the evidence of the police and the military. The inquest jury, however, rejected the police’s attempts at exculpation and found “that Helena Johnson met her death by shock, the results of the effect of a bullet wound caused by a rifle bullet fired by police without orders from their superiors, which we strongly condemn, because there was no provocation for what the jury consider murder in the case of Helena Johnson” (“Contradictory”).

Dublin Evening Mail 21 Feb. 1920: 3.

Cinema and those associated with it – including such workers as Lena Johnson, audiences and filmmakers – were only rarely the targets of fighting during the War of Independence. Like the population at large, however, those involved in cinema faced the increasing dangers and restrictions of a society openly in conflict, and these affected how they went about their ordinary activities. One of the new restrictions introduced to Dublin in February 1920 was a curfew between midnight and 5am. Announced by Major-General Gerald Farrell Boyd, the General Officer Commanding the Dublin District, it was made under the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), many of whose wartime powers remained in use in Ireland. Describing the first night of martial law, the Freeman’s Journal observed that “for some time before the military put in an appearance the streets were practically deserted. Up to 11 o’clock, however, the city might be said to have worn its normal aspect. When the theatres, picture houses and other places of amusement emptied themselves there were the customary scenes of animation” (“Plunged into Complete Darkness”).

Censorship restrictions had long limited what Irish filmmaker could portray. Although indigenous production companies were making films at the time, they were not telling the contemporary sensational stories of life in Ireland, regardless of how much the press touted these stories’ cinematic character. Early 1920 saw the release of two of the major Irish feature films of the silent period: the General Film Supply’s In the Days of St Patrick/Aimsir Padraig and the Film Company of Ireland’s Willy Reilly and His Colleen Bawn, which will shortly receive their due attention here in blogs to mark the centenaries of their releases. It is worth noting, however, that these were historical dramas because when these companies turned to the depiction of the politics of contemporary Ireland, their films were seized by the authorities.

None of these factors were affecting the boom in cinema building in early 1920, but some local councils did see that boom as detrimental to the much-needed construction of housing. At a meeting of Belfast Borough Council on 2 February 1920, Councillor J. Baird sought unsuccessfully to halt “the erection of motor garages, public-houses, picture theatres, factories, extensions of shops and other buildings which could be described as luxuries until the people of the city were supplied with the necessary housing accommodation” (“The Housing Problem”). A meeting of Cork Corporation on 1 March 1920 took a similar view of the cinema-licence application by “three ladies and a gentleman who had made a little capital in Cork, and who wished to invest it in Cork for the benefit of the workingmen of the city” by opening a cinema at 1-2 Winthrop Street (”Cork Corporation”). Lord Mayor Tomás MacCurtain “objected to sanctioning luxury entertainment whilst there were people in the city who hadn’t houses to live in.” Nevertheless, the Corporation’s Law and Finance Committee chaired by MacCurtain subsequently granted a licence not only to those applicants but also to four others for new cinemas at 80-82 Patrick Street, 40-42 Grand Parade, another in Winthrop Street and 26 Cook Street (“Cinema Licences in Cork”).

MacCurtain’s murder by the RIC on 20 March 1920 had nothing to do with these decisions, but it was certainly part of the political violence that also impinged on Irish cinema a century ago.

References

“Cinema Licences in Cork.” Evening Echo 2 Mar. 1920: 3.

“Contradictory: Inquest on Miss Johnson.” Limerick Echo 17 Feb. 1920: 3.

“Cork Corporation.” Cork Examiner 2 Mar. 1920: 7.

“Exciting Chase after Deserters.” Irish Independent 26 Feb. 1920: 6.

“The Housing Problem: Shortage in Belfast.” Belfast News-Letter 3 Feb. 1920: 5.

“Limerick Shootings: Funerals of the Victims.” Limerick Leader 6 Feb. 1920: 3.

“The North Side Hold-Up: Military Act Like Cinema Stars.” Freeman’s Journal 13 Feb. 1920: 3.

“Plunged into Complete Darkness: Military Patrols Move Through Deserted Streets.” Freeman’s Journal 24 Feb. 1920: 3.

“Police Fired without Orders or Provocation.” Freeman’s Journal 14 Feb. 1920: 5.

“Sensational City Scene: Commotion in a Shop.” Irish Independent 7 Feb. 1920: 4.

“Tragic Incidents Further Described.” Cork Examiner 5 Feb. 1920: 5

Rebuilding Dublin as a Cinematic City for the 1920s

JAP’s end of year “Irish Notes,” Bioscope 25 Dec. 1919: 97.

Despite an increasingly unstable political situation as the War of Independence intensified, Irish cinema at the end of the 1910s was in a very healthy state, and cinema in Dublin especially was about to change radically as it underwent a post-World War I, post-1916 Rising building boom. Not that cinema did not face criticism from the Irish Vigilance Association and its press supporters in their ongoing campaign against imported popular culture, which the Evening Herald memorably saw as an “invasion of our theatres by the ever-increasing forces of smut-huns whose poison gas has been as great a danger to public morals as machines of war have been to the physical weal of the people” (“Cleanse the Theatres”).  Notwithstanding such campaigns, the exhibition side of the industry looked particularly strong at the end of 1919, and Irish film production also looked promising. In his last “Irish Notes” of the year in the Bioscope, JAP noted two coming productions. “‘Rosaleen Dhu,’” he reported, “is the title of a four-reel film which has been produced by the Celtic Film Company around Bray, Co. Wicklow” (“Irish Notes,” 25 Dec.). He gave more space to the news that

the Film Company of Ireland recently reconstructed as the Irish Film Company [and] has just completed its only 1919 production, a screen version of a story by the famous Irish novelist of the early nineteenth century, William Carleton. The film, “Willie Reilly and his Colleen Bawn,” was made amidst some of the most picturesque scenery in the vicinity of Dublin, and features Brian MacGowan, who made a big hit as the central figure, “Matt, the Thrasher,” in the company’s super-production, “Knocknagow.” (Ibid.)

 

Ad for the trade show of In the Days of St Patrick, Irish Independent 27 Jan. 1920: 4.

Beyond the expectations of this substantial production, JAP observed that both the Film Company and Norman Whitten’s General Film Supply, which was also completing a film about St Patrick, were building film studios in the Dublin suburbs. “There is plenty of room for both companies,” he concluded, “and ‘competition is the life of trade.’”

Clontarf Town Hall reopened on 23 December 1919. Dublin Evening Mail 20 Dec. 1919: 2.

To some extent, the reopening on 23 December 1919 of Clontarf Town Hall as a picture theatre epitomizes the development of Dublin film exhibition. The Town Hall had first operated as a cinema in 1913 at the height of the pre-war cinema building boom, and as such, was among the first of the suburban cinemas whose offerings of professionally produced entertainment outside the city made cinema such a phenomenal success in the 1910s. With a substantial resident population and a seaside location that drew people out of the city, the town hall had looked like a good prospect as an entertainment venue throughout the 1910s, but it experienced difficulties that saw it closing and reopening regularly, including in 1916 and 1917. It would change hands again in May 1920, when a Mr O’Connell was named as the proprietor (“Irish Notes,” 13 May). As such, it did not have the stability of the Bohemian Picture Theatre and Phibsboro Picture House in the north-city suburb of Phibsboro and the Princess Cinema and Rathmines Town Hall in the south-city suburb of Rathmines. The Bohemian in particular had overcome the disadvantage of location vis-à-vis city-centre cinemas by attracting patrons to Phibsboro with its musical attractions.

A 1926 Goad Fire Insurance map of the Sackville/O’Connell Street block containing La Scala and the Metropole.

If the 1910s saw the advent and the dominance to a significant degree of the suburban picture house, the turn of the decade to the 1920s would see the city-centre venues spectacularly reassert themselves. Four large cinemas were under construction on key sites in the Sackville/O’Connell Street area that had levelled during the fighting in 1916: La Scala, the Metropole, the Grand Central and the Corinthian. The destroyed block to the south of the GPO, the centre of fighting during the Rising, was about to become the location of two of these cinemas, La Scala and the Metropole. Formerly a hotel at the corner of O’Connell and Princes Streets, the Metropole would become an entertainment venue that included a dance hall, a restaurant and a thousand-seat cinema.

Caricature of Frank Chambers, Irish Limelight Nov.1917: 1.

That seating capacity was dwarfed by La Scala, “Dublin’s new super cinema,” which would occupy a site on Princes Street that had been the premises of the Freeman’s Journal and the print works of the Alex Thom publishing company (“Behind the Screen”). “When completed,” the Irish Limelight observed when the project was first announced in the spring of 1918, “the seating accommodation will exceed that of the Gaiety Theatre, while adjoining the auditorium will be spacious tea and refreshment lounges, modelled on the most up-to-date lines” (ibid.). At this point, the seating accommodation was put at 1,400, but when La Scala opened in August 1920, this figure had more than doubled to 3,200 (“Building News”). La Scala was promoted by a consortium led by Frank Chambers, who had opened the Carlton Cinema in O’Connell Street in December 1915, but who had sold his interest in the Carlton in order to focus on La Scala, with which it would be in competition.

Goad Fire Insurance map of Dublin’s Lower Sackville/O’Connell Street and Eden Quay showing the location and relative sizes of the Grand Central Cinema and the Corinthian Cinema.

But La Scala would have plenty of other competition, both established and new. JAP put it succinctly when reporting on a conversation with another proprietor of a Sackville/O’Connell Street cinema. “Speaking to Alderman Farrell, managing director of the Pillar Picture House, and other Dublin cinemas, the other day,” JAP revealed,

he confirmed the report that he had purchased the site in Sackville Street formerly occupied by the D.B.C. restaurant, which vanished in the flames of the 1916 rebellion. It is a fine site, one of the most central in Dublin. The only trouble is that it is almost directly opposite the two palatial cinemas – the Metropole and the Scala – at present in process of construction, and within a stone’s throw almost of half-a-dozen other houses doing good business. And just round the corner on Eden Quay, the newly-formed Corinthian company are building one of the two picture theatres promised in their prospectuses” (“Irish Notes,” 11 Sep).

Farrell’s new cinema would be called the Grand Central, its name incorporating that of the Grand Cinema, which until its destruction in 1916, had stood next door to the iconic DBC restaurant.

Extract from James T. Jameson’s assessment of the viability of the Corinthian Picture Company. Courtesy of the Architectural Archive of Ireland.

Another key member of the Irish cinema industry was asked to comment on the soundness of the Corinthian Picture Company’s business plan. On 25 August 1919, James T. Jameson wrote a report on the viability of two cinemas that the Corinthian Picture Company intended to build on sites at South Great Georges Street and Eden Quay in central Dublin. As the managing director of the Dublin Kinema Exchange and Mart and Ireland’s most prominent pioneer film exhibitor, Jameson was in a good position to make this assessment. His report was appended to an estimate of the profits of the two cinemas in a document that survives at the Irish Architectural Archive (“Statement”). In it, Jameson approves of the architectural drawing that Thomas McNamara had prepared and of the central locations that the company had secured. With good tram links and plenty of passing trade, the latter would ensure that

there will be no necessity for expensive competitive films, as good ordinary programmes would in my opinion be quite sufficient, neither would there require to be a great deal of advertising, both of which are such a heave outlay on Picture Houses built in out-of-the-way streets […], and for which big extra attractions and expenses are involved to secure a clientele.

The particular merits of the Eden Quay site were that it “is faced with the inward and outward evening flow of patrons for the Royal Hippodrome and Tivoli Theatres, besides being in the line of persons passing from the North and South sides of the city. The impressive front of this Theatre also cannot be missed and will always be a standing attraction.” Indeed, the company decided to proceed with only this cinema, but it would not open until August 1921, almost exactly two years after Jameson wrote his report.

Although he mentions the possibility of increased revenues if the cinemas could secure Sunday opening, Jameson curiously did not take the growing competition in the Sackville/O’Connell Street area into account. The Recorder had banned Sunday opening for city-centre cinemas except in poor residential areas, and part of the controversy that La Scala would cause related to its attempts to get around this restriction. Suburban cinemas did not have to face the Recorder’s ban, although local clergy enforced Sunday closing in Rathmines. Other objections to the new city-centre cinema boom came from those who feared that cinema was replacing other art forms. “I read your leading article on ‘Music in Dublin,’ in Saturday’s issue, with very great interest,” letter writer “Musicus” commented in the Irish Times at the end of October 1919. “One would have thought that a fine [concert] hall would have been erected in Sackville street, instead of a new picture house, of which we have plenty” (“Music in Dublin”).

JAP was also less impressed than Jameson appeared to be with the re-centralization of cinema. “What puzzles me,” he opined, “is why all the new cinemas are being built in the centre of the city. I know of one or two sites in the outer circle which are simply shrieking to have cinemas built upon them. One district in particular should prove a veritable gold mine for the man who gets there first” (“Irish Notes,” 11 Sep). The unnamed suburb was probably not Clontarf, but it may have been the Liberties, Pembroke or Stoneybatter, where the Manor Street Cinema opened in May 1920.

Areas of Dublin’s suburbs did remain to be exploited by the cinema trade, but what was remarkable as 1919 became 1920 was the way in which parts of the city centre destroyed during the 1916 Rising were not being reconstructed as concert halls, press/publishing facilities or restaurants. They were being rebuilt as part of a cinematic city for the 1920s.

References

“Behind the Screen.” Irish Limelight Apr. 1918: 4.

“Building News.” Irish Builder 14 Aug. 1920: 530.

“Cleanse the Theatres.” Evening Herald 4 Jun. 1919: 2.

“Irish Notes.” Bioscope 11 Sep. 1919: 95; 25 Dec. 1919: 97-98; 13 May 1920: 112.

“Music in Dublin.” Letter. Irish Times 27 Oct. 1919: 6.

“Statement Showing How Estimate of Profits Is Arrived At and Report of Mr. James T. Jameson.” RP.D.147.7, Irish Architectural Archive.

“Leaning towards the Spectacular”: The Suppression of the Sinn Fein Review in April 1919

Drogheda Advertiser 19 Apr. 1919: 3.

On the evening of Wednesday, 16 April 1919, Head Constable John Orr arrived at the Boyne Cinema in Fair Street, Drogheda, accompanied by a squad made up of all the available Royal Irish Constabulary men in the town’s Westgate and South Quay barracks. As Orr recorded in his official report of events, caretaker Thomas Borden told him that manager Joseph Stanley was not present and initially refused to give the policemen the key to the projection box. However, when Orr threatened to break in the door with a heavy hatchet he had instructed be brought from the barracks, Borden relented and opened the door. Seizing two reels of film that made up parts 1 and 2 of the Sinn Fein Review that had been produced and supplied to the cinema by Norman Whitten’s General Film Supply (GFS), Orr brought them back to Westgate barracks to await further instructions (CSORP).

Poster seen on 29 Mar. 1919 by Inspector Herbert of the Dublin Metropolitan in the window of the General Film Supply offices in Dublin. Courtesy of the National Archives of Ireland.

This dramatic raid was the end point of a process that began two-and-a-half weeks earlier, when a poster in the GFS office window at 17 Brunswick had caught the eye of Inspector Herbert of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) as he had been strolling past between 10 and 11am. Making this his business, Herbert had quizzed an unnamed GFS employee about the poster and had been told that the film showed “a number of incidents in connection with the Rebellion of 1916, its leaders, and the Sinn Fein movement generally which have been shown from time to time have been put into one film in review form” (CSORP).

What happened between these two police actions has been well known in Irish film studies since the late 1980s, thanks to Kevin Rockett’s detailed account in Cinema and Ireland, the first systemic book in the field (Rockett, Gibbons and Hill 34-6). Rockett based his account on a file in the National Archives of Ireland (NAI) that covers the banning of both the Sinn Fein Review in April 1919 and Ireland a Nation in January 1917 (see an account of the latter film here). As such, this file offers the richest detail of any official document of the period on the British authorities’ regulation of Irish cinema in the late 1910s, between the Easter Rising and the War of Independence. Rockett charts how the police and military authorities consulted on what to do, and citing the precedent set by the Ireland a Nation case, the police sent two detectives to view the Sinn Fein Review. Their report led to the conclusion that it should be banned because it was “Sinn Fein propaganda pure and simple.” When the police arrived at the GFS offices to seize the film, they were told that copies had already been despatched to Drogheda, precipitating the raid on the Boyne Cinema.

Ian Macpberson was appointed Chief Secretary of Ireland in January 1919; from Century Ireland.

The details provided by the detectives of Irish Events films and local newspaper accounts of the events in Drogheda deserve more attention than they have had, but it’s worth first saying something about the kind of source this file is. It is part of the Chief Secretary’s Office Registered Papers (CSO/RP), the surviving documents held by NAI that went through the Dublin Castle office of the British cabinet minister with responsibility for the administration of Ireland. In April 1919, the post of chief secretary was held by Ian Macpherson, but as the two-year gap between the Ireland a Nation and Sinn Fein Review cases suggests, cinema-related cases only rarely crossed Macpherson’s desk.

The IVA advertises a 1919 funding drive; Freeman’s Journal 21 Jun. 1919: 4.

The day-to-regulation of cinema was done at a different level of government, by local councils under the powers provided by the 1909 Cinematograph Act. That act originally focused on the very real danger of loss of life from cinema fires caused by the bringing together of highly combustible nitrate film and light sources that produced high heat or even used a naked flame. As a result, regulations initially provided for fire-proof projection booths and auditoria with adequate provision for escape in the event of fire. The employees of the council who were given this responsibility typically belonged to the public health or sanitation department, such as Limerick Corporation’s sub-sanitary officer Solomon Frost, who in February 1919 prosecuted the Athenaeum Hall and Coliseum for overcrowding, or Dublin Corporation theatre inspector Walter Butler who in April 1919, brought similar charges against the Sackville Picture House, Pillar Picture House, Mary Street Picture House and Electric Theatre (“Limerick News,” “City Picture Houses,” “Picture House Crowding”). However, Butler was not just Dublin Corporation’s theatre inspector. His duties increased considerably in June 1916, when in response to the incessant lobbying of by the Catholic-church-based Irish Vigilance Association (IVA), the Corporation appointed him and Councillor Patrick Lennon film censors.

Frank Leah’s caricature of Eugene McGough; Irish Limelight Jun. 1918: 1.

When it became clear that Butler and Lennon could watch only a fraction of the films exhibited in Dublin, the IVA again successfully lobbied the Corporation for the appointment as additional censors of IVA members Eugene McGough and AJ Murray, “two gentlemen of education and standing in the City who are willing to devote their spare time to carry out the work, without fee or reward, solely in the interests of the citizens” (Dublin Corporation). In May 1919, the IVA claimed that McGough and Murray had watched over 700 films in the previous year, spending “2,100 hours of their time viewing these films before they were presented to the public, which meant that they were engaged for seven hours a day cutting out of these films whatever was objectionable” (“Worthy of Support”).

The definition of what was objectionable differed between the IVA-enhanced Corporation censors and the British officials at the CSO. In January 1918, McGough had clarified his and the IVA’s view that “pictures dealing with sexual matters should be prohibited by law and the house showing them should be heavily penalised” (“Our Cinema Censors”). This is shockingly clear; moving pictures should not treat sex or sexuality in any way. Historical or newsreel films such as Ireland a Nation and the Sinn Fein Review were beyond this kind of reproach, but they attracted the attention of the Castle authorities for political content that had the potentiality to cause disaffection among the majority nationalist audience. Nevertheless, politically contentious films that required the involvement of the CSO were rare, in part because the authorities used banning as a way of warning off distributors and exhibitors who may have seen a commercial opportunity in screening politically controversial material in times when Irish audiences appeared to be especially receptive to advanced nationalist, anti-British opinions.

Frank Leah’s caricature of Frederick Sparling, who was best known as the proprietor of the Bohemian Picture Theatre in Phibsboro, Dublin, but who had hired the larger and more centrally located Rotunda to show Ireland a Nation. Irish Limelight Aug. 1917: 1.

In this sense, distributor Frederick Sparling was doing the government’s work for them by keeping the Ireland a Nation case in the public eye. Not that that was his aim: the banning of the film had cost him a considerable sum in securing the distribution rights and in hiring the Rotunda, Dublin’s largest cinema at the time, in which to show it. Understandably, he sought compensation for the banning of a film that the press censor appointed under the Defence of the Realm Act had initially passed for exhibition. But by seeking redress from the War Losses Commission in January 1918 and when this proved unsatisfactory, prompting Irish Parliamentary MP Jeremiah McVeagh to ask a question about it in the House of Commons in February 1919, Ireland a Nation became exemplary of the difficulties over years that distributors could face if they released politically contentious material (“‘Ireland a Nation,’” “Irish Questions”).

Norman Whitten was well aware of these developments, but he had good reason to think that the Sinn Fein Review would not receive such treatment. For a start, the film was a newsreel compilation consisting almost exclusively of short items concerning Sinn Féin that had already been shown as part of Irish Events, and none of these individual items had been banned. The only non-Irish Events items were a couple of films that predated the start of Irish Events in July 1917 and the first film of Sinn Féin president Éamon de Valera since his daring escape from Lincoln Prison on 3 February 1919. Perhaps the de Valera film so prominently featured in advertising was the problem. If the police couldn’t recapture de Valera, they could capture his image. In any case, as the poster spotted by Inspector Herbert indicates, Whitten clearly made no secret that he was compiling the film and intended to offer it for sale. Fingal, the new writer of trade journal Bioscope’s “Irish Notes,” had mentioned it in his/her column of 10 April. “Mr. Whitten’s biggest scoop recently has been the filming of the Sinn Fein ‘President,’ Mr. de Valera, in his hiding place near Dublin after his escape from Lincoln Gaol,” Fingal observed. “This is being included in a film survey of the Sinn Fein movement since the Dublin rebellion in 1916, and is being released under the title ‘Sinn Fein Review’” (“Irish Notes”).

Fingal gave some attention not only to this first Irish newsreel compilation but also to other ambitious film projects that Whitten had in train. These included the feature-length hagiography In the Days of St Patrick, the first scenes of which Fingal had seen and praised as “strikingly picturesque.” But Fingal began the column with the political events that GFS’s Irish Events newsreel covered more generally. “The Irish people have a decided leaning towards the spectacular,” the column began.

Which is a good thing for the makers of topical films.

“Irish Events” is never short of good topical material, and is very popular with audiences in this country. […] At the present moment the most dramatic and picturesque incidents are being provided by the Sinn Feiners.

Fingal probably did not get a chance to see the full Sinn Fein Review, and it does not survive, but Inspectors George Love and Neil McFeely wrote a detailed description of it in their report of a special screening at the GFS offices on the morning of 12 April 1919. “The Film is in two parts and it takes half an hour to show,” they began, before describing the items in each part. Paraphrasing them slightly, these were:

Part I

  1. The annual Republican pilgrimage to Wolfe Tone’s grave at Bodenstown, including a scene at the graveside.
  2. The first Sinn Féin electoral victory in the North Roscommon by-election on 5 February 1917, featuring successful candidate Count George Plunkett.
  3. Scenes at the East Clare by-election after the declaration of the poll on 11 July 1917, showing successful candidate de Valera in uniform alongside Plunkett and Sinn Féin leader Arthur Griffith.
  4. The Sinn Féin Convention at Dublin’s Mansion House on 25 October 1917, showing delegates leaving.
  5. Scenes at the East Cavan by-election of June 1918, showing senior Sinn Féin member Father Michael O’Flanagan and crowds outside the White Horse Hotel.
  6. The funeral procession in Dublin on 17 November 1918 for journalist and author Séumas O’Kelly, who had edited the Sinn Féin newspaper Nationality after Griffith’s arrest
  7. The procession from Dublin’s Westland Row railway station and scenes outside Fleming’s Hotel after the arrival of amnestied Easter Rising prisoners on 18 June 1917, and the reception of Countess Constance Markievicz after her release four days later.

Part II

  1. General election events in Dublin in December 1918, including scenes outside the polling booths, the declaration of the poll at Green Street, and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington congratulating Alderman Thomas Kelly.
  2. The anti-conscription meeting at Ballaghadereen on 5 May 1918, showing Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Dillon and de Valera addressing the audience from the same platform.
  3. Irish Women’s Anti-Conscription Procession in Dublin on 9 June 1918.
  4. Crowds outside the Mansion House on the occasion of the first Meeting of Dáil Eireann on 21 January 1919, with a group portrait of key figures.
  5. First film of de Valera after his escape from Lincoln Prison on 3 February.
  6. Markievicz exhibiting a picture she painted in Holloway Prison, entitled “Easter Week”; also the Countess engaged in gardening and painting a picture.
  7. De Valera’s first appearance in Dublin after his escape, showing his arrival at the Mansion House with Cathal Burgess [Brugha], footage of the Lord Mayor and his two daughters, and de Valera leaving the Mansion House.

Both parts were no doubt close to the standard 1,000-foot reel length, running about 15 minutes. As such, each numbered item ran an average of two minutes, but some were likely the one-minute standard of newsreel items while items taken from newsreel specials were probably over two minutes. Apart from the two final films of de Valera (II 5 and 7) and possible the one of Markievicz (II 6), it is probable that all the other films had been shown previously, as Whitten told the two detectives. Certainly some of them are readily identifiable as films discussed here previously, such as the newsreel special of the first Dáil.

While the structure of the film may seem a bit haphazard, it appears to sacrifice a strict commitment to chronology to a progress towards emotionally charged climaxes. Part I begins with a key annual event in the Republican calendar, the pilgrimage to Wolfe Tone’s grave in June, but the likely film used here was not the oldest Sinn Féin film but probably the film shot on 29 June 1918. Following it, the film proceeds chronologically through items I 2-6 of the by-elections, convention and Séumas O’Kelly’s public funeral. The final item of the triumphant return of the 1916 rebels from prisons in Britain is most clearly out of chronological order but is placed at the end of the reel because this event had such a strong emotional charge and showed the popularity of figures such as Markievicz.

The chronology of part II is not as disturbed, but it begins with the December 1918 general election, at which Sinn Féin had been so successful, before including events earlier in 1918 and finishing with de Valera’s reception at the Mansion House. The fact that Irish Events had two films of de Valera during his period after his escape from prison suggests a close connection between GFS and Sinn Féin, a convergence of the filmmakers’ leaning toward the spectacular and the politicians’ need for publicity. It is also interesting to note the prominence of Markievicz and other women activists again in this half of the film. “The Film as it stands,” Love and McFeely’s report concluded, “is a glorification of Sinn Fein and wherever exhibited would, no doubt, be good Sinn Fein Propaganda, and might in that way be objectionable to members of an audience holding different political views” (CSORP).

Handbill for the exhibition of the Sinn Fein Review at the Boyne Cinema. Courtesy of the National Archives of Ireland.

It was unlikely that many of the members of the Boyne Cinema’s audience held different political views, or at least were not aware in advance of the kind of film that the Sinn Fein Review was. Whether the GFS poster was used in Drogheda is not clear, but the cinema did issue a handbill that survives in the NLI file on the seizure of the film. The handbill also stresses de Valera’s name among all the Sinn Féin leaders who are connected to the movement’s history since 1916. The cinema itself had substantial 1916 connections, having been established by Joseph Stanley, the proprietor of the radical Gaelic Press in Dublin’s Liffey Street and printer of such key 1916 Rising documents as the Proclamation and the Irish War News. Stanley had been among the activists imprisoned in Britain, and Constable Orr in his report on the raid on the Boyne described him as a “Sinn Fein suspect, now living in Drogheda,” a phrase that may explain the heavy-handedness of the seizure.

The Boyne Cinema’s opening programme; Drogheda Independent 25 Jan. 1919: 1.

Although the Boyne seems largely typical of the many small cinemas of the period, Stanley’s radical politics marked it out in certain ways. When it opened on 27 January 1919, the Drogheda Independent reported that it would be run under “Irish-Ireland management” (“New Picture House”). This was immediately evident in the presentation of the opening programme, which was topped by the “Irish-made screamingly funny comedy” Rafferty’s Rise (Ireland: FCOI, 1917) and featured among its supplementary attractions the dancing of gold-medal Irish dancer Greta Daly. As a man under surveillance, Stanley’s choice of a film poking fun at the foibles of a rural constable may not have been wholly accidental. This level of Irish content was not long maintained, however. During the second half of the opening week, the programme was topped by American comedy The Clodhopper (US: Kay Bee/New York, 1917), but perhaps there was more continuity in Charles Ray’s performance of the country bumpkin than initially seems. “People who foolishly imagine that a ‘Clodhopper’ cannot get on in other spheres of life,” the synopsis in the Drogheda papers warned. “should have their minds disabused by a view of th[is] famous comedy film “(“Only a ‘Clodhopper’”).

Drogheda Independent 19 Apr. 1919: 3.

The appearance of the Sinn Fein Review must have been a gift for Stanley, but audience reaction is a little more difficult to judge. Local newspapers carried no ads for the film, but they all reported differently on how waiting patrons reacted to the police raid on the cinema. “At the time of the seizure there was a large crowd outside waiting to gain admission,” the Drogheda Advertiser observed, “but there was little or no display on their part with the exception of cheering” (“Boyne Cinema Raided”). “The seizure was effected quietly, and without any excitement,” the Drogheda Argus reported. “The management, however, carried on to full houses during the evening with other pictures, as if nothing had happened” (“Sinn Fein Review Film Seized”). This impression that the audience was little disturbed by the seizure is contradicted by the Drogheda Independent, which suggested that the audience were hostile to the police actions: “the crowds in waiting accompanied their [the police’s] movements with shouts and jeers, interjecting as well remarks that seemed suited for the occasion” (“Picture Film Seized in Drogheda”). Even if the “excitement called up by the incident was short-lived,” this account suggests that it at least provided an occasion to express disapproval of the police.

While these different accounts would bear some more examination in relation to the editorial persuasion of Drogheda’s newspapers, they show that the Sinn Fein Review had at least brought Irish audiences’ leaning towards the spectacular onto the streets.

References

“Boyne Cinema Raided.” Drogheda Advertiser 19 Apr. 1919: 3.

“City Picture Houses: Alleged Overcrowding.” Dublin Evening Mail 25 Apr. 1919: 3.

CSORP/1919/11025. National Archives of Ireland.

Dublin Corporation, Reports, 1917: 173.

“‘Ireland a Nation’: Why Military Authorities Banned the Film.” Evening Telegraph 29 Jan. 1918: 3.

“Irish Notes.” Bioscope 10 Apr. 1919: 119.

“Irish Questions.” Cork Examiner 28 Feb. 1919: 4.

“Limerick News.” Cork Examiner 1 Feb. 1919: 5.

“New Picture House.” Drogheda Independent 25 Jan. 1919: 2.

“Only a ‘Clodhopper.’” Drogheda Argus 25 Jan. 1919: 1.

“Our Cinema Censors: The Difficulties They Have to Contend With.” Evening Herald 31 Jan. 1918: 2.

“Picture Film Seized in Drogheda.” Drogheda Independent 19 Apr. 1919: 2.

“Picture House Crowding in Dublin.” Dublin Evening Mail

Rockett, Kevin, Luke Gibbons and John Hill. Cinema and Ireland. Routledge, 1988.

“Sinn Fein Review Film Seized.” Drogheda Argus 19 Apr. 1919: 2.

“Worthy of Support: Activities of the Vigilance Association Outlined.” Weekly Freeman’s Journal 3 May 1919: 1.

Searching for “Screen Fein” in January 1919 and January 2019

Reproduced from the British Newspaper Archive.

In late November 1918, the editorial writer of the British trade journal Bioscope made reference to Sinn Féin, Ireland’s radical independence party, while warning cinema proprietors against involvement in the upcoming “khaki” election – so named because mass demobilization of military personnel had only begun and many voters remained in uniform. “Confound Their Politics!” the article’s main title read – meaning the policies of all political parties – while the subtitle suggested that the trade should remain focused on a result favourable to “Screen Fein: For the Cinema Alone.” The article noted the inevitability that “the moving picture, whose power as an agency for propaganda has been amply demonstrated in the war, would quickly be wooed as a new electioneering instrument by the existing party organisations.” But the writer argued that these parties should be treated warily by the trade: cinema should be politically unaligned.

An Illustrated London News photograph of the first meeting of Dáil Éireann; reproduced from Century Ireland.

Nevertheless, the writer chose to make a bilingual punning reference to Sinn Féin, albeit s/he did feel it necessary to remind his/her reader of how to translate it. The writer didn’t mention Irish politics any more explicitly in the course of the article: Irish politics was both familiar enough to serve as the basis of a pun and fraught enough to be beyond further consideration. Nevertheless, Screen Fein is too suggestive a term not to be reappropriated from this context in which it received little attention. Among its many more contemporary resonances is the recent rebranding of the Irish Film Board as Screen Ireland, which in the longstanding naming practice of Irish public institutions are known by the bilingual titles Bord Scannán na hÉireann/Irish Film Board and now Fís Éireann/Screen Ireland. But it might be more appropriate to repurpose Screen Fein for the intensely political Irish context of late 1918 and early 1919 that saw the electoral triumph of Sinn Féin. Did an Irish screen culture exist that responded to or participated in these events? That is, of course, one of the questions that this blog as a whole attempts to address, and it would consequently answer “yes” and add “but it’s complicated.” An illustration of both the yes and some of its complications can be seen if we focus on cinema’s role in one important historical moment that has received considerable attention a century later: the founding in Dublin on 21 January 1919 of Dáil Éireann, the independent parliament of an Irish republic.

President Michael D Higgins arrives at Dublin’s Mansion House to deliver a keynote address to both house of the Oireachtas on the occasion of the centenary of the first Dáil. Image: president.ie.

In a televised event on 21 January 2019, President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, led speeches to a joint session of the Oireachtas at Dublin’s Mansion House to mark the centenary of the first sitting of Dáil Éireann. Film cameras had also captured the proceedings at the Mansion House a century earlier, when 27 of the members of the Sinn Féin party who had been elected in the December 1918 general election fulfilled their electoral promise by not going to the British parliament in Westminster and instead constituting the parliament of the Irish Republic that had been declared at Easter 1916.

Screenshot of the British Universities Film and Video Council’s record of Topical Budget’s issue on 27 January 1919, featuring Sinn Fein Parliament as item #3.

One of the five items on Topical Budget’s newsreel released on the Monday following events at the Mansion House was the Sinn Fein Parliament, “the first newsreel to report the establishment of the Dáil” (Chambers 89). Topical Budget may have been the first of the British newsreel companies to show these events, but the Irish Events newsreel appeared on the same day as Topical Budget and gave them far greater prominence. As one film among five, this Topical Budget’s item would have run about a minute in the middle of four other one-minute items. By contrast, for Norman Whitten, proprietor of the Dublin-based General Film Supply company that produced Irish Events, the developments at the Mansion House were not only the most important events of the week but so important that he devoted the full issue of Irish Events to them. Unfortunately, despite its acute historical interest, the film of the first Dáil – in either its Topical Budget or Irish Events form – does not survive to illuminate that historical moment. Nevertheless, in 1919, many people from all over Ireland unable to attend the Mansion House watched the Irish Events version of what had occurred. While they would already have been well informed by the extensive newspaper accounts, in watching the film, they became the kind of mediated eyewitnesses to events that only moving pictures could have facilitated.

The cover of the May 1918 issue of Irish Limelight carried an ad for Irish Events that listed some of its subscribers around the country. Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

The Irish Events newsreel of the first Dáil was shown as the weekly edition of Irish Events beginning on Monday, 27 January. It would have been seen by patrons at the cinemas all over Ireland that subscribed to this newsreel. How many cinemas exactly this was in January 1919 is not clear; an ad in the December 1917 issue of the Irish Limelight had put the number of subscribed exhibitors at 50, and a May 1918 ad in the same publication had named 35 premises in 27 Irish cities and towns that offered it. “I would be almost safe in saying,” the Bioscope’s Irish correspondent Paddy speculated in September 1918, “that there is hardly a theatre left in Ireland which does not show it.” This was an exaggeration, but it is likely true that the number of subscribers had at least remained at a high proportion of Irish cinema from when Paddy had made that remark, in the week that the 60th weekly edition of Irish Events (IE 60) had just been released to the release of the first Dáil film as Irish Events no. 81 (IE 81).

This ad for IE 57 is unusual in the detail it provides about the content of this newsreel focused on one of the country’s biggest horse races, the Galway Plate. Dublin Evening Mail 16 Aug. 1918: 2.

Although Irish Events had become an expected part of many cinema’s offerings, its content was rarely mentioned after its first few weeks of novelty in July-August 1917. This is because like the British newsreels Gaumont Graphic, Topical Budget and Pathé Gazette that were also regularly shown in Irish cinemas, it was a five-minute digest of five one-minute social and political news stories that formed part of a two-hour programme headed by a fiction feature. Nevertheless, Irish Events was distinguished from the British newsreels in that its contents were at least occasionally mentioned in ads and notices. On Saturday, 29 June 1918, for example, Dublin’s evening papers named two of the items that were to appear in the following Monday’s edition of Irish Events (IE 51): the Irish Derby and the annual republican pilgrimage to Wolfe Tone’s grave at Bodenstown. A month and a half later, many newspaper ads revealed that IE 57 consisted of just one item: a film of the Galway Plate horse race. “It clearly depicts the entire race through from start to finish,” an ad for Dublin’s Dorset Picture Hall reported, “including the wonderful escapes from death of the various jockeys whose mounts came to grief.”

Ad for Dublin’s Rotunda with the Irish Events special Sinn Fein Convention; Dublin Evening Mail 26 Oct. 1918: 2.

IE 57 was unusual in focusing on one story, but it appeared as the regular edition of Irish Events that week. Other special films were issued in addition to the numbered weekly edition, and these had to be advertised to alert exhibitors and audiences to their existence. Whitten had a reputation that predated Irish Events for the “hustle” with which he could shoot, process and print a film in time for exhibition just hours after an event had occurred, and he continued this practice after the introduction of Irish Events. “There was a stop-press edition of ‘Irish Events’ issued last Thursday,” the Irish Limelight commented in November 1917. “The Sinn Fein Convention was filmed at 10.30 a.m. on that day, and screened at a Dublin cinema on the same evening. Some hustle!” (“Stop Press”). Instead of holding over the film of the Sinn Féin convention for IE 16, which would be issued on Monday, 29 October 1917, Whitten rushed the film out on the night of 25 October.

Several Dublin cinemas advertised the Irish Events film of the sinking of the Leinster, Dublin Evening Mail 14 Oct. 1918: 2.

It seem anomalous, then, that Whitten had not rushed out the Dáil special on the evening of 21 January 1919 but had instead held it over for almost a  week and issued it as Irish Events’ regular Monday release on 27 January. To a degree this may be explained as an increasing practice of Irish Events over the course of 1918. The Irish Events film of the aftermath of the sinking of the Irish mail boat RMS Leinster appeared as IE 66 on Monday, 14 October 1918, several days after the ship had been torpedoed by a U-boat on 10 October. However, the quite detailed press ads also show that the film remained newsworthy on the Monday of its release because it included footage of the weekend funerals of some of the victims.

Ad for Bohemian Picture Theatre programme featuring the Irish Events newsreel of the first meeting of Dáil Éireann; Dublin Evening Mail 27 Jan. 1919: 2.

This does not seem to have been the case with the film of the Dáil, which looks like it would previously have been seen as a good opportunity for a “stop-press” issue. Much of the information that survives about the film comes from an ad and a brief review of its screenings at the Bohemian Picture Theatre in the Dublin suburb of Phibsboro. The ad reveals that it was indeed an Irish Event special and that it consisted of scenes at the Mansion House, including a group shot of the Sinn Féin members of the Dáil. The review in the Irish Times reported that it was “a special Irish events topical ‘Dail Eireann,’ depicting the principal scenes at the Mansion House on the occasion of the Sinn Fein Assembly” (“Bohemian Picture Theatre”). Little other surviving notice appears to have been taken of the film during the week in which it was on release as IE 81.

Ad offering the film of the sinking of the Leinster to exhibitors who were not Irish Events’ subscribers; Irish Independent 14 October 1918: 2.

Nevertheless, this was unlikely to have been the end of the screening life of this film or of the others Irish Events films mentioned here. As well as releasing his films on the circuit of subscribed cinemas, Whitten also offered then for individual sale, as he did when on 16 October 1918, he placed ads in the Irish Independent for the film of the sinking of the Leinster. Whitten advertised his newsreel specials long after their original newsworthiness had vanished, boasting on one memorable occasion that that his specials “will attract a larger audience than a six-reel exclusive.”

“Behind the Screen” item on “A National Film Library”; Irish Limelight Oct. 1917: 6. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Beyond these commercial afterlives, the newsreels were seen by some commentators as historically important documents. “The successful launching of the Irish News Film ‘Irish Events,’” observed the Irish Limelight’s “Behind the Screen” columnist in October 1917,

has given a fillip to an interesting suggestion made some time back involving the establishment in this country of a Department of Record whose duty it would be to see that nothing of importance happens in any field without being filmed. (“National Film Library.”)

The writer saw the main advantages of such records in writing and learning history but concluded with the intriguing notion that “the establishment of a department such as suggested would secure for future generations the ability to live, as it were, with those who preceded them.”

“Behind the Scenes” item on first anniversary of Irish Events; Irish Limelight Jul. 1918: 4.

At a more mundane level, the notion of Irish Events as a repository of Ireland’s history persisted and re-emerged on the occasion of the newsreel’s first birthday in July 1918. “Always a lusty infant,” the “Behind the Screen” writer noted, “it has – during its first year of life – succeeded in accumulating a veritable film library of happenings of intense national importance, the preservation of which were alone well worth while” (“Irish Events”). It is certainly true that Irish Events accumulated a vast amount of newsreel footage on Ireland during what is now being commemorated as the Decade of Centenaries.

However, despite the ability of some contemporary observers to see its importance as historical document, no real vision or infrastructure for preservation existed in the 1910s, nor would they co-exist in Ireland until the founding of the Irish Film Archive (IFA) as part of the Irish Film Centre, now Irish Film Institute (IFI), in 1992. As a result, no more than a few fragments of Irish Events still exists, the vast bulk of which is more than likely lost forever. None of the material so far mentioned in this blog survives – or is known to survive – beyond 30 seconds of the Sinn Fein Convention that remains in the IFA’s Sean Lewis Collection. Working from a roughly calculation that each weekly episode of Irish Events lasted 5 minutes, the newsreel had by the time of the appearance of the special on the first Dáil for IE 81 released 6 hours and 45 minutes of edited footage, and this does not count the stop-press issues that appeared in addition to the regular weekly issues or the two further years of material that appeared after IE 81.

Among this lost material is an important document of Irish feminism, which is mentioned in the January issue of the suffragist Irish Citizen. The paper recorded that in the December 1918 election, the first election after women had won the franchise, “veteran Irish suffragist leader” Anna Haslam

recorded her vote in the midst of an admiring feminine throng to cheer her, was presented with a bouquet in suffrage colours for the occasion, and was snapped by an enterprising film company as one of the “Irish Events” of the Election.” (“Activities.”)

Like the Dáil film, this key moment of Irish social and political history captured in moving pictures exists now only in brief written records.

Introductory page to the Irish Independence Film Collection on the IFI Player.

Despite such great losses, it is heartening to be able to finish this blog by acknowledging that all is not lost, and that 2018 saw the arrival of two particularly useful online resources for Irish cinema history: the IFI’s Irish Independence Film Collection (IIFC) and the British Library’s digitization of the Bioscope. One of the 13 collections of Irish films that are available on the online viewing platform and app IFI Player, IIFC provides access to 139 British Pathé and Topical Budget newsreels items on Ireland from the period 1900-30. Access to these films is not geoblocked; they are readily and freely available through the IFI’s website and app.

A comparison of the quality of the available copies of this 1913 British Pathé film of Jim Larkin shows the undoubtedly better quality of the IIFC copy (right) than the version available on Pathé’s YouTube channel (left).

Some of Pathé’s surviving Irish material has been available on the company’s website and YouTube channel, but IIFC is not just a case of the IFI hosting existing material on its player. For a start, the quality of the new IIFC copies is far better than the material previously available, the result of rescanning the film elements to produce high-definition copies. This increased quality has already revealed and will continue to reveal previously indiscernible details. Although taking the Irish material from Pathé’s website decontextualizes it from that production milieu, historians Lar Joyce and Ciara Chambers provide it with an Irish perspective that is quite different from the British one the newsreels themselves espouse. In the process, they frequently correct misidentifications of people, places and incidents, as well as improper cataloguing for these and other reasons. As the scholar who has done most to analyze the surviving British newsreels’ representation of Ireland through her 2012 book Ireland in the Newsreels and the 2017 television series Éire na Nuachtscannán, Chambers offers particularly incisive commentary on how British newsreels presented a view of events in Ireland favourable to the British establishment.

Comparison of images taken from the newly digitized Bioscope and its microfilmed predecessor; 7 Dec. 1916: 1031.

The different kind of coverage provided by Irish Events during much of the Irish revolutionary decade is not mentioned in IIFC, but it can be glimpsed through the pages of such trade journals as the Bioscope. The most important of British trades for the 1910s, the Bioscope offered significant coverage of Ireland, and it has now been digitized. This has implications not only for searching but also for images, which are barely visible on microfilm but are readily useable from the high-quality scans.

While this is a great improvement on the existing situation, it is not of the standard set by the Media History Digital Library (MHDL), Eric Hoyt’s University of Wisconsin project to digitize media trade journals and fan magazines. While MHDL is a free resource, the digitized Bisocope is only available with a subscription to the British Newspaper Archive (BNA), a digitization partnership between the British Library and the genealogy company findmypast. But by paying the subscription, you do not gain access to a better technology. As well as being free, MDHL allows greater interaction – searching, navigating and downloading – with the scanned volumes than does BNA. For those with a BNA subscription, the two projects can be compared directly because MHDL has digitized a few early1930s’ volumes of the Bioscope that are also part of BNA. Nevertheless, Irish subscribers to BNA also have access to many Irish newspapers, both national and local, that have been and continue to be digitized as part of the project.

Despite some reservations, all of these resources are helping to reveal aspects of Screen Fein, Ireland’s own cinema of a century ago.

References

“Bohemian Picture Theatre.” Irish Times 29 Jan. 1919: 2.

British Newspaper Archive. Find My Past/British Library. www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk

Chambers, Ciara. Ireland in the Newsreels. Irish Academic Press, 2012.

“Confound Their Politics! The Trade’s Election Prospects: ‘Screen Fein’: For the Cinema Alone.” Bioscope 28 Nov. 1918: 4.

“‘Irish Events.’—Many Happy Returns.” Irish Limelight Jul. 1918: 4.

Irish Independence Film Collection. Irish Film Institute, ifiplayer.ie/independencefilms.

“A National Film Library.” Irish Limelight Oct. 1917: 6.

Paddy. “Irish Notes: The General Opinion.” Bioscope 5 Sep. 1918: 91.

“Stop Press.” Irish Limelight Nov. 1917: 13.

Tracy, Tony. “Goodbye Irish Film Board, Hello Screen Ireland.” RTÉ, 23 Nov. 2018, rte.ie/eile/brainstorm/2018/1122/1012662-goodbye-irish-film-board-hello-screen-ireland.

Irish Cinemas Catch Strike Fever in Autumn 1918

In the Bioscope‘s lead article on 12 September 1918, Ireland was a troubling place.

On 12 September 1918, the lead article in the British trade journal Bioscope concerned a “bombshell from Ireland.” “The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union [ITGWU],” it reported, “a powerful labour organisation with offices, singularly enough, at Liberty Hall, on Thursday last served a demand upon the proprietors of every cinema theatre in that part of the Kingdom which we can only describe as a monstrous one” (“Exhibitor His Own Enemy”). The ITGWU’s monstrous demand was for more pay for all cinema workers, which the leader writer saw as class war in the most literal terms. S/he urged the cinema owner “to answer the call of reason and gird on his armour against the foe that is ever present in our midst. We refer to the repeated upheavals in the domain of labour.”

The first item in the inaugural “Picture in Ireland” column concerned cinema in Galway; Bioscope 29 Feb. 1912: 593.

The Irish cinema industry had rarely featured so prominently in the Bioscope, where news from Ireland was usually corralled in the once regular column “Picture from Ireland” by a contributor or contributors identified as “Paddy.” Appearing first in the 29 February 1912 issue and thereafter regularly if not in every issue of the weekly trade paper, “Picture in Ireland” had for many years been the best source on Irish cinema. The information that the column provided was only superseded when Ireland’s first cinema magazine Irish Limelight appeared in January 1917. Even then, the weekly reports could catch things that the monthly Limelight missed.

Godfrey Kilroy Roll of Honour Bio 22 Oct 1914

Godfrey Kilroy was listed among the staff of the Bioscope who had joined the army on 22 Oct. 1914: 361.

For a brief period in 1916, Paddy was explicitly identified as Godfrey Kilroy, a fact already noted here, but the recent availability in the Bioscope in digital form – a development long wished for! – allows us to trace Kilroy’s name more forensically in the magazine’s pages. Born to a farming and land-agent family in Meath in 1890, Kilroy ended his career as the manager of a bank in Dunmanway, Co. Cork in 1955, but in the 1910s, he worked in the film business. Indeed, he may have been the original “Paddy” in 1912 because he was identified as an employee of the Bioscope in 1914, when his name appeared on one of the magazine’s “Roll of Honour” articles as a member of its staff who had enlisted. Kilroy’s period of military service must have been short because he was named as the Irish distribution agent – with an address at 34 Windsor Road, Dublin – for several film companies in late 1914, in 1916 and again in 1919.

Godfrey Kilroy Mailing List Bio 17 Dec 1914

This mention of Godfrey Kilroy asking to be placed on mailing lists suggests that he set up as a distributor in late 1914; Bioscope 17 Dec. 1914: 1187.

As an Irish-born and Dublin-based distributor, Kilroy no doubt had an intimate knowledge of the business in Ireland that informed the Paddy column and how it covered developments such as the strike in 1918. However, by September 1918, the column – now simply “Irish Notes” – was appearing less regularly, and indeed, after the 12 September issues, it did not appear in the journal again for the rest of the year. But on 12 September, Paddy did also discuss the strike at length, providing details that the leader writer left out.

Not surprisingly, the tone of the two articles was quite different, with the lead article delivering its news from Ireland as an admonition. Ireland’s cinema employers had apparently demonstrated too little organization in the face of a threat that in some respects “must be considered as coercive beyond degree, which is somewhat remarkable for the inhabitants of a land who never tire of crying out against anything in the least savouring of this type of oppression.” This latter general snipe about the Irish dislike of oppression was fuelled by the Irish industry’s preference for a separate Irish representative organization, the Dublin and South of Ireland Cinematograph Exhibitors’ Association (DSICEA), instead of membership of the Cinematograph Exhibitors’ Association (CEA), whose organ the Bioscope was. “[I]f anything could awaken them to the danger of longer holding aloof from the C.E.A.,” s/he contended, “this certainly should do so.”

Frank Leah’s caricature of Charles Grattan, manager of Dublin’s Picture House, Grafton Street; Irish Limelight 2:5 (May 1918): 1. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Other evidence suggests that Irish cinema employers had no problem in organizing in their own interest against labour. In May, the Irish Limelight had observed that “Mr. Charles Grattan, of the Grafton Picture House, certainly did the right thing when he convened an exhibitors’ meeting with a view to obtaining unity of action by cinema proprietors on the occasion when organised labour registered its protest against conscription” (“Notes and News”). The Limelight didn’t specify what the employers had done during the trade unions’ general strike against conscription on 23 April, “the most successful demonstration of workers political power in the revolutionary decade” (Yeates). Nevertheless, the employers had clearly acted together and seemingly effectively.

“Enough Said: ‘E looked at me, an’ I looked at ‘im.'” This cartoon commenting on how workers striking on the home front were letting down troops winning the war on the battle front carries a representation of working-class British speech in its caption, but it was reproduced in the Dublin Evening Mail 25 Sep. 1918: 3.

Following the general strike in April 1918, labour activity in Ireland certainly increased, and the cinema workers’ dispute in September was part of a much wider series of pay claims and strikes by workers in several industries. And this labour activity was by no means an Irish aberration; British workers were also engaged in major strikes,which many in the mainstream press saw as a malignant disease. “The strike fever is spreading in Dublin,” the Dublin Evening Mail’s editorial on 31 August observed, “and following a course similar to the recent influenza epidemic” (“Strike Fever”). At that point at the end of August, the Evening Mail noted disputes in the building and printing trades and among hotel workers; strike fever was about to become a lot more virulent. Under the 14 September headline “Industrial Unrest in Ireland,” the Irish Times focused on the threat of strike by national teachers but also reported on disputes by hotel and restaurant workers, printers, paper-mill employees, checkers at one of the steamship companies, flour-mill workers, tramwaymen, picture-house employees, Cork dockers, assurance agents, Derry bakers, and coalminers. In this context, the picture-house workers’ demand “for increased wages and shorter hours of duty” seem far from monstrous and instead appear wholly in step with workers’ demands in many other fields.

In the event, despite the Bioscope leader writer’s inflation of the strike for his/her own purposes, the dispute seems to have been relatively short lived and reasonably easily resolved, if its representation in the mainstream Irish press is any indication. Reporting that the DSICEA met the representatives of the ITGWU on 23 September to address the workers’ pay claim,  the Irish Times observed that “[t]erms were amicably agreed upon at the conference, and there is no prospect of any dislocation of business arising over the matter” (“Dublin Labour Disputes”).

rewind boy classified ad it 6 jan 1919p1

Small ad from Dublin’s Masterpiece Picture Theatre seeking a rewind boy; Irish Times 6 Jan. 1919: 1.

The Irish newspapers did not specify the terms of the resolution or the degree to which the workers’ terms were met, and the issues of the Irish Limelight for the latter half of 1918 are unfortunately not extant. However, Paddy’s Bioscope article is intriguing for publishing the terms that the workers were looking for. The leader writer had mentioned these to pour scorn on the ludicrousness of their claims, but Paddy’s commentary was more measured. While he also judged the claims to be excessive, he observed that they were just the starting point for negotiation, and as such were “doubtless somewhat higher than the employees actually expected to receive.”

Paddy’s article reproduced the pay claims of Irish cinema workers in two sections, the first relating to operating staff; Bioscope 12 Sep. 1918: 87.

Beyond the figures, the article is intriguing for the fact that it offers unique details on the number and kinds of workers who worked in cinemas and the hierarchy that existed among them. That hierarchy is represented most obviously by the splitting of the claims into two sections, the first of which deals with operating staff – those who worked in the projection booth – and the second with ground staff – all other picture-house and distribution-company employees. This hierarchy favouring projectionists was not new or necessarily erosive of workers’ solidarity. When in September 1913 picture house staff made pay demands in the course of the Dublin Lockout, the operators joined the ITGWU-affiliated National Association of Theatre Employees (NATE) so that their powerful voice could be joined with workers in less skilled and so less secure picture-house jobs: doormen, inside attendants and cash-box girls, as they were specified at the time.

Dublin’s Dorset Picture Hall advertised for a variety of staff with this small ad in the Irish Times 20 March 1911: 1.

But the relationships among these different groups of workers – and in some cases even the existence of an identifiable job around which a profession formed – has received little attention. In previous blogs, musicians, operators and doormen have received some attention but other professions have had at best passing mention because they were almost never discussed by commentators such as Paddy/Kilroy. One of the most important pieces of information previously discussed here in this regard is a March 1911 Irish Times small ad inviting applications for a variety of jobs at William Shanley’s newly establish Dorset Picture Hall. These jobs included two ex-policemen to act as uniformed doormen or outside attendants; an unspecified number of “Attendant Ticket Checkers, Window Billing”; one lady pianist; two young women to sell tickets and refreshments; an experienced assistant operator; and a certain number of boys to sell programmes. As noted previously, the gendered nature of these jobs is very striking. Estimating that two ticket checkers and two programme sellers were employed, ten people were sought by this ad for the relatively large (800-seat) early cinema in 1911. But other key staff – some of whom are known – must already have been employed at this point or have been sought by other means. Paddy made frequent reference to manager Frederick William Sullivan, who would have had at least a secretary for administrative support, and the chief cinematograph operator, whose name is not known, had also likely been hired already.

Legal notice of a theatrical patent application for Dublin’s La Scala, Irish Independent 24 Sep. 1918: 2.

This was still a relatively modest operation in comparison to the one suggested by the 1918 pay demands seven and a half years after the opening of the Dorset. But this increase in employment is not surprising in the context in which Irish cinemas were on the cusp of becoming much larger than they had ever been. This was signalled in September and October 1918 when the company promoting a large theatre called La Scala on one of the sites beside the GPO on O’Connell Street destroyed during the 1916 Rising went through the theatrical patent process. The company was led by Frank Chambers, proprietor of the Carlton Cinema on O’Connell Street, and during the patent hearing, it was claimed by competitors that the La Scala company intended to run the 3,000-seat premises as a picture house rather than providing any kind of live theatre. Although the company representatives denied this, when La Scala opened in 1920, it would indeed operate solely as a cinema and use its theatrical patent to circumvent some of Dublin’s cinema-licencing restrictions, particularly those relating to Sunday opening in the city centre.

Section II of the pay demand related to all cinema staff other than those in the projection box; Bioscope 12 Sep. 1918: 87.

In this evolving context, the ITGWU saw cinema as an industry with the potential for further employment growth, with a wide range roles offering good pay and conditions for its members.  The pay demand specified a 48-hour working week for all these workers, with hours in excess of this to be paid at an overtime premium. It laid a strong emphasis on the demarcation of particular jobs whose duties were not to be performed by workers in any other role. However, it was really only the chief and assistant operators’ jobs that were described, with the chief operator being distinguished from the assistant by the inclusion of responsibilities beyond projection for the whole electrical apparatus of the picture house. The 1918 operating room envisaged by the union had not only to accommodate a chief operator earning £3 and an assistant operator at £1 15s but also, at the very least, a rewind boy and ideally, an apprentice, each of whom would take home 10s.

The operator was expected to run not only the projectors but also all the picture house machinery. Bioscope 17 Jul. 1913: supp.

Outside the operating box, the picture-house wage hierarchy was to be topped by the first doorman earning £2 5s (45s) and a second doorman earning £1 15s; male attendants should receive £1 10s (30s), while female attendants should receive £1 5s (25s); cashiers were to take £1 10s; and the workers who were to earn less than a pound included film runners and charwomen on 15s and chocolate boys on 7s 6d plus commission. The usually anonymous workers at the distribution companies or film renters are revealed to be the chief and second despatch clerk, who would earn £2 5s and £2 (40s) respectively, if one was considered senior to the other or £2 2s 6d (42½s) each if they were on an equal footing; the messengers with a projected pay of £1 10, a rate also applicable to film repairers. Finally, casual men in either picture houses or distributors should receive 1s an hour.

Ad for a bioscope school to teach people regardless of age or gender how to operate a projector. Bioscope 3 May 1917: 471.

Many of these jobs remained strictly gender defined, and those that weren’t, no doubt had strong assumption as to gender suitability. The remuneration of male and female attendants is a useful illustration of how men were paid more for doing identical work to women colleagues. However, the shortage of men because of the war had the salutary effect of disrupting these expectations to a large degree. Conscription in Britain meant that the operating room which had previously been an almost wholly male preserve as well as the location of the most lucrative non-management picture-house jobs became open to women for a few years at least. The Bioscope held a considerable debate on the issue in early 1916 (see, for example, Barber). Whether women operators were paid at the same rate as male ones is not clear. In any case, in Ireland, despite voluntary enlistment, there is little evidence of a similar change. The only known woman operator in the country during the 1910s was the wife of operator and manager Alf Thomas. “The Victoria Cinema boasts the only lady operator in the West, and perhaps in Ireland,” reported the Connacht Tribune in September 1915, “Mrs. Alf. Thomas who is as deft in the handling of the machine as the most efficient male operator in the land” (“Victoria Cinema”).

The autumn 1918 wage claim reveals intriguing details about the many otherwise anonymous people who worked in Ireland’s early picture houses, offering insights into their struggle to better at least some aspects of their working conditions.

References

Barber, James W. “Help in Trouble.” Bioscope 23 Mar. 1916: 1269.

“Dublin Labour Disputes.” Irish Times 28 Sep. 1918: 2.

“The Exhibitor His Own Enemy: A Bombshell from Ireland and Its Cause.” Bioscope 12 Sep. 1918: 4.

“Industrial Unrest in Ireland.” Irish Times14 Sep. 1918: 2.

“Notes and News.” Irish Limelight 2:5 (May 1918): 11.

Paddy. “Irish Notes: Threatened Cinema Strike in Ireland.” Bioscope 12 Sep. 1918: 97.

“The Strike Fever.” Editorial. Dublin Evening Mail 31 Aug. 1918: 2.

“Victoria Cinema.” Connacht Tribune 25 Sep. 1915: 4.

Yeates, Padraig. “‘Have You in Ireland All Gone Mad’: The 1918 General Strike Against Conscription.” Century Ireland. http://www.rte.ie/centuryireland//images/uploads/content/Ed125-ConscriptionStrike1-Yeates.pdf

Cinema on the Brain in August 1918

Mary Street

Mary Street Picture House sometime in the 1950s. Image from Pintrest.

On the 3 August 1918, five boys aged between 11 and 14 were convicted before Dublin’s City Commission court of having stolen a film from the Mary Street Picture House, one of the cinemas owned by Alderman John J. Farrell and managed at the time by William Bowes. Charles and Thomas Boland, Laurence Fitzgerald, James Gaffney and John Dillon (for brevity, the Boland gang) broke into the cinema on 3 July and took the 2,000-foot film to a vacant room in nearby Jervis Street.

Census return Charles and Thomas Boland extract

Extract from the 1911 census return of the family of Charles and Thomas Boland, who were 4 and 6 years old at the time and living with their parents in a tenement room at 23 Greek Street, Dublin.

While their three co-defendants pleaded guilty, the Boland brothers denied the charge, claiming that they had merely found the film in a cellar, and Charles had then brought a portion of it to Bowes, which is how their role in the incident was discovered. However, all the boys were found guilty, with Justice Pim freeing them on the undertaking that their families would ensure their good behaviour for two years (“Dublin Boys Steal a Cinema Film”).

Dublin Evening Mail 3 Aug. 1918: 3.

The incident was a minor one, and only received more than passing mention from the Dublin Evening Mail because of a detail the editor no doubt thought would amuse his/her readers. Offering some insight into the boys’ motives for the theft, arresting officer Constable Holmes claimed to laughter from the court that they had intended to transform their vacant room into a picture house of their own.

John Dillon Green Street Census 1911

Extract from the 1911 census return for the family of John Dillon (4 at this time), the only other one of the convicted boys who can be readily identified in these records. The nine members of his family were living in two tenement rooms at 16 Green Street, across the road from the courthouse in which the boys were tried.

In the context in which picture houses were owned by such prominent businessmen as Farrell, it did seem incongruous that a group of pre-teens from the tenement slums might establish a cinema in an abandoned house. However, inconveniently for such businessmen, the story also suggests that cinema had not yet escaped its public association with criminality, and particularly the criminal behaviour of working-class boys. The most highly publicized case of this in Ireland had been the crime spree by Clutching Hand gangs in 1916.

Irish Limelight Feb. 1917: 9. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

And beyond picture-house proprietors, this continued presentation of cinema as a juvenile-delinquent medium in 1918 would doubtless have caused chagrin to such promoters of the industry as the cinema magazine Irish Limelight. Ridiculing these tropes in an editorial a year-and-a-half previously, it had observed that  “[t]he ‘Saw it on the Pictures’ plea has now lost its force as an argument against the Cinema as a favourite excuse of parents who have neglected to control their erring boys” (“Lesson from History”).

The awful state of housing for Dublin’s working-class families was revealed by a Dublin Corporation report in 1914, which included this image of dilapidated houses in Jervis Street. The report is available here.

It’s not clear if the Limelight commented on this incident because its issues for August and September 1918 are not extant, but it is worth pausing on it to distinguish between the different ways boys may have been said to have erred in their interactions with cinema at this period. The “Saw it on the Pictures” plea was just one of those interactions, but it does seem to be operating in the case of the Clutching Hand gangs, where the screen actions of a master criminal provided an imaginative resource to be emulated. While the Limelight and others were right to point out that blaming the cinema for criminal behaviour had become a cliché, often sensationalized to a moral panic, they were not right to imply that no behaviour treated as criminal was inspired by film viewing Watching films did at least occasionally have a demonstrable effect on audience members.

A 1913 photograph of a tenement room in Dublin’s Francis Street with poor furnishings but some images on the walls; from the Royal Society of Antiquaries in Ireland’s Darkest Dublin (RSAI DD) collection, available here.

In relation to the indictable behaviour of the Boland gang, however, what was on the screen seems less important than the presence of the Mary Street Picture House close to where they lived. The advent of cinema brought picture houses into local communities where venues providing professional entertainment had never existed before and at a relatively low cost. In this regard, the case resembles the conviction of four other Dublin boys for property damage following their night at the Brunswick Street Picture House in October 1916, after which they camped out in an uninhabited and condemned house they were later convicted of damaging.

A single tenement room in the Coombe area of Dublin in 1913; RSAI DD, No. 83.

But the Boland gang differed from these 1916 boys in having committed their crime in the picture house itself. Not that stealing from picture houses was unprecedented. Indeed, Thomas Murphy of 7 Jervis Street had stolen the safe from the Mary Street Picture House in April 1915, a case notable because he was convicted on fingerprint evidence (“City Cinema”). They weren’t even the first Irish boys to steal a film. On 9 October 1917, a boy named David Kennedy of Downing Street, Belfast, was successfully prosecuted in the city’s Custody Court for having stolen a film from the Great Northern Railway Company. The staff at the company’s parcel office had given him the film because they recognized him as having collected films for the Princess Picture Palace in the past. His father told the court that his son had “pictures on the brain” and wanted to go to the pictures all the time. It’s not clear if this compulsion to go to the cinema was the motive for the theft and subsequent sale of the film in Smithfield market for 2s 6d. If it was, Kennedy had undervalued his loot. ”The film was a ‘Chaplin’ one,” the Northern Whig noted, “and worth about £20” (“Belfast Police”).

Nevertheless, regardless of how little of their plan they realized, the Boland gang members contrast with Kennedy in their deeper engagement with cinema. They did not have just pictures on the brain; they had the wider institution of cinema on the brain. They had stolen the film as part of the procurement process that would allow them to set up their own alternative picture house. Given that the Mary Street management valued the film at £90 – an amount, incidentally, at odds with £20 mentioned in the Belfast case – robbery was really their only option to get control of cinema.

Aug 29 1918 DEM Airship

One of a series of ads promoting recruitment to the air force and navy; Dublin Evening Mail 29 Aug. 1918: 4.

As well as these poor boys, promoters of military recruiting in Ireland also had cinema in their sights, if not on the brain, at the end of August 1918. Earlier in the year, the British government’s attempted introduction of conscription of Irishmen into the British army had been defeated, or at least postponed, by the unprecedented alliance of all elements of nationalist Ireland, but this had not stopped regular voluntary recruitment. Appealing to a widespread interest in such new technologies of war as the submarine, the airship and the tank, an extensive summer press and poster campaign attempted to suggest that the air force or navy might be more acceptable alternative forms of military service to the army for Irishmen.

Aug 24 1918 DEM Lynch O'Grady

Ad for the first of the mass recruitment meetings on Dublin streets by Arthur Lynch and James O’Grady; Dublin Evening Mail 24 Aug. 1918: 4.

Two Westminster MPs of Irish descent came to Dublin to make a personal, oratorical appeal to “patriotic young Irishmen” to join up but were forced to use the cinema as an alternative way of reaching their audience. Australian-born Colonel Arthur Lynch, who had led an Irish brigade against the British during the Boer War and was MP for West Clare, and Captain James O’Grady, an English-born Labour MP, first addressed a meeting outside the Recruiting Office headquarters in Kildare Street on 24 August. Following its success, they organized a series of mass recruitment meetings on the city streets: at the Fountain in James Street on 27 August, on Amiens Street on 28 August and at Smithfield on 29 August. Others around the country were to come.

First Irish Conscript PC Whites auctioneers

A cartoon postcard circulating in Dublin in July 1918 expressing the counterproductiveness of forcing conscription on Ireland. Joseph Holloway’s reproduced a copy in his diary on 6 July; this copy is available here.

However, Sinn Féin protestors successfully disrupted the James Street meeting by drowning Lynch out “in a hurricane of groans, shrieks, ‘voices,’ and discordant cat-calls” (“Recruiting Campaign”). Indeed, when Lynch and O’Grady had left the scene, Sinn Féin speakers made speeches from the lorry that had been brought as their platform. “Soon recruiting meetings will be proclaimed,” Joseph Holloway commented wryly in his diary, “as they are providing splendid Sinn Fein demonstrations.” When the Amiens Street meeting delivered a similar occasion, the Smithfield meeting was abandoned, and Lynch complained he had been denied free speech and sought in vain a public debate on recruiting with Sinn Féin representatives.

Lynch Slide DEM 30 Aug 1918

The text Lynch intended to project on Dublin cinema screens to attract recruits to his Irish Brigade; Dublin Evening Mail 30 Aug. 1918: 3.

But he also made plans to use the picture houses, which everybody seemed to agree had a particular attraction for boys and young men. On 30 August, the Dublin Evening Mail included the text of a “message to Young Ireland” to join Lynch’s Irish Brigade that he intended to “be flashed on the screen at cinemas in Dublin and afterwards throughout Ireland” (“Colonel Lynch on the Screen”). But Lynch’s cinematic adventure went beyond a text-based ad. “A film has also been taken of Colonel Lynch and Captain O’Grady,” the Mail report concluded, “and this will also be displayed on the screen in Dublin next week, and afterwards throughout the various picture halls in the country.”

No surviving evidence appears to exist to confirm that the ad and/or the film were shown in Dublin the following week. Although propaganda films were not uncommon, the controversy Lynch and O’Grady caused in the streets might have been enough for nervous cinema managers to keep them off the screen. In any event, the summer of 1918 saw Irish politicians and military recruiters join boys from the tenements in trying to hijack the cinema for their own purposes.

References

“Belfast Police – Yesterday.” Northern Whig 10 Oct. 1917: 3.

“City Cinema Broken into and Robbed: Evidence of Finger Prints.” Evening Telegraph 29 Apr. 1915: 3.

“Colonel Lynch on the Screen: His Message to Young Ireland.” Dublin Evening Mail 30 Aug. 1918: 3.

“Dublin Boys Steal a Cinema Film: To Start Their Own Picture House.” Dublin Evening Mail 3 Aug. 1918: 3.

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

“A Lesson from History.” Editorial. Irish Limelight Feb. 1917: 1.

“Lure of the Films: City Boys Who Wanted a Cinema of Their Own.” Evening Telegraph 3 Aug. 1918: 1.

“Recruiting Campaign: Colonel Lynch Denied a Hearing.” Evening Telegraph 28 Aug. 1918: 3.

When Did Love Come to Gavin Burke? An Irish Film Finds an Audience in Early Summer 1918

Brian Magowan played a prominent role in When Love Came to Gavin Burke; Irish Limelight Dec. 1917: 6. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

On 12 November 1917, the Freeman’s Journal announced that the Film Company of Ireland (FCOI) would “shortly reproduce a strong Irish drama, in six reels, entitled ‘When Love came to Gavin Burke.’” This article was part of the company’s increased publicity as it finally prepared to release the films it had shot that summer. The immediate occasion of the article was the release that day of Rafferty’s Rise, but it also mentioned the imminent appearance of three other FCOI films or film series: Knocknagow, which would open in Clonmel on 31 January 1918, “10,000 feet of Irish Scenery, showing mountain, river and town in all parts of the country,” and When Love Came to Gavin Burke. Probably because Knocknagow was such a priority, When Love Came to Gavin Burke seems to have been relatively neglected by FCOI, and the title does not show up in any newspaper searches for winter 1917.

Galway Express 27 Apr. 1918: 4.

Indeed, there are just a few mentions of Gavan Burke in Irish newspapers in 1918. “The idea of a single picture programme is a good one,” a reviewer in the Galway Express observed at the end of April 1918. “It obtained in the Town Hall with regard to ‘Knocknagow’ […], and ‘When Love Came to Gavin Burke’ is also a seven-part film that takes hours to screen.” Galway’s Town Hall was having a season of the work of FCOI, the epic Knocknagow having screened for the first three days of that week, When Love Came to Gavin Burke for the latter three and Rafferty’s Rise at the weekend. While Knocknagow and Rafferty’s Rise have been treated in some detail here already, When Love Came to Gavin Burke is in some ways a more obscure film, particularly in regards to when it was released and how widely it was shown in Ireland. It is also lost, like all FCOI’s feature films apart from Knocknagow, Willy Reilly and His Colleen Bawn (1920) and one reel of the two-reel comedy Paying the Rent (1920). This post will try to draw together some of the surviving information to try to establish when love actually came to Gavin Burke.

This Irish Limelight article from June 1916 refers to the shooting of When Love Came to Gavin Burke.

Some of these bits of information suggest that When Love Came to Gavin Burke was not so obscure in 1917-18. It was certainly well known to readers of the December 1917 issue of the Irish Limelight who could have read a detailed plot summary of the film. We’ll return to it shortly, but even more intriguingly, the only extant account of FCOI actually shooting a film on location undoubtedly refers to the production of Gavin Burke. This two page article in the June 1917 Limelight offers a unique glimpse of FCOI at work, with text by the Evening Telegraph’s critic JAP and four illustrations: a large photograph and three Frank Leah caricatures.

When Love Came to Gavin Burke was announced on the cover of the June 1917 Irish Limelight.

Beyond these two substantial articles, very few other details of the film’s production and exhibition are extant. Unsurprisingly then, the standard reference work on Irish cinema is a little vague on when exactly Gavin Burke was released. Kevin Rockett’s Irish Filmography and its online version put the film’s Irish premiere at an unspecified date in December 1917. This is plausible: it tallies with the Freeman’s Journal article, which implied that it would have its run before Knocknagow, stating that “[a]s soon as this drama [Gavin Burke] completes its run in Dublin they will be ready with their super-film, ‘Knocknagow’” (“Picture House Novelties”). It also corresponds with the publication of the film’s synopsis in the Limelight’s December 1917 issue.

Ad for what may be the first public screenings of “the most remarkable of all Irish films” at Limerick’s Gaiety, Limerick Chronicle 13 Apr. 1918: 3.

But no evidence appears to exist that it was actually shown in late 1917. Perhaps appropriately for a tale of love postponed, the film appears to have been held over until summer 1918. The first extant newspaper ads or notices related to screenings of the film date between April and December 1918 in Limerick (Gaiety: 18-20 April), Galway (Town Hall: 25-27 April), Dublin (Pillar: 24-26 June; Rotunda: 9-11 September; Sandford: 23-25 September) and Derry (St Columb’s Hall: 19-21 December). On the available evidence, the run at Limerick’s Gaiety was when the public first saw the film. However, the Limerick press paid the film scant attention. Gavin Burke seems to have received little love from Limerick’s popular audience. This was also the case for the other venues; just the already discussed Galway notice provides anything beyond the barest details. Even the film’s length is not consistent between the surviving sources, with an ad on the cover of the June 1917 Limelight putting it at four reels, the Derry Journal mentioning “five acts,” the Freeman’s Journal calculating six reels, and the Galway Express estimating seven reels. That would put the running time of the film at anything between about 67 minutes for four reels and 120 for seven, assuming the unlikely scenario that the film was projected at a consistent or average 16 frames a second.

Extended synopses in Irish Limelight Dec. 1917.

If the synopsis in the Limelight is anything to go by, the narrative included enough twists and turns to fill two hours. As a phenomenon, the extended narrative synopsis was an established genre of film trade journalism, and the Limelight carried a number of them in each issue. For example, the page before the Gavin Burke article carried a synopsis of Rasputin (US: World Brady, 1917) and the page after it offered a synopsis of Treason (US: Universal, 1917). What distinguished these films from Gavin Burke, apart from the fact that they were American productions, is that they had already been booked to play at one of Dublin’s major cinemas, and this was mentioned alongside the synopsis to publicize the upcoming run. FCOI appears to have had no bookings of Gavin Burke to publicize in December 1917.

These actresses played different stages of Grace’s life in When Love Came to Gavin Burke; Irish Limelight Dec. 1917: 7.

Fred O’Donovan directed and starred in Gavin Burke, supported by such familiar members of the FCOI stock company as Brian Magowan, Nora Clancy, Queenie Coleman and Valentine Roberts, as well as the less familiar Stephen Gould and the child actress Oonah Halpin. To synopsize the synopsis, the film is set on the banks of the Liffey in the late 19th century and tells the story of poor farmer Gavin Burke (O’Donovan) who becomes embittered when his sweetheart Kate (Clancy) rejects him for a comfortably off hotel owner (Gould). The hotel owner turns out to be a drunken wastrel who is accidentally killed while bringing their sick daughter Grace (Halpin) to the doctor, and the girl is taken in by Burke, who had parleyed his bitterness into material wealth but is nevertheless charmed by Grace. He makes a deal with Kate that he will raise Grace as his own daughter provided the now impoverished Kate never sees her again. Time passes and a mature Grace (Coleman) faces a similar choice to her mother but unlike Kate, chooses Jack Devine (Magowan), the poor man she loves, rather than Tom Ryan (Roberts), the man who seems to offer material comfort. Burke dispenses words of wisdom when the rivalry leads Ryan to unsuccessfully attempt to kill Devine, gives his wealth to Grace at her wedding, and has his offer of his love accepted by Kate despite the fact that he has voluntarily returned himself to the poverty of his younger days.

Two points seem noteworthy about the way the film negotiates familiar elements of the romance. The first is the way in which women are seemingly offered agency in their ability to make choices in their romantic relationships but that these choices are illusory because the choice of following one’s heart is always right. The second is the way in which the right choice is linked to a rejection of material comfort in favour of the frugal life of the small farmer. Neither of these points makes the film particularly Irish; indeed, Gavin Burke seems to owe as much to Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff as to the peasant plays of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre with which the director and cast were familiar. Again, it is to be expected that a romantic drama would raise issues of gender and class, but the lack of more information on the film’s exhibition hinders a more specific reading of it in relation to struggles over women’s role in Irish society and/or the ideological investment in an ascetic rural life.

Frank Leah’s caricature of Robert Justice operating the camera for Gavin Burke; Limelight Jun 1917: 10-11.

The paucity of exhibition details is disappointing, but JAP’s Limelight article on Gavin Burke does allow us to say something more about FCOI’s filmmaking procedures. It too, however, is written as a humorous account of a day’s motoring excursion with a group of friends rather than a more informative, if less entertaining, documenting of what he saw. Much of the humour is at the expense of the “Artist Person,” presumably Frank Leah, who provided the accompanying caricatures. The only member of the party named is “friend Haigh,” presumably photographer Charlie Haigh, who was the Irish manager for the Triangle Film Company and may have been responsible for the poorly reproduced photograph that accompanied the article. Leah’s caricatures are informative at least in indicating that Robert Justice was the cinematographer; other details of the production team are lacking, especially the identity of the scriptwriter. The actual filming location that JAP’s party drove to is not made clear; he reveals only that their journey ends “fifteen miles from everywhere” at as an old-fashioned house with an ancient summer house.

Leah’s caricature of a love scene between Brian Magowan and Kathleen Murphy; Limelight Jun 1917: 10.

In the summer house, he spies

Miss Kathleen Murphy, dark-haired, tragic-eyed, gazing fondly up into the honest open countenance of Brian Magowan, and […] the gallant youth gazing lovingly down into the star-like orbs of la petite brunette. Even as we interlopers looked upon the scene their faces approached together, their lips—

Apparently I was the only person present possessing the instincts of a gentlemen.

“We are intruding,” said I, “let us retire quickly and quietly before we are observed.”

But the Artist Person, with a coarse laugh, produced a section of millboard and a pencil, and proceeded to rapidly sketch the affecting tableau upon which we had stumbled so suddenly.

Leah’s caricature of Fred O’Donovan directing ; Limelight Jun 1917: 11.

This, of course, turns out to be scene from the film FCOI are shooting, with Fred O’Donovan directing. “‘Place you hand upon her shoulder, Brian. Put your right hand on his shoulder, Miss Murphy. Now kiss – a good long one.’” This scene may not, however, be from Gavin Burke. Kathleen Murphy is not mentioned in the cast listing for the film in the Limelight synopsis, where Magowan’s Jack Devine should be romantically paired with Coleman’s mature Grace. As such, it may be from an unknown subplot of the film or from a different and unfinished film, which would be a shame because “[t]hey had to go through that touching scene three times before Fred O’Donovan was satisfied. I never saw a man with such particular notions about love-making.”

Other scenes he mentions seem to be more clearly from Gavin Burke. A “most realistic and lady-like dispute” between Nora Clancy and Queenie Coleman, does seem to match the casting of the film, where these women played Kate and her grown-up daughter, respectively. And a lengthy anecdote about Magowan and Valentine Grant being swept away by the Liffey as they filmed a fight scene throw light on how Grant’s Tom Ryan attempted to kill Magowan’s Devine. JAP finished on a more serious note, praising the progress FCOI had made in the bare year since the company was founded. “These Irish Players have completely got the hand of the business by now,” he contended. “When you consider that they practically had to teach themselves the business, the progress they have made is really marvellous.”

However, another year on as Gavin Burke was released in the summer of 1918, it was not at all certain as JAP claimed, that FCOI’s films “can compete with the very best films produced in Great Britain.” Even in its home market, Gavin Burke seems to have received very little love.

References

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

“Picture House Novelties: New Productions of Film Company of Ireland.” Freeman’s Journal 12 Nov. 1917: 4.

Rockett, Kevin. The Irish Filmography. Dublin: Red Mountain, 1996.

“When Love Came to Gavin Burke.” Irish Limelight Dec. 1917: 6-7.