Ominous Flickers and Fade Out for Irish Cinema in 1920

Ad from the Tuam Herald 6 Mar. 1920: 3.

“The past year has scarcely been a bright year in the Irish film world,” the “On the Film” columnist of Dublin’s Evening Telegraph observed at the end of December 1920. “It started hopefully, got out of focus half way through, and towards the end of the picture was a ‘close-up’ in more senses than one” (“On the Film”). Although the filmic metaphor is a little opaque, the writer might have been writing about cinema a century later, albeit that in 2020 cinema went out of focus in March and has been close up in the sense that the pandemic has forced us to have most of what would previously have been cinematic experiences – going out to blockbusters, festivals or other such activities – at home, with very brief windows when the cinemas were open.

The Telegraph’s assessment of 1920 has also been reflected in this blog, which began the year hopeful by contemplating the opening of super cinemas but became less positive almost immediately not because of pandemic – although it did revisit the 1918-19 flu pandemic – but because the violence of the War of Independence was starting to affect such daily activities as cinema. While the blog spent much of the middle of the year discussing such more positive developments as the making of feature films (see here and here) and newsreels, encroaching violence became an increasing feature of the 1920 cinema year and will require more discussion here.

Header on the Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly‘s Ireland column in 1920.

Writing a centenary blog in 2020 presented some challenges, the main one being that the blogs written after February had to rely solely on online research rather than visits to the National Library of Ireland (NLI) and other archives. This has had consequences for the range of sources used, and for the quality of obtainable images. Some freely accessible online sources for Irish cinema history exist, including films from the Irish Film Institute’s IFI player, the 1901 and 1911 Irish censuses, photographs from the NLI and maps from the Ordnance Survey of Ireland. Most other online sources require a subscription, including newspapers and trade journals, which provide the most detailed information. A selection of Irish newspapers has been digitized through two main subscription services: the Irish Newspaper Archive and the British Newspaper Archive (BNA). Both allow access to the Freeman’s Journal’s twice-weekly column “On the Film,” which fills some of the gaps left by the inaccessibility of analogue sources. Late in 2020, the BNA also released its digitization of the Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly, making its information on Irish cinema available alongside other key London-based entertainment trade journals the Bioscope and the Era. Sadly, the issues of The Irish Limelight for 1920 do not survive in digital or analogue form, and when editor Jack Warren handed this first Irish cinema journal over to contributor P.J. Flanagan at the end of 1920, it seems to have ceased publication (“Trade in Ireland”).

“On the Film” column, Evening Telegraph 18 Nov. 1920: 2.

As a result, a combination of Irish newspapers and the trade journals provide the most comprehensive available picture of Irish cinema in late 1920. At the end of November, the “On the Film” columnist provided more apt filmic metaphors for what was happening to the trade at the time. “Last week was a black one for the Dublin picture house,” s/he wrote. “For some time past our political conditions have been throwing ominous flickers across the silver screen. Raids and ‘holds-up’ at all sorts of hours and places were already making cinegoers stick closer to the home fireside; but the new 10 o’clock Curfew is a regular ‘fade out’ for cinema business” (“On the Film,” 29 Nov.). The ominous flickers of political violence conspired with the fade-out of a curfew stricter than the midnight regulations in place since February to make the business of exhibiting films extremely difficult. The new curfew’s requirement to be indoors by 10pm meant that Dublin “cinegoers” could not attend the 9 o’clock show, usually the most lucrative of the day. “In many Cinemas the programme begins at seven, and with the big picture shown twice, the show might be described as ‘twice nightly,’” an unnamed sources at the Bohemian Picture Theatre in Phibsboro revealed, giving details of the patterns of cinemagoing and the economics of exhibition.

The second house, from 9 to 10.30 was usually the crowded one, since very few people either care or are able to go straight from work or after tea to the pictures. With the principal house knocked on the head by the order, the proceeds of the first performance would never be sufficient to make picture pay. (“May Have to Close!”)

In mid-December, the Bioscope’s Ireland correspondent JAP reported on the possibility of preventing the fade out caused by the curfew, observing that “the latest rumour is that there may be a couple of extra hours of freedom for the citizens of Dublin during Christmas week, but it is only a rumour” (“Irish Exhibitors to Carry On”).So it proved. “Picture houses and other places of amusement which look to this week rather than to last week for their best patronage round about the Christmas season,” the Freeman reported on 28 December, “can scarcely  now expect, since the authorities refused to listen to the plea for a Christmas week relaxation to be more fortunate in this respect than the traders” (“Effect of Arson”).

To address their loss of income, cinema proprietors negotiated with their employees when their representative organization the Dublin and South of Ireland Cinematograph Exhibitors Association entered talks with the Musician Union and Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU). The musicians – “and they include many men of considerable note in their profession” – agreed to a 21-hour week and to give two free matinees a week (“Irish Exhibitors to Carry On”). After the ITGWU negotiation, JAP reported that the other “employees have agreed to accept 15 per cent. less as long as the present Curfew hours obtain in Dublin” (“Trade in Ireland”). “Did anybody say anything about ‘A Merry Christmas?’” JAP asked rhetorically.

Goad Fire Insurance map of the Dublin block between Princes Street, O’Connell Street and Abbey Street containing La Scala.

La Scala was the one Dublin cinema that JAP reported would continue to pay full wages. We have said something here in January about its size and the fact that it was the first cinema in central Dublin to have inveigled Sunday opening. This favourable position vis-à-vis Dublin’s other cinemas may be part of the reason its management decided to treat its staff differently, but a return to say something about its opening reveals that it may not have been attributable to the management’s generosity. When proprietors Frank Chambers and George Fleming chose the week beginning 9 August 1920 for the opening, few people would have been surprise that they timed it to coincide with Horse Show week, the city’s busiest entertainment week of the year during the Royal Dublin Society’s longstanding horse show at its show grounds in Ballsbridge. But things didn’t go quite to plan as opening day approached. A split in the electricians between those affiliated with the London-based Electrical Workers’ Union and the ITGWU on what union the projectionists should belong to looked like it would leave the cinema unable to open because of a strike. Last minute negotiations meant that while La Scala did open during Horse Show week, it was not on the Monday as planned but on Tuesday, 10 August. In the process, the unions had sent a message to the management about the power of organized labour that seems to have been heeded months later.

Union activity was at the forefront of the War of Independence in ways that would have consequences for cinemas. Members of the rail unions refused to work on trains carrying soldiers, police or their munitions, thereby disrupting military and police deployment. An unintended but inevitable consequence was that all transport was disrupted, including the distribution of films. This dispute would not be resolved until the end of December 1920, and JAP commented on the serious plight for Irish film renters or distribution companies. “The number of towns to which it is possible to send films for screening grows steadily less,” he noted in mid-December. “When one sends out a film to the Irish country districts nowadays it is with a feeling of relief, not altogether unmixed with surprise, that one finds it returned in due course” (“Trade in Ireland”).

Still from Keith of the Border in Motion Picture News 23 Feb. 1918: 1166.

JAP also noted one particularly surprising return. The Dublin office of distributors Western Import had written off the copy of the Western Keith of the Border (US: Triangle, 1918) that was showing at Cork’s Lee Cinema on the night of 11-12 December. That night, British forces burned large part of the centre of Cork, and the Lee Cinema at 1-2 Winthrop Street was one of the premises destroyed. “The carrying case had evidently been through the flames, and the tins inside were rusted from contact with water,” JAP revealed, “but the film itself was undamaged. / Moral:—Exhibitors should see to it that films are packed and returned to their cases each night immediately after having been shown, and thus lessen the chances of damage by fire.”

The record of the Lee Cinema’s company registration in June 1920 is notable for the fact that at least two of the four proprietors were women. Bioscope 8 Jul. 1920: 8.

The destruction of the Lee just weeks after it opened at the start of November might be symbolic of Irish cinema’s fade out in 1920, but many more cinemas opened in 1920 than were closed either in this dramatic fashion or for more mundane commercial reasons. Cork began the year with the opening of Washington Street Cinema on 15 January but was particularly well served with suburban cinema openings in autumn 1920, with both the Blackpool on the Watercourse Road and Bellvue on Military Road opening on the same day, 25 October, a week before the Lee. The lavish Pavilion on Patrick Street was still under construction at the end of the year and would open in March 1921. In Sligo, the Boyne Cinema Company may have claimed the first opening of the year, when it offered film shows in the Assembly Room of the Town Hall. The Kilgannon family, who ran the Sligo Picture Theatre on Thomas Street closed the year by launching the Pavilion just metres away in the same street on Christmas day. Early summer saw several opening in Dublin: 10 May saw the opening of both the Manor Cinema on Manor Street and the Lyceum Picture Theatre at the renovated Volta premises at 45 Mary Street;  on 13 May, the Palace Cinema opened in the remodelled Antient Concert Rooms on Brunswick Street. Autumn in Dublin saw the Theatre de Luxe open on Camden Street on 4 September and the AOH Hall at 31 Parnell Square begin screening on 4 October. Elsewhere, Limerick’s Garryowen opened on 5 March on Broad Street; the Abbeyfeale Cinema opened in mid-May; Wicklow’s Excelsior became that town’s first cinema on 14 December; and ironmonger Michael Connolly opened a cinema at his premises in Ballymahon, Co. Longford over the Christmas season.

The Square in Tuam, Co. Galway, c.1900,  showing the Town Hall and a kiosk with a poster for Dr Ormonde’s Vivograph film show. Image from the National Library of Ireland on Flickr.

These openings pointed in a much more promising direction than the destruction of the Lee during the burning of Cork, and cinema would not, of course, fade out completely at the end of 1920. However, the marked intensification of the War of Independence in the summer of 1920 did impact it severely. The Restoration of Order in Ireland Act came into force on 9 August, giving the military sweeping new powers of arrest and trial. The Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), already strengthened by recruits from Britain, many of them unemployed former soldiers dressed in a distinctive black-and-tan uniform, was further bolstered by an Auxiliary Division of former British Army officers. The burning of Cork was a reprisal by the Black and Tans, Auxies and British soldiers after the Auxies had suffered heavy casualties at the hands of the IRA during the Kilmichael ambush on 28 November. Cork was the worst single act of burning buildings as an act of reprisal, but it was a widespread tactic, with cinemas only occasionally being targeted. A cinema in Tullamore was bombed and burned as a reprisal for the killing of RIC sergeant Henry Cronin on 30 October (“Reprisals for Tullamore Murder”). However, the reprisals in Tullamore and many other towns were relatively minor in comparison to Cork and such other extensive incendiary attacks as the sack of Balbriggan on 20 September and the destruction of Tuam on 21 July.

The burned-out remains of houses in Balbriggan, Co. Dublin following the sack of the town by Black and Tans in September 1920. Century Ireland.

Films of the aftermath of the burning of Balbriggan and Tuam provided evidence of the continuing importance of Irish filmmaking in offering a perspective that could challenge British propaganda. An Irish Events newsreel of Tuam was shown in several cinemas on the week of 5 August. “A just conception of the military occupation of Ireland,” the Waterford News and Star remarked, “was afforded last night in the Broad Street Cinema by a series of pictures showing the ruins of Tuam from enemy incendiarism. The fine Town Hall building is a mere skeleton and affords eloquent evidence of British vandalism” (“Burning of Tuam”). The Town Hall had also been the venue for film entertainments over two decades. The Irish Events film of Balbriggan seem to have an even greater impact. It was shown in Irish cinemas in the week of 27 September, a week after the destruction of the town, with several newspaper carrying the comment that “Irish film companies were in a position to show thousands the sack of Balbriggan, and men, women and children running from their burning homes as the peasantry fled from the onrush of the Germans in Belgium and France” (“Seen Through”). It was also shown in America, where, the Freeman’s Journal suggested in November, cinema was contributing to the struggle for Irish independence by exposing US audiences to such Black-and-Tan atrocities as the sacking of Balbriggan “in the cinemas all over the country, the correspondent himself having seen them nearly two thousand miles from the coast” (“Cinemas Tell the Tale”).

Soldiers approach prone bodies on Talbot Street in newsreel item “Terror in Ireland.”

A cameraman from Irish Events was also quickly on the scene on Dublin’s Talbot Street on 14 October following a shoot-out between of IRA activist Seán Treacy and British soldiers and secret service agents that left Treacy and two of the secret service agents dead. The film survives and can be viewed on the IFI Player, including the scene that Evening Herald “Flickers from Filmland” columnist drew particularly attention to, of “the crowd running from the menace of further shooting, and the still group of victims on the footway, [which] makes a most unusual contribution to film history” (“Flickers from Filmland”).

Faked photograph of the Ballymacelligott skirmish on the cover of the Illustrated London News 27 Nov. 1920: 1.

The most notorious 1920 attempt by the British authorities to use the visual media of photography and film to sway British public opinion against the Irish Republican cause came in the guise of the co-called Battle of Tralee (see Barry, Grant). This was actually an IRA-Black-and-Tan skirmish on 12 November at Ballydwyer creamery in Ballymacelligott, on the road between Tralee and Castleisland, that had left two men dead. By chance, Dublin Castle’s police information officer Captain Hugh Pollard was leading a party of foreign correspondents in the area, and they happened across the aftermath of the incident. Among them was journalist Clifford Hutchinson, who reported in the Yorkshire Post on 15 November that “two cinema operators accompanying the party set up their apparatus, and despite the bullets flying around, […] coolly took photography of the fight (“Stern Struggle with Sinn Fein”).

Subsequent events suggest that these cinematographers were working for British Pathé, but Pollard saw an opportunity to create a more politically useful event. Staged photographs of the incident appeared in several British publications, including the Illustrated London News, but were quickly exposed as fakes taken at Vico Road in Killiney, Co Dublin. Film was also supposedly shot at Vico Road and incorporated into a newsreel item released by Pathé on 18 November 1920. “The film, which was taken under fire,” the Daily News reported and the Freeman’s Journal reproduced, “shows wounded Sinn Feiners being led away as prisoners by Auxiliaries of the R.I.C., and struggling vigorously, in spite of their condition. An Irish girl is show pleading with the British troops to allow her brother to go free. In the end he is led away in a lorry” (“A ‘Fight’ Near Tralee”). ”). Although this film seems to have been released, it does not seem to survive in the British Pathé archive, and this may be because it was exposed as a fake. Confronting the British Attorney-General in the House of Commons about the faked photographs in early December, Irish Parliamentary Party MP Jeremiah MacVeagh asked “whether a film was also taken and had to be abandoned because at the ‘private view’ it was found that one of the corpses had moved? (Laughter)” (“Grim Reality”).

Notice that Cork cinemas had closed as a mark of respect for murdered mayor Tómas Mac Curtain. Evening Echo 20 Mar. 1920: 3.

Violence by crown forces was the most prevalent, destructive and disruptive of cinemagoing, but Republicans also sought to control cinema and even attacked cinemas and cinemagoers. The Irish Independent reported that on 12 June 1920, what it called the “Republican secret service” arrested fifteen boys aged between 14 and 18 for committing robberies in Cork, and the Sinn Fein court’s prosecutor recommended that the Corporation take measures “to prevent children attending pictures, except on specified nights, when pictures tending to educate and to elevate the minds of the boys would be shown” (“Irish Volunteers’ Activity”). On 14 August, Cork papers reported that in the absence of the recently arrested Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney, the Corporation had passed a resolution calling on the Irish Republican Government to introduce film censorship (“Cork Town Council”). When cinemas closed on 29 October as a mark of respect and protest at MacSwiney death on hunger strike in Brixton Prison, some closures were enforced by the local Voluneers/IRA. The Irish Independent reported that the Dungannon picture house had closed at the request of the Volunteers, who had also stopped several dances (“Dances Stopped”). “A school teacher returning to his home in the village of Crossgar, Downpatrick,” the Irish Times revealed in relation to the same event, “was seized by a number of men who cut off his hair because he attended a performance at the local picture cinema theatre which Sinn Feiners desired to have closed owning to the death of the Lord Mayor of Cork” (“Incidents in the Provinces”). 

Ominous flickers certainly played across Ireland’s silver screens as 1920 faded into 1921.

References
“The Adapting of Programmes to Curfew Times.” Freeman’s Journal 29 Nov. 1920: 8.

Barry, Michael B. “How the British Faked ‘Battles’ During the War of Independence.” Irish Times 20 Jun. 2019. https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/how-the-british-faked-battles-during-the-war-of-independence-1.3930891

“The Burning of Tuam: Picture Shown in Waterford.” Waterford News and Star 6 Aug. 1920: 7.

“Cinemas Tell the Tale.” Freeman’s Journal 11 Nov. 1920: 6.

“Cork Town Council.” Evening Echo 14 August 1920: 2.

“Dances Stopped.” Irish Independent 29 Oct 1920: 6.

“Effect of Arson Upon Wholesale Trade.” Freeman’s Journal 28 Dec. 1920: 3.

“Flickers from Filmland.” Evening Herald 23 Oct. 1920: 2.

Grant, David. “The Battle of Trallee Fought at Vico Rd, Dalkey” The Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary. http://theauxiliaries.com/INCIDENTS/vico-road/battle-vico-road.html

“Grim Reality.” Irish Times 3 Dec. 1920: 6.

“Incidents in the Provinces.” Irish Times 3 Nov. 1920: 5.

“Irish Exhibitors to Carry On: Negotiations with Staffs to Cope with Diminished Earnings.” Bioscope 16 Dec. 1920: 5.

“Irish Volunteers’ Activity: Seizures of Still and Poteen.” Irish Independent 12 Jun. 1920: 7.

“May Have to Close! Variety Theatres Hard Hit by Curfew Time: Cinemas Suffer Too.” Freeman’s Journal 29 Nov. 1920: 6.

“Military Activity: Raids and Arrests in Dungarvan.” Waterford News and Star 6 Aug. 1920: 2.

“‘No Control of the Men’: Conduct of Police in Limerick.” Nenagh Guardian 31 Jul. 1920: 4.

“On the Film.” Freeman’s Journal/Evening Telegraph 29 Nov. 1920: 8; 16 Dec. 1920: 6; 30 Dec. 1920: 2.

“Reprisals for Tullamore Murder: Jury Condemns the Crime.” Belfast News-Letter 2 Nov. 1920: 5.

“Seen Through.” Ulster Herald 9 Oct. 1920: 5.

“Stern Struggle with Sinn Fein: The Tralee Ambush.” Yorkshire Post 15 Nov. 1920: 7.

“The Trade in Ireland: Irish Cinema Staffs Accept Reduced Wages for the Duration of the Present Curfew.” Bioscope 30 Dec. 1920: 25.

“A Photo-Play of Unique National Interest”: Seeing Knocknagow in Irish Cinemas, January-April 1918

On 22 April 1918, Knocknagow  (Ireland: FCOI, 1918) opened at Dublin’s Empire Theatre after a tour of many of Ireland’s towns and cities.

Ad for Knocknagow in the Irish Limelight Feb. 1918: 10-11.

In inviting Irish exhibitors to the trade show of the long-awaited Knocknagow on 6 February 1918 at Dublin’s Sackville Street Picture House, the Film Company of Ireland (FCOI) described the film as “a photo-play of unique national interest.” Knocknagow would become the most significant film made in Ireland during the silent period. Appearing just over two months after the three-reel comedy Rafferty’s Rise, Knocknagow was very different from anything FCOI had yet released. An epic nine-reel (8,700-feet or 2 hours 25 minutes at 16fps) adaptation of the best-selling Irish novel of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Knocknagow was by far the FCOI’s most ambitious work to date. Part of the national interest of the film may have been in making accessible a novel that some critics have argued was very widely bought but very little read (Donovan). Indeed, when in August 1917 the film was announced and a stage adaptation was proving popular, the Evening Herald’s Man About Town wondered “what the opinion of the author of Knocknagow would be if he saw his novel on the cinema screen, or its dramatized version drawing crowded houses in the theatres throughout the country.”

Tailor Phil Lahy (Arthur Shields) fits out Mat the Thrasher (Brian Magowan) for a new coat in Knocknagow. Image and essays on the film available here.

One of the things he would likely have thought is that the film was very selective in what it took from the novel. “The story meanders along through over six hundred pages its placidity disturbed by very little of what the playwright dubs ‘action,’” the Evening Telegraph critic JAP noted of the novel in his review of the trade show.

To extract from the [novel’s] 600 pages enough incidents for a photoplay – which, above all things, must have virile action, – and to contrive that there should be sufficient continuity to sustain interest throughout a half-dozen reels, was a task to daunt the most expert scenario writer. (“Gossip of the Day.”)

Although impressed by the film in other ways, particularly the acting, JAP did not seem to think that the scenario attributed to Mrs. N. T. Patton had been particularly successful in delivering virile action. Indeed, two weeks later, although no longer referring to Knocknagow, he argued that “the best books should not be filmed. To turn a book into a photo-play must be always an unsatisfactory business” (27 Feb.). However, in the trade-show review, he advised that “the action could be brisked up by sub-editing it down from eight reels to six, the sub-titles would be improved by more frequent quotations from the book and better choice of incidents would have helped to get more of the ‘atmosphere.’”

J.M. Carre as the villainous land agent Beresford Pender.

The version of Knocknagow that survives today is about an hour shorter than the original cut. As a result, it is difficult to say exactly what Irish audiences saw in early 1918, but a general description probably captures many of its essential features. Set in 1848, the film concerns the relationships among a large cast of characters who live on or adjacent to the lands of the absentee landlord Sir Garrett Butler, particularly in the village of Kilthubber and the hamlet of Knocknagow. Prominent among these are Mat “the Thrasher” Donovan (Brian Magowan); the tailor Phil Lahy (Arthur Shields), whose sickly daughter Nora (Kathleen Murphy) is betrothed to turfman Billy Heffernan (Breffni O’Rourke); large tenant farmer Maurice Kearney (Dermot O’Dowd) whose daughter Mary Kearney (Nora Clancy) is attracted to theology student Arthur O’Connor (Fred O’Donovan, who also directed); and villainous land agent Beresford Pender (J.M. Carre), who schemes to remove tenants from the land to make way for more lucrative cattle grazing. The film interweaves scenes of rural work and leisure (ploughing, tailoring, Christmas celebrations, a wedding, a hurling match, a fair) with more strongly plotted sequences, such as the developing love stories or Pender’s strategies to evict certain tenants and frame Mat for robbery. “With a true appreciation of the artistic,” the reviewer in Cavan’s Anglo-Celt contended

the various degrees of tone have been lifted from the novel, and placed on the screen just as Kickham would have done it himself. The happy peasantry, the prowess of the youth at the hurling match, the hammer-throwing contest, the unexpected “hunt,” the love scenes and the comedy – the life as it was before the agent of the absentee landlord came like a dark shadow on the scene, and with crowbar and torch, laid sweet Knocknagow in ruins – all were depicted by the very perfect actors who made up the cast. (“‘Knocknagow’ on the Film.”)

Pender’s eviction of the Brians, a farm labouring family, is depicted in detail, with titles superimposed on the images of the land agent dancing before their burning cottage.

Apart from transposing a bestselling Irish novel into an accessible screen format, two other definitions of “national interest” seem to be particularly relevant to thinking about the release of Knocknagow in early 1918: the commitment to local exhibition and the politics of Irish nationalism. The first of these is illustrated by the fact that the trade show had, unusually, followed rather than preceded a special premiere run in Clonmel from 30 January to 2 February, and the film’s first run after the trade show would not be in the cities of Dublin or Belfast but in Carlow on 18-19 February. The Clonmel opening was designed to acknowledge that the film had been shot almost entirely in the Tipperary locations of Clonmel and Mullinahone associated with Kickham’s source novel. However, given that audiences not only in Clonmel and Carlow but in many other small towns saw the film before it opened to the public in Dublin on 22 April underscores FCOI’s commitment to a definition of national interest that associated it first and foremost with small-town Ireland.

The importance of the Tipperary landscape is emphasized at several points of the film, including a sequence of iris shots in which Mat says farewell to Ireland as he makes ready to emigrate.

Other aspects of the exhibition of Knocknagow deserve discussion, but the 22 April opening date of the film in Dublin also marked a turning point in Irish national politics. That day was flanked by two days of demonstrations against the conscription of Irish men into the British army. Sunday, 21 April represented a particular Catholic church influenced protest, with mass meeting and fiery speeches in every parish in the country, while Tuesday, 23 April was the day chosen by trade unions for a general strike that meant, among other things, that “there were neither newspapers nor cinema shows” during a “universal cessation of work throughout Nationalist Ireland” (“Labour’s Protest”). The British government’s determination to extend conscription to Ireland would finally succeed in uniting the warring factions of Irish nationalism against it.

Newsreel special of the by-election in South Armagh, Dublin Evening Mail 4 Feb 1918: 2.

This turning point of the conscription crisis came after the film’s release in much of the country, however, and it was in a political context of the rise of Sinn Féin that the film was produced and initially exhibited. In late 1917 and early 1918, the long stable link between the achievement of nationhood and the Home Rule of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) was severely under threat from the vision of a more radical independence offered in the wake of the 1916 Rising by the new Sinn Féin party. The set pieces of this struggle from the time Knocknagow began shooting in Tipperary in the early summer of 1917 and through the period of its exhibition in late winter and spring 1918 were a series of six by-elections in which Sinn Féin ran candidates in constituencies where the IPP had previously held Westminster seats, winning three of them. After losing four seats in all to Sinn Féin in 1917, the IPP may have seemed to be regaining the momentum by winning the three by-elections in early 1918, but one of these included the Waterford seat left vacant by the death on 6 March of the man most associated with Home Rule, IPP leader John Redmond. Cinema audiences could follow these developments through the newsreel footage of the by-elections and Redmond’s funeral provided by Irish Events and exhibitors such as William Kay of Dublin’s Rotunda who filmed these events.

General Film Supply sought sales of its film of the Funeral of the Late John Redmond, M.P. beyond its usual Irish Events network by placing this ad with the entertainment ads in the Evening Telegraph of 11-12 Mar. 1918.

As well as these party-political events, Knocknagow was released in a country that was experiencing increasing incidents of local unrest of many kinds, with a large number of prosecutions for cattle driving and for illegal drilling by Irish Volunteers, as well as a hunger strike by Sinn Féin prisoners in Mountjoy Jail. In early March, County Clare was placed under martial law, and Major-General W. Fry issued a proclamation “prohibiting the holding of any meeting or procession within the Dublin Metropolitan Police Area between March 6 and March 27,” a period that included St. Patrick’s Day (“Proclamation”). In one high-profile case, men arrested for illegal drilling in Dundalk refused to recognize the court and sang “The Soldier’s Song” to disrupt proceedings. This tactic became so common that one defendant (Michael Murray) in a Clare cattle-driving case refused to recognize “this concert” (“Court Scene”). However, when during the Dundalk case, a variety company sang the same “Sinn Féin” songs at one of the local picture house, a section of the audience left in protest (“Round Up”). More seriously, members of an audience at Limerick’s Tivoli Picture House on 4 March became victims of violence when 15 to 18 soldiers who had been involved in running battles with young men in the street burst into the auditorium and attacked the crowded audience at random with sticks and truncheons, injuring many, including the musical director (“Soldiers & People in Conflict”).

Mat leads the Knocknagow hurling team for a match that the Derry Journal reviewer thought was “a topsy-turvey affair, resembling a rugby scramble more than a game of caman” (“‘Knock-na-Gow’ at the Opera House”). Some more on that aspect of the film here.

In these circumstances in which, it seems, politics could irrupt into the auditorium at any moment, Knocknagow looks like quite an indirect, even tame intervention. The FCOI’s choice of Kickham’s novel as the basis for its first landmark film seems, on the one hand, an overtly nationalist statement: its author was a former president of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and one of the best known Irish revolutionaries of the latter half of the nineteenth century. On the other hand, the nature of the book – rich in detail of Irish country life in the 1840s but also sprawling and sentimental rather than overtly political – was such that it could be adapted without courting political controversy. As such, the film contrasts with the films made in Ireland between 1910 and 1914 by US filmmakers Sidney Olcott and Gene Gauntier for Kalem and subsequently their own production companies, some of which openly feature armed political rebellion against Britain, albeit that these films are also set in the past.

ArthurO’Connor and Mary Kearney pursue their romance.

This is not to argue that FCOI was politically conservative but that the company had to negotiate strict censorship. The attempt to show Ireland a Nation (US: Macnamara, 1914) in Dublin in January 1917 or even the more recent controversy over the potential banning of the Finn Varra Maa pantomime had shown that to have produced a film that the authorities judged to have been overtly nationalistic would undoubtedly have been to see the film immediately banned under the particularly strict wartime censorship provisions of the Defence of the Realm Act. Apart from anything else, the banning of Knocknagow would have been a financial disaster for the already struggling FCOI.

Scenario competition in Irish Limelight Dec 1917: 11.

In this context, Kickham’s work took on a renewed importance in its ability to subtly re-articulate a familiar set of representations in a political way through its association with the author’s republicanism. Despite its setting in the mid-19th century, Knocknagow still resonated with Irish audiences, as the popularity of the stage adaptation shows. And 1918 would be the year of Kickham film adaptations: with a similar setting in time and place, Kickham’s other major novel Sally Cavanagh would be adapted by J. A. McDonald for a scenario competition run by the Irish Limelight in early 1918. Given that Knocknagow’s director Fred O’Donovan joined Limelight editor Jack Warren in judging the competition, it is perhaps not surprising that McDonald’s scenario, Untenanted Graves, won, but its seems never to have been produced (“Untenanted Graves”).

Films made in Ireland by US filmmakers Sidney Olcott and Gene Gauntier for Kalem dominated this list of Irish films available to Irish exhibitors through Dublin-based General Film Supply; Irish Limelight Dec. 1917: 18.

As the Kickham film that was made, Knocknagow in itself, and in the company’s rhetoric around it, emphasized its embeddedness in particular Irish locations that were different from the ones popularized by previous, foreign filmmakers in Ireland, especially the Killarney of the enduringly popular Olcott-Gauntier films. Unlike Olcott and Gauntier, the FCOI filmmakers were – predominantly – Irish born, and the company was based in Dublin. In keeping with this rhetoric, local exhibition was of more than usual importance to Knocknagow. FCOI had opened previous films in regional picture houses, despite the claim by the Dame Street Picture Theatre in Dublin that all the company’s productions could be seen there first. But for Knocknagow, regional exhibition was a part of its national significance.

Ad for premiere of Knocknagow at Magner’s Theatre, Clonmel; Nationalist 26 Jan. 1918: 6.

Indeed, successful regional exhibition in Ireland was to be part of the promotion of the film with audiences and exhibitors abroad. On 13 April, while Knocknagow was showing in Derry, Dublin’s Evening Herald published a brief interview from its drama critic Jacques with FCOI producer James Mark Sullivan. Sullivan was on the cusp of bringing the FCOI films to America (on the film in America, see here and here), and Jacques quoted him on the company’s intentions:

“We desire,” he says, “to show Ireland sympathetically; to get away from the clay pipe and the knee breeches; to show Ireland’s rural life, with pride in the same; to show Ireland’s metropolitan life intelligently, depicting the men and women of the 20th century – in short, Ireland at its best in every walk of human endeavour.”

This may have been his desire but if it had any basis in a reality beyond advertising rhetoric, it must have referred to the earlier FCOI films and not Knocknagow. Knocknagow persisted in representing the Irish of the mid-19th century and doing so in familiar ways, including costumed in knee breeches. In addition, Sullivan made specific claims about the way that Knocknagow was being welcomed in Ireland “like no other picture was ever received in Ireland or out of Ireland before. From every place where it has once been shown,” he contended,

we are receiving return bookings—a remarkable thing in the case of a picture, though very ordinary in that of a play or opera. For instance, the city of Limerick gave us four bookings, and I question if any other picture every received over two. The same is true of Waterford, Clonmel, Cork, Carlow, and other towns. This week we are breaking all records in Waterford. I mention these facts to indicate that there is prospect of promise and permanency in our enterprise.

The ad for Knocknagow at Derry’s Opera House was dwarfed by an ad for the opening of the city’s newest picture house, the Rialto, on 29 April. Derry Journal 12 Apr. 1918: 2.

Although the surviving evidence in Ireland’s regional newspapers does not quite support Sullivan’s attempts to boost Knocknagow in advance of its Dublin opening, the film had been shown – or in the case of Limerick, was about to be shown – in the towns he named. To clarify, before its week-long run at the Empire Theatre in Dublin (22-27 Apr.), the film was shown at Magner’s Theatre in Clonmel (30 Jan.-2 Feb.), the Sackville Picture Theatre in Dublin (trade show, 6 Feb.), the Cinema Palace in Carlow (18-19 Feb.), the Town Hall Cinema in Cavan (25-27 Feb.), the Cinema in Kilkenny (6-7 Mar.), the Opera House in Cork (18-23 Mar.), the Coliseum in Waterford (1-6 Apr.), the Opera House in Derry (8-13 Apr.), the Empire Theatre in Belfast (15-20 Apr.), the Shannon Cinema in Limerick (15-17 Apr.) the Picturedrome in Tralee (18-20 Apr.) and the Town Hall in Galway (22-24 Apr.).

Anglo-Celt 23 Feb. 1918: 7.

A survey of the reception of Knocknagow in the run up to the Dublin opening has shown something of the way in which the film resonated with audiences around the country. It makes clear that the film was certainly popular with Irish cinemagoers, with local critics consistently praising its fidelity to Kickham’s novel, the quality of the acting and the beauty of the Tipperary scenery. However, few reviews mentioned the film’s contemporary political relevance. Indeed, some suggested that audiences abroad would be particularly impressed by the film, including the Anglo-Celt‘s reviewer, who subtitled his/her notice “A Picture Play that Will Create a Furore in America” (“‘Knocknagow’ on the Film”).

Despite such potentially politically sensitive scenes as the eviction, this was probably due to the fact that such events were depicted in the past, safely distanced, with Cork Evening Echo emphasizing that the film would attract “all those who take an interest in the economic and social development which has taken place in this country during the past two generations” (“Opera House”). These events had happened “many years ago” even for those such as the Evening Herald’s Jacques, for whom the film vividly recalled personal memories of “the cabin doors broken and the furniture flung out, and the poor half-dressed occupants lying on the roadside amid the wreckage of their home.”

An illustrated intertitle introduces the eviction scene, emphasizing its importance.

It was only really in Galway that a critic saw the film’s immediate political relevance by arguing that it

pointed a topical moral at the present time. We saw the evictions, the crowbar brigades, the burnings, the landlord oppression of 70 years ago, the attempt to wipe out a race. Such memories – only of the other day – as it revived scarcely accommodated the mind of the beholder to the nation of conscription. (“Town Hall.”)

By the time this reviewer was writing on or about 26 April, conscription had become the politically unifying issue for nationalists that it had not been earlier in Knocknagow’s run.

While FCOI could not have foreseen such events, the company enhanced its connection to the local audience in many of the places Knocknagow was shown by having members of the cast sing at screenings. This was a unique feature of the film’s exhibition in Ireland. Film actors had on rare occasions attended screenings of their films, but they did not contribute to the events’ live music. Brian Magowan, the film’s main star and an actor familiar with musical theatre, appeared most often, regularly accompanied by fellow cast member Breffni O’Rourke. This was not Magowan’s first vocal accompaniment of a FCOI film; he had sung at the premiere of the company’s first film, O’Neill of the Glen. In the case of Knocknagow, however, the FCOI gave this feature special prominence by having Magowan and O’Rourke, dressed in character, sing folk songs connected with the film. Although they did not appear at every venue where the film was shown, and of course, they could not have when the film was showing simultaneously in geographically remote locations, Magowan’s and O’Rourke’s live appearances were regular features of the first run of the film in Ireland.

While ploughing a field with a view of Slievenamon (mountain), Mat pauses to sing “The Farmer’s Boy,” with an intertitle helpfully providing musical notation and the song’s refrain.

Their earliest appearance seems to have been in Cavan, where the Anglo-Celt reported that “[a]n interesting feature of the entertainment was that Mr. J. McGowan, who, as ‘Mat the Thrasher’ was the hero on the film, appeared each evening in the flesh and sang some old Irish ballads in very charming voice, while Mr. Breffni O’Rourke (‘Bill Heffenan’ in the play) gave some traditional Irish lays and witty stories” (“‘Knocknagow’ on the Film”). Magowan most important contribution was “Slievenamon,” a song about the Tipperary mountain whose lyrics Kickham had composed. The centrality of this song to the FCOI’s conception of the ideal accompaniment of the film is underlined by the reproduction of Magowan’s arrangement of the song for voice and piano that was included in a programme for a later (probably 1919) run of the film (NLI).

The film has many musical scenes, including this one in which Billy Heffernan plays the flute while the Lahys dance.

The reviews are unclear on whether they sang before, after or during the projection of the film, but the film itself includes moments that motivate vocal accompaniment. In an early scene of the film, Mat is introduced by an intertitle and then shown ploughing a field in long shot. In a mid-shot, he turns around to the camera, and an intertitle appears with a musical stave and the refrain from the folk song “The Farmer’s Boy.” The cut back to Mat shows him singing animatedly before he returns to his ploughing in the shadow of Slievenamon. These on-screen cue might provide the place for Magowan to sing or they might encourage the audience to sing these popular tunes. A similar series of shots occurs later when tailor Phil Lahy sings “The Black Horse,” whose opening lines are printed on an intertitle.

Made and released during a fraught historical moment, Knocknagow sought to engage its audiences with a bestselling literary text and popular songs and involve them in the process of readjusting the representation of the Irish on screen.

References

“Court Scene: Clare Cattle Drivers Refuse to Recognise ‘this Concert.’” Dublin Evening Mail 16 Mar. 1918: 3.

Donovan, Stephen. “Introduction: Ireland’s Own Film.” Screening the Past 33 (2012). Available at <http://www.screeningthepast.com/2012/02/introduction-ireland%E2%80%99s-own-film/&gt;

Jacques. “Knocknagow Filmed: Wonderful Irish Picture of Storied Incident.” Irish Limelight Apr. 1918: 5.

JAP. “Gossip of the Day: Film Version of Kickham’s Most Famous Novel.” Evening Telegraph 7 Feb. 1918: 2.

—. “Gossip of the Day: The Present Fashion in Films.” Evening Telegraph 27 Feb. 1918: 2.

“‘Knock-Na-Gow’ at the Opera House.” Derry Journal 10 Apr. 1918: 4.

“‘Knocknagow’ on the Film: A Picture Play that Will Create a Furore in America.” Anglo-Celt 2 Mar. 1918: 6.

“Labour’s Protest.” Freeman’s Journal 24 Apr. 1918: 2.

The Man About Town. “Thing Seen and Heard.” Evening Herald 22 Aug. 1917: 2; 9 Mar. 1918: 2.

NLI (National Library of Ireland). MS 50,000/272/82, Liam O’Leary Archive. Programme for Knocknagow, n.d.

“Opera House.” Evening Echo 14 Mar. 1918: 2.

“Proclamation: Processions Forbidden for the Next Three Weeks in the Dublin Area.” Dublin Evening Mail 7 Mar. 1918: 3.

“A Round Up: Many Volunteers Arrested.” Evening Telegraph 12 Mar. 1918: 3.

“Soldiers & People in Conflict: Scenes in Limerick.” Irish Independent 6 Mar. 1918: 3.

“Town Hall.” Galway Express 27 Apr. 1918: 4.

“The Untenanted Graves.” Irish Limelight Apr. 1918: 13.