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.

“Driven to See Pictures Instead of Plays”: Joseph Holloway Goes Out in 1914 Dublin

Joseph Holloway's "My Reflection in Mirror at Barbers," 21 Sep. 1914.

Joseph Holloway’s self-portrait “My Reflection in Mirror at Barbers,” 21 Sep. 1914. National Library of Ireland.

On Friday, 31 July 1914, Joseph Holloway – the sometimes architect but more often theatregoer – recorded a moment of cultural angst: “Was at two picture Houses during the day – the Grafton & Rotunda, where a few good films were on view,” he noted in his diary before adding: “It’s terrible to be driven to see pictures instead of plays! I fear the theatres in Dublin are dead for the present.” The death of theatre in Dublin was a cause of serious concern for Holloway, whose diary records the minute attention he paid to shows at Dublin’s “legitimate” theatres – the Theatre Royal and Gaiety – at its melodrama house – the Queen’s Royal Theatre – and at its music halls – the Empire and Tivoli. Despite his unhappiness with theatrical offerings at this time, he nevertheless attended as many plays and shows as he could fit in a life largely filled with the leisure that a small inheritance allowed him. The diary in which he records the details of these shows – as well as his conversations and correspondence with the luminaries and ordinary people of the time – is an incredible work of life writing that has been estimated as running to more than 25 million words (Ferriter). This is not because of the great critical insights he offers; his diary has been described by Irish author Frank O’Connor as “that donkey’s detritus” and by Sean O’Casey as “an impossible pile of rubbish” (ibid). Nevertheless, despite the limited perspective of a middle-class conservative Catholic nationalist, it offers fascinating glimpses into life and leisure as they were experienced in Dublin in the 1910s, including the city’s emerging cinema culture.

Holloway’s viewing of the two film shows in late July 1914 was not unprecedented, nor was it the first time he had expressed his dissatisfaction with picture houses while being a regular cinemagoer. Since the Picture House in Sackville/O’Connell Street had opened in April 1910, Holloway had often visited it and the other picture houses that opened with increasing regularity in its wake. Although he sometimes visited picture houses alone, he also accompanied his mother Anne Holloway and his niece Eileen O’Malley, with whom he lived, demonstrating the popularity of the picture house across three generations (Condon 143). By September 1914, Holloway’s life was changing along with the city’s entertainment offerings, not to mention the political upheavals of the period. The death of his mother in May 1912, and the marriage of Eileen on 16 September 1914 left him living alone and without a cinema-going companion.

As well as this, the breakdown of the longstanding distinctions between Dublin’s legitimate theatre, melodrama house and music hall was particularly visible just as the war began in the autumn of 1914. This was part of an international process by which entertainment companies were buying up and building theatres of all kinds to create chains that sought large popular audiences by providing a modified form of variety entertainment that could accommodate popular music hall artistes and dramatic actors, as well as film. Dublin’s Theatre Royal had long been experimenting with this modified variety, which it called by a name already popular in many British cities: hippodrome. Marvelling at the popularity of the Royal’s hippodrome seasons during the summer period when the theatres usually closed, the theatrical columnist of Irish Life dubbed hippodrome “the Chief Priest and Apostle of the Music Hall in Dublin” (“Between the Acts”). “[I]ts hold over the public is simply amazing. The “two-nightly house” show can apparently thrive under any circumstances. In Dublin it has captured all classes, and has proved itself a most profitable undertaking to those engaged in it” (ibid). Film featured not only as part of the evening programme in the guise of the Royal Bioscope but also at a separate film matinee.

Ad for the Theatre Royal Hippodrome and Winter Gardens, Sep. 1914, featuring film matinees of Nature's Zoo. National Library of Ireland.

Poster for the Theatre Royal Hippodrome and Winter Gardens, Sep. 1914, featuring film matinees of Nature’s Zoo (Britain: Cherry Kearton, 1913), a film that the Royal also exhibited a year earlier. National Library of Ireland.

In early August, Ireland’s Attorney-General and Solicitor-General heard application for patents that would allow legitimate drama from the Star Theatre of Varieties, Ltd., the company that ran the Empire, and from the Premier Picture Palace (Dublin), which proposed to build a large theatre in the city centre on a site off Henry Street and close to the GPO. As the latter’s name suggests, this company had initially planned to open a large picture house but had decided that a variety theatre with the flexibility of mounting plays and showing films would be more profitable. The company would eventually open in April 1915 what was then known as the Coliseum Theatre, a short lived venue that would not be rebuilt following its destruction a year after its opening during the 1916 Rising. The proprietors of the Coliseum included Lord Mayor Lorcan Sherlock, two directors of Dublin’s Tivoli Theatre and theatrical agent Fred Willmott (ibid.). Holloway attended the hearing and spoke as an expert witness – “as an old theatre-goer with 40 years experience” – in support of the Star Theatre of Varieties’ application, arguing that the granting of a dramatic patent would benefit the city by providing the opportunity for more play to be performed (“What Is a Revue?”).

Handbill for opening of the Masterpiece Theatre (Holloway 27 Jul.)

Handbill for opening of the Masterpiece Theatre preserved in Holloway’s diary (Holloway 27 Jul.)

While lobbying in support of more plays and continuing to attend theatrical shows of all kinds, Holloway also visited picture houses regularly. During July and the first half of August 1914, he records twenty visits to Dublin picture houses, fourteen of them alone in July. On the evening of Thursday, 2 July, he went to what he insisted on calling the O’Connell Picture House (but the proprietors persisted in calling the Picture House, Sackville Street) where he saw the “beautiful touching film ‘Child o’ My Heart’” (Britain: London, 1914); on the afternoon of Monday, 6 July, he saw The Afghan Raiders and When Lions Escape (US: Columbus, 1914) at the Rotunda, and “both were full of thrills!”; on the evening of Wednesday, 8 July, he saw the Western Love Triumphant and a newsreel of Joseph Chamberlain’s funeral at the Grafton; on the evening of Friday, 10 July, he saw From the Lion’s Paw and “a thrilling abduction story, both well acted” at the Rotunda; on the evening of Monday, 13 July, he saw The Game of Life (US: Selig, 1914) at the Rotunda, which he found “a particularly exciting one & also an Indian story of the new medical man” [The New Medicine Man (US: Kalem, 1914)]; on the evening of Saturday, 18 July, the films he saw at the Grafton included Lost at Sea (France: Eclair, 1913), Nan Good-for-Nothing (Britain: London, 1914) and a newsreel from Dublin’s Civic Exhibition featuring rival architect George O’Connor, “[a]s large as life & equally as massive!”; on the evening of Monday, 20 July, he admired at the Grafton both The Black Pearls (US: Geroges Méliès, 1914), “a real thriller enacted finely by French players,” and The War Bonnet (US: Kalem, 1914), “an Indian story [that] was fairly interesting chiefly because of its beautiful natural setting; on the afternoon of Tuesday, 21 July, he was amused by The Blood Test (US: IMP, 1914) and an unnamed comedy at the Rotunda; on Thursday, 23 July, he visited the Grafton, where he saw “a few good dramatic pictures & others I didn’t care for,” and later the Rotunda, where The Master Crook Turns Detective (Britain: British and Colonial Kinematograph, 1914) “was the most dramatic & best enacted”; on the evening of Friday, 24 July, His Reformation (Britain: London, 1914) at the O’Connell was the best of “the few more or less interesting pictures” he saw; on Monday, 27 July, he found Joan of Arc (Italy: Savoia, 1914) at the opening of the Masterpiece Theatre “dull and left after ending of part 3,” but enjoyed The Mansion of Sobs (US: Lubin, 1914), “a very good child picture & a funny [John] Bunny picture” later at the Grafton; on Friday, 31 July, he had the two visits to the Grafton and Rotunda that caused him such anxiety about the death of theatre.

Evening Telegraph review of programme at the Masterpiece, 22 Sep. 1914: 2.

Evening Telegraph review of programme at the Masterpiece, 22 Sep. 1914: 2.

The first half of August shows the same rate of picture house attendance, with Holloway visiting a cinema on average almost once every two days. On the evening of Saturday, 1 August, he went to the “exciting film drama” Devil’s Gap at the Dorset Picture House; on the evening of Monday, 3 August, he and Eileen found the programme at the Grafton poor, particularly the vulgar Across the Hall (US: Keystone, 1914), but the evening was somewhat redeemed by Bertie in the Ladies’ College (Britain: Eclair, 1914) and ’Fraid Cat (US: Vitagraph, 1914), “a clever child film”; at the Rotunda on the evening of Thursday, 6 August, he found A Life for a Life “quite pathetic” and was moved – unusually – to write a synopsis of it; Ivy’s Elopement (Britain: Ivy Close Films, 1914) at the O’Connell on 8 August was “set in exquisite surroundings & was really beautiful”; on Wednesday, 12 August, he saw England’s Menace (Britain: London, 1914) with Eileen at the Grafton, “where we saw some fine films, and were entertained by a man with a most aggressive sneeze”; on Friday, 14 August, he attended the 6:30 show at the Rotunda with just a handful of others, attributing the small attendance to “the unruly elements” of thunder showers, roving soldiers “and the unfortunate girls [who] had come out to meet them.”

Over this period, he attended the Rotunda and Grafton almost equally with eight and seven visits respectively. The O’Connell was his next most favoured picture house with three visits; and the Masterpiece and Dorset received one visit each. After the visit to the Masterpiece on 27 July, he appears not to have visited it again until two months later, on Saturday, 26 September, when the well-known comedian Cathal MacGarvey took over its management. Holloway “met Mr M’Garvey at the door – he has only taken up the reins a week ago & scarcely feels his feet yet – he hopes to work it into a big success – The programme was first rate & I told him so as I came out.” Holloway did not mention what was on the programme, but MacGarvey’s appointment drew some welcome publicity to the Masterpiece, and as a result, notices show that Holloway would have seen the drama Etta of the Footlights (US: Vitagraph, 1914) with Maurice Costello and Mary Charleson – which was also showing at the O’Connell – “some daring feats of equestrianism by the 18th Hussars” in Our Cavalry’s Wonderful Horsemanship, the scenic film From Inverlaken to Shiedegg, and a Gaumont Graphic newsreel that included “a review of the National Volunteers at Enniscorthy by Mr. John Redmond and (“Masterpiece Theatre”). It is likely that the location of the last film is mistaken and that this was a film of the infamous speech at Woodenbridge, Co. Wicklow, in which Irish nationalist leader Redmond called on the Volunteers to join the British Army.

Film lover Dr Knott. Holloway Diaries.Aug. 1914

Film lover Dr Knott. Holloway Diaries. National Library of Ireland.

Unlike his often very detailed accounts of theatre shows, Holloway wrote frustratingly little on the films he saw, often not even giving their names. He does, however, sometimes remark on the behaviour – and even mention the names – of members of the audience, some of whom he also occasionally sketched. On the evening of Monday, 1 June 1914, he reveals, the large audience at the Grafton included “AE (George Russell) & Prof. Maginnis.” The aggressively sneezing man at the Grafton on 12 August allowed him some interaction with other members of the audience:

Even the film drama – “England’s Message” – which was loudly applauded – he sneezed often. ”Though its subject wasn’t to be sneezed at!” I said to Eileen, & the man next her, who had been applauding his hands off almost when the foreign fleet in the picture story turned tail & went home, smiled at & approved of my turn of phrase.

However, the behaviour of other audience members could be annoying, as it was on 8 July at the Grafton during the newsreel of Chamberlain’s funeral: “a man behind me kept up a regular tattoo with his fingers on the crown of his straw hat, which was irritating to all save himself. I know he maddened me!” Some people he knew were regular picture house patrons. James Crawford Neil enjoyed natural history pictures (23 Jul. 1914). Dr John Knott, “haunts the picture houses” (16 Sep 1914) and seems to be constantly “seated rather close up to screen” (30 May 1914). Like Knott, Holloway also haunted Dublin’s picture houses, and despite his periodic fears about cinema displacing his beloved theatre, he appears, on balance, to have enjoyed his time in front of the screen.

References

“Between the Acts.” Irish Life 10:2 (24 Jul. 1914), p. 68.

Condon, Denis. “‘Temples to the Art of Cinematography’: Cinema on the Dublin Streetscape, 1895-1929.” Visualizing Dublin: Visual Culture, Modernity and the Representation of Urban Space. Ed. Justin Carville. Bern: Peter Lang, 2013. 132-54.

“Drama in Dublin: Premier Picture Palace Application: Lord Mayor’s Views.” Evening Herald 7 Aug. 1914: 2.

Ferriter, Diarmaid. “Holloway, Joseph.” Dictionary of Irish Biography Online. Cambridge UP and Royal Irish Academy, 2009. Web. 30 Sep. 2014.

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

“Masterpiece Theatre.” Evening Telegraph 22 Sep. 1914: 2.

“O’Connell Street Pictures.” Evening Telegraph 15 Sep. 1914: 2.

“What Is a Revue? Manager Tries to Explain It: Drama in Dublin.” Evening Herald 6 Aug. 1914: 3.