“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

History Without Tears in Irish Cinemas, June 1916

Framegrab from The Fight at St. Eloi; Imperial War Museums.

Framegrab from The Fight at St. Eloi (Britain: British Topical Committee for War Films, 1916); Imperial War Museums.

The London-based trade journal Bioscope opened its first June issue with an editorial entitled “The Moving Picture: The New National Weapon” and subtitled “A Force which Cannot Be Destroyed and Should Therefore Be Utilized.” “The new Defence of the Realm Regulations contain a warning that penalties will be incurred by the exhibition of unpatriotic cinematograph films,” it began, before confidently asserting:

We are happy to believe that the precaution was unnecessary. The power of the pictures has never yet been used in this country for the furtherance of disloyal or anti-British objects. It has, on the other hand, not seldom been employed with the utmost success in patriotic causes.

Nevertheless, the British government did see a reason for tighter legislative control of cinema in pursuit of the ideological goal of promoting patriotism, unanimity and support for recruitment in the context of a lengthy and costly war. The economic need to fund the war through increased tax had most directly affected cinema through the recently introduced Entertainment Tax.

"Trade Topics." Bioscope 1 Jun. 1916: 958

“Trade Topics.” Bioscope 1 Jun. 1916: 958

In many ways, cinema in Ireland in June 1916 looked like a mature industry, regulated by these laws, but also highly cognizant of and largely aligned with the London-based trade. Even Ireland’s laggardly film production showed considerable development when the Film Company of Ireland press-showed its first production, O’Neil of the Glen, on 29 June at Dublin’s Carlton Cinema (“Irish Film Production”). The Bioscope was one of the ways in which this alignment was achieved, and although it was certainly read in Ireland, members of the Irish cinema trade might have been less confident of the claims of this editorial. In the same 1 June issue, the journal’s “Trade Topics” column published the assertion of J. Magner of the Clonmel Theatre that the Bioscope was the best of the cinema trade papers. And in 22 June issue, Irish columnist “Paddy” informed readers that the Bioscope was available at Mrs Dunne’s shop in Dublin’s Brunswick Street – close to the Queen’s Theatre, Norman Whitten’s General Film Supply, distributor Weisker Brothers, and other cinema businesses.

In the aftermath of the Easter Rising, however, it was questionable to what the Irish population at large was loyal. Support for the war still dominated the mainstream Irish press, but antiwar and pro-republican sentiments were becoming less marginal. By June, some theatres and picture houses anxious to maintain displays of their loyalty to the Crown – and by extension, that of their patrons – encountered protests. The large Theatre Royal had been one of the first places of amusement to open after the Rising, when it had offered British Army propaganda films. This did not, however, mean that its audience could all be considered loyalists.

On 26 June, for instance, William Charles Joseph Andrew Downes, a church decorator living at 15 Goldsmith Street, Dublin, was arrested for riotous behaviour during a live show at the Theatre Royal. He had shouted abuse related to the Boer War at a uniformed soldier who had responded to a magician’s call for a volunteer from the audience (“Scene in City Theatre”). The Boer War of 1899-1902 had been extremely divisive in Ireland, with popular support for the Boers’ stand against the British Empire extending from fiery speeches by Parnell’s Irish Parliamentary Party in Westminster to attacks on British soldiers in the streets of Dublin, and it was directly linked to the Rising in the person of executed leader and former Boer Irish Brigade major John McBride (Condon). As Downes was being escorted out the door of the Theatre Royal, he drew attention to the Irish republican badge he was wearing – a display of solidarity with the Easter rebels – and suggested that it was the reason he was being expelled.

Downes’ outburst could not be completely dismissed as the actions of a drunk – the arresting constable described him as neither drunk nor sober but “half-and-half” – and it was not isolated. The previous week, seven young people between the ages of 17 and 29 – four men and three women – had been charged in Dublin’s Police Court with offenses under the Defence of the Realm Act and with assaulting the constables who had attempted to seize the green flag at the head of a procession of 400 republican supporters that had been followed through the city centre by a crowd of around 2,000 (“Amazing City Scenes”). The crowd had also shouted republican slogans and booed and groaned passing soldiers. The mass arrests and deportations in May had failed to quell advanced nationalist activism that was now consciously identifying itself as republican.

Town Topics June 1916

Dublin Evening Mail 19 Jun. 1916: 2.

This republican riot on Dublin’s streets provided an immediate if unacknowledged context for press commentary on the educational value of the official war films. “The boys of the future will have many advantages over the boys of the past,” observed the Dublin Evening Mail’s “Town Topics” columnist. “They will learn by picture-houses as well as by paradigms. It has been said that there is no Royal road to learning. There may be a Theatre Royal road, however” (“Town Topics”).

Official war films at the Gaiety; Evening Herald 14 Jun. 1916: 2.

Official war films at the Gaiety; Evening Herald 14 Jun. 1916: 2.

In a telling slippage, he was in fact discussing a new programme of official war films at the Gaiety Theatre rather than at the Royal. Although his point was about the ease or gaiety with which cinema could teach history, it is clear that this history would inculcate loyalty to the crown and war effort. “When I was in statu pupillari,” he continued,

history was taught me not without tears. The boys of the future will learn of the great war at the picture-palaces. I saw some of the official war films last week at the Gaiety Theatre. I saw the Irish regiments marching to Mass. I saw the heavy artillery attacking a German block-house. […] I saw our men in the trenches, preparing to seize the crater of a mine explosion. I saw them lobbing bombs like cricket balls at the enemy. Then I saw them – gallant Canadians at St. Eloi – fix bayonets and out over the parapet to charge across No Man’s Land and leap at the foe. Who would read the dull chronicles of Caesar of Livy after that?

Framegrab from Destruction of a German Blockhouse by 9.2 Howitzer; Impeial War Museum.

Framegrab from Destruction of a German Blockhouse by 9.2 Howitzer (Britain: British Topical Committee for War Films, 1916); Imperial War Museums.

In making this argument, the Town Topics writer was aligning himself with the Bioscope early 1916 description of the cinema as the “nation’s historian.” Although certainly exciting, these official films were not mere entertainment but a new kind of visual historiography. And this was not just a boon for schoolboys but also a new historical method that could help historians to overcome the wartime measures introduced by governments to control the flow of information. He argued that while “[a]t the beginning of the war it was thought the historians would be bankrupt, because the censorship hid deeds of our men in the mystery of the night,” in fact, “[t]he cinema will save the historian, and at least help him to pay ten shillings in the pound.”

Other press coverage of the Gaiety shows gives further details of how this new history was presented and received. The choice of a large “legitimate” theatre such as the Gaiety rather than in a picture house associated the films with a site of serious cultural production aimed at a discerning audience. On the other hand, the Gaiety adapted picture-house exhibition practices in showing the films at three shows a day beginning at 3pm. “[T]he Gaiety Theatre opens a practically new chapter in its career,” the Freeman’s Journal commented, “by the fact that the attraction is not the familiar drama, musical or otherwise, but the production of a series of official war pictures which are, beyond all doubt, of transcendent interest” (“Amusements”). “In imagination,” observed the Irish Times, “one may see Irish soldiers at work and play, the Connaught Rangers and Munster Fusiliers amongst them, and Captain Redmond is seen leading his company to the front lines” (“Public Amusements”). Similar to other entertainments at the theatre, “a most excellent musical accompaniment is supplied by the Gaiety orchestra” (“Amusements”). Although music might contribute to the ease with which these images could be perceived, the musical director would presumably have had to be careful to avoid evoking not tears of schoolboy struggle but those of poignant loss among audience members with relatives and friends in France.

More chapters of this history that could – a least theoretically – be assimilated without tears, were on the way. “At the General Headquarters of the British Army in France,” reported the Dublin Evening Mail on 22 June, “there was last night exhibited before a large gathering of distinguished officers and their guests the latest series of the official war films, which in due course will be presented to the public at home and to neutral Powers, amongst which the desire to learn what our troops are really doing is unquestionable very keen” (“Pictures Taken at the Front”). This first run before an expert military audience could not, however, guarantee how resistant audiences in Ireland or elsewhere might react.

The Irish Catholic Church seemed to also believe that the cinema could not easily be destroyed and should therefore be, if not utilized for its own purposes, at least shaped by its ideology. With the appointment in June 1916 by Dublin Corporation’s Public Health Committee of Walter Butler and Patrick Lennon as film censors, a milestone was reached in the church’s campaign to introduce local censorship that would reflect a distinctly Irish Catholic sensibility (Rockett 50). Films shown in Ireland already bore the certificate of the British Board of Film Censorship, which had been established by the film trade as a form of self-regulation to avoid government-imposed censorship. Even as Butler and Lennon were being appointed, the British industry was discussing renewed government determination to introduce official censorship. Among the cases cited that raised this issues in London was the banning of A Tale of the Rebellion, a film about the Easter Rising that showed an Irishman being hanged (“London Correspondence”). Even as they announced the introduction of censorship in Dublin, however, the Irish Vigilance Association (IVA) expressed impatience with the lack of urgency demonstrated by the Corporation in appointing censors (“Film Censors for Dublin”).

Musical attractions at the Pillar; Dublin Evening Mail 1 Jun. 1916: 2.

Musical attractions at the Pillar; Dublin Evening Mail 1 Jun. 1916: 2.

From the IVA’s perspective, censorship was increasingly urgent given cinema’s growing appeal for the middle class, epitomized by improvements to cinematic music in June 1916. Three Dublin picture houses led the musical field: the city-centre Pillar and Carlton and the suburban Bohemian. Reviewing the Pillar at the end of June, the Irish Times revealed that its “orchestra including such favourites as Mr. Joseph Schofield, Mr. Harris Rosenberg, Mr. H. O’Brien, Miss Annie Kane and Mr. S. Golding, continue[s] to delight large audiences” (“Pillar Picture House”). Just a few doors away from the Pillar on Sackville/O’Connell Street, the Carlton boasted in Erwin Goldwater an internationally renowned violinist as its orchestra leader and soloist.

Dublin Evening Mail 10 Jun. 1916: 2.

Dublin Evening Mail 10 Jun. 1916: 2.

The Bohemian, however, outdid both of these when it engaged Achille Simonetti. “Dubliners will keenly appreciate the enterprise of the management of the Bohemian Picture Theatre in permanently engaging the services of one of the most noted violinists of the day in the person of Signor Simonetti,” the Dublin Evening Mail argued. “Henceforth Signor Simonetti will act as leader of the Bohemian orchestra – which has won such a wide repute – and will give solos, as well as Mr. Clyde Twelvetrees, Ireland’s greatest ’celloist” (“Play’s the Thing”). Simonetti debuted alongside Twelvetrees at the Bohemian on Whit Monday, 12 June 1916, when the bill was topped by Infelice (Britain: Samuelson, 1915), based on a novel by Augusta Evans-Wilson and starring Peggy Hyland. And if this was not enough to draw a large audience, the Bohemian announced that it would revise its pricing back to pre-Entertainment Tax rates, adding the line “We Pay Your Tax” to future advertisements.

No ordinary musicians need apply to Bangor’s Picture Palace; Irish Independent 9 Jun. 1916: 6.

No ordinary musicians need apply to Bangor’s Picture Palace; Irish Independent 9 Jun. 1916: 6.

The Bohemian added violist George Hoyle two weeks later. “The management now consider that they have the most perfect arrangement of stringed instruments and performers for a picture theatre,” the Irish Times reported (“Platform and Stage”). In a rare article focused on “Picture House Music,” Dublin Evening Mail columnist H.R.W. agreed that the Bohemian’s orchestra was the best in the city and that Simonetti’s “distinguished abilities attract large numbers of people from the most distant parts of the city.”

Commenting favourably on the tendency for picture-house orchestras to add strings and avoid brass and woodwind, s/he observed that while “the theatre orchestra was allowed to degenerate into mere noisy accompaniments to conversations in the auditorium during the interval,” in the picture house, “conversation is subdued, the music is subdued, the lights are subdued. The whole effect is soothing to the nerves.” Referring to Twelvetree’s impressive rendering of Max Bruch’s arrangement of “Kol Nidre,” s/he speculated that “the exact atmosphere is created by the fact that the solos are played in half light. The attention paid by the audience shows that this new feature is appreciated to the fullest extent.” S/he concluded that “the picture houses are affording us an opportunity of hearing the very best music, and in the hands of such fine artists as I have mentioned we can hear anything from a string quartet to a symphony.”

Although the official war films were not shown at the Bohemian, music of this kind could certainly play a role in assimilating the new tearless history.

References

“Amazing City Scenes.” Dublin Evening Mail 19 Jun. 1916: 3.

“Amusements: The Gaiety Theatre.” Freeman’s Journal 13 Jun. 1916: 6.

“Bohemian Picture Theatre.” Irish Times 13 Jun. 1916: 2; 20 Jun. 1916: 7.

Condon, Denis. “Politics and the Cinematograph in Revolutionary Ireland: The Boer War and the Funeral of Thomas Ashe.” Field Day Review Issue 4 (2008); and “Receiving News from the Seat of War: Dublin Audiences Respond to Boer War Entertainments.” Early Popular Visual Culture Vol. 9, No. 2 (2011).

“Film Censors for Dublin.” Freeman’s Journal 22 Jun. 1916: 6.

H.R.W. “Picture House Music: Its Growth and Development.” Dublin Evening Mail 28 Jun. 1916: 5.

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

“London Correspondence.” Freeman’s Journal 16 Jun. 1916: 4.

“The Moving Picture: The New National Weapon.” Bioscope 1 Jun. 1916: 955.

“Pictures Taken at the Front: Splendid New Series: Operator Gets Bullet Through His Cap.” Dublin Evening Mail 22 Jun. 1916: 3.

“The Pillar Picture House.” Irish Times 27 Jun. 1916: 6.

“Platform and Stage.” Irish Times 24 Jun 1916: 10.

“The Play’s the Thing.” Dublin Evening Mail 10 Jun. 1916: 6.

“Public Amusements: The Gaiety Theatre.” Irish Times 13 Jun. 1916: 2.

Rockett, Kevin. Irish Film Censorship: A Cultural Journey from Silent Cinema to Internet Pornography. Dublin: Four Courts, 2004.

“Scene in City Theatre: ‘There Is a Brave Man.’” Dublin Evening Mail 26 Jun. 1916: 4.

“Town Topics: Being a Casual Causerie.” Dublin Evening Mail 19 Jun. 1916: 2.

In the Grip of Spies: Irish Cinemas and War Propaganda, March 1915

On the eve of St. Patrick’s Day 1915, several Dublin newspapers reported on an exciting chase of a suspected spy through the city. “For the past couple of day,” the Evening Telegraph revealed,

the military authorities have regarded with suspicion the movements of an individual in the city. To-day the man was seen in the vicinity of O’Connell Bridge, where he again attracted the attention of the military, and when they proceeded to approach him the man immediately made off. (“City Sensation.”)

The pursuing soldiers commandeered a car when they were unable to catch the man on foot, but he was eventually caught by a passing cyclist who responded to the soldiers’ calls to stop the spy. However, although the man was arrested, he was released without charge when he turned out to be a respected Kildare cattle dealer named Murphy. It is unclear why Murphy expected that expressing his view to British soldiers “that the Kaiser might smash the British army and dominate the world in the end” would be uncontroversial, even though such views were common among militant nationalists and radical labour activists (“‘Stop Spy’ in Dublin Streets”).

Evening Telegraph 15 Mar. 1915: 2.

Evening Telegraph 15 Mar. 1915: 2.

What is interesting, though, is that the expression by an Irishman of such anti-British sentiments led him to be labelled a spy. Indeed, this story fitted into a discourse on spies and spying spread by newspapers and other popular media including the cinema that dovetailed with the British government’s war policies (see also, for example, in same issue of Evening Telegraph “Imaginary Spy” and “Danger of Spies”). For three days in mid-March, Dublin’s Dorset Picture Hall showed In the Grip of Spies (Britain: Big Ben, 1914), and this title offers an apt description of the state of fear of “the enemy among us” that this discourse aimed to spread. “From end to end of the British Isles they are talking of the German Spy menace,” a press ad claimed. “This Film deals with the theft of a naval Code Book, which is equivalent to saying that it is of absorbing interest at the present time” (ibid). But spying was also a suitable subject for comedy, with patrons at the Picture House, Sackville/O’Connell Street enjoying Wiffles Catches a Spy (France: Pathé, 1915).

In general, however, the discourse on spies and the cinema was not comic. Spies brought the war even closer to Ireland and Britain than the German naval blockade blockade to which this ad linked it. Suspicion could be cast on anyone who used a film camera, which purposely or inadvertently could provide intelligence for German attacks. Echoing an incident in Dublin in September 1914 when Norman Whitten was threatened with being shot for filming troops embarking at Dublin port, an article in the Evening Telegraph in early March 1915 reported from the Gateshead Police Court on the arrests, fining and confiscation of the footage of Stanley Dorman and Edwin Joseph Jennings who had filmed a Tyneside naval installation without permission (“Film of a Warship”).

We Serve Neither King nor Kaiser banner and its removal from Liberty Hall in Evening Herald 21 Dec. 1914: 1.

We Serve Neither King nor Kaiser banner and its removal from Liberty Hall in Evening Herald 21 Dec. 1914: 1.

More importantly, the discourse on spies served the useful ideological purpose of suggesting that the divisions of prewar society had been overcome in the face of a common enemy and that any organization or individual not engaged in the war effort was – wittingly or unwittingly – an agent of the Kaiser. Draconian legislation was put in place to deal with such individuals and organizations. Passed just after the outbreak of the war, the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) introduced strict censorship and gave the police and military widespread powers of arrest. In Ireland, unionists and the mainstream nationalist who followed John Redmond supported the war, but militant nationalists and radical trade unionists condemned it, and some openly supported a German invasion. “When it is said that we ought to unite to protect our shores against the ‘foreign enemy,’” wrote labour leader James Connolly,

I confess to be unable to follow that line of reasoning, as I know of no foreign enemy of this country except the British Government, and know that it is not the British Government that is meant. […] Should a German army land in Ireland to-morrow we should be perfectly justified in joining it if by so doing we could rid this country once and for all from its connection with the Brigand Empire that drags us unwillingly into this war. (“Our Duty in this Crisis.”)

At the start of the war, a banner proclaiming “We Serve Neither King nor Kaiser, But Ireland” was erected on the facade of Liberty Hall, headquarters of the labour movement, and it was only removed by soldiers and police in December 1914 (“‘Liberty’ Hall”). Earlier that month, such radical papers as the Irish Worker, Sinn Fein, Irish Freedom and Eire/Ireland were suppessed (“Irish Papers,” “Another Dublin Paper”).

By contrast, the British trade press continued to urge the wider use of cinema in support of the war effort. In the face of opposition by reformers unsympathetic to popular culture and by the churches to Sunday opening, the industry aimed to win wider social acceptability by aligning itself with state policy. For the Bioscope, cinema certainly played a crucial role as rational recreation at a time of great collective stress. An editorial in March 1915 rejected the snobbish “reproach on those who seek relaxation in theatres and music halls” and argued that “the cinemas are playing no mean part in providing the great mass of people with innocent and healthful entertainment” (“Amusements in War Time”). However, it could also play a much more active role in shaping public opinion in support of the war, a point that the trade papers had argued from an early point in the war. In September 1914, for example, the Bioscope had praised the views of Liberal politician Sir Henry Norman, who in a letter to the London Times had emphasized the role that battlefield reporting could play in support of recruiting and arousing enthusiasm for the war at home. Norman proposed sending to the front with the correspondents “at least one official cinematographer, whose films of the glories of war – we shall have plenty of other means of learning of its sorrows – should be shown in every town and village in the land” (“The Cinematograph at the Front”).

“Atrocities on the Cinema.” Dublin Evening Mail 27 Mar. 1915: 5.

Dublin Evening Mail 27 Mar. 1915: 5.

With little indication that the British government was exploring the propaganda possibilities of the cinema, the press continued to offer stories showing that Germany was winning the propaganda war among the German population, as well as exploiting such advanced technological application as the use of the cinematograph in reconnaissance. The Dublin Evening Mail, the Dublin evening paper with a distinctly unionist editorial line, was particularly fond of these stories, but it also showed that the cinema had the potential to reveal uncomfortable truths about the war. An article in late March, for example, reported that

a cinema theatre in Trieste has been showing pictures of the campaign in Serbia which are intended to be patriotic, but which unconsciously reveal revolting atrocities committed by Austrian soldiers.

After scenes of an Archduchess visiting the wounded, of camp life and other ordinary incidents of the war, some films were projected showing the martyrdom of a Serbian suspected of espionage, the burning alive of a Serbian family in their home by Imperial troops because they were reported to have fired on soldiers from their house, also Austrian soldiers killing off wounded on the battlefield. (“Atrocities on the Cinema.”)

Once the authorities realized what the films depicted, they destroyed them.

Cartoon showing the shooting and exhibition of a German propaganda film; Dublin Evening Mail, 19 Jan. 1915: 3.

Cartoon showing the shooting and exhibition of a German propaganda film; Dublin Evening Mail, 19 Jan. 1915: 3.

The dominant story that the mainstream and cinema trade press in Ireland and Britain told about enemy propaganda concerned its untruthfulness. This was well illustrated in mid-January 1915 when the Dublin Evening Mail published a cartoon depicting how adept the German film industry was in keeping from the German public the realities of their army’s depredations in Belgium. Its two panels showed how a German filmmaker conspired with the German army to produce a faked film of soldiers helping vulnerable Belgian citizens, and how this film influenced public opinion in support of the war when exhibited in cinemas. The title of the cartoon – “German ‘Kultur’ Illustrated” – seemed to carry a criticism of cinema in general in suggesting that German culture should be associated with such a low form as cinema.

Alleged eyewitness accounts of the efficacy of German film propaganda were a part of this discourse, and in March an Irishwoman offered the Bioscope a particularly lengthy personal account. If she is anything more than an invention of propaganda, Norah Mahone seems to have been a remarkable woman. She was described as

a young Irish lady and a member of the theatrical profession, who, after being held a prisoner for several months, has recently succeeded in escaping from the enemy’s land, where she was staying at the outbreak of war.

A talented woman in more ways than one, Miss Mahone visited Dresden last July with the object of completing some business in connection with certain inventions she had patented, and also, incidentally, to take a “cure” in that city. (“German Allegorical Film Play.”)

Following descriptions of her mistreatment by the German authorities and a deluded public, Mahone offered details of such films as the departure of the Saxon army, “an almost barbaric scene in its uncontrolled emotionalism and riotous display.” Because films were so popular in Germany,

the Government are using the cinematograph shows and cafés for propaganda work. Practically all the films shown deal directly with the war, and nearly all of them are of a most filthy and scurrilous nature calculated to arouse in spectators, the worst emotions and most biased hatred against the Allies, and especially against England. These films are all manufactured, I believe, under the indirect supervision of the Government, many of them being allegorical plays, and the rest more or less faked “topical” pictures. (Ibid.)

The efforts of the industry and its supporters would soon convince the British government about the power of the cinema propaganda. Despite the prominence of such Irish people as Norah Mahone, however, these kind of films would always prove to be controversial in Ireland.

References

“Amusements in War Time.” Bioscope 11 Mar. 1915: 875.

“Another Dublin Paper: Suppressed this Morning.” Evening Telegraph 5 Dec. 1914: 3.

“Atrocities on the Cinema: Austrian Films that Told Too Much: Destroyed by Authorities.” Dublin Evening Mail 27 Mar. 1915: 5.

“The Cinematograph at the Front.” Bioscope 3 Sep. 1914: 859.

“City Sensation: Arrest by Military: Man Pursued: By Motor and Cycle.” Evening Telegraph 16 Mar. 1915: 3.

“Danger of Spies: Stringent Regulation: Of Traffic with Holland.” Evening Telegraph 16 Mar. 1915: 4.

“Film of a Warship: Drastic Action by the Authorities.” Evening Telegraph 4 Mar. 1915: 1.

“A German Allegorical Film Play: An Irish Actress’s Remarkable Experience in Germany.” Bioscope 18 Mar. 1915: 1021, 23.

“Imaginary Spy: Exciting Chase in London: Dublin Fusilier Sent to Jail.” Evening Telegraph 16 Mar. 1915: 3.

“Irish Papers Suppressed by the Government: Defence of Realm Act: Instruction by Military: Copies Seized and Printers Warned.” Evening Telegraph 3 Dec. 1914: 3.

“‘Liberty’ Hall: Troops and Police Remove a Motto.” Evening Herald 21 Dec. 1914: 1.

“Our Duty in this Crisis.” Irish Worker 8 Aug. 1914: 2.

“‘Stop Spy’ in Dublin Streets.” Irish Independent 17 Mar. 1915: 5.