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

An earlier blog here looked at two new indigenously produced Irish fiction films released in early 1920 – Aimsir Padraig/In the Days of St Patrick and Rosaleen Dhu – and indicated that a later blog would focus on the third new Irish feature of 1920, Willy Reilly and His Colleen Bawn. This is that blog. As a surviving work and arguably the most technically accomplished of Irish films up to 1920, Willy Reilly has received gala screenings over the years, including those by the Irish Film Institute (IFI) with a new score composed by Bernard Reilly in 2007 and in several European cities in 2013. It is frequently shown with a short propaganda film usually called the Dáil Bonds or Republican Loan film, which was made alongside Willy Reilly in the grounds of the Hermitage in Rathfarnham, Dublin, a manor house associated with several executed revolutionaries: it was the home of Sarah Curran, secret lover of leader of the 1803 rebellion Robert Emmet, and the house later became the site of St Enda’s School/Scoil Éanna, the Irish-language school founded on radical educational principles by 1916 rebels Padraig Pearse, his brother Willie and Thomas MacDonagh. Before COVID-19 restrictions made it unfeasible, the IFI planned to mark Willy Reilly’s centenary with an accompanied screening at St Enda’s, now a public park and museum to Pearse.

Willy Reilly framegrab Willy intro

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

Produced by the Film Company of Ireland (FCOI), the most important Irish feature producers of the silent period, Willy Reilly is a largely faithful adaptation of William Carleton’s novel Willy Reilly and His Dear Coleen Bawn: A Tale Founded Upon Fact (1855). Directed by John (Jack) MacDonagh, a theatre director and brother of Thomas MacDonagh, the film is set in Co. Cavan during the 18th century when the Penal Laws restricted Catholics’ legal rights. It tells how Catholic landowner Willy Reilly (Brian Magowan) falls in love with Helen Folliard/the Colleen Bawn (Frances Alexander), the daughter of a misguidedly bigoted Protestant landowner Squire Folliard (Dermot O’Dowd) who will only sanction their marriage if Reilly converts. When Reilly refuses, the Squire reluctantly favours the Colleen Bawn’s other suitor, Sir Robert Whitecraft (Seamus MacBlante/Jim Plant), a persecutor of Catholics, who conspires with local bandit the Red Raparee (James Barrett McDonnell) to prevent Reilly and the Colleen Bawn eloping and to seize control of Reilly’s land by having him declared a criminal. Whitecraft’s plot is eventually defeated, significantly through the aid of Willy’s Protestant neighbours, including Hastings (Frank Walsh) and Reverend Brown, a clergyman who declares in an intertitle: “I am a Minister of God, Reilly, and I abhor persecution, but rising above ever consideration, is the fact that we are fellow Irishmen.”

Willy Reilly framegrab 3

Frances Alexander as Helen Folliard/the Colleen Bawn.

Willy Reilly has received considerable attention from those writing about Irish film history. Among the best of that writing has focused on how the film, despite its historical setting, provides a commentary on the politics of Ireland during the War of Independence (1919-21). This blog will take a different tack by focusing on little-considered details of the film’s genesis and circulation. While much ingenious interpretation of the film has speculated on how audiences would have read certain characters and events, few writers have paused to consider who actually saw the film at the time of its release. The recourse to textual interpretation in lieu of contextual exploration is in many ways understandable because although the film’s survival presents us with an unmistakable artefact from the period, much about the making and showing of the film is obscure. One detail of the film’s circulation that is not particularly obscure but that tends to get overlooked is the fact that it did not premiere at Dublin’s Bohemian Picture Theatre on 19 April 1920 in order to coincide on 24-29 April with the anniversary of the Easter Rising (Rockett, Gibbons and Hill 27). The film did first play before a paying audience in Dublin at the Bohemian on 19-24 April 1920, but this was not the film’s premiere. The film had premiered in Manchester almost four months earlier.

Daily Herald 2 Jan 1920: 2.

This is an intriguing detail. Given how much FCOI had always stressed its all-Irishness, why did it premiere Willy Reilly and His Colleen Bawn (Ireland: FCOI, 1920), the film that would prove to be its last major feature, at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall on 5 January 1920? This seemingly anomalous decision right at the start of the film’s public life seems to epitomize the dilemmas of a company with stated ambitions to represent the nation in the commercial art form of cinema. Two years earlier, the company had been so concerned with the significance of place that it had premiered its previous epic, Knocknagow (Ireland: FCOI, 1918), not in any of Ireland’s cities where it could draw its audiences from populations in the 100,000s – at least in Dublin and Belfast – but in Clonmel, a town with a population of little over 10,000 people but which was intimately connected with the novel on which the film was based and with its author and revolutionary, Charles Kickham.

Willy Reilly framegrab Red Raparee

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

Clearly a different logic was at work with the distribution and exhibition of Willy Reilly, one that although not entirely clear, appears to have been a concession less to the expression of national – or even local – culture than to FCOI’s need for audiences abroad to ensure its commercial viability. From a business point of view, FCOI appears to have opted for what it hoped would be an opening that would attract large audiences and considerable advertising. In terms of sheer numbers of people, Manchester had a population larger than Belfast and Dublin combined and a substantial Irish community. Why the company did not pursue the even larger audiences in Liverpool, which was regarded as an even more “Irish” city, or indeed, the potentially vast audiences of London, the heart of British cinema, is a mystery.

Willy Reilly framegrab 2

Willy and the Colleen Bawn get close.

Also puzzling is the fact that, rather than securing a deal with a British distribution company, FCOI opted to distribute the films itself. Whether this was a decision based on principle or because no British distributor would take the film at a rate acceptable to FCOI is not clear. Davison’s Film Sales Agency had distributed some of the films FCOI had made in its first production season in 1916, but its 1917 productions appear not to have been released in Britain, except for Knocknagow, which was belatedly trade shown at London’s New Gallery on 10 October 1919 and reviewed in the Bioscope the following week as a “Native Irish production fully flavoured with political sympathies – interesting production needing thorough revision” (“Forthcoming Trade Shows,” “Knocknagow”). It fared little better among Manchester’s exhibitors when shown with Willy Reilly in January 1920. “The Irish film ‘Knocknagow,’” wrote the Bioscope’s “Manchester Notes” columnist, “which is being shown to the public at the Manchester Free Trade Hall this week, is not likely to set the Thames on fire. Many local exhibitors who have visited the hall are unanimous in their lack of praise for the subject.”

Despite this none-too-favourable reception, the release of Knocknagow in Britain does show FCOI functioning by continuing to distribute its existing films as well as in producing and releasing new work such as Willy Reilly. This was a positive sign for the company after a year that had been commercially chaotic and personally tragic for some of its key members, as we’ll explore further. But as well as this, Irish commentators were already preparing to counter a similarly negative reception of Willy Reilly in the British press. “One would hardly think that England would be the most fruitful ground for the presentation of an Irish production, especially such a thoroughly Irish story as Carleton’s ‘Willy Reilly,’” a writer, possibly JAP (Joseph A. Power), in Dublin’s Evening Telegraph commented at the end of January 1920,

and yet the Film Company of Ireland did not hesitate to put the picture to the severe test when, for the first time, it was shown in the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, perhaps the largest assembly hall where a picture can be shown in Great Britain, and the marvel is that all records were broken in attendance.  Our Irish company outstripped the success achieved in the same place by such world-known films as “The Life of Kitchener,” “The Birth of a Nation,” “Intolerance,” and “Civilisation.”

This was staunch support for FCOI from the Telegraph and particularly JAP, if it was he, because he had been critical of Knocknagow, particularly its script, on its release in 1918.

While the Manchester premiere suggests that FCOI did expect England to be fruitful ground for Irish films, it might be worth asking who was deciding on the company’s strategy. But lack of documentation make this difficult to establish. Ongoing changes suggest that it would be wrong to emphasize continuity: the FCOI that released Knocknagow into the British market in October 1919 and premiered Willy Reilly in Manchester in January 1920 appears to have been a substantially different entity to the one that had released Knocknagow in Clonmel in January 1917. Founded by James Mark Sullivan and Henry Fitzgibbon in Dublin in March 1916, the company had initially been wound up in order to be restructured in June 1917, on foot of a case taken by Sullivan’s wife, Ellen O’Mara Sullivan. As a substantial investor in a company with considerable debt, O’Mara Sullivan sought to remove Fitzgibbon, whose absence in America with no plans to return had legally paralyzed the company. That action provides early evidence that O’Mara Sullivan was centrally involved in running FCOI in mid-1917, making her Ireland’s pioneering woman film producer. As several writers have shown, O’Mara Sullivan ran the company alongside her husband, with the most substantial documentary evidence coming from their promotion of FCOI films in the United States in mid-1918 to early 1919 (Casella, Felter &Schultz, Schultz & Felter).

However, her tragic death prevented O’Mara Sullivan’s involvement in the production of Willy Reilly. Shipping and civil records show that in mid-January 1919, O’Mara Sullivan returned to Ireland, where she tended one of their children, Donal Dhu, who was seriously ill and subsequently died on 10 April. “The sympathy of the Trade in Ireland will be extended to Mr. and Mrs. Sullivan of the Film Company of Ireland, upon the death of their son James, aged eight,” Fingal wrote, somewhat erroneously, in the Biosocpe (“Irish Notes” 17 Apr). Sullivan arrived back in Ireland a week later, but O’Mara Sullivan herself died of typhoid on 17 May 1919. “The sympathies of the Trade not only in Ireland, but across the Atlantic, will go out to Mr. James Mark Sullivan, managing director of the Film Company of Ireland, on the death of his wife,” commented JAP, in what was her most extensive trade obituary.

It is not many weeks since Mrs. Sullivan had to meet her husband at Liverpool on his return from America (where he had been marketing “Knocknagow,” and other Irish-made films), and break to him the news of the death of their young son. It is possible that the strain of nursing the boy through this last illness had an injurious effect upon Mrs. Sullivan’s own health. She passed away in her native city of Limerick, where her people have been prominent in civic life for generations.

Mrs. Sullivan took a very keen interest in the business of the Film Company of Ireland, and delighted to acquire an intimate knowledge of every detail of production. Her death will delay slightly the company’s projects for this summer, but they will not be abandoned. (“Irish Notes” 5 Jun.).

Some pre-production work had been undertaken by the time of the O’Mara Sullivan’s death, but it seems unlikely that she or Sullivan can have been much involved at that point given her own illness and given the recent death of their son. Nevertheless, it was to Sullivan’s imminent arrival back in Ireland and FCOI’s activities during the summer production season that Fingal devoted much of a Bioscope “Irish Notes” column on 24 April. “Already the Film Co. of Ireland are engaging their artists,” it revealed. “Bryan McGowan, whose Matt the Thrasher was a feature of the ‘Knocknagow’ film, Breffni O’Rorke one of the foremost Irish actors who has many English and Scottish tours to his credit, and Mrs. O’Rorke are amongst the players who will appear in this firm’s next productions.” These few details were all Fingal knew of the production at this stage, not even a title was mentioned, and some of these casting decisions would turn out to be mistaken or to have changed by the time of shooting. Although Brian Magowan would star as Willy Reilly, neither Breffni O’Rorke nor his wife Alice Cole would feature.

Few other details of the production were mentioned in the press during the summer of 1919. This contrasts markedly to Norman Whitten’s generation of publicity during the making of Aimsir Padraig/In the Days of St Patrick in the same period, when Whitten courted the press even to the extent of having journalists act in crowd scenes and was rewarded with a steady stream of mentions in newspapers throughout the production period. A very different dynamic of secrecy existed around the set of Willy Reilly and FCOI in general. This is usually explained by the fact that several members of the cast and company were well-known Republican activists associated with Sinn Féin and the Volunteers/IRA at a time when the authorities were attempting to suppress the organization. One of the most prominent was director John MacDonagh, who also appeared on screen as Tom the Fool. MacDonagh was an Irish Volunteer who had fought under the command of his brother Thomas and John McBride in Jacob’s Factory during the 1916 Rising. When Thomas had been executed along with McBride and 12 other leaders, John had been imprisoned in Britain along with many other Volunteers. John’s 1951 statement to the Bureau of Military History is informative on this period of his life (BMH WS0532).

Dail Bonds Group1

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

MacDonagh’s writings about the filming of Willy Reilly offer the only extant account of what happened on set and among the few of what happened afterwards. Some of his reminiscences are quite well known, but others have remained underexplored. The well-known ones appeared as the article “Film Production in Ireland in the Early Days” in a pamphlet published by Liam O’Leary in 1976. In it, MacDonagh discusses his experiences as a scriptwriter in New York in the early 1910s before coming back to Ireland and shooting Willy Reilly. The most quoted of these stories is not about Willy Reilly itself but the Dáil Bonds film, which advertised the sale of bonds to support the Dáil, the illegal assembly founded by Irish republicans and nationalists in early 1919. The film features Michael Collins selling the bonds to the elected members of Sinn Féin and several of the widows and female relatives, as the film presents them, of executed leaders of the 1916 Rising. MacDonagh reveals that the two films were made at the same time at St Enda’s because he came to shoot Dáil Bonds still dressed in the costume and makeup of Tom the Fool and attempted to play a joke on Collins and Arthur Griffith.

Dail Bonds Kathleen Clarke

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

In many ways a straightforward advertising and propaganda film, Dáil Bonds is remarkable not only for showing many of the major Irish republican figures of the period but also for the far-from-straightforward way in which it was distributed and exhibited. “In those dangerous and exciting times no cinema owner wold dare risk exhibiting the Republican Loan films,” MacDonagh explains,

so it was planned for a few volunteers in fast cars to visit certain cinemas, rush the operator’s box, and, at gun-point force the operator to take off the film he was showing, and put the Loan Film. On the appointed night, all went smoothly as arranged, and the volunteers got safely away before the British forces discovered the plot. (MacDonagh 11.)

Dail Bonds Fogarty Letter 1

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

Fascinating as this account is, its anecdotal nature makes it difficult to discern when it occurred, how widespread the practice was and whether it happened on more than one night as is implied here. The film itself offers one clue as to its date. In the opening shots, Collins reads a letter from Michael Fogarty, Bishop of Killaloe that appears on screen showing the date of 8 October 1919, dating the filming to sometime after this in late 1919. One other witness corroborates this. As part of his statement to the Bureau of Military History, John Plunkett, brother of executed 1916 leader Joseph Plunkett, reveals that “in the autumn of 1919, probably in November, I was asked – I can’t remember by whom – to collect a Dáil Loan propaganda film from Joe McDonagh who with his brother Jack and some others had been running a company called the Film Company of Ireland” (BMH WS0865 12).

Dail Bonds Joseph MacDonagh

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

Plunkett had some knowledge of FCOI, even claiming to have taken a small part, along with another brother George, in When Love Came to Gavan Burke. He had a different role in relation to Dáil Bonds, overseeing its distribution in Kerry. “I was asked,” he claims, “to take the film to Killarney and Cahirciveen and, as far as possible to arrange for its showing in any other worthwhile towns. I know it was also shown in Listowel.” In Killarney, he liaised with Dick Fitzgerald and Tom Cooper, the latter of whom “afterwards produced the film dealing with the Tan war, called the ‘Dawn,’” leaving the film with Cooper to have it shown in Listowel some days later. He notes that the Kerry distribution operation was relatively successful in comparison to some other unspecified parts of Ireland, where “those who went round with the film were unsuccessful in having it shown” (BMH WS0865 13). From this account, it seems that Dáil Bonds had a more varied circulation than MacDonagh’s story suggests, and it is unlikely that he knew much of what went on in these local contexts.

In his published account, MacDonagh discusses his own role in exhibiting Willy Reilly in Scotland, to which we will return, but some of his unpublished manuscripts held in the National Library’s Liam O’Leary Archive (LOLA) have more to say about the structure of FCOI in later 1919 and Sullivan’s role as producer. Sullivan, he writes, “was a man of great mental and physical energy, and his hustling methods swept people off their feet. He got a group of Irishmen together, my brother Joe, JJ Walsh, minister of posts in the 1st Free state govt, Senator George Nesbitt, and Dan Harrigan, a Glaswegian bookmaker” (MS 50,000/272/44). These must be the directors of the company in early or mid-1919 after Sullivan’s return to Ireland and the death of O’Mara Sullivan.

‎Willy Reilly Theatre Royal LL 19 Apr 1920p3

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

If the MacDonaghs and these other new collaborators were avowedly Republican, Sullivan also drew on his contacts in Ireland’s sporting world. An article in Sport on the shows at Limerick’s Theatre Royal in mid-April 1920 drew readers attention to the number of sportsmen in the cast, including Nesbitt, who

was for many years a prominent member of Bective Rangers F.C. Mr Hastings is portrayed by Frank Walsh, ex-light-weight champion of Ireland. Jim Plant and James Barret McDonnell, Sir Robert Whitecraft and the Red Rapparee respectively, need no introduction to Irish supporters. J. Nugent and P. Day, celebrated the world over as purveyors of the thoroughbred, helped not a little by courteously placing their stables at the disposal of the producers and anybody fortunate enough to see the film this week in Limerick will appreciate the leaping blood of Mr. Hasting’s mount in his ride across country to save the Colleen Bawn from Sir Robert Whitecraft.” (“Theatrical Topics” 10 Apr.).

Willy Reilly Whitecraft at Willy house

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

MacDonagh says of his own role that “I was to write scenarios and direct the filming with Sullivan” and then crosses out the “with Sullivan” by hand. He presents Sullivan as an initiator of projects that he claimed would make his collaborators rich but that were subsequently completed despite his profligacy. “We finished making our first film, ‘Willie Rielly,’” he writes, “in spite of Sullivan’s orgies or entertainment, and lavish spending of money. However, as we were soon all to make thousands, he was given a free hand, and often I had a job getting the people ‘on location’ after a particularly riotous night.” This was illustrated when the company travelled to London to film the interiors at the Waltardaw studios in Walthamstow, where “Sullivan had all the English staff his slaves by knocking off in the middle of every shot for refreshments” and partied with actor Jim Plant, “a notorious Dublin character.” Sullivan had told FCOI investors that “he had fixed up with an American co to take all our films” but then Willy Reilly was finished and sent to America “though it was exhibited extensively, we never succeeded in collecting a cent, and suffered a heavy loss” (MS 50,000/272/44).

This does not sound like FCOI was keeping a low profile during production, but MacDonagh’s published article insists that “we were working with great difficulties at that time, tension in the city and country was mounting daily. Our directors were ‘on the run’” (MacDonagh 11). Although the exact period is not specified here in an article possibly composed in the 1940s and published in the 1970s decades after the events, he may be referring to the end of 1919 and start of 1920 and to the increasing conflict of the War of Independence. However secretive, the release of Dáil Bonds may also have made him a target. In this context, FCOI faced difficulties in distributing Willy Reilly, and MacDonagh was given a warning. “Michael Staines, who later became the first Commissioner of Police under the Free State Government, came to tell me that my name was on a list for arrest,” he reveals, “and advised me to lie low, so it was fixed for me to go on a cattle boat to Gourock, Scotland. We were showing our films in Scottish Town Halls in various cities and towns at the time” (ibid.).

Map of Willy Reilly exhibition in Britain in 1920

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

Ads and notices in local newspapers allow us to trace something of the film’s exhibition in the north of England and Scotland in 1920. After the Manchester Free Trade Hall shows on 5-10 January, Willy Reilly and Knocknagow were both shown at Sunderland’s Victoria Hall for the week of 2-7 February. Although the ads in Sunderland were not explicit about this, it is likely, because this is the pattern followed elsewhere, that Willy Reilly played for the first three days of the week, and Knocknagow played for the second three. The following week, the films were at Burslem’s Queen’s Hall. There is then a gap in the ads until the week containing St Patrick’s Day (17 March), when the first Scottish shows were advertised. Willy Reilly played at Motherwell’s Town Hall from 15-17 March, with Knocknagow featuring there on 18 March. The following week, Willy Reilly played 22-24 March at Port Glasgow’s Town Hall, with Knocknagow playing later in the week on 27 March. That same week, Tipperary’s Tivoli Theatre had the first Irish public showings of Willy Reilly for three days beginning 25 March. The film was then advertised for a three-day run at Galway’s Empire Theatre on 4-6 April, followed by Easter 1916 anniversary week runs in the week beginning 19 April at Dublin’s Bohemian, Limerick’s Theatre Royal, Sligo’s Picture Theatre and Derry’s Empire.

Willy Reilly Motherwell Times 12 Mar 1920p1

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

At the end of April, attention returned to Scotland and the north of England with a screening of Willy Reilly headlining an evening of Irish-themed entertainment in aid of the YMS at Kilmarnock’s Palace Theatre on 30 April. A four-day run at Coatbridge’s Town Hall began on 5 May, followed by a week-long run at Burnley’s Mechanics’ Institute beginning on 17 May. Beginning on 21 May Liverpudlians finally had a chance to see the FCOI films when Picton Hall hosted three days of Willy Reilly followed by three days of Knocknagow. From 21 May, Liverpudlians finally had a chance to see the FCOI films when Picton Hall hosted three days of Willy Reilly followed by three days of Knocknagow. And on 21-23 June, Kilmarnock’s Empire Picture House featured Willy Reilly. The currently digitized newspapers show no ads for the rest of the summer, but there were autumn screenings at Edinburgh’s Picturedrome (c. 18 September), Kirkintilloch’s Town Hall (8 October) and the Pavilion in Forfar (25 November).

Undoubtedly, this does not account for all the British screening of Willy Reilly in 1920. MacDonagh, for example, “remember[s] giving a special matinee for school children in the Paisley town hall,” but no newspaper record of it appears to survive (MacDonagh 11). He gives few other details of the Paisley show, but he spends some time describing a marketing coup of his own for St Patrick’s Day. “I got the idea of presenting a sprig of shamrock straight from Ireland to every member of the audience on the even of the festival,” he comments of a strategy hardly novel but nonetheless effective, the shamrock being supplied from Ireland by JJ Walsh. MacDonagh claims that its success allowed him to return to Ireland by securing a distributor in Scotland, when the manager of the agency “saw the crowds fighting to get in. […] He knew nothing about the shamrock, but took on the agency for Scotland and I came home” (MacDonagh 12). If his memory is accurate, this must have occurred during the run at Motherwell.

Willy Reilly Boh ET 19 Apr 1920p2

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

We know virtually nothing about what audiences in Scotland and the north of England thought of Willy Reilly in 1920, but we do know that they were the first to see this new Irish film. This seems to have happened because of chaotic management of FCOI in Ireland, some of which arose from the difficulties the directors had in running a company while also engaging in revolutionary politics. For MacDonagh, certainly, Scotland, was a kind of asylum, and therefore fruitful ground in which to show his new film, Willy Reilly and His Colleen Bawn, in 1920.

References

BMH WS0532. Dublin, Bureau of Military History, Witness Statement 532: John MacDonagh. <http://www.militaryarchives.ie/collections/online-collections/bureau-of-military-history-1913-1921/reels/bmh/BMH.WS0532.pdf>

BMH WS0865. Dublin, Bureau of Military History, Witness Statement 865: John Plunkett. <http://www.militaryarchives.ie/collections/online-collections/bureau-of-military-history-1913-1921/reels/bmh/BMH.WS0865.pdf>

Casella, Donna. “Ellen O’Mara Sullivan.” Women Film Pioneers Project. <https://wfpp.columbia.edu/pioneer/ellen-omara-sullivan/>

Felter, Maryann, and Daniel Schultz. “James Mark Sullivan and the Film Company of Ireland.” New Hibernia Review 8:2 (Summer 2004): 24-40.

“Film Company of Ireland: Screening of ‘Willy Reilly.’” Dublin Evening Mail 3 Jan. 1920: 3.

“Forthcoming Trade Shows.” Bioscope 2 Oct. 1919: 118.

“Irish Notes.” Bioscope 17 Apr. 1919: 105; 24 Apr. 1919: 78; 5 Jun. 1919: 98.

“Knocknagow.” Bioscope 16 Oct. 1919: 58.

MacDonagh, John. “Film Production in Ireland in the Early Days.” Cinema and Ireland, 1895-1976, edited by Liam O’Leary. Dublin Arts Festival, 1976: 10-12.

“Manchester Notes.” Bioscope 15 Jan. 1920: 109.

MS 50,000/272/44. “Film Company of Ireland.” Liam O’Leary Archive, National Library of Ireland.

“Post and Paddock.” Sport 13 Dec. 1919: 1; 10 Jan. 1920: 1.

Rhodes, Gary D. “The Film Company of Ireland and Irish-American Press.” Screening the Past 33 (2012) <http://www.screeningthepast.com/2012/02/the-film-company-of-ireland-and-the-irish-american-press/>

Rockett, Kevin, Luke Gibbons and John Hill. Cinema and Ireland. London: Croom Helm, 1987.

Schultz, Dan, and Maryanne Felter. “The Making of an Irish Nationalist: James Mark Sullivan and the Film Company of Ireland in America.” Screening the Past 33 (2012). <http://www.screeningthepast.com/2012/02/the-making-of-an-irish-nationalist/>

“St. Joseph’s Y.M.S. Entertainment.” Kilmarnock Herald 30 Apr. 1920: 2.

“Theatrical Topics.” Sport 10 Apr. 1920: 10.

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

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

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

Irish Independent 7 Feb. 1920: 4.

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

Freeman’s Journal 13 Feb. 1920: 3.

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

Limerick Leader 4 Feb. 1920: 3.

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

Limerick Echo 17 Feb. 1920: 3.

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

Dublin Evening Mail 21 Feb. 1920: 3.

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebuilding Dublin as a Cinematic City for the 1920s

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Galway Express 27 Apr. 1918: 4.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Extended synopses in Irish Limelight Dec. 1917.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the summer house, he spies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

“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.

Idealizing Everything Irish: The Film Company of Ireland Releases Rafferty’s Rise in late 1917

A still from Rafferty’s Rise (Ireland: Film Company of Ireland, 1917)); Irish Limelight May 1917: 5.

On 12 November 1917, the Film Company of Ireland (FCOI) finally premiered Rafferty’s Rise, its first completed production of the year. In many ways this is a minor film. Like all of FCOI’s 1916 productions, this three-reel (approx. 50 minute) comedy is now lost, and it appears to have been little seen in 1917, having had a very limited release. It was overshadowed at the time by the organizational difficulties experienced by FCOI in 1917 and by the fact that the company put its apparently dwindling resources into promoting the much more ambitious Knocknagow. Nevertheless, it is a film by Ireland’s most important fiction-film production company of the silent period and is the first film directed by Abbey Theatre actor-director Fred O’Donovan.

 

Irish Limelight May 1917: 5.

Although Rafferty’s Rise wouldn’t have its premiere until November, it was first mentioned in the Irish Limelight in May 1917. Indeed, it was not just mentioned; it was described in a 200-word article that was accompanied by a photo of Queenie Coleman, “the beautiful Irish Girl who plays Peggy in ‘Rafferty’s Rise,’ and illustrated by an additional full page of stills from the film itself that seem to confirm that it was actually “ready for release” in May, as one of the headings on the stills page asserts. “We extend our hearty congratulations to the Film Co. of Ireland upon their first 1917 release,” the article begins, “a three-reel comedy entitled ‘Rafferty’s Rise.’ The scenario deals with a young and ambitious Irish policeman who endeavours to employ scientific methods in the detection of crime and whose efforts to emulate Sherlock Holmes cause many laughter provoking incidents” (“Rafferty’s Rise” May).

Irish Limelight Jul. 1917: 14.

In November, the Freeman’s Journal would identify the scenario writer as Nicholas Hayes, a writer remembered now mostly for the short-story collection In the Doctor’s Den (“Picture House Novelties”). As well as directing, Fred O’Donovan also played the eponymous Rafferty, and was supported along with Queenie Coleman, by Brian Magowan, Kathleen Murphy, Arthur Shields, Valentine Roberts, J. Storey and Brenda Burke (“Rafferty’s Rise” Nov.). The film was shot in the Dublin Mountains by former Pathé cameraman William Moser, in his first on-set job for FCOI (“Camera Expert”). The exact shooting period is not known, but it is likely to have been in April, in time for the publicity materials to appear in the Limelight’s May issue.

An ad offering Rafferty’s Rise to Dublin exhibitors; Evening Herald 30 Oct. 1917: 2.

However, FCOI organizational problems meant that none of the films they had shot in summer 1917 were actually available to exhibitors until the end of October, when an Evening Herald ad announced the appearance of Rafferty’s Rise. A trade show or “private exhibition” referred to in some reviews likely took place at this point, at the end of October or beginning of November. Despite some indications in July that the film had been edited down from three reels to the two reels picturegoers expected of a comedy, the Rafferty’s Rise that went on release in November 1917 was still three-reels long (“Rafferty’s Rise” Jul). “It is a mark of the originality of the Company,” the Mail optimistically asserted, “that it is bold enough to go beyond the stereotyped 2-reels in the production of a humorous story” (“Film Company of Ireland”).

Dublin Evening Mail 12 Nov. 1917: 2.

Both the Dublin Evening Mail and the Evening Telegraph previewed the film in their Saturday entertainment columns prior to its three-day run at the Bohemian beginning Monday, 12 November. “The record of this Film Company in 1916 aroused great interest in their productions,” the Telegraph observed. “Those who have seen the private exhibition of the film speak highly of the progress the company has made in technique over last year’s work” (“Really Irish Films”). The writer in neither paper, however, seems to have attended the private exhibition, and the previews have similarities that suggest that the writers not only hadn’t seen the film but were working from publicity material or other secondary accounts.

Nevertheless, the Telegraph preview is particularly interesting for the way it defines “really Irish films.” “While the company keeps free from propaganda of every kind in its stories so as to be able to appeal to all the Irish people,” it argued,

it nevertheless sticks steadfastly to the idea that its business is to idealise everything Irish that it photographs. In this, the Film Company of Ireland only takes a leaf from the book of the producers of other nations. The Americans always give us in the parts of chivalry and honour – American; the English companies show in the same roles – Englishmen; and the Film Company of Ireland continues, in its attitude and in its interpretations, strictly Irish.

Avoiding overt ideological positions, appealing to all Irish people, idealizing everything Irish and putting Irish people in heroic roles: this usefully provides some kind of framework for thinking about what “really Irish films” might have meant to observers at the time. But to explore the relevance of these characteristics to Rafferty’s Rise, we will need to look at the film’s reception.

Of the newspapers, only the Telegraph reviewed the film, and its review is brief and largely descriptive of what it saw as “an excellent three-reel comedy [that is] packed with clean, healthy fun” (“On the Screen”). The only substantial extant review seems to be in the Limelight, which from its opening issue had associated itself very closely and uncritically with FCOI. “The film is typically Irish,” Limelight reviewer R.A.O’F. commented after attending the private exhibition, “for you will find a Constable Rafferty in every little village in the country – and to anyone who has any experience of the ways and means of a stripe-chaser, it is simply IT.” Specifically, s/he praised the “clean and healthy” humour, the beautiful Dublin Mountains’ scenery and the quality of the photography and acting.

Irish Limelight May 1917: 4.

Much of R.A.O’F review is an extended plot summary that represents the most substantial account of the film. More than this, because the film is lost, this account is most of the film. The review is written in a comic style intended, no doubt, to be entertaining but as a result, it is not always clear or wholly accurate. For example, it includes the line: “All the girls loved Rafferty, and he could well afford to ignore the goo-goo eyes and tootsy-wootsy advances of silly Cissie.” The writer overreaches him/herself with the alliteration here because the name of the character who makes eyes at Rafferty is Peggy, played by Queenie Coleman. The following is a paraphrase in the interests of clarity: Rafferty is an officer in the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) stationed in a mountain village who wants to get promoted to sergeant by using methods of scientific detection. He is admired by the local girls, including farmer’s daughter Peggy McCauley. When a Traveller (“tinker,” in the original) visits the village, Kitty Hogan, daughter of the local RIC Sergeant, gives him an old pair of her father’s boots. The Traveller steals a dog from Peggy’s father, leaving footprints with the Sergeant’s boots. Rafferty sees the footprints and traces them to the Sergeant’s house, where he is forced to hide to keep his investigations secret, but the Sergeant finds him under Kitty’s bed. Rafferty accuses the Sergeant of stealing the dog, but his mistake is revealed. While Rafferty doesn’t get his promotion, he has some compensation by ending up with Peggy.

Irish Limelight May 1917: 5.

Given that the crime Rafferty investigates is a theft by a Traveller, discussion of ethnic stereotypes seems appropriate, but R.A.O’F language proves opaque here. “An honest tinker in a story would be responsible for the author being stamped as a ‘loony.’ However, the author of this scenario was quite sane, for his tinker was a rogue.” This is clear enough, but ethnic tensions are seemingly dispelled by the following sentence when the Traveller turns out possibly to have been honest after all: “He stole a dog—no he did no, he only exchanged dogs.” The Traveller is merely added as extra local colour in what might be described as a romantic comedy.

The main thing that R.A.O’F seems to want to convey about Rafferty’s Rise is that it was good clean fun and as such, it was typically Irish. This was also how the Mail’s preview  assessed it, as “a good-natured, laughable Irish story without malice and replete with amusing situations” (“Film Company of Ireland”). Good and clean it may have been, but the somewhat more laconic and less positive response of one other contemporary observer suggests that it was not much fun. “I caught tram at Rotunda & went on to the Bohemian Picture House, Phibsboro, to see ‘Rafferty’s Rise,’” Joseph Holloway wrote as part of his diary entry for 12 November 1917, “with O’Donovan as the blustering Constable, seemed the plot was by Nicholas [Hayes], but the humour in the playing was forced & did not make for laughter as intended.” For Holloway, it was not a successful comedy.

Ad for Tralee’s Picturedrome including a synopsis of Rafferty’s Rise; Kerry News 19 Nov. 1917: 4.

A general acknowledgement that Rafferty’s Rise was not very good may account for why the film received so little attention at the time. FCOI’s loss of such key publicity personnel as Joseph Boland, their travelling salesman whom the Bioscope reported had left the company to represent Geekay in Ireland, can’t have helped (“Irish Notes”). The only other run of the film in 1917 appears to have been on 23-24 November at Tralee’s Picturedrome, where locals were encouraged to “support home industry” by seeing it. Beyond these factors, it might also be worth considering why a romantic comedy about the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) recommended itself to FCOI. Granted, Rafferty’s Rise doesn’t seem that different from the company’s 1916 dramas and comedies of Irish rural life, which among other topics had included a comedy about leprechauns. And of course, many film comedies of the period represented the police. But while US comedies tended to see the police either as buffoons or unsympathetic authority figures tasked with keeping (other) elements of the working class in line, Rafferty’s Rise represents the RIC as benign. Although Rafferty is foolish and over-ambitious, these faults are attributable to the follies of youth, and Sergeant Hogan – who “did not want to be a district Tzar” (R.A.O’F.) – is ultimately able to put a stop to them. The RIC is part of the “everything Irish” that should be idealized.

The General Film Supply placed this ad prominently on the cover of the December issue of the Irish Limelight.

As 1917 drew to a close, the other main Irish film production company of the period, the General Film Supply (GFS), was idealizing the new technologies of war. The GFS took out a large ad on the cover of the Limelight’s December issues, offering Christmas greetings and publicizing the various aspects of its business, particularly its Irish Events newsreel and the Irish-themed fiction films it had for hire. The most striking feature of the ad is a photograph of a tank leading soldiers over an embankment. The text under the photo reads: “Irish enterprise in producing a wonderful film of the tanks in Dublin is now having its reward by the unstinted praise bestowed on Irish Events.” An interview with GFS cameraman J. Gordon Lewis reveals that the company were releasing their film of the tanks that was on manoeuvres near Dublin in instalments over four weeks. “I was agreeably surprised at the wonderful Tanks,” he enthuses:

I took a very nice picture from the inside of one of the Tanks. I sat on the driver’s seat and held the camera on my knees with the lens protruding through the look-out hole and held on to [the] side of the hole like grim death as we crawled along. […] I must say they are fine to ride in, and the heat of the inside will be welcome to many of Tanker Tommy during the winter months that are now among us. (“Filming the Tanks in Dublin.”)

There was as much fascination in Ireland with the spectacular new war technologies as there was anywhere else. In January 1918, the Limelight would reported that Lewis had topped his tank film by filming in a “battle-plane with the result that while 1,500 feet above the earth he secured a picture of another aeroplane in flight that is nothing short of sensational” (“Notes and News”).

With their focus on the police and army, Rafferty’s Rise and the GFS film of tanks in Dublin suggest in their different ways that at the end of 1917, Irish film producers were serving social stability and the war effort.

References

“A Camera Expert: Interview with Mr. William Moser of the Film Company of Ireland.” Irish Limelight Jul. 1917: 14.

“Film Company of Ireland.” Dublin Evening Mail 10 Nov. 1917: 2.

“Filming the Tanks in Dublin.” Irish Limelight Dec. 1917: 18.

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

“On the Screen: Bohemian.” Evening Telegraph 13 Nov. 1917: 4.

Paddy. “Irish Notes.” Bioscope 1 Nov. 1917: 109.

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

“Rafferty’s Rise.” Irish Limelight May 1917: 4.

“‘Rafferty’s Rise.’” Irish Limelight Jul. 1917: 15.

R.A.O’F. “Rafferty’s Rise: Review of an Irish Comedy by Irish Players.” Irish Limelight Nov. 1917: 6.

“Really Irish Films.” Evening Telegraph 10 Nov. 1917: 3.

Instructive Images on Irish Cinema Screens in Late Summer 1917

Kingstown Pav DEM 6 Aug 1917

William Quinn – “The McCormack of the West” – was among the vocalists that the Pavilion engaged to attract the wealthy residents of Kingstown. Douglas Fairbanks’ The Good Bad Man (US: Fine Arts, 1916) was of secondary importance. Dublin Evening Mail 6 Aug. 1917: 2.

At the Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire) Horticultural Show on 1 August 1917, local landlord Lord Powerscourt won not only the Challenge Cup for roses but also the Kingstown Picture House’s Cup for sweet peas (“Kingstown Horticultural Show”). That an Irish picture house was sponsoring such an event is indicative of cinema’s increasing integration into everyday life, and particularly its penetration of the realms occupied by the genteel gardeners of south County Dublin. Extra urgency had been added to the Kingstown’s courting of this audience by the reopening on 7 July 1917 of the Kingstown Pavilion. The Picture House had had the entertainment pickings of this wealthy town to itself since the Pavilion burned down on 13 November 1915. It would face well-advertised competition from the stylishly rebuilt Pavilion – designed by Coliseum architect Bertie Crewe – which sought to attract the affluent Kingstownites with vocal accompaniments to its films. You can get there [from Dublin] by tram or train,” an unnamed reviewer of the new picture house observed, “and whatever way you travel you will find plenty to please the eye en route” (“Cinema by the Sea”).

Irish Limelight 1:9 (Sep. 1917): 6.

In late summer of 1917, cinema usefulness, its embeddedness in Irish society was evident not just in the importance of propagandistic films featuring soldiers at the front but also in its instructive role in relation to food production and child rearing. Lord Powerscourt may have been happy with decorative roses and sweet pea, but the food shortages caused by the continuing war meant that people unused to agricultural work were being urged to assist in the harvests and to grow their own food. A Women’s Land Army was established in mid-1917 to provide an agricultural workforce. Among the ways in which this force was to be promoted and trained was through “an excellent cinema film […] showing the work of women on the land” (“The Women’s Land Army”). “In these days of war savings and general cheeseparing,” J. B. Holland, the writer of the “Motor News” column in Dublin’s Daily Express, reported at the end of July 1917, “it is something worthy of note to find a brand new word added to our vocabulary, and one that you can use too in polite society. Well that is the word – ‘Agronomist.’” This expansion to the writer’s vocabulary came from a film exhibited “in a cubby-hole cinema in a Sussex village” and depicting “a number of Agronomists in the very act of agronomising (or whatever the verb may be) with the result that all of us, individually and collectively decided at once to ‘go thou and do like likewise’” (Holland).

“You ought to know better than to send in seed potatoes for eating”; framegrab from Everybody’s Business (Britain: London, 1917), viewable here.

Holland did not name this film, but the Kingstown Pavilion had featured Everybody’s Business on its opening programme which may not have been an agronomizing film but was a fictional “food economy film.” It was, according to the trade journal Bioscope “in many respects the most important, and quite the most successful propaganda film that has been issued since the beginning of the war” (“Food Economy Film”). Although the “speeches of politicians, the canvassing by constituted societies, striking posters and press campaigns all have their effect,” the Bioscope argued that

a film which incorporates the essential parts of all these methods, contained in a pleasing and simple story, well told and admirably presented, must have a stupendous effect when circulated by a medium which has grown to be the most widely popular form of entertainment.

The Health Visitor (Dorothea Baird) teaches a new mother how to wash her baby in Motherhood (Britain: Trans-Atlantic, 1917). Image from the Women’s Film Pioneers Project.

Fiction films with such an explicit instructional intent were becoming more common. Just a few days before Pavilion audiences were warned off food wastage, audiences in other Irish cinemas were learning about child rearing from Motherhood (Britain: Trans-Atlantic, 1917). Sponsored by the National Baby Week Council, the film had been written by and featured Dorothea Baird, well-known stage and screen actress and wife of actor H. B. Irving. It was released for Britain and Ireland’s first National Baby Week that ran 1-7 July 1917. Alongside Dublin’s official events centred around an exhibition at the Mansion House, the Carlton Cinema showed Motherhood, which “illustrates how the rearing of children can be made a joyful thing and happy in its results, even in the poorest homes if only kindly interest and help is given to the mothers” (“‘Motherhood’ at the Carlton”). As well as a fictional narrative that demonstrated how a new mother (Lettie Paxton) is introduced to a School for Mothers by a Health Visitor (Baird), the film carried the endorsement of celebrities such as Baird and members of the social and political elite. “Mrs. Lloyd George, the Duchess of Marlborough, Lady Rhondda, Sir Richard Burbidge, Mrs. H. B. Irving, and many other notabilities connected with the National Baby Week Council have been specially filmed,” a Dublin Daily Express article observed, “so that their portraits may accompany the messages which they send to the nation through this epoch-making picture.” Lady Wimborne, wife of Ireland’s Lord Lieutenant, also endorsed the film, albeit belatedly, by attending a screening on 17 July 1917 at the Grafton Street Picture House (“To-Day in Brief”).

In the context of this increasing elite support for cinema, Winston Churchill was going somewhat against the grain when he decided following his appointment as Minister for Munitions not to fulfil his contract with the Ideal Film Renting to write the script for a film about the origins of the war (“Mr. Churchill Not to Write Film Stories”). But then, cinema had not been completely shaped to serve the war economy. It still represented a largely proletarian entertainment form and a space removed from work or fully rationalized leisure. It continued to arouse various kinds of anxieties in those in authority. The fear that picture houses provided sanctuary for shirkers and deserters was well illustrated by a parliamentary question in late July. Henry Dalziel asked Undersecretary of State for War Ian MacPherson what the British government was doing about English men who fled to Ireland to escape conscription. “Is he aware that there are hundreds of these men to be seen at cinemas in Dublin every night,” Dalziel asked MacPherson, addressing him in the third person, “and cannot he net more than a few back?” (“Hundreds at Dublin Cinemas”).

Still from the Clontarf Aquatic Festival, one of the items in Irish Events 3. Irish Limelight I:8 (Aug. 1917): 18.

Apart from the instructive fiction films, draft dodgers and other members of the cinema audience in Ireland were offered instructive local topical films, while the Film Company of Ireland was facing challenges finishing its epic Knocknagow. An increasing number of picture houses subscribed to the recently launched Irish Events newsreel, which had produced seven weekly issues and some specials by the end of August 1917. “The success of the Irish Topical Gazette has exceeded Mr. Whitten’s wildest anticipations,” observed Irish columnist Paddy in the Bioscope. “Many exhibitors have booked a contract for an extended period” (Paddy, 16 Aug.). And it was not just Irish exhibitors who could look forward to booking Irish Events because “Mr Whitten is making all arrangements for its showing in London” (Paddy, 23 Aug.).

A newsreel of Eamon De Valera’s victory in the Clare Election on 11 July 1917 could be seen on the screen at Dublin’s Rotunda on 16 July. Dublin Evening Mail 16 July 1917: 2.

Irish Events 2, the second weekly instalment of this newsreel, was issued on 23 July 1917 and featured five one-minute items that represented a mix of social and political events. As such, it resembled other newsreels, but Whitten appears to have conceived of it as primarily for social events because four of the items were of this type: The Mullingar Races, Trotting in Shelbourrne Park, A Garden Fete at Bushey Park and The Metropolitan Regatta at Island Bridge. The sole political item was De Valera after the East Clare Election (“Irish Topical Films”). The election film depicted an important event, but when viewed in the week of 23-28 July, it was not particularly timely as De Valera had won for Sinn Féin on 11 July. Indeed, a film of the election had been shown at the Rotunda – and undoubtedly other picture houses – beginning on 16 July, the same day as Irish Events 1 appeared but not as part of it.

Rotunda Convention 26 Jul 1917 DEM

An ad for Dublin’s Bohemian featuring a newsreel special on the Irish Convention; Dublin Evening Mail 26 Jul. 1917: 2.

With the emergence of Sinn Féin, political events in Ireland were moving fast, too fast for a weekly newsreel to keep up. It appears that Whitten planned to release the regular issues of Irish Events with items that could be planned in advance of its Monday release but also to release special “stop-press” films of events that could not be included in this way. This was the case when the Irish Convention, a meeting of Irish representatives convened to tackle the “Irish problem,” opened on Wednesday, 25 July. Whitten released a newsreel special of the Convention that was screened in Dublin’s Bohemian on 26 July. “Mr. Whitten is determined,” Paddy reported, “to let nothing stand in his way as regards securing the latest topical events” (16 Aug.).

Irish Events faced competition from the filmmaking activities of the Princess picture house in Rathmines; Dublin Evening Mail 19 Jul. 1917: 2.

By releasing the films of important political events quickly, Whitten maintained the scoop on his competitors. He faced competition on the filming of newsworthy events particularly from Gaumont, which had a substantial presence in Ireland and whose Gaumont Graphic newsreel was very popular. As well as this, Irish Events also faced local competition in its depiction of social events. Throughout July and August 1917, the Princess Cinema in Rathmines filmed such social events as the British Red Cross Garden Fete and the Opening of the Irish Counties’ Hospital by Lady Wimborne and even The Bushey Park Fete, which Whitten had also featured in Irish Events 2. While the Princess advertised that their films were exclusive – taken by them and not to be seen elsewhere – Irish Events was designed to be widely distributed. Whitten and his cameraman J. Gordon Lewis would have a busy autumn as they worked on Irish Events, on advertising films for Court Laundry and Paterson’s matches, and on an animated film with cartoonist Frank Leah.

Joseph Holloway’s sketch of Frank Fay as Beresford Pender in a stage adaptation of Charles J. Kickham’s Knocknagow at the Queen’s Theatre in July 1917. National Library of Ireland.

Although it had some organizational problems, Ireland’s other major indigenous film production company, the Film Company of Ireland (FCOI) also entered the somewhat crowded field of local factual filmmaking. Paddy reported that FCOI “have just finished an enormous scenic film dealing with the beauties of rural Ireland, and also containing many character studies and views of historic places” (23 Aug.). Rather than one long film, this was a series consisted of 20 one-reel films. These may have been among the company’s films that Paddy reported that Glasgow’s Square Film Company had arranged to distribute. FCOI managing director James Sullivan also told Paddy that their “almost completed” Knocknagow would be nine reels long, “the longest production ever made in the United Kingdom.”

Sullivan was eager to keep the much-anticipated adaptation of Knocknagow in the forefront of the media discussion of the company rather than its recent winding up proceedings. On 25 June 1917, his wife Ellen Sullivan, as a company creditor, had applied for its winding up in order that it could be restructured. During the proceedings, it emerged that she had given the company £500 and that it was running at a loss of £1,526 (“Film Company of Ireland”). The restructuring was necessary because James Sullivan’s co-director Henry Fitzgibbon had gone to America to promote the company but had decided not to return to Ireland. The proceedings caused some anxiety in those who were peripherally involved in FCOI. “I recently saw that the Film Co. of Ireland has been before the Court for winding up prior to reconstruction,” playwright Martin J. McHugh wrote to Joseph Holloway. “This may, and I hope will, mean only a delay in the resumption of their work; but somehow it damps one’s confidence in Irish enterprise, which does not seem usually to be blessed with good management” (Holloway, 7 Jul. 1917). McHugh had written two scripts for FCOI, “one long since paid for and photographed, and the other yet to be produced – and I wonder what will become of them.”

While the future of Irish fiction filmmaking looked uncertain at the end of summer 1917, instructive images of various kinds filled the screens.

References

“Cinema by the Sea.” Irish Limelight 1:9 (Sep. 1917): 4.

“Film Company of Ireland.” Daily Express 26 Jun. 1917: 3.

“The Food Economy Film: “Everybody’s Business”: A Stirring Appeal to the People.” Bioscope 14 Jun. 1917: 1050.

Holland, J. B. “Motor Notes.” Daily Express 30 Jul. 1917: 3.

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

“Hundreds at Dublin Cinemas Every Night: Commons Questions.” Evening Herald 24 Jul. 1917: 1.

“Irish Topical Films.” Evening Telegraph 21 Jul. 1917: 4.

“Kingstown Horticultural Show: Decrease in Exhibits.” Daily Express 2 Aug. 1917: 7.

“‘Motherhood’ at the Carlton.” Daily Express 2 Jul. 1917: 7.

“Mr. Churchill Not to Write Film Stories.” Daily Express 21 Jul. 1917: 6.

Paddy. “Irish Notes.” Bioscope 5 Jul. 1917: 83; 16 Aug. 1917: 766; 23 Aug. 1917: 881.

“Seen and Heard: Notes and Notions on Men and Matters.”  Evening Herald 22 Aug. 1917: 2.

“To-Day in Brief.” Daily Express 18 Jul. 1917: 4.

“The Women’s Land Army” Daily Express 9 Jul. 1917: 4.

A New Industry: The Film Company of Ireland’s First Season

Kathleen Murphy ET 7 Apr 1917

A photograph of Kathleen Murphy advertised the beginning of the Film Company of Ireland’s 1917 production season; Evening Telegraph 7 Apr. 1917: 4.

In April 1917, the Film Company of Ireland (FCOI) began publicizing the fact that they were beginning a second season of production. On 7 April, a photograph of Kathleen Murphy appeared in the Evening Telegraph‘s “Music and the Drama” column, with a caption indicating that she was playing the part of Nora Lahy in a film adaptation of Charles Kickham’s Knocknagow that was already in production. Based on Ireland’s most popular novel of the late-19th century, Knocknagow on film would be an ambitious undertaking, and it would be popular with contemporary Irish audiences. And because it – along with Willy Reilly and His Colleen Bawn (1920), is one of only two FCOI films that survive in a substantially complete form, it is relatively well known, at least by film scholars (see here, for example). However, the film of Knocknagow would not reach Irish audiences until early 1918.

Irish Independent 10 Nov. 1917: 2.

FCOI made two other feature films during the summer production season of 1917: the comedy Rafferty’s Rise and historical romance When Love Came to Gavin Burke. However, despite the fact that the May 1917 issue of Irish Limelight published photographs from Rafferty’s Rise, the release of these films would also take many months. As a result, the FCOI’s 1916 films continued to circulate and represent – indeed, to constitute – the company’s released output for much of 1917. Nevertheless, beyond O’Neil of the Glen and perhaps The Miser’s Gift – both of which have already been written about here – very little is known about the other 1916 films. This is not surprising because surviving information on them is scant. In marked contrast to the barrage of publicity that heralded the release of O’Neil of the Glen and, to a lesser extent, The Miser’s Gift, the later 1916 films seem to have appeared with little fanfare. Nevertheless, bringing together some of surviving information reveals hitherto unknown aspects of these obscure but important early Irish films and the company that made them.

FCOI advertised upcoming releases in the Irish press on 14-15 August 1916. This one appeared in the Irish Times 14 Aug. 1916: 4.

Even the number of films they made in 1917 is not entirely clear. With O’Neil of the Glen newly released and creating a stir in August 1916, the company announced in the Irish dailies that it had a further four films ready for release in September: The Miser’s Gift, Woman’s Wit, Food of Love and An Unfair Love Affair. As well as these presumably complete or almost complete films, it listed nine other titles that it had in production: The Upstart, Blarney, The Irish Girl, a series called Shanachies Tales, Irish Jarvey Tales – possibly another series – Bye Ways of Fate, Treasure Trove, Willie Reilly and The Girl from the Golden Vale. With so little surviving information, ads such as this have often been taken as confirming that these films were actually made. These films appear in the standard Irish and British filmographies – Kevin Rockett’s Irish Filmography and its online version, and Denis Gifford’s The British Film Catalogue, as they do in the books that take these reference works as a source.

Trade journals and local and national newspapers fill in some – but by no means all – of the details of FCOI’s filmmaking and exhibition exploits from the summer of 1916 to the summer of 1917. These sources show that all four films from the first group were subsequently released, albeit not in September 1917. Of the second group, only Willie Reilly is readily recognizable as an FCOI title – Willy Reilly and His Colleen Bawn – but it would not be released until early 1920. Some of the other eight films named in this ad may be working titles for the films that FCOI did release in late 1916 and early 1917. There is substantial evidence that in addition to the five films already named, the company released four others in this period: Puck Fair Romance, A Girl of Glenbeigh, The Eleventh Hour and Widow Malone.

Ad for FCOI films released in 1916 and made in 1917. Irish Limelight Dec. 1917: 16.

None of these corresponds exactly to the in-production titles mentioned in the ad, but some are close, such as the in-production titles The Girl from the Golden Vale and The Irish Girl which bear a similarity to A Girl of Glenbeigh. These were, of course, Irish versions of titles in the format “An X Girl” or “The Girl of X” that had been internationally popular for decades. However, as A Girl of Glenbeigh specifically names a place in Kerry, it is unlikely to have morphed from The Girl from the Golden Vale – with its reference to the rich farmland in the counties to the east of Kerry. But the film may have begun life under the less specific title The Irish Girl. That said, the in-production titles that include Irish place names suggest a different geography from the four that were finally made. Blarney and The Girl from the Golden Vale indicate a company working in Cork, while A Girl of Glenbeigh and Puck Fair Romance are firmly located in west Kerry.

The issue of the films’ geography deserves further discussion, but this blog will work on the basis that FCOI did not make all the films named in the 14-15 August ad. Evidence suggests that the company released not fourteen films but nine in its opening season, which nonetheless represents a substantial output. For clarity, those nine films are: O’Neil of the Glen, The Miser’s Gift, Woman’s Wit, Food of Love, An Unfair Love Affair, Puck Fair Romance, A Girl of Glenbeigh, The Eleventh Hour and Widow Malone. Although this blog will have something to say about the first two, it will mainly focus on the latter seven.

J. M. Kerrigan

J. M. Kerrigan, Irish Limelight January 1917: 3.

All nine of these films appear to have been directed – the contemporary term, confusingly, was “produced” – by Abbey Theatre actor J. M. Kerrigan, who also starred or at least had a prominent acting role in many of them. Kerrigan was one of FCOI co-founder and producer James Mark Sullivan’s earliest recruits to the company; he was already working with FCOI in March 1916 – the same month as Sullivan and his partner Henry Fitzgibbon registered the company – and may even have invested money in it (Holloway, 21 Mar.). Kerrigan was soon joined by other actors from the Abbey and other theatres, most frequently by Fred O’Donovan, Kathleen Murphy and Nora Clancy, and more occasionally by Brian Magowan, J. M. Carre, Irene Murphy, Valentine Roberts and others. Also a star of the Abbey, O’Donovan would take over as FCOI’s actor-director for the 1917 production season when Kerrigan left Ireland for the United States in early 1917 on a career path that would eventually see him become a well-loved Hollywood character actor. His permanent departure seems to have come as a surprise to some in the press. On 12 April, Paddy reported that Kerrigan “has left America on his return voyage, and is expected to arrive almost any day now.” A report a week later suggested that he had little thoughts of returning to Ireland. “He has ‘made good’ out there in a surprisingly short space of time,” J.A.P. (Joseph A. Power) noted in the Evening Telegraph on 20 April, referring to reviews of Kerrigan’s early US stage performances. “It is only a few months since he left Ireland, yet here are the blasé Yankee journalists hurling bouquets at him with all the vigour of the great American language” (“Gossip of the Day”).

Engaging prominent Abbey actors bolstered FCOI’s claim that it was the Film Company of Ireland and was extending into the new cinematic medium the Abbey’s project of representing Ireland differently. “With the assistance of such artists as they had associated with them,” Fitzgibbon was reported as saying at a press luncheon in June 1916 to celebrate the launch of O’Neil of the Glen, “with Irish scenery and Irish literary talent, they were bound to succeed and be proud of the enterprise in which they were engaged” (“New Irish Industry”). If anybody was well placed to revise the representation of Irish people through performance, it was Kerrigan and this group of Irish actors who were intimately familiar not only with the plays and acting styles of the Irish revival developed at the Abbey but also with the modern drama represented by Shaw and Ibsen. But the company was also open to performers from beyond Ireland: “In the next film,” the Irish Times reported, “Mrs. H. M. Fitzgibbon, a vivacious French lady will make her appearance” (“Irish Film Production”). Although FCOI publicity made much of the claim that their films were “all Irish,” Fitzgibbon’s wife Peggy Darval was mentioned among the cast on occasion (“Back from Kerry”). This remark about his marriage to an actress also suggests that Fitzgibbon, about whom little else is known, may have had a personal motivation for getting involved in the film business.

FCOI seeks scriptwriters: Irish Independent 28 Mar. 1916: 1.

But actors alone were not enough for the company’s success. When Fitzgibbon mentioned the “Irish literary talent,” he must have been referring in part to Bernard Duffy, the writer of several one-act rural comedies for the Abbey who had also attended O’Neil of the Glen’s launch. Duffy praised FCOI for its “wholesome desire to reproduce the atmosphere of the country, and the motive was not purely mercenary. A vast field of folk literature was yet to be explored and utilised” (“Irish Film Production”). Nevertheless, sourcing new or adapted stories seems to have been difficult, and few if any Abbey playwrights were involved in the company. FCOI advertised more frequently in the press in 1916 for scenario writers than for other kinds of collaborators.

Following the destruction of its offices in Henry Street during the Rising, FCOI moved to Dame Street. Dublin Evening Mail 12 May 1916: 7.

Discussion of the company often mentions the destruction during the Rising of FCOI’s offices at 16 Henry Street but less frequently reveals the names of the people who worked there or in their new offices at 34 Dame Street. All the 1916 films were shot by John A. Bennett, who had worked for many years as the chief projectionist – or “operator” – and sometimes cameraperson for James T. Jameson’s Irish Animated Film Company based mainly at Dublin’s Rotunda, as well as later acting as the Dublin manager for the distribution company Films, Limited (Paddy, 18 Nov.; 13 Jul.). However, by January 1917, Bennett was seeking other work, presumably because he was not being paid by FCOI (Paddy, 11 Jan.). In any case, FCOI’s camera work in 1917 was first taken up by the company’s secretary Robert Justice – he featured in a June 1917 Irish Limelight article in this role – before Pathé camera operator William Moser became the company’s cinematographer (“With the Film Co. of Ireland”).

Joseph Boland Irish Limelight Jun. 1917: 6.

Among the other identifiable members of the company in 1916 and early 1917 were the sales and marketing operatives Mr. Coen, Joseph Boland and Ben Cowan. These men were vital to FCOI’s success, and although usually ignored by later film historians, they received considerable attention from contemporary trade journals because these were the people that journalists and cinema managers were most likely to meet. Coen was the company’s sales agent in Ireland until September 1916 when he was replaced by Boland, who for some years had been the travelling representative for General Film Supply (GFS), Ireland’s other major film production company of the period (Paddy, 28 Sep.). Boland appears to have had a good reputation in the industry in Ireland; the distributor M.P. Sales tried unsuccessfully and publicly to lure him away from GFS in early 1916 (Paddy, 17 Feb., 24 Feb., “Bioscope Parliament”). Cowan – one of a number of Russian Jews working in the early Irish film industry – ran Express Film Agency, the Irish agent for several British distributors, and he acted as publicist for the very successful 7 August launch of O’Neil of the Glen. Following this, he told reporters that “he intends to introduce many novel ideas in the advertising line. Another Trade show will shortly be held, at which it is Mr. Cowan’s intention to screen two more subjects” (Paddy, 27 Jul.). In the event, the second trade show on 17 August 1916 at the Dame Street Picture House would feature just The Miser’s Gift.

FCOI was intensely busy in August 1916. In Dublin, Cowan was publicizing the five complete or nearly complete productions shot earlier in the summer, as well as the other eight titles notionally in production. The Miser’s Gift was trade shown three days later. At some point in early August, Sullivan and Kerrigan brought the cast and crew to Kerry to shoot the four fiction films that would actually make up the second half of their 1916 production season. The date of departure is not clear, but if Puck Fair Romance was actually shot at Killorglin’s Puck Fair in 1916, then the company would have to have been in Kerry before 12 August because the fair took place between 10 and 12 August. They were certainly in Kerry by 20 August. An article in the Kerry News reported on a fundraising concert that FCOI mounted on 3 September to clear the debt from Glenbeigh’s Catholic church. It observed that the company “came to Glenbeigh two weeks ago where they opened a tour of the Kingdom’s beauty spots, and at present they are staying at O’Sullivan’s hotel, Muckross, having the scenes in several new films laid in and around Killarney” (“Film Company of Ireland”). If “two weeks” here is to be taken literally, the company reached Kerry on or about 20 August, but this seems like a flexible temporality. Nevertheless, the concert does seem to have marked the end of FCOI’s visit to Kerry. By 5 September, Dublin’s Evening Herald was reporting the company’s return to Dublin (“Back from Kerry”).

This suggests that the production unit had left Dublin before the publication of 14 August ad mentioning the eight films that were not subsequently made, as well as the Miser’s Gift trade show. Poor communication might explain why on 14 August, the company’s publicist did not have the titles for the scenarios that had begun shooting that week nor the locations at which they were being shot. But if this is true, then the production unit, which included Sullivan and possibly Fitzgibbon – it certainly included his wife – must have been surprized by the announcement of those eight titles in the national press. The tight timeframe also suggests that at least some and possible all of the scenarios were not carefully prepared and honed in advance but were hastily written on location. Only for The Eleventh Hour was a writer subsequently identified: Mark Coakley (“New Irish Film”).

Whatever FCOI’s reason for the eventual choice of Kerry above other parts of the country, accounts in the Kerry papers of FCOI’s filmmaking are very reminiscent of Sidney Olcott and Gene Gauntier’s filmmaking adventures in Ireland between 1910 and 1914. Making films for the Kalem Company and later for themselves, Olcott and Gauntier had repeatedly gravitated back to the Killarney area, often basing themselves in the village of Beaufort and taking advantage of the rugged mountain, lake and seashore landscapes available in west Kerry. Their dramas of rural life, emigration and historical rebellion had been very popular with Irish audiences, making this region the most identifiable early Irish cinematic landscape. The Post, however, chose to compare Olcott and Gauntier’s films unfavourably to the as-yet-unseen filmmaking efforts of FCOI. “We are glad that at length an Irish Company has appeared,” a columnist commented. “The misrepresentation of Ireland and her people were the aims of most of those who took up work such as this in the past. The production created a feeling of resentment and indignation” (“Notes on News”).

The last day of The Food of Love‘s run at the Dame Street Picture House; Dublin Evening Mail 4 Nov. 1916: 2.

Nevertheless, this does not look like FCOI offering radically new representations of Ireland. With at least some of their first five films shot in Wicklow – this certainly seems to have been the case with O’Neil of the Glen and The Food of Love whose publicity made much of “the lovely scenery around Glendalough” – and the final four shot in Kerry, FCOI was once again exploiting Ireland’s most reproduced picturesque locations (“Irish Film Production”).

Kerry location at which FCOI shot in August 1916.

That said, there may be some novelty in the choice of southwest Kerry locations, which can be established readily from the titles and synopses of the films. The Bioscope short synopsis of Puck Fair Romance – which it titled A Romance of Puck Fair – gives little indication that the film was actually shot at Killorglin’s famous festival. “He was addicted to walking tours, she was an artist,” it begins. “They met in the country, on a farm, She thought him ‘a farmer’s boy,’ he thought her a farmer’s daughter. They canoodled and when their separate ways, he regretting having left her, she sorry to have deceived him. When they met in town it was all right” (“Condensed Film Critiques,” 28 Dec.). Little is made here of the fair, with its central feature: the electing of a billygoat as King Puck and parading him on a raised platform. Nevertheless, the critic was complimentary, if not completely positive, judging that it was “quite pretty, set in delightful Irish scenes, and there are two other nice people in it, his pal and her model, but they could not be expected to complete their romance in the same reel.”

Derry Journal 10 Jan. 1917: 2.

Killarney is most famous for its lakes, and as such, the lakeshore setting of The Eleventh Hour may be deemed clichéd. On the other hand, Coakley’s scenario – “in which the paternal instinct is the moving force” – was shot around the lesser known Caragh Lake, a scenic spot on the road between Glenbeigh and Killorglin (“New Irish Film”). A Girl of Glenbeigh indicates its setting in its title. Joseph Holloway’s comments on it when he saw it at the Rotunda on 15 Feb 1917 indicate how romance and landscape worked together. He observed in his diary that “[i]t told an interesting & effective love story that did not run smoothly, nicely amid beautiful scenery & surroundings – O’Donovan was the love in the story who had two strings to his bow – a farmer’s daughter & a lady. The latter two were played by the Miss Murphys.” Where Widow Malone – the fourth of the Kerry films – was shot is not clear from surviving sources. The Bioscope described its “simple” plot, in which

[p]retty widow Malone is counted by the political town councillor, the local schoolmaster and the village blacksmith. The two former are after her snug fortune, and are a couple of windbags, but the hearty smith, loyal when her fortune is supposed to be lost, wins Nora without much difficulty.” (“Condensed Film Critiques,” 14 Dec.).

While the period in Kerry was a busy one for the company, the return to Dublin seems to have put an end for some time to the involvement of many of the actors. Certainly, by the 25 September, Kerrigan and O’Donovan were back in Dublin and acting – in a special arrangement with FCOI – in John Bull’s Other Island, the opening play of the Abbey’s autumn season (“What’s on in Dublin”). There are some indications that the break up of the acting company was not altogether amicable. Holloway had a conversation with Abbey director John A. Keogh on 1 November 1916, who told him that “the Film Co. Of Ireland had burst up & the members all seeking engagements at the Abbey – O’Donovan had left it some time ago to join the Abbey Co.” Keogh comments may have to be treated with caution; he had hostility towards FCOI because of the special arrangements he had to make to be allowed to cast Kerrigan. Nevertheless, he did have information from the actors, so it may be true that “[f]unds had become low owing to the films released not catching on as was thought.”

Those involved in production may have been at a loose end by the start of September, but work for other elements of the business was increasing. At the end of August, Dublin Corporation considered an application from FCOI to build a studio on Pigeon House Road; the outcome of the application is not clear, but these studios were not built. Nevertheless, the Bioscope reported in September that FCOI “are fitting up very elaborate developing-rooms, etc., in their premises at 34, Dame Street, Dublin. Mr. W. James, chief operator at the Bohemian Theatre, Dublin, is in charge of the wiring and other electrical fittings” (“All-Irish Films”). This short item also renewed a call for scenario writers to “submit [FCOI] a sample of their work. The Scenario should preferably have Irish atmosphere, but this is not absolutely essential.”

Dublin Evening Mail 24 Oct. 1916: 4.

With this fit-out of post-production facilities underway, it took some time for the release of the remainder of the season’s films. The company’s first priority was the Irish market, and Boland appears to have been busy selling to cinemas all over the country. Despite the Dame Street Picture House claim in late October 1916 that it had secured “the initial presentation of all the films produced by the Film Co.,” the films premiered all over Ireland. Even FCOI’s long-heralded second release, The Miser’s Gift, had its first public viewings at Cork’s Coliseum on 12-14 October and a three-day run at Tralee’s Picturedrome (19-21 Oct.) before it had its Dublin debut at the Dame on 26-28 October. The Food of Love similarly premiered at the Coliseum on 23-25 October before appearing at the Dame for the three-day run of 2-4 November. However, Widow Malone was FCOI’s third release when it appeared at Kilkenny’s Cinema on Sunday, 22 October 1916 for a special benefit screening for the Gaelic League. The film had a more conventional three-day run at Belfast’s Kinema House later that week, beginning on 26 October.

Puck Fair Romance premiered in Belfast’s Kinema House; Belfast News-Letter 9 Nov. 1916: 1

Indeed, Belfast, with the largest cinema-going population in the country, could not be and was not ignored in the awarding of premieres. Audiences at the Kinema House were the first to be offered Puck Fair Romance from 9-11 November. The Dame does seem to have debuted An Unfair Love Affair on 23-25 November. A Girl of Glenbeigh, however, premiered in Kerry, at Tralee’s Picturedrome on 27-28 November. The Dame also had the first viewings of the final two releases of the year. It opened The Eleventh Hour – FCOI’s second three-reel film –on 30 November 1916 for a three-day, end-of-week run. It was nearly a month later when the final release of the season, Woman’s Wit, had its debut at the Dame on 26 December.

Much more remains to be discovered about this initial period of FCOI and the films they made in 1916, not least their November 1916 distribution deal with Davison’s Film Sales Agency and the patterns of exhibition in Britain. Let this attempt to bring together some of the newspaper and trade journal sources mark a start of that more complete account.

References

“All-Irish Films.” Bioscope 28 Sep. 1916: 1285.

“Back from Kerry: New Films Produced by Irish Company.” Evening Herald 5 Sep. 1916: 2.

“Bioscope Parliament.” Bioscope 2 Mar. 1916: 967-68.

“Condensed Film Critiques.” Bioscope 14 Dec. 1916: i; 21 Dec. 1916: iii; 28 Dec. 1916: i.

“Film Company of Ireland: Church Debt Wiped Out.” Kerry News 6 Sep. 1916: 4.

Gifford, Denis. The British Film Catalogue, vol. 1, Fiction Film, 1895-1994. 3rd ed. London and Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2001.

“Gossip of the Day.” Evening Telegraph 20 Apr. 1917: 2.

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

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

New Irish Film.” Evening Herald 1 Dec. 1916: 3.

“New Irish Industry: The Film Co. of Ireland: A Promising Enterprise.” Freeman’s Journal 30 Jun. 1916: 6.

“Notes on News.” Kerry News 1 Sep. 1916: 2.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 18 Nov. 1915: 841; 17 Feb. 1916: 717; 24 Feb. 1916: 812; 13 Jul. 1916: 173; 27 Jul. 1916: 359; 28 Sep. 1916: 1285; 11 Jan. 1917: 194.

Rockett, Kevin. The Irish Filmography: Fiction Films, 1896-1996. Dublin: Red Mountain, 1996.

“What’s on in Dublin Next Week.” Evening Herald 23 Sep. 1916: 2.

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

Shadows of Revolution in Irish Cinemas, March 1917

Among the offerings at Dublin’s Bohemian Picture for the first three days of the week beginning 19 March 1917, was footage of the Tsar of Russia; Dublin Evening Mail 19 Mar. 1917: 2.

“Things are very quiet in Dublin film circles just now,” observed the columnist of “Screenings: Kinematograph Notes & News” in Dublin’s Evening Telegraph on St. Patrick’s Day 1917, “but some big things are on the way.” The seeming quite may have been deceptive because big things were already underway in the shape of social upheaval in Russia, which Irish newspapers had first called a revolution the previous day. This was an event that was momentous even in a time of war, and cinema would, at the very least, provide moving images for Irish people to picture these developments. On 19 March, Dublin’s Bohemian Picture Theatre featured the “Latest Exclusive Pictures of The Czar of Russia,” and the Dublin Evening Mail reviewer thought they “should prove a source of great attraction” (“Bohemian Picture Theatre”). Despite this, no reviews of the films appear to exist by which public reaction to them might be judged. In any case, while an undoubtedly old film of the Tsar might pique the curiosity raised by unfolding events, it was unlikely to have satisfied the desire to witness recent developments. But Dublin was not alone in this. “Russian pictures have been going strong in London since the Duma won through to victory,” the “Screenings” writer noted. “And now arrangements have been made to show in the Russian provinces a kinematograph film of the revolution in Petrograd” (“Screenings,” Mar. 24).

The shadow of revolution was also closer to Ireland than this. The Irish administration feared that the first national day after the Easter Rising would occasion some “big things” in the shape of subversive activity and as a result, had put all public buildings in the city under military control for St. Patrick’s Day (“Patrick’s Day”). However, in stark contrast to occurrences in Russia, the main leaders of Ireland’s rebellion had been executed, and many rank-and-file participants remained in prison, a fact raised in speeches at Westminster comparing Ireland and Russia by such Irish MPs as John Dillon and Joseph Devlin (“Broken Pledges”).

Laurence O’Neill (centre with moustache) attending a GAA match at Croke Park, c.1919, in the company of Arthur Griffith, Eamon DeValera and Michael Collins. Wikimedia Commons.

While the question of Irish political prisoners was being discussed, many believed that a scarcity of food was a more immediate potential cause for social unrest. Earlier in March, before the strikes and demonstrations in Russian had become a revolution, Dublin’s lord mayor, Laurence O’Neill, had invoked the French Revolution to warn of the dangers in the city caused by “unemployment and the scarcity and inflated prices of foodstuffs.” “[O]ne of the principal causes of the French Revolution was the luxury of the upper classes and the poverty of the poor,” he observed, “and the lesson of that Revolution was that no matter in which age the authorities or upper classes ignored their duties to the poor, there was bound to be discontent” (“Lord Mayor”).

The first two workers’ budgets from the Leo Guild; Evening Telegraph 24 Feb. 1917: 1.

Contemporary statistics on the living conditions of Dublin’s working poor support O’Neill’s warnings. In a series of newspaper articles between February and April 1917, these statistics were presented in the form of household budgets provided by the Leo Guild, a Catholic organization interested in the welfare of the deserving poor. Named after Pope Leo XIII – the “working-man’s Pope” – the Irish branch had been founded in Dublin in 1912 to counter the increasing influence of socialism and radical labour activism among Irish workers (“Father Mathew Hall”). Members of the Guild conducted research among the poor, and although they published them anonymously, the people featured in the budgets

were not chosen as being exceptional cases of distress, but because after investigation, they were considered to be typical specimens of their class. None of them belong to the class of poor who apply to the union or the charitable institutions. They are all hard working, sober, respectable and self-respecting folk.” (“How the Poor Live.”)

The Guild’s first budgets focused on two households: that of a labourer and that of a sweated seamstress. Neither of these households had discretionary income to spend on the cinema or other entertainments. The commentary on the budgets concluded, for instance, that the labourer – earning £1 a week to support himself, his wife and seven young children – had outgoings of £1 3s 4d: “The meaning is obvious and tragic. Rent is a fixture, coal can hardly be reduced. The only thing which can be reduced is food, which is spared to stretch over the following week.”

The Guild’s statistics were prepared as part of the Catholic Church’s struggle against organized labour, but they offer some insight into who could or who likely could not have attended the cinema in early 1917. Other writers offered different views on whether or not the working poor attended cinema in 1917. In an article in the third (March 1917) issue of the recently launched cinema journal Irish Limelight, Stephanie de Maistre suggested that they could, and indeed did, form a particularly notable part of the cinema audience. Discussing her dissatisfaction with theatre and music hall and preference for cinema, she focused on one particular unnamed picture house that, “whilst always well patronised in the higher priced seats, became a popular haunt for the working man, his sweetheart or his wife and family.” Maistre’s article addresses an audience perceived to be, like herself, middle class, capable of occupying the higher-priced seats and making entertainment choices not available to working people. Her self-consciously literary account constructs cinema as a place where harmony between the classes is achieved by a cross-class interest in the entertainment provided and by an accepted stratification of the audience based on one’s ability to pay for a seat among one’s social peers. But she sees films as particularly beneficial to the working class:

You see people happy, contented: something has come to break the monotony of their lives; to give them a glimpse of the wonders of the world; to bring sentiment and poetry into drab and barren existences, and who shall say what hearts have been touched, appealed to and changed “in the shadows”?

Chaplin Count Framegrab

Eric Campbell, Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance in The Count (US: Lone Star, 1916).

Dublin picture-house owners’ choices of films for St Patrick’s Day suggest that they perceived their audiences to be substantially working class and interested in Irish films. Class was central to The Count (US: Lone Star, 1916), Chaplin’s latest Irish release, which ended its first Dublin run at the Pillar Picture House on 17 March. “The management of the Pillar Picture House, O’Connell street, was largely responsible for the introduction of Charlie Chaplin to the Dublin public,” the writer of “Screenings” reported on 10 March, “and they are still first in the field locally with pictures of the little comedian.” In the film, a tailor (Eric Campbell) pretends to be a count to attend a society party but finds that his employee (Chaplin) has beaten him to it and chats up both the cook and the rich hostess (Edna Purviance) until the real count unexpectedly shows up. In the week leading up to and including St Patrick’s Day, several other picture houses showed Chaplin’s The Floorwalker (US: Lone Star, 1916) and The Fireman (US: Lone Star, 1916), including the Rotunda Pictures, where it accompanied popular but sometimes controversial The Rosary (US: Selig Polyscope, 1915), the “Original Irish-American Drama.”

Chaplin was also a favourite among the children of the Irish in Britain. A 12-year-old Irish girl was one of the three London schoolgirls who in mid-March 1917 appeared before the Cinema Commission, a body formed by the National Council of Public Morals that began its inquiry into cinema’s public influence in January 1917 (“Mr. Goodwin’s Striking Figures”). When asked about the kinds of films they liked best, the girls chose Westerns and Chaplin comedies. However, they and their friends were not so enthusiastic about newsreels. “‘Sometimes when they have a Topical Budget,’ confessed one of the girls, ‘the Boys get up and go out’” (“At the Pictures”).

Boh Cleansing Fires ET 15 Mar 1917

In the three-day run up to St Patrick’s Day, the Bohemian showed the newly released Irish film The Eleventh Hour. Evening Telegraph 15 Mar. 1917: 2.

As well as the Irish-American Rosary, picture-house managers also followed the well-established practice of choosing Irish-shot films for St Patrick’s Day. In 1917, some of these were more authentically Irish shot than others. From 15-17 March, the Bohemian showed the already released The Eleventh Hour on a bill topped by Cleansing Fires. Cleansing Fires is sometimes mistaken as one of films made by the Film Company of Ireland (FCOI) in 1916, but FCOI merely controlled the rights of this film.

Film Fun July 1916: np.

Although not quite coinciding with St Patrick’s Day, The Innocent Lie (US: Famous Players, 1916) a “magnificent five-part Irish film,” opened on 26 March 1917 at Dublin’s Town Hall, Rathmines. This was the film’s second run in Dublin; its first had been at the Grafton Picture House in January 1917. Given that it had been directed by Sidney Olcott and starred Valentine Grant and Jack Clark, Irish audiences would not have doubted that it had been, as the Evening Telegraph claimed, “produced amidst beautiful scenery in the South of Ireland” (“Screenings” Mar. 17). Olcott had shot many films for Kalem and other companies in Ireland, and these had long been particularly popular around St Patrick’s Day. In 1915, for example, Dublin’s Masterpiece Cinema had run an Irish Week, at which Olcott’s The Colleen Bawn (US: Kalem, 1911), Ireland the Oppressed (US: Kalem, 1912) and The Mayor from Ireland (US: Kalem, 1912) were shown along with other Irish-shot or Irish-themed films (“Masterpiece Irish Week”). Olcott had made these films in Ireland, but the danger of U-boats on the Atlantic crossing meant that he could not do the same for The Innocent Lie. “The exteriors were photographed in Bermuda,” revealed George Blaisdell in the Moving Picture World before its US release on 8 May 1916, “and they are not only picturesque, but in atmosphere vividly remind of the land and shore of the troubled island they are intended to simulate.”

All in all, it seems things were not as quiet as they may have seemed in Irish cinema in March 1917.

References

“At the Pictures: What School Girls Like.” Evening Telegraph 20 Mar. 1917: 2.

Blaisdell, George. “‘The Innocent Lie’: Valentine Grant Makes Good in Her Debut in Famous Players Five-Part Subject.” Moving Picture World 20 May 1916: 1349.

“Bohemian Picture Theatre.” Dublin Evening Mail 20 Mar. 1917: 5.

“Broken Pledges—Empty Threats: Mr. Dillon’s Indictment of the Government.” Freeman’s Journal 21 Mar. 1917: 5.

“Father Mathew Hall: ‘Are Irish Catholics Good Citizens.’” Freeman’s Journal 18 Sep. 1912: 5.

“How the Poor Live: Typical Budget: A Crying Grievance: Result of Leo Guild Inquiry.” Evening Telegraph 24 Feb. 1917: 1.

“The Life of the Poor: More Leo Guild Budgets: A Pressing Problem.” Evening Telegraph 17 Mar. 1917: 4.

“Lord Mayor and the Distress in the City: Gravity of the Situation Stated in Plain Terms.” Evening Telegraph 12 Mar. 1917: 1.

De Maistre, Stephanie. “In the Shadows.” Irish Limelight 3:1 (Mar. 1917): 4.

“The Masterpiece Irish Week.” Evening Telegraph 16 Mar. 1915: 6.

“Mr. Goodwin’s Striking Figures: Evidence of Film Industry’s Magnitude: First Sitting of Cinema Commission.” Bioscope 11 Jan. 1917: 96.

“Patrick’s Day: Quiet Observance in Dublin.” Evening Telegraph 17 Mar. 1917: 1.

“Screenings: Kinematograph Notes & News.” Evening Telegraph 17 Mar. 1917: 5; 24 Mar. 1917: 5.

Irish Audiences Watch “O’Neil of the Glen,” August 1916

If cinema in Ireland in July 1916 prompts reflection on film as a weapon of war, developments the following month show significant developments in the emergence of film as an expression of national culture. On 7 August 1916, audiences at Dublin’s Bohemian Picture Theatre were the first to see O’Neil of the Glen (often spelled O’Neill of the Glen), the first Film Company of Ireland (FCOI) production to be publicly released. Formed in March 1916 by James Mark Sullivan and Henry Fitzgibbon, the FCOI would become the most important indigenous fiction film producer of the 1910s. Ò’Neil of the Glen itself, however, is believed to be a lost film, like all FCOI’s other production except Knocknagow (1918), Willy Reilly and His Colleen Bawn (1920) and one reel of the two-reel comedy Paying the Rent (1920). Nevertheless, its success with audiences was vital to securing FCOI’s future.

O'Neil Boh 7 Aug 1916

Ad for the first public exhibition of O’Neil of the Glen, at Dublin’s Bohemian, Dublin Evening Mail 7 Aug. 1916: 2.

That success was won in part by the careful management of publicity, a fact that means that the surviving ads, articles and reviews in the press must be treated with caution. It may be a forgivable exaggeration for the papers to have hailed the premiere of O’Neil of the Glen as the start of a new Irish industry, but it was not true that this was “the first picture-play ever produced in Ireland by an Irish company of Irish players,” a claim repeated almost verbatim in several paper, indicating that the journalists were working from the same FCOI publicity materials (“New Irish Industry,”  “O’Neill of the Glen,” “Irish Film Triumph”). Most recently, Charles McEvoy of Dublin’s Masterpiece Cinema had funded Fun at Finglas Fair – even if it had allegedly been destroyed during the Easter Rising before being publicly shown – and in 1912-13, cinema-owner and mayor John J. Farrell had made a number of films with his company Irish Film Productions (Rockett 95, Condon 237).

IRISHLIMEGHT1_MAY_P6 001

Abbey Theatre and Film Company of Ireland actor – and later director – Fred O’Donovan; Irish Limelight 1:5 (May 1917): 6.

Nevertheless, although O’Neil of the Glen was not the first indigenous Irish fiction film, it was a very significant one by the country’s most important film production company of the 1910s. On 29 June, FCOI announced a “trial exhibition,” or what would now be called a test screening, of their first completed production, O’Neil of the Glen, at Dublin’s Carlton. By this time, and in the context of management difficulties at the Abbey Theatre, FCOI had been able to contract J. M. Kerrigan and Fred O’Donovan, two of the Abbey’s biggest stars, albeit that they were permitted to appear in certain plays (“Abbey Theatre,” “Platform and Stage”). Kerrigan, indeed, directed and played a part in O’Neil of the Glen, a three-reel feature based on a script adapted by W. J. Lysaght from M[argaret] T. Pender’s story of the same title that had been serialized in the Shamrock in 1891. The film told how Don O’Neil (Brian Magowan), the son of a landowner who had been defrauded by the solicitor Tremaine (J. M. Carre), saves the life of Tremaine’s daughter, Nola (Nora Clancy), whose love he wrests from Graves (O’Donovan), a blackmailing suitor (“Bohemian,” Evening Mail).

“The film is of a quality which leads one to anticipate success for the venture,” wrote an Irish Times correspondent at the trial exhibition, noting that it was part of a process of perfecting the film: “the promoters are engaged in a ruthless revision of the film to bring it up to the highest possible standard” (“Irish Film Production”). The Bioscope’s Irish correspondent Paddy’ was less complimentary about this early cut of the film, pointing out that although “[g]reat care was taken with the production and camera work,” it possessed “many of the weak points common to first productions” (“Paddy,” 13 Jul.). Addressing a lunch for the press at the Gresham Hotel after the screening, Fitzgibbon claimed that FCOI “had started an industry which would eventually be a source of great revenue in Ireland.” For his part, Sullivan argued that the film showed that Irish productions – taking advantage of Irish “imagination, ideals, and artistic temperament and beautiful scenery” – could competing with those anywhere (“Irish Film Production”).

Paddy began to revise his lukewarm opinion of O’Neil of the Glen in light of the news that Frederick A. Sparling had booked the film for its first run at his Bohemian for the week of 7-13 August. The Bohemian was one of Dublin’s biggest and most luxurious cinemas, and Sparling’s commitment to a run that was twice the usual three days “speaks well for the film and the undoubted drawing powers such a production will have for Irish audiences” (Paddy, 27 Jul.). In the event, Sparling also included an unplanned Sunday show to take advantage of the phenomenal level of interest.

Although FCOI appears to have taken the bookings itself, prominent local distributor Ben Cowan of Express Film Agency handled this and other FCOI films from 1916 by running trade shows and placing advertisements in the daily and trade press. It was likely one of Cowan’s “novel ideas in the advertising line” for FCOI cameraman John A. Bennett – a former projectionist at Dublin’s Rotunda – to film the audience on the first night and for this local film to be shown subsequently with the feature (Paddy, 27 Jul.; 17 Aug.). “Don’t miss this chance of seeing what you look like on the Screen,” ads warned the opening-night audience. The musical attractions included a special programme of Irish melodies and the cinema’s “world-renowned violinist” Signor Simonetti playing a fantasy on the “Snowy Breasted Pearl” at the evening shows. “It is confidently hoped that large audiences will visit the Bohemian during the coming week,” revealed a preview in the Evening Mail, “and thus mark in a tangible manner their appreciation of what may justly be described as a really first-class picture-play, and one that is sure to bring the work and the players of the Film Company of Ireland right into the forefront of popularity with audiences and trade alike” (“Bohemian”).

The surprising extent of the success of O’Neil of the Glen must be measured in the first instance as a marketing victory rather than an artistic one, by FCOI. The degree to which these early films challenged existing ways of representing the Irish is questionable, but many contemporary commentators seem initially to have been content that films with wholly Irish creative input were finally being made. Nevertheless, the way in which the company were able to capitalize on the interest and goodwill attending the exhibition of this first indigenous Irish fiction film and, crucially, to publicize the large attendances not only in Ireland, where interest was likely to be strong in any case, but also in Britain, appears to have secured a British distribution deal and thereby to have ensured the company survival in this initial period. This success was built on what appears to have been a genuinely surprising level of interest in the picture. “The film, which was expected to prove a good draw, actually surpassed all anticipations,” observed Paddy, warming further to the film, “a record being established for the week, and queues being the rule every evening” (17 Aug.). The Irish Times commented that enthusiastic audiences in a crowded cinema “proves that the Dublin public is always ready to support and encourage Irish enterprise” (“Film Company of Ireland,” 9 Aug.). “That the genuine enthusiasm displayed last night at the conclusion of the film will be the means of bringing before the public a second production by the Irish Film Company in the near future,” observed the Freeman’s Journal, “is a universal wish” (“Bohemian”).

O'Neil Victoria 9 Sep 1916p4

Ad for Galway’s Victoria Cinema Theatre for the week in which O’Neil of the Glen featured. Connacht Tribune 9 Sep 1916: 4.

This wish would be soon fulfilled, and O’Neil of the Glen was exhibited around the country in the following weeks and months. When following substantial runs in Dublin and Belfast it was announced for a three-day run at Galway’s Victoria Cinema Theatre on 11-13 September, a Connacht Tribune reporter distinguished its attractions from that of American films, which were unrivalled “in the matter of cinematographic thoroughness and all-round fullness and finish of technique, but one can get too much of a good thing.” The FCOI’s “national or […] patriotic enterprise” offered something that monotonously perfect and ubiquitous American films could not: “The production is Irish, the subject is Irish, the mise-en-scene is Irish, and the actors and actresses are Irish” (“‘O’Neill of the Glen’”). A writer in the Cork Examiner during the film’s run at Cork’s Coliseum Theatre (14-16 September) concurred, arguing that

[t]hrere certainly should be an opening for cinema representation of Irish drama as played by native Irish actors, whose one object is to show Irish life in its true perspective, without grotesque exaggeration, or what is just as bad, giving an unreal picture of it, even when the intention is friendly to the country and the people. (“Coliseum Theatre.”)

A journalist at the Derry People was particularly interested in the local connections of a film “in which well-known Irish artistes will be screened, and details dealing with Tyrone and neighbouring localities introduced in splendid style” (“Hall”). The film’s second Dublin run was at the Dame Street Picture House (21-3 September) – the cinema closest to FCOI’s offices and where all their subsequent 1916 films would premiere – before it had first and second runs in Belfast, at the Duncairn (28-30 September) and the Clonard (2-4 October). Subsequent screenings included Mullingar’s National (14-15 October), Kilkenny’s Cinema (18-19 October) and Dublin’s Fr Mathew Hall (2 December).

FCOI IT 14 Aug 1916p4

Irish Times 14 Aug. 1916: 4.

While O’Neil of the Glen toured the country, the company quickly followed up this successful debut with the announcements of their next films in the dailies and trades. On the Monday after the last show of O’Neil of the Glen at the Bohemian, the Dublin papers carried an advertisement headed “Films that Draw Crowded Houses Every Night!” that recommended FCOI’s new films on the basis of the audience-drawing power of that first film. Four two-reel comedies were scheduled for release in September – The Miser’s Gift, Woman’s Wit, Food of Love and An Unfair Love Affair – and nine other forthcoming productions were named, only one of which, “Willie Reilly,” is recognizable as a subsequent FCOI release. An Evening Mail reporter who attended The Miser’s Gift trade show at the Dame Street PH later that week commented that “[i]t is not only characteristically Irish, it is characteristically good. The Irish Picture-House manager who does not support an Irish company which can produce work of the class of ‘The Miser’s Gift’ is missing an opportunity of giving his shows a touch of distinction” (“‘Miser’s Gift’”).

The Miser’s Gift is also lost, but its narrative appears to involve a scheme of Eileen Dolan (Nora Clancy) and her lover, Ned McGrath (Fred O’Donovan), to get her miserly father (J. M. Kerrigan) drunk and dream of leprechaun gold so that he will look favourably on their relationship. “It is agreeable to have pictures such as this,’ commented the Irish Times, “preserving a genuinely Irish atmosphere and that inherent charm which is to be found in Irish life. The sight, for instance, of lepracauns and other little people who live in legend disporting themselves in a fairy fort is a feature which surely is pleasing to Irish eyes” (“Film Company of Ireland,” 18 Aug.). The Irish public got its first chance to delight in authentic Irish leprechauns disporting themselves on the cinema screen at the Dame from 26–8 October 1916.

Ch5One

Bioscope 24 Aug. 1916: 754.

As these arrangements were being made for Ireland, FCOI also entered the British film market on the foundation of O’Neil of the Glen’s Irish success. The Bohemian debut was the subject of an article on the company in the Bioscope of 24 August, which also carried a full-page advertisement listing the actual and intended films mentioned in the Irish papers (“First Irish Film”). Both the article and the advertisement included quotes from Sparling on the huge business the film generated, “the absolutely whole-hearted appreciation of every person who has seen it,” and the fact that “the ‘music’ at the pay-box has kept time with the orchestra throughout.” In contrast to Paddy’s original critical assessment of the film, this article described the audiences’ appreciation of “the exceptional excellence of the first film produced in Ireland by an Irish company and by Irish players.” A month later, although mentioning the film’s success everywhere it had been exhibited, Paddy contended that FCOI’s “second picture, ‘The Miser’s Gift,’ is greatly in advance of the first as regards the quality, and if this company stick to their guns they should still be well in the front rank of British producers” (28 Sep.). Despite Paddy’s reservations, the message prevailed that O’Neil of the Glen packed cinemas in Dublin and Belfast and that Irish exhibitors were eager for more, a message that helped FCOI to acquire a British distributor (Paddy, 14 Sep.). The company did this at the end of October, when Davidson’s Film Sales Agency bought the rights for FCOI’s 1916 films (Paddy, 2 Nov.).

Indigenous Irish film production may not have started with O’Neil of the Glen, but it did enter a new phase.

References

“Abbey Theatre.” Irish Times 7 Aug. 1916: 3.

“The Bohemian.” Dublin Evening Mail 5 Aug. 1916: 5.

“The Bohemian.” Freeman’s Journal 8 Aug. 1916: 6.

“Coliseum Theatre: ‘O’Neill of the Glen.’” Cork Examiner 15 Sep. 1916: 2.

Condon, Denis. Early Irish Cinema, 1895-1921. Dublin: Irish Academic, 2008.

“The Film Company of Ireland.” Irish Times 9 Aug. 1916: 6; 18 Aug. 1916: 2.

“First Irish Film: Success of ‘O’Neil of the Glen.’” Bioscope 24 Aug. 1916: 689.

“The Hall.” Derry People 16 Sep. 1916: 5.

“Irish Film Production.” Irish Times 30 Jun. 1916: 7.

“Irish Film Triumph: Several New Plays.” Cork Examiner 16 Aug. 1916: 6.

“‘The Miser’s Gift’: New Irish Comedy.” Dublin Evening Mail 17 Aug. 1916: 2.

“New Irish Films: Four Coming Comedies.” Freeman’s Journal 15 Aug. 1916: 4.

“New Irish Industry: Film Company of Ireland.” Connaught Telegraph 5 Aug. 1916: 8.

“New Irish Industry: The Film Co. of Ireland: A Promising Enterprise.” Freeman’s Journal 30 Jun. 1916: 6.

“‘The O’Neill of the Glen.’” Derry People 12 Aug. 1916: 5.

Paddy. “Ireland: With the Renters and Exhibitors.” Bioscope 13 Jul. 1916: 173; 27 Jul. 1916: 359; 17 Aug. 1916: 655; 14 Sep. 1916: 1060; 28 Sep. 1916: 1285; 2 Nov. 1916: 518.

“Platform and Stage.” Irish Times 7 Oct. 1916: 9.

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

“Topics of the Week.” Bioscope 10 Aug. 1916: 466.