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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As a result of this publicity, the film had momentum behind it when it opened for the public on 15 March 2020 at Dublin’s Phibsboro Picture House, Rathmines Town Hall and Kingstown Picture House, as well as at Limerick’s Theatre Royal and Derry’s St Columb’s Hall. Other well-advertised runs followed at Sligo’s Town Hall (24-26 March), Cork’s Washington Cinema (5-10 April), the Picturedromes in Clonmel and Tipperary (5-7 April), Waterford’s Broad Street Cinema (15-17 April), Belfast’s St Mary’s Hall (19-24 April), Galway’s Victoria Cinema (26-27 April), Kilkenny’s Empire Theatre (3-5 May), Castlebar’s Ellison Cinema (7-10 May) and Carrick-on-Suir’s Park View Cinema (30 June-1 July).

Liverpool Echo 29 Jul. 1920: 1.

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

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

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

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

Cork Examiner 5 Apr. 1920: 4.

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Screening the Funeral of Thomas Ashe, September-October 1917

Collins Funeral of Thomas Ashe

Michael Collins gives a pointed graveside oration in The Funeral of Thos. Ashe (Ireland: GFS, 1917)

At 10pm on Sunday, 30 September 1917, Dublin’s Bohemian Picture Theatre exhibited a special newsreel film of the funeral of Thomas Ashe that marked the spectacular public culmination of a protest against British government treatment of Sinn Féin prisoners in Mountjoy prison. The occasion of the protest was the death on 25 September of Thomas Ashe, president of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, as a result of force-feeding while on hunger strike. In a series of demonstrations carefully stage-managed by republican leaders, Ashe’s body became the emblem of a new public solidarity between the various insurgent nationalist groups that were moving towards coalition under the name of Sinn Féin. His body lay in state first at the Mater hospital and following a procession through the city, at City Hall. The protest’s highlight was Ashe’s funeral at Glasnevin cemetery on 30 September, the largest public demonstration since the 1916 Rising was suppressed, at which the Irish Volunteers marched openly under arms and fired three volleys of shots over the coffin, “the only speech which it is proper to make above the grave of a dead Fenian,” as Michael Collins put it in his laconic graveside oration (“Funeral of Thomas Ashe”).

Boh Ashe Premiere 29 Sep1917 DEM

Ad for Bohemian Picture Theatre offering an exclusive screening of the full Funeral of Thos. Ashe film; Dublin Evening Mail 29Sep. 1917: 2.

The film of the funeral that the Bohemian showed was the work of Norman Whitten’s General Film Supply (GFS). The Evening Herald commended the exhibition on the evening of Ashe’s funeral “of films showing various ranges of the procession and scenes associated with it. The rifling part at the grave was included” (“30,000 Mourners”). The widespread publicity of organized events after Ashe’s death allowed Whitten and his “able lieutenant” J. Gordon Lewis to plan a newsreel special to supplement their regular Irish Events newsreel (“Films Up-to-Date”). In what might be called a prequel, some of the material relating to Ashe’s lying-in-state at City Hall was shown at such picture houses as the Rotunda and the Town Hall, Rathmines on the Saturday night preceding the funeral, with the complete film, including the procession through the city to the cemetery, due for general release on the following Monday. The final film was first exhibited, however, on the night of the funeral at the Bohemian, a picture house located on the route of the funeral procession out of the city, between Mountjoy prison and Glasnevin cemetery.

Rotunda THR Ashe 29 Sep 1917 DEM

Ads for Town Hall, Rathmines and Rotunda on Saturday 29 September featured newsreel of Ashe’s funeral, including scenes of the body lying in state at City Hall but not of the graveside; Dublin Evening Mail 29 Sep. 1917: 2.

Reporting on the filming of the funeral, the cinema journal Irish Limelight observed that people “took part in the procession, went home to have tea, and an hour later saw themselves on the screen. Some hustle on the part of the camera men!” (“Films Up-To-Date”). Reference has already been made here to the speed with which Whitten could prepare his films for exhibition, and this again distinguished the Thomas Ashe film produced for Irish Events from those of its competitors, in this case, from Charles McEvoy, proprietor of the Masterpiece Theatre, who also filmed the funeral but was unable to show his film until the Monday evening (ibid).

Bohemian Interior

Ad showing interior of the Bohemian Picture Theatre, Evening Telegraph 31 Jul. 1915: 3.

But the really interesting thing here is not just the speed with which the film was ready but also that it was shown at a picture house conveniently located for those who had attended the funeral. The Limelight report suggests that, having taken some refreshment, mourners reassembled at the Bohemian to reconstitute the political demonstration that the funeral represented. Here, they viewed the funeral distilled to its ten-minute highlights – twice the usual length of a newsreel – all taken from advantageous viewpoints. In a sense, the exhibition at the Bohemian represented the culmination of the political protest, of the concentration of the energies and emotions that had been built up over several days. That night the spectators were freed from the limited perspective available to people in a crowd; they saw all the key events from a sometimes privileged vantage point. The audience was now able to see itself, and specifically to see itself involved in a significant political protest. As such, the Bohemian screening of this film was a moment when the cinema assumed a key role in Irish political protest.

Thos Ashe funeral queues at City Hall

People queue to file past Ashe’s body in The Funeral of Thos. Ashe.

Although little information is available on what actually happened in the Bohemian that night, what does survive suggests that the film fostered audience interactivity – a participative kind of spectatorship – among the people who chose to attend its screening. While it is unlikely that many individual mourners could have identified themselves among the throngs depicted in long shot by the funeral film, the camera viewed many of the events from among the spectators and could therefore help re-create for its audience their participation in the funeral as a group by reproducing their optical perspective.

Thos Ashe removal from City Hall

Ashe’s Tricolour-draped coffin is removed from City Hall in The Funeral of Thos. Ashe.

Newspaper reports and photographs demonstrate that even such apparently god-like perspectives as the high-angle shots above the crowd reproduced the points of view of numerous mourners. “Over 200,000 spectators and sympathisers thronged the route,” declared one evening newspaper, “roofs, windows, verandas — even lamp-posts, railings, walls, hoardings, trees, statues, and monuments — every possible point of vantage was utilised by eager sightseers” (“30,000 Mourners”).

Ashe Funeral O'Connell Statue FJ 2 Oct 1917p6

Freeman’s Journal 2 Oct. 1917: 6.

The Freeman’s Journal reported that “residents of many houses were charging for seats at their windows, and that the sites were appreciated by those taking advantage of them was testified by the numbers who witnessed the procession from these points” (“Thomas Ashe”). The caption to a photograph in the Freeman reads:

Sunday at the O’Connell Statue: The above picture gives a very good idea of the dimensions of the crowd which surged round and up the base of the O’Connell Statue on Sunday afternoon. For fully two hours before the cortege was due to pass men and boys by the score fought to obtain a good view by climbing amongst the figures which adorn the plinth, until all but the statue itself was obscured.

Iron Strain Boh 30 Sep 1917

Still of Dustin Farnum and Enid Markey in The Iron Strain (US: Kay-Bee/New York, 1915), known in Ireland and Britain as A Modern Taming of the Shrew. Image from IMDb.

That said, other factors in the first exhibition of The Funeral of Thos. Ashe must have worked to dissipate this participative dynamic or to make it fleeting. Advertisements for the Sunday evening show at the Bohemian, for example, describe it as “a special long and interesting programme,” featuring “a five-part exclusive comedy-drama entitled, ‘A Modern Taming of the Shrew.’” This film – known in America as The Iron Strain – was a Western comedy starring Dustin Farnum and Enid Markey. With the evening performance beginning at 8.30 and the funeral film screening at ten o’clock, the audience would have experienced an hour and a half of A Modern Taming of the Shrew and other films before the funeral film. Nothing about this programming suggests that the audience was being kept in a suitably reverent, nationalistic or rebellious state of mind. There is also no report that the cinema’s well-publicized orchestra played dirges or patriotic tunes during the funeral scenes, although it seems very likely that it did during the screening of the funeral film itself because this was the practice on similar occasions.

As well as this, the Limelight article suggests that it was not primarily the continuation of the demonstration that brought mourners to the Bohemian but the narcissistic pleasure of seeing oneself on screen, of picking oneself out of the crowd. This kind of pleasure was certainly a feature of some of the earliest locally made films, which invited people who believed that they may have been filmed by a visiting cinematographer to “come and see yourself” on screen. And although there was a narcissistic potential here, early films also purposely employed the figuration of the crowd as an instance of identification with oneself not as an individual but as part of a collective.

May 1918 IL Irish Events ad CU

The cover of the May 1918 issue of Irish Events featured an ad listing 35 cinemas around Ireland that subscribed to Irish Events.

As such, this film and others like it address not only those who could claim this very direct form of spectatorial identification with the image that came from attending the event, but also those who would have wished to be there. In the weeks following the funeral, apart from cinema-goers who were indifferent or hostile, it is likely that screenings of the film in Dublin and around Ireland, not least in the 35 cinemas that subscribed to Irish Events, would have brought together spectators who had taken part in the demonstrations as well as those who had wished to but been unable to attend. From this perspective, these films are essentially local newsreels targeted at spectators who could decode them. Therefore, it was not only the actual participants who would be able to place themselves in the crowd, but also those who could fill in this “back-story,” those who would have wanted to be in the crowd and who, as a result, became virtual participants. These films worked on the desire to see oneself as a participant, whether or not one actually had been present at the event, and provided a semi-public context in which to experience this mediated participation.

Ch4Four

Irish Limelight Apr. 1918: 14

Such Irish Events specials as The Funeral of Thos. Ashe could be used to imply identification between the spectator and popular protest. In the period between the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence, GFS seems to have ensured its audience by being more obviously favourable to the nationalist cause. An ad on the cover of the April 1918 issue of Irish Limelight listed Irish Events specials: Irish Sinn Fein Convention; Funeral of Thos. Ashe; Release of the Sinn Fein Prisoners; South Armagh Election; Consecration of the Bishop of Limerick; Funeral of the Late John Redmond, M.P.; and Waterford Election. “It has been proved,” boasts the ad, “that topicals such as any of the above will attract a larger audience than a six-reel exclusive.” In the context of wider political events and especially when they took the place of the featured attractions at the top of the cinema programme, as The Funeral of Thos. Ashe did at the Bohemian Picture House on 30 September 1917, the political significance of these films becomes more fully visible.

References

“30,000 Mourners: Incidents in Yesterday’s Mighty Funeral.” Evening Herald 1 Oct. 1917: 3.

“Films Up-to-Date.” Irish Limelight Oct. 1917: 8.

“Funeral of Thomas Ashe: Sinn Fein Demonstration in Dublin.” Irish Times 1 Oct. 1917: 6.

“Sunday at the O’Connell Statue.” Freeman’s Journal 2 Oct. 1917: 6.

“Thomas Ashe: Funeral in Dublin Yesterday: Impressive Scenes: Enormous Crowds Throng the Streets.” Freeman’s Journal 1 Oct. 1917: 3.

“Peeps at Parochial Happenings”: Irish Events Newsreel Begins, June-July 1917

Political developments formed the context for the conception and launch of Ireland’s first newsreel, Irish Events, in the month between 18 June and 17 July 1917.

Jun 18 1917 ET Prisoners 2

The Evening Telegraph placed a very large photograph of the returned Irish prisoners leaving Westland Row station on its front page on 18 June 1917.

“Somewhere about 9 a.m. a man was about to enter his offices in Great Brunswick Street,” cinema trade journal Irish Limelight reported of the exciting events of 18 June 1917 in Dublin. On 15 June, the British government had announced a general amnesty for the remaining Irish people it had jailed for their roles in the 1916 Rising. Many of these prisoners had experienced jeers as they were marched out of Dublin in early May 1916; their homecoming would be very different, indeed a nationalist celebration. Nevertheless, there was tension in the city in the days leading up to their arrival because it was not clear when or by what route they would come. This was also true of the man leaving his office in Great Brunswick (now Pearse) Street. “It is possible that he was not feeling altogether in harmony with the glorious summer morning,” the Limelight observed.

For two days he had been on the alert, waiting and watching for the homecoming of the released Sinn Fein prisoners. He had no concern with their political views or with the views of the Government that set them at liberty. He was a kinematographer and he was out for business – and it looked as if the business was likely to elude him. (“Sinn Fein Prisoners’ Homecoming.”)

IRISHLIMEGHT1JUL_P17 002

Norman Whitten in his offices at 17 Great Brunswick Street; Irish Limelight 1:7 (Jul. 1917): 17. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

The man was Norman Whitten, managing director of General Film Supply, for whom the prisoners’ homecoming was “as good a ‘topical’ as had happened for a long time.” An English filmmaker who had learned the cinema business from pioneer Cecil Hepworth, Whitten had been working in Ireland since the early 1910s, making topical films of local interest and advertising films. He was also an agent for several British equipment manufacturers as well a distributor of certain films. Two days after the events described by the Limelight, he would be in Dublin’s nisi prius court successfully prosecuting James J. Fisher for outstanding monies related to the exhibition of the film Lost in the Eternal City, for which Whitten held the Irish rights (“Hire of a Film”). Whether Whitten ever received the £70 and costs awarded by the court is not clear because the Limelight pointedly reported on the same page as its account of Whitten’s filmmaking that Fisher, “so well known in Ireland in connection with the official war films, left for Salonika on the 25th June” (“Mr. J. J. Fisher”).

In any case, early on 18 June, Whitten was presented with an opportunity. Westland Row station was about five-minutes walk from his office. “His key was just in the lock when a wave of cheering came down the street from the Westland Row end,” the Limelight report continues:

Looking up he saw the Sinn Fein tricolour waving at the head of a procession just turning into Great Brunswick Street. One glance was enough, and in another he was feverishly active inside in the office. Where was that favourite camera? How many feet of film had he? Where was the other box? And the tripod! (“Sinn Fein Prisoners’ Homecoming.”)

Prisoners photo IL Jul 1917

A framegrab or “cinephoto” from Whitten’s film, showing the former prisoners passing the Queen’s Theatre in Brunswick Street, which was beside Whitten’s office. Irish Limelight 1:7 (Jul. 1917): 16. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Having assembled his equipment, “he was out again in the street, the tripod was mounted on a chair, the eye of the kinematograph was pointed directly at the oncoming procession and the first film of the ex-prisoners’ homecoming was being taken.” He followed the procession through the streets to Fleming’s Hotel in Gardiner Street, where some of the former prisoners obliged him by waiting in their carriages until he had set up his camera to film them getting down.

To capitalize on this scoop, however, Whitten had to show the “hustle” for which he was renowned by developing, printing and delivering the film to the Dublin’s cinemas interested in it. In doing this, he needed to be faster than the other filmmakers who were also out shooting these events, including Gaumont’s Mr Russell. Among its extensive production and distribution businesses, Gaumont produced its own newsreel, the Gaumont Graphic, and the company had shot their first topical in Ireland in June 1913 (“Irish Topical”). Its well-appointed offices in Dublin’s Lord Edward Street included facilities for developing and printing film, but for some reason – possibly lack of personnel – Russell had to send his film to England to be processed (“Building News”). Whitten, by contrast, processed his own film, and as a result, the excitement of the shooting in the streets was followed by

hours of swift and delicate work in the ruddy gloom of the developing room and in the arid light of the drying room. Three hundred and fifty feet of film had to be fixed on the developing frames and plunged into the tanks for eight minutes, then rinsed and fixed. In the balance of half-an-hour it was washed. Fifteen minutes later the whirling drums had dried it. (“Sinn Fein Prisoners’ Homecoming.”)

At this period, a film of 350 feet would usual run five to six minutes, but this was not the completed film. Whitten edited the raw footage and added end- and intertitles to produce a finished film that likely ran five minutes, the typical length of a newsreel. This was not a typical newsreel film, however, because a newsreel usually consisted of five one-minute items showing a mixture of news and social events. Instead, this was a special topical. “By 3 p.m.,” the Limelight revealed, “three copies had been printed and fully titled with a photograph of McGuinness added at the end and were rushed off in taxis to the picture houses which had been enterprising enough to book this ‘red-hot topical.’” Joseph McGuinness had been a prisoner in Lewes jail when he was elected MP in the May 1917 Longford South by-election, and he had been at Fleming’s Hotel to greet the returned prisoners.

Boh Release Prisoners 13 Jun 18 1917 DEM

Bohemian Picture Theatre with Whitten’s film of the released prisoners; Dublin Evening Mail 18 Jun. 1917: 2.

The film was ready for afternoon showings in Dublin’s picture houses, but its initial run of just three copies meant that it could only play at three venues: the Bohemian Picture Theatre in Phibsboro, the Town Hall, Rathmines (THR) and the city-centre Rotunda. The managers of these picture houses certainly believed that the film would be a draw, and the Bohemian and THR even managed to have it prominently mentioned in their ads in the evening newspapers. Among those who were attracted were some of the prisoners themselves:

Some of the ex-prisoners and their friends could not resist the temptation to see themselves “in the pictures,” and a contingent marched up to the Rotunda early in the afternoon. They cheerfully acceded to the genial manager’s request that they should leave their flags in the porch, and, when inside, gave every indication of enjoying not only “their own film” but the rest of the programme. (“Sinn Fein Prisoners’ Homecoming.”)

Markievicz IL Jul 1917

Cinephoto from Whitten’s film of the return of Countess Markievicz on 21 June 1917; Irish Limelight Jul. 1917: 16. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

The Limelight’s detailed account of Whitten’s work on this film suggests that he was working alone at this point on shooting, processing and dispatching; it does not mention any employees. Nevertheless, people in the business knew Whitten’s abilities from previous events he had filmed, and on Thursday of that week, he would repeat his achievement when he had a film of the arrival back in Ireland of republican leader Countess Constance Markievicz for showing at 10:30pm, even though she did not reach Westland Row station until 6:45pm. Nevertheless, for the Monday film, he appears to have been overwhelmed by the number of requests for copies and resorted to offering other topicals he had shot of Irish and National Volunteers and the funeral of republican Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. When even these supplies were exhausted, desperate exhibitors were prepared to accept even Irish-themed fiction films. “[W]hen everything that could by any stretch of the imagination have been utilised as a ‘topical’ was used up,” the Limelight commented, “they fell back upon ‘The Shaughraun,’ ‘The Colleen Bawn,’ and other film plays of the earlier ‘Irish’ type.”

The phenomenal success of this film and the one of Markievicz later in the week formed the basis for Whitten’s launch of an Irish newsreel service he called Irish Events just a month later. While he must have been considering an Irish newsreel for some time, the decision to launch it in July 1917 appears to have been a sudden one because he did not mention it to the Limelight reporter who so thoroughly covered his work on the film of the released prisoners. But then he was “a hustler from Hustlerville,” as the Limelight called him (“‘Irish Events’”). The Limelight did publish a long article on the launch of Irish Event in its August issue, urging all Irish exhibitors to subscribe to it, but by the start of August, three issues of Irish Events had already been released. “Irish people always will be glad to glimpse really interesting happenings in Great Britain and abroad,” it observed, “but when it comes to peeps at parochial happenings – well, they would certainly prefer to see pictures of sports at, say, Croke Park, instead of pictures of an English sports meeting” (“‘Irish Events’”).

Ch4One

Members of the crowd smile and gesture happily when the newsreel camera is trained on them in Release of the Sinn Fein Prisoners (Ireland: General Film Supply, 1917). Courtesy of the Irish Film Institute.

Although some Irish Events would be released as specials like the film of the returning prisoners, the regular format of Irish Events mirrored that of the other newsreels such as Gaumont Graphic, Pathé News and Topical Budget. That is to say, it included both political and social events. The first few issues included “aquatic and other sports meetings, Phœnix Park demonstrations, the great funeral which the Sinn Feiners gave Mrs. MacDonagh, widow of their executed leader, the Twelfth of July Celebrations in Belfast and a fete in Lord Iveagh’s grounds” (“‘Irish Events’”). It is unlikely that Whitten could have covered all these events alone and run the other aspects of his business. Indeed, when the Limelight highlighted an Irish Events item on the Clontarf Aquatic Festival, it observed that it had been shot by both Whitten and his camera operator J. Gordon Lewis, who would become Whitten’s close collaborator. Over the Irish Events’ years of existence between 1917 and 1921, Whitten and Lewis would shoot such everyday occurrences and present them alongside some of the most momentous political events of Ireland’s history.

References

“Building News.” Irish Builder and Engineer 12 Apr. 1913: 250.

“Hire of a Film: ‘Lost in the Eternal City’: Action for £70.” Dublin Evening Mail 20 Jun. 1917: 4.

“‘Irish Events’: An Enterprise that Merits the Support of Every Exhibitor in this Country: News Films from the Four Provinces.” Irish Limelight 1:8 (Aug. 1917): 18-19.

“Irish Topical.” Bioscope 19 Jun. 1913: 857.

“Mr. J. J. Fisher.” Irish Limelight 1:7 (Jul. 1917): 17.

“Sinn Fein Prisoners’ Homecoming: Story of the Filming of Recent Remarkable Street Scenes in Dublin. Irish Limelight 1:7 (Jul. 1917): 16-17.

“Town Topics: Being a Casual Causerie.” Dublin Evening Mail 7 May 1917: 2.