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 GFS to plan a newsreel special to supplement their regular Irish Events newsreel. 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.

Rolls of Honour: Irish Film Businesses and the War, Autumn 1914

“The British Cinematograph Industry has made a magnificent response to the country’s call for men at this terrible crisis,” observed the trade journal Bioscope shortly after Britain’s entry into the First World War. The magazine requested that “managers of the cinematograph business houses or theatres, any of whose workers have temporarily left them for this noble purpose, kindly communicate the fact to us, mentioning the name of the man and the regiment he is joining” (“Trade Topics”). The following issue’s “Roll of Honour” (20 Aug.), a list of members of the trade who had joined the armed forces, did not mention any men from Irish companies, but Irish correspondent Paddy observed that one of the sons of Irish exhibitor James T. Jameson had “been called to the colours” (Paddy, 20 Aug.).

Roll of Honour 1

The Bioscope’s second “Roll of Honour” for men in film businesses who enlisted featured five Irishmen; 27 Aug. 1914: 784.

Beginning on 27 August, the names of employees in Irish or Ireland-based film companies began to appear on the Bioscope’s “Roll of Honour.” The first of those mentioned was William Vass Morris of Cork, described in the census of 1911 as a photographic agent, who was joining the South Irish Horse. Morris was joined on this list by three members of Gaumont’s Dublin office, another Morris, Ganey and Kinnemont, and by Byrne of Dublin’s Grand Cinema. Two members of Provincial Cinematograph’s Belfast staff – Cummings and Lydall – appeared on the first “Roll of Honour” in September. Provincial had already publicized the special contribution of its personnel to the war effort, and the Dublin Evening Mail had duly passed on this information to its readers (“The Picture House Staff”). Those named by the Evening Mail article had prominent positions in the company’s London head office, including chairman of the board Sir William Bass and general manager Aubrey Meares. It also claimed that

[b]etween 60 and 70 attendants at various theatres owned by this company have been called out on reserve, and the company has decided to allow 10s per week to the wife, and 2s 6d for each child during the man’s absence. All employes will be re-instated at the conclusion of the war. (Ibid.)

By early October, Dublin’s Evening Telegraph was putting the number of Provincial staff who had “joined his Majesty’s forces” at 109 (“Picture House Employes”).

Ad for war films at the Grafton; Dublin Evening Mail, 14 Sep. 1914: 2.

Ad for war films at the Grafton; Dublin Evening Mail, 14 Sep. 1914: 2.

Some Irish film production companies expanded their business during the war, taking advantage of new filmmaking opportunities – although these were not without risks – as well as pursuing some innovative work. Norman Whitten of the General Film Supply featured in a short article in the Bioscope in mid-September. It explained that Whitten had mounted a platform in front of a train to take “the beautiful scenery around Galway Bay. In the light of recent stirring events, the ‘topcials’ secured should be of distinct value to exhibitors” (“New Series of Irish Topicals”). As well as this kind of work that he had been doing for some time, Whitten – assisted by a Mr. Ashton who presumably had taken the place of Whitten’s previous cameraman, Benny Cann – made several war-themed films, but not as many as he planned. In early September, Paddy reported that Whitten had been threatened with being shot if he persisted in trying to film soldiers embarking on transport ships at Dublin’s North Wall. The War Office had revoked the permit to film that Whitten had earlier obtained. As Paddy observed, this was disappointing for Whitten, who had been building up his business in local topicals to a point where his film Funeral of Victims Shooting Affair Sunday, July 26th circulated in eight copies, which “constitutes rather a record” (Paddy, 3 Sep.). This film was of continuing relevance because of the campaign of the relatives of victims to get Dublin Corporation to petition the king (“Bachelor’s Walk Outrage”).

Whitten appears to have had eight regular subscribers for his topicals in Dublin, but such a circulation seems small by comparison with the other kinds of war films his company was making at the time. Paddy described Whitten’s Sons of John Bull as both a topical and a “‘cartoon’ film,” but the element of animation is not clear from his description, which makes the film appears to have been a series of filmed portraits and/or still images connected with dissolves and intertitles:

[I]t is a series of photos, hand-coloured, of famous people connected with the war. Each subject dissolves into the next, which rather enhances the beauty of the film. Another portion of the film is entitled “Friends,” and depicts famous men connected with our Allies, including a splendid photo of the king of Belgium. (Paddy, 3 Sep.)

The film ran 100 feet (or about 1 minute 40 seconds), but it is not clear why Paddy considered it “a great advance over the system of still slides,” which it clearly resembled, albeit without the presence of a lantern lecturer to explain the images.

By early October, Paddy was characterizing this film as “a pronounced success in Dublin and elsewhere,” and revealing Whitten’s plans to release a second film of the same kind on 22 October (Paddy, 1 Oct.). Twice the length of Son of John Bull at 200 feet, Britannia’s Message appears to have included newsreel and to have begun with an animated sequence. It

opens with Britannia drawing aside some curtains and revealing a German spy. Interesting scenes include an outside view of hundreds of young fellows besieging a recruiting office, a view of the Rugby Volunteers drilling at Lansdowne Road, Dublin, and a view of troops leaving for camp. (Ibid.)

The latter was presumably shot after Whitten had been given a new permit. The potential public interest beyond Ireland in these pro-war shorts was indicated by the fact that British distributor Cosmopolitan was handling them.

Within Ireland, business at the cinemas was reported to be good. In mid-September, Paddy made a tour of many of Dublin’s cinemas reporting that “in the great majority of cases [I] found business excellent; in fact, in certain houses exceptionally brisk.” His researches made him conclude that there was a difference between working-class and middle-class picture houses. He argued that

it is chiefly the houses which make an appeal to the 2d. and 3d. people that suffer most from the war. The patrons of these houses were largely drawn from reservists of one kind and another and their families. The bread-winner being away on service, the family naturally are thrown back on slenderer resources, and so cannot attend the “movies” as frequently as they might wish. However, as business gradually resumes more normal aspects, it is to be hoped that this state of things will be somewhat alleviated. (Paddy, 24 Sep.)

The Picturedrome is visible on the right of this photograph of Dublin's Harcourt Road. https://www.flickr.com/photos/nlireland/7628356832/

The Picturedrome is visible on the right of this photograph of Dublin’s Harcourt Road in c. 1912. https://www.flickr.com/photos/nlireland/7628356832/

One working-class picture house that he visited was the Picturedrome in Harcourt Road. For Paddy, the Picturedrome was “a theatre which I regret to find I have not mentioned in these notes for some time,” but he was not alone in his lack of coverage because the Picturedrome – catering for a local working-class audience – did not advertise in the Dublin newspapers and so was ignored by reviewers. “Business here was fairly brisk,” Paddy observed, “considering the regular patrons of the hall are drawn from men now with the colours.” Manager Will Sommerson was presenting a bill dominated by three Vitagraph films The Auto Bandits of New York, Old Reliable and Her Mother’s Wedding Gown. “[I]t’s astonishing the popularity of Vitagraph films in Ireland” – although The Auto Bandits seems to have been made by the Ruby Feature Film Company. The only other film he mentioned at the Picturedrome was “an exceptionally interesting scenic, ‘The Volcanoes of Java’” (ibid.).

Tivoli Theatre of Varieties, Burgh Quay, Dublin, May 1915. https://www.flickr.com/photos/nlireland/12082817723/

Tivoli Theatre of Varieties, Burgh Quay, Dublin, May 1915. https://www.flickr.com/photos/nlireland/12082817723/

The most notable thing about the Picturedrome’s programme is that Sommerson appears to have chosen none of the war-themed films that some other exhibitors were making a point of including on their programmes. At the Tivoli Theatre of Varieties, for example, the music-hall bill included the films Cyclists of the Belgian Army and The 23rd French Dragoons, which “had been specially procured by Mr. Charles M. Jones for the benefit of his patrons – a large proportion of soldiers being amongst the audience each night” (ibid.). At the Dorset Hall, manager Frederich Sullivan accompanied the dramas Jim, the Fireman (Britain: Barker, 1914) and In the Wolf’s Fangs (US: Bison, 1914) with “the authentic film of the Germans entering Brussels, and I noted that this film had been passed by the Censor” (ibid.).

The Man About Town's "Things Seen and Heard" column began with items on film on 5 and 10 Oct. 1914: 2.

The Man About Town’s “Things Seen and Heard” column in the Evening Herald began with film items on 5 and 10 Oct. 1914: 2.

Commentators in the Dublin papers were more ambivalent about war films. Also writing on 24 September, the same day as Paddy’s coverage of the Dublin picture houses appeared in the Bioscope, the Evening Herald columnist The Man About Town was pleased to hear from “the proprietor of one of our largest picture houses” that business was quite good, as well as to get a demonstration of the Topical Picture Slide, a new method of displaying topical news. Despite this unnamed proprietor’s focus on matters topical, he told the Man About Town that “[p]eople hear so much about the war that when they go to a cinema they look for something to relieve their minds from the awfulness of it, and I find that with a carefully selected and well-balanced programme business is really good.” A regular cinemagoer, the Man About Town provided an example a week later of a picture house patron who was traumatized by war images on screen. “I was attending a picture theatre the other day with a lady,” he revealed,

and gradually it was borne in upon me that my airy persiflage was falling on deaf or, at least, inattentive ears. The film was telling a thrilling story, and the incidents just being depicted were those of a naval encounter in the course of which the hero – an officer of the Royal Navy – is fatally wounded. My companion seemed a little distraite, and at last observed: “Oh, I wish they wouldn’t show things like this.” Then I remembered that her brother is at present serving in a ship in the North Sea. The cunning of the scene was too much for her. (30 Sep.)

Earlier in the month, he had suggested that certain picture houses were clumsily attempting to elicit patriotic responses from the Dublin audience. “In a picture theatre in — street yesterday a picture of King — was shown,” he observed,

the band played “— Save the King,” the audience uncovered (their heads), and there was some applause. So far so well. Then a raucous voice shouted in an unmistakable brogue, “Hip, hip, hurrah.” Without being able to swear to it, I have no doubt, having regard to the accent, the venue, and the audience, that this enthusiast was a paid rather than a paying spectator. In other words that he was one of the staff. Surely enthusiasm should grow of itself, and not be fomented in this way? As it was the demonstration fell flat. (12 Sep.)

The role of the picture house attendant who cheered was clearly crucial here, but music also played a significant part in this case and generally in shaping the experience of patrons. Paddy commented that the music at the Phibsboro Picture House at the northern edge of the city was “deserving of great praise, and no one takes more interest in her work or gives a more spirited and tasteful exhibition of playing than Miss Eagar”(24 Sep.). The Man About Town included an item entitled “‘Glorious’ War,” in which he demonstrated the way that talented musicians could influence the audience’s reception of war films. “While I was at a picture-house the other night,” he began, “scenes were shown of Belgian wounded being removed in ambulances. The pictures were rather harrowing, and as they were being displayed the band discoursed Elgar’s famous march, ‘Pomp and Circumstance.’ It set one thinking” (14 Sep.).

Therefore, although Irish film businesses generally embraced the pro-war patriotism that dominated the British industry, local exhibitors and audiences were more ambivalent about what they were seeing on the screen.

References

“Bachelor’s Walk Outrage: Relatives of the Victims: Corporation Resolution: To Petition King.” Evening Telegraph 5 Oct. 1914: 4.

The Man About Town. “Things Seen and Heard: ‘Glorious’ War.” Evening Herald 12 Sep. 1914: 2; 14 Sep. 1914: 2; 24 Sep. 1914: 2; 30 Sep. 1914: 2.

“New Series of Irish Topicals.” Bioscope 17 Sep. 1914: 1079.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 20 Aug. 1914: 752; 3 Sep. 1914: 913; 24 Sep. 1914: 1129; 1 Oct. 1914: 31.

“Picture House Employes.” Evening Telegraph 10 Oct. 1914: 3.

“The Picture House Staff: Many Men Off to the Front.” Dublin Evening Mail 21 Aug. 1914: 4.

“Roll of Honour.” Bioscope 20 Aug. 1914: 784; 27 Aug. 1914: 3 Sep 1914: 869.

“Trade Topics.” Bioscope 13 Aug. 1914: 617.