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

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

Willy Reilly framegrab Willy intro

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

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

Willy Reilly framegrab 3

Frances Alexander as Helen Folliard/the Colleen Bawn.

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

Daily Herald 2 Jan 1920: 2.

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

Willy Reilly framegrab Red Raparee

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

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

Willy Reilly framegrab 2

Willy and the Colleen Bawn get close.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dail Bonds Group1

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

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

Dail Bonds Kathleen Clarke

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

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

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

Dail Bonds Fogarty Letter 1

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

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

Dail Bonds Joseph MacDonagh

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

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

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

‎Willy Reilly Theatre Royal LL 19 Apr 1920p3

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

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

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

Willy Reilly Whitecraft at Willy house

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

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

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

Map of Willy Reilly exhibition in Britain in 1920

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

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

Willy Reilly Motherwell Times 12 Mar 1920p1

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

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

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

Willy Reilly Boh ET 19 Apr 1920p2

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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 that 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 1920 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.

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

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

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

Galway Express 27 Apr. 1918: 4.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Extended synopses in Irish Limelight Dec. 1917.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the summer house, he spies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

“A Photo-Play of Unique National Interest”: Seeing Knocknagow in Irish Cinemas, January-April 1918

On 22 April 1918, Knocknagow  (Ireland: FCOI, 1918) opened at Dublin’s Empire Theatre after a tour of many of Ireland’s towns and cities.

Ad for Knocknagow in the Irish Limelight Feb. 1918: 10-11.

In inviting Irish exhibitors to the trade show of the long-awaited Knocknagow on 6 February 1918 at Dublin’s Sackville Street Picture House, the Film Company of Ireland (FCOI) described the film as “a photo-play of unique national interest.” Knocknagow would become the most significant film made in Ireland during the silent period. Appearing just over two months after the three-reel comedy Rafferty’s Rise, Knocknagow was very different from anything FCOI had yet released. An epic nine-reel (8,700-feet or 2 hours 25 minutes at 16fps) adaptation of the best-selling Irish novel of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Knocknagow was by far the FCOI’s most ambitious work to date. Part of the national interest of the film may have been in making accessible a novel that some critics have argued was very widely bought but very little read (Donovan). Indeed, when in August 1917 the film was announced and a stage adaptation was proving popular, the Evening Herald’s Man About Town wondered “what the opinion of the author of Knocknagow would be if he saw his novel on the cinema screen, or its dramatized version drawing crowded houses in the theatres throughout the country.”

Tailor Phil Lahy (Arthur Shields) fits out Mat the Thrasher (Brian Magowan) for a new coat in Knocknagow. Image and essays on the film available here.

One of the things he would likely have thought is that the film was very selective in what it took from the novel. “The story meanders along through over six hundred pages its placidity disturbed by very little of what the playwright dubs ‘action,’” the Evening Telegraph critic JAP noted of the novel in his review of the trade show.

To extract from the [novel’s] 600 pages enough incidents for a photoplay – which, above all things, must have virile action, – and to contrive that there should be sufficient continuity to sustain interest throughout a half-dozen reels, was a task to daunt the most expert scenario writer. (“Gossip of the Day.”)

Although impressed by the film in other ways, particularly the acting, JAP did not seem to think that the scenario attributed to Mrs. N. T. Patton had been particularly successful in delivering virile action. Indeed, two weeks later, although no longer referring to Knocknagow, he argued that “the best books should not be filmed. To turn a book into a photo-play must be always an unsatisfactory business” (27 Feb.). However, in the trade-show review, he advised that “the action could be brisked up by sub-editing it down from eight reels to six, the sub-titles would be improved by more frequent quotations from the book and better choice of incidents would have helped to get more of the ‘atmosphere.’”

J.M. Carre as the villainous land agent Beresford Pender.

The version of Knocknagow that survives today is about an hour shorter than the original cut. As a result, it is difficult to say exactly what Irish audiences saw in early 1918, but a general description probably captures many of its essential features. Set in 1848, the film concerns the relationships among a large cast of characters who live on or adjacent to the lands of the absentee landlord Sir Garrett Butler, particularly in the village of Kilthubber and the hamlet of Knocknagow. Prominent among these are Mat “the Thrasher” Donovan (Brian Magowan); the tailor Phil Lahy (Arthur Shields), whose sickly daughter Nora (Kathleen Murphy) is betrothed to turfman Billy Heffernan (Breffni O’Rourke); large tenant farmer Maurice Kearney (Dermot O’Dowd) whose daughter Mary Kearney (Nora Clancy) is attracted to theology student Arthur O’Connor (Fred O’Donovan, who also directed); and villainous land agent Beresford Pender (J.M. Carre), who schemes to remove tenants from the land to make way for more lucrative cattle grazing. The film interweaves scenes of rural work and leisure (ploughing, tailoring, Christmas celebrations, a wedding, a hurling match, a fair) with more strongly plotted sequences, such as the developing love stories or Pender’s strategies to evict certain tenants and frame Mat for robbery. “With a true appreciation of the artistic,” the reviewer in Cavan’s Anglo-Celt contended

the various degrees of tone have been lifted from the novel, and placed on the screen just as Kickham would have done it himself. The happy peasantry, the prowess of the youth at the hurling match, the hammer-throwing contest, the unexpected “hunt,” the love scenes and the comedy – the life as it was before the agent of the absentee landlord came like a dark shadow on the scene, and with crowbar and torch, laid sweet Knocknagow in ruins – all were depicted by the very perfect actors who made up the cast. (“‘Knocknagow’ on the Film.”)

Pender’s eviction of the Brians, a farm labouring family, is depicted in detail, with titles superimposed on the images of the land agent dancing before their burning cottage.

Apart from transposing a bestselling Irish novel into an accessible screen format, two other definitions of “national interest” seem to be particularly relevant to thinking about the release of Knocknagow in early 1918: the commitment to local exhibition and the politics of Irish nationalism. The first of these is illustrated by the fact that the trade show had, unusually, followed rather than preceded a special premiere run in Clonmel from 30 January to 2 February, and the film’s first run after the trade show would not be in the cities of Dublin or Belfast but in Carlow on 18-19 February. The Clonmel opening was designed to acknowledge that the film had been shot almost entirely in the Tipperary locations of Clonmel and Mullinahone associated with Kickham’s source novel. However, given that audiences not only in Clonmel and Carlow but in many other small towns saw the film before it opened to the public in Dublin on 22 April underscores FCOI’s commitment to a definition of national interest that associated it first and foremost with small-town Ireland.

The importance of the Tipperary landscape is emphasized at several points of the film, including a sequence of iris shots in which Mat says farewell to Ireland as he makes ready to emigrate.

Other aspects of the exhibition of Knocknagow deserve discussion, but the 22 April opening date of the film in Dublin also marked a turning point in Irish national politics. That day was flanked by two days of demonstrations against the conscription of Irish men into the British army. Sunday, 21 April represented a particular Catholic church influenced protest, with mass meeting and fiery speeches in every parish in the country, while Tuesday, 23 April was the day chosen by trade unions for a general strike that meant, among other things, that “there were neither newspapers nor cinema shows” during a “universal cessation of work throughout Nationalist Ireland” (“Labour’s Protest”). The British government’s determination to extend conscription to Ireland would finally succeed in uniting the warring factions of Irish nationalism against it.

Newsreel special of the by-election in South Armagh, Dublin Evening Mail 4 Feb 1918: 2.

This turning point of the conscription crisis came after the film’s release in much of the country, however, and it was in a political context of the rise of Sinn Féin that the film was produced and initially exhibited. In late 1917 and early 1918, the long stable link between the achievement of nationhood and the Home Rule of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) was severely under threat from the vision of a more radical independence offered in the wake of the 1916 Rising by the new Sinn Féin party. The set pieces of this struggle from the time Knocknagow began shooting in Tipperary in the early summer of 1917 and through the period of its exhibition in late winter and spring 1918 were a series of six by-elections in which Sinn Féin ran candidates in constituencies where the IPP had previously held Westminster seats, winning three of them. After losing four seats in all to Sinn Féin in 1917, the IPP may have seemed to be regaining the momentum by winning the three by-elections in early 1918, but one of these included the Waterford seat left vacant by the death on 6 March of the man most associated with Home Rule, IPP leader John Redmond. Cinema audiences could follow these developments through the newsreel footage of the by-elections and Redmond’s funeral provided by Irish Events and exhibitors such as William Kay of Dublin’s Rotunda who filmed these events.

General Film Supply sought sales of its film of the Funeral of the Late John Redmond, M.P. beyond its usual Irish Events network by placing this ad with the entertainment ads in the Evening Telegraph of 11-12 Mar. 1918.

As well as these party-political events, Knocknagow was released in a country that was experiencing increasing incidents of local unrest of many kinds, with a large number of prosecutions for cattle driving and for illegal drilling by Irish Volunteers, as well as a hunger strike by Sinn Féin prisoners in Mountjoy Jail. In early March, County Clare was placed under martial law, and Major-General W. Fry issued a proclamation “prohibiting the holding of any meeting or procession within the Dublin Metropolitan Police Area between March 6 and March 27,” a period that included St. Patrick’s Day (“Proclamation”). In one high-profile case, men arrested for illegal drilling in Dundalk refused to recognize the court and sang “The Soldier’s Song” to disrupt proceedings. This tactic became so common that one defendant (Michael Murray) in a Clare cattle-driving case refused to recognize “this concert” (“Court Scene”). However, when during the Dundalk case, a variety company sang the same “Sinn Féin” songs at one of the local picture house, a section of the audience left in protest (“Round Up”). More seriously, members of an audience at Limerick’s Tivoli Picture House on 4 March became victims of violence when 15 to 18 soldiers who had been involved in running battles with young men in the street burst into the auditorium and attacked the crowded audience at random with sticks and truncheons, injuring many, including the musical director (“Soldiers & People in Conflict”).

Mat leads the Knocknagow hurling team for a match that the Derry Journal reviewer thought was “a topsy-turvey affair, resembling a rugby scramble more than a game of caman” (“‘Knock-na-Gow’ at the Opera House”). Some more on that aspect of the film here.

In these circumstances in which, it seems, politics could irrupt into the auditorium at any moment, Knocknagow looks like quite an indirect, even tame intervention. The FCOI’s choice of Kickham’s novel as the basis for its first landmark film seems, on the one hand, an overtly nationalist statement: its author was a former president of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and one of the best known Irish revolutionaries of the latter half of the nineteenth century. On the other hand, the nature of the book – rich in detail of Irish country life in the 1840s but also sprawling and sentimental rather than overtly political – was such that it could be adapted without courting political controversy. As such, the film contrasts with the films made in Ireland between 1910 and 1914 by US filmmakers Sidney Olcott and Gene Gauntier for Kalem and subsequently their own production companies, some of which openly feature armed political rebellion against Britain, albeit that these films are also set in the past.

ArthurO’Connor and Mary Kearney pursue their romance.

This is not to argue that FCOI was politically conservative but that the company had to negotiate strict censorship. The attempt to show Ireland a Nation (US: Macnamara, 1914) in Dublin in January 1917 or even the more recent controversy over the potential banning of the Finn Varra Maa pantomime had shown that to have produced a film that the authorities judged to have been overtly nationalistic would undoubtedly have been to see the film immediately banned under the particularly strict wartime censorship provisions of the Defence of the Realm Act. Apart from anything else, the banning of Knocknagow would have been a financial disaster for the already struggling FCOI.

Scenario competition in Irish Limelight Dec 1917: 11.

In this context, Kickham’s work took on a renewed importance in its ability to subtly re-articulate a familiar set of representations in a political way through its association with the author’s republicanism. Despite its setting in the mid-19th century, Knocknagow still resonated with Irish audiences, as the popularity of the stage adaptation shows. And 1918 would be the year of Kickham film adaptations: with a similar setting in time and place, Kickham’s other major novel Sally Cavanagh would be adapted by J. A. McDonald for a scenario competition run by the Irish Limelight in early 1918. Given that Knocknagow’s director Fred O’Donovan joined Limelight editor Jack Warren in judging the competition, it is perhaps not surprising that McDonald’s scenario, Untenanted Graves, won, but its seems never to have been produced (“Untenanted Graves”).

Films made in Ireland by US filmmakers Sidney Olcott and Gene Gauntier for Kalem dominated this list of Irish films available to Irish exhibitors through Dublin-based General Film Supply; Irish Limelight Dec. 1917: 18.

As the Kickham film that was made, Knocknagow in itself, and in the company’s rhetoric around it, emphasized its embeddedness in particular Irish locations that were different from the ones popularized by previous, foreign filmmakers in Ireland, especially the Killarney of the enduringly popular Olcott-Gauntier films. Unlike Olcott and Gauntier, the FCOI filmmakers were – predominantly – Irish born, and the company was based in Dublin. In keeping with this rhetoric, local exhibition was of more than usual importance to Knocknagow. FCOI had opened previous films in regional picture houses, despite the claim by the Dame Street Picture Theatre in Dublin that all the company’s productions could be seen there first. But for Knocknagow, regional exhibition was a part of its national significance.

Ad for premiere of Knocknagow at Magner’s Theatre, Clonmel; Nationalist 26 Jan. 1918: 6.

Indeed, successful regional exhibition in Ireland was to be part of the promotion of the film with audiences and exhibitors abroad. On 13 April, while Knocknagow was showing in Derry, Dublin’s Evening Herald published a brief interview from its drama critic Jacques with FCOI producer James Mark Sullivan. Sullivan was on the cusp of bringing the FCOI films to America (on the film in America, see here and here), and Jacques quoted him on the company’s intentions:

“We desire,” he says, “to show Ireland sympathetically; to get away from the clay pipe and the knee breeches; to show Ireland’s rural life, with pride in the same; to show Ireland’s metropolitan life intelligently, depicting the men and women of the 20th century – in short, Ireland at its best in every walk of human endeavour.”

This may have been his desire but if it had any basis in a reality beyond advertising rhetoric, it must have referred to the earlier FCOI films and not Knocknagow. Knocknagow persisted in representing the Irish of the mid-19th century and doing so in familiar ways, including costumed in knee breeches. In addition, Sullivan made specific claims about the way that Knocknagow was being welcomed in Ireland “like no other picture was ever received in Ireland or out of Ireland before. From every place where it has once been shown,” he contended,

we are receiving return bookings—a remarkable thing in the case of a picture, though very ordinary in that of a play or opera. For instance, the city of Limerick gave us four bookings, and I question if any other picture every received over two. The same is true of Waterford, Clonmel, Cork, Carlow, and other towns. This week we are breaking all records in Waterford. I mention these facts to indicate that there is prospect of promise and permanency in our enterprise.

The ad for Knocknagow at Derry’s Opera House was dwarfed by an ad for the opening of the city’s newest picture house, the Rialto, on 29 April. Derry Journal 12 Apr. 1918: 2.

Although the surviving evidence in Ireland’s regional newspapers does not quite support Sullivan’s attempts to boost Knocknagow in advance of its Dublin opening, the film had been shown – or in the case of Limerick, was about to be shown – in the towns he named. To clarify, before its week-long run at the Empire Theatre in Dublin (22-27 Apr.), the film was shown at Magner’s Theatre in Clonmel (30 Jan.-2 Feb.), the Sackville Picture Theatre in Dublin (trade show, 6 Feb.), the Cinema Palace in Carlow (18-19 Feb.), the Town Hall Cinema in Cavan (25-27 Feb.), the Cinema in Kilkenny (6-7 Mar.), the Opera House in Cork (18-23 Mar.), the Coliseum in Waterford (1-6 Apr.), the Opera House in Derry (8-13 Apr.), the Empire Theatre in Belfast (15-20 Apr.), the Shannon Cinema in Limerick (15-17 Apr.) the Picturedrome in Tralee (18-20 Apr.) and the Town Hall in Galway (22-24 Apr.).

Anglo-Celt 23 Feb. 1918: 7.

A survey of the reception of Knocknagow in the run up to the Dublin opening has shown something of the way in which the film resonated with audiences around the country. It makes clear that the film was certainly popular with Irish cinemagoers, with local critics consistently praising its fidelity to Kickham’s novel, the quality of the acting and the beauty of the Tipperary scenery. However, few reviews mentioned the film’s contemporary political relevance. Indeed, some suggested that audiences abroad would be particularly impressed by the film, including the Anglo-Celt‘s reviewer, who subtitled his/her notice “A Picture Play that Will Create a Furore in America” (“‘Knocknagow’ on the Film”).

Despite such potentially politically sensitive scenes as the eviction, this was probably due to the fact that such events were depicted in the past, safely distanced, with Cork Evening Echo emphasizing that the film would attract “all those who take an interest in the economic and social development which has taken place in this country during the past two generations” (“Opera House”). These events had happened “many years ago” even for those such as the Evening Herald’s Jacques, for whom the film vividly recalled personal memories of “the cabin doors broken and the furniture flung out, and the poor half-dressed occupants lying on the roadside amid the wreckage of their home.”

An illustrated intertitle introduces the eviction scene, emphasizing its importance.

It was only really in Galway that a critic saw the film’s immediate political relevance by arguing that it

pointed a topical moral at the present time. We saw the evictions, the crowbar brigades, the burnings, the landlord oppression of 70 years ago, the attempt to wipe out a race. Such memories – only of the other day – as it revived scarcely accommodated the mind of the beholder to the nation of conscription. (“Town Hall.”)

By the time this reviewer was writing on or about 26 April, conscription had become the politically unifying issue for nationalists that it had not been earlier in Knocknagow’s run.

While FCOI could not have foreseen such events, the company enhanced its connection to the local audience in many of the places Knocknagow was shown by having members of the cast sing at screenings. This was a unique feature of the film’s exhibition in Ireland. Film actors had on rare occasions attended screenings of their films, but they did not contribute to the events’ live music. Brian Magowan, the film’s main star and an actor familiar with musical theatre, appeared most often, regularly accompanied by fellow cast member Breffni O’Rourke. This was not Magowan’s first vocal accompaniment of a FCOI film; he had sung at the premiere of the company’s first film, O’Neill of the Glen. In the case of Knocknagow, however, the FCOI gave this feature special prominence by having Magowan and O’Rourke, dressed in character, sing folk songs connected with the film. Although they did not appear at every venue where the film was shown, and of course, they could not have when the film was showing simultaneously in geographically remote locations, Magowan’s and O’Rourke’s live appearances were regular features of the first run of the film in Ireland.

While ploughing a field with a view of Slievenamon (mountain), Mat pauses to sing “The Farmer’s Boy,” with an intertitle helpfully providing musical notation and the song’s refrain.

Their earliest appearance seems to have been in Cavan, where the Anglo-Celt reported that “[a]n interesting feature of the entertainment was that Mr. J. McGowan, who, as ‘Mat the Thrasher’ was the hero on the film, appeared each evening in the flesh and sang some old Irish ballads in very charming voice, while Mr. Breffni O’Rourke (‘Bill Heffenan’ in the play) gave some traditional Irish lays and witty stories” (“‘Knocknagow’ on the Film”). Magowan most important contribution was “Slievenamon,” a song about the Tipperary mountain whose lyrics Kickham had composed. The centrality of this song to the FCOI’s conception of the ideal accompaniment of the film is underlined by the reproduction of Magowan’s arrangement of the song for voice and piano that was included in a programme for a later (probably 1919) run of the film (NLI).

The film has many musical scenes, including this one in which Billy Heffernan plays the flute while the Lahys dance.

The reviews are unclear on whether they sang before, after or during the projection of the film, but the film itself includes moments that motivate vocal accompaniment. In an early scene of the film, Mat is introduced by an intertitle and then shown ploughing a field in long shot. In a mid-shot, he turns around to the camera, and an intertitle appears with a musical stave and the refrain from the folk song “The Farmer’s Boy.” The cut back to Mat shows him singing animatedly before he returns to his ploughing in the shadow of Slievenamon. These on-screen cue might provide the place for Magowan to sing or they might encourage the audience to sing these popular tunes. A similar series of shots occurs later when tailor Phil Lahy sings “The Black Horse,” whose opening lines are printed on an intertitle.

Made and released during a fraught historical moment, Knocknagow sought to engage its audiences with a bestselling literary text and popular songs and involve them in the process of readjusting the representation of the Irish on screen.

References

“Court Scene: Clare Cattle Drivers Refuse to Recognise ‘this Concert.’” Dublin Evening Mail 16 Mar. 1918: 3.

Donovan, Stephen. “Introduction: Ireland’s Own Film.” Screening the Past 33 (2012). Available at <http://www.screeningthepast.com/2012/02/introduction-ireland%E2%80%99s-own-film/&gt;

Jacques. “Knocknagow Filmed: Wonderful Irish Picture of Storied Incident.” Irish Limelight Apr. 1918: 5.

JAP. “Gossip of the Day: Film Version of Kickham’s Most Famous Novel.” Evening Telegraph 7 Feb. 1918: 2.

—. “Gossip of the Day: The Present Fashion in Films.” Evening Telegraph 27 Feb. 1918: 2.

“‘Knock-Na-Gow’ at the Opera House.” Derry Journal 10 Apr. 1918: 4.

“‘Knocknagow’ on the Film: A Picture Play that Will Create a Furore in America.” Anglo-Celt 2 Mar. 1918: 6.

“Labour’s Protest.” Freeman’s Journal 24 Apr. 1918: 2.

The Man About Town. “Thing Seen and Heard.” Evening Herald 22 Aug. 1917: 2; 9 Mar. 1918: 2.

NLI (National Library of Ireland). MS 50,000/272/82, Liam O’Leary Archive. Programme for Knocknagow, n.d.

“Opera House.” Evening Echo 14 Mar. 1918: 2.

“Proclamation: Processions Forbidden for the Next Three Weeks in the Dublin Area.” Dublin Evening Mail 7 Mar. 1918: 3.

“A Round Up: Many Volunteers Arrested.” Evening Telegraph 12 Mar. 1918: 3.

“Soldiers & People in Conflict: Scenes in Limerick.” Irish Independent 6 Mar. 1918: 3.

“Town Hall.” Galway Express 27 Apr. 1918: 4.

“The Untenanted Graves.” Irish Limelight Apr. 1918: 13.

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

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

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

 

Irish Limelight May 1917: 5.

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

Irish Limelight Jul. 1917: 14.

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

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

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

Dublin Evening Mail 12 Nov. 1917: 2.

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

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

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

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

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

Irish Limelight May 1917: 4.

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

Irish Limelight May 1917: 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Instructive Images on Irish Cinema Screens in Late Summer 1917

Kingstown Pav DEM 6 Aug 1917

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rotunda Convention 26 Jul 1917 DEM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kathleen Murphy ET 7 Apr 1917

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

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

Irish Independent 10 Nov. 1917: 2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

J. M. Kerrigan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Boland Irish Limelight Jun. 1917: 6.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kerry location at which FCOI shot in August 1916.

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

Derry Journal 10 Jan. 1917: 2.

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

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

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

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

Dublin Evening Mail 24 Oct. 1916: 4.

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shadows of Revolution in Irish Cinemas, March 1917

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chaplin Count Framegrab

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

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

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

Boh Cleansing Fires ET 15 Mar 1917

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

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

Film Fun July 1916: np.

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exhibiting Tanks to Irish Cinema Fans, February 1917

A tank goes into battle in The Battle Ancre and Advance of the Tanks (Britain: British Topical Committee for War Films, 1917) from the Imperial War Museums.

A tank goes into battle in The Battle Ancre and Advance of the Tanks (Britain: British Topical Committee for War Films, 1917); Imperial War Museums.

Cinema was so popular in Ireland in February 1917 that the press had to search for a name for its adherents, and they found it in American vernacular. “This morning there is a heart-cry from a cinema fan,” the “Gossip of the Day” columnist in the Evening Telegraph noted on 21 February 1917:

He doesn’t know that he is a cinema fan, and that is the crux of the trouble – he is ignorant of the great American language. I gather from his pathetic note that he is a regular patron of the “silent drama,” yet he finds a difficulty in understanding the explanatory inscriptions with which American producers seek to help the intellects of those who sit in the outer darkness.

Although cinema was primarily a visual medium and as such offered the promise of an international language, it still required words to specify the meaning of what might otherwise be ambiguous images. The silent film’s intertitles carried those words, but they were often in a dialect not universally understood. The columnist was surprised at this because s/he believed that “regular patrons of this form of amusement were able to understand any announcement on the screen from the ‘slick’ slang of East Side New York to the weird attempts at English of the Italian, French and Danish producers.”

Most of the films that Irish cinemagoers saw were indeed American, but it was a British film that sought to attract as many Irish cinema fans as possible in February 1917. Monday, 19 February saw the Irish opening of The Battle of the Ancre and Advance of the Tanks (Britain: British Topical Committee for War Films, 1917), a War Office-sponsored propaganda film more often called simply The Tanks. Despite this foreshortened title, tanks featured only occasionally in the film. “Throughout the five scenes,” the Evening Herald’s Man About Town complained, “the Tanks are seen about four times altogether, each time only for a very brief passing moment.”

Whatever about the coming disappointment, anticipation for the film could build on tantalizing glimpses of this new war machine that had been accumulating for several months. In autumn 1916, Irish people had read about the first battlefield deployment of tanks, and in November 1916, Dubliners had even had the opportunity of seeing a tank film, albeit it the animated Tank Cartoon (Britain: Kineto, 1916). The cinema trade press had also informed its Irish readers about the shooting of the War Office tank film (“About Those Tanks!”).

faugh-a-ballaghs-il-feb-1917

The Dublin Evening Mail appears not to have been exaggerating when it noted that the “coming of the “Tanks’ Film’ to Dublin has been eagerly anticipated.” Publicity for the film could draw on what appears to have been a widespread fascination with this new weapon, in a similar way to which the earlier propaganda films had focused on artillery or aircraft. Previewing the coming shows at Dublin’s Theatre Royal, the city’s largest entertainment venue, the Mail writer observed that the “film portrays the most interesting happenings during the Battle of the Ancre, when the Tanks were first heard of, and promises to prove one of the most successful of the many interesting war films already seen in Dublin. The Battle of the Ancre stands out as one of the most striking phases of ‘The Big Push’” (“‘The Tanks’ at ‘The Royal’”).

Indeed, the Royal starting advertising the film as early as 10 February, when a short item warned patrons to book the film to avoid disappointment: “Your remember the trouble you had getting a seat at the ‘Battle of the Somme’ films, but you say to yourself that there will be no difficulty with ‘The Tank’ films, and you delay booking only to find yourself in the same position as before” (“‘The Tanks’ Film at the Theatre Royal”). The added attraction of The Tanks was that it included footage of Irish soldiers: “There were no Irish regiments shown in the Somme film, but Lieut. Malins, who took the pictures, succeeded in getting some splendid films of our gallant Irish Brigade.” Despite such extensive publicity of the film, the Royal only showed it at matinees (beginning at 2.30pm), except on Wednesday, when the film replaced the Royal’s two evening variety shows (beginning at 6.45pm and 9pm). Nevertheless, the film was presented at the Royal with “special music and effects that […] should help one to realise ‘what it is like.’ The band of the famous Faugh-a-Ballaghs will play at every performance” (“‘The Tanks’ at ‘The Royal’”). Unfortunately no review of the Royal shows appears to exist that specifies what effects – presumably sound effects imitating exploding shells – were used during the shows and how the audiences responded.

tanks-grafton-dem-21-feb-1917

Dublin Evening Mail 19 Feb. 1917: 2.

The Royal was far from the only Dublin venue showing the film that week. Another large theatre, the Empire, showed the film all week alongside a somewhat reduced variety programme. Several of the most prestigious picture houses also screened it, with the Bohemian, Carlton, Masterpiece and Town Hall, Rathmines showing it for the first three days of the week, and the Grafton retaining it into the second half of the week. The Bohemian managed to show the film four times daily at 3, 5, 7 and 9, but this was eclipsed by the six shows that the Grafton managed to squeeze in at 1.45, 3.15, 4.45, 6.15, 7.45 and 9.15, “so that business men and others can all have an opportunity of making acquaintance with these new machines of war, of which Sir Douglas Haig says he cannot speak too highly” (“Grafton Picture House”).

While Dublin’s newspapers reviewed the film positively – even the Herald‘s Man About Town, despite his disappointment about the little screen time devoted to the tanks themselves – the Irish Times printed the longest review, and it was most forthright in clarifying the film’s ideological intent. Its “exhibition creates many thrills, and gives a very vivid conception of the war in all its phases,” the writer argued. S/he admitted that this had been done before, most notably by the very popular Battle of the Somme (Britain: British Topical Committee for War Films, 1916), but it had been criticized for showing British soldiers being killed. “[I]n the Tank films one is spared the somewhat gruesome side of the fighting. The tanks are awesome but not gruesome” (“‘Tanks in Action’”). In the face of so much evidence to the contrary, the film therefore helped recruiting by propagating a myth of British military invulnerability. “Should they stimulate our young men to help those Irishmen whom they see manning the trenches,” the Times writer concluded a lengthy review, “‘The Tanks in Action’ will be doing good work in Dublin.”

ultus-sydney-master-dem-24-feb-1917p2

Dublin Evening Mail 24 Feb. 1917: 2.

The Times did not usually offer extensive reviews of films, but other newspapers were taking cinema increasingly seriously. On 19 February, the Evening Telegraph – the evening edition of the Freeman’s Journal – resumed publication after a hiatus caused by the destruction of its premises during the Easter Rising. Among its innovations was a Saturday column entitled “Kinematograph Notes and News.” The first series of notes on 24 February included both international items and some of particular Irish relevance. The latter included a notice that Aurele Sydney, star of Ultus series, would attend the Masterpiece Cinema during the following week’s screenings of Ultus and the Secret of the Night (Britain: Gaumont, 1917). Another note concerned the views of John Bunny, a film star who had visited Ireland five years previously and discussed the possibilities for film production in the country. Given that it made no mention of the Film Company of Ireland’s recent filmmaking efforts, the reason for the inclusion of the note on Bunny is unclear, unless it was to quietly contradict the claim made in the Masterpiece’s ad that Sydney was the first cinema star to visit Ireland.

This column was praised by a writer in the Irish Limelight, the cinema magazine that had begun publication in January 1917. “Readers of the Saturday Evening Telegraph got an agreeable surprise recently when they found that cinema notes were introduced,” “Movie Musings” columnist Senix observed. The surprise that the staff at the Limelight got on seeing the column may not have been all that agreeable, given that a weekly newspaper column might steal much of the thunder of the monthly journal. Nevertheless, Senix took it to be a positive development, commenting that “[t]his recognition of the people’s amusement proves pleasant reading after the many bitter attacks which have been made in the local Press. And the fact that it comes so soon after the appearance of the Irish Limelight sets us thinking.”

Dublin Evening Mail 17 Feb. 1917: 2

Dublin Evening Mail 17 Feb. 1917: 2

Despite Senix’s optimistic reading of the appearance of the Telegraph‘s column, bitter attacks on cinema were still very much evident in February 1917, both in the press and in the auditorium. When the “Gossip of the Day” columnist had attempted to define “cinema fan” for his/her readers, s/he speculated that “‘fan’ must be American for ‘fanatic,’ as it is used to designate people who are peculiarly addicted to any pastime.” However, there may be reasons for distinguishing between cinema fans and cinema fanatics. Certainly serial protestor William Larkin was a fanatic often to be encountered in cinemas but not a cinema fan. Since 1914, Larkin had mounted periodic protests in Dublin’s picture houses against films that he and the Catholic Irish Vigilance Association (IVA) considered to be morally dubious. These protests occurred in the auditorium during the screening of the films and involved Larkin shouting about the need for a Catholic-influenced Irish censorship and/or throwing ink at the screen. Larkin sought arrest to magnify the reach of the protest through the newspaper reports of the disturbance and subsequent trial. He had usually found that the magistrates treated him leniently – even indulgently – but in December 1915, he had been jailed when he refused to pay a fine imposed for a cinema protest.

After a period of apparent inactivity during 1916, Larkin’s latest – and last for some years – cinema protest took place on 21 February 1917 during a screening of The Soul of New York (US: Fox, 1915; released in the US as The Soul of Broadway) at the Pillar Picture House in Dublin city centre (“City Cinema”). It followed a well-established pattern. At about 10.25pm, the picture-house porter heard a commotion in the auditorium, found that Larkin had thrown “a blue liquid” at the screen and went to get manager J. D. Hozier. Larkin made no attempt to escape and admitted to having thrown the liquid, which not only caused damage estimated at £30 to the screen but also “bespattered” the instruments and clothes of musicians Herbert O’Brien, Joseph Schofield and Samuel Golding in the orchestra (“City Cinema Scenes”). After several court appearances, the case seems to have been struck out at the end of March.

Evening Telegraph 22 Feb. 1917: 1.

Evening Telegraph 22 Feb. 1917: 1.

Although this “exciting episode” certainly garnered press coverage, how Larkin’s direct-action methods complemented the Irish Vigilance Association’s ongoing campaign for cinema censorship is not clear. Indeed, despite his previous affiliation with the IVA, Larkin may have been acting on his own in this instance. The IVA’s well organized political lobbying for the introduction and effective exercising of film censorship was well advanced by February 1917. In June 1916, Dublin Corporation had appointed Walter Butler and Patrick Lennon as film censors, and in January 1917, it had engaged two women as “lady inspectors” of picture houses (“Amusement Inspectors,” “Dublin Lady Censors”). The IVA found a ready welcome at Dublin Corporation. On the last day of February, its Public Health Committee (PHC) invited a seven-member IVA deputation to address them on Sunday opening (“Cinema on Sundays”). Answering the deputation’s complaint that many cinemas opened at 8 o’clock on Sunday evenings, thereby intruding on hours set aside for Catholic devotions, PHC chairman and former mayor Lorcan Sherlock assured the deputation that the Corporation would enforce a 8.30pm Sunday opening.

Therefore, Irish cinema was engaging both fans and fanatics in February 1917.

References

“About Those Tanks! Extraordinary Interest of the Latest ‘Big Push’ Films.” Bioscope 12 Oct. 1916: 121.

“Amusement Inspectors: Reports to Be Made on Dublin Performances.” Evening Herald 10 Jan. 1917: 3.

“Cinemas on Sundays: Vigilance Association and the Hours of Opening.” Evening Telegraph 1 Mar. 1917: 2.

City Cinema: Exciting Episode: Blue Liquid Thrown.” Evening Telegraph 22 Feb. 1917: 1.

“City Picture-House Scene.” Dublin Evening Mail 28 Feb. 1917: 2.

“Dublin Lady Censors: Names Submitted.” Freeman’s Journal 15 Jan. 1917: 4.

“Gossip of the Day: Comments on Current Events.” Evening Telegraph 21 Feb. 1917: 2

“Grafton Picture House.” Dublin Evening Mail 17 Feb. 1917: 5.

“Kinematograph Notes and News.” Evening Telegraph 24 Feb. 1917: 5.

The Man About Town. “Thing Seen and Heard.” Evening Herald 19 Feb. 1917: 2.

Senix. “Movie Musings.” Irish Limelight 1:3 (Mar. 1917): 3.

“‘The Tanks’ at ‘The Royal.’” Dublin Evening Mail 17 Feb. 1917: 4.

“‘The Tanks’ Film at the Theatre Royal.” Dublin Evening Mail 10 Feb. 1917: 5.

“‘Tanks in Action’: Cinema Pictures in Dublin.” Irish Times 20 Feb. 1917: 3.