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.

Rebuilding Dublin as a Cinematic City for the 1920s

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.