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

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

Jun 18 1917 ET Prisoners 2

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

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

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

IRISHLIMEGHT1JUL_P17 002

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

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

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

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

Prisoners photo IL Jul 1917

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

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

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

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

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

Boh Release Prisoners 13 Jun 18 1917 DEM

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

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

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

Markievicz IL Jul 1917

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Processions, Protest and the Perfect Woman in Irish Picture Houses, Late Summer 1915

Summer was usually a bad time for indoor entertainments such as cinema. But the Irish weather during July 1915 – like that of July 2015 – did not favour outdoor activities. “It has been a sad time for July holiday-makers,” observed the Irish Times in early August, “and as yet there is no hint of a better hope for August, except that which may be taken from the thought that what has persisted so long must soon change” (“Wet Weather”). While some temporary picture houses opened at seaside resorts, some established venues followed the practice of the theatres and closed for several weeks in July and/or August. Although Dublin’s Rotunda usually stayed open throughout the summer, it took advantage of this practice in 1915 by closing on 7 June for extensive renovations and reopening on 26 July.

Swimmer Annette Kellerman was considered the “|Perfect Woman” because here measurements corresponded to the classical dimension of the Venus de Milo. Australian poster from the collections of the National Library of Australia, available here.

Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman’s bodily measurements promoted on a poster for the film Neptune’s Daughter. Collection of the National Library of Australia, available here.

The weather didn’t stop Dublin architect Joseph Holloway from travelling across town on the evening of Friday, 9 July, from his home in Northumberland Road south of the city to the Bohemian Picture Theatre in the northern suburb of Phibsborough. He was clearly quite taken with the “great film drama of a legendary story in five parts, called Neptune’s Daughter featuring Annette Kellerman (the Perfect Woman)” because he described it in more detail than any other film he had seen that year (Holloway, 9 Jul. 1915). The film was one of the several mermaid fantasies the Australian swimmer made during her film career in the 1910s and early 1920s. Dublin audiences had seen Kellerman three years previously in a similar live stage show, when she had appeared at the Theatre Royal with a company of 40 artistes in Undine, a 14th-century set “idyll of forest and stream” (“Theatre Royal”). Although a skilled athlete, Kellerman’s celebrity was partly based on her controversial promotion of a form-fitting one-piece swimsuit for women. This attire allowed women swimmers the ease of movement needed for athletic achievement, which was not permitted by form-hiding two-piece Victorian bathing costumes. Her championing of women’s athletics fitted well with such contemporary campaigns for women’s equality as the suffrage movement, and at a special matinee during her week in Dublin in 1912, Kellerman gave a lecture on women’s physical culture. At the same time, the publicity for her theatrical appearances fully exploited the spectacle of her body, which was declared perfect because it corresponded so exactly to the measurements of the Venus de Milo.

“Summer at Last!” Irish LIfe 19 Jul. 1912: 669.

“Summer at Last!” Irish LIfe 19 Jul. 1912: 669. Courtesy of National Library of Ireland.

Photographs published by the glossy illustrated weekly Irish Life in July and August 1912 – just after Kellerman’s visit – throw some light on the degree of controversy her appearance is likely to have caused in the early 1910s. Irish Life published many photographs of Ireland’s leisure class at golf, tennis, horse riding, motoring and other activities. Under the title “Summer at Last!” the issue of 19 July 1912 published photos of six women bathers, and the one-piece swimsuit is much in evidence: only one of the women has a swimsuit that covers her upper legs, arms and shoulders. Although four of the women are on or beside bathing machines that suggest the persistence of Victorian seaside practices, they appear unconcerned by the gaze of the camera or are even welcoming of it. The photo story suggests a fairly permissive view of the display of the female body in such public spaces as beaches and of the reproduction of such photographs in a widely circulating magazine of the “respectable” classes.

“On the Rocks” and “Disillusioned,” Irish Life 9 Aug. 1912: 791 and 16 Aug. 1912: 840.

“On the Rocks” and “Disillusioned,” Irish Life 9 Aug. 1912: 791 and 16 Aug. 1912: 840. Courtesy of National Library of Ireland.

However, this sense of the freedom of bodily display is somewhat challenged by the letter of complaint that the editor received the following month in response to Irish Life’s publication on 9 August 1912 of a postcard with a bather – in this case, probably a model – no more undressed or welcoming of the camera’s gaze than the previous women. The complaint was not a trivial one: it came from the Catholic Church based Dublin Vigilance Committee (DVC). Founded in early November 1911, the DVC had grown rapidly and held the first of what was to become an annual show of strength in the form of a procession through the streets of Dublin and a mass meeting at the Mansion House in July 1912. This was an astonishingly successful event, drawing letters of support not only from the Irish Catholic hierarchy but also the pope. The fact that it took place at the Mansion House meant that the movement already had the imprimatur of Dublin’s Lord Mayor, who attended, but the meeting was also addressed by Ireland’s highest government official, the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Aberdeen, who had also been the president of the National Vigilance Association of England for the previous 15 years. This was a movement with serious political clout. Nevertheless, when Irish Life responded to the complaint on 16 August, it was with an article that was more resentful than contrite and that was illustrated by children playing on a beach who were “Quite Happy! / Provided There Are no Vigilance Committees to Object.”

Three years later, at the Bohemian on the evening of 9 July 1915, Holloway was also quite happy with Neptune’s Daughter (US: Universal, 1914). However, the filmmakers – including Dublin-born director Herbert Brenon – pushed the degree of bodily display in Kellerman’s performance to full nudity, causing Holloway some qualms. “The story was splendidly enacted,” he thought, “but Annette Kellerman’s lack of costume was very daring at times.” Nevertheless, Holloway

thought it a very beautiful film, with nothing suggestive in it, – perhaps the incident of the diving from the rocks, again and again, clad only in nature, might have been omitted, with no hurt to the story, but, then Annette Kellerman wanted to show what an expert diver she is, & gave the display.

For a full week in early July 1915, Dublin’ s Bohemian Picture Theatre showed Neptune’s Daughter with Australian swimming star Annette Kellerman; Evening Telegraph 5 Jul. 1915: 1 and 8 Jul. 1915: 1.

Dublin’ s Bohemian Picture Theatre retained Neptune’s Daughter for a full week in early July 1915; Evening Telegraph 5 Jul. 1915: 1 and 8 Jul. 1915: 1.

Holloway’s defensiveness here is understandable because the DVC had not gone away in the interim and was in 1915 shifting its focus from what it termed “evil literature” to “the filthy picture screen” (“Fighting a Plague”). Neptune’s Daughter had been due to finish its three-day run at the Bohemian on Wednesday, 7 July – two nights before Holloway saw it – but because of its popularity, Bohemian manager Frederick Sparling extended its run into the second half of the week. On the Thursday night, the packed Bohemian was visited by William and Francis Larkin, the members of the DVC most likely to make a protest. The newspapers reported that at 9 o’clock, the Larkins “began to hiss, and they persisted in this form of protest for forty minutes, to the end of the film” (“‘Neptune’s Daughter’”). “It was evident that the audience found nothing of a suggestive or offensive nature in the production,” opined the Freeman’s Journal, “and they showed their approval by applauding warmly (“Annette Kellerman at the Bohemian”). The Larkins and the DVC had by no means finished with cinema, and Neptune’s Daughter encountered some further difficulties. The film was condemned from the altar by a local priest when it opened on 22 July for a three-day run at Sparling’s other picture house, the Sandford in the south-city suburb of Ranelagh. “I have reason to believe,” the Bioscope’s Paddy contended, “that the Reverend Father in question had not seen the film but was going on the strength of the publicity matter – which, it will be admitted is rather striking” (Paddy).

Evening Telegraph 31 Jul. 1915: 3.

Evening Telegraph 31 Jul. 1915: 3.

Part of the reason the Bohemian was the site of these events was that it had become one of the most popular picture houses in Dublin. It was a venue that could induce Holloway and presumably others to travel across the city, albeit that Holloway travelled to see Annette Kellerman in Neptune’s Daughter. Regular newspaper ads helped to build and maintain this popularity. At the end of July on a page headed “City Theatres and Picture Palaces to Visit During the Holidays,” the Bohemian published an unusually large ad with a photograph illustrating its claim to be “the best appointed and most luxurious picture theatre in Dublin.” If this ad was addressing potential audience members with reasons to choose the Bohemian from among the other picture houses, those reasons had to do with the luxury experience to be had there. Taken from the back of the balcony, the photo emphasized the decorative plasterwork, light fittings, comfortable seating and large screen. The ad’s largest text apart from the Bohemian’s name referred not to the film offerings but to the “Finest Orchestra in Ireland,” made up of 16 performers. You went to the Bohemian for its beautiful physical and aural environment.

August bank holiday offerings by Dublin's picture houses; Evening Telegraph 31 Jul. 1915: 3.

August bank holiday offerings by Dublin’s picture houses; Evening Telegraph 31 Jul. 1915: 3.

Whereas the Bohemian’s ad pushed film titles to a peripheral position, the ads for the Bohemian’s five rival Dublin picture houses prominently displayed film titles they had chosen for the August holiday weekend. Charlie Chaplin featured in four of the six picture house ads, with the Electric Theatre in Talbot Street emphasizing that it had the “Real Charlie Chaplin in Some Comedy (Not an Imitation).” This may have been a general reference to Chaplin’s multitude of screen and stage imitators or a more specific one to the music hall comedian Jack Edge, who was shown in the Coliseum Theatre’s advertisement on the same page dressed as Chaplin.

The most prominent title advertised by the newly renovated Rotunda was a film of the funeral of the Fenian Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, an outdoor activity largely undisrupted by the weather. Organized by the Fenians’ revolutionary successors, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), the funeral was a massive demonstration of the ability of the IRB to mobilize the more militant factions of Irish nationalism. The IRB arranged for O’Donovan Rossa’s body to be repatriated from New York to Dublin, where it lay in state for three days at City Hall and was subsequently accompanied on Sunday, 1 August, by a procession of about 5,000 mourners – watched by at least ten times that number – to Glasnevin Cemetery, where Patrick Pearse delivered his renowned graveside oration. Pearse was not audible in the film by Whitten’s GFS, which recorded highlights of this three-day commemoration, but the volley of shots over the grave by armed Volunteers and the extent of public support were no doubt eloquent enough for the many people who watched the film in picture houses around the country in the coming days and months. Those eager to see the film first did not have to wait for the screenings at the Rotunda, which did not have a licence to open on Sundays, but could attend the Bohemian, where it was on view a few hours after the end of the funeral and at a picture house on the route of the funeral procession. There they could shelter from the vagaries of the Irish summer in some comfort.

References

“Annette Kellerman at the Bohemian.” Freeman’s Journal 10 Jul. 1915: 7.

“Fighting a Plague: Vigilance Committee’s Crusade.” Irish Catholic 11 Sep. 1915: 1

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

“‘Neptune’s Daughter’: Protest in Dublin Picture House.” Irish Times 9 Jul. 1915: 6.

“Theatre Royal.” Sunday Independent 30 Jun. 1912: 6.

“Wet Weather.” Irish Times 4 Aug. 1915: 4.