Kinemac, Pulsocon, Skibbereen: A New Lexicon for Irish Cinematic Sensation

“Some people when they want to be amused go to a theatre, a circus, or the Kinemac,” explained a writer in the Southern Star in October 1915. This newspaper primarily addressed a readership in the environs of Skibbereen, Co. Cork, for whom the Kinemac, the local entertainment hall, was the place where “[a]s a rule they get the full value of their money in laughter, hearty or otherwise” (“Skibbereen and Carbery Notes”). Indeed, in Skibbereen, the Kinemac appeared for a time to be synonymous with popular entertainment and particularly moving pictures. For instance, when in March 1915, Jeremiah McCarthy – leading stoker of HMS Devonshire – related his war experiences in the battles of Heligoland Bight and Dogger Bank, the seriousness of these contrasted with his demeanour while in Skibbereen, where he was described as being “as cheery and light-hearted as a small boy going for the first time to the Kinemac” (“Skibbereen Man in North Sea Battles”). Similarly, when The O’Donovan – chief of an Irish sept and colonel in the Munster Fusiliers – addressed a recruiting meeting in the west Cork town of Ballydehob in May 1915, he told his hearers that it was necessary to give a graphic account of German brutality in Belgium, which he said had been particularly expressed in the rape of Belgian women:

The man who lives out in the country, though he may see the films occasionally at the Kinemac, does not realise these things, nor appreciate the horrors that would happen his own country, his wife and daughters, and his sisters if the Germans ever invade Ireland, as they may, if not driven back in Flanders and France. (“Ballydehob Meeting.”)

So, although the word “Kinemac” does not echo down cinema history, these references give an indication of the degree to which this picture house had become embedded in the entertainment culture of west Cork in 1915. That might seem of limited local interest, but the story of the Kinemac has national and international aspects unique in early Irish cinema. It was built by a local man with money he had made selling his mechanical vibrators to the world; it was founded in order to provide funding for the paramilitary Irish Volunteers; and it was a financial failure.

Financial failure was some way off when on 14 December 1914, the Kinemac was opened with much ceremony by Henry O’Shea, mayor of Cork city, for the proprietor, Gerald J. Macaura (“The ‘Kinemac’”). O’Shea’s attendance was an acknowledgement of Macaura’s support for the Skibbereen Volunteers and the Irish Parliamentary Party. When the Skibbereen Volunteers were founded earlier in 1914, Macaura had donated £50 in cash, and he had – seemingly on an impulse of his own– bought a set of silver-plated instruments for the establishment of a Volunteer band in the town. He built the Kinemac in order to provide a continuing source of funds for the training of local boys by J. G. Chipchase, a bandmaster he had brought from England. Even before the Kinemac opening, Macaura’s munificence had been rewarded with the title of honorary colonel of the Volunteers.

Part of the patent document for Macaura's

Part of the patent document for Macaura’s “movement cure apparatus,” dated 23 Dec. 1902.

Such munificence was possible because “Colonel” Macaura was more internationally famous – and eventually notorious – as “Dr” Macaura. Dr Macaura was the inventor and popularizer of the Pulsocon, a handheld vibrator. Born Gerald McCarthy in Skibbereen, the son of a master cooper and Fenian activist, Macaura emigrated to the United States where he had relatives in construction (“Death of Dr. Gerald J. Macaura”). His obituary repeated the claim that he had worked with Edison, but this seems to be as spurious as his medical education. Both a professional connection with the most prominent inventor of the age and the letters “Dr” or “Prof” before one’s name were part of a formula for a lucrative career in quackery. In 1898, “Professor” Macaura demonstrated to the people of Skibbereen and of Cork city that he also possessed the indispensable quality of showmanship, when he treated them to a demonstration of his prowess in hypnosis (“Hypnotic Seance”). Returning again in 1901, having “pursued his course of studies in the Sheerin Psychological College, Columbia, Ohio, [and having had] conferred on him the degree of Doctor,” he held a fundraising entertainment with Edison’s latest phonograph in aid of the Skibbereen Temperance Hall (“Entertainment in Skibbereen”). And in December 1902, Macaura patented a device in the United States that would provide the basis of his fortune. Beginning life as the somewhat prosaically titled “movement cure apparatus,” this would later become popular as the more colourful “Oscilectron,” “Pulsocaura,” and – most famously – “Pulsocon.”

Ad for Macaura's demonstration of the Pulsocon in Dublin, 13 April 1911.

Ad for Macaura’s demonstration of the Pulsocon in Dublin, 13 April 1911.

Macaura’s career with the Pulsocon was an international one, but aspects of it can be seen in the way he operated in Ireland. In 1911, he held lavishly advertised demonstrations of the device in Dublin and Cork presenting himself as “Dr. G. J. Macaura, F.R.S.A., of the National Medical University, Chicago.” The Dublin demonstration was held at the Theatre Royal, the city’s largest theatre, on 13 April, an event whose lack of an entry fee ensured a very full house. Following this public launch, he offered to consult with sufferers from ailments ranging from rheumatism to deafness at his Institute at 16 D’Olier Street in the city centre. The Institute remained in operation with frequently ads until 17 June, when Macaura moved his show to Cork, where he used the same publicity techniques and public meeting – in this case, at the Assembly Rooms on 15 August – before establishing an Institute there until 20 September. The Pulsocon show did not come to so small a town as Skibbereen, but the money Macaura earned from these lucrative shows funded his exploits there.

Interest in the Pulsocon continues; these images are from here, here and here.

Interest in the Pulsocon continues, particularly as part of a hidden sexual history of the early 20th century; these images are from here, here and here.

When he hit on the idea of the Kinemac in late 1914, therefore, Macaura was a self-made man, used to success and overcoming such occupational hazards as his prosecution for fraud and the illegal practice of medicine in France between 1912 and 1914 (“Dr Macaura Arrested,” “American ‘Medicine Man’”). As a mark of that success, the returned cooper’s son bought Lough Ine House near Skibbereen and began disbursing funds as an entry into Irish nationalist politics. As Macaura’s largess grew, the local papers were careful to assert his lack of political ambition. “Although not a politician,” the Cork County Eagle observed when the Kinemac was first announced in October 1914,

Dr. Macaura is very keen on the Volunteer movement. He speaks highly of Mr. John Redmond’s services to Ireland, and it is under his leadership that Dr. Macaura has bestowed these gifts on the movement. When the Hall, which will be a costly structure, is completed. Dr. Macaura’s contributions to the local Volunteer fund will amount to close on £1,000.” (“Skibbereen National Volunteers.”)

Nevertheless, despite the fact that his business was based in London, Macaura returned to Skibbereen at strategic intervals.

He was not, however, intending to manage the Kinemac himself and seems to have expected that his Skibbereen ventures would become self-running and self-funding. The Kinemac was to be operated by a committee associated with the Volunteers, and Macaura expected it to provide a profit that would cover the band’s expenses. As somebody involved in a branch of show business in the United States and Europe, Macaura had undoubtedly seen the money that could be made from picture houses. But he does not seem to have considered whether or not a town with as small a population as Skibbereen could sustain a full-time picture house. Something has already been said here about a population in the region of 5,000 being needed to make a picture house financially viable in the mid-1910s. Skibbereen’s  population of just 3,021 in the 1911 census made it likely that a full-time picture house would struggle to earn a profit. And it did.

Ads for the Kinemac, 2 Jan., 30 Jan. and 6 Mar. 1915.

Ads for the Kinemac, 2 Jan., 30 Jan. and 6 Mar. 1915.

Initially, the Kinemac resembled many picture houses across Ireland. It offered a nightly show beginning at 8pm, changed the programme on Mondays and Thursdays and charged 3d., 6d. and 1s. admission. It could accommodate 209 patrons on 119 tip-up seats in brown leather cloth, 68 tip-ups in green plush, and 22 leather-covered seats (“Kinemac, Skibbereen”). It offered a programme of dramatic, humorous and travel pictures, including special war films, with such attractions as The Sign of the Cross (US: Famous Players, 1914) receiving special publicity in early March 1915.

Despite such spectacles, the Kinemac was already failing to meet its running costs six months after it opened when it ran into political controversy because of its links to the Volunteers and their band. Following the recruiting drive by The O’Donovan and others, 22 Skibbereen men left the town to join the 9th Battalion of the Munster Fusiliers on 10 June 1915 “amidst a scene of great enthusiasm” (“Volunteers’ Departure”). However, the recruits were played onto the train not by Macaura’s Volunteer Silver Band but by the band of the Baltimore Fishery School because the Volunteer Band committee, led by Councillor Timothy Sheehy, refused permission for them to play. The reasons for this are not clear, but it could be that Sheehy and other members of the committee had not agreed with John Redmond’s policy on the National Volunteers entering the British Army. This is suggested by a mock-heroic ballad in the Cork County Eagle commemorating these events, which observed of Sheehy that “There never was a public thing / That he had not on hand, sir, / Except recruiting against the Huns, / For which he refused the Band, sir” (Simple).

At the end of June 1915, Macaura returned to Skibbereen and had a handbill distributed calling the townspeople to a meeting in the square so that he could explain his disagreement with this decision on the use of the band and the financial difficulties faced by the Kinemac (“Clearing the Air,” “Skibbereen Band Crux”). This was an extraordinary move to undermine his local opponents, and the public meeting was a forum in which he excelled. As the ballad said of Macaura’s actions,

He built this Hall for Picture Shows,

And called it the ‘Kinemac,’ sir,

Gave its control to a Committee,

To which now he has give the sack, sir;

That Kinemac has changed its name

And is known as the ‘Picturedrome,’ sir;

And Michael John is Agent now,

And Manager – one Macowan, sir.” (Simple.)

Suggesting that the committee was biased against the town’s Protestants, who had in turn boycotted the Kinemac, Macaura removed the committee and replaced them with his agent Michael J. Hayes. He closed the Kinemac for the summer months and arranged that it would be run in the autumn by Alex McEwan, the well-known proprietor of Cork city’s Assembly Rooms Picturedrome. And on 10 July, the Macaura Silver Band gave a send-off to five Skibbereen recruits (“Send-Off to Skibbereen Recruits”).

Ad for an auction of the Kinemac's furnishings and building materials. Cork County Eagle 4 Aug. 1917: 4.

Ad for the auction of the Kinemac’s furnishings and building materials. Cork County Eagle 4 Aug. 1917: 4.

However, the Kinemac did not prosper, even under a professional picture-house manager. In part, this may be attributed to a lasting and perhaps not unearned ill will towards Macaura. When he attempted to get his cinematograph licence changed into McEwan’s name by Skibbereen Urban Council, Sheehy complained that Macaura had taken back a gift he had given to the Volunteers in the presence of the Lord Mayor of Cork. McEwan did, nevertheless, run the Kinemac in late 1915, but did not return for a second season. In his stead, Southern Coliseums – which ran the Coliseum and Tivoli in Cork city and which among its other venues, opened a Coliseum in Waterford in October 1915 – reopened the Kinemac as the Coliseum, Skibbereen, on 25 April 1916, the day after the Easter Rising had begun in Dublin. Again, the picture house failed to attract enough patronage, with a local columnist commenting in September 1916 that “it is a pity that the Coliseum was not patronised better since its re-opening [following a summer hiatus] a fortnight ago, but the meagerness of the attendance each night may be attributed to the exceptionally fine weather” (“Local and Other Newsy Items”). Whatever the reasons for poor attendance, Macaura eventually cut his losses on the Kinemac and sold it all – from furnishings to structural timbers – for scrap in August 1917.

The story of the Kinemac is more than just a curious case of a failed picture house at a time when cinema was on the ascendant. It throws unusual light on the motivations of those who built these venues. While this is probably the only case in which a vibrator salesman built a picture house to fund a nationalist band, it exposes the importance of considering a broad constellation local circumstances when assessing the reasons why a picture house succeeded or failed.

References

“American ‘Medicine Man’ Sentenced as Swindler.” Freeman’s Journal 15 May 1914: 9.

“Ballydehob Meeting.” Skibbereen Eagle 29 May 1915: 10.

“Clearing the Air: Colonel Macaura Puts a Plain Issue Before Skibbereen People.” Cork County Eagle 26 Jun. 1915: 11.

“Death of Dr. Gerald J. Macaura: Skibbereen Loses Distinguished Son: Worked with Edison.” Southern Star 10 May 1941: 3.

“Dr Macaura Arrested.” Freeman’s Journal 25 May 1912: 4.

“Entertainment in Skibbereen by Professor Gerald J. Macaura.” Southern Star 5 Oct. 1901: 5.

“A Hypnotic Seance.” Cork Examiner 27 and 29 Aug. 1898: 1; Southern Star 30 Jul. 1898: 1.

“The ‘Kinemac’: Opening Ceremony at Skibbereen.” Southern Star19 Dec. 1914; 1.

“The Kinemac, Skibbbereen: Important to Builders and Others.” Ad. Cork County Eagle 4 Aug. 1917: 4.

“Local and Other Newsy Items.” Cork County Eagle 23 Sep. 1916: 7.

“Macaura Volunteer Silver Band: Concert at the Kinemac.” Cork County Eagle 20 Mar. 1915: 9.

“Send-Off to Skibbereen Recruits.” Cork County Eagle 10 Jul. 1915: 12.

Simple, William. “Skibbereen.” Cork County Eagle 14 Aug. 1915: 9.

“Skibbereen and Carbery Notes.” Southern Star 9 Oct. 1915: 9.

“Skibbereen Band Crux: Dr. Macaura Comes from London.” Southern Star 26 Jun. 1915: 5.

“A Skibbereen Man in North Sea Battles.” Cork County Eagle 6 Mar. 1915: 9.

“Skibbereen National Volunteers: Dr. Macaura’s Munificence.” Cork County Eagle 3 Oct. 1914: 4.

“Volunteers’ Departure.” Southern Star 12 Jun. 1915: 5.

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.