“Leaning towards the Spectacular”: The Suppression of the Sinn Fein Review in April 1919

Drogheda Advertiser 19 Apr. 1919: 3.

On the evening of Wednesday, 16 April 1919, Head Constable John Orr arrived at the Boyne Cinema in Fair Street, Drogheda, accompanied by a squad made up of all the available Royal Irish Constabulary men in the town’s Westgate and South Quay barracks. As Orr recorded in his official report of events, caretaker Thomas Borden told him that manager Joseph Stanley was not present and initially refused to give the policemen the key to the projection box. However, when Orr threatened to break in the door with a heavy hatchet he had instructed be brought from the barracks, Borden relented and opened the door. Seizing two reels of film that made up parts 1 and 2 of the Sinn Fein Review that had been produced and supplied to the cinema by Norman Whitten’s General Film Supply (GFS), Orr brought them back to Westgate barracks to await further instructions (CSORP).

Poster seen on 29 Mar. 1919 by Inspector Herbert of the Dublin Metropolitan in the window of the General Film Supply offices in Dublin. Courtesy of the National Archives of Ireland.

This dramatic raid was the end point of a process that began two-and-a-half weeks earlier, when a poster in the GFS office window at 17 Brunswick had caught the eye of Inspector Herbert of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) as he had been strolling past between 10 and 11am. Making this his business, Herbert had quizzed an unnamed GFS employee about the poster and had been told that the film showed “a number of incidents in connection with the Rebellion of 1916, its leaders, and the Sinn Fein movement generally which have been shown from time to time have been put into one film in review form” (CSORP).

What happened between these two police actions has been well known in Irish film studies since the late 1980s, thanks to Kevin Rockett’s detailed account in Cinema and Ireland, the first systemic book in the field (Rockett, Gibbons and Hill 34-6). Rockett based his account on a file in the National Archives of Ireland (NAI) that covers the banning of both the Sinn Fein Review in April 1919 and Ireland a Nation in January 1917 (see an account of the latter film here). As such, this file offers the richest detail of any official document of the period on the British authorities’ regulation of Irish cinema in the late 1910s, between the Easter Rising and the War of Independence. Rockett charts how the police and military authorities consulted on what to do, and citing the precedent set by the Ireland a Nation case, the police sent two detectives to view the film. Their report led to the conclusion that it should be banned because it was “Sinn Fein propaganda pure and simple.” When the police arrived at the GFS offices to seize the film, they were told that copies had already been despatched to Drogheda, precipitating the raid on the Boyne Cinema.

Ian Macpberson was appointed Chief Secretary of Ireland in January 1919; from Century Ireland.

The details of Irish Events films provided by the detectives and local newspaper accounts of the events in Drogheda deserve more attention than they have had, but it’s worth first saying something about the kind of source this file is. It is part of the Chief Secretary’s Office Registered Papers (CSO/RP), the surviving documents held by NAI that went through the Dublin Castle office of the British cabinet minister with responsibility for the administration of Ireland. In April 1919, the post of chief secretary was held by Ian Macpherson, but as the two-year gap between the Ireland a Nation and Sinn Fein Review cases suggests, cinema-related cases only rarely crossed Macpherson’s desk.

The IVA advertises a 1919 funding drive; Freeman’s Journal 21 Jun. 1919: 4.

The day-to-regulation of cinema was done at a different level of government, by local councils under the powers provided by the 1909 Cinematograph Act. That act originally focused on the very real danger of loss of life from cinema fires caused by the bringing together of highly combustible nitrate film and light sources that produced high heat or even used a naked flame. As a result, regulations initially provided for fire-proof projection booths and auditoria with adequate provision for escape in the event of fire. The employees of the council who were given this responsibility typically belonged to the public health or sanitation department, such as Limerick Corporation’s sub-sanitary officer Solomon Frost, who in February 1919 prosecuted the Athenaeum Hall and Coliseum for overcrowding, or Dublin Corporation theatre inspector Walter Butler who in April 1919, brought similar charges against the Sackville Picture House, Pillar Picture House, Mary Street Picture House and Electric Theatre (“Limerick News,” “City Picture Houses,” “Picture House Crowding”). Butler was not just Dublin Corporation’s theatre inspector. His duties increased considerably in June 1916, when in response to the incessant lobbying of by the Catholic-church-based Irish Vigilance Association (IVA), the Corporation appointed him and Councillor Patrick Lennon film censors.

Frank Leah’s caricature of Eugene McGough; Irish Limelight Jun. 1918: 1.

When it became clear that Butler and Lennon could watch only a fraction of the films exhibited in Dublin, the IVA again successfully lobbied the Corporation for the appointment as additional censors of IVA members Eugene McGough and AJ Murray, “two gentlemen of education and standing in the City who are willing to devote their spare time to carry out the work, without fee or reward, solely in the interests of the citizens” (Dublin Corporation). In May 1919, the IVA claimed that McGough and Murray had watched over 700 films in the previous year, spending “2,100 hours of their time viewing these films before they were presented to the public, which meant that they were engaged for seven hours a day cutting out of these films whatever was objectionable” (“Worthy of Support”).

The definition of what was objectionable differed between the IVA-enhanced Corporation censors and the British officials at the CSO. In January 1918, McGough had clarified his and the IVA’s view that “pictures dealing with sexual matters should be prohibited by law and the house showing them should be heavily penalised” (“Our Cinema Censors”). This is shockingly clear; moving pictures should not treat sex or sexuality in any way. Historical or newsreel films such as Ireland a Nation and the Sinn Fein Review were beyond this kind of reproach, but they attracted the attention of the Castle authorities for political content that had the potentiality to cause disaffection among the majority nationalist audience. Nevertheless, politically contentious films that required the involvement of the CSO were rare, in part because the authorities used banning as a way of warning off distributors and exhibitors who may have seen a commercial opportunity in screening politically controversial material in times when Irish audiences appeared to be especially receptive to advanced nationalist, anti-British opinions.

Frank Leah’s caricature of Frederick Sparling, who was best known as the proprietor of the Bohemian Picture Theatre in Phibsboro, Dublin, but who had hired the larger and more centrally located Rotunda to show Ireland a Nation. Irish Limelight Aug. 1917: 1.

In this sense, distributor Frederick Sparling was doing the government’s work for them by keeping the Ireland a Nation case in the public eye. Not that that was his aim: the banning of the film had cost him a considerable sum in securing the distribution rights and in hiring the Rotunda, Dublin’s largest cinema at the time, in which to show it. Understandably, he sought compensation for the banning of a film that the press censor appointed under the Defence of the Realm Act had initially passed for exhibition. But by seeking redress from the War Losses Commission in January 1918 and when this proved unsatisfactory, prompting Irish Parliamentary MP Jeremiah McVeagh to ask a question about it in the House of Commons in February 1919, Ireland a Nation became exemplary of the difficulties over years that distributors could face if they released politically contentious material (“‘Ireland a Nation,’” “Irish Questions”).

Norman Whitten was well aware of these developments, but he had good reason to think that the Sinn Fein Review would not receive such treatment. For a start, the film was a newsreel compilation consisting almost exclusively of short items concerning Sinn Féin that had already been shown as part of Irish Events, and none of these individual items had been banned. The only non-Irish Events items were a couple of films that predated the start of Irish Events in July 1917 and the first film of Sinn Féin president Éamon de Valera since his daring escape from Lincoln Prison on 3 February 1919. Perhaps the de Valera film so prominently featured in advertising was the problem. If the police couldn’t recapture de Valera, they could capture his image. In any case, as the poster spotted by Inspector Herbert indicates, Whitten clearly made no secret that he was compiling the film and intended to offer it for sale. Fingal, the new writer of trade journal Bioscope’s “Irish Notes,” had mentioned it in his/her column of 10 April. “Mr. Whitten’s biggest scoop recently has been the filming of the Sinn Fein ‘President,’ Mr. de Valera, in his hiding place near Dublin after his escape from Lincoln Gaol,” Fingal observed. “This is being included in a film survey of the Sinn Fein movement since the Dublin rebellion in 1916, and is being released under the title ‘Sinn Fein Review’” (“Irish Notes”).

Fingal gave some attention not only to this first Irish newsreel compilation but also to other ambitious film projects that Whitten had in train. These included the feature-length hagiography In the Days of St Patrick, the first scenes of which Fingal had seen and praised as “strikingly picturesque.” But Fingal began the column with the political events that GFS’s Irish Events newsreel covered more generally. “The Irish people have a decided leaning towards the spectacular,” the column began.

Which is a good thing for the makers of topical films.

“Irish Events” is never short of good topical material, and is very popular with audiences in this country. […] At the present moment the most dramatic and picturesque incidents are being provided by the Sinn Feiners.

Fingal probably did not get a chance to see the full Sinn Fein Review, and it does not survive, but Inspectors George Love and Neil McFeely wrote a detailed description of it in their report of a special screening at the GFS offices on the morning of 12 April 1919. “The Film is in two parts and it takes half an hour to show,” they began, before describing the items in each part. Paraphrasing them slightly, these were:

Part I

  1. The annual Republican pilgrimage to Wolfe Tone’s grave at Bodenstown, including a scene at the graveside.
  2. The first Sinn Féin electoral victory in the North Roscommon by-election on 5 February 1917, featuring successful candidate Count George Plunkett.
  3. Scenes at the East Clare by-election after the declaration of the poll on 11 July 1917, showing successful candidate de Valera in uniform alongside Plunkett and Sinn Féin leader Arthur Griffith.
  4. The Sinn Féin Convention at Dublin’s Mansion House on 25 October 1917, showing delegates leaving.
  5. Scenes at the East Cavan by-election of June 1918, showing senior Sinn Féin member Father Michael O’Flanagan and crowds outside the White Horse Hotel.
  6. The funeral procession in Dublin on 17 November 1918 for journalist and author Séumas O’Kelly, who had edited the Sinn Féin newspaper Nationality after Griffith’s arrest
  7. The procession from Dublin’s Westland Row railway station and scenes outside Fleming’s Hotel after the arrival of amnestied Easter Rising prisoners on 18 June 1917, and the reception of Countess Constance Markievicz after her release four days later.

Part II

  1. General election events in Dublin in December 1918, including scenes outside the polling booths, the declaration of the poll at Green Street, and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington congratulating Alderman Thomas Kelly.
  2. The anti-conscription meeting at Ballaghadereen on 5 May 1918, showing Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Dillon and de Valera addressing the audience from the same platform.
  3. Irish Women’s Anti-Conscription Procession in Dublin on 9 June 1918.
  4. Crowds outside the Mansion House on the occasion of the first Meeting of Dáil Eireann on 21 January 1919, with a group portrait of key figures.
  5. First film of de Valera after his escape from Lincoln Prison on 3 February.
  6. Markievicz exhibiting a picture she painted in Holloway Prison, entitled “Easter Week”; also the Countess engaged in gardening and painting a picture.
  7. De Valera’s first appearance in Dublin after his escape, showing his arrival at the Mansion House with Cathal Burgess [Brugha], footage of the Lord Mayor and his two daughters, and de Valera leaving the Mansion House.

Both parts were no doubt close to the standard 1,000-foot reel length, running about 15 minutes. As such, each numbered item ran an average of two minutes, but some were likely the one-minute standard of newsreel items while items taken from newsreel specials were probably over two minutes. Apart from the two final films of de Valera (II 5 and 7) and possible the one of Markievicz (II 6), it is probable that all the other films had been shown previously, as Whitten told the two detectives. Certainly some of them are readily identifiable as films discussed here previously, such as the newsreel special of the first Dáil.

While the structure of the film may seem a bit haphazard, it appears to sacrifice a strict commitment to chronology to a progress towards emotionally charged climaxes. Part I begins with a key annual event in the Republican calendar, the pilgrimage to Wolfe Tone’s grave in June, but the likely film used here was not the oldest Sinn Féin film but probably the film shot on 29 June 1918. Following it, the film proceeds chronologically through items I 2-6 of the by-elections, convention and Séumas O’Kelly’s public funeral. The final item of the triumphant return of the 1916 rebels from prisons in Britain is most clearly out of chronological order but is placed at the end of the reel because this event had such a strong emotional charge and showed the popularity of figures such as Markievicz.

The chronology of part II is not as disturbed, but it begins with the December 1918 general election, at which Sinn Féin had been so successful, before including events earlier in 1918 and finishing with de Valera’s reception at the Mansion House. The fact that Irish Events had two films of de Valera during his period after his escape from prison suggests a close connection between GFS and Sinn Féin, a convergence of the filmmakers’ leaning toward the spectacular and the politicians’ need for publicity. It is also interesting to note the prominence of Markievicz and other women activists again in this half of the film. “The Film as it stands,” Love and McFeely’s report concluded, “is a glorification of Sinn Fein and wherever exhibited would, no doubt, be good Sinn Fein Propaganda, and might in that way be objectionable to members of an audience holding different political views” (CSORP).

Handbill for the exhibition of the Sinn Fein Review at the Boyne Cinema. Courtesy of the National Archives of Ireland.

It was unlikely that many of the members of the Boyne Cinema’s audience held different political views, or at least were not aware in advance of the kind of film that the Sinn Fein Review was. Whether the GFS poster was used in Drogheda is not clear, but the cinema did issue a handbill that survives in the NLI file on the seizure of the film. The handbill also stresses de Valera’s name among all the Sinn Féin leaders who are connected to the movement’s history since 1916. The cinema itself had substantial 1916 connections, having been established by Joseph Stanley, the proprietor of the radical Gaelic Press in Dublin’s Liffey Street and printer of such key 1916 Rising documents as the Proclamation and the Irish War News. Stanley had been among the activists imprisoned in Britain, and Constable Orr in his report on the raid on the Boyne described him as a “Sinn Fein suspect, now living in Drogheda,” a phrase that may explain the heavy-handedness of the seizure.

The Boyne Cinema’s opening programme; Drogheda Independent 25 Jan. 1919: 1.

Although the Boyne seems largely typical of the many small cinemas of the period, Stanley’s radical politics marked it out in certain ways. When it opened on 27 January 1919, the Drogheda Independent reported that it would be run under “Irish-Ireland management” (“New Picture House”). This was immediately evident in the presentation of the opening programme, which was topped by the “Irish-made screamingly funny comedy” Rafferty’s Rise (Ireland: FCOI, 1917) and featured among its supplementary attractions the dancing of gold-medal Irish dancer Greta Daly. As a man under surveillance, Stanley’s choice of a film poking fun at the foibles of a rural constable may not have wholly accidental. This level of Irish content was not long maintained, however. During the second half of the opening week, the programme was topped by American comedy The Clodhopper (US: Kay Bee/New York, 1917), but perhaps there was more continuity in Charles Ray’s performance of the country bumpkin than initially seems. “People who foolishly imagine that a ‘Clodhopper’ cannot get on in other spheres of life,” the synopsis in the Drogheda papers warned. “should have their minds disabused by a view of th[is] famous comedy film “(“Only a ‘Clodhopper’”).

Drogheda Independent 19 Apr. 1919: 3.

The appearance of the Sinn Fein Review must have been a gift for Stanley, but audience reaction is a little more difficult to judge. Local newspapers carried no ads for the film, but they all reported differently on how waiting patrons reacted to the police raid on the cinema. “At the time of the seizure there was a large crowd outside waiting to gain admission,” the Drogheda Advertiser observed, “but there was little or no display on their part with the exception of cheering” (“Boyne Cinema Raided”). “The seizure was effected quietly, and without any excitement,” the Drogheda Argus reported. “The management, however, carried on to full houses during the evening with other pictures, as if nothing had happened” (“Sinn Fein Review Film Seized”). This impression that the audience was little disturbed by the seizure is contradicted by the Drogheda Independent, which suggested that the audience were hostile to the police actions: “the crowds in waiting accompanied their [the police’s] movements with shouts and jeers, interjecting as well remarks that seemed suited for the occasion” (“Picture Film Seized in Drogheda”). Even if the “excitement called up by the incident was short-lived,” this account suggests that it at least provided an occasion to express disapproval of the police.

While these different accounts would bear some more examination in relation to the editorial persuasion of Drogheda’s newspapers, they show that the Sinn Fein Review had at least brought Irish audiences’ leaning towards the spectacle onto the streets.

References

“Boyne Cinema Raided.” Drogheda Advertiser 19 Apr. 1919: 3.

“City Picture Houses: Alleged Overcrowding.” Dublin Evening Mail 25 Apr. 1919: 3.

CSORP/1919/11025. National Archives of Ireland.

Dublin Corporation, Reports, 1917: 173.

“‘Ireland a Nation’: Why Military Authorities Banned the Film.” Evening Telegraph 29 Jan. 1918: 3.

“Irish Notes.” Bioscope 10 Apr. 1919: 119.

“Irish Questions.” Cork Examiner 28 Feb. 1919: 4.

“Limerick News.” Cork Examiner 1 Feb. 1919: 5.

“New Picture House.” Drogheda Independent 25 Jan. 1919: 2.

“Only a ‘Clodhopper.’” Drogheda Argus 25 Jan. 1919: 1.

“Our Cinema Censors: The Difficulties They Have to Contend With.” Evening Herald 31 Jan. 1918: 2.

“Picture Film Seized in Drogheda.” Drogheda Independent 19 Apr. 1919: 2.

“Picture House Crowding in Dublin.” Dublin Evening Mail

Rockett, Kevin, Luke Gibbons and John Hill. Cinema and Ireland. Routledge, 1988.

“Sinn Fein Review Film Seized.” Drogheda Argus 19 Apr. 1919: 2.

“Worthy of Support: Activities of the Vigilance Association Outlined.” Weekly Freeman’s Journal 3 May 1919: 1.

Searching for “Screen Fein” in January 1919 and January 2019

Reproduced from the British Newspaper Archive.

In late November 1918, the editorial writer of the British trade journal Bioscope made reference to Sinn Féin, Ireland’s radical independence party, while warning cinema proprietors against involvement in the upcoming “khaki” election – so named because mass demobilization of military personnel had only begun and many voters remained in uniform. “Confound Their Politics!” the article’s main title read – meaning the policies of all political parties – while the subtitle suggested that the trade should remain focused on a result favourable to “Screen Fein: For the Cinema Alone.” The article noted the inevitability that “the moving picture, whose power as an agency for propaganda has been amply demonstrated in the war, would quickly be wooed as a new electioneering instrument by the existing party organisations.” But the writer argued that these parties should be treated warily by the trade: cinema should be politically unaligned.

An Illustrated London News photograph of the first meeting of Dáil Éireann; reproduced from Century Ireland.

Nevertheless, the writer chose to make a bilingual punning reference to Sinn Féin, albeit s/he did feel it necessary to remind his/her reader of how to translate it. The writer didn’t mention Irish politics any more explicitly in the course of the article: Irish politics was both familiar enough to serve as the basis of a pun and fraught enough to be beyond further consideration. Nevertheless, Screen Fein is too suggestive a term not to be reappropriated from this context in which it received little attention. Among its many more contemporary resonances is the recent rebranding of the Irish Film Board as Screen Ireland, which in the longstanding naming practice of Irish public institutions are known by the bilingual titles Bord Scannán na hÉireann/Irish Film Board and now Fís Éireann/Screen Ireland. But it might be more appropriate to repurpose Screen Fein for the intensely political Irish context of late 1918 and early 1919 that saw the electoral triumph of Sinn Féin. Did an Irish screen culture exist that responded to or participated in these events? That is, of course, one of the questions that this blog as a whole attempts to address, and it would consequently answer “yes” and add “but it’s complicated.” An illustration of both the yes and some of its complications can be seen if we focus on cinema’s role in one important historical moment that has received considerable attention a century later: the founding in Dublin on 21 January 1919 of Dáil Éireann, the independent parliament of an Irish republic.

President Michael D Higgins arrives at Dublin’s Mansion House to deliver a keynote address to both house of the Oireachtas on the occasion of the centenary of the first Dáil. Image: president.ie.

In a televised event on 21 January 2019, President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, led speeches to a joint session of the Oireachtas at Dublin’s Mansion House to mark the centenary of the first sitting of Dáil Éireann. Film cameras had also captured the proceedings at the Mansion House a century earlier, when 27 of the members of the Sinn Féin party who had been elected in the December 1918 general election fulfilled their electoral promise by not going to the British parliament in Westminster and instead constituting the parliament of the Irish Republic that had been declared at Easter 1916.

Screenshot of the British Universities Film and Video Council’s record of Topical Budget’s issue on 27 January 1919, featuring Sinn Fein Parliament as item #3.

One of the five items on Topical Budget’s newsreel released on the Monday following events at the Mansion House was the Sinn Fein Parliament, “the first newsreel to report the establishment of the Dáil” (Chambers 89). Topical Budget may have been the first of the British newsreel companies to show these events, but the Irish Events newsreel appeared on the same day as Topical Budget and gave them far greater prominence. As one film among five, this Topical Budget’s item would have run about a minute in the middle of four other one-minute items. By contrast, for Norman Whitten, proprietor of the Dublin-based General Film Supply company that produced Irish Events, the developments at the Mansion House were not only the most important events of the week but so important that he devoted the full issue of Irish Events to them. Unfortunately, despite its acute historical interest, the film of the first Dáil – in either its Topical Budget or Irish Events form – does not survive to illuminate that historical moment. Nevertheless, in 1919, many people from all over Ireland unable to attend the Mansion House watched the Irish Events version of what had occurred. While they would already have been well informed by the extensive newspaper accounts, in watching the film, they became the kind of mediated eyewitnesses to events that only moving pictures could have facilitated.

The cover of the May 1918 issue of Irish Limelight carried an ad for Irish Events that listed some of its subscribers around the country. Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

The Irish Events newsreel of the first Dáil was shown as the weekly edition of Irish Events beginning on Monday, 27 January. It would have been seen by patrons at the cinemas all over Ireland that subscribed to this newsreel. How many cinemas exactly this was in January 1919 is not clear; an ad in the December 1917 issue of the Irish Limelight had put the number of subscribed exhibitors at 50, and a May 1918 ad in the same publication had named 35 premises in 27 Irish cities and towns that offered it. “I would be almost safe in saying,” the Bioscope’s Irish correspondent Paddy speculated in September 1918, “that there is hardly a theatre left in Ireland which does not show it.” This was an exaggeration, but it is likely true that the number of subscribers had at least remained at a high proportion of Irish cinema from when Paddy had made that remark, in the week that the 60th weekly edition of Irish Events (IE 60) had just been released to the release of the first Dáil film as Irish Events no. 81 (IE 81).

This ad for IE 57 is unusual in the detail it provides about the content of this newsreel focused on one of the country’s biggest horse races, the Galway Plate. Dublin Evening Mail 16 Aug. 1918: 2.

Although Irish Events had become an expected part of many cinema’s offerings, its content was rarely mentioned after its first few weeks of novelty in July-August 1917. This is because like the British newsreels Gaumont Graphic, Topical Budget and Pathé Gazette that were also regularly shown in Irish cinemas, it was a five-minute digest of five one-minute social and political news stories that formed part of a two-hour programme headed by a fiction feature. Nevertheless, Irish Events was distinguished from the British newsreels in that its contents were at least occasionally mentioned in ads and notices. On Saturday, 29 June 1918, for example, Dublin’s evening papers named two of the items that were to appear in the following Monday’s edition of Irish Events (IE 51): the Irish Derby and the annual republican pilgrimage to Wolfe Tone’s grave at Bodenstown. A month and a half later, many newspaper ads revealed that IE 57 consisted of just one item: a film of the Galway Plate horse race. “It clearly depicts the entire race through from start to finish,” an ad for Dublin’s Dorset Picture Hall reported, “including the wonderful escapes from death of the various jockeys whose mounts came to grief.”

Ad for Dublin’s Rotunda with the Irish Events special Sinn Fein Convention; Dublin Evening Mail 26 Oct. 1918: 2.

IE 57 was unusual in focusing on one story, but it appeared as the regular edition of Irish Events that week. Other special films were issued in addition to the numbered weekly edition, and these had to be advertised to alert exhibitors and audiences to their existence. Whitten had a reputation that predated Irish Events for the “hustle” with which he could shoot, process and print a film in time for exhibition just hours after an event had occurred, and he continued this practice after the introduction of Irish Events. “There was a stop-press edition of ‘Irish Events’ issued last Thursday,” the Irish Limelight commented in November 1917. “The Sinn Fein Convention was filmed at 10.30 a.m. on that day, and screened at a Dublin cinema on the same evening. Some hustle!” (“Stop Press”). Instead of holding over the film of the Sinn Féin convention for IE 16, which would be issued on Monday, 29 October 1917, Whitten rushed the film out on the night of 25 October.

Several Dublin cinemas advertised the Irish Events film of the sinking of the Leinster, Dublin Evening Mail 14 Oct. 1918: 2.

It seem anomalous, then, that Whitten had not rushed out the Dáil special on the evening of 21 January 1919 but had instead held it over for almost a  week and issued it as Irish Events’ regular Monday release on 27 January. To a degree this may be explained as an increasing practice of Irish Events over the course of 1918. The Irish Events film of the aftermath of the sinking of the Irish mail boat RMS Leinster appeared as IE 66 on Monday, 14 October 1918, several days after the ship had been torpedoed by a U-boat on 10 October. However, the quite detailed press ads also show that the film remained newsworthy on the Monday of its release because it included footage of the weekend funerals of some of the victims.

Ad for Bohemian Picture Theatre programme featuring the Irish Events newsreel of the first meeting of Dáil Éireann; Dublin Evening Mail 27 Jan. 1919: 2.

This does not seem to have been the case with the film of the Dáil, which looks like it would previously have been seen as a good opportunity for a “stop-press” issue. Much of the information that survives about the film comes from an ad and a brief review of its screenings at the Bohemian Picture Theatre in the Dublin suburb of Phibsboro. The ad reveals that it was indeed an Irish Event special and that it consisted of scenes at the Mansion House, including a group shot of the Sinn Féin members of the Dáil. The review in the Irish Times reported that it was “a special Irish events topical ‘Dail Eireann,’ depicting the principal scenes at the Mansion House on the occasion of the Sinn Fein Assembly” (“Bohemian Picture Theatre”). Little other surviving notice appears to have been taken of the film during the week in which it was on release as IE 81.

Ad offering the film of the sinking of the Leinster to exhibitors who were not Irish Events’ subscribers; Irish Independent 14 October 1918: 2.

Nevertheless, this was unlikely to have been the end of the screening life of this film or of the others Irish Events films mentioned here. As well as releasing his films on the circuit of subscribed cinemas, Whitten also offered then for individual sale, as he did when on 16 October 1918, he placed ads in the Irish Independent for the film of the sinking of the Leinster. Whitten advertised his newsreel specials long after their original newsworthiness had vanished, boasting on one memorable occasion that that his specials “will attract a larger audience than a six-reel exclusive.”

“Behind the Screen” item on “A National Film Library”; Irish Limelight Oct. 1917: 6. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Beyond these commercial afterlives, the newsreels were seen by some commentators as historically important documents. “The successful launching of the Irish News Film ‘Irish Events,’” observed the Irish Limelight’s “Behind the Screen” columnist in October 1917,

has given a fillip to an interesting suggestion made some time back involving the establishment in this country of a Department of Record whose duty it would be to see that nothing of importance happens in any field without being filmed. (“National Film Library.”)

The writer saw the main advantages of such records in writing and learning history but concluded with the intriguing notion that “the establishment of a department such as suggested would secure for future generations the ability to live, as it were, with those who preceded them.”

“Behind the Scenes” item on first anniversary of Irish Events; Irish Limelight Jul. 1918: 4.

At a more mundane level, the notion of Irish Events as a repository of Ireland’s history persisted and re-emerged on the occasion of the newsreel’s first birthday in July 1918. “Always a lusty infant,” the “Behind the Screen” writer noted, “it has – during its first year of life – succeeded in accumulating a veritable film library of happenings of intense national importance, the preservation of which were alone well worth while” (“Irish Events”). It is certainly true that Irish Events accumulated a vast amount of newsreel footage on Ireland during what is now being commemorated as the Decade of Centenaries.

However, despite the ability of some contemporary observers to see its importance as historical document, no real vision or infrastructure for preservation existed in the 1910s, nor would they co-exist in Ireland until the founding of the Irish Film Archive (IFA) as part of the Irish Film Centre, now Irish Film Institute (IFI), in 1992. As a result, no more than a few fragments of Irish Events still exists, the vast bulk of which is more than likely lost forever. None of the material so far mentioned in this blog survives – or is known to survive – beyond 30 seconds of the Sinn Fein Convention that remains in the IFA’s Sean Lewis Collection. Working from a roughly calculation that each weekly episode of Irish Events lasted 5 minutes, the newsreel had by the time of the appearance of the special on the first Dáil for IE 81 released 6 hours and 45 minutes of edited footage, and this does not count the stop-press issues that appeared in addition to the regular weekly issues or the two further years of material that appeared after IE 81.

Among this lost material is an important document of Irish feminism, which is mentioned in the January issue of the suffragist Irish Citizen. The paper recorded that in the December 1918 election, the first election after women had won the franchise, “veteran Irish suffragist leader” Anna Haslam

recorded her vote in the midst of an admiring feminine throng to cheer her, was presented with a bouquet in suffrage colours for the occasion, and was snapped by an enterprising film company as one of the “Irish Events” of the Election.” (“Activities.”)

Like the Dáil film, this key moment of Irish social and political history captured in moving pictures exists now only in brief written records.

Introductory page to the Irish Independence Film Collection on the IFI Player.

Despite such great losses, it is heartening to be able to finish this blog by acknowledging that all is not lost, and that 2018 saw the arrival of two particularly useful online resources for Irish cinema history: the IFI’s Irish Independence Film Collection (IIFC) and the British Library’s digitization of the Bioscope. One of the 13 collections of Irish films that are available on the online viewing platform and app IFI Player, IIFC provides access to 139 British Pathé and Topical Budget newsreels items on Ireland from the period 1900-30. Access to these films is not geoblocked; they are readily and freely available through the IFI’s website and app.

A comparison of the quality of the available copies of this 1913 British Pathé film of Jim Larkin shows the undoubtedly better quality of the IIFC copy (right) than the version available on Pathé’s YouTube channel (left).

Some of Pathé’s surviving Irish material has been available on the company’s website and YouTube channel, but IIFC is not just a case of the IFI hosting existing material on its player. For a start, the quality of the new IIFC copies is far better than the material previously available, the result of rescanning the film elements to produce high-definition copies. This increased quality has already revealed and will continue to reveal previously indiscernible details. Although taking the Irish material from Pathé’s website decontextualizes it from that production milieu, historians Lar Joyce and Ciara Chambers provide it with an Irish perspective that is quite different from the British one the newsreels themselves espouse. In the process, they frequently correct misidentifications of people, places and incidents, as well as improper cataloguing for these and other reasons. As the scholar who has done most to analyze the surviving British newsreels’ representation of Ireland through her 2012 book Ireland in the Newsreels and the 2017 television series Éire na Nuachtscannán, Chambers offers particularly incisive commentary on how British newsreels presented a view of events in Ireland favourable to the British establishment.

Comparison of images taken from the newly digitized Bioscope and its microfilmed predecessor; 7 Dec. 1916: 1031.

The different kind of coverage provided by Irish Events during much of the Irish revolutionary decade is not mentioned in IIFC, but it can be glimpsed through the pages of such trade journals as the Bioscope. The most important of British trades for the 1910s, the Bioscope offered significant coverage of Ireland, and it has now been digitized. This has implications not only for searching but also for images, which are barely visible on microfilm but are readily useable from the high-quality scans.

While this is a great improvement on the existing situation, it is not of the standard set by the Media History Digital Library (MHDL), Eric Hoyt’s University of Wisconsin project to digitize media trade journals and fan magazines. While MHDL is a free resource, the digitized Bisocope is only available with a subscription to the British Newspaper Archive (BNA), a digitization partnership between the British Library and the genealogy company findmypast. But by paying the subscription, you do not gain access to a better technology. As well as being free, MDHL allows greater interaction – searching, navigating and downloading – with the scanned volumes than does BNA. For those with a BNA subscription, the two projects can be compared directly because MHDL has digitized a few early1930s’ volumes of the Bioscope that are also part of BNA. Nevertheless, Irish subscribers to BNA also have access to many Irish newspapers, both national and local, that have been and continue to be digitized as part of the project.

Despite some reservations, all of these resources are helping to reveal aspects of Screen Fein, Ireland’s own cinema of a century ago.

References

“Bohemian Picture Theatre.” Irish Times 29 Jan. 1919: 2.

British Newspaper Archive. Find My Past/British Library. www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk

Chambers, Ciara. Ireland in the Newsreels. Irish Academic Press, 2012.

“Confound Their Politics! The Trade’s Election Prospects: ‘Screen Fein’: For the Cinema Alone.” Bioscope 28 Nov. 1918: 4.

“‘Irish Events.’—Many Happy Returns.” Irish Limelight Jul. 1918: 4.

Irish Independence Film Collection. Irish Film Institute, ifiplayer.ie/independencefilms.

“A National Film Library.” Irish Limelight Oct. 1917: 6.

Paddy. “Irish Notes: The General Opinion.” Bioscope 5 Sep. 1918: 91.

“Stop Press.” Irish Limelight Nov. 1917: 13.

Tracy, Tony. “Goodbye Irish Film Board, Hello Screen Ireland.” RTÉ, 23 Nov. 2018, rte.ie/eile/brainstorm/2018/1122/1012662-goodbye-irish-film-board-hello-screen-ireland.

“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.

“Would We Ever Have It in Reality?” Ireland a Nation “For Two Days Only” in January 1917

Joseph Holloway spent the last evening of 1916 wandering around Dublin, celebrating the end of a momentous year in Ireland, when he came across a poster for Ireland a Nation (US: Macnamara, 1914). “For a week or more,” the architect and theatre buff observed, “I’ve been reading on the hoardings on a large 15 feet by 9 feet poster bordered with shamrocks – with large ones at angles & printed on green which tells me of the finest picture film ever produced / Ireland a Nation / Nothing like it has been seen before!” (Holloway, 31 Dec. 1916: 1608).

Ad for Ireland a Nation in New York and Chicago-based Motography 26 Dec. 1914: 22.

Ad for Ireland a Nation in New York and Chicago-based Motography 26 Dec. 1914: 22.

When Waterford-born but New York-based scriptwriter and producer Walter Macnamara had made Ireland a Nation in 1914, the film reflected a very different political situation. Macnamara conceived a film that would trace the history of Irish struggles against British rule from the passing of the Act of Union by the Irish Parliament in 1800 to the passing of the Home Rule bill by Westminster in 1914. He had shot historical scenes – among them the Irish parliament, Robert Emmet’s 1803 rebellion and Daniel O’Connell’s duel with political rival D’Esterre – on location in Ireland and at studios in London, but the film had ended with actuality footage of crowds of Irish nationalists jubilantly welcoming what they thought was the achievement of Home Rule.

The film had been shown in US cities, debuting at New York’s Forty-Fourth Street Theatre on 22 September 1914, but it had not been seen in Ireland (McElravy). The outbreak of World War I had not only caused the suspension of Home Rule, it had also delayed the Irish exhibition of Ireland a Nation. “When Dame Fortune refuses to smile upon a venture,  things will somehow manage to go wrong if only out of sheer cussedness,” commented an article in the second issue of Ireland’s first film journal Irish Limelight on the sequence of events that prevented Ireland a Nation reaching the country to date. Two prints of the film sent to Ireland had been lost en route: “[I]t is understood that the first copy dispatched by [the Macnamara Co. of New York] was lost with the ill-fated Lusitania; a duplicate copy was substituted, but as this also failed to successfully run the submarine ‘blockade,’ it became necessary to forward a third” (“Between the Spools”).

Masthead of the Irish Limelight, Feb. 1918. Courtesy of the National Library.

Masthead of the Irish Limelight, Feb. 1918. Courtesy of the National Library.

These delays meant that it was to a Dublin with many new hoardings erected around buildings destroyed during the Easter Rising that the film returned in late 1916. A large green poster with the slogan “Ireland a Nation” emblazoned on it meant something different in this context. “You read it & wonder when it is to be shown & what is to be the nature of it!” Holloway marvelled. “I have heard it whispered that it is a fake – there’s no such film at all, but those who love Ireland thought that a good way to keep ‘Ireland a Nation’ in the public eye. And the wideawake authorities haven’t tumbled to its purpose!”

A week later, however, a new poster near Holloway’s home on Haddington Road confirmed that this was, in fact, a film by providing more details of the coming exhibition. “I saw on hoarding near Baggot St end of Haddington Rd. that – ‘Ireland a Nation’ for ‘one week only’ was announced for Rotunda commencing Monday next & week,” he noted, “& I thought would we ever have it in reality – for ‘one week only’ even.” (Holloway, 5 Jan. 1917). Holloway’s melancholy reflection related to the distant possibilities for a self-governing Irish nation beyond filmic representation, but even a film of Ireland achieving nationhood would prove impossible to show in January 1917.

ireland-a-nation-home-rule

Framegrab from Ireland a Nation, preceded by the intertitle: “A New Hope 1914. / A Home Rule Meeting.”

Frederick Sparling was responsible for this poster campaign, after he secured the British and Irish distribution rights to the film in March 1916. The imposition of martial law in the aftermath of the Rising in April made it impossible to screen the film until late in 1916, when Sparling submitted the film to the military press censor (“Irish Film Suppressed”). The censor wrote back to Sparling on 1 December 1916, allowing exhibition if six cuts were made:

  1. Scene showing interruption of a hillside Mass by soldiers.

  2. Scene showing Sarah Curran roughly handled by soldiers.

  3. Scene of execution of Robert Emmet – from entry of soldiers into Emmet’s cell to lead him away.

  4. Scene of Home Rule Meeting in 1914.

  5. Telegram from Mr. Redmond.

  6. Irish Flag displayed at end of the performance.

The following should also be omitted:—from the titles of scenes shown, (in addition to all titles referring to portions of the film which have been censored as above,) “A price of £100 dead or alive on the head of every priest.” (CSORP.)

This constituted much of the contentious political material, including the actualities of the Home Rule meeting, but Sparling had no choice but to make the cuts. And although he was the proprietor of the suburban Bohemian Picture Theatre, he hired Dublin’s largest picture house, the city-centre Rotunda, which had a capacity of 1,500 people, a third more than the Bohemian (“Irish Film Suppressed”).

Ad for Ireland a Nation; Dublin Evening Mail, 8 Jan. 1917: 2.

Ad for Ireland a Nation; Dublin Evening Mail, 8 Jan. 1917: 2.

Prominent press ads that followed the poster campaign ensured that potential patrons far and near were well informed of the coming shows. Although the Dublin Evening Mail published these ads, this did not stop a Mr Whitehead from the Daily Express office, which published the Mail, writing to the Chief Secretary’s office, enclosing a copy of the ad and warning that “[i]t is an American Cos film & is of a bad type, indeed, the man in charge of it expresses astonishment that it has passed the British Censor” (CSORP). Inspector George Love of the Dublin Metropolitan Police attended the 2-3pm show on the opening afternoon, Monday, 8 January 1917. Love reported that Sparling had adhered to the censor’s stipulations, but his most interesting comments were those about the effect on the audience:

About 100 persons were present at the opening production and the Picture was received with applause throughout, except some slight hissing, when Lord Castlereagh and Major Sirr were exhibited.

The Films deals mainly with Rebel Leaders and their followers being hunted down by the Forces of the Crown and Informers, and has a tendency to revive and perpetuate, incidents of a character, which I think at the present time are most undesirable and should not be permitted.

While Chief Secretary Edward O’Farrell considered Love’s suggestion that the film be banned by the authorities – and a military observer reported on the opening night to Bryan Mahon, the General Officer Commanding British forces in Ireland – Holloway went to another afternoon screening that had a far larger attendance than the sparse 100 that Love reported at the 2pm show. Indeed, because of the queue at the box office of the ground-floor “area,” Holloway ended up on the balcony. However, the film did not impress him. It reminded him of the increasing repertoire of Irish nationalist history plays by Dion Boucicault, J. W. Whitbread, and P. J. Bourke that had been staples of Dublin’s Queen’s Theatre for decades. Holloway had long been a regular at the Queen’s, but he favoured the kind of restrained acting introduced by the Abbey Theatre. The gestural melodramatic style used by Queen’s actors in the film also contrasted with evolving screen-acting practices. Nevertheless, the film uniquely preserves Irish melodramatic performance of the period.

Other commentators provided more positive reviews than Holloway’s. Perhaps not surprisingly for a nationalist newspaper whose slogan was “Ireland a Nation,” the reviewer in the Freeman’s Journal was enthusiastic, calling the film “[f]rom a historical standpoint, and indeed, from the standpoint of realism, […] undoubtedly excellent” and bound to “attract numerous visitors to the Rotunda during the week” (“Irish History Films”). Although not so wholeheartedly appreciative, the reviewer at the unionist Irish Times confirmed its popularity, noting that “[t]he film, which treated the rebel cause with sympathy, and the music, which included a number of Irish patriotic tunes, were received with loud and frequent applause by the audiences” (“Rotunda Pictures”).

Framegrab from Ireland a Nation, in which Irish revolutionary Robert Emmet (Barry O’Brien) is astonished by the help Napoleon agrees to send for an uprising in Ireland.

Framegrab from Ireland a Nation, in which Irish revolutionary Robert Emmet (Barry O’Brien) is astonished by the help Napoleon agrees to send for an uprising in Ireland.

Holloway suggested that although the audience was aware of the film’s limitations, it was determined to make the most of this opportunity to celebrate a still imagined Irish nation. “The audience was willing to applaud national sentiments,” he noted, “but was far more impressed by the words card on the screen than by the way the various characters played their parts before the camera.” Indeed, he believed that the film’s title and intertitles carried particular importance. “Truly the man who thought of the title ‘Ireland a Nation’ was worth his weight in gold to the Film Co that produced it,” he argued. “It is the title and not the film drama will attract all patriotic Dublin to the Rotunda during the week.”

Indeed, he was in no doubt that the film did draw unprecedented crowds to the Rotunda. Passing the picture house again later on Monday evening, he recorded:

I rarely saw anything like the crowds that stormed the Rotunda about eight oclock seeking admission. I am sure several thousands were wedged up against the building […].  The night was piercingly cold but the patient waiters kept themselves warm and in good humour by cheering all who left the building & made room for others behind.  On the other side of the streets around the Rotunda crowds of people stood looking at the dense black masses clinging on to the walls of the Rotunda like barnacles to the bottom of a ship.

When these later audiences got inside, they were more rowdy than those earlier in the day had been. Love reported that “the Picture was received with applause throughout, except some slight hissing, when Lord Castlereagh and Major Sirr were exhibited” and Holloway that the Irish airs played by the augmented orchestra “were taken up by the audience & sung.” As the evening wore on, audience behaviour grew more explicitly political. “At the last performance of the film on Monday night,” the Bioscope reported, “a large section of the audience sang the song, ‘A Nation Once Again’” (“Irish Film Suppressed”). The military observer advised Bryan Mahon that “the film in question was likely to cause disaffection, owing to the cheering of the crowd at portions of the Film, the hissing of soldiers who appeared in the Film and the cries made by the audience” (CSORP).

As a result, Mahon decided to ban the screenings, but on finding that Sparling had sought and got permission from the military censor, he agreed to try cutting the film further and observe how the Tuesday night screening would be received. “The result of the reports of Tuesday night were more adverse than those of Monday night,” O’Farrell noted, “and in consequence Sir B. Mahon issued an order prohibiting the performance of the Film throughout Ireland, which was served on Mr. Sparling at about 1 o/c on Wed. Afternoon” (CSORP).

The order served to Sparling made clear that the audience’s behaviour caused the prohibition:

The reports received from witnesses, of the affect produced on the audience at the display of the above Film last night, the 9th inst., and the seditious and disloyal conduct apparently caused thereby, make it clear that the further exhibition of the Film in Ireland is likely to cause disaffection to His Majesty, and to prejudice the recruiting of His Majesty’s forces.

I therefore forbid any further exhibition of the said Film in Ireland, and hereby warn you that any further such exhibition will be dealt with under the Defence of the Realm Consolidated Regulations, 1914.

“The Military only allowed Ireland a Nation ‘for two days only,’ at Rotunda,” Holloway lamented. He also pointed out that even the posters did not escape the general prohibition: “In O’Connell Street a man was pasting green sheets of paper on the announcement on the hoarding of IRELAND A NATION.  Only a field of green would soon show where Ireland a nation once proclaimed itself.”


Despite the authorities’ efforts to cover over all traces of the film, it continued to be discussed in the following weeks and years. Indeed, Ireland a Nation was and is one of the most significant films of the 1910s in Ireland. In part, this was because its title made it a particular attraction for nationalists at this historical moment, as Holloway suggested, but there are other reasons. Its fascination for nationalists in the aftermath of the Rising made it also of interest to the police and military, who rarely gave much attention to films. As a result, the nature and extent of the surviving sources on the film – particularly Holloway’s diary entries and the official police and military documents – are unusually varied and comprehensive. They allows us to say something about individual screenings of the film in Dublin on 8 January 1917, especially in relation to audience response, which is often the least documented element of an individual film showing.

Ireland a Nation also appeared in Ireland at a significant moment in the press engagement with cinema. The Freeman’s Journal, one of the country’s main daily papers, published an editorial on cinema on 6 January, the Saturday before the film opened. This was not, however, focused on the film, but on the fact that since cinema had taken the place of live theatre, it was “imperative that we should consider how the new theatre can be made subservient to the public utility” (“Cinema”). Nevertheless, with the excitement caused by the release of Ireland a Nation and then its prohibition, cinema had unprecedented visibility on the editorial and news pages of Dublin’s and Ireland’s newspapers well into mid-January.

The debut of the Irish Limelight in January 1917 clearly represented an extremely significant development, not only in its contribution to cinema’s visibility that month but also in its promotion of a more extensive and sophisticated public discourse on cinema over the three years it remained in print. The Limelight was published by Jack Warren, the editor of the Constabulary Gazette, who “for a very long time has taken a serious interest in the cinema world” (Paddy). Because it was a monthly journal, however, the first issue was published before the Ireland a Nation controversy at the Rotunda. The February issue, however, included two significant items on the film: one on its historical inaccuracies and the other – already mentioned – on its ill-fated Irish exhibition. With Warren’s police contacts, the latter could no doubt have provided more insight into the banning than attributing it to the workings of “Dame Fortune.”

As was the case for most of the articles in the Limelight, no author was named for the historical inaccuracies piece, which was instead attributed to a “Student of Irish History” who had sent in a letter in the wake of the banning. Although this correspondent detailed the film’s historical mistakes, s/he nonetheless considered them “too patently ridiculous to call for serious criticisms.” Not that s/he thought the film irredeemably bad, arguing that “the theme was treated by both producer and players with every sympathy and respect, and with a clear eye to propagandism as well as simple picture setting.” Such errors as showing revolutionary priest Fr John Murphy reacting to the 1800 Act of Union when he had been executed in 1798 would have been obvious to any contemporary Irish person with an interest in history. Having pointed out such anachronisms, the writer accounted for them as arising from “a desire to get in prominent figures in the Ireland of the period and weave them into a complete story without any regard for chronological order or historical connection” (“Irish Film Suppressed”).

ireland-a-nation-erin-sculpts

Erin, the figure of Ireland, inscribes Emmet’s epitaph onto his headstone in Ireland a Nation.

Ireland a Nation argues that the telling of tales is a political act, and that was certainly the case in Ireland in 1917. But this was not the end of the film in Ireland or indeed in America. It was revived – indeed reinvented – first in America and then in Ireland. One of its most vivid storytelling motifs relates to Robert Emmet, who having being condemned to death, famously declared that his grave should be unmarked: “When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth,” he ordered in his famous speech from the dock, “then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written.” In the film, a woman representing Erin, the embodiment of Ireland, inscribes an epitaph onto Emmet’s gravestone because with Home Rule, Irish nationhood had seemingly been achieved. When Ireland a Nation was revived in America in 1920, this material was out of date, and Ireland had not been granted Home Rule. As a result, later newsreel footage of Sinn Féin leader Eamon De Valera’s visiting New York in 1919 to seek recognition of an independent Ireland was added as a further inscribing of the national story. Later again, newsreel of the Irish War of Independence and the funeral of republican hunger striker Terence McSwiney was included.

It was only with the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922 that this film – an incomplete version of which still survives – could be shown in Ireland. The political situation had again changed dramatically in the aftermath of the debates on the Anglo-Irish Treaty by the Dáil (Irish parliament). At least part of Ireland was in some way independent, and one of Dublin’s largest cinemas celebrated by giving an uninterrupted run of Ireland a Nation.

References

“Between the Spools.” Irish Limelight 1:2 (Feb. 1917): 19.

“The Cinema.” Freeman’s Journal 6 Jan. 1917: 4.

CSORP/1919/11025. National Archives of Ireland.

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

“The ‘Ireland a Nation’ Film: Criticisms of Historical Inaccuracies.” Irish Limelight 1:2 (Feb. 1917): 3.

“Irish Film Suppressed: ‘Ireland a Nation’: Military Stop Exhibition at Dublin.” Bioscope 18 Jan. 1917.

“Irish History Films: ‘Ireland a Nation’ at the Rotunda.” Freeman’s Journal 9 Jan. 1917: 3.

McElravy, Robert. “‘Ireland a Nation’: Five-Reel Production Giving Irish History in Picture Form.” Moving Picture World 3 Oct. 1914: 67.

“Rotunda Pictures.” Irish Times 9 Jan. 1917: 3.

War as a Cinema Picture in Ireland, July 1916

Monster Guns IWMa

A range finder telegraphs the location of German positions in With Britain’s Monster Guns; Imperial War Museums.

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History Without Tears in Irish Cinemas, June 1916

Framegrab from The Fight at St. Eloi; Imperial War Museums.

Framegrab from The Fight at St. Eloi (Britain: British Topical Committee for War Films, 1916); Imperial War Museums.

The London-based trade journal Bioscope opened its first June issue with an editorial entitled “The Moving Picture: The New National Weapon” and subtitled “A Force which Cannot Be Destroyed and Should Therefore Be Utilized.” “The new Defence of the Realm Regulations contain a warning that penalties will be incurred by the exhibition of unpatriotic cinematograph films,” it began, before confidently asserting:

We are happy to believe that the precaution was unnecessary. The power of the pictures has never yet been used in this country for the furtherance of disloyal or anti-British objects. It has, on the other hand, not seldom been employed with the utmost success in patriotic causes.

Nevertheless, the British government did see a reason for tighter legislative control of cinema in pursuit of the ideological goal of promoting patriotism, unanimity and support for recruitment in the context of a lengthy and costly war. The economic need to fund the war through increased tax had most directly affected cinema through the recently introduced Entertainment Tax.

"Trade Topics." Bioscope 1 Jun. 1916: 958

“Trade Topics.” Bioscope 1 Jun. 1916: 958

In many ways, cinema in Ireland in June 1916 looked like a mature industry, regulated by these laws, but also highly cognizant of and largely aligned with the London-based trade. Even Ireland’s laggardly film production showed considerable development when the Film Company of Ireland press-showed its first production, O’Neil of the Glen, on 29 June at Dublin’s Carlton Cinema (“Irish Film Production”). The Bioscope was one of the ways in which this alignment was achieved, and although it was certainly read in Ireland, members of the Irish cinema trade might have been less confident of the claims of this editorial. In the same 1 June issue, the journal’s “Trade Topics” column published the assertion of J. Magner of the Clonmel Theatre that the Bioscope was the best of the cinema trade papers. And in 22 June issue, Irish columnist “Paddy” informed readers that the Bioscope was available at Mrs Dunne’s shop in Dublin’s Brunswick Street – close to the Queen’s Theatre, Norman Whitten’s General Film Supply, distributor Weisker Brothers, and other cinema businesses.

In the aftermath of the Easter Rising, however, it was questionable to what the Irish population at large was loyal. Support for the war still dominated the mainstream Irish press, but antiwar and pro-republican sentiments were becoming less marginal. By June, some theatres and picture houses anxious to maintain displays of their loyalty to the Crown – and by extension, that of their patrons – encountered protests. The large Theatre Royal had been one of the first places of amusement to open after the Rising, when it had offered British Army propaganda films. This did not, however, mean that its audience could all be considered loyalists.

On 26 June, for instance, William Charles Joseph Andrew Downes, a church decorator living at 15 Goldsmith Street, Dublin, was arrested for riotous behaviour during a live show at the Theatre Royal. He had shouted abuse related to the Boer War at a uniformed soldier who had responded to a magician’s call for a volunteer from the audience (“Scene in City Theatre”). The Boer War of 1899-1902 had been extremely divisive in Ireland, with popular support for the Boers’ stand against the British Empire extending from fiery speeches by Parnell’s Irish Parliamentary Party in Westminster to attacks on British soldiers in the streets of Dublin, and it was directly linked to the Rising in the person of executed leader and former Boer Irish Brigade major John McBride (Condon). As Downes was being escorted out the door of the Theatre Royal, he drew attention to the Irish republican badge he was wearing – a display of solidarity with the Easter rebels – and suggested that it was the reason he was being expelled.

Downes’ outburst could not be completely dismissed as the actions of a drunk – the arresting constable described him as neither drunk nor sober but “half-and-half” – and it was not isolated. The previous week, seven young people between the ages of 17 and 29 – four men and three women – had been charged in Dublin’s Police Court with offenses under the Defence of the Realm Act and with assaulting the constables who had attempted to seize the green flag at the head of a procession of 400 republican supporters that had been followed through the city centre by a crowd of around 2,000 (“Amazing City Scenes”). The crowd had also shouted republican slogans and booed and groaned passing soldiers. The mass arrests and deportations in May had failed to quell advanced nationalist activism that was now consciously identifying itself as republican.

Town Topics June 1916

Dublin Evening Mail 19 Jun. 1916: 2.

This republican riot on Dublin’s streets provided an immediate if unacknowledged context for press commentary on the educational value of the official war films. “The boys of the future will have many advantages over the boys of the past,” observed the Dublin Evening Mail’s “Town Topics” columnist. “They will learn by picture-houses as well as by paradigms. It has been said that there is no Royal road to learning. There may be a Theatre Royal road, however” (“Town Topics”).

Official war films at the Gaiety; Evening Herald 14 Jun. 1916: 2.

Official war films at the Gaiety; Evening Herald 14 Jun. 1916: 2.

In a telling slippage, he was in fact discussing a new programme of official war films at the Gaiety Theatre rather than at the Royal. Although his point was about the ease or gaiety with which cinema could teach history, it is clear that this history would inculcate loyalty to the crown and war effort. “When I was in statu pupillari,” he continued,

history was taught me not without tears. The boys of the future will learn of the great war at the picture-palaces. I saw some of the official war films last week at the Gaiety Theatre. I saw the Irish regiments marching to Mass. I saw the heavy artillery attacking a German block-house. […] I saw our men in the trenches, preparing to seize the crater of a mine explosion. I saw them lobbing bombs like cricket balls at the enemy. Then I saw them – gallant Canadians at St. Eloi – fix bayonets and out over the parapet to charge across No Man’s Land and leap at the foe. Who would read the dull chronicles of Caesar of Livy after that?

Framegrab from Destruction of a German Blockhouse by 9.2 Howitzer; Impeial War Museum.

Framegrab from Destruction of a German Blockhouse by 9.2 Howitzer (Britain: British Topical Committee for War Films, 1916); Imperial War Museums.

In making this argument, the Town Topics writer was aligning himself with the Bioscope early 1916 description of the cinema as the “nation’s historian.” Although certainly exciting, these official films were not mere entertainment but a new kind of visual historiography. And this was not just a boon for schoolboys but also a new historical method that could help historians to overcome the wartime measures introduced by governments to control the flow of information. He argued that while “[a]t the beginning of the war it was thought the historians would be bankrupt, because the censorship hid deeds of our men in the mystery of the night,” in fact, “[t]he cinema will save the historian, and at least help him to pay ten shillings in the pound.”

Other press coverage of the Gaiety shows gives further details of how this new history was presented and received. The choice of a large “legitimate” theatre such as the Gaiety rather than in a picture house associated the films with a site of serious cultural production aimed at a discerning audience. On the other hand, the Gaiety adapted picture-house exhibition practices in showing the films at three shows a day beginning at 3pm. “[T]he Gaiety Theatre opens a practically new chapter in its career,” the Freeman’s Journal commented, “by the fact that the attraction is not the familiar drama, musical or otherwise, but the production of a series of official war pictures which are, beyond all doubt, of transcendent interest” (“Amusements”). “In imagination,” observed the Irish Times, “one may see Irish soldiers at work and play, the Connaught Rangers and Munster Fusiliers amongst them, and Captain Redmond is seen leading his company to the front lines” (“Public Amusements”). Similar to other entertainments at the theatre, “a most excellent musical accompaniment is supplied by the Gaiety orchestra” (“Amusements”). Although music might contribute to the ease with which these images could be perceived, the musical director would presumably have had to be careful to avoid evoking not tears of schoolboy struggle but those of poignant loss among audience members with relatives and friends in France.

More chapters of this history that could – a least theoretically – be assimilated without tears, were on the way. “At the General Headquarters of the British Army in France,” reported the Dublin Evening Mail on 22 June, “there was last night exhibited before a large gathering of distinguished officers and their guests the latest series of the official war films, which in due course will be presented to the public at home and to neutral Powers, amongst which the desire to learn what our troops are really doing is unquestionable very keen” (“Pictures Taken at the Front”). This first run before an expert military audience could not, however, guarantee how resistant audiences in Ireland or elsewhere might react.

The Irish Catholic Church seemed to also believe that the cinema could not easily be destroyed and should therefore be, if not utilized for its own purposes, at least shaped by its ideology. With the appointment in June 1916 by Dublin Corporation’s Public Health Committee of Walter Butler and Patrick Lennon as film censors, a milestone was reached in the church’s campaign to introduce local censorship that would reflect a distinctly Irish Catholic sensibility (Rockett 50). Films shown in Ireland already bore the certificate of the British Board of Film Censorship, which had been established by the film trade as a form of self-regulation to avoid government-imposed censorship. Even as Butler and Lennon were being appointed, the British industry was discussing renewed government determination to introduce official censorship. Among the cases cited that raised this issues in London was the banning of A Tale of the Rebellion, a film about the Easter Rising that showed an Irishman being hanged (“London Correspondence”). Even as they announced the introduction of censorship in Dublin, however, the Irish Vigilance Association (IVA) expressed impatience with the lack of urgency demonstrated by the Corporation in appointing censors (“Film Censors for Dublin”).

Musical attractions at the Pillar; Dublin Evening Mail 1 Jun. 1916: 2.

Musical attractions at the Pillar; Dublin Evening Mail 1 Jun. 1916: 2.

From the IVA’s perspective, censorship was increasingly urgent given cinema’s growing appeal for the middle class, epitomized by improvements to cinematic music in June 1916. Three Dublin picture houses led the musical field: the city-centre Pillar and Carlton and the suburban Bohemian. Reviewing the Pillar at the end of June, the Irish Times revealed that its “orchestra including such favourites as Mr. Joseph Schofield, Mr. Harris Rosenberg, Mr. H. O’Brien, Miss Annie Kane and Mr. S. Golding, continue[s] to delight large audiences” (“Pillar Picture House”). Just a few doors away from the Pillar on Sackville/O’Connell Street, the Carlton boasted in Erwin Goldwater an internationally renowned violinist as its orchestra leader and soloist.

Dublin Evening Mail 10 Jun. 1916: 2.

Dublin Evening Mail 10 Jun. 1916: 2.

The Bohemian, however, outdid both of these when it engaged Achille Simonetti. “Dubliners will keenly appreciate the enterprise of the management of the Bohemian Picture Theatre in permanently engaging the services of one of the most noted violinists of the day in the person of Signor Simonetti,” the Dublin Evening Mail argued. “Henceforth Signor Simonetti will act as leader of the Bohemian orchestra – which has won such a wide repute – and will give solos, as well as Mr. Clyde Twelvetrees, Ireland’s greatest ’celloist” (“Play’s the Thing”). Simonetti debuted alongside Twelvetrees at the Bohemian on Whit Monday, 12 June 1916, when the bill was topped by Infelice (Britain: Samuelson, 1915), based on a novel by Augusta Evans-Wilson and starring Peggy Hyland. And if this was not enough to draw a large audience, the Bohemian announced that it would revise its pricing back to pre-Entertainment Tax rates, adding the line “We Pay Your Tax” to future advertisements.

No ordinary musicians need apply to Bangor’s Picture Palace; Irish Independent 9 Jun. 1916: 6.

No ordinary musicians need apply to Bangor’s Picture Palace; Irish Independent 9 Jun. 1916: 6.

The Bohemian added violist George Hoyle two weeks later. “The management now consider that they have the most perfect arrangement of stringed instruments and performers for a picture theatre,” the Irish Times reported (“Platform and Stage”). In a rare article focused on “Picture House Music,” Dublin Evening Mail columnist H.R.W. agreed that the Bohemian’s orchestra was the best in the city and that Simonetti’s “distinguished abilities attract large numbers of people from the most distant parts of the city.”

Commenting favourably on the tendency for picture-house orchestras to add strings and avoid brass and woodwind, s/he observed that while “the theatre orchestra was allowed to degenerate into mere noisy accompaniments to conversations in the auditorium during the interval,” in the picture house, “conversation is subdued, the music is subdued, the lights are subdued. The whole effect is soothing to the nerves.” Referring to Twelvetree’s impressive rendering of Max Bruch’s arrangement of “Kol Nidre,” s/he speculated that “the exact atmosphere is created by the fact that the solos are played in half light. The attention paid by the audience shows that this new feature is appreciated to the fullest extent.” S/he concluded that “the picture houses are affording us an opportunity of hearing the very best music, and in the hands of such fine artists as I have mentioned we can hear anything from a string quartet to a symphony.”

Although the official war films were not shown at the Bohemian, music of this kind could certainly play a role in assimilating the new tearless history.

References

“Amazing City Scenes.” Dublin Evening Mail 19 Jun. 1916: 3.

“Amusements: The Gaiety Theatre.” Freeman’s Journal 13 Jun. 1916: 6.

“Bohemian Picture Theatre.” Irish Times 13 Jun. 1916: 2; 20 Jun. 1916: 7.

Condon, Denis. “Politics and the Cinematograph in Revolutionary Ireland: The Boer War and the Funeral of Thomas Ashe.” Field Day Review Issue 4 (2008); and “Receiving News from the Seat of War: Dublin Audiences Respond to Boer War Entertainments.” Early Popular Visual Culture Vol. 9, No. 2 (2011).

“Film Censors for Dublin.” Freeman’s Journal 22 Jun. 1916: 6.

H.R.W. “Picture House Music: Its Growth and Development.” Dublin Evening Mail 28 Jun. 1916: 5.

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

“London Correspondence.” Freeman’s Journal 16 Jun. 1916: 4.

“The Moving Picture: The New National Weapon.” Bioscope 1 Jun. 1916: 955.

“Pictures Taken at the Front: Splendid New Series: Operator Gets Bullet Through His Cap.” Dublin Evening Mail 22 Jun. 1916: 3.

“The Pillar Picture House.” Irish Times 27 Jun. 1916: 6.

“Platform and Stage.” Irish Times 24 Jun 1916: 10.

“The Play’s the Thing.” Dublin Evening Mail 10 Jun. 1916: 6.

“Public Amusements: The Gaiety Theatre.” Irish Times 13 Jun. 1916: 2.

Rockett, Kevin. Irish Film Censorship: A Cultural Journey from Silent Cinema to Internet Pornography. Dublin: Four Courts, 2004.

“Scene in City Theatre: ‘There Is a Brave Man.’” Dublin Evening Mail 26 Jun. 1916: 4.

“Town Topics: Being a Casual Causerie.” Dublin Evening Mail 19 Jun. 1916: 2.

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.