“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 Sinn Fein Review. 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 provided by the detectives of Irish Events films 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”). However, 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 been 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 spectacular 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.