“Growing in Favour to an Enormous Extent”: New Media, Ireland 1914

A little after 7pm on Friday, 6 February 1914, architect and inveterate theatregoer Joseph Holloway and his niece Eileen O’Malley arrived at Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre to find that the parterre was already full and there was standing room only in the upper circle. They decided not to stand for that evening’s final performance of the pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk, which was a benefit for comedian Jay Laurier, the actor who played Miffins. Instead they walked to the Nassau Street corner of Grafton Street to take a tram to the Dorset Picture Hall where they spent the evening watching a series of “interesting” but unnamed pictures (Holloway). It’s not clear why they passed the other picture houses along the tram route across the city to favour the Dorset, but Holloway seems to have taken a liking to the Dorset, having seen Kissing Cup (Britain: Hepworth, 1913) there with Eileen on 2 January and The Child from the Sea alone on 28 January. He had also recently seen Germinal (France: Pathé, 1913) at the Princess Cinema in Rathmines and the show of Kinemacolor films at the Queen’s Theatre.

Handbill for films at the Dorset during the week of 15-21 June 1914 with three changes of programme.

Handbill for films at the Dorset during the week of 15-21 June 1914 with three changes of programme. National Library of Ireland.

Holloway’s diary entries on his visits to Dublin’s picture houses are both unique and frustrating, providing the only sustained first-hand account by an Irish cinemagoer of this period but also offering merely tantalizing details of his visits. This contrasts markedly with his often lengthy comments on the city’s theatrical shows, many of which he saw on their opening night. Although he was committed to the theatre, he had also become since 1910 – almost without realizing it himself, it seems – a regular picture-house patron. Although more detail on goings-on in cinemas from an audience member’s point of view would certainly be welcome, the way in which going to the picture house had become such a mundane activity is fascinating. In his diary, Holloway notes significant films alongside theatre shows at the start of a week and often integrates a film show into his schedule, sometimes choosing a film but often choosing to see whatever was on at a favoured picture house.

Holloway and other cinemagoers would have increasing choice as 1914 progressed. “Dublin has not by a long way stopped in its career of opening picture houses,” reveals Paddy in the trade journal Bioscope in early February 1914. He mentions plans to open 18 more cinemas in the city, with plans for eight already approved.

There is no doubt that some of these new fry will pay, because they are to be built in districts badly provided for in the matter of theatres, but when I hear that it is proposed to open three new houses in Grafton Street, and two more in Sackville Street, I wonder what will happen. (Paddy, 5 Feb).

Comments on the growing popularity of Dublin picture houses were not limited to the trade papers. “There can be no gainsaying the popularity of picture theatres in the Irish metropolis,” comments Irish Times columnist the Clubman. “They seem to be always crowded and their proprietors must be making plenty of money out of them. Of course, the ‘man in the street’ will tell you that ‘the pictures’ are only a ‘craze,’ but they are a craze which will, I think, live for some time in Dublin, at any rate (“Dublin Topics”).

It was not just in Dublin, and it would not be a passing craze. In mid-January 1914, the Bioscope’s “Jottings from Ulster” columnist noted that the

Belfast Corporation cinematograph inspector, Mr. Campbell, reported at the last meeting of the Police Committee, that on Christmas Day, Boxing Day, and the 27th ult., 124,087 persons patronised the fourteen picture theatres in the city. These figures show an increase of about 15,000 as compared with Christmas, 1912, It is of considerable interest to note that 124,000 is roughly one-third of the entire population of Belfast; it may, therefore, be taken that the cinema is growing in favour to an enormous extent. (“Jottings,” 15 Jan.)

These are very interesting figures, adding some statistical support to the impression conveyed by Holloway’s diary and newspaper and trade-press articles. It remains more difficult to discern a hundred years later the degree to which individual films that appear to do so actually address such important issues as women’s suffrage, the labour movement and Home Rule. These questions might without too much distortion be phrased in the language of 2014 as concerning the way in which new media engage with questions of the changing nature of work, gender inequality and national sovereignty.

Asta Nielsen as suffrage activist Nelly Panburne being force fed in The Suffragette (1913).

Asta Nielsen as suffrage activist Nelly Panburne being force fed in The Suffragette (1913).

Women’s suffrage was one of the most prominent political questions of the 1910s, kept in the headlines by suffragette activism, including that by the Irish Women’s Franchise League. Suffragettes in Ireland – but not Irish suffragettes – had most directly used the new cinema technologies as a form of protest on the evening of 18 July 1912, when as part of a wider protest, English suffragettes Mary Leigh, Gladys Evans and Lizzie Baker had attempted to set fire to Dublin’s Theatre Royal by igniting the highly combustible nitrate film in the theatre’s cinematograph box between evening shows. “Had the lighted matches come in contact with the films, the substances of which are, of course, highly inflammable, a terrible disaster might have to be chronicled” (“Serious Suffragette Outrage”). For this and for a hatchet attack on British prime minster HH Asquith’s carriage, in which Irish nationalist MP John Redmond was injured, Leigh, Evans and Baker were sentenced to prison terms in Mountjoy Jail, where they joined eight Irish suffragettes and began a hunger strike.

Belfast's Panopticon advertises Asta Nielsen in The Suffragette (1913).

Belfast’s Panopticon advertises Asta Nielsen in The Suffragette (1913); Belfast Newsletter 3 Jan. 1914: 1.

Events such as these were fictionalized in the German film The Suffragette (Projektions AG, 1913), which offered Irish audiences the rare opportunity of seeing suffragettes on screen treated as something other than just comedy. Featuring the Danish star Asta Nielsen as Nelly Panburne – modelled on Christabel Pankhurst – the film shows how Nelly protests by breaking shop windows; is force-fed when she goes on hunger strike in prison; and carries a bomb intended to kill Lord Ascue, a British minister modelled on Asquith opposed to women’s rights. The film attempts to contain its radical energies with a romantic subplot that sees Nelly save Ascue  from the bomb and marry him. Despite the closeness of the film to actual events, the Belfast Newsletter commented that when it was exhibited in January 1914 at the Panopticon Picture Theatre, it “creates great merriment. Asta Neilson, described as the greatest of all picture artists, is seen at her best” (“Panopticon”).

Carson v Redmond
The confrontation between Irish unionists and nationalists had become such a part of popular discourse in Britain in early 1914 that this ad for films that had nothing to do with Ireland could expect to draw attention by using the names of Edward Carson and John Redmond as if they were prize fighters. Bioscope 12 Mar. 1914, p. 1186.

Perhaps the importance of the political events of a different kind in Belfast was among the factors that inclined the Newsletter towards downplaying a fictional representation of the suffrage movement. To keep up pressure on Asquith’s government, Edward Carson again visited Belfast In mid-January 1914 to rally unionist opponents of Irish home rule and review the massed ranks of the Ulster Volunteer Force prepared violently to resist the imposition of home rule. Such nationalist newspapers as Dublin’s Evening Telegraph and Belfast’s Irish News presented unionist demonstrations as a farce and drew attention instead to the counter-demonstration in Belfast led by nationalist MP Joseph Devlin (“Carson Comedy Co.,” “U.V.F. Comedy,” “Mr. Devlin, M.P., in West Belfast”). The unionists, however, again proved themselves more competent with the new cinematic medium. A newsreel camera was again in Belfast to record and relay images not of Devlin but of Carson, and this time, it was operated by Dublin-based Norman Whitten, who filmed the demonstration for Weisker Brothers, a firm to which he had recently affiliated (Paddy, 29 Jan.). Paddy commended Whitten for having the film of Carson ready to screen at Belfast’s Picture House, Royal Avenue on the evening of the rally (ibid).

Of more immediate concern to Dublin’s media from mid-January to early February was the end of the Lockout with the defeat of the striking workers. For the first three days of the week beginning Monday 19 January, the Evening Telegraph’s notice for the Phoenix Picture Palace recommended A Leader of Men, “dealing in a thrilling and sensation manner with an organised strike in a big shipbuilding industry. It is decidedly a picture that will appeal strongly to all at the present time” (“Phoenix Picture Palace”). On the same day, the Telegraph was reporting the “Collapse of Strike: No Food and No Money: Mr. Larkin Advise Men: To Go Back to Work: But to Sign No Agreement” (“Collapse of Strike”). If that drama was too close for comfort to current events, audiences could also enjoy more diverting material on the same bill in the dramas Fortune’s Turn and The Dumb Messenger and the comedies The Honeymooners, When Love Is Young and Cartoons, Mr PiffleAs well as this, to whom and in what way the film would appeal is not clear given that it is unlikely many of the workers impoverished by months of strike could have afforded to attend.

Nevertheless, as cinema continued to develop and picture houses occupied more spaces on the Irish streetscape, films would attract audiences not only by providing escape but also by confronting – both directly and obliquely – important political issues.


“Carson Comedy Co.: Performing in Belfast To-Day.” Evening Telegraph 17 Jan. 1914: 6.

“Collapse of Strike.” Evening Telegraph 20 Jan. 1914: 3.

“Dublin Topics by the Clubman.” Irish Times 31 Jan. 1914: 4.

Holloway, Joseph. Holloway Diaries. National Library of Ireland. 6 Feb. 1914: 295.

“Jottings from Ulster.” Bioscope 15 Jan. 1914: 263.

“Mr. Devlin, M.P., in West Belfast: Great Rallies of the Progressive Forces Hear Inspiriting Addresses.” Irish News 19 Jan. 1914: 5-6.

“Phoenix Picture Palace.” Evening Telegraph 20 Jan. 1913: 2.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 29 Jan. 1914: 454.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 5 Feb. 1914: 547.

“The Panopticon.” Belfast Telegraph 6 Jan. 1914: 9.

“Serious Suffragette Outrage: Two Attempts to Set Fire: To the Theatre Royal: An Explosive Used: A Panic Avoided.” Freeman’s Journal 19 Jul. 1912: 6.

“U.V.F. Comedy: Parade of the East Belfast Regiment: Inspection by Sir E. Carson.” Irish News 19 Jan. 1914: 7.

“The Wonder-Seeking Mind of the Peasant”

By October 1913, picture houses had begun to be a permanent presence not only in such Irish cities as Dublin, Belfast and Cork but also in towns with even as few as 5,000 inhabitants. In such places, the film show would be the first professionally produced mass entertainment available on a long-term basis. However, many towns still relied on travelling companies to bring professional entertainment of any kind, including film shows. Clearly, population was not the only factor, but it was very likely in 1913 that a town with 10,000 people or more would have had at least one permanent picture house, but only some towns of around 5,000 had a dedicated film venue, and most of the latter were likely to be served by travelling picture or picture-and-variety shows. However, market towns of 5,000 might have a dedicated picture house if they also had a good train service and a local person or persons with access to capital who saw the opportunities being exploited successfully elsewhere.

In early October 1913, Paddy, the Irish correspondent for the British trade journal Bioscope reported on a film-and-variety show by Clarence Bailey in Ballina, Co. Mayo:

To County Mayo is rather a far cry. Nevertheless, picture shows go there from time to time, and no touring show is thought so much about as the “livin’ pictur’” one. At Ballina recently, we had Clarence Bailey’s show, a mixture of variety and films. Some of the latter included the “Derby of 1913.” Wild West subjects naturally predominate in travelling shows of this nature, the breathless rush over the dusty plains appealing to the wonder-seeking mind of the peasant (Paddy).

This piece’s use of brogue and mention of “the peasant” was typical of Paddy’s humorous condescension in covering small-town and rural Ireland. Peasants are hicks who live in the far-away west, unsophisticated provincials who lap up Westerns and out-of-date news and in so doing, provide a telling contrast to the readers of Paddy’s column as well as demonstrating the increasing reach of the metropolitan film business. Nevertheless, Paddy also provides some unique details of film exhibition in the west of Ireland a century ago. Travelling shows such as Bailey’s are very difficult to track because they often did not advertise in the local newspapers of the towns they visited, and consequently, the newspapers – the source most likely to provide details of local reception – frequently ignored them unless something else newsworthy occurred. The September-October issues of the Western People and Ballina Herald do not mention, let alone give details of the programme. Clearly, Bailey was not in the first rank of Irish travelling exhibitors, which included the town-hall showman James T. Jameson and the fairground exhibitor John Toft. Bailey’s name is known to film scholars (Barton 14), but Paddy allows us to place him in Ballina showing Westerns and the newsreel of the Epson Derby that retained some interest four months after the race not only because of an abiding interest in horseracing among an audience who had not yet seen these moving pictures but also because this was the race at which suffragette Emily Wilding Davison was killed by King George V’s horse (some fascinating discussion of this case here and here).

Ballina had recently experienced its own suffragette controversy, when Irish Women’s Franchise League members Helen Chevenix and Clara Moser visited the town on 14 August to organize a town-hall meeting for 2 September. When the women held an impromptu meeting in the street, the conservative Protestant Balina Herald claimed that “though on the whole the crowd seemed sympathetic, some unruly parties kept interrupting, and on one occasion an egg or an orange – we don’t quite know which – was flung and narrowly missed one of the ladies” (“Lady Suffragettes in Ballina”). At the September meeting, the Western People explained that the women lost the sympathy of the largely nationalist audience by a “very ill-timed reference to the assistance ladies in the North were giving Sir Edward Carson in his swash buckling campaign against Home Rule [which] made many persons think that the lady who unburdened her mind in this manner came there to preach the cause of Unionism, under the guise of a Suffragette” (“A Suffrage Meeting”). The People strongly denied the “statement that the motor car conveying the Suffragettes and their friends was stoned as it left the hall after the meeting,” all that occurred being “confined to derisive booing and shouting” (ibid.). How these local incidents may have affected reception of the film, or how the film may have cast new light on the local events, or even which film of the Derby was shown is difficult to say, but the picture shows by travelling exhibitors such as Bailey provided the opportunity, at least, to re-examine them.


John Toft’s fairground cinematograph show at Tramore, Co Waterford, in 1901. From National Library of Ireland’s catalogue.

With a population of 4,662, Ballina did not have a dedicated venue at which such opportunities might arise on a regular basis. However, Ballinasloe, a town with the slightly larger population of 5,608 was in October 1913 awaiting the opening of a long-running, if not permanent, film venue. Although in the western county of Galway, Ballinasloe is located along the Galway-Dublin road and rail line, at the terminus of the Grand Canal. It is on the eastern border of that county, which means that it was and is nearer to the middle of the country than the west coast, and as such has long been an important meeting point between east and west, epitomized in its longstanding October fair, one of the oldest in Ireland. The town transport links and the fair’s large crowds drew travelling entertainers, so that in September 1913 alone, two travelling film companies visited before John Toft arrived to take part in the fair.

Cirque and Tofts Ballinasloe 1913

Circus and fairground shows with film: Morgan’s Cinema Cirque and Toft’s Amusements in Ballinasloe, autumn 1913. Ads for the East Galway Democrat 13 Sep. 1913 and 20 Sep. 1913.

Toft displayed a remarkable ability to manage publicity and consequently increase his audience. The East Galway Democrat praised his “readiness to aid every good work” that included his

“Benefit Night” this week in aid of the Temperance Hall, his generous subscriptions to the Nursing Fund, the Fund for the Poor, and the Gaelic League, as well as his kindness in giving the patients and inmates of our public institutions a little enjoyment. […] It is not to be wondered at that Mr Toft’s Amusements are well patronised, and that he makes friends wherever he goes (“Local Topics: Deservedly Popular Show”).

However, when Toft travelled on from Ballinasloe a few day after the end of the fair, local businessmen John Thomas Greeves-O’Sullivan and Timothy J Dolan opened a winter season of their Greeves-O’Sullivan and Dolan Picture and Variety Company, running at the Town Hall from 24 November and over the Christmas period. “No expense has been spared to provide first-class pictures,” the Democrat revealed, “and the machine to be used for the purpose of showing them is one of the latest on the market. An experienced operator has been engaged, and the Ballinasloe Orchestra will discourse selections during the entertainments” (“Local Topics: Picture and Variety Co. for Ballinasloe”).

Dec 20 1913 EastGalway Democrat

East Galway Democrat 20 Dec. 1913: 4.

The company advertised regularly in the press and were acknowledged with notices, including one on 6 December that appears to bear out their claim that they changed films nightly: “to-night (Friday) a grand feature film, ‘Heartt [sic] of the First Empire or The Days of Napoleon,’ a splendid Military Drama; Sunday 7th Dec., ‘The Kerry Gow,’ a three-reel Irish Drama, Monday, 8th Dec., ‘Woman’s Heart,’ and on Friday, 12th Dec., ‘District Attorney’s Conscience,’ a splendid emotional drama” (“Living Pictures”). Despite the use of “variety” in their name, the company appears primarily to have shown pictures and their variety seems to have been limited to selections from the orchestra between films, with the piano selections of Eddie Kelly being particularly singled out in one notice.

The use of such local resources as the orchestra for commercial gain was the main criticism of the company expressed in the press. In an exchange of letters with Greeves-O’Sullivan, the orchestra’s conductor James Roche refused to participate in the venture, explaining that although he had been working with orchestra for a year without remuneration, he was not prepared to continue unpaid “where the band was being used for a private commercial speculation” (“Correspondence”). Greeves-O’Sullivan replaced Roche with local hairdresser Patrick Burke and seems to have gone on using the orchestra, but the exploitation by local businessmen of such community resources as orchestras and town halls for their own profit did cause conflict elsewhere during this period in the development of cinema.


Barton, Ruth. Irish National Cinema. London: Routledge, 2004.

“Correspondence.” East Galway Democrat 13 Dec. 1913: 5.

“Lady Suffragettes in Ballina.” Ballina Herald 21 Aug. 1913: 3.

“Living Pictures.” East Galway Democrat 6 Dec. 1913: 5.

“Local Topics: Deservedly Popular Show.” East Galway Democrat 18 Oct. 1913: 4.

“Local Topics: Picture and Variety Co. For Ballinasloe.” East Galway Democrat 15 Nov. 1913: 5.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 2 Oct. 1913: 31.

Phelan, Martin. “Emigration.” East Galway Democrat 15 Nov. 1913: 7.

“A Suffrage Meeting.” Western People 6 Sep. 1913: 6.