“It is ever so much more a patriotic thing to go down the quays and give the soldiers a good send-off than it is to sit in a darkened picture house watching, perhaps, ‘shadow soldiers’ flickering on a screen,” reported Paddy, the Ireland correspondent of the British cinema trade journal Bioscope in August 1914 explaining the falloff in attendance at Dublin’s picture houses at the start of the Great War. “[T]he fact that the Lord Mayor of Dublin had to publicly ask the people through the medium of the Press, to refrain from causing a block on the quays and assist in getting the soldiers embarked more expeditiously shows how matters stand” (Paddy, 13 Aug., 673). Mobilization affected the cinema and its relationship with the popular audience in various ways. Those who lined the Dublin quays, Paddy suggested, were particularly the popular audience who would otherwise have occupied the picture houses’ cheapest – usually three-penny or 3d. – seats. Although Frederick Sparling, manager of Phibsboro’s Bohemian Picture Theatre, reported brisk business, “he experienced a great falling off in the attendances at the 3d. seats, and he expected that receipts generally would show a drop for a little time” (ibid).
Paddy claimed that the effect in Ulster was quite different, with the outbreak of the war bringing unionist and nationalist audiences together in the face of a common enemy. “[T]he one-time rivals now fraternise,” he observed, “and quiet, law-abiding and gaiety-loving citizens are now taking their pleasures with less sadness than had been their wont during the two gloomy years from which Ireland has just emerged” (Paddy, 13 Aug., 675). Unfortunately, this somewhat unlikely harmony would be short-lived because the difficulties of procuring enough flax and other raw material for Ulster’s factories would mean that mill workers, “the backbone of the support of the cinema in Ulster as in other manufacturing centres,” would be placed on half-time working at half-pay, leaving “nothing to spend on amusements of any description” (ibid).
Nevertheless, Irish picture houses attempted from a very early point in the war to provide shadow soldiers on the screen for their audiences, and not only working-class ones. On 7 August 1914, the Dublin Evening Mail carried the first of a series of unusually large ads for the Picture House, Grafton Street and the Picture House, Sackville Street showing films depicting “the latest developments of the War, day by day.” Both of these cinemas were owned by the London-based chain Provincial Cinematograph Theatres, which also ran the less-salubrious Volta in Mary Street and Belfast’s Picture House, Royal Avenue. The company promoted its venues – and particularly the recently renovated and extended Grafton on Dublin’s most prestigious shopping street – as offering luxuries suitable for prosperous city-centre shoppers. Strollers who stopped into the Grafton’s public café might be induced to see the war pictures by a sign that indicated which of the six-to-eight films typically on a cinema programme was currently playing in the auditorium.
Although such passersby or Evening Mail readers arrested by the prominent ads continued to be offered a programme of films after the outbreak of hostilities, they seem to have been presented with an overwhelming number of war-themed films. The Grafton featured England’s Menace (Britain: London, 1914), a “stunning naval drama,” for the week beginning 10 August, the six-day run representing twice the usual period for which a film was shown. For the first three days of the following week, the Grafton exhibited Maurice Elvey’s In the Days of Trafalgar (Britain: British and Colonial, 1914), supported by a programme that included the first part of the British Army Film (Britain: Keith Prowse, 1914), the second part of which ran in the latter half of the week on a bill headed by The Spy, or The Mystery of Capt. Dawson (1914), a detective drama involving the stealing of plans for a new quick-firing gun. The Belgian War Scenes advertised on 24 August were said to have come “from actual photographs [i.e., films] taken in Belgium on Thursday last,” and these played on the programme with D. W. Griffith’s Judith of Bethulia (US: Biograph, 1914), an adaptation of the biblical Book of Judith’s story of war and decapitation.
Provincial was not the only cinema proprietor to show actual war footage – Dublin’s Rotunda, Phoenix and Bohemian all advertised their latest war films, as did many others in newspapers or through more ephemeral forms such as posters and handbills that no longer survive. Provincial, however, made a special effort to exhibit the actualities in programmes with other kinds of war-themed films to cater for – or indeed, help to create – a patriotic war fever. Given the recentness of the war, none of the fiction films just mentioned concerned the current conflict with Germany, nor did the British Army Film, a documentary about ordinary life in the army that was made before the war and that had attracted a protest in March. There was nothing new in popular culture assembling and re-presenting pre-existing elements in a new combination that served the prevailing ideology, particularly at a time of crisis. The live music that accompanied silent film in picture houses of the 1910s could add further jingoism. There were precedents for the use of film in war-time patriotic shows as early as the Boer War, but the popular audience in many parts of Ireland had often been vocally resistant to such anti-Boer/pro-British jingoistic shows (Condon).
What had changed between the turn of the century and the 1910s, however, was cinema’s place within the mediascape in Ireland as elsewhere. By 1914, Ireland had a large number of picture houses that provided news alongside dramatic entertainment. Although picture houses could not match the newspapers’ detailed coverage of topical events, newsreels from the front provided by such companies as Pathé and Gaumont offered something the press could not: moving images of battle sites and the people who fought in the war. Because newsreel scenes recorded on film needed to be physically transported from the front, their newsworthiness had dissipated. Some picture theatres, including the Grafton and Sackville, entered into agreements with telegraphic wire services to offer instantaneous messages during shows, a phenomenon that bears resemblance to a Twitter feed. One ad for these picture houses informed the public that “[a]rrangements have been completed with the Central News Agency for a complete service of telegrams from the Front, to be supplied to this Theatre. As the news arrives it will be immediately thrown on to the screen” (“The War”).
As the war began, commentators in the press debated cinema’s place among other media. To some, it was an absurd form. “In a city picture house, a man tells me,” confided Dublin’s Evening Herald columnist The Man About Town in mid-August 1914,
he has just acquired some curious and too little known facts about the Roman Empire. It would appear that the Caesars were in the habit of decorating their apartments with busts of Dante (which certainly showed remarkable foresight on their part), while their consorts sought relaxation by perusing printed volumes, handsomely bound. Verily, to live is to learn, but seeing is not always believing.
Seeing the past – or present – in the form of the “cineanachronisms” provided in the picture houses was not to be believed by this canny man about town. At least not always.
Other commentators took a more considered but not uncritical view of what had become the country’s most ubiquitous theatrical entertainment, reaching parts of small-town, rural and suburban Ireland that had never had regular professional theatrical entertainment before. By the end of 1914, Dublin Corporation approved licences for 25 premises to show films, with two or three others also under consideration. A small group of these were the theatres – the Theatre Royal, Tivoli Theatre, Empire Theatre and Queen’s Theatre – that had been showing films for two decades or more as part of their mainly live theatrical entertainments. The rest were dedicated picture houses in which the main entertainment was the projection of recorded moving pictures onto a screen, with the live elements limited to musical accompaniment, vocalists who sang between films, and in some venues, one or more variety acts. “Personally, I think we are carrying the picture business to excess,” opined the Dublin Evening Mail’s “Music and the Drama” columnist H.R.W. “The opening of theatres [i.e., picture houses] in the suburbs has much to commend it, but the many additions to the already large number of picture houses in the city is rather risky enterprise” (“War and the Drama”). This was not just a problem among competing picture house owners, but also among theatres proprietors because “ [t]he increasing popularity of the Picture Theatre is making the future of the drama and the music hall a serious problem” (“The Invasion of the Film”). H.R.W. felt that Dublin theatre managers had allowed this to happen by offering increasing amounts of music-hall entertainment and neglecting drama:
the vast public which desires something romantic and dramatic has been catered for by the activity of picture theatres, which, with their cheapness, the casual nature of the performances, and the liberty of smoking, has earned for them a considerable degree of popularity. (Ibid.)
By the outbreak of the war, cinema had become a truly mass medium, providing both news images and dramatic entertainment in a very particular setting. Even without overt propaganda films, individual picture houses or cinema chains could in their choice of films, music and other elements of their programmes present the war in ways that influenced the popular audience that governments needed to prosecute the war. If the Irish popular audience was indeed crowding the quays waving off Irish soldiers, it seemed likely that they would return to the picture houses to cheer on the screen’s shadow soldiers.
“Belgian War Scenes.” Advertisement. Dublin Evening Mail 24 August 1914: 2.
Condon, Denis. “Receiving News from the Seat of War: Dublin Audiences Respond to Boer War Entertainments.” Early Popular Visual Culture 9:2 (May 2011), pp. 93-106.
H. R. W. “Music and the Drama: War and the Drama.” Dublin Evening Mail 3 Aug. 1914: 2.
—. “Music and the Drama: The Invasion of the Film.” Dublin Evening Mail 27 Jul. 1914: 4.
The Man About Town. “Cineanachronisms.” Evening Herald. 13 Aug. 1914: 2.
Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 13 Aug. 1914: 673-5.
“The War: Picture House News Service.” Advertisement. Dublin Evening Mail 12 Aug. 1914: 2.
At a meeting of the Portadown Technical Committee on Thursday, 12 March 1914, Technical School principal J. G. Edwards reported that certain pupils attributed their poor attendance to “the picture house” and “drilling” (“Technical School Drilling”). Like the nationalist boys who had objected to the British Army Film in Dublin the previous week – although opposed to them politically – the unionist boys of Portadown were culturally and politically active, participating in the Ulster Volunteer Force’s (UVF’s) increasingly visible campaign of opposition to Home Rule. For a significant number of young Irish men of different political convictions in 1914, the cinema and marching formed part of the texture of their lives.
Despite the polarization of Irish politics by the growing Home Rule crisis in March 1914, the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in the country’s cinemas appears to have been surprisingly uncontroversial. Several cinemas in the largest population centres of Dublin, Belfast and Cork chose Irish-themed films, with Irish-shot films – especially those of the Kalem company – being particularly favoured. Indeed, it would be decades before so many recently produced Irish-shot film would be available to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. For St. Patrick’s night only, Dublin’s Phoenix Picture Palace showed The Shaughraun (US: Kalem, 1912); the Clonard Picture House in Belfast’s Fall’s Road offered the same film but for the more usual three-day run beginning on 19 March. In Cork, the Coliseum exhibited Kalem’s The Kerry Gow (1912). The Cork Constitution‘s review of the latter appears to come from a non-Irish source as it explained that “The Kerry Gow (a blacksmith) is a splendid Irish production, which was acted in the Green Isle, and features Jack Clarke and Gene Gauntier, with a full company of ‘flicker’ artists of repute” (“The Coliseum”).
Of even more direct relevance to the feast day of the Irish patron saint was J. Theobald Walsh’s Life of Saint Patrick: from the Cradle to the Grave (US: Photo-Historic, 1912). This film was shown in Patrick’s Week at Dublin’s World’s Fair Varieties in Henry Street. This was not the first time the World’s Fair had shown the film; the venue began 1914 with an extended run of it. It was “over 3,000 feet long [and] was produced by Theobald Walsh, for the Photo-Historic Company, New York, on the actual spots made memorable by Ireland’s Apostle. It is enacted throughout by Irish peasants attired in the correct costumes of that period” (“World’s Fair Varieties”). It was, one reviewer commented, a “splendid picture, and most appropriate for the time of year it is.” Indeed, “it is, undoubtedly, a most masterly film” (“’Life of St. Patrick’”).
Elsewhere, Irish-set (but not -shot) films or those featuring Irish characters that – like the Kalem films and The Life of Saint Patrick – had been released in the previous year or so were revived for the occasion. For the first part of Patrick’s week, the Clonard showed The Banshee (US: Kay-Bee, 1913), a “splendid two-part drama” to whose representations of the Irish the Ancient Order of Hibernians had objected when it had been shown in Tralee, Co, Kerry, in early February 1914 (Condon). Other titles were more Irish-American than Irish. As part of its special Sunday programme on 15 March, the Phoenix showed Solax’s Dublin Dan: The Irish Detective (1912), which starred popular stage actor Barney Gilmore in his first film. In an ad for the film in a US trade journal, Solax described Gilmore as the “popular American and Irish idol – the matinee girl’s pet – the favorite of millions, an actor known in every state in the Union – a veteran on the stage – although young in years, with a personality that ‘comes across’” (Solax 729). Although The Escape of Jim Dolan (US: Selig Polyscope, 1913) contained a temptingly Irish-named protagonist, this Tom Mix Western at the Picture House in Dublin’s Sackville/O’Connell Street for the three days including St. Patrick’s Day appears to have had no meaningful Irish or Irish-American theme beyond that name.
Two films of actual sporting and political events in Ireland were also popular. On Monday, 16 March, films of two international football matches that took place in Belfast the previous weekend were exhibited at several picture houses, including the West Belfast Picture Theatre on the Falls Road – which showed the soccer match at Windsor Park between Ireland and Scotland – and the Picture House, Sackville/O’Connell Street – which showed the Ireland v. Wales rugby match at the Balmoral show grounds. On 19 March, the Princess Cinema in the Dublin suburb of Rathmines was the first in the city to show the film “Trooping the Colours” that had been shot by Pathé at Dublin Castle on St. Patrick’s Day. A military display overseen by the Lord Lieutenant in the presence of invited dignitaries, this film offered moving-picture evidence of a phenomenon that had long been clear in other media: that St. Patrick’s Day was an established part of the official culture of British-ruled Ireland.
Actuality films shown in Belfast presented a very different view of Ireland in 1914. As debates on special terms for the exclusions of parts of Ulster from a home-ruled Ireland continued at Westminster, the Panopticon in High Street topped its bills in the second half of Patrick’s week with films that showed the determination of unionist resistance. An actuality of the South Antrim brigade of the UVF was screened from 19 March in answer to the question posed by newspaper ads for the show: Are the Ulster Volunteers Prepared to Fight? This question had gained increased currency that day, when Edward Carson abruptly left Westminster in the face of insufficient concessions for Ulster, stating his intention of confronting what would come with his people. On Saturday, the South Antrim brigade film was joined on the Panopticon bill by The Arrival of Sir E. Carson, a film that was retained into the following week, although the new programme was headed by Asta Nielsen’s Up to Her Tricks (Engelein; Germany: Projections-AG Union, 1914). By then the political crisis in Ireland had worsened with the beginning of the Curragh Mutiny, the declaration by British Army officers in Ireland that they would not move against the UVF.
How important the films at the Panopticon were in propagating resistance to Home Rule is difficult to say, but the value of still images to the campaign is clear from the Belfast Evening Telegraph. In early 1914, the Telegraph had been encouraging the amateur photographers among its readers to send in photos of newsworthy events for possible publication. The paper carried a large number of professionally produced photographs, drawings and illustrated ads, and this crowdsourcing of photographs enhanced what was already probably Ireland’s most visually rich newspaper. The usefulness of such images to unionism was made explicit by the 9 March article “Pictures Tell the Story,” which relates how at a meeting in London, Unionist MP Andrew L. Horner distributed a Telegraph photo of a UVF battalion that amazed the audience with the numbers on parade. The method of dissemination here was crude but effective and repeatable: “Mr. Horner asked the audience to study the picture and pass it around, which they did […] Another paper, containing a similar photo, was sent by Mr. Horner to a candidate in Yorkshire, who has made good use of it” (“Pictures Tell the Story”). In this context, the usefulness of moving pictures in showing sympathetic audiences in Britain the extent of unionist opposition to Home Rule seems obvious, but a system of distribution that allowed the correct contextualizing of the films was required.
By June 1914, the full value of moving images of Ulster resistance would be realized when the Union Defence League fitted out four large vans with projectors, screens and films of Carson and the UVF to tour Britain spreading the message of opposition to Home Rule (Paddy, 18 Jun.). Already by March 1914, however, young supporters of the UVF were finding their drilling and cinema-going converging.
“The Coliseum: A Strong Programme.” Cork Constitution 17 Mar. 1914: 6.
Condon, Denis. “Limelight on the Colleen Bawn: Resisting Autoexoticism in Provincial Irish Picture Houses in the Early 1910s.” Les cinémas périphériques dans la période des premiers temps. Peripheral Early Cinema: Domitor 2008. Presses Universitaires de Perpignan, pp. 245-255.
“’Life of St. Patrick.’” Evening Telegraph 17 Mar. 1914: 2
Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 18 Jun. 1914: 1261.
“Pictures Tell the Story.” Belfast Evening Telegraph 9 Mar. 1914: 5.
“Princess Cinema, Rathmines.” Dublin Evening Mail 18 Mar. 1914: 2.
Solax. Ad for Dublin Dan. Moving Picture World 10 Aug. 1912: 729.
“Technical Students Drilling.” Weekly Irish Times 14 Mar. 1914: 6.
“World’s Fair Varieties: Life of St. Patrick.” Dublin Evening Mail 16 Mar. 1914: 4.
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.
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.
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.
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”).
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 Piffle. As 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 organizers of Edward Carson’s inspection of the Ulster Volunteer Force in Belfast on Saturday, 27 September 1913, made careful plans that this show of strength would leave nobody in Ireland, Britain or beyond in any doubt of Unionist opposition to Home Rule. Carson had been appointed head of the provisional Ulster government established at a meeting earlier that week, and the inspection was to give evidence of the growing army he could call on to resist attempts to impose a Dublin-based Home Rule parliament dominated by Ireland’s nationalist majority. These events were carefully stage-managed to ensure maximum publicity, with special accommodation made for the media. Under an elaborate headline decorated with unionist flags and emblems, the Belfast Newsletter’s lengthy report revealed that the “Pressmen were even more numerous on Saturday than at the demonstration held at Balmoral on Easter Tuesday, 1912, when Mr. Bonar Law, M.P., made an important speech; and the photographers were ubiquitous” (“Ulster Volunteer Force”). As well as in word and photograph, the proceedings would be recorded on film: “the cinematograph operators were also kept busy, but they were not properly tested until the troops came in sight. Then the machines began to work, and this week in nearly all the picture theatres in the United Kingdom views of the parade will be exhibited, and the electors of Great Britain, will have the opportunity of seeing for themselves what the Ulster Volunteers are doing in preparation for a great emergency” (“Ulster Volunteer Force”).
Although the local press was clear that this spectacle was not just for local consumption, prominent among the cinematographers were those engaged by Frederick Stewart, proprietor of the Panopticon Picture Theatre in Belfast’s High Street, and his primary audience was in the city. “Mr. Fred Stewart, of the Belfast Panopticon,” the Bioscope reported, “is supplying local topicals, and each day finds the seating capacity of his hall taxed to its utmost – despite the fact that he has only recently doubled the accommodation. Last Saturday he scored again by screening a film record of the review of the Ulster Volunteers. The picture, which was about 200 ft. long, was shown by Mr. Stewart within four hours after the event took place, a piece of work which for smartness and expedition has not been eclipsed locally” (“Jottings from Ulster”). The Newsletter offered some more precise details, claiming that Stewart was “entitled to great credit for being the first to exhibit pictures of the Review of the Belfast Division of Ulster’s Volunteer Force on Saturday, the films being in use at 8.40 p.m., about a couple of hours after the proceedings at Balmoral had come to a termination. It was gratifying to all patrons of yesterday’s entertainment to see those delightful views, which convey a very fine impression as to the strength and general effect of the display by one section of the loyalist army (“The Panopticon,” Newsletter).
Although this suggests that the Panopticon’s clientele was as unionist as the readership of the Newsletter; the account of the exhibition of the film by Belfast’s main nationalist daily, the Irish News, indicates that the showing was sufficiently low key to be treated as news rather than celebratory spectacle. “Whatever one may think of that demonstration as a political incident,” it observed, “it was undoubtedly a news item of some interest, and credit is due to Mr. Stewart, the popular manager of the Panopticon, for his enterprise in arranging to have the affair filmed and shown on the screen as early as nine o’clock on Saturday night” (“The Panopticon,” Irish News). However, after this praise of a local exhibitor, the reviewer devoted more attention to Florence Lawrence’s role in The One Good Turn, pointing out that the actress was no longer with the Vitagraph Company and was rumoured to be considering a series of films in Ireland in 1914.
The militant Ulster unionism on display at Balmoral was also Protestant, and the Protestant churches’ attitude to the cinema helps to explain the prominence of the cinematograph in the mediation of this event. Unlike a commercial picture house that might aim to appeal across both Catholic nationalist and Protestant unionist communities in order to maximize its audience, church halls only appealed to one side of the politico-sectarian divide. By 1913, many of Belfast’s Protestant church halls added the exhibition of moving pictures to their Saturday social activities. Although some Irish Catholic halls – such as the Gillooly Memorial Temperance Hall in Sligo – showed films (Condon), Protestant organizations embraced film exhibition far more wholeheartedly. The second venue that showed Stewart’s film of Carson’s review at Balmoral was the City YMCA Hall, where the audience would have broadly shared religious and political views. The Newsletter‘s review of this exhibition noted that “the great audience in the Y.M.C.A. Hall were surprised and delighted to witness a splendid series of moving pictures of Sir Edward Carson and the march past of the volunteers,” which they greeted “with loud cheers, again and again renewed” (“Smart Cinematograph Work”).
Despite the historical interest of the Carson film, cinema culture in Belfast was not dominated by films of current events. Preachers at the halls sometimes used films to highlight religious subjects, as the Methodist minister Robert Ker did when he explained “the lessons of the great picture, ‘The Curse of Drink’” before it was screened at Belfast’s Grosvenor Hall on 13 September 1913 (“Grosvenor Hall”). An understanding that Belfast audiences would appreciate a film with a temperance theme may have contributed to the Panopticon’s showing of The Temptation of Drink beginning on 22 September. A strong additional – if it was not primary – reason was that this film featured Danish star Asta Nielsen; Stewart had also chosen Nielsen’s Spanish Blood to reopen the extensively refurbished Panopticon on 12 September. If nationalist and unionist journalists and their readers inevitably disagreed on the value of political films, they agreed on the drawing power of such star actresses as Asta Nielsen and Florence Lawrence.
Condon, Denis. “’Brightening the Dreary Existence of the Irish Peasant’: Cinema Transforms Leisure in Provincial Ireland.” Early Popular Visual Culture 11.2 (2013): 126-39.
“Grosvenor Hall.” Ad. Belfast Newsletter 13 Sep. 1913: 6.
“Jottings from Ulster.” Bioscope 9 Oct. 1913: 143.
“The Panopticon.” Belfast Newsletter 30 Sep. 1913: 11.
“The Panopticon.” Irish News 30 Sep. 1913: 8.
“Smart Cinematograph Work.” Belfast Newsletter 29 Sep. 1913: 7.
“Ulster Volunteer Force.” Belfast Newsletter 29 Sep. 1913: 8.