Censoring the Fairies: Finn Varra Maa, the Irish Santa Claus and the Military Authorities in January 1918

It’s that time of year, so Early Irish Cinema takes a trip to the theatre to experience an Irish Christmas pantomime.

Woods Leah ET 12 Jan 1918

Frank Leah’s caricature of Assistant Provost Marshal Captain William Woods, Evening Telegraph 12 Jan. 1918: 5.

On the evening of Tuesday, 8 January 1918, Captain William A. Woods, assistant Provost Marshal of the Dublin garrison, complained to Theatre Royal manager J.H. Hamilton about Finn Varra Maa, the Irish fairy pantomime that had been playing matinees at the theatre since 26 December. Woods told Hamilton that the play contained passages he understood – apparently not having seen it – were insulting to the RIC and detrimental to recruiting and these must be removed. As a senior figure in the military establishment, Woods’s powers to censor theatrical productions had been considerably enhanced by such wartime measure as the Defence against the Realm Act, or Dora. Hamilton replied that he had nothing to do with the play beyond leasing the theatre to the independent production company who were putting it on, but he nevertheless undertook to tell the producers that the offending lines had to be removed. It would become a case of what the Freeman’s Journal called “Censoring the Fairies.”

TH Nally ET 29 Dec 1917

Frank Leah’s caricature of playwright Thomas Nally, Evening Telegraph 29 Dec. 1917: 4.

Dublin theatregoers then as now were well used to the Christmas pantomime season. At this time, the stages of the city’s theatres and halls would be dominated by large casts singing and dancing, elaborate sets and costumes, and scripts based on folktales, often with a fantastical element, but also containing comic interludes referring to events of the day. In 1917-18, the professional theatres offered Cinderella (Gaiety), Little Boy Blue (Empire) and Little Jack Horner (Queen’s). At the city’s other multi-use halls, productions were even more numerous, with companies presenting Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp at the Father Mathew Hall, Red Riding Hood at the CYMS Hall, Robinson Crusoe at the Pioneer Hall and Mother Hubbard at St. Teresa’s Hall.

Mildred Telford ET 5 Jan 1918p4

Mildred Telford played the part of the girl Befind MacHugh in Finn Varra Maa; Evening Telegraph 5 Jan. 1918: 4.

Finn Varra Maa differ from all these in one crucial respect: it was – or claimed to be – the first wholly Irish pantomime. “Written by a Dublin man [Thomas Nally], with music by a Irish composer [Geoffrey Molyneaux-Palmer] and presented by a company all Dublin from the tiniest tot who romps in Kyle-na-Sheeogue [Wood of the Fairies] to the mature artistes who rule in royal grandeur in Fairyland,” enthused the Irish Independent’s theatre critic Jacques, “this beautiful play marks the high-water mark of native artistic endeavour in the music and dramatic revival in Ireland” (“Beautiful Fairy Play”). It was loosely based on the legends of Finn McCool, played by Breffni O’Rourke, recently seen on screen in the Film Company of Ireland’s Rafferty’s Rise (Ireland: FCOI, 1917). O’Rourke led Finn Varra Maa’s large cast that included 100 children. Its title referred to Finn as “the old Irish equivalent of ‘Santa Claus’ – long before that gentleman was heard of in this country” (“Finn Varra Maa” 22 Dec.). The fairy world was connected to the human world through a storyline in which the young girl Befind MacHugh (Mildred Telford) was abducted by the fairies, and 12-year-old Padhar Bawn (Gerald Rock) decides to rescue her.

Ireby Cape ET 3 Jan 1918p4

Frank Leah’s caricature of Finn Varra Maa producer T. Ireby Cape, Evening Telegraph 3 Jan. 1918: 4.

If the authorities would become concerned about representation of the police and the military, the producers, led by British impresario T. Ireby Cape were initially more worried that a play based in pre-Christian Ireland would be condemned by the clergy at this religious time of year. To forestall this, they invited clergy from around the country to the dress rehearsal on Christmas Eve to assure them that the show was not indulging too deeply in paganism. In the play, the audience was guided in how to correctly interpret events by the Irish vocalist T. O’Carroll Reynolds who played the allegorical part of Tradition. “Finn died an unrepenting Pagan,” the Freeman explained,

but, in view of his many virtues, was according to ‘Tradition,” as represented on the stage merely condemned to an indefinite period of existence in fairyland. The play shows him as King of Fairyland warring with Aobhill, the deposed Fairy Queen who typifies the spirit of Evil.

Ad announcing that Fred O’Donovan was replacing Dermot O’Dowd in Finn Varra Maa’s key role of Caoilte; Dublin Evening Mail 2 Jan. 1918: 2.

“A Dublin Priest” reviewing the opening day pointed out that this battle between good and evil was Christianized by the fact that Finn was not the play’s only – or even main – heroic characters. He was rescued from Fairyland by his kinsman, the Christian knight Caoilte MacRonain, played by Dermott O’Dowd. When Ireby Cape was recalled to London and O’Dowd had to focus on stage managing Finn Varra Maa, Abbey Theatre manager Fred O’Donovan replaced him on stage in the role of Caoilte. These development coincided with – but seem to have been unconnected to – William Woods’s attempts to censor the play.

Finn Varra Maa censored II 10 Jan 1918p2

Ad announcing the censoring of Finn Varra Maa following Woods’s intervention; Freeman’s Journal 10 Jan. 1918: 2.

The producers appear to have negotiated potential difficulties with the legendary elements of the play successfully at Christmas, but William Woods was more concerned with the depiction of current events. In particular he targeted what several papers called the “low comedy” provided by a country policeman (Bryan Herbert) and the bailiff Sheumas Pat (J.P. MacCormac). Although issues of class and respectability were bound up in the phrase, the use of the word “low” was meant not as a value judgement but descriptively, contrasting this kind of laugh-out-loud knockabout comedy with, for instance, the “quaintly humorous” songs of O’Carroll Reynolds (“Dublin Priest”).

Finn Varra Maa 3 FJ 11 Jan 1918p4

In the wake of the controversy, newspapers published the censored lines. Freeman’s Journal 11 Jan. 1918: 4.

The Finn Varra Maa lines that Woods found offensive concerned the conscription of the play’s RIC constable into the British Army to fight in France. “You’re in the Force, God help you Keogh,” Bailiff Sheumas Pat tell him, “And you’ll be bound some day to go. / They want to let the Germans see / Our sable-belted R.I.C.”  When Constable Keogh protests his dislike of killing, Sheumas Pat replies: “’Twould be a dreadful sight to see, / ’Tis riddled like a sieve you’ll be, / Just lying in a heap out there, / Without a mother’s son to care.” On the 9 January, the actors playing Keogh and Sheumas Pat avoided the Assistant Provost Marshal’s wrath by substituted for this speech lines that began with Keogh warning Sheumas Pat: “Stop! Not a word about the war.” Sheumas Pat replies: “Now, what on earth am I to say? / The Censor’s cut my lines to-day.” Keogh answers: “The Provost Marshal says, ‘Curtail! / Your next four speeches, or in jail / You’ll soon be lodged, on my advice.’” Sheumas Pat inquires in conclusion: “Is this the work of Major Price?” (“Censoring the Fairies”).

Finn Varra Maa censored EH 11 Jan 1918p2

A day after the censorship was announced, it was withdrawn; Evening Herald 11 Jan. 1918: 2.

The answer to this last question is “no.” Woods was apparently acting beyond his authority in calling for the play to be censored, as his superior, Provost Marshal Major Ivon H. Price, made clear in a press statement. “[A] mere verbal order would not be sufficient,” Price pointed out, “and the Provost Marshal would have no power to make any such order” (“Finn Varra Maa” 11 Jan.). Price went further than this in distancing himself from Woods’s actions, assuring the Freeman’s Journal that “members of his family had gone to see ‘Finn Varra Maa,’ and had found it highly amusing and entertaining, and he hoped to have the pleasure of seeing it himself.” The nationalist press enjoyed Woods’s humiliation. “The Finn Varra Maa revelations – that word is not too strong? – caused amusement yesterday,” J.H.C. observed in the Irish Independent’s “To-Day & Yesterday” column. “Self-importance does not always keep within the limits of self-control.”

Overall, this was a minor incident that probably served more than anything else to generate publicity for the pantomime as it entered its last week of production. But it was an early indication from the field of popular culture about thr direction from which Irish public resistance to conscription would come.

References

“Beautiful Fairy Play.” Irish Independent 27 Dec.1917: 2.

“Censoring the Fairies: Funny Men’s Quaint Substitute for Deleted Lines.” Freeman’s Journal 10 Jan. 1918: 2.

“Christmas Week Amusements: Cead Mile Failte for Irish Pantomime.” Evening Telegraph 27 Dec. 1917: 3.

A Dublin Priest. “Finn Varra Maa: First Performances.” Freeman’s Journal 27 Dec. 1917: 6.

“Finn Varra Maa: Irish Fairy Pantomime at the Theatre Royal.” Freeman’s Journal 22 Dec. 1917: 7.

“Finn Varra Maa: Censorship Denied by Authorities: Funny State in Fairyland.” Evening Herald 10 Jan. 1918: 2.

“Finn Varra Maa; The Censor, the Provost-Marshal and the Fairies.” Freeman’s Journal 11 Jan. 1918: 4.

“Records of Irish Police Forces in the War.” Irish Times 8 Dec. 1917: 8.

“To-Day & Yesterday: The Lines Restored.” Irish Independent 12 Jan. 1918: 4.

Idealizing Everything Irish: The Film Company of Ireland Releases Rafferty’s Rise in late 1917

A still from Rafferty’s Rise (Ireland: Film Company of Ireland, 1917)); Irish Limelight May 1917: 5.

On 12 November 1917, the Film Company of Ireland (FCOI) finally premiered Rafferty’s Rise, its first completed production of the year. In many ways this is a minor film. Like all of FCOI’s 1916 productions, this three-reel (approx. 50 minute) comedy is now lost, and it appears to have been little seen in 1917, having had a very limited release. It was overshadowed at the time by the organizational difficulties experienced by FCOI in 1917 and by the fact that the company put its apparently dwindling resources into promoting the much more ambitious Knocknagow. Nevertheless, it is a film by Ireland’s most important fiction-film production company of the silent period and is the first film directed by Abbey Theatre actor-director Fred O’Donovan.

 

Irish Limelight May 1917: 5.

Although Rafferty’s Rise wouldn’t have its premiere until November, it was first mentioned in the Irish Limelight in May 1917. Indeed, it was not just mentioned; it was described in a 200-word article that was accompanied by a photo of Queenie Coleman, “the beautiful Irish Girl who plays Peggy in ‘Rafferty’s Rise,’ and illustrated by an additional full page of stills from the film itself that seem to confirm that it was actually “ready for release” in May, as one of the headings on the stills page asserts. “We extend our hearty congratulations to the Film Co. of Ireland upon their first 1917 release,” the article begins, “a three-reel comedy entitled ‘Rafferty’s Rise.’ The scenario deals with a young and ambitious Irish policeman who endeavours to employ scientific methods in the detection of crime and whose efforts to emulate Sherlock Holmes cause many laughter provoking incidents” (“Rafferty’s Rise” May).

Irish Limelight Jul. 1917: 14.

In November, the Freeman’s Journal would identify the scenario writer as Nicholas Hayes, a writer remembered now mostly for the short-story collection In the Doctor’s Den (“Picture House Novelties”). As well as directing, Fred O’Donovan also played the eponymous Rafferty, and was supported along with Queenie Coleman, by Brian Magowan, Kathleen Murphy, Arthur Shields, Valentine Roberts, J. Storey and Brenda Burke (“Rafferty’s Rise” Nov.). The film was shot in the Dublin Mountains by former Pathé cameraman William Moser, in his first on-set job for FCOI (“Camera Expert”). The exact shooting period is not known, but it is likely to have been in April, in time for the publicity materials to appear in the Limelight’s May issue.

An ad offering Rafferty’s Rise to Dublin exhibitors; Evening Herald 30 Oct. 1917: 2.

However, FCOI organizational problems meant that none of the films they had shot in summer 1917 were actually available to exhibitors until the end of October, when an Evening Herald ad announced the appearance of Rafferty’s Rise. A trade show or “private exhibition” referred to in some reviews likely took place at this point, at the end of October or beginning of November. Despite some indications in July that the film had been edited down from three reels to the two reels picturegoers expected of a comedy, the Rafferty’s Rise that went on release in November 1917 was still three-reels long (“Rafferty’s Rise” Jul). “It is a mark of the originality of the Company,” the Mail optimistically asserted, “that it is bold enough to go beyond the stereotyped 2-reels in the production of a humorous story” (“Film Company of Ireland”).

Dublin Evening Mail 12 Nov. 1917: 2.

Both the Dublin Evening Mail and the Evening Telegraph previewed the film in their Saturday entertainment columns prior to its three-day run at the Bohemian beginning Monday, 12 November. “The record of this Film Company in 1916 aroused great interest in their productions,” the Telegraph observed. “Those who have seen the private exhibition of the film speak highly of the progress the company has made in technique over last year’s work” (“Really Irish Films”). The writer in neither paper, however, seems to have attended the private exhibition, and the previews have similarities that suggest that the writers not only hadn’t seen the film but were working from publicity material or other secondary accounts.

Nevertheless, the Telegraph preview is particularly interesting for the way it defines “really Irish films.” “While the company keeps free from propaganda of every kind in its stories so as to be able to appeal to all the Irish people,” it argued,

it nevertheless sticks steadfastly to the idea that its business is to idealise everything Irish that it photographs. In this, the Film Company of Ireland only takes a leaf from the book of the producers of other nations. The Americans always give us in the parts of chivalry and honour – American; the English companies show in the same roles – Englishmen; and the Film Company of Ireland continues, in its attitude and in its interpretations, strictly Irish.

Avoiding overt ideological positions, appealing to all Irish people, idealizing everything Irish and putting Irish people in heroic roles: this usefully provides some kind of framework for thinking about what “really Irish films” might have meant to observers at the time. But to explore the relevance of these characteristics to Rafferty’s Rise, we will need to look at the film’s reception.

Of the newspapers, only the Telegraph reviewed the film, and its review is brief and largely descriptive of what it saw as “an excellent three-reel comedy [that is] packed with clean, healthy fun” (“On the Screen”). The only substantial extant review seems to be in the Limelight, which from its opening issue had associated itself very closely and uncritically with FCOI. “The film is typically Irish,” Limelight reviewer R.A.O’F. commented after attending the private exhibition, “for you will find a Constable Rafferty in every little village in the country – and to anyone who has any experience of the ways and means of a stripe-chaser, it is simply IT.” Specifically, s/he praised the “clean and healthy” humour, the beautiful Dublin Mountains’ scenery and the quality of the photography and acting.

Irish Limelight May 1917: 4.

Much of R.A.O’F review is an extended plot summary that represents the most substantial account of the film. More than this, because the film is lost, this account is most of the film. The review is written in a comic style intended, no doubt, to be entertaining but as a result, it is not always clear or wholly accurate. For example, it includes the line: “All the girls loved Rafferty, and he could well afford to ignore the goo-goo eyes and tootsy-wootsy advances of silly Cissie.” The writer overreaches him/herself with the alliteration here because the name of the character who makes eyes at Rafferty is Peggy, played by Queenie Coleman. The following is a paraphrase in the interests of clarity: Rafferty is an officer in the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) stationed in a mountain village who wants to get promoted to sergeant by using methods of scientific detection. He is admired by the local girls, including farmer’s daughter Peggy McCauley. When a Traveller (“tinker,” in the original) visits the village, Kitty Hogan, daughter of the local RIC Sergeant, gives him an old pair of her father’s boots. The Traveller steals a dog from Peggy’s father, leaving footprints with the Sergeant’s boots. Rafferty sees the footprints and traces them to the Sergeant’s house, where he is forced to hide to keep his investigations secret, but the Sergeant finds him under Kitty’s bed. Rafferty accuses the Sergeant of stealing the dog, but his mistake is revealed. While Rafferty doesn’t get his promotion, he has some compensation by ending up with Peggy.

Irish Limelight May 1917: 5.

Given that the crime Rafferty investigates is a theft by a Traveller, discussion of ethnic stereotypes seems appropriate, but R.A.O’F language proves opaque here. “An honest tinker in a story would be responsible for the author being stamped as a ‘loony.’ However, the author of this scenario was quite sane, for his tinker was a rogue.” This is clear enough, but ethnic tensions are seemingly dispelled by the following sentence when the Traveller turns out possibly to have been honest after all: “He stole a dog—no he did no, he only exchanged dogs.” The Traveller is merely added as extra local colour in what might be described as a romantic comedy.

The main thing that R.A.O’F seems to want to convey about Rafferty’s Rise is that it was good clean fun and as such, it was typically Irish. This was also how the Mail’s preview  assessed it, as “a good-natured, laughable Irish story without malice and replete with amusing situations” (“Film Company of Ireland”). Good and clean it may have been, but the somewhat more laconic and less positive response of one other contemporary observer suggests that it was not much fun. “I caught tram at Rotunda & went on to the Bohemian Picture House, Phibsboro, to see ‘Rafferty’s Rise,’” Joseph Holloway wrote as part of his diary entry for 12 November 1917, “with O’Donovan as the blustering Constable, seemed the plot was by Nicholas [Hayes], but the humour in the playing was forced & did not make for laughter as intended.” For Holloway, it was not a successful comedy.

Ad for Tralee’s Picturedrome including a synopsis of Rafferty’s Rise; Kerry News 19 Nov. 1917: 4.

A general acknowledgement that Rafferty’s Rise was not very good may account for why the film received so little attention at the time. FCOI’s loss of such key publicity personnel as Joseph Boland, their travelling salesman whom the Bioscope reported had left the company to represent Geekay in Ireland, can’t have helped (“Irish Notes”). The only other run of the film in 1917 appears to have been on 23-24 November at Tralee’s Picturedrome, where locals were encouraged to “support home industry” by seeing it. Beyond these factors, it might also be worth considering why a romantic comedy about the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) recommended itself to FCOI. Granted, Rafferty’s Rise doesn’t seem that different from the company’s 1916 dramas and comedies of Irish rural life, which among other topics had included a comedy about leprechauns. And of course, many film comedies of the period represented the police. But while US comedies tended to see the police either as buffoons or unsympathetic authority figures tasked with keeping (other) elements of the working class in line, Rafferty’s Rise represents the RIC as benign. Although Rafferty is foolish and over-ambitious, these faults are attributable to the follies of youth, and Sergeant Hogan – who “did not want to be a district Tzar” (R.A.O’F.) – is ultimately able to put a stop to them. The RIC is part of the “everything Irish” that should be idealized.

The General Film Supply placed this ad prominently on the cover of the December issue of the Irish Limelight.

As 1917 drew to a close, the other main Irish film production company of the period, the General Film Supply (GFS), was idealizing the new technologies of war. The GFS took out a large ad on the cover of the Limelight’s December issues, offering Christmas greetings and publicizing the various aspects of its business, particularly its Irish Events newsreel and the Irish-themed fiction films it had for hire. The most striking feature of the ad is a photograph of a tank leading soldiers over an embankment. The text under the photo reads: “Irish enterprise in producing a wonderful film of the tanks in Dublin is now having its reward by the unstinted praise bestowed on Irish Events.” An interview with GFS cameraman J. Gordon Lewis reveals that the company were releasing their film of the tanks that was on manoeuvres near Dublin in instalments over four weeks. “I was agreeably surprised at the wonderful Tanks,” he enthuses:

I took a very nice picture from the inside of one of the Tanks. I sat on the driver’s seat and held the camera on my knees with the lens protruding through the look-out hole and held on to [the] side of the hole like grim death as we crawled along. […] I must say they are fine to ride in, and the heat of the inside will be welcome to many of Tanker Tommy during the winter months that are now among us. (“Filming the Tanks in Dublin.”)

There was as much fascination in Ireland with the spectacular new war technologies as there was anywhere else. In January 1918, the Limelight would reported that Lewis had topped his tank film by filming in a “battle-plane with the result that while 1,500 feet above the earth he secured a picture of another aeroplane in flight that is nothing short of sensational” (“Notes and News”).

With their focus on the police and army, Rafferty’s Rise and the GFS film of tanks in Dublin suggest in their different ways that at the end of 1917, Irish film producers were serving social stability and the war effort.

References

“A Camera Expert: Interview with Mr. William Moser of the Film Company of Ireland.” Irish Limelight Jul. 1917: 14.

“Film Company of Ireland.” Dublin Evening Mail 10 Nov. 1917: 2.

“Filming the Tanks in Dublin.” Irish Limelight Dec. 1917: 18.

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

“On the Screen: Bohemian.” Evening Telegraph 13 Nov. 1917: 4.

Paddy. “Irish Notes.” Bioscope 1 Nov. 1917: 109.

“Picture House Novelties: New Productions of Film Company of Ireland.” Freeman’s Journal 12 Nov. 1917: 4.

“Rafferty’s Rise.” Irish Limelight May 1917: 4.

“‘Rafferty’s Rise.’” Irish Limelight Jul. 1917: 15.

R.A.O’F. “Rafferty’s Rise: Review of an Irish Comedy by Irish Players.” Irish Limelight Nov. 1917: 6.

“Really Irish Films.” Evening Telegraph 10 Nov. 1917: 3.

A New Industry: The Film Company of Ireland’s First Season

Kathleen Murphy ET 7 Apr 1917

A photograph of Kathleen Murphy advertised the beginning of the Film Company of Ireland’s 1917 production season; Evening Telegraph 7 Apr. 1917: 4.

In April 1917, the Film Company of Ireland (FCOI) began publicizing the fact that they were beginning a second season of production. On 7 April, a photograph of Kathleen Murphy appeared in the Evening Telegraph‘s “Music and the Drama” column, with a caption indicating that she was playing the part of Nora Lahy in a film adaptation of Charles Kickham’s Knocknagow that was already in production. Based on Ireland’s most popular novel of the late-19th century, Knocknagow on film would be an ambitious undertaking, and it would be popular with contemporary Irish audiences. And because it – along with Willy Reilly and His Colleen Bawn (1920), is one of only two FCOI films that survive in a substantially complete form, it is relatively well known, at least by film scholars (see here, for example). However, the film of Knocknagow would not reach Irish audiences until early 1918.

Irish Independent 10 Nov. 1917: 2.

FCOI made two other feature films during the summer production season of 1917: the comedy Rafferty’s Rise and historical romance When Love Came to Gavin Burke. However, despite the fact that the May 1917 issue of Irish Limelight published photographs from Rafferty’s Rise, the release of these films would also take many months. As a result, the FCOI’s 1916 films continued to circulate and represent – indeed, to constitute – the company’s released output for much of 1917. Nevertheless, beyond O’Neil of the Glen and perhaps The Miser’s Gift – both of which have already been written about here – very little is known about the other 1916 films. This is not surprising because surviving information on them is scant. In marked contrast to the barrage of publicity that heralded the release of O’Neil of the Glen and, to a lesser extent, The Miser’s Gift, the later 1916 films seem to have appeared with little fanfare. Nevertheless, bringing together some of surviving information reveals hitherto unknown aspects of these obscure but important early Irish films and the company that made them.

FCOI advertised upcoming releases in the Irish press on 14-15 August 1916. This one appeared in the Irish Times 14 Aug. 1916: 4.

Even the number of films they made in 1917 is not entirely clear. With O’Neil of the Glen newly released and creating a stir in August 1916, the company announced in the Irish dailies that it had a further four films ready for release in September: The Miser’s Gift, Woman’s Wit, Food of Love and An Unfair Love Affair. As well as these presumably complete or almost complete films, it listed nine other titles that it had in production: The Upstart, Blarney, The Irish Girl, a series called Shanachies Tales, Irish Jarvey Tales – possibly another series – Bye Ways of Fate, Treasure Trove, Willie Reilly and The Girl from the Golden Vale. With so little surviving information, ads such as this have often been taken as confirming that these films were actually made. These films appear in the standard Irish and British filmographies – Kevin Rockett’s Irish Filmography and its online version, and Denis Gifford’s The British Film Catalogue, as they do in the books that take these reference works as a source.

Trade journals and local and national newspapers fill in some – but by no means all – of the details of FCOI’s filmmaking and exhibition exploits from the summer of 1916 to the summer of 1917. These sources show that all four films from the first group were subsequently released, albeit not in September 1917. Of the second group, only Willie Reilly is readily recognizable as an FCOI title – Willy Reilly and His Colleen Bawn – but it would not be released until April 1920. Some of the other eight films named in this ad may be working titles for the films that FCOI did release in late 1916 and early 1917. There is substantial evidence that in addition to the five films already named, the company released four others in this period: Puck Fair Romance, A Girl of Glenbeigh, The Eleventh Hour and Widow Malone.

Ad for FCOI films released in 1916 and made in 1917. Irish Limelight Dec. 1917: 16.

None of these corresponds exactly to the in-production titles mentioned in the ad, but some are close, such as the in-production titles The Girl from the Golden Vale and The Irish Girl which bear a similarity to A Girl of Glenbeigh. These were, of course, Irish versions of titles in the format “An X Girl” or “The Girl of X” that had been internationally popular for decades. However, as A Girl of Glenbeigh specifically names a place in Kerry, it is unlikely to have morphed from The Girl from the Golden Vale – with its reference to the rich farmland in the counties to the east of Kerry. But the film may have begun life under the less specific title The Irish Girl. That said, the in-production titles that include Irish place names suggest a different geography from the four that were finally made. Blarney and The Girl from the Golden Vale indicate a company working in Cork, while A Girl of Glenbeigh and Puck Fair Romance are firmly located in west Kerry.

The issue of the films’ geography deserves further discussion, but this blog will work on the basis that FCOI did not make all the films named in the 14-15 August ad. Evidence suggests that the company released not fourteen films but nine in its opening season, which nonetheless represents a substantial output. For clarity, those nine films are: O’Neil of the Glen, The Miser’s Gift, Woman’s Wit, Food of Love, An Unfair Love Affair, Puck Fair Romance, A Girl of Glenbeigh, The Eleventh Hour and Widow Malone. Although this blog will have something to say about the first two, it will mainly focus on the latter seven.

J. M. Kerrigan

J. M. Kerrigan, Irish Limelight January 1917: 3.

All nine of these films appear to have been directed – the contemporary term, confusingly, was “produced” – by Abbey Theatre actor J. M. Kerrigan, who also starred or at least had a prominent acting role in many of them. Kerrigan was one of FCOI co-founder and producer James Mark Sullivan’s earliest recruits to the company; he was already working with FCOI in March 1916 – the same month as Sullivan and his partner Henry Fitzgibbon registered the company – and may even have invested money in it (Holloway, 21 Mar.). Kerrigan was soon joined by other actors from the Abbey and other theatres, most frequently by Fred O’Donovan, Kathleen Murphy and Nora Clancy, and more occasionally by Brian Magowan, J. M. Carre, Irene Murphy, Valentine Roberts and others. Also a star of the Abbey, O’Donovan would take over as FCOI’s actor-director for the 1917 production season when Kerrigan left Ireland for the United States in early 1917 on a career path that would eventually see him become a well-loved Hollywood character actor. His permanent departure seems to have come as a surprise to some in the press. On 12 April, Paddy reported that Kerrigan “has left America on his return voyage, and is expected to arrive almost any day now.” A report a week later suggested that he had little thoughts of returning to Ireland. “He has ‘made good’ out there in a surprisingly short space of time,” J.A.P. (Joseph A. Power) noted in the Evening Telegraph on 20 April, referring to reviews of Kerrigan’s early US stage performances. “It is only a few months since he left Ireland, yet here are the blasé Yankee journalists hurling bouquets at him with all the vigour of the great American language” (“Gossip of the Day”).

Engaging prominent Abbey actors bolstered FCOI’s claim that it was the Film Company of Ireland and was extending into the new cinematic medium the Abbey’s project of representing Ireland differently. “With the assistance of such artists as they had associated with them,” Fitzgibbon was reported as saying at a press luncheon in June 1916 to celebrate the launch of O’Neil of the Glen, “with Irish scenery and Irish literary talent, they were bound to succeed and be proud of the enterprise in which they were engaged” (“New Irish Industry”). If anybody was well placed to revise the representation of Irish people through performance, it was Kerrigan and this group of Irish actors who were intimately familiar not only with the plays and acting styles of the Irish revival developed at the Abbey but also with the modern drama represented by Shaw and Ibsen. But the company was also open to performers from beyond Ireland: “In the next film,” the Irish Times reported, “Mrs. H. M. Fitzgibbon, a vivacious French lady will make her appearance” (“Irish Film Production”). Although FCOI publicity made much of the claim that their films were “all Irish,” Fitzgibbon’s wife Peggy Darval was mentioned among the cast on occasion (“Back from Kerry”). This remark about his marriage to an actress also suggests that Fitzgibbon, about whom little else is known, may have had a personal motivation for getting involved in the film business.

FCOI seeks scriptwriters: Irish Independent 28 Mar. 1916: 1.

But actors alone were not enough for the company’s success. When Fitzgibbon mentioned the “Irish literary talent,” he must have been referring in part to Bernard Duffy, the writer of several one-act rural comedies for the Abbey who had also attended O’Neil of the Glen’s launch. Duffy praised FCOI for its “wholesome desire to reproduce the atmosphere of the country, and the motive was not purely mercenary. A vast field of folk literature was yet to be explored and utilised” (“Irish Film Production”). Nevertheless, sourcing new or adapted stories seems to have been difficult, and few if any Abbey playwrights were involved in the company. FCOI advertised more frequently in the press in 1916 for scenario writers than for other kinds of collaborators.

Following the destruction of its offices in Henry Street during the Rising, FCOI moved to Dame Street. Dublin Evening Mail 12 May 1916: 7.

Discussion of the company often mentions the destruction during the Rising of FCOI’s offices at 16 Henry Street but less frequently reveals the names of the people who worked there or in their new offices at 34 Dame Street. All the 1916 films were shot by John A. Bennett, who had worked for many years as the chief projectionist – or “operator” – and sometimes cameraperson for James T. Jameson’s Irish Animated Film Company based mainly at Dublin’s Rotunda, as well as later acting as the Dublin manager for the distribution company Films, Limited (Paddy, 18 Nov.; 13 Jul.). However, by January 1917, Bennett was seeking other work, presumably because he was not being paid by FCOI (Paddy, 11 Jan.). In any case, FCOI’s camera work in 1917 was first taken up by the company’s secretary Robert Justice – he featured in a June 1917 Irish Limelight article in this role – before Pathé camera operator William Moser became the company’s cinematographer (“With the Film Co. of Ireland”).

Joseph Boland Irish Limelight Jun. 1917: 6.

Among the other identifiable members of the company in 1916 and early 1917 were the sales and marketing operatives Mr. Coen, Joseph Boland and Ben Cowan. These men were vital to FCOI’s success, and although usually ignored by later film historians, they received considerable attention from contemporary trade journals because these were the people that journalists and cinema managers were most likely to meet. Coen was the company’s sales agent in Ireland until September 1916 when he was replaced by Boland, who for some years had been the travelling representative for General Film Supply (GFS), Ireland’s other major film production company of the period (Paddy, 28 Sep.). Boland appears to have had a good reputation in the industry in Ireland; the distributor M.P. Sales tried unsuccessfully and publicly to lure him away from GFS in early 1916 (Paddy, 17 Feb., 24 Feb., “Bioscope Parliament”). Cowan – one of a number of Russian Jews working in the early Irish film                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       industry – ran Express Film Agency, the Irish agent for several British distributors, and he acted as publicist for the very successful 7 August launch of O’Neil of the Glen. Following this, he told reporters that “he intends to introduce many novel ideas in the advertising line. Another Trade show will shortly be held, at which it is Mr. Cowan’s intention to screen two more subjects” (Paddy, 27 Jul.). In the event, the second trade show on 17 August 1916 at the Dame Street Picture House would feature just The Miser’s Gift.

FCOI was intensely busy in August 1916. In Dublin, Cowan was publicizing the five complete or nearly complete productions shot earlier in the summer, as well as the other eight titles notionally in production. The Miser’s Gift was trade shown three days later. At some point in early August, Sullivan and Kerrigan brought the cast and crew to Kerry to shoot the four fiction films that would actually make up the second half of their 1916 production season. The date of departure is not clear, but if Puck Fair Romance was actually shot at Killorglin’s Puck Fair in 1916, then the company would have to have been in Kerry before 12 August because the fair took place between 10 and 12 August. They were certainly in Kerry by 20 August. An article in the Kerry News reported on a fundraising concert that FCOI mounted on 3 September to clear the debt from Glenbeigh’s Catholic church. It observed that the company “came to Glenbeigh two weeks ago where they opened a tour of the Kingdom’s beauty spots, and at present they are staying at O’Sullivan’s hotel, Muckross, having the scenes in several new films laid in and around Killarney” (“Film Company of Ireland”). If “two weeks” here is to be taken literally, the company reached Kerry on or about 20 August, but this seems like a flexible temporality. Nevertheless, the concert does seem to have marked the end of FCOI’s visit to Kerry. By 5 September, Dublin’s Evening Herald was reporting the company’s return to Dublin (“Back from Kerry”).

This suggests that the production unit had left Dublin before the publication of 14 August ad mentioning the eight films that were not subsequently made, as well as the Miser’s Gift trade show. Poor communication might explain why on 14 August, the company’s publicist did not have the titles for the scenarios that had begun shooting that week nor the locations at which they were being shot. But if this is true, then the production unit, which included Sullivan and possibly Fitzgibbon – it certainly included his wife – must have been surprized by the announcement of those eight titles in the national press. The tight timeframe also suggests that at least some and possible all of the scenarios were not carefully prepared and honed in advance but were hastily written on location. Only for The Eleventh Hour was a writer subsequently identified: Mark Coakley (“New Irish Film”).

Whatever FCOI’s reason for the eventual choice of Kerry above other parts of the country, accounts in the Kerry papers of FCOI’s filmmaking are very reminiscent of Sidney Olcott and Gene Gauntier’s filmmaking adventures in Ireland between 1910 and 1914. Making films for the Kalem Company and later for themselves, Olcott and Gauntier had repeatedly gravitated back to the Killarney area, often basing themselves in the village of Beaufort and taking advantage of the rugged mountain, lake and seashore landscapes available in west Kerry. Their dramas of rural life, emigration and historical rebellion had been very popular with Irish audiences, making this region the most identifiable early Irish cinematic landscape. The Post, however, chose to compare Olcott and Gauntier’s films unfavourably to the as-yet-unseen filmmaking efforts of FCOI. “We are glad that at length an Irish Company has appeared,” a columnist commented. “The misrepresentation of Ireland and her people were the aims of most of those who took up work such as this in the past. The production created a feeling of resentment and indignation” (“Notes on News”).

The last day of The Food of Love‘s run at the Dame Street Picture House; Dublin Evening Mail 4 Nov. 1916: 2.

Nevertheless, this does not look like FCOI offering radically new representations of Ireland. With at least some of their first five films shot in Wicklow – this certainly seems to have been the case with O’Neil of the Glen and The Food of Love whose publicity made much of “the lovely scenery around Glendalough” – and the final four shot in Kerry, FCOI was once again exploiting Ireland’s most reproduced picturesque locations (“Irish Film Production”).

Kerry location at which FCOI shot in August 1916.

That said, there may be some novelty in the choice of southwest Kerry locations, which can be established readily from the titles and synopses of the films. The Bioscope short synopsis of Puck Fair Romance – which it titled A Romance of Puck Fair – gives little indication that the film was actually shot at Killorglin’s famous festival. “He was addicted to walking tours, she was an artist,” it begins. “They met in the country, on a farm, She thought him ‘a farmer’s boy,’ he thought her a farmer’s daughter. They canoodled and when their separate ways, he regretting having left her, she sorry to have deceived him. When they met in town it was all right” (“Condensed Film Critiques,” 28 Dec.). Little is made here of the fair, with its central feature: the electing of a billygoat as King Puck and parading him on a raised platform. Nevertheless, the critic was complimentary, if not completely positive, judging that it was “quite pretty, set in delightful Irish scenes, and there are two other nice people in it, his pal and her model, but they could not be expected to complete their romance in the same reel.”

Derry Journal 10 Jan. 1917: 2.

Killarney is most famous for its lakes, and as such, the lakeshore setting of The Eleventh Hour may be deemed clichéd. On the other hand, Coakley’s scenario – “in which the paternal instinct is the moving force” – was shot around the lesser known Caragh Lake, a scenic spot on the road between Glenbeigh and Killorglin (“New Irish Film”). A Girl of Glenbeigh indicates its setting in its title. Joseph Holloway’s comments on it when he saw it at the Rotunda on 15 Feb 1917 indicate how romance and landscape worked together. He observed in his diary that “[i]t told an interesting & effective love story that did not run smoothly, nicely amid beautiful scenery & surroundings – O’Donovan was the love in the story who had two strings to his bow – a farmer’s daughter & a lady. The latter two were played by the Miss Murphys.” Where Widow Malone – the fourth of the Kerry films – was shot is not clear from surviving sources. The Bioscope described its “simple” plot, in which

[p]retty widow Malone is counted by the political town councillor, the local schoolmaster and the village blacksmith. The two former are after her snug fortune, and are a couple of windbags, but the hearty smith, loyal when her fortune is supposed to be lost, wins Nora without much difficulty.” (“Condensed Film Critiques,” 14 Dec.).

While the period in Kerry was a busy one for the company, the return to Dublin seems to have put an end for some time to the involvement of many of the actors. Certainly, by the 25 September, Kerrigan and O’Donovan were back in Dublin and acting – in a special arrangement with FCOI – in John Bull’s Other Island, the opening play of the Abbey’s autumn season (“What’s on in Dublin”). There are some indications that the break up of the acting company was not altogether amicable. Holloway had a conversation with Abbey director John A. Keogh on 1 November 1916, who told him that “the Film Co. Of Ireland had burst up & the members all seeking engagements at the Abbey – O’Donovan had left it some time ago to join the Abbey Co.” Keogh comments may have to be treated with caution; he had hostility towards FCOI because of the special arrangements he had to make to be allowed to cast Kerrigan. Nevertheless, he did have information from the actors, so it may be true that “[f]unds had become low owing to the films released not catching on as was thought.”

Those involved in production may have been at a loose end by the start of September, but work for other elements of the business was increasing. At the end of August, Dublin Corporation considered an application from FCOI to build a studio on Pigeon House Road; the outcome of the application is not clear, but these studios were not built. Nevertheless, the Bioscope reported in September that FCOI “are fitting up very elaborate developing-rooms, etc., in their premises at 34, Dame Street, Dublin. Mr. W. James, chief operator at the Bohemian Theatre, Dublin, is in charge of the wiring and other electrical fittings” (“All-Irish Films”). This short item also renewed a call for scenario writers to “submit [FCOI] a sample of their work. The Scenario should preferably have Irish atmosphere, but this is not absolutely essential.”

Dublin Evening Mail 24 Oct. 1916: 4.

With this fit-out of post-production facilities underway, it took some time for the release of the remainder of the season’s films. The company’s first priority was the Irish market, and Boland appears to have been busy selling to cinemas all over the country. Despite the Dame Street Picture House claim in late October 1916 that it had secured “the initial presentation of all the films produced by the Film Co.,” the films premiered all over Ireland. Even FCOI’s long-heralded second release, The Miser’s Gift, had its first public viewings at Cork’s Coliseum on 12-14 October and a three-day run at Tralee’s Picturedrome (19-21 Oct.) before it had its Dublin debut at the Dame on 26-28 October. The Food of Love similarly premiered at the Coliseum on 23-25 October before appearing at the Dame for the three-day run of 2-4 November. However, Widow Malone was FCOI’s third release when it appeared at Kilkenny’s Cinema on Sunday, 22 October 1916 for a special benefit screening for the Gaelic League. The film had a more conventional three-day run at Belfast’s Kinema House later that week, beginning on 26 October.

Puck Fair Romance premiered in Belfast’s Kinema House; Belfast News-Letter 9 Nov. 1916: 1

Indeed, Belfast, with the largest cinema-going population in the country, could not be and was not ignored in the awarding of premieres. Audiences at the Kinema House were the first to be offered Puck Fair Romance from 9-11 November. The Dame does seem to have debuted An Unfair Love Affair on 23-25 November. A Girl of Glenbeigh, however, premiered in Kerry, at Tralee’s Picturedrome on 27-28 November. The Dame also had the first viewings of the final two releases of the year. It opened The Eleventh Hour – FCOI’s second three-reel film –on 30 November 1916 for a three-day, end-of-week run. It was nearly a month later when the final release of the season, Woman’s Wit, had its debut at the Dame on 26 December.

Much more remains to be discovered about this initial period of FCOI and the films they made in 1916, not least their November 1916 distribution deal with Davison’s Film Sales Agency and the patterns of exhibition in Britain. Let this attempt to bring together some of the newspaper and trade journal sources mark a start of that more complete account.

References

“All-Irish Films.” Bioscope 28 Sep. 1916: 1285.

“Back from Kerry: New Films Produced by Irish Company.” Evening Herald 5 Sep. 1916: 2.

“Bioscope Parliament.” Bioscope 2 Mar. 1916: 967-68.

“Condensed Film Critiques.” Bioscope 14 Dec. 1916: i; 21 Dec. 1916: iii; 28 Dec. 1916: i.

“Film Company of Ireland: Church Debt Wiped Out.” Kerry News 6 Sep. 1916: 4.

Gifford, Denis. The British Film Catalogue, vol. 1, Fiction Film, 1895-1994. 3rd ed. London and Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2001.

“Gossip of the Day.” Evening Telegraph 20 Apr. 1917: 2.

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

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

New Irish Film.” Evening Herald 1 Dec. 1916: 3.

“New Irish Industry: The Film Co. of Ireland: A Promising Enterprise.” Freeman’s Journal 30 Jun. 1916: 6.

“Notes on News.” Kerry News 1 Sep. 1916: 2.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 18 Nov. 1915: 841; 17 Feb. 1916: 717; 24 Feb. 1916: 812; 13 Jul. 1916: 173; 27 Jul. 1916: 359; 28 Sep. 1916: 1285; 11 Jan. 1917: 194.

Rockett, Kevin. The Irish Filmography: Fiction Films, 1896-1996. Dublin: Red Mountain, 1996.

“What’s on in Dublin Next Week.” Evening Herald 23 Sep. 1916: 2.

“With the Film Co. of Ireland: A Day with the Producers.” Irish Limelight Jun. 1917: 10-11.

“The Birth of a Nation” in Ireland, Autumn 1916

Theatrical poster; Wikipedia.

Theatrical poster; Wikipedia.

D. W. Griffith’s racist epic The Birth of a Nation (US: Epoch, 1915) caused a sensation when it finally reached Ireland in the autumn of 1916, more for its epic ambitions than for its racism. It played exclusively at just three venues: first, at Belfast’s Grand Opera House, for the three week from 7 to 26 August; next, at Cork’s Opera House for the week of 28 August-2 September; and finally, at Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre for a two-week run from 18 to 30 September. Clever marketing to middle-class tastes, a mastery of filmic spectacle and even its title in a country consumed by a struggle for or against the birth of a more-or-less autonomous nation propelled it into the Irish consciousness like few previous films.

“‘Ireland will never be fit to take its place among nationalities, big or small, until it is recast and remade. It is in the melting-pot now…. What picture of the process of remoulding will the historian of the future give his generation? ” This question from US senator Patrick J. Maguire appeared as “To-Day’s Thought” at the top of the Man About Town’s “Seen and Heard” column in the Evening Herald on 26 September 1916.  In the column’s “Afterthought,” the Man About Town answered: “Why a moving picture, of course – another ‘Birth of a Nation.’” As writers in the Bioscope and Dublin Evening Mail had earlier in the year, the Man About Town thought that the historiography of the near future would be written not on the page but on the screen, with the light of the film camera and projector. Unlike these previous writers who had discussed British propaganda films, the Man About Town was referring to the fictional Birth of a Nation, which was then starting the second of its two-week run at the Gaiety.

Dublin Evening Mail 16 September 1916: 2.

One of a series of large display ads for The Birth of a Nation in the Dublin Evening Mail, this one appeared on 16 September 1916: 2.

“By the way, have you seen it – the ‘Birth of a Nation’ at the Gaiety?” the Man About Town continued, clearly somewhat overwhelmed by this version of the American Civil War and period of Reconstruction that followed it. Focusing on the Northern Stoneman and Southern Cameron families, Griffith depicts the Civil War as a national tragedy, that was followed by the assassination of Abraham Lincoln which allowed such radical Republicans as Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis) – a fictional version of Thaddeus Stevens – to unleash on the defeated South a plague of carpetbaggers and state legislatures of freed blacks incapable of governing even their own behaviour never mind a state. Order could only be restored when Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) founded the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), which restores order and rescues white women from the sexual depredations of black men. Awed by the film’s technical achievements, Irish journalists tended to treat it as a factual retelling of events. “If you fail to see it you are missing a part of your education,” the Man About Town warned. “I have sat out some kinema shows in my time, but nothing to come near this. It’s the greatest screened drama that ever came to Dublin.”

Childhood friends but belonging to opposing Union and Confederate armies, the youngest sons of the Cameron and Stoneman families meet on the battlefield and die in each other's arms.

Childhood friends but belonging to opposing Union and Confederate armies, the youngest sons of the Cameron and Stoneman families meet on the battlefield and die in each other’s arms in The Birth of a Nation.

Under the title “Absolutely It,” Jacques’ review at the Evening Herald concluded that it was “the most enthralling thing in film land ever presented to a Dublin audience” and declared the reviewer lost for words. “If you ask me to give a full and detailed account of all the characters, love stories, historical incidents and thrilling incidents that occurred during the two hours that ‘The Birth of a Nation” reel kept spinning at the Gaiety Theatre last night,” he confided, “I’m sorry to say I can’t do it.” He nevertheless usefully provided what he called “but the baldest outline”:

The film shows us with almost overwhelming detail life in America, both North and South, just previous to and during the course of the Civil War. Mixed up with the fighting we follow the fortunes of two families united by ties of friendship but on opposite sides in the struggle. Then, when the war is over, we see the rising of the blacks, who, thanks to the slushy policy of the North, get all the power into their own hands and become bestial tyrants in consequence.

Kindly before our eyes is pictured the inception of the biggest secret society the world has ever seen, for it embraced every white in the South and yet remained secret. Finally we see how this society – the Ku-Klux-Klan – by the employment of mailed glove methods and working on negroid superstition, was enabled to stamp out the black peril and permit the whites in the Southern States to live without the men carrying their lives (and their six-shooters) in their hands.

Jacques was somewhat unusual among Irish reviewers in focusing on the second, more audaciously racist part of the film, which deals with the Reconstruction, and his use of such terms as “bestial tyrants,” “negroid superstition” and “the black peril” leaves little doubt that he accepted the film’s racism.

The very picture of imperilled femininity, Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish) awaits her forced marriage to the mixed race Silas Lynch in The Birth of a Nation.

In just one climactic instance of racially imperilled femininity, Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish) awaits her forced marriage to the mixed race Silas Lynch (George Siegmann) in The Birth of a Nation.

The Man About Town largely avoided explicit white-supremacist phrasing but made clear that the film’s affective power – frequently evoked with images of imperilled femininity – was deployed to ensure that the audience identified with Southern whites:

It gives you every emotion in the human gamut. One time you marvel at the beauty of the sunny cottonfields, then you smile at the quaint costumes. You want to kiss and cuddle the sweet young person loved by heroic young men. You feel an all-overness when you see howling mobs surging in flaming towns; you grip yourself at the sight of men amuck smashing and tearing houses above the heads of cellared women; you feel the shock of battle. You laugh and cheer and cry. It’s better than a good play. It’s a marvel.

The reviewer at the Belfast News-Letter contended that the emotional charge was intensified over the film’s three-hour span in order to offer the audience a final release by cheering the KKK. “Historically of the greatest value,” s/he claimed,

“The Birth of a Nation” holds the audience enthralled for over three hours, and the enthusiasm of the spectators waxes stronger and stronger with each succeeding scene, until, towards the close, they seize the opportunity afforded by the thrilling exploits of the Ku Klux Kan [sic] to give vent to their long pent-up emotions in frequent and hearty outbursts of applause. (“Grand Opera House”  BN.)

Only the reviewer at Cork’s Evening Echo in any way questioned the film’s racial politics. “The southern cotton planters were persuaded nature intended the negroes to be bought and sold and to cultivate cotton,” s/he observed, commenting that the “outlook of these planters appears peculiar at the present day,” but undermining what may be a mild criticism by adding that “one can to some extent understand it” (“Opera House”). “Mr. Griffith, it is easy to see, has a strong Southern bias,” the Northern Whig reviewer pointed out, “but this would not matter if it did not lead him to overstate an excellent case.” This overstatement was particularly evident in the depiction of the KKK: “to represent [the KKK] as a new order of chivalry is simply fantastic.” However, the writer’s problem appears to have been historical accuracy – the fact that it “is tinged too deeply with melodrama” – and not racist ideology: “If the Ku-Klux-Klan cannot be adorned with a halo, Mr. Griffith uses it to produce some splendid sensational thrills and the final fight for Piedmont is as good a realistic spectacle as one has ever seen staged” (“Grand Opera House” NW 8 Aug.).

It is possible to track these difference in reception of The Birth of a Nation because it received so much newspaper coverage, and this in turn was because it played exclusively at three of Ireland’s most prestigious theatres rather than at Belfast’s, Cork’s and Dublin’s picture houses. This formed part of a deliberate international exhibition strategy designed to distinguish The Birth of a Nation as a cultural event unlike any previous film screening. Rather than be distributed through existing distribution companies, the film was exhibited in a “road show” format, brought to the cities in which it was to be shown by a travelling company of technical crew and musicians. The company’s arrival was heralded by an elaborate marketing campaign that included large newspaper display ads describing – or rather exaggerating – the film’s unprecedented scale (Stokes 121). The claim repeated most often in Irish newspaper ads related less to the film’s narrative than to the assertion that the extent of the production needed to be measured in the thousands:  18,000 people, 5,000 horses and £10,000 costs.

This ad quoted the overwhelmingly positive reviews in Belfast's papers; Northern Whig 9 Aug. 1916: 7.

This ad quoted the overwhelmingly positive reviews in Belfast’s papers. Notable missing is the nationalist daily Irish News, which did not advertise or review the film. Northern Whig 9 Aug. 1916: 7.

Every ad also carried a note from director D. W. Griffith guaranteeing that “‘The Birth of a Nation’ will never be presented in any but the highest-class theatres and at prices charged for the best theatrical attractions.” Theatrical prestige was financially lucrative. “At both houses yesterday large audiences attended,” the Irish Times’ reviewer noted in the course of a comparatively short review of the Gaiety shows, observing that luxury and expense were sometimes forced on “later comers at the evening performance [who were] unable to obtain admission, except to the dearer parts of the theatre” (“‘Birth of a Nation’” IT). The Irish exhibition of The Birth of a Nation awaited a British road-show company that came – according to the ads – “direct from its sensational success at Drury Lane, London.” As a result, the film had taken a year and half to reach Ireland.

Belfast News-Letter 15 Aug. 1916: 1.

The Panopticon’s “mirth of a nation”; Belfast News-Letter 15 Aug. 1916: 1.

The attempt to suggest that the prestige theatres should be the exhibition spaces for prestige films was, not surprisingly, resisted by picture-house owners. During the Belfast run, the rival Panopticon advertised that if not “the birth of a nation,” it was providing “the mirth of a nation,” albeit that its main feature Burnt Wings (Britain: Broadwest, 1916) – in which a woman adopts her husband’s illegitimate child – does not seem altogether mirthful (“Panopticon”). For distributors of other high-profile films, the choice of picture house or theatre appears to have been more pragmatic. When the most ambitious of the British government’s propaganda films The Battle of the Somme finally opened on 11 September, it was first shown in Dublin at a theatre, the Theatre Royal, but in Belfast, it was shown at the luxurious Picture House, Royal Avenue. “[N]ever have the facts of war been more vividly brought home to people living far away from the scene of action,” the Belfast News-Letter commented. “For this latter feature we are indebted to the pictures which have from time to time been obtained by means of the cinematograph [… F]rom the moment of preparation, all through that deadly, but glorious, First of July, on to the crash of victory, the story is unfolded in all the strength and simplicity which such photography can give ” (“Battle of the Somme”).

Dublin Evening Mail 26 Aug. 1916: 2.

Carmen, a silent-screen opera; Dublin Evening Mail,  26 Aug. 1916: 2.

Undoubtedly, certain picture houses were capable of mounting productions that rivalled the theatres’ biggest spectacles. In the week beginning 28 August, Dublin’s Bohemian capitalized on its acknowledged superiority in musical attractions by exhibiting the opera film Carmen (US: Lasky, 1915), directed by Cecil B. DeMille and starring Metropolitan Opera diva Geraldine Farrar in her first film role. Farrar did not, of course, appear at the Bohemian to sing her part, but the live musical accompaniment by the Bohemian orchestra was supplemented by both concert instrumentalists Achille Simonetti and Clyde Twelvetrees and vocalists Belgian tenor Carlo Berckmans and Irish basso Irvine Lynch.

Although it did not have such vocal attractions, The Birth of a Nation outdid all of these in other ways. One of these was its exceeding length, running almost three times longer than either Carmen or The Battle of the Somme. Indeed, its running time of over three hours was 50-100% longer than most picture-house programmes, which usually consisted of several films. And however exaggerated the figures that appeared in its ads, local reviewers recognized it as an unusually lavish production. “The Grand Opera House was filled to overflowing last night,” the Belfast News-Letter‘s reviewer observed,

and collectively and individually, without exception, the members of the huge audience that peopled the vast auditorium were thrilled to the very core by the stupendous historical drama that was unfolded before their eyes. “The Birth of a Nation” is unquestionably the finest cinematograph production ever seen in this city, but it represents far more than that; it is one of the mightiest and most moving spectacles ever seen upon any stage, and its creation is an epochal event in the history of the art of cinematography. (“Grand Opera House” BN.)

Joseph Holloway saw several films apart from The Birth of a Nation in September 1916, including a second viewing of the Film Company of Ireland’s O’Neil of the Glen, at which he sketched actor J. M. Carre.

Joseph Holloway saw several films apart from The Birth of a Nation in September 1916, including a second viewing of the Film Company of Ireland’s O’Neil of the Glen, at which he sketched actor J. M. Carre.

However, it seems that audiences in Dublin and those in Belfast interpreted the spectacle in different ways. Writing of Dublin, Nicholas Andrew Miller has pointed out that “[i]f the film produced a local political impact on the Irish audience, then, it is not because it narrated Irish historical experience, but because it created a discursive space in which local Irish references – and memories – could appear in the guise of spectacle” (115). Citing the diary of inveterate theatregoer Joseph Holloway, Miller shows that members of the Gaiety audience used the film to criticize post-Easter Rising Ireland. Holloway had attended the Gaiety on 20 September, when he thought the film “stupendous […] & to say that I was thrilled by visiting it is to state but downright fact. It is a story of the War between North & South & its after effect until the negroes were again put in their proper place.”  Holloway also reports that his neighbour Miss Conroy told him of shouts at one of the screenings concerning British Army commander John Maxwell, who had imposed harsh martial law on Dublin in the aftermath of the Rising and had executed 15 of the leaders. The comments came during a scene in the film in which

Lincoln refuses to deal harshly with the Southern Leaders, & says, “he’ll treat them as if nothing occurred at all!” – on a shout coming from one of the audience “where is Sir John Maxwell to hear that?” followed by great approval & the contrary, till she got quite frightened of there being a row.

(The barber’s assistant, who was present at opening show first night, said one on gallery called out after seeing the above incident – “For our second Cromwell!”). (Holloway.)

For Miller, the memories and local references the film evoked related to nationalist politics, in this case, the Easter Rising.

This film ad openly praised the Ku Klux Klan; Belfast News-Letter 3 Aug. 1916: 7.

This film ad openly praised the Ku Klux Klan; Belfast News-Letter 3 Aug. 1916: 7.

The Belfast context was quite different. As no equivalent of Holloway’s diary exists for Belfast and as the Irish News – the city’s main nationalist newspaper – did not advertise or review the Grand Opera House shows, the surviving responses to The Birth of a Nation come from the city’s unionist newspapers. As well as this, the film opened on 7 August, more than a month earlier than in Dublin, putting it in the high summer, when an exodus from the city to seaside resorts was being reported (“Holiday Scenes in Belfast”). “Even in such hot weather as we have been experiencing recently a visit to the Opera House to see the ‘Birth of a Nation’ will not be regretted, but on the other hand will long be remembered with much pleasure by all who pay it” (“Birth of a Nation” NW). Despite this, the film ran for three weeks, a week longer than in Dublin, and the papers reported that the enthusiasm of Belfast audiences had not waned even by its third week, “which finds the film in higher favour than ever. […] Not only is Mr. Griffith’s spectacle continually drawing new admirers but a great many people are discovering that it well repays a second and even a third visit” (“Grand Opera House”  NW 22 Aug.).

For the reviewers in Belfast, the outstanding feature of local relevance in The Birth of Nation was its depiction of war, which made it particularly timely given that the papers were elsewhere reporting on the battles of the Somme and Verdun and at one point, on the increased use of non-white soldiers in battle (“Coloured Men and the War”). “The battle of Petersburg, in which the Federal troops sustained their greatest and final defeat, caused great interest on account of the close analogy it bears to the fighting on the Western front to-day,” the Belfast News-Letter observed, “it was one of the earliest, if not the first occasions in history, on which the contending armies entrenched in the open with the opposing lines only a few yards apart” (“Grand Opera House” BN).

However, the film’s contemporary relevance came  not just for these battlefield details but also from the depiction of the emotions felt by soldiers’ families.

The departure of the troops for the scene of action, the pathos of parting from their friends and relatives, the tragic letters which tell of their devotion and sacrifices, the sorrow and suffering that are bravely endured by grief-stricken parents who have given their sons to their country – all these things are typical of what is happening at the present time. No one can witness this mighty spectacle without being moved to tears. There are scenes of indescribable pathos, and there are also scenes of surpassing beauty and of infinite sweetness and tenderness. (“‘Birth of a Nation’” BN.)

Although a greater emphasis fell on the war scenes in Belfast – “where picture houses thrive and claim thousands of habitués” – it was also true of Dublin and Cork that “[t]he prophesy that the film would create a sensation wherever it was produced has been fulfilled to the letter” (“Grand Opera House” NW 15 Aug.). Irish filmgoers – but not cinemagoers – thronged to see Griffith’s massive spectacle in the autumn of 1916, were duly impressed by it and had few qualms about its racism.

References

“The Battle of the Somme: Historic Film to be Exhibited in Belfast.” Belfast News-Letter 18 Aug. 1916: 8.

“The Birth of a Nation.” Northern Whig 12 Aug. 1916: 6.

“‘The Birth of a Nation’: Impressive Spectacle at the Grand Opera House.” Belfast News-Letter 12 Aug. 1916: 2.

“‘The Birth of a Nation.’” Irish Times 20 Sep. 1916: 3.

“Cinema’s Popularity: Manifold Potentialities: Shows What Theatre Only Tells.” Belfast Evening Telegraph 29 Sep. 1916: 4.

“Coloured Men and the War.” Belfast News-Letter 4 Aug. 1916: 8.

“Grand Opera House: ‘The Birth of a Nation.’” Belfast News-Letter 8 Aug. 1916: 2.

“Grand Opera House: ‘The Birth of a Nation.’” Northern Whig 8 Aug. 1916: 7; 15 Aug. 1916: 7; 22 Aug. 1916: 7.

Holiday Scenes in Belfast: Big Exodus to the Seaside: The Railway Stations Besieged.” Belfast News-Letter 8 Aug. 1916: 4.

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

Hughes, Tom. How Belfast Saw the Light: A Cinematic History. Belfast: Hughes, 2014. Pp. 237-40.

Jacques. “Absolutely It: Amazing Realism at Gaiety Theatre: ‘Birth of a Nation.’” Evening Herald 19 Sep. 1916: 3.

The Man About Town. “Things Seen and Heard.” Evening Herald 26 Sep. 1916: 2.

Miller, Nicholas Andrew. Modernism, Ireland and the Erotics of Memory. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002).

“Opera House: ‘The Birth of a Nation.’” Evening Echo 29 Aug. 1916: 2.

“Panopticon.” Belfast News-Letter 15 Aug. 1916: 2.

Stokes, Melvyn. D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation: A History of “the Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time.” New York: Oxford UP, 2008.

Irish Audiences Watch “O’Neil of the Glen,” August 1916

If cinema in Ireland in July 1916 prompts reflection on film as a weapon of war, developments the following month show significant developments in the emergence of film as an expression of national culture. On 7 August 1916, audiences at Dublin’s Bohemian Picture Theatre were the first to see O’Neil of the Glen (often spelled O’Neill of the Glen), the first Film Company of Ireland (FCOI) production to be publicly released. Formed in March 1916 by James Mark Sullivan and Henry Fitzgibbon, the FCOI would become the most important indigenous fiction film producer of the 1910s. Ò’Neil of the Glen itself, however, is believed to be a lost film, like all FCOI’s other production except Knocknagow (1918), Willy Reilly and His Colleen Bawn (1920) and one reel of the two-reel comedy Paying the Rent (1920). Nevertheless, its success with audiences was vital to securing FCOI’s future.

O'Neil Boh 7 Aug 1916

Ad for the first public exhibition of O’Neil of the Glen, at Dublin’s Bohemian, Dublin Evening Mail 7 Aug. 1916: 2.

That success was won in part by the careful management of publicity, a fact that means that the surviving ads, articles and reviews in the press must be treated with caution. It may be a forgivable exaggeration for the papers to have hailed the premiere of O’Neil of the Glen as the start of a new Irish industry, but it was not true that this was “the first picture-play ever produced in Ireland by an Irish company of Irish players,” a claim repeated almost verbatim in several paper, indicating that the journalists were working from the same FCOI publicity materials (“New Irish Industry,”  “O’Neill of the Glen,” “Irish Film Triumph”). Most recently, Charles McEvoy of Dublin’s Masterpiece Cinema had funded Fun at Finglas Fair – even if it had allegedly been destroyed during the Easter Rising before being publicly shown – and in 1912-13, cinema-owner and mayor John J. Farrell had made a number of films with his company Irish Film Productions (Rockett 95, Condon 237).

IRISHLIMEGHT1_MAY_P6 001

Abbey Theatre and Film Company of Ireland actor – and later director – Fred O’Donovan; Irish Limelight 1:5 (May 1917): 6.

Nevertheless, although O’Neil of the Glen was not the first indigenous Irish fiction film, it was a very significant one by the country’s most important film production company of the 1910s. On 29 June, FCOI announced a “trial exhibition,” or what would now be called a test screening, of their first completed production, O’Neil of the Glen, at Dublin’s Carlton. By this time, and in the context of management difficulties at the Abbey Theatre, FCOI had been able to contract J. M. Kerrigan and Fred O’Donovan, two of the Abbey’s biggest stars, albeit that they were permitted to appear in certain plays (“Abbey Theatre,” “Platform and Stage”). Kerrigan, indeed, directed and played a part in O’Neil of the Glen, a three-reel feature based on a script adapted by W. J. Lysaght from M[argaret] T. Pender’s story of the same title that had been serialized in the Shamrock in 1891. The film told how Don O’Neil (Brian Magowan), the son of a landowner who had been defrauded by the solicitor Tremaine (J. M. Carre), saves the life of Tremaine’s daughter, Nola (Nora Clancy), whose love he wrests from Graves (O’Donovan), a blackmailing suitor (“Bohemian,” Evening Mail).

“The film is of a quality which leads one to anticipate success for the venture,” wrote an Irish Times correspondent at the trial exhibition, noting that it was part of a process of perfecting the film: “the promoters are engaged in a ruthless revision of the film to bring it up to the highest possible standard” (“Irish Film Production”). The Bioscope’s Irish correspondent Paddy’ was less complimentary about this early cut of the film, pointing out that although “[g]reat care was taken with the production and camera work,” it possessed “many of the weak points common to first productions” (“Paddy,” 13 Jul.). Addressing a lunch for the press at the Gresham Hotel after the screening, Fitzgibbon claimed that FCOI “had started an industry which would eventually be a source of great revenue in Ireland.” For his part, Sullivan argued that the film showed that Irish productions – taking advantage of Irish “imagination, ideals, and artistic temperament and beautiful scenery” – could competing with those anywhere (“Irish Film Production”).

Paddy began to revise his lukewarm opinion of O’Neil of the Glen in light of the news that Frederick A. Sparling had booked the film for its first run at his Bohemian for the week of 7-13 August. The Bohemian was one of Dublin’s biggest and most luxurious cinemas, and Sparling’s commitment to a run that was twice the usual three days “speaks well for the film and the undoubted drawing powers such a production will have for Irish audiences” (Paddy, 27 Jul.). In the event, Sparling also included an unplanned Sunday show to take advantage of the phenomenal level of interest.

Although FCOI appears to have taken the bookings itself, prominent local distributor Ben Cowan of Express Film Agency handled this and other FCOI films from 1916 by running trade shows and placing advertisements in the daily and trade press. It was likely one of Cowan’s “novel ideas in the advertising line” for FCOI cameraman John A. Bennett – a former projectionist at Dublin’s Rotunda – to film the audience on the first night and for this local film to be shown subsequently with the feature (Paddy, 27 Jul.; 17 Aug.). “Don’t miss this chance of seeing what you look like on the Screen,” ads warned the opening-night audience. The musical attractions included a special programme of Irish melodies and the cinema’s “world-renowned violinist” Signor Simonetti playing a fantasy on the “Snowy Breasted Pearl” at the evening shows. “It is confidently hoped that large audiences will visit the Bohemian during the coming week,” revealed a preview in the Evening Mail, “and thus mark in a tangible manner their appreciation of what may justly be described as a really first-class picture-play, and one that is sure to bring the work and the players of the Film Company of Ireland right into the forefront of popularity with audiences and trade alike” (“Bohemian”).

The surprising extent of the success of O’Neil of the Glen must be measured in the first instance as a marketing victory rather than an artistic one, by FCOI. The degree to which these early films challenged existing ways of representing the Irish is questionable, but many contemporary commentators seem initially to have been content that films with wholly Irish creative input were finally being made. Nevertheless, the way in which the company were able to capitalize on the interest and goodwill attending the exhibition of this first indigenous Irish fiction film and, crucially, to publicize the large attendances not only in Ireland, where interest was likely to be strong in any case, but also in Britain, appears to have secured a British distribution deal and thereby to have ensured the company survival in this initial period. This success was built on what appears to have been a genuinely surprising level of interest in the picture. “The film, which was expected to prove a good draw, actually surpassed all anticipations,” observed Paddy, warming further to the film, “a record being established for the week, and queues being the rule every evening” (17 Aug.). The Irish Times commented that enthusiastic audiences in a crowded cinema “proves that the Dublin public is always ready to support and encourage Irish enterprise” (“Film Company of Ireland,” 9 Aug.). “That the genuine enthusiasm displayed last night at the conclusion of the film will be the means of bringing before the public a second production by the Irish Film Company in the near future,” observed the Freeman’s Journal, “is a universal wish” (“Bohemian”).

O'Neil Victoria 9 Sep 1916p4

Ad for Galway’s Victoria Cinema Theatre for the week in which O’Neil of the Glen featured. Connacht Tribune 9 Sep 1916: 4.

This wish would be soon fulfilled, and O’Neil of the Glen was exhibited around the country in the following weeks and months. When following substantial runs in Dublin and Belfast it was announced for a three-day run at Galway’s Victoria Cinema Theatre on 11-13 September, a Connacht Tribune reporter distinguished its attractions from that of American films, which were unrivalled “in the matter of cinematographic thoroughness and all-round fullness and finish of technique, but one can get too much of a good thing.” The FCOI’s “national or […] patriotic enterprise” offered something that monotonously perfect and ubiquitous American films could not: “The production is Irish, the subject is Irish, the mise-en-scene is Irish, and the actors and actresses are Irish” (“‘O’Neill of the Glen’”). A writer in the Cork Examiner during the film’s run at Cork’s Coliseum Theatre (14-16 September) concurred, arguing that

[t]hrere certainly should be an opening for cinema representation of Irish drama as played by native Irish actors, whose one object is to show Irish life in its true perspective, without grotesque exaggeration, or what is just as bad, giving an unreal picture of it, even when the intention is friendly to the country and the people. (“Coliseum Theatre.”)

A journalist at the Derry People was particularly interested in the local connections of a film “in which well-known Irish artistes will be screened, and details dealing with Tyrone and neighbouring localities introduced in splendid style” (“Hall”). The film’s second Dublin run was at the Dame Street Picture House (21-3 September) – the cinema closest to FCOI’s offices and where all their subsequent 1916 films would premiere – before it had first and second runs in Belfast, at the Duncairn (28-30 September) and the Clonard (2-4 October). Subsequent screenings included Mullingar’s National (14-15 October), Kilkenny’s Cinema (18-19 October) and Dublin’s Fr Mathew Hall (2 December).

FCOI IT 14 Aug 1916p4

Irish Times 14 Aug. 1916: 4.

While O’Neil of the Glen toured the country, the company quickly followed up this successful debut with the announcements of their next films in the dailies and trades. On the Monday after the last show of O’Neil of the Glen at the Bohemian, the Dublin papers carried an advertisement headed “Films that Draw Crowded Houses Every Night!” that recommended FCOI’s new films on the basis of the audience-drawing power of that first film. Four two-reel comedies were scheduled for release in September – The Miser’s Gift, Woman’s Wit, Food of Love and An Unfair Love Affair – and nine other forthcoming productions were named, only one of which, “Willie Reilly,” is recognizable as a subsequent FCOI release. An Evening Mail reporter who attended The Miser’s Gift trade show at the Dame Street PH later that week commented that “[i]t is not only characteristically Irish, it is characteristically good. The Irish Picture-House manager who does not support an Irish company which can produce work of the class of ‘The Miser’s Gift’ is missing an opportunity of giving his shows a touch of distinction” (“‘Miser’s Gift’”).

The Miser’s Gift is also lost, but its narrative appears to involve a scheme of Eileen Dolan (Nora Clancy) and her lover, Ned McGrath (Fred O’Donovan), to get her miserly father (J. M. Kerrigan) drunk and dream of leprechaun gold so that he will look favourably on their relationship. “It is agreeable to have pictures such as this,’ commented the Irish Times, “preserving a genuinely Irish atmosphere and that inherent charm which is to be found in Irish life. The sight, for instance, of lepracauns and other little people who live in legend disporting themselves in a fairy fort is a feature which surely is pleasing to Irish eyes” (“Film Company of Ireland,” 18 Aug.). The Irish public got its first chance to delight in authentic Irish leprechauns disporting themselves on the cinema screen at the Dame from 26–8 October 1916.

Ch5One

Bioscope 24 Aug. 1916: 754.

As these arrangements were being made for Ireland, FCOI also entered the British film market on the foundation of O’Neil of the Glen’s Irish success. The Bohemian debut was the subject of an article on the company in the Bioscope of 24 August, which also carried a full-page advertisement listing the actual and intended films mentioned in the Irish papers (“First Irish Film”). Both the article and the advertisement included quotes from Sparling on the huge business the film generated, “the absolutely whole-hearted appreciation of every person who has seen it,” and the fact that “the ‘music’ at the pay-box has kept time with the orchestra throughout.” In contrast to Paddy’s original critical assessment of the film, this article described the audiences’ appreciation of “the exceptional excellence of the first film produced in Ireland by an Irish company and by Irish players.” A month later, although mentioning the film’s success everywhere it had been exhibited, Paddy contended that FCOI’s “second picture, ‘The Miser’s Gift,’ is greatly in advance of the first as regards the quality, and if this company stick to their guns they should still be well in the front rank of British producers” (28 Sep.). Despite Paddy’s reservations, the message prevailed that O’Neil of the Glen packed cinemas in Dublin and Belfast and that Irish exhibitors were eager for more, a message that helped FCOI to acquire a British distributor (Paddy, 14 Sep.). The company did this at the end of October, when Davidson’s Film Sales Agency bought the rights for FCOI’s 1916 films (Paddy, 2 Nov.).

Indigenous Irish film production may not have started with O’Neil of the Glen, but it did enter a new phase.

References

“Abbey Theatre.” Irish Times 7 Aug. 1916: 3.

“The Bohemian.” Dublin Evening Mail 5 Aug. 1916: 5.

“The Bohemian.” Freeman’s Journal 8 Aug. 1916: 6.

“Coliseum Theatre: ‘O’Neill of the Glen.’” Cork Examiner 15 Sep. 1916: 2.

Condon, Denis. Early Irish Cinema, 1895-1921. Dublin: Irish Academic, 2008.

“The Film Company of Ireland.” Irish Times 9 Aug. 1916: 6; 18 Aug. 1916: 2.

“First Irish Film: Success of ‘O’Neil of the Glen.’” Bioscope 24 Aug. 1916: 689.

“The Hall.” Derry People 16 Sep. 1916: 5.

“Irish Film Production.” Irish Times 30 Jun. 1916: 7.

“Irish Film Triumph: Several New Plays.” Cork Examiner 16 Aug. 1916: 6.

“‘The Miser’s Gift’: New Irish Comedy.” Dublin Evening Mail 17 Aug. 1916: 2.

“New Irish Films: Four Coming Comedies.” Freeman’s Journal 15 Aug. 1916: 4.

“New Irish Industry: Film Company of Ireland.” Connaught Telegraph 5 Aug. 1916: 8.

“New Irish Industry: The Film Co. of Ireland: A Promising Enterprise.” Freeman’s Journal 30 Jun. 1916: 6.

“‘The O’Neill of the Glen.’” Derry People 12 Aug. 1916: 5.

Paddy. “Ireland: With the Renters and Exhibitors.” Bioscope 13 Jul. 1916: 173; 27 Jul. 1916: 359; 17 Aug. 1916: 655; 14 Sep. 1916: 1060; 28 Sep. 1916: 1285; 2 Nov. 1916: 518.

“Platform and Stage.” Irish Times 7 Oct. 1916: 9.

Rockett, Kevin. The Irish Filmography. Dublin: Red Mountain, 1996.

“Topics of the Week.” Bioscope 10 Aug. 1916: 466.

 

Irish Cinema and the Desire for Change in April 1916

Among the Situations Wanted ads, the Waterville projectionist seeks new prospects; Irish Independent 1 Apr. 1916: 6.

Among the Situations Wanted ads, a Waterville projectionist seeks new prospects; Irish Independent 1 Apr. 1916: 6.

Desiring a change of job, Edward McCabe, the operator (projectionist) at the cinema in Waterville, Co. Kerry, put a small ad in the Irish Independent outlining his five years of experience and seeking “good offers only.” McCabe was expectant – or at least hopeful – of an improved situation, and given cinema’s continuing growth despite the war, his prospects seemed good. Change was certainly coming to Ireland in April 1916, if not of the kind for which McCabe expressed a desire. Planned and executed by a small group of insurgent nationalists, socialists and women’s rights campaigners against British rule, the Easter Rising that month would be the catalyst for profound social and political change, but the cinema had few direct links with it. Although the Rising took place largely in Dublin between 24 and 29 April, the failure of the rebels to land arms in north Kerry – far from Waterville in the south – and the arrest of Rising leader Roger Casement as he was set ashore from a German U-Boat on 21 April influenced events in Dublin and elsewhere. When the Kerry events caused the planned Easter Sunday Rising to be initially cancelled and then rescheduled to Easter Monday, Frank Hardiman and his comrades in the Irish Volunteers and the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood in Galway were thrown into confusion. Manager of the Galway’s Town Hall Picture Palace for James T. Jameson’s Irish Animated Picture Company, Hardiman was arrested on Tuesday, 25 April, paraded with other rebels through the streets and imprisoned on a ship in Galway Bay (“Statement of Frank Hardiman”).

Beside the iconic ruins of the Dublin Bread Company on Dublin's Lower Sackville/O'Connell Street in late May/early April 1916 were the ruins of the smaller Grand Cinema, its projection box visible.

To the left of the iconic ruins of the DBC (Dublin Bread Company) on Dublin’s Lower Sackville/O’Connell Street in late April/early May 1916 were the ruins of the smaller Grand Cinema, its projection box visible on the first floor. Source: Irish Times.

The Rising was even more of a surprise than this for most people working in Irish cinema, and the few who became directly involved did so because they got caught up in events. Despite apparently having no direct role in the Rising, Irish-American diplomat James M. Sullivan, who had recently founded the Film Company of Ireland (FCOI), was arrested outside his home in Dublin on 28 April and imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol until 6 May (“Irish-American Minister”). The FCOI’s offices at 16 Henry Street would be completely destroyed during the fighting of Easter Week, but the disruption and destruction that were the Rising’s most immediate effects on cinema in Dublin can be seem most clearly in the many photographs of the ruined Grand Cinema – the mangled remains of its projectors clearly visible – beside the iconic hulk of the Dublin Bread Company on Lower Sackville/O’Connell Street. The World’s Fair Waxworks at 30 Henry Street, one of the first and cheapest picture houses in the city, was also completely ruined. Other picture houses were also damaged, if not to this extent, and the military authorities who administered the city after the surrender of the rebels prohibited all entertainments for a time.

Cinema was prohibited as part of a general curfew rather than for any direct role in the Rising, but it did constitute revolutionary change of a kind in Ireland, bringing an explosion of imagery to people and places that could not have experienced anything like it before. This is perhaps epitomized by the Waterville Cinema that Edward McCabe desired to leave on the eve of the Rising. It opened in late December or early January 1916, when a rare notice appeared in the Kerryman commenting on the success of its opening (“New Cinema, Waterville”). It changed the films it showed four times a week, on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, including such bill toppers as Chaplin’s The Property Man (US: Mutual, 1914), appropriate for a village that now hosts a Chaplin festival. That Waterville had a picture house at all is remarkable, given that the 1911 Census put its population at just 300 inhabitants and that the village itself was located on the extreme western periphery of Europe. It must have been a precarious enterprise, and it is extraordinary that it lasted even until McCabe sought to leave. The frequent changes suggest that the proprietor attempted to attract patrons several times a week in a region where many inhabitants were subsistence farmers or fisherfolk. Indeed, Ireland’s west coast held a special place in the nationalist consciousness because its remoteness made it a bastion of a tradition Irish culture that was often presented as an ascetic pastoralism conducted in the Irish language. If cinema could be in such a small, remote and traditional place, it seems it could be anywhere. However, Waterville and its environs had something that other poorer parts of the west did not. The peripherality of this part of Kerry had actually made it a hub of modernity, the site in the 1860s for the landing of the first transatlantic telegraphic cable and building of a telegraph station, located on nearby Valencia Island. News from America came first to this remote spot in south Kerry, and Waterville’s population included many who worked as relatively highly paid telegraphists. The patronage of these cable workers and their families who settled in the areas appears to have kept the cinema going at least until McCabe departed.

Skibbereen Coliseum SS 22 Apr 1916

Announcement of the reopening of Skibbereen’s Kinemac as the Coliseum; Sikbbereen Eagle 22 Apr. 1916: 8.

Despite its unusual demographics, Waterville was by no means alone among remote locations in south Kerry and west Cork experiencing the new media of the 1910s, albeit that these changes were occurring in towns with much larger populations. Founded by vibrator entrepreneur Gerald Macaura in 1914, the troubled Kinemac in Skibbereen (pop. 3,021) reopened on 25 April 1916 under a new name, the Coliseum, managed by Andy Wright’s Southern Coliseums. Clonakilty, Co. Cork (pop. 2,961) also saw developments in its cinema enterprises, some of which were not entirely legal. On 23 March, 19-year-old Michael “Murt” O’Donovan was charged at a special court in the town with defrauding Alexander Bonthorne of Faulkland, Scotland and Malachy Brady of Tudor House, Roscommon by failing to supply home cinema equipment for which they had paid him (“Special Court”). O’Donovan had no link to Clonakilty’s picture house, which drew audiences from its hinterland. “‘Where are the boys of the village tonight?’” asked the columnist of the Southern Star’s “Shannonvale Notes.” “They are at the ‘Movies’ escorting certain young ladies and their lady friend who lives up [the] street. Since the Cinematograph started in Clon, it has been well patronised by the boys of our village.” Accompanying young ladies to the cinema was not looked on favourably by young men everywhere. When some of Clones, Co. Monaghan’s unmarried men founded a bachelors’ club to resist a mooted Bachelor Tax, they expressed their opposition to the practice of bringing local ladies “to picture houses, on excursions, picnics, motor drives, or cycle runs” (“Clones Bachelors”).

Even in such towns as Naas, Co. Kildare (pop. 3,842), which had only occasional picture shows, cinema could be encountered on a stroll. “I confess I knew very little of Charlie Chaplin until the other day,” the Kildare Observer’s “Items and Ideas” columnist revealed. “Several times have I heard references to him in a ditty chanted in chorus by small boys from the lanes of Naas as they paraded the suburban thoroughfares.” The columnist included the words, sung to the tune of the 1907 song “Red Wing”:

The moon shines bright on Charlie Chaplin,

His boots is crackin’, for want of blackin’,

And his khaki trousers need a mendin’

Before we send him

To the Dardanelles.

By April 1916, many involved in Irish cinema were resisting or embracing changes sought by the British government, which was increasingly finding cinema useful in various ways. Despite the industry’s strenuous lobbying against it, the government was undeterred in its determination to divert some of the money spent on entertainments into its much depleted war reserves; it set 15 May as the day on which the new Amusement Tax would be imposed on picture houses and theatres. There seemed little firm opposition to it outside the industry in Ireland, the Evening Herald arguing that no valid argument can be advanced against it” (“Where Ireland Goes Out”).  Film’s increasingly direct role in recruiting in Ireland was highlighted when H. Higginson announced that he – like Edward McCabe – desired a change and was resigning the managership of the newly reopened Clontarf Cinema in Dublin to lead a cinema recruiting campaign. He proposed to give two shows in each place the campaign reached, the first exhibiting army and navy films, and the second offering a regular drama and comedy programme whose proceeds would go to various war funds. He also intended “to arrange so that the first man who is actually accepted and passed by the doctor for service with the colours will be presented free with a high-class solid silver luminous wristlet watch, the usual shop price of which is 43s” (“Cinema Recruiting Campaign”). No such recruiting event appears to have been reported later in April, but James J. Stafford’s lent his cinema for a “war meeting” in Longford on 14 April at which films showed “what the war means, in many phases, and the large gathering that thronged the Theatre were treated to a series of recruiting speeches which were generally acknowledged to be the strongest delivered since the start of the military canvass of the country” (“War Meeting in Longford”).

The long-running campaign for educational uses of film gained a new public advocate in mid-April 1916 when David Gilmore from Belfast’s Ormeau Road wrote a letter to the Belfast Newsletter outlining how the dangers of carelessly discarded fruit peel might be ameliorated cinematically. He suggested that “if each cinema show displayed a short film at each exhibition depicting the evil of throwing slippery things on the sidewalk, and a reading caution not to do so, thousands of children would take thought and not throw peel, &c., where people would slip on it.” His enthusiasm for this early public service film extended to an imagined scenario: “The little silent drama could show a child throwing peel down, a person slipping thereon, lying in a hospital, and then creeping about on crutches. Or the drama could end by a funeral, as slipping on orange peel has caused in more than one case” (“Throwing Orange Peel”). He may have been joking, but if not, he displayed a surprising unawareness that films already dealt extensively with casually or maliciously tossed peel, film comedians having done, if anything, too much to exploit the banana skin’s comic potential.

Cellists Clyde Twelvetrees and Joseph Schofield Source: Royal Irish Academy of Music blog.

The changes that picture houses had brought to Dublin’s entertainment world meant that they competed for audiences with popular theatres. By no means for the first or last time, this was explicit again in the week beginning 17 April 1916, when the Empire Theatre’s programme consisted not of its usual variety acts but of the film The Rosary (US: Selig, 1915), starring Kathlyn Williams. The film has been shown first in the city at the Theatre Royal over the 1916 New Year week and had had subsequent runs at the Princess Cinema in Rathmines (14-16 Feb.), the Phoenix Picture Palace on Ellis Quay (6-9 Apr.) and the Dame Street Picture House (13-15 Apr.). Despite the recent showings at the Phoenix and Dame, Empire manager Barney Armstrong must have considered this religious-themed film a good prospect in the run-up to Easter weekend because he offered additional musical attractions that would see the film accompanied “with organ and full orchestra effects” (“Empire Theatre”). When shown at the picture houses, the film had received little attention from newspaper critics, but when it appeared at the Empire, the main daily newspapers gave it as much critical attention as they gave to any other show. However, they gave it a mixed reception. Although the Evening Telegraph reviewer called The Rosary a “splendid” film – perhaps referring to its seven-reel length – s/he complained that it showed “a woeful ignorance of Irish Catholic sentiment, and the impersonations [offer] very little suggestion of an Irish atmosphere” (ibid).

The Bohemian advertises its engagement of Twelvetrees prominent in its Easter programme, beside the Carlton’s ad for its attractions, including Erwin Goldwater’s solo playing; Dublin Evening Mail 22 Apr 1916: 2.

The Bohemian advertised its engagement of Twelvetrees prominently in its Easter programme, beside the Carlton’s ad for its attractions, including Erwin Goldwater’s solo playing; Dublin Evening Mail 22 Apr 1916: 2.

The disparities in the press attention that the Rosary received at the picture houses and at the Empire were an indication that theatre remained the dominant entertainment medium, but there were also indications that this situation was changing. In attracting patrons to The Rosary, the Empire advertised the superiority of the musical attractions it could offer. However, several of the city’s picture houses were enhancing their musical offerings to compete against each other and the theatres. On St Patrick’s Day, 17 March 1916, concert violinist Erwin Goldwater had become resident soloist at the recently opened Carlton Cinema. This somewhat undermined the Bohemian Picture Theatre long advertised claim that it possessed the largest and best orchestra of any of the city’s picture houses. In response, the Bohemian engaged Clyde Twelvetrees – concert cellist and professor of the Royal Irish Academy of Music – to play as part of its daily programme. “Up to the present,” the Irish Independent commented, “if one wanted to hear a few famed soloists one had to attend the big concerts; but now one can hear the very best at convenience (“Dublin and District”). And these musical opportunities were set to increase, as Dublin’s Pillar Picture House engaged another renowned cellist, Joseph Schofield.

Schofield’s debut at the Pillar did not, however, take place as scheduled, at 4pm on Easter Monday, 24 April 1916. By that time, members of the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army under Patrick Pearse and James Connolly had taken possession of the nearby GPO, and the Rising was underway. Dublin’s cinema screens would remain dark for two weeks as more urgent changes took the stage.

References

“A Cinema Recruiting Campaign.” Dublin Evening Mail 6 Apr. 1916: 4.

“Clones Bachelors Establish a Washing, Cooking and Household Managing Club.” Anglo-Celt 1 Apr. 1916: 11.

“Clontarf Cinema Theatre to be Opened on Sundays.”  Evening Telegraph 31 Mar. 1916: 3.

“Dublin and District.” Irish Independent 22 Apr. 1916: 4.

“The Empire Theatre.” Evening Telegraph 18 Apr. 1918: 6.

“Irish-American Minister: Unpleasant Experiences in Dublin.” Evening Herald 9 May 1916: 1.

“Items and Ideas.” Kildare Observer 1 Apr. 1916: 5.

“New Cinema, Waterville.” Kerryman 8 Jan. 1916: 8.

“Shannonvale Notes.” Southern Star 15 Apr. 1916: 1.

“Special Court in Clonakilty.” Skibbereen Eagle 1 Apr. 1916: 3.

“Statement of Frank Hardiman.” Bureau of Military History, Witness Statement 406, p. 2-3 <http://bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie/reels/bmh/BMH.WS0406.pdf#page=1&gt;

“Throwing Orange Peel, &c., on Sidewalks.” Belfast Newsletter 12 Apr. 1916: 6.

“War Meeting in Longford.” Longford Leader 22 Apr. 1916: 1.

“War Pictures.” Longford Leader 15 Apr. 1916: 1.

“Where Ireland Goes Out.” Evening Herald 13 Apr. 1916: 2.

“Experiments Against the Public Taste” in Irish Picture Houses, August 1915

Evening Telegraph, 23 Aug. 1915: 1.

Evening Telegraph, 23 Aug. 1915: 1.

In its reviews of entertainments on Tuesday, 24 August 1915, Dublin’s Freeman’s Journal departed from the usual blandly favourable tone of newspaper notices to criticize the choice of film at the Bohemian Picture Theatre. Although the reviewer praised the “discrimination exercised by the management in the selection of films” since the picture house had opened the previous year, s/he regretted that the “inclusion of ‘Sapho’ this week introduces an unedifying subject” (“Bohemian”). Although the reviewer conceded that the film actually contained “very little to which exception might be taken,” s/he argued that “these experiments against the public taste are very dangerous, as might have been gathered from the attitude of the audience” (ibid).

The reviewer neglected to say, however, what had been the audience actual reaction to Sapho. Others were a little more forthcoming. Attending the Bohemian’s 7pm show on Monday evening, Joseph Holloway thought that the “unpleasant love story of Jean & Sapho was well enacted – a crowded audience witnessed it & many were waiting outside to see the 9 o’clock show as I came out” (Holloway, 23 Aug. 1915). Holloway did not mention any manifestations of dangerous attitudes among this apparently enthusiastic audience, but a report in the trade journal Bioscope some weeks later perhaps accounts for the Freeman’s hints about agitation among the audience. “During the screening of ‘Sapho,’ at the Bohemian Theatre,” Paddy, the Bioscope’s Irish correspondent, claimed that “the Vigilance Committee – or what purported to be the same – held a massed meeting at the corner of the street, and also secured a brass band which did a few triumphal processions past the theatre” (Paddy).

The Bohemian had been and would continue to be a target of Dublin Vigilance Committee (DVC) activity, but the use of a brass band was not repeated there. This may be because this tactic failed to attract the same level of publicity as the disturbance in the auditorium, arrest and court appearance favoured by such DVC activists as William and Francis Larkin.

A poster for Olga Nethersole’s theatrical version of Sapho, written by Clyde Fitch. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In any case, few audience members – and certainly not the journalists, Holloway or members of the Vigilance Committee – can have been unaware that Sapho was about a woman’s extramarital affairs. Alphonse Daudet had adapted his own popular 1884 novel for the stage, and it had been lent further notoriety when in 1900, Olga Nethersole produced and starred in a US stage version written by Clyde Fitch that told the story from Sapho’s point of view. Both the French and US versions had played in Dublin in the 1900s. So well known was the novel and play that when Nethersole returned to the Gaiety in 1906, the Irish Times commented that it

is unnecessary at this period of time to discuss the morals of the play, or argue the question whether its enactment is calculated to promote a wholesome spirit or not. The subject is one on which people have made up their minds one way or another, and judging by the constitution of last night’s audience the vast bulk, if not the entire of those present, understood perfectly the class of production which they had gone to witness.” (“Gaiety Theatre.”)

Any experiments against the public taste had long yielded their results, it seems, at least as far as the audience at the Gaiety was concerned. However, cinema had altered Ireland’s mediascape by bringing entertainment out of the city centres to the suburbs, small towns and rural areas, and because it was cheaper than theatre, it was more accessible to the working class. With these shifts in entertainment, the definition of “public taste” and “audience” was up for grabs.

In any case, not all journalists were as accepting of the taste experiments represented by plays such as Sapho as the jaded Irish Times reporter appears to have been. In July 1915, D.P. Moran, editor of the Leader, reminded readers of his 15-year-long “campaign against music hall and theatrical filth” (“‘Dirty Dublin’ Again”). He claimed this campaign was necessary because of the complicity of the newspapers with theatre owners:

The names of such plays as “Zaza” “Sapho,” and “Kitty Grey” will recall that campaign to the recollection of our older readers. But the daily Press was then as it is now rotten. We took a big start out of the dailies of that time, and they were cautious of their puffs of imported dirt, but they stuck like wax to the advertisements of the entertainments and plays however dirty. (Ibid.)

Sapho had been one of the key works in Moran’s long-running crusade against the laxity of the mainstream press. And he was right to indicate that theatre and picture-house owners paid to advertise and expected that reviews would at least pay sympathetic attention to their entertainments, if not outright reproduce promotional materials masquerading as criticism. This also makes reviews of limited use for historical purposes. In contrast to this commercial motivation, Moran was – as a self-styled Irish-Irelander interested in Gaelic culture rather than Nationalist politics – hostile to popular entertainments for their Anglicizing influence, which included promoting forms of sexual expression at odds with Irish Catholicism.

“A Review of the Audience.” Leader 17 Jul. 1915: 541.

Moran’s campaign was not limited to the content of theatrical shows or press complicity but also aimed to refashion the Irish audience. This aspect of his crusade took visual form in July 1915, when he published Tom Lalor’s cartoon entitled “A Review of the Audience.” The accompanying verses by A.M.W. (John Swift) directed readers to contemplate the “dirty degenerates ever so keen / To welcome the smut of a music hall scene.” Among these were the “Johnnie, or nut,” “the College effeminate brat, / Ne’er keen on a lesson that’s wholesome or nice, / But apt in the study of music hall vice,” as well as “the old reprobate well to the fore / In years far advanced but in vices much more.” The press was also excoriated:“Our Press lends its aid to the stuff it should drown, / The ‘Freeman’ and ‘Mail’ that should give it hard knocks / Encourage the same from a seat in a box.”

Although the picture houses were not yet on Moran’s agenda in July 1915, they soon would be when he supported the DVC coming campaign for film censorship, and the appearance of a well-publicized film adaptation of Sapho would no doubt have put him on the alert. The version of the film shown at the Bohemian in August 1915 was one of two film versions released into the British film market in 1913. When the French company Éclair released its version, starring Nethersole, in Britain in March 1913, it became a cause celebre within the industry. The film was banned in Leeds and other places, and when an exhibitor was prosecuted for showing it in Darlington, the Cinema Exhibitors’ Association took up his defence (“The ‘Sapho’Case”).

But it was the US version, released in Britain in November 1913, that would eventually make its way to Ireland. It was made by the Majestic Motion Picture Company and starred Florence Roberts. Whatever its other faults, the adaption to the screen met with approval: “Daudet’s work loses nothing in its production on the cinema, and the large audiences followed the picture through its six parts with interest” (“The Bohemian Picture House”). However, if Irish exhibitors hoped to avoid controversy by waiting nearly two years before booking the film, they miscalculated not so much the public taste as the growing power of the Catholic guardians of morality.

References

“The Bohemian.” Freeman’s Journal 24 Aug. 1915: 2.

“The Bohemian Picture House.” Dublin Evening Mail 24 Aug. 1915: 6.

“‘Dirty Dublin’ Again.” Leader 10 July 1915: 519-20.

“Gaiety Theatre.” Irish Times 20 Sep. 1906: 6.

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

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 9 Sep. 1915: 1176.

“The ‘Sapho’Case.” Bioscope 31 Jul. 1913: 349.