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.

“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.

“War Looks Like ‘Reel’ Business”: Irish Cinema at the End of 1914

The Pillar Picture House opened on 2 December 1914. This photo shows it in 1921, its distinctive semicircular veranda displaying damage like surrounding building from the fighting of the War of Independence and Civil War. RTE Stills Library; image and discussion here.

Neither weather nor war could seem long to inhibit the progress of Irish cinema in late 1914. “From the cinema man’s point of view this war looks like ‘reel’ business,” announced a one-line item gnomically in Dublin’s Evening Telegraph’s Saturday “Music and the Drama” column, without expanding on any cinematic developments. Nevertheless, this single line seems better to capture developments in popular entertainment in the mid-1910s than the several paragraphs devoted a week later by another columnist in the same newspaper to arguing that “our tastes in amusements and entertainments, indoor and outdoor, run on well-defined lines, and are marked by an extraordinary lack of initiative” (“Notes and Comments”). Drawing on the examples of the ping-pong and roller skating crazes – “the handsome rinks brought very poor prices as scrap” – to show that people prefer “Standard Amusements,” the columnist contended that the “theatre, concert and dance are just the theatres, concerts, and dances of by-gone years with some infinitesimal variations.” “Once or twice in every generation, there are signs of revolt, which are none the less interesting because the innovations have never even a sporting chance of securing a permanent footing” (ibid).

Cinema seems to be left conveniently out of consideration here. Although it had similarities with existing forms of entertainment, it was also significantly different and – as developments in late 1914 showed – was highly successful. Indeed, many of the roller-skating rinks build around the country in the short rinking craze of 1909-11 were not scrapped but had by 1914 become picture houses. Significant capital was also being invested not only in adapting other existing buildings – halls, shops and even churches – but also in constructing new purpose-built picture-houses premises. And building continued five months into the war. As it became part of the Irish streetscape, cinema integrated into the business practices of Irish cities, towns and rural areas; as it became more profitable to be a picture-house proprietor, so it became more socially acceptable to be one. Although doubts about the business stability and the respectability of cinema certainly remained at the end of 1914, it was being reshaped in ways that made it not only acceptable but also ever-more desirable to the dominant business and social class, which was itself changing in the context of the war.

However good its prospects, the cinema business faced challenges. On an elemental level, as a form of entertainment that required people to leave their homes and travel to a picture house, cinema was affected by the weather, particularly extremes of heat or inclement conditions that made travel difficult. Storms of unusual ferocity struck Ireland in the opening week of December 1914. “About midnight last night a violent storm swept over the city,” reported the Evening Telegraph,

bringing about a marked change from the extreme cold that prevailed all yesterday, and that became intensified as the night advanced. A high wind, accompanied by intermittent showers, blew till daylight, when heavy rain fell, and with the gale still fierce, it rained in merciless fashion till after noon, when it developed into a continuous and drenching downpour, which, with violent gusts across the city, made all form of traffic difficult and unpleasant. Dublin has not been visited with such an inclement day for a very considerable time. (“The Weather in Dublin.”)

Hurricane-force winds around the Irish and British coasts severely disrupted shipping, leading to the deaths of 14 men from the steamer Glasgow off the Lizard and 19 of the 250 horses for military use on the Teviot out of Dublin (“Havoc of Hurricane,” “Channel Hurricane,” “Heavy Gale in Dublin”).

Dublin’s Evening Telegraph 2 and 4 Dec. 1914: 2, providing details on opening hours and admission prices at the new Pillar Picture House.

These raging storms had consequences for at least the first of the two cinemas opened in Dublin and Belfast at the start of December and in time for the Christmas season. Although Dublin’s Pillar Picture House opened its doors on that stormy Wednesday, 2 December, it was only formally declared open two days later (“Pillar Picture House”). It was located in the middle of Sackville/O’Connell Street opposite Dublin’s landmark Nelson’s Pillar. At a time of limited personal transport, “the proprietors are especially fortunate in this, as the position is the terminus of all city and suburban trams” (ibid.). The proprietor was the Pillar Picture House Co., headed by John J. Farrell, a prominent member of Dublin Corporation who also had shares in three other Dublin picture houses. The Pillar was managed by Bob O’Russ, who was also managing Farrell’s picture houses in Phibsboro and Mary Street (Paddy, 24 Dec.), and May O’Russ – one of the city’s women musicians who formerly operated the Mary Street Picture House with her husband – directed the Pillar’s orchestra (Paddy, 17 Dec.).

Like many of the city-centre picture houses of the prewar period, the building was small, with a seating capacity of just 400, but it was architecturally striking both inside and out (“The Pillar Picture House, Dublin”). “The façade of the new premises is handsomely proportioned and cleverly treated in modern classic,” commented the Irish Builder, proceeding to detail its attractive features:

The approach is covered with a semi-circular verandah, which follows the sweep of a broad arch, and the opening under is filled in with Sicilian marble and leaded glass. The vestibule is very effectively treated with walnut and satinwood panelling with a fibrous plaster frieze of figured plaques and swagwork. The ceiling is elaborately ornamented and has a semi-circular dome of leaded glass. The staircase to the balcony is also panelled in walnut, and the enclosing walls artistically decorated in fibrous work. (Ibid.)

The overall impression was of “comfort and art combined in a most successful manner,” and commentators also stressed that the work of Irish manufacturers had been preferred (“Pillar Picture House”). “The general contractor was Councillor John Dillon, and the fibrous plaster contractor was Councillor John Ryan. Councillor M‘Guiness was the consulting electrical engineer, and the architect was Mr. Aubrey V. O’Rourke” (ibid.).

Belfast Evening Telegraph 5 Dec. 1914: 2.

Belfast Evening Telegraph 5 Dec. 1914: 2.

The role of city councillors was even more prominent in the considerable publicity that accompanied the opening of Belfast’s Imperial Picture House on 7 December. Before “an exceptionally large attendance of invited guests, including representatives of the Corporation, public Boards, the Church, the legal profession, and the business community,” the Lord Mayor, Councillor Crawford M‘Cullagh “said he was glad to be privileged in his official capacity to be associated in some degree with the progress and business activity of the city,” in this case embodied by “his colleague, Councillor W G. Turner, and his friend, Mr. James Barron, the directors of the Ulster Cinematograph Theatres, Ltd.” (“Imperial Opened”). The opening was filmed and shown as a special feature of the Imperial programme from 11 December.

The invitation-only opening ceremony was extensively covered in the Belfast’s papers and in the Bioscope, which carried a full page article on the Imperial’s architectural features. Prominently located “in that old-world part of the great industrial centre known as Corn Market,” the Bioscope’s Special Representative reported, the Imperial was “[c]onstruucted on the most improved lines [in such a way that] every possible arrangement has been made for the welfare, comfort, and enjoyment of the patrons of the theatre, or of the clientele which the beautifully appointed tearooms is sure to enjoy” (“Ancient and Modern”). Although the writer provided details of the auditorium – particularly such decorative features as the oil-painted panoramas of Belfast above the proscenium – s/he emphasized the the attractions that were not directly connected to watching a film. “A ladies’ retiring room is provided on the mezzanine floor, writing materials, etc., being supplied free of charge. A telephone and cloakroom are provide in the vestibule for the benefit of patrons, and shoppers may have their parcels addressed in care of the hall if they so desire” (ibid). Like a luxury hotel or department store, the Imperial advertised itself as a place where people, particularly the wealthy, would want to linger.

Ad for special war benefit at the Imperial; Belfast Evening Telegraph 14 Dec. 1914: 4.

Ad for special war benefit at the Imperial; Belfast Evening Telegraph 14 Dec. 1914: 4.

The Imperial maintained a high level of publicity throughout December, publishing more ads than any other form of entertainment. In the Belfast Evening Telegraph, for instance, it published ads not only among the other entertainment ads on page 1 but also on as many of two additional internal pages. As well as this, it advertised and sponsored a benefit on Wednesday, 16 December for the war fund of the lady mayoress, who arranged the participation of local artistes and spent the proceeds on entertaining soldiers who were confined to camp over Christmas (“To Entertain Tommy”).

This kind of publicity strategy was not new but one that the evolving cinema business adapted not only from such longer-established entertainment businesses as theatres but also from business in general, which increased its publicity in the run-up to Christmas, the year’s busiest festival. Despite an expected drop in business during the first Christmas of the war, an extravagance similar to that seen at the Pillar and Imperial seems to have been experienced in the shops. “There are actually areas in the city where more money is being spent than has circulated within living memory,” observed Dublin’s Evening Telegraph. “The crowds are filling the streets. The shopmen are working at high pressure” (“Christmas Eve”)

One of the Irish-Ireland journal The Leader rare picture houses ads was this title page one for The Sign of the Cross at the Bohemian in mid-November 1914.

This title page ad for The Sign of the Cross (US: Famous Players, 1914) at the Bohemian in mid-November 1914 is one of the few picture houses ads that appeared in the Irish-Ireland journal The Leader.

One area of Dublin where more money was being spent on entertainment than ever before was the northern suburb of Phibsboro, where two cinemas had opened in early summer 1914. John J. Farrell’s Phibsboro Picture House had to compete with Frederick Sparling’s Bohemian Picture Theatre. The Bohemian was formidable competition, advertising far more widely than the Phibsboro and introducing such new attractions as the church organ that was installed in November 1914 to accompany the exclusive film The Sign of the Cross (US: Famous Players, 1914). The ability of the Bohemian to secure such desirable exclusive films was, of course, important to maximizing its audience, which for both Phibsboro picture houses meant inducing patrons to travel by tram to this part of the city. The Bohemian also secured the loyalty of its patrons by giving them promotional gifts. While commending Sparling and manager Ernest Matthewson for their choice of Selig’s 9,000-foot adaptation of Rex Beach’s bestselling 1906 novel The Spoilers, Paddy observed that the “Bohemian perfumed calendars and matchbook covers are already well known both to the stern and gentle sex” (Paddy, 24 Dec.).

Evening Telegraph 15 Dec. 1914: 2.

The war was also “reel” business for picture house managements because it provided a topical subject matter with which to attract audiences. There was a popular understanding the films of the war had a persuasive function, particularly when it was used by the enemy. This was highlighted in early December when the Evening Telegraph’s daily column “Sidelights on the War” published an item called “German Victories on the Cinema,” which reported the alleged experiences of “a gentleman who has been to a biograph show in Germany” and who described “[h]ow the news of fictitious victories is circulated.”

A picture of the Kaiser standing with field-glasses in the trenches (delirious enthusiasm). The picture had to be shown over and over again on a screen a hand writes the latest war news: “An English battleship, believed to be the Warrior, was this morning, near Dover, torpedoed by a German submarine and sank.”

[…]

Next picture: The Crown Prince on horseback. A rather subdued applause follows. On the screen the hand thereupon writes: “A German squadron has this morning reached Ireland; mariners have made a landing in the town – name not permitted by censor.” The audience gets up and sings “Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles.” (“Sidelights on the War.”)

Interesting juxtaposition of an ad calling for volunteers to the Royal Engineers and one for the film in which a young man sacrifices himself on a World War I battlefield.

Belfast Evening Telegraph 26 Nov. 1914: 2.

This item clearly implied that the cinema could promote blind devotion to the Kaiser among the German popular audience that generated a war fever that was a danger not only to the sailors of the Warrior but also to Irish citizens facing a German invasion. No similar analysis of Allied war films appeared in mid-December when the Provincial Cinematograph Theatres’ Picture Houses in Dublin’s Grafton Street and Sackville/O’Connell Street and Belfast’s Royal Avenue showed the film With King George in France with The Belgians in Action. Although protests occurred at jingoistic entertainments and criticism appeared in more radical publications, loyalty to King George was accepted by the mainstream Irish press. In late November, the propaganda potential of the war-themed fiction film being produced in increasing numbers by British production companies was highlighted when an ad for one of these films appeared in the Belfast Evening Telegraph below a recruiting ad. While the recruiting ad called for volunteers to the Royal Engineers, the ad for V.C. (Britian: London, 1914), in which a young man dies on a World War I battlefield to vindicate his family’s honour, offered “scenes in the trenches [that] vividly portray modern war conditions.”

The wartime uses of moving pictures were not restricted to their propaganda value in the picture houses. The Bioscope reported comments from the Berlin correspondent of the Spanish El Mundo Cinematografico that “it is evident how much theatrical and cinematographic works can do to lift up and sustain a love of the fatherland in the whole public” (“Cinematography Employed by the Germans”). Citing evidence from the same source on the use of cameras for aerial reconnaissance, the Bioscope argued that “the Germans may claim to be the first nation to put the cinematograph to direct military use in warfare” and urged the War Office and British and French inventors to surpass their enemy (ibid).

By the end of 1914, cinema was showing no signs of going the way of roller skating. It was becoming firmly embedded in the business and entertainment life of Irish cities and towns.

References

“Ancient and Modern: Belfast’s Latest Cinema Described: By Our Special Representative.” Bioscope 10 Dec. 1914: 1143.

“Channel Hurricane: Vessels ‘Sub-Marine’ Passage: Life Boat Lost from ‘Teviot.’” Evening Telegraph 5 Dec. 1914: 4.

“Christmas Eve: Dublin at Its Best: Business Booming.” Evening Telegraph 24 Dec. 1914: 3.

“Cinematography Employed by the German Army: Interesting Details from Berlin of an Alleged New Invention.” Bioscope 10 Dec. 1914: 1076.

“Havoc of Hurricane: Horses Killed on Board Ship: Steamers Forced Back to Dublin: Vessels Blown Down the Liffey: Sailings Postponed and Cancelled.” Evening Telegraph 4 Dec. 1914: 3.

“Heavy Gale in Dublin.” Irish Times 5 Dec. 1914: 5.

“The Imperial Opened: Belfast’s Palatial Picture House: A Civic Ceremony: Home of Pleasure and Comfort.” Belfast Evening Telegraph 9 Dec. 1914: 2.

“Music and the Drama.” Evening Telegraph 5 Dec. 1914: 6.

“Notes and Comments: Standard Amusements.” Evening Telegraph 11 Dec. 1914: 2.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 17 Dec. 1914: 1217; 24 Dec. 1914: 1347.

“Pillar Picture House.” Evening Telegraph 5 Dec. 1914: 6.

“The Pillar Picture House, Dublin.” Irish Builder 27 Feb. 1915: 98.

“Sidelights on the War: German Victories on the Cinema.” Evening Telegraph 7 Dec. 1914: 2.

“To Entertain Tommy.” Belfast Evening Telegraph 17 Dec. 1914: 5.

“The Weather in Dublin.” Evening Telegraph 2 Dec. 1914: 2.

“Driven to See Pictures Instead of Plays”: Joseph Holloway Goes Out in 1914 Dublin

Joseph Holloway's "My Reflection in Mirror at Barbers," 21 Sep. 1914.

Joseph Holloway’s self-portrait “My Reflection in Mirror at Barbers,” 21 Sep. 1914. National Library of Ireland.

On Friday, 31 July 1914, Joseph Holloway – the sometimes architect but more often theatregoer – recorded a moment of cultural angst: “Was at two picture Houses during the day – the Grafton & Rotunda, where a few good films were on view,” he noted in his diary before adding: “It’s terrible to be driven to see pictures instead of plays! I fear the theatres in Dublin are dead for the present.” The death of theatre in Dublin was a cause of serious concern for Holloway, whose diary records the minute attention he paid to shows at Dublin’s “legitimate” theatres – the Theatre Royal and Gaiety – at its melodrama house – the Queen’s Royal Theatre – and at its music halls – the Empire and Tivoli. Despite his unhappiness with theatrical offerings at this time, he nevertheless attended as many plays and shows as he could fit in a life largely filled with the leisure that a small inheritance allowed him. The diary in which he records the details of these shows – as well as his conversations and correspondence with the luminaries and ordinary people of the time – is an incredible work of life writing that has been estimated as running to more than 25 million words (Ferriter). This is not because of the great critical insights he offers; his diary has been described by Irish author Frank O’Connor as “that donkey’s detritus” and by Sean O’Casey as “an impossible pile of rubbish” (ibid). Nevertheless, despite the limited perspective of a middle-class conservative Catholic nationalist, it offers fascinating glimpses into life and leisure as they were experienced in Dublin in the 1910s, including the city’s emerging cinema culture.

Holloway’s viewing of the two film shows in late July 1914 was not unprecedented, nor was it the first time he had expressed his dissatisfaction with picture houses while being a regular cinemagoer. Since the Picture House in Sackville/O’Connell Street had opened in April 1910, Holloway had often visited it and the other picture houses that opened with increasing regularity in its wake. Although he sometimes visited picture houses alone, he also accompanied his mother Anne Holloway and his niece Eileen O’Malley, with whom he lived, demonstrating the popularity of the picture house across three generations (Condon 143). By September 1914, Holloway’s life was changing along with the city’s entertainment offerings, not to mention the political upheavals of the period. The death of his mother in May 1912, and the marriage of Eileen on 16 September 1914 left him living alone and without a cinema-going companion.

As well as this, the breakdown of the longstanding distinctions between Dublin’s legitimate theatre, melodrama house and music hall was particularly visible just as the war began in the autumn of 1914. This was part of an international process by which entertainment companies were buying up and building theatres of all kinds to create chains that sought large popular audiences by providing a modified form of variety entertainment that could accommodate popular music hall artistes and dramatic actors, as well as film. Dublin’s Theatre Royal had long been experimenting with this modified variety, which it called by a name already popular in many British cities: hippodrome. Marvelling at the popularity of the Royal’s hippodrome seasons during the summer period when the theatres usually closed, the theatrical columnist of Irish Life dubbed hippodrome “the Chief Priest and Apostle of the Music Hall in Dublin” (“Between the Acts”). “[I]ts hold over the public is simply amazing. The “two-nightly house” show can apparently thrive under any circumstances. In Dublin it has captured all classes, and has proved itself a most profitable undertaking to those engaged in it” (ibid). Film featured not only as part of the evening programme in the guise of the Royal Bioscope but also at a separate film matinee.

Ad for the Theatre Royal Hippodrome and Winter Gardens, Sep. 1914, featuring film matinees of Nature's Zoo. National Library of Ireland.

Poster for the Theatre Royal Hippodrome and Winter Gardens, Sep. 1914, featuring film matinees of Nature’s Zoo (Britain: Cherry Kearton, 1913), a film that the Royal also exhibited a year earlier. National Library of Ireland.

In early August, Ireland’s Attorney-General and Solicitor-General heard application for patents that would allow legitimate drama from the Star Theatre of Varieties, Ltd., the company that ran the Empire, and from the Premier Picture Palace (Dublin), which proposed to build a large theatre in the city centre on a site off Henry Street and close to the GPO. As the latter’s name suggests, this company had initially planned to open a large picture house but had decided that a variety theatre with the flexibility of mounting plays and showing films would be more profitable. The company would eventually open in April 1915 what was then known as the Coliseum Theatre, a short lived venue that would not be rebuilt following its destruction a year after its opening during the 1916 Rising. The proprietors of the Coliseum included Lord Mayor Lorcan Sherlock, two directors of Dublin’s Tivoli Theatre and theatrical agent Fred Willmott (ibid.). Holloway attended the hearing and spoke as an expert witness – “as an old theatre-goer with 40 years experience” – in support of the Star Theatre of Varieties’ application, arguing that the granting of a dramatic patent would benefit the city by providing the opportunity for more play to be performed (“What Is a Revue?”).

Handbill for opening of the Masterpiece Theatre (Holloway 27 Jul.)

Handbill for opening of the Masterpiece Theatre preserved in Holloway’s diary (Holloway 27 Jul.)

While lobbying in support of more plays and continuing to attend theatrical shows of all kinds, Holloway also visited picture houses regularly. During July and the first half of August 1914, he records twenty visits to Dublin picture houses, fourteen of them alone in July. On the evening of Thursday, 2 July, he went to what he insisted on calling the O’Connell Picture House (but the proprietors persisted in calling the Picture House, Sackville Street) where he saw the “beautiful touching film ‘Child o’ My Heart’” (Britain: London, 1914); on the afternoon of Monday, 6 July, he saw The Afghan Raiders and When Lions Escape (US: Columbus, 1914) at the Rotunda, and “both were full of thrills!”; on the evening of Wednesday, 8 July, he saw the Western Love Triumphant and a newsreel of Joseph Chamberlain’s funeral at the Grafton; on the evening of Friday, 10 July, he saw From the Lion’s Paw and “a thrilling abduction story, both well acted” at the Rotunda; on the evening of Monday, 13 July, he saw The Game of Life (US: Selig, 1914) at the Rotunda, which he found “a particularly exciting one & also an Indian story of the new medical man” [The New Medicine Man (US: Kalem, 1914)]; on the evening of Saturday, 18 July, the films he saw at the Grafton included Lost at Sea (France: Eclair, 1913), Nan Good-for-Nothing (Britain: London, 1914) and a newsreel from Dublin’s Civic Exhibition featuring rival architect George O’Connor, “[a]s large as life & equally as massive!”; on the evening of Monday, 20 July, he admired at the Grafton both The Black Pearls (US: Geroges Méliès, 1914), “a real thriller enacted finely by French players,” and The War Bonnet (US: Kalem, 1914), “an Indian story [that] was fairly interesting chiefly because of its beautiful natural setting; on the afternoon of Tuesday, 21 July, he was amused by The Blood Test (US: IMP, 1914) and an unnamed comedy at the Rotunda; on Thursday, 23 July, he visited the Grafton, where he saw “a few good dramatic pictures & others I didn’t care for,” and later the Rotunda, where The Master Crook Turns Detective (Britain: British and Colonial Kinematograph, 1914) “was the most dramatic & best enacted”; on the evening of Friday, 24 July, His Reformation (Britain: London, 1914) at the O’Connell was the best of “the few more or less interesting pictures” he saw; on Monday, 27 July, he found Joan of Arc (Italy: Savoia, 1914) at the opening of the Masterpiece Theatre “dull and left after ending of part 3,” but enjoyed The Mansion of Sobs (US: Lubin, 1914), “a very good child picture & a funny [John] Bunny picture” later at the Grafton; on Friday, 31 July, he had the two visits to the Grafton and Rotunda that caused him such anxiety about the death of theatre.

Evening Telegraph review of programme at the Masterpiece, 22 Sep. 1914: 2.

Evening Telegraph review of programme at the Masterpiece, 22 Sep. 1914: 2.

The first half of August shows the same rate of picture house attendance, with Holloway visiting a cinema on average almost once every two days. On the evening of Saturday, 1 August, he went to the “exciting film drama” Devil’s Gap at the Dorset Picture House; on the evening of Monday, 3 August, he and Eileen found the programme at the Grafton poor, particularly the vulgar Across the Hall (US: Keystone, 1914), but the evening was somewhat redeemed by Bertie in the Ladies’ College (Britain: Eclair, 1914) and ’Fraid Cat (US: Vitagraph, 1914), “a clever child film”; at the Rotunda on the evening of Thursday, 6 August, he found A Life for a Life “quite pathetic” and was moved – unusually – to write a synopsis of it; Ivy’s Elopement (Britain: Ivy Close Films, 1914) at the O’Connell on 8 August was “set in exquisite surroundings & was really beautiful”; on Wednesday, 12 August, he saw England’s Menace (Britain: London, 1914) with Eileen at the Grafton, “where we saw some fine films, and were entertained by a man with a most aggressive sneeze”; on Friday, 14 August, he attended the 6:30 show at the Rotunda with just a handful of others, attributing the small attendance to “the unruly elements” of thunder showers, roving soldiers “and the unfortunate girls [who] had come out to meet them.”

Over this period, he attended the Rotunda and Grafton almost equally with eight and seven visits respectively. The O’Connell was his next most favoured picture house with three visits; and the Masterpiece and Dorset received one visit each. After the visit to the Masterpiece on 27 July, he appears not to have visited it again until two months later, on Saturday, 26 September, when the well-known comedian Cathal MacGarvey took over its management. Holloway “met Mr M’Garvey at the door – he has only taken up the reins a week ago & scarcely feels his feet yet – he hopes to work it into a big success – The programme was first rate & I told him so as I came out.” Holloway did not mention what was on the programme, but MacGarvey’s appointment drew some welcome publicity to the Masterpiece, and as a result, notices show that Holloway would have seen the drama Etta of the Footlights (US: Vitagraph, 1914) with Maurice Costello and Mary Charleson – which was also showing at the O’Connell – “some daring feats of equestrianism by the 18th Hussars” in Our Cavalry’s Wonderful Horsemanship, the scenic film From Inverlaken to Shiedegg, and a Gaumont Graphic newsreel that included “a review of the National Volunteers at Enniscorthy by Mr. John Redmond and (“Masterpiece Theatre”). It is likely that the location of the last film is mistaken and that this was a film of the infamous speech at Woodenbridge, Co. Wicklow, in which Irish nationalist leader Redmond called on the Volunteers to join the British Army.

Film lover Dr Knott. Holloway Diaries.Aug. 1914

Film lover Dr Knott. Holloway Diaries. National Library of Ireland.

Unlike his often very detailed accounts of theatre shows, Holloway wrote frustratingly little on the films he saw, often not even giving their names. He does, however, sometimes remark on the behaviour – and even mention the names – of members of the audience, some of whom he also occasionally sketched. On the evening of Monday, 1 June 1914, he reveals, the large audience at the Grafton included “AE (George Russell) & Prof. Maginnis.” The aggressively sneezing man at the Grafton on 12 August allowed him some interaction with other members of the audience:

Even the film drama – “England’s Message” – which was loudly applauded – he sneezed often. ”Though its subject wasn’t to be sneezed at!” I said to Eileen, & the man next her, who had been applauding his hands off almost when the foreign fleet in the picture story turned tail & went home, smiled at & approved of my turn of phrase.

However, the behaviour of other audience members could be annoying, as it was on 8 July at the Grafton during the newsreel of Chamberlain’s funeral: “a man behind me kept up a regular tattoo with his fingers on the crown of his straw hat, which was irritating to all save himself. I know he maddened me!” Some people he knew were regular picture house patrons. James Crawford Neil enjoyed natural history pictures (23 Jul. 1914). Dr John Knott, “haunts the picture houses” (16 Sep 1914) and seems to be constantly “seated rather close up to screen” (30 May 1914). Like Knott, Holloway also haunted Dublin’s picture houses, and despite his periodic fears about cinema displacing his beloved theatre, he appears, on balance, to have enjoyed his time in front of the screen.

References

“Between the Acts.” Irish Life 10:2 (24 Jul. 1914), p. 68.

Condon, Denis. “‘Temples to the Art of Cinematography’: Cinema on the Dublin Streetscape, 1895-1929.” Visualizing Dublin: Visual Culture, Modernity and the Representation of Urban Space. Ed. Justin Carville. Bern: Peter Lang, 2013. 132-54.

“Drama in Dublin: Premier Picture Palace Application: Lord Mayor’s Views.” Evening Herald 7 Aug. 1914: 2.

Ferriter, Diarmaid. “Holloway, Joseph.” Dictionary of Irish Biography Online. Cambridge UP and Royal Irish Academy, 2009. Web. 30 Sep. 2014.

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

“Masterpiece Theatre.” Evening Telegraph 22 Sep. 1914: 2.

“O’Connell Street Pictures.” Evening Telegraph 15 Sep. 1914: 2.

“What Is a Revue? Manager Tries to Explain It: Drama in Dublin.” Evening Herald 6 Aug. 1914: 3.

“An Objectionable Class from the City”

“One aspect of the strike which has probably not been brought home to the public,” begins a tantalizing article in the Evening Herald on 18 October 1913, “is the effect which it has had upon the amusements of Dublin, such as theatres, music halls, and cinematograph shows” (“Dublin Theatres and the Strike”). Despite offering the views of prominent – albeit unnamed and paraphrased – theatre, music hall and cinema managers, the almost 700-words that follow are, if intriguing, also finally frustratingly unspecific. This is not because as a newspaper owned by employers’ leader William Martin Murphy, the Herald missed few opportunities to point out the folly of Dublin’s striking workers, who had been, it often argued, criminally led astray by union leader Jim Larkin. There are traces of that editorial line here, but the real disappointment is that the writer appears misleadingly to conceive each of these entertainments as being entirely identified with a single class. This, then, looks gratifyingly like a suitable case for analysis and supplement.

The article starts soundly enough by observing that the Lockout affected the city’s entertainments in general in two ways:

firstly, that inasmuch as the earning capacity of some thousands of men has been stopped, therefore their spending capacity has likewise been curtailed.

Secondly, that where the earnings have not been interfered with, among those who are not directly concerned with the strike, yet who live some considerable way from the city, they have been unable to patronise the various entertainments provided for their amusement owing to the difficulties of travel consequent upon the curtailment of the tramway programme (ibid).

A large number of workers with severely reduced income and restrictions on public transport were undoubtedly key factors affecting audience numbers, but the article is less convincing in the argument it makes about the identification of entertainments with particular classes.

It implies that theatre provided entertainment for the social elite, music halls catered for the middle class, and cinema was for the working class. This is done by showing that not all types of entertainment were equally affected by the Lockout. The theatres “have done comparatively well, and the manager of one important theatre stated that had it not been for the strike he would have eclipsed all records” (ibid). Music halls, by contrast,

had suffered considerably, the seats of these houses, whilst altogether more expensive than those of cinematograph shows were cheaper than those of the theatres, so that whereas the man who would pay three or four shillings for a seat at the theatre would and could afford the cost of a conveyance to and from his residence[, t]he man who came from the outlying parts could not, and it is too far to walk a couple of miles each way (ibid).

The difference in ticket prices here seems to create a rigidly stratified system. Stratification based on price, class and type of entertainment certainly existed but not in the way implied here. It is too much of a simplification to state that theatregoers were substantially of a class that could in the absence of trams due to the strike, afford private transport or a cab, while music hall patrons were from a class that lived in the suburbs (to a degree that severely impacted on the business of music halls) but could not afford to pay both for admission and transport home. But the argument become particularly problematic in relation to cinema.

Although the article seems to suggest that the cinematograph shows were competing with music halls for audience, it only discusses picture houses as working-class venues:

In the poorer parts of the city where the cheaper cinematograph shows abound, these have been directly affected by the loss of custom consequent upon those who patronise them being strikers, and therefore, not earning any money. Some of these have suffered severely, and their owners and managers will be very pleased when the strike is settled (ibid).

Certainly the business of picture houses located in working-class areas was affected by the Lockout, but which ones the writer had visited or was thinking of is unclear.

Map Oct 1913

Map of Dublin in 1913 with pins indicating locations of picture houses, music halls and theatres.

The controversy over the Sunday opening of picture houses suggested that going to the pictures was not just a working class entertainment. On 24 October 1913, the Recorder of Dublin – the city’s chief magistrate – considered an application for a Sunday music licence for the Dame Street Picture House, without which it could not open. From their previous applications in April and July 1913, the proprietors of the Dame Street Picture House knew the authorities’ views that the Grafton and O’Connell Street picture houses “were frequented by persons of the better class, and there was no necessity that they should be opened on Sundays for their benefit” (CSORP/1915/2211). As a result, the proprietors argued that the “people who frequented the Grafton street house were generally people who went shopping. The Dame street house was frequently largely by the working classes, and the object of the application was to give facilities to the working classes to attend performances on Sundays” (ibid). They classed themselves among the picture houses that were allowed to open on Sunday: the Phoenix Picture Palace, the Irish Cinema in Capel Street, the Dorset Picture Hall, the Camden Picture House, the Theatre de Luxe in Camden Street, the Picturedrome in Harcourt Road, the Brunswick Street Cinema, the Princess Cinema in Rathmines, the Mary Street Picture House, the Volta in Mary Street, the World’s Fair Varieties in Henry Street and the Electric Theatre in Talbot Street (ibid).

Dame Phoenix Sunday 1913

Ads for Sunday shows at Phoenix and, despite the Recorder’s ban, the Dame; Evening Telegraph 25 Oct. 1913: 4.

The Recorder did not accept this, contending that Dame Street was one of the city’s principal streets – “near the residence of the King’s representative” in Dublin Castle – and not located in a working-class district (“Picture Houses”). He therefore treated the picture house there as he did the ones in Grafton Street and O’Connell Street by refusing them a Sunday licence. “He would give every facility to Sunday entertainments for the working classes, but he would not, so far as he could prevent it, give up the principal streets to these syndicates on Sundays” (“Sunday Cinemas”).

The Recorder’s licensing session also considered local objections to Sunday shows at Clontarf Town Hall, one of the city’s latest picture houses to open – and so not listed above. When Clontarf was incorporated into an expanded Dublin at the turn of the century, the administrative powers of its local council were assumed by Dublin Corporation, and its town hall had no function. Beginning on 18 July 1913, the hall’s leasee George Humphreys ran it as a picture house, with the proviso that he give it up when the Corporation needed it. “Mr. Robertson, (who represented the police) said that he went to the petty Sessions at Clontarf the other day, and they were held in this picture show (laughter)” (“Clontarf Cinema”). Reverend John L. Morrow, chairman of the Clontarf Citizens’ Association objected to the renewal of the picture house’s licence on the basis that local people had not been consulted on its use for this purpose. He complained in particular that its Sunday shows “brought out an objectionable class from the city” (ibid). Humphreys dismissed this claim, observing that “the hall was patronised by people like Ald. Maguire, of Clontarf; Mr. Brady (solicitor), and many other representative and legal gentlemen” (ibid). By 1913, the picture house no longer provided entertainment only for the working class.

References

“Clontarf Cinema: Citizens’ Association: Raise an Objection.” Evening Telegraph 24 Oct. 1913: 3.

CSORP/1915/2211, National Archives of Ireland.

“Dublin Theatres and the Strike.” Evening Herald 18 Oct. 1913: 4.

“Picture Houses: And Licence for Sunday Shows.” Evening Herald 24 Oct. 1913: 2.

“Sunday Cinemas: In Leading Streets.” Evening Telegraph 24 Oct. 1913: 6.