“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 (George Siegmann) – 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 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 few had qualms about its racism.


“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.


“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.

“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.


“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.