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”).
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.).
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.
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 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.).
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.”)
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.
“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.
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.
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?”).
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.
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.
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.
“Glasnevin has fallen into line – it has not merely one Picture House, but two. Handsome buildings they are, both of them,” observed the Evening Herald’s Man About Town at the end of May 1914. He also noted developments in cinema far from Dublin, in the west coast Aran Islands: “Kilronan, Islands of Arran, too, has ‘joined the movement.’ Kilronan people to the number of 400 turned in on Saturday week last to their Picture Palace, and, as our Arran correspondent adds, ‘thoroughly enjoyed the films shown’” (“Thing Seen and Heard”). However accurate may have been his intriguing information on cinemagoing on islands far from the city that was his beat, he was wrong about the location of the two new Dublin picture houses; they were in the north-city district of Phibsborough, a mile from the more remote village of Glasnevin.
On 9 June 1914, the Irish Times somewhat more accurately reported that the “Bohemian Picture House, in Phibsborough road, was opened yesterday afternoon under conditions which promise well for the future success of the entertainment given there” (“Bohemian Cinema”). The location was right here, as the Bohemian – taking its name from the local soccer club – was built on the site of two demolished houses at 154 and 155 Phibsborough Road. However, as the controversy over the recently opened Phibsboro Picture House’s showing of In the Shadow of the Throne continued into the week beginning 8 June, conditions looked a little less auspicious than the writer would have his/her readers believe. The British trade journal Bioscope’s detailed account of the incident only appeared on 11 June, describing it as “A Catholic Protest” that had been counterproductive because it had “evoked a desire in other people to see [the film] and judge for themselves” (“‘In the Shadow of the Throne’).
Nevertheless, both the Times and Herald rightly agreed that the Phibsborough picture houses were handsome, well-equipped buildings. The plans for the Bohemian were drawn up by Dublin’s most prominent cinema architect, George L. O’Connor. Having already prepared the plans for the Mary Street Picture House and the Rathmines Picture Palace (opened in March 1913 and soon afterwards named the Princess), O’Connor was said to be making “a speciality of designing cinema theatres” (“Another New Cinema Theatre for Dublin”). His design for the Bohemian resembled that of the Rathmines Picture Palace in incorporating two shops on either side of the entrance, each only a single storey in order not to block the view of the theatre itself (“More Cinema Theatres for Dublin”). The facade was “finished in red brick and chiselled limestone dressings, gables and finials” (“Building News”). Although set back from the street, the picture house announced itself with a canopy that extended between the shops. Patrons entered the auditorium by climbing a set of steps to the lobby. Inside, a wide stairs led to a spacious gallery, while an auditorium 104 feet by 38 feet was furnished with seats and carpets in shades of blue and topped by an elliptical ceiling finished in decorative fibrous plaster (ibid).
While noting the comfortable furnishings and the lighting and ventilation systems, the Irish Times also took an unusual interest in the details of the cinematic equipment. The projection box held two Ernemann Jubilee projectors, in which
the film is entirely enclosed throughout its length, thus giving complete immunity from fire risks. From lens to screen is a distance of 105 feet, and the screen, 20 feet by 15 feet, is slightly inclined from the vertical in order to give a proper view from every part of the house (“Bohemian Cinema”).
The 24-year-old Bohemian owner Frederick Arthur Sparling chose to compete with the more experienced proprietors of the Phibsboro Picture House located just 50 yards away with a very similar entertainment. Both venues offered continuous performances from 3 to 10:30, but the Boh’s prices of 3d, 6d and 1s were slightly higher than the Phibsboro’s 3d, 6d and 9d, and on Sundays, the cost of 3d seats increased to 4d. The ad for the Boh’s opening promised “refinement, good music and clear, steady pictures,” with its programme for the first six days headed by the four-reel British racing drama In the Hands of London Crooks (Barker, 1914). On Sunday 14 June, the main film was the two-reel In the Grip of Circumstance (US: Essanay, 1914), followed on Monday, 15 June, by Lieutenant Daring and the Stolen Invention (Britain: British and Colonial Kinematograph, 1914), and on Thursday, 18 June by The Drudge (US: Vitagraph, 1914). Sparling likely left the choice of “exclusive” films to his manager W. O. Ashton, who had recently been working for the Dublin branch of the distribution company Films, Limited (Paddy,18 Jun.). Musical director Percy Carver supervised the accompaniment, which “plays during the whole of the performance” (“Bohemian Picture Theatre”).
The Times put the number of seats at 900, while other sources estimated 860 (“More Cinema Theatres for Dublin”), 1,000 (“Building News”) and 1,200 (Paddy, 4 Jun.). Taking even the lowest estimates for the two Phibsborough picture theatres (the Phibsboro with 570 and Bohemian with 860), early June 1914 saw this suburb on the northern edge of the city gain more than 1,400 cinema seats in just over two weeks. To ensure healthy profits, the picture houses would have had to have induced patrons to travel to Phibsborough, perhaps on one of the two tram lines that served the area. This was an extraordinary development because it showed the degree to which cinema had changed the entertainment geography of the city by bringing professionally produced theatrical entertainment into the suburbs.
“Another New Cinema Theatre for Dublin.” Irish Builder 31 Jan. 1914: 72.
“Bohemian Cinema.” Irish Times 9 Jun. 1914: 5.
“Bohemian Picture Theatre,” Dublin Evening Mail 13 Jun. 1914: 3.
“Building News.” Irish Builder 19 Dec. 1913: 868.
“‘In the Shadow of the Throne’: A Catholic Protest.” Bioscope 11 Jun. 1914: 1106.
“More Cinema Theatres for Dublin.” Irish Builder 16 Aug. 1913: 536.
Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 4 Jun. 1914: 1069; 18 Jun. 1914: 1261.
“Thing Seen and Heard: Glasnevin.” Evening Herald 25 May 1914: 5.
A century ago, on 23 May 1914, Dublin’s newspapers announced the opening of the Picture House in Phibsborough (or Phibsboro), on the northern edge of the city. The papers are a little vague on the exact day of the opening, but as the 23 May was a Saturday, some of the papers cover the opening in their weekly theatrical column. “The grand opening of the new Picture House situated at Blaquiere Bridge, Phibsborough,” declared the Dublin Evening Mail’s The Play’s the Thing column, “took place this week, with signal success” (“New Picture House in Phibsborough”). That morning’s Irish Times had carried the same article, and a shorter notice in the Evening Herald was clearly working from the same publicity material provided to the Mail and Times. “The promoters deserve every congratulation, not only as regards the excellent film presented, but also in as far as design, furnishing, lighting, ventilation, etc., are concerned,” commented the Herald. “The house is most comfortable, and great crowds have been enjoying both the comfort and excellent fare provided. The architect, Mr. Aubrey V. O’Rourke, C.E., was paid a very high compliment by the directors at the opening ceremony” (“New Phibsborough Picture Palace”).
Certainly, the only still circulating photograph of the original facade – taken almost 40 years later – shows an attractive addition to the streetscape in this part of the city. Construction work had begun in summer 1913, but even after this had started, alterations were made to the design, probably in order to better compete with the Bohemian Picture Theatre, which was also under construction close by on Phibsborough Road. “It is intended to amend the design and planning generally of the new cinematograph theatre now in the course of construction at Madras Place, Phibsboro’,” revealed the Irish Builder.
The front of the building will be carried out in brickwork and terra cotta dressings, and will present a more handsome and bolder appearance than the original design. It is intended to erect a balcony, and to increase the seating capacity considerably. The emergency passage will be covered in, and the gentlemen’s sanitary accommodation approached from this passage. The machine enclosure, rewinding room, and office will be situated at the back of the balcony, and the generating chamber in the basement. The internal decorations, which are to be of a handsome character, are to be carried out in fibrous plaster.” (“Building News”)
The British cinema trade journal Bioscope offered the first indication of the capacity and ownership of the new picture house:
The theatre is specially designed, and will be an up-to-date hall, accommodating 600. Although a separate company from the Irish Kinematograph Company, Limited, the new company will be worked in conjunction with that Company’s Mary Street House. Messrs. Hibberts will have a controlling interest, and Alderman Farrell is to act as managing director. Mr. Bob O’Russ – the popular manager of the Mary Street house – will take over the duties connected with the secretaryship. (“Our View”)
City councillor and former mayor, John J. Farrell already had interests in the Electric Theatre, Talbot Street, the Mary Street Picture House and the soon-to-be announced Pillar Picture House in O’Connell Street. For the Phibsboro venture, however, Farrell registered the Phibsboro Picture House company on 2 September 1914, in partnership with William King, a farmer and horse breeder of Belcamp, Co. Dublin; and British cinema owners Henry Hibbert and T. Wood (“World of Finance”). Construction on the Phibsboro – and all other Dublin buildings – stopped in September 1913 because of the Lockout (Paddy, 30 Oct. and 11 Dec.), but it resumed with the end of the general strike in early 1914.
The first ads for the Phibsboro on 23 May reveal that the performances were continuous from 3 to 10:30 rather than at set times, that the programme changed on Monday and Thursday – initially with no Sunday show, that the pricing was 3d, 6d and 9d, and that there would be an “exclusive” film in every programme. However, they gave little indication of what exactly the first exclusives were. Helpfully, however, the Bioscope’s Paddy reported on 4 June that he
went round the other evening to see the picture theatre in Phibsboro’, and particularly did I admire the “sunrise and sunset” system of lighting, which was concealed round the walls of the building. The building holds, roughly, 600, and the tip-ups are in Rose Barri shade, the carpets being of a darker colour. The harmonizing effect is thus very beautiful. The balcony, to which admission is covered by the nimble shilling, runs in a wide curve, and has a splendid “rake.” (Paddy, 4 Jun.)
The main film Paddy saw that night was Lieutenant Rose and the Sealed Orders (Britain: Clarendon, 1914) “and it was followed with intense interest by a packed house,” as well as the John Bunny comedy Bunny’s Mistake (US: Vitagraph, 1914) and The Vanishing Cracksman (US: Ediston, 1913).
The first film that the Phibsboro actually advertised was the Danish film I Tronens Skygge, translated as In the Shadow of the Throne (I Tronens Skygge; Denmark: Kinografen, 1914). It was due to run for three days beginning on Monday, 1 June, but its opening had some unintended consequences, many – but not all – unpleasant for the management. The film caused a campaign by members of the Catholic Church’s Vigilance Committee, which had been formed in 1911 to campaign against “evil” literature but which had developed a campaign against theatre shows and films. Part of this campaign involved protests in theatres and cinemas carried out by William Larkin and his twin brother Francis.
The campaign began when P. Donnelly sent a letter to the Freeman’s Journal complaining about the film and asking “How long is Catholic Dublin going to stand this sort of thing?” (“A Cinematograph Show Objected To,” Condon 228). Donnelly objected to the fact that a nun said Mass and that a newly professed nun fell into the arms of a prince. The controversy caused a range of reactions. John J. Farrell responded by retaining the film for the second half of the week, writing a letter to the Freeman contradicting Donnelly’s claims (and perhaps, as alleged in court, threatening legal action if the paper did not print a retraction), and inviting a reporter from the newspaper to give an “objective” assessment of the film. The resulting publicity brought around 600 Dubliners, the seating capacity of the cinema, to subsequent showings of the film. Among these on Friday were William and Francis Larkin, who ended a shouted protest in the auditorium by throwing ink at the screen, splattering the blouse and music of Miss Eager in the orchestra. The Larkins were arrested, found guilty and fined a nominal 5 shillings, a punishment whose leniency suggested – not for the first time – the tacit support of the magistrate for Vigilance Committee activities.
To devote too much attention to the Larkins is to turn away from the story of the cinema, but the newspaper accounts of the case provide details of the working of the Phibsboro that do not survive otherwise. They reveal the name of the attendant Daniel McEvoy, whom William Larkin accused of handling him roughly while removing him, and also two women musicians from the orchestra who would otherwise be anonymous: Miss Eager, the musical director whose blouse was inked, and Miss Duffy, who testified in court. Daniel McEvoy and Miss Eager remain obscure, but Miss Duffy is likely to have been Evelyn Duffy who is listed in the 1911 Census as a 23-year-old professional vocalist living at 106 Phibsboro Road, close to the cinema.
Just three weeks after it opened, the Phibsboro had become a part of the city in several ways. It had become a significant part of the streetscape of north Dublin, a successful business for Farrell and his partners, and a place of employment for McEvoy, Eager and Duffy. Beyond that, it had become central, if only briefly, in one of Ireland’s cultural controversies.
“A Cinematograph Show Objected To.” Freeman’s Journal 2 Jun. 1914: 5.
“Building News.” Irish Builder 30 Aug. 1913: 563.
Condon, Denis. Early Irish Cinema, 1895-1921. Dublin: Irish Academic, 2008.
“New Phibsborough Picture Palace.” Evening Herald 23 May 1914: 4.
“New Picture House in Phibsboroough.” Dublin Evening Mail 23 May 1914: 3.
“Opening of the New Picture House in Phibsborough.” Irish Times 23 May1914: 9.
“Our View.” Bioscope 24 Jul.1913: 238.
Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 30 Oct. 1913: 395; 11 Dec. 1913: 1077; 4 Jun. 1914: 1069.
“World of Finance.” Bioscope 18 Sep. 1913: 933.