“Features Resembling a Sensational Cinema Story”: Political Violence in Irish Cinema in February 1920

Part of the 1911 Census return for Lena (here: Elenia) Johnson and her family. Full record available from the National Archives of Ireland: http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/reels/nai002751044/.

Political violence associated with the Irish War of Independence impinged on Irish cinema with force in February 1920. It did so in a number of ways, most tragically in the death of cinema attendant Lena Johnson but also in the use of cinema in describing the violence that was occurring on the streets. For newspapers, cinema had become the ready metaphor to describe incidents of heightened excitement or danger, as is evident in the Irish Independent’s description on 26 February of police and military attempts to recapture army deserters as “incidents worthy of a cinema episode” (“Exciting Chase after Deserters”). Why the men deserted is not clear, but the episode had reached the pinnacle of excitement in the newspaper account when the deserters were identified at Dublin’s port, tried to get away across the rail lines, and a group of them “had a miraculous escape from being run over by a passing train.” Chases, hairbreadth escapes and the train as the epitome of human frailty in the face of modern technology had long been the cinema’s stock-in-trade.

Irish Independent 7 Feb. 1920: 4.

What was new now was the metaphor’s application to conflict between the police and British army, on the one hand, and Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers, on the other. On 7 February 1920, the Independent reported on an incident in which an armed detective chased a man who pointed a revolver at him in the street into a shop in Dublin’s Coombe and was himself restrained by the shop keeper who said he mistook the detective for an armed robber. The incident “had features resembling a sensational cinema story,” the report surmised (“Sensational City Scene”). If it was a sensational cinema story, that story now concerned the escalating violence of the War of Independence in which armed conflict in the streets of Ireland’s cities, as well as skirmishes in the countryside, were becoming increasingly common. And the story had an openly political character. Whoever the initial man with the revolver had been, shop keeper Patrick Horan, “an ex-soldier wearing the 1915 ribbon,” and his mother Mrs Donnelly, who was serving in the shop, were identified by the detective as Sinn Fein supporters “and they have obstructed me in the discharge of my duty.” Horan’s identification as a decorated soldier and a Sinn Féin supporter suggests some of the complexities of the situation.

Freeman’s Journal 13 Feb. 1920: 3.

Writers in the Independent was not alone in implicating cinema in accounts of political violence. Describing an incident in Dublin in mid-February, the Freeman’s Journal suggested that the cinema had so come to dominate the ways that even experienced journalists saw the world that actual violent confrontations between Irish republican forces and those of the British state was distorted and exaggerated beyond credibility. Seeking to correct Irish and British press reports of a supposed attack by a large number of armed Irish Volunteers on a heavily guarded escort bringing the court-martialled Sinn Féin MP Robert Barton to prison, the reporter observed that accounts of the alleged incident made the “military act like cinema stars” (“North Side Hold-Up”). The incident was “like a cinema scene,” no doubt a sensational one. “Eyewitnesses described the scene,” the writer commented, “which indeed had something in it to stir the imagination of a generation accustomed to the thrilling scenarios of the film-play dramatists.” Nevertheless, s/he claimed that while an attack on a car carrying military personnel did occur, all aspects of the story as reported were exaggerated and were not attributable to major republican groups. “The facts of the affair subdue the high lights, and raise the substantial doubt which, while leaving the authors of the incident in obscurity, utterly demolish the suggestion that Irish Volunteers or any similar organisation was concerned in it. […] There is something wrong with the story.”

Limerick Leader 4 Feb. 1920: 3.

In the case of the shooting of Lena Johnson in Limerick on 2 February, the interaction between cinema and the War of Independence were far from these metaphorical references to stardom and thrilling scenarios. A cinema attendant in her 20s who lived with her family in Thomondgate, Johnson was crossing Sarsfield Bridge on her way home from work at the Coliseum between 10.30 and 11pm when she was hit by a stray bullet fired indiscriminately at a taunting crowd by members of the RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary). Much public sympathy was shown to Johnson and to publican Richard O’Dwyer, the two people fatally shot that night, and who had had no part in any demonstration in the streets. Johnson’s funeral “was one of the most impressive funerals that has taken place in Limerick for a number of years, and all classes joined in paying fitting tribute to a young lady who enjoyed general popularly, and whose death under such peculiarly sad circumstances produced universal grief” (“Limerick Shootings”).

Limerick Echo 17 Feb. 1920: 3.

At the subsequent inquest, the RIC witnesses tried to blame British soldiers stationed in the city for firing on the crowd after an armed man had fired on them first, and much of the coverage of the inquest focused on the contradictions between the evidence of the police and the military. The inquest jury, however, rejected the police’s attempts at exculpation and found “that Helena Johnson met her death by shock, the results of the effect of a bullet wound caused by a rifle bullet fired by police without orders from their superiors, which we strongly condemn, because there was no provocation for what the jury consider murder in the case of Helena Johnson” (“Contradictory”).

Dublin Evening Mail 21 Feb. 1920: 3.

Cinema and those associated with it – including such workers as Lena Johnson, audiences and filmmakers – were only rarely the targets of fighting during the War of Independence. Like the population at large, however, those involved in cinema faced the increasing dangers and restrictions of a society openly in conflict, and these affected how they went about their ordinary activities. One of the new restrictions introduced to Dublin in February 1920 was a curfew between midnight and 5am. Announced by Major-General Gerald Farrell Boyd, the General Officer Commanding the Dublin District, it was made under the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), many of whose wartime powers remained in use in Ireland. Describing the first night of martial law, the Freeman’s Journal observed that “for some time before the military put in an appearance the streets were practically deserted. Up to 11 o’clock, however, the city might be said to have worn its normal aspect. When the theatres, picture houses and other places of amusement emptied themselves there were the customary scenes of animation” (“Plunged into Complete Darkness”).

Censorship restrictions had long limited what Irish filmmaker could portray. Although indigenous production companies were making films at the time, they were not telling the contemporary sensational stories of life in Ireland, regardless of how much the press touted these stories’ cinematic character. Early 1920 saw the release of two of the major Irish feature films of the silent period: the General Film Supply’s In the Days of St Patrick/Aimsir Padraig and the Film Company of Ireland’s Willy Reilly and His Colleen Bawn, which will shortly receive their due attention here in blogs to mark the centenaries of their releases. It is worth noting, however, that these were historical dramas because when these companies turned to the depiction of the politics of contemporary Ireland, their films were seized by the authorities.

None of these factors were affecting the boom in cinema building in early 1920, but some local councils did see that boom as detrimental to the much-needed construction of housing. At a meeting of Belfast Borough Council on 2 February 1920, Councillor J. Baird sought unsuccessfully to halt “the erection of motor garages, public-houses, picture theatres, factories, extensions of shops and other buildings which could be described as luxuries until the people of the city were supplied with the necessary housing accommodation” (“The Housing Problem”). A meeting of Cork Corporation on 1 March 1920 took a similar view of the cinema-licence application by “three ladies and a gentleman who had made a little capital in Cork, and who wished to invest it in Cork for the benefit of the workingmen of the city” by opening a cinema at 1-2 Winthrop Street (”Cork Corporation”). Lord Mayor Tomás MacCurtain “objected to sanctioning luxury entertainment whilst there were people in the city who hadn’t houses to live in.” Nevertheless, the Corporation’s Law and Finance Committee chaired by MacCurtain subsequently granted a licence not only to those applicants but also to four others for new cinemas at 80-82 Patrick Street, 40-42 Grand Parade, another in Winthrop Street and 26 Cook Street (“Cinema Licences in Cork”).

MacCurtain’s murder by the RIC on 20 March 1920 had nothing to do with these decisions, but it was certainly part of the political violence that also impinged on Irish cinema a century ago.

References

“Cinema Licences in Cork.” Evening Echo 2 Mar. 1920: 3.

“Contradictory: Inquest on Miss Johnson.” Limerick Echo 17 Feb. 1920: 3.

“Cork Corporation.” Cork Examiner 2 Mar. 1920: 7.

“Exciting Chase after Deserters.” Irish Independent 26 Feb. 1920: 6.

“The Housing Problem: Shortage in Belfast.” Belfast News-Letter 3 Feb. 1920: 5.

“Limerick Shootings: Funerals of the Victims.” Limerick Leader 6 Feb. 1920: 3.

“The North Side Hold-Up: Military Act Like Cinema Stars.” Freeman’s Journal 13 Feb. 1920: 3.

“Plunged into Complete Darkness: Military Patrols Move Through Deserted Streets.” Freeman’s Journal 24 Feb. 1920: 3.

“Police Fired without Orders or Provocation.” Freeman’s Journal 14 Feb. 1920: 5.

“Sensational City Scene: Commotion in a Shop.” Irish Independent 7 Feb. 1920: 4.

“Tragic Incidents Further Described.” Cork Examiner 5 Feb. 1920: 5

Rebuilding Dublin as a Cinematic City for the 1920s

JAP’s end of year “Irish Notes,” Bioscope 25 Dec. 1919: 97.

Despite an increasingly unstable political situation as the War of Independence intensified, Irish cinema at the end of the 1910s was in a very healthy state, and cinema in Dublin especially was about to change radically as it underwent a post-World War I, post-1916 Rising building boom. Not that cinema did not face criticism from the Irish Vigilance Association and its press supporters in their ongoing campaign against imported popular culture, which the Evening Herald memorably saw as an “invasion of our theatres by the ever-increasing forces of smut-huns whose poison gas has been as great a danger to public morals as machines of war have been to the physical weal of the people” (“Cleanse the Theatres”).  Notwithstanding such campaigns, the exhibition side of the industry looked particularly strong at the end of 1919, and Irish film production also looked promising. In his last “Irish Notes” of the year in the Bioscope, JAP noted two coming productions. “‘Rosaleen Dhu,’” he reported, “is the title of a four-reel film which has been produced by the Celtic Film Company around Bray, Co. Wicklow” (“Irish Notes,” 25 Dec.). He gave more space to the news that

the Film Company of Ireland recently reconstructed as the Irish Film Company [and] has just completed its only 1919 production, a screen version of a story by the famous Irish novelist of the early nineteenth century, William Carleton. The film, “Willie Reilly and his Colleen Bawn,” was made amidst some of the most picturesque scenery in the vicinity of Dublin, and features Brian MacGowan, who made a big hit as the central figure, “Matt, the Thrasher,” in the company’s super-production, “Knocknagow.” (Ibid.)

 

Ad for the trade show of In the Days of St Patrick, Irish Independent 27 Jan. 1920: 4.

Beyond the expectations of this substantial production, JAP observed that both the Film Company and Norman Whitten’s General Film Supply, which was also completing a film about St Patrick, were building film studios in the Dublin suburbs. “There is plenty of room for both companies,” he concluded, “and ‘competition is the life of trade.’”

Clontarf Town Hall reopened on 23 December 1919. Dublin Evening Mail 20 Dec. 1919: 2.

To some extent, the reopening on 23 December 1919 of Clontarf Town Hall as a picture theatre epitomizes the development of Dublin film exhibition. The Town Hall had first operated as a cinema in 1913 at the height of the pre-war cinema building boom, and as such, was among the first of the suburban cinemas whose offerings of professionally produced entertainment outside the city made cinema such a phenomenal success in the 1910s. With a substantial resident population and a seaside location that drew people out of the city, the town hall had looked like a good prospect as an entertainment venue throughout the 1910s, but it experienced difficulties that saw it closing and reopening regularly, including in 1916 and 1917. It would change hands again in May 1920, when a Mr O’Connell was named as the proprietor (“Irish Notes,” 13 May). As such, it did not have the stability of the Bohemian Picture Theatre and Phibsboro Picture House in the north-city suburb of Phibsboro and the Princess Cinema and Rathmines Town Hall in the south-city suburb of Rathmines. The Bohemian in particular had overcome the disadvantage of location vis-à-vis city-centre cinemas by attracting patrons to Phibsboro with its musical attractions.

A 1926 Goad Fire Insurance map of the Sackville/O’Connell Street block containing La Scala and the Metropole.

If the 1910s saw the advent and the dominance to a significant degree of the suburban picture house, the turn of the decade to the 1920s would see the city-centre venues spectacularly reassert themselves. Four large cinemas were under construction on key sites in the Sackville/O’Connell Street area that had levelled during the fighting in 1916: La Scala, the Metropole, the Grand Central and the Corinthian. The destroyed block to the south of the GPO, the centre of fighting during the Rising, was about to become the location of two of these cinemas, La Scala and the Metropole. Formerly a hotel at the corner of O’Connell and Princes Streets, the Metropole would become an entertainment venue that included a dance hall, a restaurant and a thousand-seat cinema.

Caricature of Frank Chambers, Irish Limelight Nov.1917: 1.

That seating capacity was dwarfed by La Scala, “Dublin’s new super cinema,” which would occupy a site on Princes Street that had been the premises of the Freeman’s Journal and the print works of the Alex Thom publishing company (“Behind the Screen”). “When completed,” the Irish Limelight observed when the project was first announced in the spring of 1918, “the seating accommodation will exceed that of the Gaiety Theatre, while adjoining the auditorium will be spacious tea and refreshment lounges, modelled on the most up-to-date lines” (ibid.). At this point, the seating accommodation was put at 1,400, but when La Scala opened in August 1920, this figure had more than doubled to 3,200 (“Building News”). La Scala was promoted by a consortium led by Frank Chambers, who had opened the Carlton Cinema in O’Connell Street in December 1915, but who had sold his interest in the Carlton in order to focus on La Scala, with which it would be in competition.

Goad Fire Insurance map of Dublin’s Lower Sackville/O’Connell Street and Eden Quay showing the location and relative sizes of the Grand Central Cinema and the Corinthian Cinema.

But La Scala would have plenty of other competition, both established and new. JAP put it succinctly when reporting on a conversation with another proprietor of a Sackville/O’Connell Street cinema. “Speaking to Alderman Farrell, managing director of the Pillar Picture House, and other Dublin cinemas, the other day,” JAP revealed,

he confirmed the report that he had purchased the site in Sackville Street formerly occupied by the D.B.C. restaurant, which vanished in the flames of the 1916 rebellion. It is a fine site, one of the most central in Dublin. The only trouble is that it is almost directly opposite the two palatial cinemas – the Metropole and the Scala – at present in process of construction, and within a stone’s throw almost of half-a-dozen other houses doing good business. And just round the corner on Eden Quay, the newly-formed Corinthian company are building one of the two picture theatres promised in their prospectuses” (“Irish Notes,” 11 Sep).

Farrell’s new cinema would be called the Grand Central, its name incorporating that of the Grand Cinema, which until its destruction in 1916, had stood next door to the iconic DBC restaurant.

Extract from James T. Jameson’s assessment of the viability of the Corinthian Picture Company. Courtesy of the Architectural Archive of Ireland.

Another key member of the Irish cinema industry was asked to comment on the soundness of the Corinthian Picture Company’s business plan. On 25 August 1919, James T. Jameson wrote a report on the viability of two cinemas that the Corinthian Picture Company intended to build on sites at South Great Georges Street and Eden Quay in central Dublin. As the managing director of the Dublin Kinema Exchange and Mart and Ireland’s most prominent pioneer film exhibitor, Jameson was in a good position to make this assessment. His report was appended to an estimate of the profits of the two cinemas in a document that survives at the Irish Architectural Archive (“Statement”). In it, Jameson approves of the architectural drawing that Thomas McNamara had prepared and of the central locations that the company had secured. With good tram links and plenty of passing trade, the latter would ensure that

there will be no necessity for expensive competitive films, as good ordinary programmes would in my opinion be quite sufficient, neither would there require to be a great deal of advertising, both of which are such a heave outlay on Picture Houses built in out-of-the-way streets […], and for which big extra attractions and expenses are involved to secure a clientele.

The particular merits of the Eden Quay site were that it “is faced with the inward and outward evening flow of patrons for the Royal Hippodrome and Tivoli Theatres, besides being in the line of persons passing from the North and South sides of the city. The impressive front of this Theatre also cannot be missed and will always be a standing attraction.” Indeed, the company decided to proceed with only this cinema, but it would not open until August 1921, almost exactly two years after Jameson wrote his report.

Although he mentions the possibility of increased revenues if the cinemas could secure Sunday opening, Jameson curiously did not take the growing competition in the Sackville/O’Connell Street area into account. The Recorder had banned Sunday opening for city-centre cinemas except in poor residential areas, and part of the controversy that La Scala would cause related to its attempts to get around this restriction. Suburban cinemas did not have to face the Recorder’s ban, although local clergy enforced Sunday closing in Rathmines. Other objections to the new city-centre cinema boom came from those who feared that cinema was replacing other art forms. “I read your leading article on ‘Music in Dublin,’ in Saturday’s issue, with very great interest,” letter writer “Musicus” commented in the Irish Times at the end of October 1919. “One would have thought that a fine [concert] hall would have been erected in Sackville street, instead of a new picture house, of which we have plenty” (“Music in Dublin”).

JAP was also less impressed than Jameson appeared to be with the re-centralization of cinema. “What puzzles me,” he opined, “is why all the new cinemas are being built in the centre of the city. I know of one or two sites in the outer circle which are simply shrieking to have cinemas built upon them. One district in particular should prove a veritable gold mine for the man who gets there first” (“Irish Notes,” 11 Sep). The unnamed suburb was probably not Clontarf, but it may have been the Liberties, Pembroke or Stoneybatter, where the Manor Street Cinema opened in May 1920.

Areas of Dublin’s suburbs did remain to be exploited by the cinema trade, but what was remarkable as 1919 became 1920 was the way in which parts of the city centre destroyed during the 1916 Rising were not being reconstructed as concert halls, press/publishing facilities or restaurants. They were being rebuilt as part of a cinematic city for the 1920s.

References

“Behind the Screen.” Irish Limelight Apr. 1918: 4.

“Building News.” Irish Builder 14 Aug. 1920: 530.

“Cleanse the Theatres.” Evening Herald 4 Jun. 1919: 2.

“Irish Notes.” Bioscope 11 Sep. 1919: 95; 25 Dec. 1919: 97-98; 13 May 1920: 112.

“Music in Dublin.” Letter. Irish Times 27 Oct. 1919: 6.

“Statement Showing How Estimate of Profits Is Arrived At and Report of Mr. James T. Jameson.” RP.D.147.7, Irish Architectural Archive.

Irish Cinemas Catch Strike Fever in Autumn 1918

In the Bioscope‘s lead article on 12 September 1918, Ireland was a troubling place.

On 12 September 1918, the lead article in the British trade journal Bioscope concerned a “bombshell from Ireland.” “The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union [ITGWU],” it reported, “a powerful labour organisation with offices, singularly enough, at Liberty Hall, on Thursday last served a demand upon the proprietors of every cinema theatre in that part of the Kingdom which we can only describe as a monstrous one” (“Exhibitor His Own Enemy”). The ITGWU’s monstrous demand was for more pay for all cinema workers, which the leader writer saw as class war in the most literal terms. S/he urged the cinema owner “to answer the call of reason and gird on his armour against the foe that is ever present in our midst. We refer to the repeated upheavals in the domain of labour.”

The first item in the inaugural “Picture in Ireland” column concerned cinema in Galway; Bioscope 29 Feb. 1912: 593.

The Irish cinema industry had rarely featured so prominently in the Bioscope, where news from Ireland was usually corralled in the once regular column “Picture from Ireland” by a contributor or contributors identified as “Paddy.” Appearing first in the 29 February 1912 issue and thereafter regularly if not in every issue of the weekly trade paper, “Picture in Ireland” had for many years been the best source on Irish cinema. The information that the column provided was only superseded when Ireland’s first cinema magazine Irish Limelight appeared in January 1917. Even then, the weekly reports could catch things that the monthly Limelight missed.

Godfrey Kilroy Roll of Honour Bio 22 Oct 1914

Godfrey Kilroy was listed among the staff of the Bioscope who had joined the army on 22 Oct. 1914: 361.

For a brief period in 1916, Paddy was explicitly identified as Godfrey Kilroy, a fact already noted here, but the recent availability in the Bioscope in digital form – a development long wished for! – allows us to trace Kilroy’s name more forensically in the magazine’s pages. Born to a farming and land-agent family in Meath in 1890, Kilroy ended his career as the manager of a bank in Dunmanway, Co. Cork in 1955, but in the 1910s, he worked in the film business. Indeed, he may have been the original “Paddy” in 1912 because he was identified as an employee of the Bioscope in 1914, when his name appeared on one of the magazine’s “Roll of Honour” articles as a member of its staff who had enlisted. Kilroy’s period of military service must have been short because he was named as the Irish distribution agent – with an address at 34 Windsor Road, Dublin – for several film companies in late 1914, in 1916 and again in 1919.

Godfrey Kilroy Mailing List Bio 17 Dec 1914

This mention of Godfrey Kilroy asking to be placed on mailing lists suggests that he set up as a distributor in late 1914; Bioscope 17 Dec. 1914: 1187.

As an Irish-born and Dublin-based distributor, Kilroy no doubt had an intimate knowledge of the business in Ireland that informed the Paddy column and how it covered developments such as the strike in 1918. However, by September 1918, the column – now simply “Irish Notes” – was appearing less regularly, and indeed, after the 12 September issues, it did not appear in the journal again for the rest of the year. But on 12 September, Paddy did also discuss the strike at length, providing details that the leader writer left out.

Not surprisingly, the tone of the two articles was quite different, with the lead article delivering its news from Ireland as an admonition. Ireland’s cinema employers had apparently demonstrated too little organization in the face of a threat that in some respects “must be considered as coercive beyond degree, which is somewhat remarkable for the inhabitants of a land who never tire of crying out against anything in the least savouring of this type of oppression.” This latter general snipe about the Irish dislike of oppression was fuelled by the Irish industry’s preference for a separate Irish representative organization, the Dublin and South of Ireland Cinematograph Exhibitors’ Association (DSICEA), instead of membership of the Cinematograph Exhibitors’ Association (CEA), whose organ the Bioscope was. “[I]f anything could awaken them to the danger of longer holding aloof from the C.E.A.,” s/he contended, “this certainly should do so.”

Frank Leah’s caricature of Charles Grattan, manager of Dublin’s Picture House, Grafton Street; Irish Limelight 2:5 (May 1918): 1. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Other evidence suggests that Irish cinema employers had no problem in organizing in their own interest against labour. In May, the Irish Limelight had observed that “Mr. Charles Grattan, of the Grafton Picture House, certainly did the right thing when he convened an exhibitors’ meeting with a view to obtaining unity of action by cinema proprietors on the occasion when organised labour registered its protest against conscription” (“Notes and News”). The Limelight didn’t specify what the employers had done during the trade unions’ general strike against conscription on 23 April, “the most successful demonstration of workers political power in the revolutionary decade” (Yeates). Nevertheless, the employers had clearly acted together and seemingly effectively.

“Enough Said: ‘E looked at me, an’ I looked at ‘im.'” This cartoon commenting on how workers striking on the home front were letting down troops winning the war on the battle front carries a representation of working-class British speech in its caption, but it was reproduced in the Dublin Evening Mail 25 Sep. 1918: 3.

Following the general strike in April 1918, labour activity in Ireland certainly increased, and the cinema workers’ dispute in September was part of a much wider series of pay claims and strikes by workers in several industries. And this labour activity was by no means an Irish aberration; British workers were also engaged in major strikes,which many in the mainstream press saw as a malignant disease. “The strike fever is spreading in Dublin,” the Dublin Evening Mail’s editorial on 31 August observed, “and following a course similar to the recent influenza epidemic” (“Strike Fever”). At that point at the end of August, the Evening Mail noted disputes in the building and printing trades and among hotel workers; strike fever was about to become a lot more virulent. Under the 14 September headline “Industrial Unrest in Ireland,” the Irish Times focused on the threat of strike by national teachers but also reported on disputes by hotel and restaurant workers, printers, paper-mill employees, checkers at one of the steamship companies, flour-mill workers, tramwaymen, picture-house employees, Cork dockers, assurance agents, Derry bakers, and coalminers. In this context, the picture-house workers’ demand “for increased wages and shorter hours of duty” seem far from monstrous and instead appear wholly in step with workers’ demands in many other fields.

In the event, despite the Bioscope leader writer’s inflation of the strike for his/her own purposes, the dispute seems to have been relatively short lived and reasonably easily resolved, if its representation in the mainstream Irish press is any indication. Reporting that the DSICEA met the representatives of the ITGWU on 23 September to address the workers’ pay claim,  the Irish Times observed that “[t]erms were amicably agreed upon at the conference, and there is no prospect of any dislocation of business arising over the matter” (“Dublin Labour Disputes”).

rewind boy classified ad it 6 jan 1919p1

Small ad from Dublin’s Masterpiece Picture Theatre seeking a rewind boy; Irish Times 6 Jan. 1919: 1.

The Irish newspapers did not specify the terms of the resolution or the degree to which the workers’ terms were met, and the issues of the Irish Limelight for the latter half of 1918 are unfortunately not extant. However, Paddy’s Bioscope article is intriguing for publishing the terms that the workers were looking for. The leader writer had mentioned these to pour scorn on the ludicrousness of their claims, but Paddy’s commentary was more measured. While he also judged the claims to be excessive, he observed that they were just the starting point for negotiation, and as such were “doubtless somewhat higher than the employees actually expected to receive.”

Paddy’s article reproduced the pay claims of Irish cinema workers in two sections, the first relating to operating staff; Bioscope 12 Sep. 1918: 87.

Beyond the figures, the article is intriguing for the fact that it offers unique details on the number and kinds of workers who worked in cinemas and the hierarchy that existed among them. That hierarchy is represented most obviously by the splitting of the claims into two sections, the first of which deals with operating staff – those who worked in the projection booth – and the second with ground staff – all other picture-house and distribution-company employees. This hierarchy favouring projectionists was not new or necessarily erosive of workers’ solidarity. When in September 1913 picture house staff made pay demands in the course of the Dublin Lockout, the operators joined the ITGWU-affiliated National Association of Theatre Employees (NATE) so that their powerful voice could be joined with workers in less skilled and so less secure picture-house jobs: doormen, inside attendants and cash-box girls, as they were specified at the time.

Dublin’s Dorset Picture Hall advertised for a variety of staff with this small ad in the Irish Times 20 March 1911: 1.

But the relationships among these different groups of workers – and in some cases even the existence of an identifiable job around which a profession formed – has received little attention. In previous blogs, musicians, operators and doormen have received some attention but other professions have had at best passing mention because they were almost never discussed by commentators such as Paddy/Kilroy. One of the most important pieces of information previously discussed here in this regard is a March 1911 Irish Times small ad inviting applications for a variety of jobs at William Shanley’s newly establish Dorset Picture Hall. These jobs included two ex-policemen to act as uniformed doormen or outside attendants; an unspecified number of “Attendant Ticket Checkers, Window Billing”; one lady pianist; two young women to sell tickets and refreshments; an experienced assistant operator; and a certain number of boys to sell programmes. As noted previously, the gendered nature of these jobs is very striking. Estimating that two ticket checkers and two programme sellers were employed, ten people were sought by this ad for the relatively large (800-seat) early cinema in 1911. But other key staff – some of whom are known – must already have been employed at this point or have been sought by other means. Paddy made frequent reference to manager Frederick William Sullivan, who would have had at least a secretary for administrative support, and the chief cinematograph operator, whose name is not known, had also likely been hired already.

Legal notice of a theatrical patent application for Dublin’s La Scala, Irish Independent 24 Sep. 1918: 2.

This was still a relatively modest operation in comparison to the one suggested by the 1918 pay demands seven and a half years after the opening of the Dorset. But this increase in employment is not surprising in the context in which Irish cinemas were on the cusp of becoming much larger than they had ever been. This was signalled in September and October 1918 when the company promoting a large theatre called La Scala on one of the sites beside the GPO on O’Connell Street destroyed during the 1916 Rising went through the theatrical patent process. The company was led by Frank Chambers, proprietor of the Carlton Cinema on O’Connell Street, and during the patent hearing, it was claimed by competitors that the La Scala company intended to run the 3,000-seat premises as a picture house rather than providing any kind of live theatre. Although the company representatives denied this, when La Scala opened in 1920, it would indeed operate solely as a cinema and use its theatrical patent to circumvent some of Dublin’s cinema-licencing restrictions, particularly those relating to Sunday opening in the city centre.

Section II of the pay demand related to all cinema staff other than those in the projection box; Bioscope 12 Sep. 1918: 87.

In this evolving context, the ITGWU saw cinema as an industry with the potential for further employment growth, with a wide range roles offering good pay and conditions for its members.  The pay demand specified a 48-hour working week for all these workers, with hours in excess of this to be paid at an overtime premium. It laid a strong emphasis on the demarcation of particular jobs whose duties were not to be performed by workers in any other role. However, it was really only the chief and assistant operators’ jobs that were described, with the chief operator being distinguished from the assistant by the inclusion of responsibilities beyond projection for the whole electrical apparatus of the picture house. The 1918 operating room envisaged by the union had not only to accommodate a chief operator earning £3 and an assistant operator at £1 15s but also, at the very least, a rewind boy and ideally, an apprentice, each of whom would take home 10s.

The operator was expected to run not only the projectors but also all the picture house machinery. Bioscope 17 Jul. 1913: supp.

Outside the operating box, the picture-house wage hierarchy was to be topped by the first doorman earning £2 5s (45s) and a second doorman earning £1 15s; male attendants should receive £1 10s (30s), while female attendants should receive £1 5s (25s); cashiers were to take £1 10s; and the workers who were to earn less than a pound included film runners and charwomen on 15s and chocolate boys on 7s 6d plus commission. The usually anonymous workers at the distribution companies or film renters are revealed to be the chief and second despatch clerk, who would earn £2 5s and £2 (40s) respectively, if one was considered senior to the other or £2 2s 6d (42½s) each if they were on an equal footing; the messengers with a projected pay of £1 10, a rate also applicable to film repairers. Finally, casual men in either picture houses or distributors should receive 1s an hour.

Ad for a bioscope school to teach people regardless of age or gender how to operate a projector. Bioscope 3 May 1917: 471.

Many of these jobs remained strictly gender defined, and those that weren’t, no doubt had strong assumption as to gender suitability. The remuneration of male and female attendants is a useful illustration of how men were paid more for doing identical work to women colleagues. However, the shortage of men because of the war had the salutary effect of disrupting these expectations to a large degree. Conscription in Britain meant that the operating room which had previously been an almost wholly male preserve as well as the location of the most lucrative non-management picture-house jobs became open to women for a few years at least. The Bioscope held a considerable debate on the issue in early 1916 (see, for example, Barber). Whether women operators were paid at the same rate as male ones is not clear. In any case, in Ireland, despite voluntary enlistment, there is little evidence of a similar change. The only known woman operator in the country during the 1910s was the wife of operator and manager Alf Thomas. “The Victoria Cinema boasts the only lady operator in the West, and perhaps in Ireland,” reported the Connacht Tribune in September 1915, “Mrs. Alf. Thomas who is as deft in the handling of the machine as the most efficient male operator in the land” (“Victoria Cinema”).

The autumn 1918 wage claim reveals intriguing details about the many otherwise anonymous people who worked in Ireland’s early picture houses, offering insights into their struggle to better at least some aspects of their working conditions.

References

Barber, James W. “Help in Trouble.” Bioscope 23 Mar. 1916: 1269.

“Dublin Labour Disputes.” Irish Times 28 Sep. 1918: 2.

“The Exhibitor His Own Enemy: A Bombshell from Ireland and Its Cause.” Bioscope 12 Sep. 1918: 4.

“Industrial Unrest in Ireland.” Irish Times14 Sep. 1918: 2.

“Notes and News.” Irish Limelight 2:5 (May 1918): 11.

Paddy. “Irish Notes: Threatened Cinema Strike in Ireland.” Bioscope 12 Sep. 1918: 97.

“The Strike Fever.” Editorial. Dublin Evening Mail 31 Aug. 1918: 2.

“Victoria Cinema.” Connacht Tribune 25 Sep. 1915: 4.

Yeates, Padraig. “‘Have You in Ireland All Gone Mad’: The 1918 General Strike Against Conscription.” Century Ireland. http://www.rte.ie/centuryireland//images/uploads/content/Ed125-ConscriptionStrike1-Yeates.pdf

Cinema on the Brain in August 1918

Mary Street

Mary Street Picture House sometime in the 1950s. Image from Pintrest.

On the 3 August 1918, five boys aged between 11 and 14 were convicted before Dublin’s City Commission court of having stolen a film from the Mary Street Picture House, one of the cinemas owned by Alderman John J. Farrell and managed at the time by William Bowes. Charles and Thomas Boland, Laurence Fitzgerald, James Gaffney and John Dillon (for brevity, the Boland gang) broke into the cinema on 3 July and took the 2,000-foot film to a vacant room in nearby Jervis Street.

Census return Charles and Thomas Boland extract

Extract from the 1911 census return of the family of Charles and Thomas Boland, who were 4 and 6 years old at the time and living with their parents in a tenement room at 23 Greek Street, Dublin.

While their three co-defendants pleaded guilty, the Boland brothers denied the charge, claiming that they had merely found the film in a cellar, and Charles had then brought a portion of it to Bowes, which is how their role in the incident was discovered. However, all the boys were found guilty, with Justice Pim freeing them on the undertaking that their families would ensure their good behaviour for two years (“Dublin Boys Steal a Cinema Film”).

Dublin Evening Mail 3 Aug. 1918: 3.

The incident was a minor one, and only received more than passing mention from the Dublin Evening Mail because of a detail the editor no doubt thought would amuse his/her readers. Offering some insight into the boys’ motives for the theft, arresting officer Constable Holmes claimed to laughter from the court that they had intended to transform their vacant room into a picture house of their own.

John Dillon Green Street Census 1911

Extract from the 1911 census return for the family of John Dillon (4 at this time), the only other one of the convicted boys who can be readily identified in these records. The nine members of his family were living in two tenement rooms at 16 Green Street, across the road from the courthouse in which the boys were tried.

In the context in which picture houses were owned by such prominent businessmen as Farrell, it did seem incongruous that a group of pre-teens from the tenement slums might establish a cinema in an abandoned house. However, inconveniently for such businessmen, the story also suggests that cinema had not yet escaped its public association with criminality, and particularly the criminal behaviour of working-class boys. The most highly publicized case of this in Ireland had been the crime spree by Clutching Hand gangs in 1916.

Irish Limelight Feb. 1917: 9. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

And beyond picture-house proprietors, this continued presentation of cinema as a juvenile-delinquent medium in 1918 would doubtless have caused chagrin to such promoters of the industry as the cinema magazine Irish Limelight. Ridiculing these tropes in an editorial a year-and-a-half previously, it had observed that  “[t]he ‘Saw it on the Pictures’ plea has now lost its force as an argument against the Cinema as a favourite excuse of parents who have neglected to control their erring boys” (“Lesson from History”).

The awful state of housing for Dublin’s working-class families was revealed by a Dublin Corporation report in 1914, which included this image of dilapidated houses in Jervis Street. The report is available here.

It’s not clear if the Limelight commented on this incident because its issues for August and September 1918 are not extant, but it is worth pausing on it to distinguish between the different ways boys may have been said to have erred in their interactions with cinema at this period. The “Saw it on the Pictures” plea was just one of those interactions, but it does seem to be operating in the case of the Clutching Hand gangs, where the screen actions of a master criminal provided an imaginative resource to be emulated. While the Limelight and others were right to point out that blaming the cinema for criminal behaviour had become a cliché, often sensationalized to a moral panic, they were not right to imply that no behaviour treated as criminal was inspired by film viewing Watching films did at least occasionally have a demonstrable effect on audience members.

A 1913 photograph of a tenement room in Dublin’s Francis Street with poor furnishings but some images on the walls; from the Royal Society of Antiquaries in Ireland’s Darkest Dublin (RSAI DD) collection, available here.

In relation to the indictable behaviour of the Boland gang, however, what was on the screen seems less important than the presence of the Mary Street Picture House close to where they lived. The advent of cinema brought picture houses into local communities where venues providing professional entertainment had never existed before and at a relatively low cost. In this regard, the case resembles the conviction of four other Dublin boys for property damage following their night at the Brunswick Street Picture House in October 1916, after which they camped out in an uninhabited and condemned house they were later convicted of damaging.

A single tenement room in the Coombe area of Dublin in 1913; RSAI DD, No. 83.

But the Boland gang differed from these 1916 boys in having committed their crime in the picture house itself. Not that stealing from picture houses was unprecedented. Indeed, Thomas Murphy of 7 Jervis Street had stolen the safe from the Mary Street Picture House in April 1915, a case notable because he was convicted on fingerprint evidence (“City Cinema”). They weren’t even the first Irish boys to steal a film. On 9 October 1917, a boy named David Kennedy of Downing Street, Belfast, was successfully prosecuted in the city’s Custody Court for having stolen a film from the Great Northern Railway Company. The staff at the company’s parcel office had given him the film because they recognized him as having collected films for the Princess Picture Palace in the past. His father told the court that his son had “pictures on the brain” and wanted to go to the pictures all the time. It’s not clear if this compulsion to go to the cinema was the motive for the theft and subsequent sale of the film in Smithfield market for 2s 6d. If it was, Kennedy had undervalued his loot. ”The film was a ‘Chaplin’ one,” the Northern Whig noted, “and worth about £20” (“Belfast Police”).

Nevertheless, regardless of how little of their plan they realized, the Boland gang members contrast with Kennedy in their deeper engagement with cinema. They did not have just pictures on the brain; they had the wider institution of cinema on the brain. They had stolen the film as part of the procurement process that would allow them to set up their own alternative picture house. Given that the Mary Street management valued the film at £90 – an amount, incidentally, at odds with £20 mentioned in the Belfast case – robbery was really their only option to get control of cinema.

Aug 29 1918 DEM Airship

One of a series of ads promoting recruitment to the air force and navy; Dublin Evening Mail 29 Aug. 1918: 4.

As well as these poor boys, promoters of military recruiting in Ireland also had cinema in their sights, if not on the brain, at the end of August 1918. Earlier in the year, the British government’s attempted introduction of conscription of Irishmen into the British army had been defeated, or at least postponed, by the unprecedented alliance of all elements of nationalist Ireland, but this had not stopped regular voluntary recruitment. Appealing to a widespread interest in such new technologies of war as the submarine, the airship and the tank, an extensive summer press and poster campaign attempted to suggest that the air force or navy might be more acceptable alternative forms of military service to the army for Irishmen.

Aug 24 1918 DEM Lynch O'Grady

Ad for the first of the mass recruitment meetings on Dublin streets by Arthur Lynch and James O’Grady; Dublin Evening Mail 24 Aug. 1918: 4.

Two Westminster MPs of Irish descent came to Dublin to make a personal, oratorical appeal to “patriotic young Irishmen” to join up but were forced to use the cinema as an alternative way of reaching their audience. Australian-born Colonel Arthur Lynch, who had led an Irish brigade against the British during the Boer War and was MP for West Clare, and Captain James O’Grady, an English-born Labour MP, first addressed a meeting outside the Recruiting Office headquarters in Kildare Street on 24 August. Following its success, they organized a series of mass recruitment meetings on the city streets: at the Fountain in James Street on 27 August, on Amiens Street on 28 August and at Smithfield on 29 August. Others around the country were to come.

First Irish Conscript PC Whites auctioneers

A cartoon postcard circulating in Dublin in July 1918 expressing the counterproductiveness of forcing conscription on Ireland. Joseph Holloway’s reproduced a copy in his diary on 6 July; this copy is available here.

However, Sinn Féin protestors successfully disrupted the James Street meeting by drowning Lynch out “in a hurricane of groans, shrieks, ‘voices,’ and discordant cat-calls” (“Recruiting Campaign”). Indeed, when Lynch and O’Grady had left the scene, Sinn Féin speakers made speeches from the lorry that had been brought as their platform. “Soon recruiting meetings will be proclaimed,” Joseph Holloway commented wryly in his diary, “as they are providing splendid Sinn Fein demonstrations.” When the Amiens Street meeting delivered a similar occasion, the Smithfield meeting was abandoned, and Lynch complained he had been denied free speech and sought in vain a public debate on recruiting with Sinn Féin representatives.

Lynch Slide DEM 30 Aug 1918

The text Lynch intended to project on Dublin cinema screens to attract recruits to his Irish Brigade; Dublin Evening Mail 30 Aug. 1918: 3.

But he also made plans to use the picture houses, which everybody seemed to agree had a particular attraction for boys and young men. On 30 August, the Dublin Evening Mail included the text of a “message to Young Ireland” to join Lynch’s Irish Brigade that he intended to “be flashed on the screen at cinemas in Dublin and afterwards throughout Ireland” (“Colonel Lynch on the Screen”). But Lynch’s cinematic adventure went beyond a text-based ad. “A film has also been taken of Colonel Lynch and Captain O’Grady,” the Mail report concluded, “and this will also be displayed on the screen in Dublin next week, and afterwards throughout the various picture halls in the country.”

No surviving evidence appears to exist to confirm that the ad and/or the film were shown in Dublin the following week. Although propaganda films were not uncommon, the controversy Lynch and O’Grady caused in the streets might have been enough for nervous cinema managers to keep them off the screen. In any event, the summer of 1918 saw Irish politicians and military recruiters join boys from the tenements in trying to hijack the cinema for their own purposes.

References

“Belfast Police – Yesterday.” Northern Whig 10 Oct. 1917: 3.

“City Cinema Broken into and Robbed: Evidence of Finger Prints.” Evening Telegraph 29 Apr. 1915: 3.

“Colonel Lynch on the Screen: His Message to Young Ireland.” Dublin Evening Mail 30 Aug. 1918: 3.

“Dublin Boys Steal a Cinema Film: To Start Their Own Picture House.” Dublin Evening Mail 3 Aug. 1918: 3.

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

“A Lesson from History.” Editorial. Irish Limelight Feb. 1917: 1.

“Lure of the Films: City Boys Who Wanted a Cinema of Their Own.” Evening Telegraph 3 Aug. 1918: 1.

“Recruiting Campaign: Colonel Lynch Denied a Hearing.” Evening Telegraph 28 Aug. 1918: 3.

Screening the Funeral of Thomas Ashe, September-October 1917

Collins Funeral of Thomas Ashe

Michael Collins gives a pointed graveside oration in The Funeral of Thos. Ashe (Ireland: GFS, 1917)

At 10pm on Sunday, 30 September 1917, Dublin’s Bohemian Picture Theatre exhibited a special newsreel film of the funeral of Thomas Ashe that marked the spectacular public culmination of a protest against British government treatment of Sinn Féin prisoners in Mountjoy prison. The occasion of the protest was the death on 25 September of Thomas Ashe, president of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, as a result of force-feeding while on hunger strike. In a series of demonstrations carefully stage-managed by republican leaders, Ashe’s body became the emblem of a new public solidarity between the various insurgent nationalist groups that were moving towards coalition under the name of Sinn Féin. His body lay in state first at the Mater hospital and following a procession through the city, at City Hall. The protest’s highlight was Ashe’s funeral at Glasnevin cemetery on 30 September, the largest public demonstration since the 1916 Rising was suppressed, at which the Irish Volunteers marched openly under arms and fired three volleys of shots over the coffin, “the only speech which it is proper to make above the grave of a dead Fenian,” as Michael Collins put it in his laconic graveside oration (“Funeral of Thomas Ashe”).

Boh Ashe Premiere 29 Sep1917 DEM

Ad for Bohemian Picture Theatre offering an exclusive screening of the full Funeral of Thos. Ashe film; Dublin Evening Mail 29Sep. 1917: 2.

The film of the funeral that the Bohemian showed was the work of Norman Whitten’s General Film Supply (GFS). The Evening Herald commended the exhibition on the evening of Ashe’s funeral “of films showing various ranges of the procession and scenes associated with it. The rifling part at the grave was included” (“30,000 Mourners”). The widespread publicity of organized events after Ashe’s death allowed Whitten and his “able lieutenant” J. Gordon Lewis to plan a newsreel special to supplement their regular Irish Events newsreel (“Films Up-to-Date”). In what might be called a prequel, some of the material relating to Ashe’s lying-in-state at City Hall was shown at such picture houses as the Rotunda and the Town Hall, Rathmines on the Saturday night preceding the funeral, with the complete film, including the procession through the city to the cemetery, due for general release on the following Monday. The final film was first exhibited, however, on the night of the funeral at the Bohemian, a picture house located on the route of the funeral procession out of the city, between Mountjoy prison and Glasnevin cemetery.

Rotunda THR Ashe 29 Sep 1917 DEM

Ads for Town Hall, Rathmines and Rotunda on Saturday 29 September featured newsreel of Ashe’s funeral, including scenes of the body lying in state at City Hall but not of the graveside; Dublin Evening Mail 29 Sep. 1917: 2.

Reporting on the filming of the funeral, the cinema journal Irish Limelight observed that people “took part in the procession, went home to have tea, and an hour later saw themselves on the screen. Some hustle on the part of the camera men!” (“Films Up-To-Date”). Reference has already been made here to the speed with which Whitten could prepare his films for exhibition, and this again distinguished the Thomas Ashe film produced for Irish Events from those of its competitors, in this case, from Charles McEvoy, proprietor of the Masterpiece Theatre, who also filmed the funeral but was unable to show his film until the Monday evening (ibid).

Bohemian Interior

Ad showing interior of the Bohemian Picture Theatre, Evening Telegraph 31 Jul. 1915: 3.

But the really interesting thing here is not just the speed with which the film was ready but also that it was shown at a picture house conveniently located for those who had attended the funeral. The Limelight report suggests that, having taken some refreshment, mourners reassembled at the Bohemian to reconstitute the political demonstration that the funeral represented. Here, they viewed the funeral distilled to its ten-minute highlights – twice the usual length of a newsreel – all taken from advantageous viewpoints. In a sense, the exhibition at the Bohemian represented the culmination of the political protest, of the concentration of the energies and emotions that had been built up over several days. That night the spectators were freed from the limited perspective available to people in a crowd; they saw all the key events from a sometimes privileged vantage point. The audience was now able to see itself, and specifically to see itself involved in a significant political protest. As such, the Bohemian screening of this film was a moment when the cinema assumed a key role in Irish political protest.

Thos Ashe funeral queues at City Hall

People queue to file past Ashe’s body in The Funeral of Thos. Ashe.

Although little information is available on what actually happened in the Bohemian that night, what does survive suggests that the film fostered audience interactivity – a participative kind of spectatorship – among the people who chose to attend its screening. While it is unlikely that many individual mourners could have identified themselves among the throngs depicted in long shot by the funeral film, the camera viewed many of the events from among the spectators and could therefore help re-create for its audience their participation in the funeral as a group by reproducing their optical perspective.

Thos Ashe removal from City Hall

Ashe’s Tricolour-draped coffin is removed from City Hall in The Funeral of Thos. Ashe.

Newspaper reports and photographs demonstrate that even such apparently god-like perspectives as the high-angle shots above the crowd reproduced the points of view of numerous mourners. “Over 200,000 spectators and sympathisers thronged the route,” declared one evening newspaper, “roofs, windows, verandas — even lamp-posts, railings, walls, hoardings, trees, statues, and monuments — every possible point of vantage was utilised by eager sightseers” (“30,000 Mourners”).

Ashe Funeral O'Connell Statue FJ 2 Oct 1917p6

Freeman’s Journal 2 Oct. 1917: 6.

The Freeman’s Journal reported that “residents of many houses were charging for seats at their windows, and that the sites were appreciated by those taking advantage of them was testified by the numbers who witnessed the procession from these points” (“Thomas Ashe”). The caption to a photograph in the Freeman reads:

Sunday at the O’Connell Statue: The above picture gives a very good idea of the dimensions of the crowd which surged round and up the base of the O’Connell Statue on Sunday afternoon. For fully two hours before the cortege was due to pass men and boys by the score fought to obtain a good view by climbing amongst the figures which adorn the plinth, until all but the statue itself was obscured.

Iron Strain Boh 30 Sep 1917

Still of Dustin Farnum and Enid Markey in The Iron Strain (US: Kay-Bee/New York, 1915), known in Ireland and Britain as A Modern Taming of the Shrew. Image from IMDb.

That said, other factors in the first exhibition of The Funeral of Thos. Ashe must have worked to dissipate this participative dynamic or to make it fleeting. Advertisements for the Sunday evening show at the Bohemian, for example, describe it as “a special long and interesting programme,” featuring “a five-part exclusive comedy-drama entitled, ‘A Modern Taming of the Shrew.’” This film – known in America as The Iron Strain – was a Western comedy starring Dustin Farnum and Enid Markey. With the evening performance beginning at 8.30 and the funeral film screening at ten o’clock, the audience would have experienced an hour and a half of A Modern Taming of the Shrew and other films before the funeral film. Nothing about this programming suggests that the audience was being kept in a suitably reverent, nationalistic or rebellious state of mind. There is also no report that the cinema’s well-publicized orchestra played dirges or patriotic tunes during the funeral scenes, although it seems very likely that it did during the screening of the funeral film itself because this was the practice on similar occasions.

As well as this, the Limelight article suggests that it was not primarily the continuation of the demonstration that brought mourners to the Bohemian but the narcissistic pleasure of seeing oneself on screen, of picking oneself out of the crowd. This kind of pleasure was certainly a feature of some of the earliest locally made films, which invited people who believed that they may have been filmed by a visiting cinematographer to “come and see yourself” on screen. And although there was a narcissistic potential here, early films also purposely employed the figuration of the crowd as an instance of identification with oneself not as an individual but as part of a collective.

May 1918 IL Irish Events ad CU

The cover of the May 1918 issue of Irish Events featured an ad listing 35 cinemas around Ireland that subscribed to Irish Events.

As such, this film and others like it address not only those who could claim this very direct form of spectatorial identification with the image that came from attending the event, but also those who would have wished to be there. In the weeks following the funeral, apart from cinema-goers who were indifferent or hostile, it is likely that screenings of the film in Dublin and around Ireland, not least in the 35 cinemas that subscribed to Irish Events, would have brought together spectators who had taken part in the demonstrations as well as those who had wished to but been unable to attend. From this perspective, these films are essentially local newsreels targeted at spectators who could decode them. Therefore, it was not only the actual participants who would be able to place themselves in the crowd, but also those who could fill in this “back-story,” those who would have wanted to be in the crowd and who, as a result, became virtual participants. These films worked on the desire to see oneself as a participant, whether or not one actually had been present at the event, and provided a semi-public context in which to experience this mediated participation.

Ch4Four

Irish Limelight Apr. 1918: 14

Such Irish Events specials as The Funeral of Thos. Ashe could be used to imply identification between the spectator and popular protest. In the period between the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence, GFS seems to have ensured its audience by being more obviously favourable to the nationalist cause. An ad on the cover of the April 1918 issue of Irish Limelight listed Irish Events specials: Irish Sinn Fein Convention; Funeral of Thos. Ashe; Release of the Sinn Fein Prisoners; South Armagh Election; Consecration of the Bishop of Limerick; Funeral of the Late John Redmond, M.P.; and Waterford Election. “It has been proved,” boasts the ad, “that topicals such as any of the above will attract a larger audience than a six-reel exclusive.” In the context of wider political events and especially when they took the place of the featured attractions at the top of the cinema programme, as The Funeral of Thos. Ashe did at the Bohemian Picture House on 30 September 1917, the political significance of these films becomes more fully visible.

References

“30,000 Mourners: Incidents in Yesterday’s Mighty Funeral.” Evening Herald 1 Oct. 1917: 3.

“Films Up-to-Date.” Irish Limelight Oct. 1917: 8.

“Funeral of Thomas Ashe: Sinn Fein Demonstration in Dublin.” Irish Times 1 Oct. 1917: 6.

“Sunday at the O’Connell Statue.” Freeman’s Journal 2 Oct. 1917: 6.

“Thomas Ashe: Funeral in Dublin Yesterday: Impressive Scenes: Enormous Crowds Throng the Streets.” Freeman’s Journal 1 Oct. 1917: 3.

Exhibiting Tanks to Irish Cinema Fans, February 1917

A tank goes into battle in The Battle Ancre and Advance of the Tanks (Britain: British Topical Committee for War Films, 1917) from the Imperial War Museums.

A tank goes into battle in The Battle Ancre and Advance of the Tanks (Britain: British Topical Committee for War Films, 1917); Imperial War Museums.

Cinema was so popular in Ireland in February 1917 that the press had to search for a name for its adherents, and they found it in American vernacular. “This morning there is a heart-cry from a cinema fan,” the “Gossip of the Day” columnist in the Evening Telegraph noted on 21 February 1917:

He doesn’t know that he is a cinema fan, and that is the crux of the trouble – he is ignorant of the great American language. I gather from his pathetic note that he is a regular patron of the “silent drama,” yet he finds a difficulty in understanding the explanatory inscriptions with which American producers seek to help the intellects of those who sit in the outer darkness.

Although cinema was primarily a visual medium and as such offered the promise of an international language, it still required words to specify the meaning of what might otherwise be ambiguous images. The silent film’s intertitles carried those words, but they were often in a dialect not universally understood. The columnist was surprised at this because s/he believed that “regular patrons of this form of amusement were able to understand any announcement on the screen from the ‘slick’ slang of East Side New York to the weird attempts at English of the Italian, French and Danish producers.”

Most of the films that Irish cinemagoers saw were indeed American, but it was a British film that sought to attract as many Irish cinema fans as possible in February 1917. Monday, 19 February saw the Irish opening of The Battle of the Ancre and Advance of the Tanks (Britain: British Topical Committee for War Films, 1917), a War Office-sponsored propaganda film more often called simply The Tanks. Despite this foreshortened title, tanks featured only occasionally in the film. “Throughout the five scenes,” the Evening Herald’s Man About Town complained, “the Tanks are seen about four times altogether, each time only for a very brief passing moment.”

Whatever about the coming disappointment, anticipation for the film could build on tantalizing glimpses of this new war machine that had been accumulating for several months. In autumn 1916, Irish people had read about the first battlefield deployment of tanks, and in November 1916, Dubliners had even had the opportunity of seeing a tank film, albeit it the animated Tank Cartoon (Britain: Kineto, 1916). The cinema trade press had also informed its Irish readers about the shooting of the War Office tank film (“About Those Tanks!”).

faugh-a-ballaghs-il-feb-1917

The Dublin Evening Mail appears not to have been exaggerating when it noted that the “coming of the “Tanks’ Film’ to Dublin has been eagerly anticipated.” Publicity for the film could draw on what appears to have been a widespread fascination with this new weapon, in a similar way to which the earlier propaganda films had focused on artillery or aircraft. Previewing the coming shows at Dublin’s Theatre Royal, the city’s largest entertainment venue, the Mail writer observed that the “film portrays the most interesting happenings during the Battle of the Ancre, when the Tanks were first heard of, and promises to prove one of the most successful of the many interesting war films already seen in Dublin. The Battle of the Ancre stands out as one of the most striking phases of ‘The Big Push’” (“‘The Tanks’ at ‘The Royal’”).

Indeed, the Royal starting advertising the film as early as 10 February, when a short item warned patrons to book the film to avoid disappointment: “Your remember the trouble you had getting a seat at the ‘Battle of the Somme’ films, but you say to yourself that there will be no difficulty with ‘The Tank’ films, and you delay booking only to find yourself in the same position as before” (“‘The Tanks’ Film at the Theatre Royal”). The added attraction of The Tanks was that it included footage of Irish soldiers: “There were no Irish regiments shown in the Somme film, but Lieut. Malins, who took the pictures, succeeded in getting some splendid films of our gallant Irish Brigade.” Despite such extensive publicity of the film, the Royal only showed it at matinees (beginning at 2.30pm), except on Wednesday, when the film replaced the Royal’s two evening variety shows (beginning at 6.45pm and 9pm). Nevertheless, the film was presented at the Royal with “special music and effects that […] should help one to realise ‘what it is like.’ The band of the famous Faugh-a-Ballaghs will play at every performance” (“‘The Tanks’ at ‘The Royal’”). Unfortunately no review of the Royal shows appears to exist that specifies what effects – presumably sound effects imitating exploding shells – were used during the shows and how the audiences responded.

tanks-grafton-dem-21-feb-1917

Dublin Evening Mail 19 Feb. 1917: 2.

The Royal was far from the only Dublin venue showing the film that week. Another large theatre, the Empire, showed the film all week alongside a somewhat reduced variety programme. Several of the most prestigious picture houses also screened it, with the Bohemian, Carlton, Masterpiece and Town Hall, Rathmines showing it for the first three days of the week, and the Grafton retaining it into the second half of the week. The Bohemian managed to show the film four times daily at 3, 5, 7 and 9, but this was eclipsed by the six shows that the Grafton managed to squeeze in at 1.45, 3.15, 4.45, 6.15, 7.45 and 9.15, “so that business men and others can all have an opportunity of making acquaintance with these new machines of war, of which Sir Douglas Haig says he cannot speak too highly” (“Grafton Picture House”).

While Dublin’s newspapers reviewed the film positively – even the Herald‘s Man About Town, despite his disappointment about the little screen time devoted to the tanks themselves – the Irish Times printed the longest review, and it was most forthright in clarifying the film’s ideological intent. Its “exhibition creates many thrills, and gives a very vivid conception of the war in all its phases,” the writer argued. S/he admitted that this had been done before, most notably by the very popular Battle of the Somme (Britain: British Topical Committee for War Films, 1916), but it had been criticized for showing British soldiers being killed. “[I]n the Tank films one is spared the somewhat gruesome side of the fighting. The tanks are awesome but not gruesome” (“‘Tanks in Action’”). In the face of so much evidence to the contrary, the film therefore helped recruiting by propagating a myth of British military invulnerability. “Should they stimulate our young men to help those Irishmen whom they see manning the trenches,” the Times writer concluded a lengthy review, “‘The Tanks in Action’ will be doing good work in Dublin.”

ultus-sydney-master-dem-24-feb-1917p2

Dublin Evening Mail 24 Feb. 1917: 2.

The Times did not usually offer extensive reviews of films, but other newspapers were taking cinema increasingly seriously. On 19 February, the Evening Telegraph – the evening edition of the Freeman’s Journal – resumed publication after a hiatus caused by the destruction of its premises during the Easter Rising. Among its innovations was a Saturday column entitled “Kinematograph Notes and News.” The first series of notes on 24 February included both international items and some of particular Irish relevance. The latter included a notice that Aurele Sydney, star of Ultus series, would attend the Masterpiece Cinema during the following week’s screenings of Ultus and the Secret of the Night (Britain: Gaumont, 1917). Another note concerned the views of John Bunny, a film star who had visited Ireland five years previously and discussed the possibilities for film production in the country. Given that it made no mention of the Film Company of Ireland’s recent filmmaking efforts, the reason for the inclusion of the note on Bunny is unclear, unless it was to quietly contradict the claim made in the Masterpiece’s ad that Sydney was the first cinema star to visit Ireland.

This column was praised by a writer in the Irish Limelight, the cinema magazine that had begun publication in January 1917. “Readers of the Saturday Evening Telegraph got an agreeable surprise recently when they found that cinema notes were introduced,” “Movie Musings” columnist Senix observed. The surprise that the staff at the Limelight got on seeing the column may not have been all that agreeable, given that a weekly newspaper column might steal much of the thunder of the monthly journal. Nevertheless, Senix took it to be a positive development, commenting that “[t]his recognition of the people’s amusement proves pleasant reading after the many bitter attacks which have been made in the local Press. And the fact that it comes so soon after the appearance of the Irish Limelight sets us thinking.”

Dublin Evening Mail 17 Feb. 1917: 2

Dublin Evening Mail 17 Feb. 1917: 2

Despite Senix’s optimistic reading of the appearance of the Telegraph‘s column, bitter attacks on cinema were still very much evident in February 1917, both in the press and in the auditorium. When the “Gossip of the Day” columnist had attempted to define “cinema fan” for his/her readers, s/he speculated that “‘fan’ must be American for ‘fanatic,’ as it is used to designate people who are peculiarly addicted to any pastime.” However, there may be reasons for distinguishing between cinema fans and cinema fanatics. Certainly serial protestor William Larkin was a fanatic often to be encountered in cinemas but not a cinema fan. Since 1914, Larkin had mounted periodic protests in Dublin’s picture houses against films that he and the Catholic Irish Vigilance Association (IVA) considered to be morally dubious. These protests occurred in the auditorium during the screening of the films and involved Larkin shouting about the need for a Catholic-influenced Irish censorship and/or throwing ink at the screen. Larkin sought arrest to magnify the reach of the protest through the newspaper reports of the disturbance and subsequent trial. He had usually found that the magistrates treated him leniently – even indulgently – but in December 1915, he had been jailed when he refused to pay a fine imposed for a cinema protest.

After a period of apparent inactivity during 1916, Larkin’s latest – and last for some years – cinema protest took place on 21 February 1917 during a screening of The Soul of New York (US: Fox, 1915; released in the US as The Soul of Broadway) at the Pillar Picture House in Dublin city centre (“City Cinema”). It followed a well-established pattern. At about 10.25pm, the picture-house porter heard a commotion in the auditorium, found that Larkin had thrown “a blue liquid” at the screen and went to get manager J. D. Hozier. Larkin made no attempt to escape and admitted to having thrown the liquid, which not only caused damage estimated at £30 to the screen but also “bespattered” the instruments and clothes of musicians Herbert O’Brien, Joseph Schofield and Samuel Golding in the orchestra (“City Cinema Scenes”). After several court appearances, the case seems to have been struck out at the end of March.

Evening Telegraph 22 Feb. 1917: 1.

Evening Telegraph 22 Feb. 1917: 1.

Although this “exciting episode” certainly garnered press coverage, how Larkin’s direct-action methods complemented the Irish Vigilance Association’s ongoing campaign for cinema censorship is not clear. Indeed, despite his previous affiliation with the IVA, Larkin may have been acting on his own in this instance. The IVA’s well organized political lobbying for the introduction and effective exercising of film censorship was well advanced by February 1917. In June 1916, Dublin Corporation had appointed Walter Butler and Patrick Lennon as film censors, and in January 1917, it had engaged two women as “lady inspectors” of picture houses (“Amusement Inspectors,” “Dublin Lady Censors”). The IVA found a ready welcome at Dublin Corporation. On the last day of February, its Public Health Committee (PHC) invited a seven-member IVA deputation to address them on Sunday opening (“Cinema on Sundays”). Answering the deputation’s complaint that many cinemas opened at 8 o’clock on Sunday evenings, thereby intruding on hours set aside for Catholic devotions, PHC chairman and former mayor Lorcan Sherlock assured the deputation that the Corporation would enforce a 8.30pm Sunday opening.

Therefore, Irish cinema was engaging both fans and fanatics in February 1917.

References

“About Those Tanks! Extraordinary Interest of the Latest ‘Big Push’ Films.” Bioscope 12 Oct. 1916: 121.

“Amusement Inspectors: Reports to Be Made on Dublin Performances.” Evening Herald 10 Jan. 1917: 3.

“Cinemas on Sundays: Vigilance Association and the Hours of Opening.” Evening Telegraph 1 Mar. 1917: 2.

City Cinema: Exciting Episode: Blue Liquid Thrown.” Evening Telegraph 22 Feb. 1917: 1.

“City Picture-House Scene.” Dublin Evening Mail 28 Feb. 1917: 2.

“Dublin Lady Censors: Names Submitted.” Freeman’s Journal 15 Jan. 1917: 4.

“Gossip of the Day: Comments on Current Events.” Evening Telegraph 21 Feb. 1917: 2

“Grafton Picture House.” Dublin Evening Mail 17 Feb. 1917: 5.

“Kinematograph Notes and News.” Evening Telegraph 24 Feb. 1917: 5.

The Man About Town. “Thing Seen and Heard.” Evening Herald 19 Feb. 1917: 2.

Senix. “Movie Musings.” Irish Limelight 1:3 (Mar. 1917): 3.

“‘The Tanks’ at ‘The Royal.’” Dublin Evening Mail 17 Feb. 1917: 4.

“‘The Tanks’ Film at the Theatre Royal.” Dublin Evening Mail 10 Feb. 1917: 5.

“‘Tanks in Action’: Cinema Pictures in Dublin.” Irish Times 20 Feb. 1917: 3.

“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.