“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.

History Without Tears in Irish Cinemas, June 1916

Framegrab from The Fight at St. Eloi; Imperial War Museums.

Framegrab from The Fight at St. Eloi (Britain: British Topical Committee for War Films, 1916); Imperial War Museums.

The London-based trade journal Bioscope opened its first June issue with an editorial entitled “The Moving Picture: The New National Weapon” and subtitled “A Force which Cannot Be Destroyed and Should Therefore Be Utilized.” “The new Defence of the Realm Regulations contain a warning that penalties will be incurred by the exhibition of unpatriotic cinematograph films,” it began, before confidently asserting:

We are happy to believe that the precaution was unnecessary. The power of the pictures has never yet been used in this country for the furtherance of disloyal or anti-British objects. It has, on the other hand, not seldom been employed with the utmost success in patriotic causes.

Nevertheless, the British government did see a reason for tighter legislative control of cinema in pursuit of the ideological goal of promoting patriotism, unanimity and support for recruitment in the context of a lengthy and costly war. The economic need to fund the war through increased tax had most directly affected cinema through the recently introduced Entertainment Tax.

"Trade Topics." Bioscope 1 Jun. 1916: 958

“Trade Topics.” Bioscope 1 Jun. 1916: 958

In many ways, cinema in Ireland in June 1916 looked like a mature industry, regulated by these laws, but also highly cognizant of and largely aligned with the London-based trade. Even Ireland’s laggardly film production showed considerable development when the Film Company of Ireland press-showed its first production, O’Neil of the Glen, on 29 June at Dublin’s Carlton Cinema (“Irish Film Production”). The Bioscope was one of the ways in which this alignment was achieved, and although it was certainly read in Ireland, members of the Irish cinema trade might have been less confident of the claims of this editorial. In the same 1 June issue, the journal’s “Trade Topics” column published the assertion of J. Magner of the Clonmel Theatre that the Bioscope was the best of the cinema trade papers. And in 22 June issue, Irish columnist “Paddy” informed readers that the Bioscope was available at Mrs Dunne’s shop in Dublin’s Brunswick Street – close to the Queen’s Theatre, Norman Whitten’s General Film Supply, distributor Weisker Brothers, and other cinema businesses.

In the aftermath of the Easter Rising, however, it was questionable to what the Irish population at large was loyal. Support for the war still dominated the mainstream Irish press, but antiwar and pro-republican sentiments were becoming less marginal. By June, some theatres and picture houses anxious to maintain displays of their loyalty to the Crown – and by extension, that of their patrons – encountered protests. The large Theatre Royal had been one of the first places of amusement to open after the Rising, when it had offered British Army propaganda films. This did not, however, mean that its audience could all be considered loyalists.

On 26 June, for instance, William Charles Joseph Andrew Downes, a church decorator living at 15 Goldsmith Street, Dublin, was arrested for riotous behaviour during a live show at the Theatre Royal. He had shouted abuse related to the Boer War at a uniformed soldier who had responded to a magician’s call for a volunteer from the audience (“Scene in City Theatre”). The Boer War of 1899-1902 had been extremely divisive in Ireland, with popular support for the Boers’ stand against the British Empire extending from fiery speeches by Parnell’s Irish Parliamentary Party in Westminster to attacks on British soldiers in the streets of Dublin, and it was directly linked to the Rising in the person of executed leader and former Boer Irish Brigade major John McBride (Condon). As Downes was being escorted out the door of the Theatre Royal, he drew attention to the Irish republican badge he was wearing – a display of solidarity with the Easter rebels – and suggested that it was the reason he was being expelled.

Downes’ outburst could not be completely dismissed as the actions of a drunk – the arresting constable described him as neither drunk nor sober but “half-and-half” – and it was not isolated. The previous week, seven young people between the ages of 17 and 29 – four men and three women – had been charged in Dublin’s Police Court with offenses under the Defence of the Realm Act and with assaulting the constables who had attempted to seize the green flag at the head of a procession of 400 republican supporters that had been followed through the city centre by a crowd of around 2,000 (“Amazing City Scenes”). The crowd had also shouted republican slogans and booed and groaned passing soldiers. The mass arrests and deportations in May had failed to quell advanced nationalist activism that was now consciously identifying itself as republican.

Town Topics June 1916

Dublin Evening Mail 19 Jun. 1916: 2.

This republican riot on Dublin’s streets provided an immediate if unacknowledged context for press commentary on the educational value of the official war films. “The boys of the future will have many advantages over the boys of the past,” observed the Dublin Evening Mail’s “Town Topics” columnist. “They will learn by picture-houses as well as by paradigms. It has been said that there is no Royal road to learning. There may be a Theatre Royal road, however” (“Town Topics”).

Official war films at the Gaiety; Evening Herald 14 Jun. 1916: 2.

Official war films at the Gaiety; Evening Herald 14 Jun. 1916: 2.

In a telling slippage, he was in fact discussing a new programme of official war films at the Gaiety Theatre rather than at the Royal. Although his point was about the ease or gaiety with which cinema could teach history, it is clear that this history would inculcate loyalty to the crown and war effort. “When I was in statu pupillari,” he continued,

history was taught me not without tears. The boys of the future will learn of the great war at the picture-palaces. I saw some of the official war films last week at the Gaiety Theatre. I saw the Irish regiments marching to Mass. I saw the heavy artillery attacking a German block-house. […] I saw our men in the trenches, preparing to seize the crater of a mine explosion. I saw them lobbing bombs like cricket balls at the enemy. Then I saw them – gallant Canadians at St. Eloi – fix bayonets and out over the parapet to charge across No Man’s Land and leap at the foe. Who would read the dull chronicles of Caesar of Livy after that?

Framegrab from Destruction of a German Blockhouse by 9.2 Howitzer; Impeial War Museum.

Framegrab from Destruction of a German Blockhouse by 9.2 Howitzer (Britain: British Topical Committee for War Films, 1916); Imperial War Museums.

In making this argument, the Town Topics writer was aligning himself with the Bioscope early 1916 description of the cinema as the “nation’s historian.” Although certainly exciting, these official films were not mere entertainment but a new kind of visual historiography. And this was not just a boon for schoolboys but also a new historical method that could help historians to overcome the wartime measures introduced by governments to control the flow of information. He argued that while “[a]t the beginning of the war it was thought the historians would be bankrupt, because the censorship hid deeds of our men in the mystery of the night,” in fact, “[t]he cinema will save the historian, and at least help him to pay ten shillings in the pound.”

Other press coverage of the Gaiety shows gives further details of how this new history was presented and received. The choice of a large “legitimate” theatre such as the Gaiety rather than in a picture house associated the films with a site of serious cultural production aimed at a discerning audience. On the other hand, the Gaiety adapted picture-house exhibition practices in showing the films at three shows a day beginning at 3pm. “[T]he Gaiety Theatre opens a practically new chapter in its career,” the Freeman’s Journal commented, “by the fact that the attraction is not the familiar drama, musical or otherwise, but the production of a series of official war pictures which are, beyond all doubt, of transcendent interest” (“Amusements”). “In imagination,” observed the Irish Times, “one may see Irish soldiers at work and play, the Connaught Rangers and Munster Fusiliers amongst them, and Captain Redmond is seen leading his company to the front lines” (“Public Amusements”). Similar to other entertainments at the theatre, “a most excellent musical accompaniment is supplied by the Gaiety orchestra” (“Amusements”). Although music might contribute to the ease with which these images could be perceived, the musical director would presumably have had to be careful to avoid evoking not tears of schoolboy struggle but those of poignant loss among audience members with relatives and friends in France.

More chapters of this history that could – a least theoretically – be assimilated without tears, were on the way. “At the General Headquarters of the British Army in France,” reported the Dublin Evening Mail on 22 June, “there was last night exhibited before a large gathering of distinguished officers and their guests the latest series of the official war films, which in due course will be presented to the public at home and to neutral Powers, amongst which the desire to learn what our troops are really doing is unquestionable very keen” (“Pictures Taken at the Front”). This first run before an expert military audience could not, however, guarantee how resistant audiences in Ireland or elsewhere might react.

The Irish Catholic Church seemed to also believe that the cinema could not easily be destroyed and should therefore be, if not utilized for its own purposes, at least shaped by its ideology. With the appointment in June 1916 by Dublin Corporation’s Public Health Committee of Walter Butler and Patrick Lennon as film censors, a milestone was reached in the church’s campaign to introduce local censorship that would reflect a distinctly Irish Catholic sensibility (Rockett 50). Films shown in Ireland already bore the certificate of the British Board of Film Censorship, which had been established by the film trade as a form of self-regulation to avoid government-imposed censorship. Even as Butler and Lennon were being appointed, the British industry was discussing renewed government determination to introduce official censorship. Among the cases cited that raised this issues in London was the banning of A Tale of the Rebellion, a film about the Easter Rising that showed an Irishman being hanged (“London Correspondence”). Even as they announced the introduction of censorship in Dublin, however, the Irish Vigilance Association (IVA) expressed impatience with the lack of urgency demonstrated by the Corporation in appointing censors (“Film Censors for Dublin”).

Musical attractions at the Pillar; Dublin Evening Mail 1 Jun. 1916: 2.

Musical attractions at the Pillar; Dublin Evening Mail 1 Jun. 1916: 2.

From the IVA’s perspective, censorship was increasingly urgent given cinema’s growing appeal for the middle class, epitomized by improvements to cinematic music in June 1916. Three Dublin picture houses led the musical field: the city-centre Pillar and Carlton and the suburban Bohemian. Reviewing the Pillar at the end of June, the Irish Times revealed that its “orchestra including such favourites as Mr. Joseph Schofield, Mr. Harris Rosenberg, Mr. H. O’Brien, Miss Annie Kane and Mr. S. Golding, continue[s] to delight large audiences” (“Pillar Picture House”). Just a few doors away from the Pillar on Sackville/O’Connell Street, the Carlton boasted in Erwin Goldwater an internationally renowned violinist as its orchestra leader and soloist.

Dublin Evening Mail 10 Jun. 1916: 2.

Dublin Evening Mail 10 Jun. 1916: 2.

The Bohemian, however, outdid both of these when it engaged Achille Simonetti. “Dubliners will keenly appreciate the enterprise of the management of the Bohemian Picture Theatre in permanently engaging the services of one of the most noted violinists of the day in the person of Signor Simonetti,” the Dublin Evening Mail argued. “Henceforth Signor Simonetti will act as leader of the Bohemian orchestra – which has won such a wide repute – and will give solos, as well as Mr. Clyde Twelvetrees, Ireland’s greatest ’celloist” (“Play’s the Thing”). Simonetti debuted alongside Twelvetrees at the Bohemian on Whit Monday, 12 June 1916, when the bill was topped by Infelice (Britain: Samuelson, 1915), based on a novel by Augusta Evans-Wilson and starring Peggy Hyland. And if this was not enough to draw a large audience, the Bohemian announced that it would revise its pricing back to pre-Entertainment Tax rates, adding the line “We Pay Your Tax” to future advertisements.

No ordinary musicians need apply to Bangor’s Picture Palace; Irish Independent 9 Jun. 1916: 6.

No ordinary musicians need apply to Bangor’s Picture Palace; Irish Independent 9 Jun. 1916: 6.

The Bohemian added violist George Hoyle two weeks later. “The management now consider that they have the most perfect arrangement of stringed instruments and performers for a picture theatre,” the Irish Times reported (“Platform and Stage”). In a rare article focused on “Picture House Music,” Dublin Evening Mail columnist H.R.W. agreed that the Bohemian’s orchestra was the best in the city and that Simonetti’s “distinguished abilities attract large numbers of people from the most distant parts of the city.”

Commenting favourably on the tendency for picture-house orchestras to add strings and avoid brass and woodwind, s/he observed that while “the theatre orchestra was allowed to degenerate into mere noisy accompaniments to conversations in the auditorium during the interval,” in the picture house, “conversation is subdued, the music is subdued, the lights are subdued. The whole effect is soothing to the nerves.” Referring to Twelvetree’s impressive rendering of Max Bruch’s arrangement of “Kol Nidre,” s/he speculated that “the exact atmosphere is created by the fact that the solos are played in half light. The attention paid by the audience shows that this new feature is appreciated to the fullest extent.” S/he concluded that “the picture houses are affording us an opportunity of hearing the very best music, and in the hands of such fine artists as I have mentioned we can hear anything from a string quartet to a symphony.”

Although the official war films were not shown at the Bohemian, music of this kind could certainly play a role in assimilating the new tearless history.

References

“Amazing City Scenes.” Dublin Evening Mail 19 Jun. 1916: 3.

“Amusements: The Gaiety Theatre.” Freeman’s Journal 13 Jun. 1916: 6.

“Bohemian Picture Theatre.” Irish Times 13 Jun. 1916: 2; 20 Jun. 1916: 7.

Condon, Denis. “Politics and the Cinematograph in Revolutionary Ireland: The Boer War and the Funeral of Thomas Ashe.” Field Day Review Issue 4 (2008); and “Receiving News from the Seat of War: Dublin Audiences Respond to Boer War Entertainments.” Early Popular Visual Culture Vol. 9, No. 2 (2011).

“Film Censors for Dublin.” Freeman’s Journal 22 Jun. 1916: 6.

H.R.W. “Picture House Music: Its Growth and Development.” Dublin Evening Mail 28 Jun. 1916: 5.

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

“London Correspondence.” Freeman’s Journal 16 Jun. 1916: 4.

“The Moving Picture: The New National Weapon.” Bioscope 1 Jun. 1916: 955.

“Pictures Taken at the Front: Splendid New Series: Operator Gets Bullet Through His Cap.” Dublin Evening Mail 22 Jun. 1916: 3.

“The Pillar Picture House.” Irish Times 27 Jun. 1916: 6.

“Platform and Stage.” Irish Times 24 Jun 1916: 10.

“The Play’s the Thing.” Dublin Evening Mail 10 Jun. 1916: 6.

“Public Amusements: The Gaiety Theatre.” Irish Times 13 Jun. 1916: 2.

Rockett, Kevin. Irish Film Censorship: A Cultural Journey from Silent Cinema to Internet Pornography. Dublin: Four Courts, 2004.

“Scene in City Theatre: ‘There Is a Brave Man.’” Dublin Evening Mail 26 Jun. 1916: 4.

“Town Topics: Being a Casual Causerie.” Dublin Evening Mail 19 Jun. 1916: 2.

Irish Cinema and the Desire for Change in April 1916

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skibbereen Coliseum SS 22 Apr 1916

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

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

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

The moon shines bright on Charlie Chaplin,

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

And his khaki trousers need a mendin’

Before we send him

To the Dardanelles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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