The organizers of Edward Carson’s inspection of the Ulster Volunteer Force in Belfast on Saturday, 27 September 1913, made careful plans that this show of strength would leave nobody in Ireland, Britain or beyond in any doubt of Unionist opposition to Home Rule. Carson had been appointed head of the provisional Ulster government established at a meeting earlier that week, and the inspection was to give evidence of the growing army he could call on to resist attempts to impose a Dublin-based Home Rule parliament dominated by Ireland’s nationalist majority. These events were carefully stage-managed to ensure maximum publicity, with special accommodation made for the media. Under an elaborate headline decorated with unionist flags and emblems, the Belfast Newsletter’s lengthy report revealed that the “Pressmen were even more numerous on Saturday than at the demonstration held at Balmoral on Easter Tuesday, 1912, when Mr. Bonar Law, M.P., made an important speech; and the photographers were ubiquitous” (“Ulster Volunteer Force”). As well as in word and photograph, the proceedings would be recorded on film: “the cinematograph operators were also kept busy, but they were not properly tested until the troops came in sight. Then the machines began to work, and this week in nearly all the picture theatres in the United Kingdom views of the parade will be exhibited, and the electors of Great Britain, will have the opportunity of seeing for themselves what the Ulster Volunteers are doing in preparation for a great emergency” (“Ulster Volunteer Force”).
Although the local press was clear that this spectacle was not just for local consumption, prominent among the cinematographers were those engaged by Frederick Stewart, proprietor of the Panopticon Picture Theatre in Belfast’s High Street, and his primary audience was in the city. “Mr. Fred Stewart, of the Belfast Panopticon,” the Bioscope reported, “is supplying local topicals, and each day finds the seating capacity of his hall taxed to its utmost – despite the fact that he has only recently doubled the accommodation. Last Saturday he scored again by screening a film record of the review of the Ulster Volunteers. The picture, which was about 200 ft. long, was shown by Mr. Stewart within four hours after the event took place, a piece of work which for smartness and expedition has not been eclipsed locally” (“Jottings from Ulster”). The Newsletter offered some more precise details, claiming that Stewart was “entitled to great credit for being the first to exhibit pictures of the Review of the Belfast Division of Ulster’s Volunteer Force on Saturday, the films being in use at 8.40 p.m., about a couple of hours after the proceedings at Balmoral had come to a termination. It was gratifying to all patrons of yesterday’s entertainment to see those delightful views, which convey a very fine impression as to the strength and general effect of the display by one section of the loyalist army (“The Panopticon,” Newsletter).
Although this suggests that the Panopticon’s clientele was as unionist as the readership of the Newsletter; the account of the exhibition of the film by Belfast’s main nationalist daily, the Irish News, indicates that the showing was sufficiently low key to be treated as news rather than celebratory spectacle. “Whatever one may think of that demonstration as a political incident,” it observed, “it was undoubtedly a news item of some interest, and credit is due to Mr. Stewart, the popular manager of the Panopticon, for his enterprise in arranging to have the affair filmed and shown on the screen as early as nine o’clock on Saturday night” (“The Panopticon,” Irish News). However, after this praise of a local exhibitor, the reviewer devoted more attention to Florence Lawrence’s role in The One Good Turn, pointing out that the actress was no longer with the Vitagraph Company and was rumoured to be considering a series of films in Ireland in 1914.
The militant Ulster unionism on display at Balmoral was also Protestant, and the Protestant churches’ attitude to the cinema helps to explain the prominence of the cinematograph in the mediation of this event. Unlike a commercial picture house that might aim to appeal across both Catholic nationalist and Protestant unionist communities in order to maximize its audience, church halls only appealed to one side of the politico-sectarian divide. By 1913, many of Belfast’s Protestant church halls added the exhibition of moving pictures to their Saturday social activities. Although some Irish Catholic halls – such as the Gillooly Memorial Temperance Hall in Sligo – showed films (Condon), Protestant organizations embraced film exhibition far more wholeheartedly. The second venue that showed Stewart’s film of Carson’s review at Balmoral was the City YMCA Hall, where the audience would have broadly shared religious and political views. The Newsletter‘s review of this exhibition noted that “the great audience in the Y.M.C.A. Hall were surprised and delighted to witness a splendid series of moving pictures of Sir Edward Carson and the march past of the volunteers,” which they greeted “with loud cheers, again and again renewed” (“Smart Cinematograph Work”).
Despite the historical interest of the Carson film, cinema culture in Belfast was not dominated by films of current events. Preachers at the halls sometimes used films to highlight religious subjects, as the Methodist minister Robert Ker did when he explained “the lessons of the great picture, ‘The Curse of Drink’” before it was screened at Belfast’s Grosvenor Hall on 13 September 1913 (“Grosvenor Hall”). An understanding that Belfast audiences would appreciate a film with a temperance theme may have contributed to the Panopticon’s showing of The Temptation of Drink beginning on 22 September. A strong additional – if it was not primary – reason was that this film featured Danish star Asta Nielsen; Stewart had also chosen Nielsen’s Spanish Blood to reopen the extensively refurbished Panopticon on 12 September. If nationalist and unionist journalists and their readers inevitably disagreed on the value of political films, they agreed on the drawing power of such star actresses as Asta Nielsen and Florence Lawrence.
Condon, Denis. “’Brightening the Dreary Existence of the Irish Peasant’: Cinema Transforms Leisure in Provincial Ireland.” Early Popular Visual Culture 11.2 (2013): 126-39.
“Grosvenor Hall.” Ad. Belfast Newsletter 13 Sep. 1913: 6.
“Jottings from Ulster.” Bioscope 9 Oct. 1913: 143.
“The Panopticon.” Belfast Newsletter 30 Sep. 1913: 11.
“The Panopticon.” Irish News 30 Sep. 1913: 8.
“Smart Cinematograph Work.” Belfast Newsletter 29 Sep. 1913: 7.
“Ulster Volunteer Force.” Belfast Newsletter 29 Sep. 1913: 8.