Relieving the Monotony of All Pictures: Variety Acts in Irish Cinemas, February 1915

Unlike the experience in an Irish picture house in 2015, the cinema audience a century ago expected to share the auditorium not only with other spectators but also the musicians and – often – variety artistes who were responsible for producing a considerable part of the entertainment live. On 4 February 1915, the Ulster correspondent of the cinema trade journal Bioscope began his/her regular “Jottings from Ulster” column in fairly typical fashion by praising the attractions available at Provincial Cinematograph Theatres’ Picture House, Royal Avenue, Belfast. The attractions included the pictures Marguerite of Navarre (France: Pathé, 1914), Nick Winter in the Wild West (US: Eclectic, 1914) and The Bond of Love (US: Selig, 1914), which were accompanied by an “orchestra [that] has been considerably augmented.” The music produced by the musicians in the cinema was not the only part of the show produced live because “the monotony of all pictures is delightfully relieved by Mr. Norman Williams, who sings every afternoon and evening.” While the orchestra was expected to accompany the pictures and increase their attractiveness by augmenting them, Williams’ singing was a separate feature of the programme and was used – according to Jottings, at least – to ensure that audiences would not be bored by a programme that just consisted of films.

Part of the programme at Dublin's Star Theatre of Varieties at which the first films in Ireland were shown in April 1896.

Part of the programme at Dublin’s Star Theatre of Varieties at which the first films in Ireland were shown in April 1896.

The claim here is worth lingering on because it implies that variety was a necessary part of the programme, and in this case, the necessary variety was based on the differences between live and recorded performance. Variation in the length and genre of films has already been discussed in other posts, but here variety refers to the kinds of live performance – singing, dancing, comedy, juggling, acrobatics and animal acts –with which audiences a century ago would have been intimately familiar from the variety theatre. The variety theatre or music hall had been one of the first places at which moving pictures were exhibited, and the notion that popular entertainment should offer a variety of attractions persisted long after dedicated picture houses first appeared, which in Ireland was the late 1900s. Before this, in the 1890s and 1900s, variety theatre had added film as another of its acts or “turns,” and in the 1910s and for a long time thereafter, some picture houses included not only a variety of film attractions with musical accompaniment but also live variety acts. In fact, given the existence of the mix of film and variety entertainment at such large venues as Dublin’s 4,000-seat Theatre Royal until the 1960s, cine-variety should be considered one of the country’s most persistent forms of entertainment.

In early 1915, in any case, some – but by no means all – Irish picture house owners and commentators recognized the economic and aesthetic benefits of presenting variety alongside film. The cinema trade was not unanimous on whether or not variety turn in cinemas was a good or necessary thing. The Bioscope had long considered the importance of variety in Britain to be confined to the provinces, commenting in an editorial in 1911 that it was particularly associated with “the Midlands and North of England, where at least in a great many halls, the programme is not considered complete unless two or three variety turns are included” (“The All-Picture Programme”). This still seems to have been the case in 1914-15, when the early months of the war saw a decline in music-hall business (“Variety Turns”). Because of falling audiences, music-hall owners faced with closure made a deal called the “Fifty and Fifty” with the Variety Artistes’ Federation in late 1914, agreeing to split box office receipts evenly between artistes and venues (“Variety Artistes”). The picture houses were not favoured with a deal. A meeting of the Variety Artistes’ Federation passed a resolution that “no scheme for the deduction of salaries be granted to picture theatres engaging variety artistes, and that full salaries be demanded” (ibid.).

Nevertheless, Jottings pointed out that “[v]arieties are very steadily creeping into the motion houses throughout Ulster to-day” (“Jottings,” 28 Jan.). At the end of January, Norman Williams at the Picture House, Royal Avenue was joined by “Miss Ruth Vollmer, Scotch comedienne, dancer and clever exponent on the Scotch pipes, [who] was the star attraction at Lisburn Palace” (ibid.). However, once Charles Bronson took over management of the Palace, Omagh, he relied on films alone to draw the audience rather than the variety turns favoured by former manager Alex Cockle (ibid.). At the end of February, Jeanne Bal and Eugenie Van Camp – “two Belgian refugees” – appeared at the Picture House, Regent Street, Newtownards, where the “rendition by Mdlle. Van Camp of ‘Tipperary’ is very pleasing” (“Jottings,” 4 Mar.). The other Newtownards cinema, the Picture Palace, had four variety acts, so that “one would not know whether to refer to it as a cinema with varieties, or as a music-hall with pictures” (ibid.).

Kinemacolor exhibition at The Theatre RoyalIrish Times 9 Feb. 1915: 4

Kinemacolor exhibition at Dublin’s Theatre Royal; Irish Times 9 Feb. 1915: 4

While the inclusion of variety acts in a picture house programme appeared to put more emphasis on the live aspects of cinema and the associated possibilities for local variation, the appearance in Ireland in early 1915 of technological developments in film sound and colour suggested that a complete cinematic experience could be supplied by the recorded artefact alone. Colour film technology was to be seen from 8-13 February at the matinees of Dublin’s Theatre Royal, which hosted a return of the Kinemacolor war films The Fighting Forces of Europe, which had been first seen in Ireland the previous November. The return visit came with the added publicity of royal command performances in London, and the first show in Dublin was attended by the Lord Lieutenant and Lady Aberdeen. The Aberdeens would themselves leave Ireland in late February, and their departure was filmed by Pathé and by local exhibitor I. I. Bradlaw and local topical specialist Norman Whitten (Paddy, 25 Feb.). In any case, the Kinemacolor war films were one kind of technological development of cinema but they were not self-explanatory and so needed to be “fully described by an interesting lecture given by Mr. John Doran, and a special orchestra under the direction of Mr. Allan Blackwood, the well-known conductor” (“War Pictures”).

Edison's Kinetophone 1914-15. Irish News 23 Mar. 1914: 8 and Evening Telegraph 25 Jan. 1915: 3.

Edison’s Kinetophone 1914-15. Irish News 23 Mar. 1914: 8 and Evening Telegraph 25 Jan. 1915: 3.

The film sound technologies on exhibition in Ireland in early 1915 offered the possibility that lecturer and orchestra could be dispensed with. In late January, the Edison company’s Kinetophone talking pictures, which had had their first Irish appeared in Belfast the previous March, opened for at two week run at Dublin’s Bohemian Picture Theatre. “The success of this the latest addition to the attractions of the popular Phibsboro’ House,” observed the reviewer in the Evening Telegraph, “was from the start most marked, and the display, which last night included a musical sketch entitled ‘After College Days’ and Edison’s Minstrels, immediately appealed to the hearty enthusiasm of the very large audience” (“The Bohemian”). However, the Kinetophone items did not even nearly fill the programme but had to be supplemented by three reels of The Barefoot Boy (US: Kalem, 1914), the Pathé Gazette newsreel and comedy The Great Toe Mystery (US: Keystone, 1914). A full programme of talking-and-singing pictures was still some way off.

Evening Telegraph 19 Oct. 1914: 4

Evening Telegraph 19 Oct. 1914: 4

Licensing was one reason that picture house owners might have wished to have fewer live elements to deal with. Live music, and particularly the live singing of a variety artist, required entertainment venues to have a music-and-dancing licence. The reasons for this were made clear in late February 1915, when the latest proceedings were heard against a Dublin picture house, in this case, the Dame Street Picture House, that the city authorities claimed needed not just a cinematograph licence – which was mainly designed to ensure fire safety – but also a music-and-dancing licence. A related case against the Electric Theatre, Talbot Street had concluded in December 1914 with the prosecution of that cinema for not having a music-and-dancing licence (“City Cinemas”). The case against the Electric Theatre was apparently more straightforward because at the Electric’s evening performances, the pictures were accompanied not only by the piano that was used earlier in the day but also by a violin and cello. As a result, Justice Mahony had decided that the Electric’s claim that music was subsidiary to the entertainment was not sustainable. Although the case against the Dame was also due for decision, it had been adjourned because at the Dame only a piano was used to accompany the films.

These cases offer some fascinating details about the nature of live musical accompaniment at these relatively small picture houses at this period. Neither of them employed variety acts, and the musical accompaniment was the main kind of live supplement to the recorded images. While such larger picture houses as the Rotunda and Bohemian made a feature of the live music they offered, naming the musical director in advertising and at least on occasion, mounting special musical entertainments, these smaller venues downplayed the role of music to their entertainment. At least they did so in the context of this court case, which was part of a legal strategy to avoid having to pay for a music licence and/or pay a fine. The Electric’s argument that music was subsidiary was judged unbelievable because the judge concluded that the music was not just used to cover incidental noises in the cinema. Although the newspaper accounts do not state this explicitly, this was clearly true because the Electric augmented the music at the evening entertainment by the inclusion not just of louder music to cover the increased noises of a larger audience but of two instruments that enhanced the musical range of the performance.

By providing consistent piano accompaniment day and evening, the Dame had a stronger case that the music was subsidiary. As a result, when on 27 January 1915, the magistrate also fined them for not having a music licence, they appealed to the King’s Bench, which heard the case on 25 February. “It was proved,” a report in the Dublin Evening Mail revealed, “that at the exhibitions of pictures music in the form of piano playing was performed, which was more or less appropriate to the picture at the time on the screen Such music was performed only while the pictures were on the screen.” As a result, the Dame argued that a

certain amount of noise was occasioned during the exhibition of the pictures by the coming and going of attendants and persons entering and leaving the premises, and by the working of the [projection] apparatus. […M]usic was necessary, and was intended mainly for the purpose of deadening or drowning the noise which was likely to distract attention from the pictures, and that under these circumstances a licence for music was not necessary. (“Music in a Cinema”)

This offers a vivid image of the kind of challenges picture-house musicians faced. It did not, however, convince the justices on the King’s Bench, who voted a 2-1 majority to affirm the magistrate’s decision that the music at the Dame represented a separate attraction that required a licence. Even if part of the function of music in the picture house was to “drown the noise” of early cinema’s supplementary live soundtracks, it also provided an aesthetic experience in itself, if not a layer of acoustic interpretation of the pictures on screen.

Evening Herald 3 Feb 1915:3.

Evening Herald 3 Feb 1915:3.

War-themed subjects remained among the most popular of the pictures on screen. How films provided an alternative forum in which to think about current events was shown when the Evening Herald printed a map of the war at sea around the coasts of Britain and Ireland, emphasizing the proximity of the war. Although much of this action was located in the North Sea, German submarines attempted to cut the transatlantic supply lines to Britain. The Lusitania – sunk off Cork in May 1915 – was the most famous casualty of the German blockade. With the appearance of The Huns of the North Sea in Ireland at the end of January, Sidney Morgan and John Payne’s P&M’s Films offered Irish audiences a way of imagining the new forms of warfare at sea involving minefields and submarines. The “short two-reeler, dealing with the mine-laying […] should prove exceptionally attractive to halls situated in the North of Ireland, where the mine-field was lately found” (Paddy, 21 Jan.).

Whether through live music or engaging and relevant images, the cinema a century ago continued to draw the attention of the public.


“The All-Picture Programme: Where “Variety” Is Not Wanted.” Bioscope 21 Sep. 1911: 591.

“The Bohemian.” Evening Telegraph 26 Jan. 1915: 2.

“City Cinemas: Question of Music Licence: Prosecution: In the Dublin Police Courts; Mr. Mahony’s Decision.” Evening Herald 30 Dec. 1914: 3.

“Dancing and Singing: City Picture House’s Application: Described as ‘Novel.'” Evening Herald 23 Oct. 1914: 4.

“Jottings from Ulster.” Bioscope 28 Jan. 1915: 339; 4 Feb. 1915: 437; 4 Mar. 1915: 837.

“Music in a Cinema: Interesting Dublin Case: ‘To Drown the Noise.’”Dublin Evening Mail 26 Feb. 1915: 5.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 21 Jan. 1915: 263; 25 Feb. 1915: 741.

“Theatre Royal Hippodrome.” Evening Telegraph 6 Feb. 1915: 6.

“Variety Artistes in Picture Theatres.” Bioscope 19 Nov. 1914: 707.

“Variety Turns in Picture Theatres.” Bioscope 17 Dec. 1914: 1288.

“War Pictures in Kinemacolor.” Dublin Evening Mail 4 Feb. 1915: 6.

“A Terrible Lot of Pups in Balbriggan”: Ensuring the Observance of Cinema Regulations

Reporting on their work in the final quarter of 1913, the Dublin Corporation councillors on the Public Health Committee revealed that they had granted an application for a pay increase made by two public servants. Building surveyors J.J. Higginbotham and William Mulhall deserved an extra £15 per annum because

the duties of examining plans of proposed Places of Public Resort, and the inspection and charge of the several Theatres, Cinema Houses, and other Places of Public Resort, had, to a large extent, devolved to them. […] There had been a large increase in the number of places of public amusement within recent years. These were scattered over a large area, and required frequent inspection to ensure the observance of the Regulations” (Dublin Corporation).

In 1910, the Corporation had increased the pay of Walter Butler, inspector of theatres and places of public resort, in acknowledgement that his work had increased with the introduction of the 1909 Cinematograph Act. However, with the growth in the number of picture houses and their wider distribution around the city than any other places of public resort, Butler delegated more of that work to Higginbotham and Mulhall, and they had to be compensated for the extra workload in their turn. Although the most obvious manifestation of the popularity of cinema was the appearance of a new kind of building on the streetscape, among many less apparent but wide-reaching material effects was its contribution to the careers of certain public officials.

Map of Dublin indicating main places of public resort, that is, theatres and cinemas.

Map of Dublin indicating main places of public resort, that is, theatres and cinemas.

Building regulation was one of the ways that cinema became a cultural institution imbedded in the institutional landscape of 1910s Ireland, and it raises questions about who was doing the regulating. This process was driven from inside Dublin Corporation and other local councils by powerful councillors and other senior officials who were sometimes themselves picture house proprietors or shareholders. John J. Farrell – Dublin’s mayor in 1911 and proprietor in 1913 of the Electric Theatre, Talbot Street and Mary Street Picture House – is frequently cited in this regard (Rockett 28-9, 33-4). However, Farrell was by no means alone in his conflict of interest. Dublin’s long-serving chief medical officer Sir Charles Cameron performed the opening ceremonies of several picture houses, including such early ones as the Dublin Cinematograph Theatre – later the Picture House, Lower Sackville/O’Connell Street – in April 1910, and Farrell’s Electric Theatre in May 1911. When he opened the picture house at the Clontarf Town Hall in July 1913 – receiving a gift of a gold-mounted umbrella – he revealed that he was a shareholder in a cinema company “which was paying 20 per cent., and he was only sorry he didn’t sell out all he had and invest the proceeds in a picture house (applause and laughter)” (“Clontarf Electric Theatre”).

Dorset Picture Hall in its later guise of the Plaza. (Irish Architecture Online.)

Dorset Picture Hall, in its later guise of the Plaza, clearly retaining its origins as a Baptist chapel. (Irish Architecture Online.)

Twenty percent was also the handsome return on profit enjoyed by Farrell and the shareholders of the Talbot Street Electric Theatre, but Cameron was not among these shareholders; “he only honoured us by opening it” (“Dublin Electric Theatre”). Nevertheless, Farrell appealed the Electric’s £160 valuation in November 1913, and the Recorder (chief magistrate) reduced it, accepting that the Electric should not have a higher valuation than the Dorset Street Picture House, which Farrell claimed could hold 1,600 people and charged 3d, 6d and 1s when the Electric had to do away with the top rate on its 3d-6d-9d scale. Effectively shifting attention onto the Dorset, whose owner had no known links to the Corporation, Farrell observed that “in Lent, when other places of a like character were nearly empty, the door porter at Dorset street held out his hands and said, ‘Room for no more’ (laughter)” (ibid).

Handbill for M. W. Shanly's Dorset Picture Hall in July 1914, featuring the latest film adaption of T. W. Robertson's play David Garrick.

Handbill for M. W. Shanly’s Dorset Picture Hall in July 1914, featuring the latest film adaption of T. W. Robertson’s play David Garrick. (Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.)

Indeed, the Dorset was an interesting venue; one of the largest picture houses in Dublin, it had been barely converted from the former Bathesda Chapel by M. William Shanly, who was known primarily for providing chairs at parks in London and Dublin (“Dorset Picture Hall”). Despite having a much larger capacity than the Electric, it resembled Farrell’s picture house in housing a tearooms and being located well off the city centre’s main thoroughfares and close to a large railway station; in the Dorset’s case, this was Broadstone Station. “Travellers can see the pictures, and have their tea, with the assurance that they have not far to go when the time comes to catch their train” (Paddy, 14 Mar. 1912). Already an imposing building, the Dorset was by night “a veritable blaze of light. No less than 300 electric lamps adorn the building, and they have been grouped with care” (Paddy, 5 Dec 1912). Although many patrons smoked, “improved ventilators on the sides and roof of the hall, and on the stage [ensured that] there are scarcely any smoke rays form the operating box to the screen” (ibid).

Dorset small ad for staff. Irish Times 20 March 1911: 1.

Dorset small ad looking for staff. Irish Times 20 March 1911: 1.

With such a large clientele, the Dorset required an extensive staff, and Shanly and his manager Frederick William Sullivan advertised for many of these positions in the Irish Times in March 1911. These included ticket checkers, bill posters, a lady pianist who could play to pictures, two young women to sell tickets and refreshments, an experienced assistant operator to help with the picture house’s five projectors, and boys to sell programmes. The requirements for the door porter mentioned by Farrell were most specific: the two men who were sought must have retired from the police, present a smart appearance, be active and be prepared to wear a uniform. Shanly and Sullivan clearly intended to give the impression that whatever the state of picture houses in other parts of the city, the behaviour on their premises would be well regulated.

Not all Irish picture shows in late 1913 had an imposing attendant or two on the door capable of deterring unruly behaviour. On 22 November, the small County Dublin town of Balbriggan witnessed scenes of uproar, when a group of six local young men rushed the Town Hall to gain free admittance to a picture show (“At the Cinema”). Rather than a burly ex-policeman on the door, a man named McInerney “constituted himself doorman at the outer entrance on the occasion, and was trying to keep order, in the hope that his efforts in that direction might be rewarded by free admission to the pictures” (ibid). McInerney was no match for the six young men, some of whom

went into the passage where tickets for the cinema performances were being issued, and by their frightful language and disorderly and violent conduct caused such a scene of confusion that many intending patrons of the show turned away from the door, while other, who were already inside, came out again through fear and went home (ibid).

At the trial of the young men for riotous and disorderly behaviour, local lamplighter Patrick Darkin “informed the magistrates that there was ‘a terrible lot of pups in Balbriggan,’ and advised their Worships to put a stop to their conduct, which, he said, had resulted in a great deal of damage to the Town Hall” (ibid). Effective regulation of picture houses would be necessary for the cinema to considered respectable entertainment. This would serve the business interests of owners and shareholders, including those working within Dublin Corporation to ensure that their own business interests were legally protected.


“At the Cinema: Wild Scenes in Balbriggan.” Evening Telegraph 3 Dec. 1913: 6.

“Clontarf Electric Theatre: New Picture Enterprise.” Freeman’s Journal 19 July 1913: 5.

“Dorset Picture Hall.” Irish Builder 13 May 1911: 317.

Dublin Corporation. Committee Minutes, 1914: 1, pp. 592-3.

“Dublin Electric Theatre: Appeal Against Valuation of Premises.” Dublin Evening Mail 4 Nov. 1913: 3.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 14 Mar. 1912: 759.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 5 Dec. 1912: 725.

Rockett, Kevin and Emer. Film Exhibition and Distribution in Ireland, 1909-2010. Dublin: Four Courts, 2011.

“An Objectionable Class from the City”

“One aspect of the strike which has probably not been brought home to the public,” begins a tantalizing article in the Evening Herald on 18 October 1913, “is the effect which it has had upon the amusements of Dublin, such as theatres, music halls, and cinematograph shows” (“Dublin Theatres and the Strike”). Despite offering the views of prominent – albeit unnamed and paraphrased – theatre, music hall and cinema managers, the almost 700-words that follow are, if intriguing, also finally frustratingly unspecific. This is not because as a newspaper owned by employers’ leader William Martin Murphy, the Herald missed few opportunities to point out the folly of Dublin’s striking workers, who had been, it often argued, criminally led astray by union leader Jim Larkin. There are traces of that editorial line here, but the real disappointment is that the writer appears misleadingly to conceive each of these entertainments as being entirely identified with a single class. This, then, looks gratifyingly like a suitable case for analysis and supplement.

The article starts soundly enough by observing that the Lockout affected the city’s entertainments in general in two ways:

firstly, that inasmuch as the earning capacity of some thousands of men has been stopped, therefore their spending capacity has likewise been curtailed.

Secondly, that where the earnings have not been interfered with, among those who are not directly concerned with the strike, yet who live some considerable way from the city, they have been unable to patronise the various entertainments provided for their amusement owing to the difficulties of travel consequent upon the curtailment of the tramway programme (ibid).

A large number of workers with severely reduced income and restrictions on public transport were undoubtedly key factors affecting audience numbers, but the article is less convincing in the argument it makes about the identification of entertainments with particular classes.

It implies that theatre provided entertainment for the social elite, music halls catered for the middle class, and cinema was for the working class. This is done by showing that not all types of entertainment were equally affected by the Lockout. The theatres “have done comparatively well, and the manager of one important theatre stated that had it not been for the strike he would have eclipsed all records” (ibid). Music halls, by contrast,

had suffered considerably, the seats of these houses, whilst altogether more expensive than those of cinematograph shows were cheaper than those of the theatres, so that whereas the man who would pay three or four shillings for a seat at the theatre would and could afford the cost of a conveyance to and from his residence[, t]he man who came from the outlying parts could not, and it is too far to walk a couple of miles each way (ibid).

The difference in ticket prices here seems to create a rigidly stratified system. Stratification based on price, class and type of entertainment certainly existed but not in the way implied here. It is too much of a simplification to state that theatregoers were substantially of a class that could in the absence of trams due to the strike, afford private transport or a cab, while music hall patrons were from a class that lived in the suburbs (to a degree that severely impacted on the business of music halls) but could not afford to pay both for admission and transport home. But the argument become particularly problematic in relation to cinema.

Although the article seems to suggest that the cinematograph shows were competing with music halls for audience, it only discusses picture houses as working-class venues:

In the poorer parts of the city where the cheaper cinematograph shows abound, these have been directly affected by the loss of custom consequent upon those who patronise them being strikers, and therefore, not earning any money. Some of these have suffered severely, and their owners and managers will be very pleased when the strike is settled (ibid).

Certainly the business of picture houses located in working-class areas was affected by the Lockout, but which ones the writer had visited or was thinking of is unclear.

Map Oct 1913

Map of Dublin in 1913 with pins indicating locations of picture houses, music halls and theatres.

The controversy over the Sunday opening of picture houses suggested that going to the pictures was not just a working class entertainment. On 24 October 1913, the Recorder of Dublin – the city’s chief magistrate – considered an application for a Sunday music licence for the Dame Street Picture House, without which it could not open. From their previous applications in April and July 1913, the proprietors of the Dame Street Picture House knew the authorities’ views that the Grafton and O’Connell Street picture houses “were frequented by persons of the better class, and there was no necessity that they should be opened on Sundays for their benefit” (CSORP/1915/2211). As a result, the proprietors argued that the “people who frequented the Grafton street house were generally people who went shopping. The Dame street house was frequently largely by the working classes, and the object of the application was to give facilities to the working classes to attend performances on Sundays” (ibid). They classed themselves among the picture houses that were allowed to open on Sunday: the Phoenix Picture Palace, the Irish Cinema in Capel Street, the Dorset Picture Hall, the Camden Picture House, the Theatre de Luxe in Camden Street, the Picturedrome in Harcourt Road, the Brunswick Street Cinema, the Princess Cinema in Rathmines, the Mary Street Picture House, the Volta in Mary Street, the World’s Fair Varieties in Henry Street and the Electric Theatre in Talbot Street (ibid).

Dame Phoenix Sunday 1913

Ads for Sunday shows at Phoenix and, despite the Recorder’s ban, the Dame; Evening Telegraph 25 Oct. 1913: 4.

The Recorder did not accept this, contending that Dame Street was one of the city’s principal streets – “near the residence of the King’s representative” in Dublin Castle – and not located in a working-class district (“Picture Houses”). He therefore treated the picture house there as he did the ones in Grafton Street and O’Connell Street by refusing them a Sunday licence. “He would give every facility to Sunday entertainments for the working classes, but he would not, so far as he could prevent it, give up the principal streets to these syndicates on Sundays” (“Sunday Cinemas”).

The Recorder’s licensing session also considered local objections to Sunday shows at Clontarf Town Hall, one of the city’s latest picture houses to open – and so not listed above. When Clontarf was incorporated into an expanded Dublin at the turn of the century, the administrative powers of its local council were assumed by Dublin Corporation, and its town hall had no function. Beginning on 18 July 1913, the hall’s leasee George Humphreys ran it as a picture house, with the proviso that he give it up when the Corporation needed it. “Mr. Robertson, (who represented the police) said that he went to the petty Sessions at Clontarf the other day, and they were held in this picture show (laughter)” (“Clontarf Cinema”). Reverend John L. Morrow, chairman of the Clontarf Citizens’ Association objected to the renewal of the picture house’s licence on the basis that local people had not been consulted on its use for this purpose. He complained in particular that its Sunday shows “brought out an objectionable class from the city” (ibid). Humphreys dismissed this claim, observing that “the hall was patronised by people like Ald. Maguire, of Clontarf; Mr. Brady (solicitor), and many other representative and legal gentlemen” (ibid). By 1913, the picture house no longer provided entertainment only for the working class.


“Clontarf Cinema: Citizens’ Association: Raise an Objection.” Evening Telegraph 24 Oct. 1913: 3.

CSORP/1915/2211, National Archives of Ireland.

“Dublin Theatres and the Strike.” Evening Herald 18 Oct. 1913: 4.

“Picture Houses: And Licence for Sunday Shows.” Evening Herald 24 Oct. 1913: 2.

“Sunday Cinemas: In Leading Streets.” Evening Telegraph 24 Oct. 1913: 6.

The Phoenix and the Rubble of Church Street


Illustrated London News, 13 September 1913. Tweeted by National Library of Ireland, 2 Sep. 2013 (

The decision of Dublin picture houses at the end of August 1913 to screen such social events as the Horse Show and the Neptune Rowing Club’s At-Home rather than the iconic opening sorties of the Lockout is indicative of the place that cinema as a cultural institution was coming to occupy in the Irish mediascape. Although not universally true for all picture houses – and as places of employment, some became sites of the ongoing labour disputes – picture houses were businesses owned and managed by men (almost exclusively men) who either already belonged to or who had ambitions to belong to the “respectable” classes. The Phoenix Picture Palace’s activities in relation to the Church Street Disaster in the first week of September 1913 gives some evidence of this.

Few events early in the Dublin Lockout better underscore the dire conditions in which many of the city’s workers lived than the Church Street Disaster. These events have been widely written about and will be commemorated this weekend, 6-7 September 2013 by the Stoneybatter and Smithfield People History Project. In brief, at about 8:30 on the evening of 2 September 1913, two tenement houses in Church Street collapsed, killing seven people. The most affecting story to circulate in the aftermath of the collapse was that of 17-year-old Eugene Salmon who saved several members of his family from one of the collapsing buildings but died while attempted to save his sister, Elizabeth. The newspapers were happy to make Salmon the tragic victim of the slums, and Dublin Corporation eventually felt pressured into setting up a Local Government Board inquiry (Nov 1912-Feb 1913) into the housing of the working class (extracts here). Neither the newspapers nor Jim Larkin as the representative of the striking workers made much of the fact that Salmon was a locked-out worker from Jacob’s biscuit factory. This allowed employers, led by newspaper owner William Martin Murphy, to claim solidarity with slum dwellers by condemning living conditions in the tenements, supporting an inquiry and initiating a relief fund for the survivors of the collapse (Corlett).

Among the many contributions to the relief fund established by the Freeman’s Journal/Evening Telegraph newspaper group were the proceeds from a benefit night on Tuesday, 9 September at the Phoenix Picture Palace. The Phoenix was located well out of the city centre, on Ellis’s Quay, about 10-minutes walk from Church Street. It was owned by the Phoenix Picture Palace, Limited, who directors were David Frame, Henry Grandy, John MacKay and Andrew Wright (“World of Finance”). When these proprietors reported on the progress of the Phoenix’s construction in July 1912, they projected that its 1,500 seats would mainly be occupied by the working-class residents of the surrounding district (Paddy, 4 July). The rising popularity of cinema would allow such large entertainment venues to operate in residential areas of the city and its suburbs. The proprietors also clearly assumed that as the Phoenix was located on a tramline just minutes from one of the city’s main railway stations, Kingsbridge, they could rely on significant passing trade from travellers using the Great Southern and Western Railway’s lines to and from towns and cities in the south and west. For the benefit night on 9 September, the Phoenix added live acts to the previously booked films, including singers (the “distinguished artistes” Maude Harrington Clancy – a recent Feis Ceoil medal-winner – contralto Madame Gill-Gorevan and baritone Albert Vine Sanderson), humorist Chris Bruton and the “manager of the Phoenix, Mr. Cathal MacGarvey, [who] will also make a re-appearance on the concert platform for this deserving charity” (Church St. Disaster”). The nature of the event and the tone of the newspaper coverage – which made no mention of the films – suggest that this was not designed to bring together the tenement dwellers but rather represented an occasion for a middle-class audience to display their charity. As such, it was successful. A “large audience was present, including several clergymen” (“Dublin and District”), and 353 shillings and sevenpence was donated in the Phoenix’s name to the relief fund (“Freeman-Telegraph Fund”).

Coliseum Opening 1913

The Coliseum Cinema, King (now MacCurtain) Street, Cork. National Library of Ireland  on Flickr Commons.

There was nothing particularly unusual in this; it was how successful business men drew positive attention to the social good their companies represented. In May 1912, the Electric Theatre in Talbot Street – a picture house in which David Frame shared an interest with then-Lord Mayor of Dublin John J. Farrell – had gained publicity by holding a benefit for the Titanic relief fund (Paddy, 30 May). For Frame and his partners in the Phoenix, the social respectability that came from the benefit for the Church Street victims was timely. Indeed, the 9 September was a big day for this group of businessmen, whose newest venture, the Coliseum in Cork, also opened on that day.


“Church St. Disaster.” Evening Herald 5 Sep 1913: 5.

Corlett, Chris. “The Church Street Disaster, September 1913.” History Ireland 17:2 (Mar-Apr 2009).

“Dublin and District: Aid for the Church Street Sufferers.” Irish Independent 10 Sep. 1913: 5.

“Freeman-Telegraph Fund.” Freeman’s Journal 12 Sep. 1913: 7.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 30 May 1912: 639; 4 July 1912: 25.

“World of Finance.” Bioscope 18 Sep. 1913: 933.