“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.

References

“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 Flictoflicker Girl

Irish Worker

he masthead of the Irish Worker incorporated idealized depictions of Irish men and women at their labours.

We are often told that labour leader Jim Larkin was against drinking, one of the main leisure pursuits of working-class Irish people, but little is said about his attitude or that of the wider labour movement to cinema. At least in terms of sheer chronology, the rise of the Irish labour movement paralleled the rise of cinema, with a burst of activity in the late 1890s, followed by a major resurgence in the early 1910s. What did labour leaders think about the cinema, this developing cultural institution that seemed so attractive to workers?

During the 1913 Lockout, labour leaders did not see cinema as a medium of agitation, an accessible way of disseminating their ideas. They did, of course, use popular media to agitate, educate and organize, but the popular agitational medium of choice was the press. Nevertheless, the references to cinema in the Irish Worker, the newspaper edited by Larkin from 1911 to early 1914, indicate that people in the labour movement were thinking about the new visual medium. Most of these references suggest that they thought about cinema in fairly straightforward ways. It was a source of income in the guise of the advertisements for the Irish Cinema in Dublin’s Capel Street, the only ads for an entertainment venue that appeared in the paper on a regular basis. It was the occasion of a parody of prominent opponents of radical labour – including Independent newspaper proprietor William Martin Murphy and picture-house owners who were also members of Dublin Corporation, J. J. Farrell and Lorcan Sherlock, the then Lord Mayor – who were said to have attended a special screening of Dante’s Inferno at the Camden Picture House on 10 February 1913 (“Farrell’s Inferno”). Beginning on 22 September, the film would have another week’s run at the Camden, accompanied by a special orchestra. And it was a new type of workplace where the more equitable worker-employer relations being demanded elsewhere also had to be fought for, as they would be when the Theatre de Luxe – another Camden Street picture house – was picketed in late September 1913 following a worker’s dismissal for union activity.

Camden PH Irish Life Dec 1912

An ad for the Camden Picture House in December 1912, showing both its streetfront – with doormen, plants, and cashbox – and auditorium.

The purpose of “The Flictoflicker Girl,” however, is much less straightforward. This short story was written by “Mac,” a pseudonym of Andrew Patrick Wilson, who also frequently contributed to the Irish Worker as “Euchan.” Scottish-born Wilson was active in Delia Larkin’s Irish Workers’ Dramatic Group, and he later managed the Abbey before returning to make significant contributions to Scottish theatre and film (“Who Fears to Wear the Blood Red Badge?”). “The Flictoflicker Girl” appeared on page one of the Worker on 23 August, just a few days before the tram strike that precipitated the Lockout, sharing the front page with articles reviewing George Edwardes’ Gipsy Love, a musical comedy playing at the Gaiety Theatre (Euchan), and analyzing the use of the term “respectability” as a way denigrating trade unionists (Shellback). Both of these articles drew out the immediate political implications of popular culture and language for Dublin workers. The extraordinary focus on culture in this issue suggests that the union was offering workers a Horse Show Week special in all but name. 

“The Flictoflicker Girl” was more oblique in its cultural critique than the accompanying articles. It tells the story of Charlie Payne, who falls in love with the screen image of Daphne Wildrew, the (fictional) Flictoflicker company’s leading lady. When he sees a film in which she gets married and is then abused by her husband, he is first consumed by jealousy and then so overcome by a range of emotions that he has to leave the picture house before the film is over and catch an early tram home. He is flabbergasted to find that the only other occupant of the carriage is Daphne who is “over for local scenes,” but he s traumatized again when she takes his declaration of love as a joke and is met at her stop with a kiss by the dastard from the film.

The story is fascinating for many reasons, but it is particularly intriguing as a unique source of information about the reception of cinema in Ireland at this early point in its institutional development. It addresses its readers – working-class trade unionists – as more sophisticated picture-house patrons than Charlie Payne, whose flight from the city-centre picture house to the suburbs marks him out as middle class and whose foolish fascination with the screen is not excused by youth; an opening paragraph carefully ages him to “that hazy period when men cease to be regarded as eligible and have not yet secured the comfort and dignity of being described as old bachelors.” However, like Charlie, who “never went to theatres, and music halls were places he detested,” readers are assumed to share his “distinct liking for picture palaces,” at least to the extent that they must have a good knowledge of what goes on there to understand the story. Perhaps his connoisseurship, his love of Westerns produced by the Flictoflicker Company, is laughable, yet it was doubtless more so for readers who know that films were already highly codified into genres – of which the Western was the most popular; “no picture programme nowadays is considered complete if it does not include a cowboy film,” as a reviewer in the Dublin Evening Mail commented (“Rotunda Pictures” 9 Sep. 1913) – and that branding by production companies was well established.

Similarly, Charlie’s infatuation with the Flictoflicker Girl would have been topical for readers familiar with the crazes for the Biograph Girl and the Vitagraph Girl, actresses only later famous under their own names Florence Lawrence and Florence Turner, respectively. Indeed, a month after “The Flictoflicker Girl” was published, the Rotunda Pictures broke “new ground as far as Dublin picture houses are concerned” by beginning to show the city’s first film serial, the 12-part Edison serial What Happened to Mary, starring Mary Fuller (“Rotunda Pictures” 23 Sep. 1913). “[A]ll who have seen the opening scenes of Mary’s adventures,” the Dublin Evening Mail reviewer commented, “will be eager to know more about this fascinating actress” (“Rotunda Pictures” 27 Sep. 1913). It is likely, however, that many of the workers who had read Mac’s story in August would have been unable to afford to sit fascinated by Mary Fuller at the Rotunda screen in late September 1913.

References

Euchan. “The Love of Ronance.” Irish Worker 23 Aug. 1913: 1.

“Farrell’s Inferno.” Irish Worker 15 Feb. 1913: 3.

Mac. “The Flictoflicker Girl.” Irish Worker 23 Aug. 1913: 1.

“Rotunda Pictures.” Dublin Evening Mail 9 Sep. 1913: 5.

“Rotunda Pictures.” Dublin Evening Mail 27 Sep. 1913: 3.

Shellback. “The Value of Respectability.” Irish Worker 23 Aug. 1913: 1.

“Who Fears to Wear the Blood Red Badge?” Irish Times 11 Sep. 2013.