“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.

Marching for Saint Patrick and for Carson

At a meeting of the Portadown Technical Committee on Thursday, 12 March 1914, Technical School principal J. G. Edwards reported that certain pupils attributed their poor attendance to “the picture house” and “drilling” (“Technical School Drilling”). Like the nationalist boys who had objected to the British Army Film in Dublin the previous week – although opposed to them politically – the unionist boys of Portadown were culturally and politically active, participating in the Ulster Volunteer Force’s (UVF’s) increasingly visible campaign of opposition to Home Rule. For a significant number of young Irish men of different political convictions in 1914, the cinema and marching formed part of the texture of their lives.

Putlicity still for The Shaughraun from Irish Film Archive (http://irishamerica.com/2011/12/blazing-the-trail-to-ireland/22-the-shaughraun-publicity-still/).

Publicity still for The Shaughraun from the Irish Film Archive (http://irishamerica.com/2011/12/blazing-the-trail-to-ireland/22-the-shaughraun-publicity-still/).

Despite the polarization of Irish politics by the growing Home Rule crisis in March 1914, the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in the country’s cinemas appears to have been surprisingly uncontroversial. Several cinemas in the largest population centres of Dublin, Belfast and Cork chose Irish-themed films, with Irish-shot films – especially those of the Kalem company – being particularly favoured. Indeed, it would be decades before so many recently produced Irish-shot film would be available to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. For St. Patrick’s night only, Dublin’s Phoenix Picture Palace showed The Shaughraun (US: Kalem, 1912); the Clonard Picture House in Belfast’s Fall’s Road offered the same film but for the more usual three-day run beginning on 19 March. In Cork, the Coliseum exhibited Kalem’s The Kerry Gow (1912). The Cork Constitution‘s review of the latter appears to come from a non-Irish source as it explained that “The Kerry Gow (a blacksmith) is a splendid Irish production, which was acted in the Green Isle, and features Jack Clarke and Gene Gauntier, with a full company of ‘flicker’ artists of repute” (“The Coliseum”).

Evening Telegraph 16 Mar. 1914: 4.

Evening Telegraph 16 Mar. 1914: 4.

Of even more direct relevance to the feast day of the Irish patron saint was J. Theobald Walsh’s Life of Saint Patrick: from the Cradle to the Grave (US: Photo-Historic, 1912). This film was shown in Patrick’s Week at Dublin’s World’s Fair Varieties in Henry Street. This was not the first time the World’s Fair had shown the film; the venue began 1914 with an extended run of it. It was “over 3,000 feet long [and] was produced by Theobald Walsh, for the Photo-Historic Company, New York, on the actual spots made memorable by Ireland’s Apostle. It is enacted throughout by Irish peasants attired in the correct costumes of that period” (“World’s Fair Varieties”). It was, one reviewer commented, a “splendid picture, and most appropriate for the time of year it is.” Indeed, “it is, undoubtedly, a most masterly film” (“’Life of St. Patrick’”).

Bioscope ad for Solax's Dublin Dan (12 Jun. 1913: 830).

Bioscope ad for Solax’s Dublin Dan (12 Jun. 1913: 830).

Elsewhere, Irish-set (but not -shot) films or those featuring Irish characters that – like the Kalem films and The Life of Saint Patrick – had been released in the previous year or so were revived for the occasion. For the first part of Patrick’s week, the Clonard showed The Banshee (US: Kay-Bee, 1913), a “splendid two-part drama” to whose representations of the Irish the Ancient Order of Hibernians had objected when it had been shown in Tralee, Co, Kerry, in early February 1914 (Condon). Other titles were more Irish-American than Irish. As part of its special Sunday programme on 15 March, the Phoenix showed Solax’s Dublin Dan: The Irish Detective (1912), which starred popular stage actor Barney Gilmore in his first film. In an ad for the film in a US trade journal, Solax described Gilmore as the “popular American and Irish idol – the matinee girl’s pet – the favorite of millions, an actor known in every state in the Union – a veteran on the stage – although young in years, with a personality that ‘comes across’” (Solax 729). Although The Escape of Jim Dolan (US: Selig Polyscope, 1913) contained a temptingly Irish-named protagonist, this Tom Mix Western at the Picture House in Dublin’s Sackville/O’Connell Street for the three days including St. Patrick’s Day appears to have had no meaningful Irish or Irish-American theme beyond that name.

Image

Dublin Evening Mail 18 Mar. 1914: 2.

Two films of actual sporting and political events in Ireland were also popular. On Monday, 16 March, films of two international football matches that took place in Belfast the previous weekend were exhibited at several picture houses, including the West Belfast Picture Theatre on the Falls Road – which showed the soccer match at Windsor Park between Ireland and Scotland – and the Picture House, Sackville/O’Connell Street – which showed the Ireland v. Wales rugby match at the Balmoral show grounds. On 19 March, the Princess Cinema in the Dublin suburb of Rathmines was the first in the city to show the film “Trooping the Colours” that had been shot by Pathé at Dublin Castle on St. Patrick’s Day. A military display overseen by the Lord Lieutenant in the presence of invited dignitaries, this film offered moving-picture evidence of a phenomenon that had long been clear in other media: that St. Patrick’s Day was an established part of the official culture of British-ruled Ireland.

Ads for the Panopticon on 19, 21 and 24 Mar. 1914.

Ads for Belfast’s Panopticon on 19, 21 and 23 Mar. 1914.

Actuality films shown in Belfast presented a very different view of Ireland in 1914. As debates on special terms for the exclusions of parts of Ulster from a home-ruled Ireland continued at Westminster, the Panopticon in High Street topped its bills in the second half of Patrick’s week with films that showed the determination of unionist resistance. An actuality of the South Antrim brigade of the UVF was screened from 19 March in answer to the question posed by newspaper ads for the show: Are the Ulster Volunteers Prepared to Fight? This question had gained increased currency that day, when Edward Carson abruptly left Westminster in the face of insufficient concessions for Ulster, stating his intention of confronting what would come with his people. On Saturday, the South Antrim brigade film was joined on the Panopticon bill by The Arrival of Sir E. Carson, a film that was retained into the following week, although the new programme was headed by Asta Nielsen’s Up to Her Tricks (Engelein; Germany: Projections-AG Union, 1914). By then the political crisis in Ireland had worsened with the beginning of the Curragh Mutiny, the declaration by British Army officers in Ireland that they would not move against the UVF.

Belfast Telegraph 9 Mar. 1914: 5 and 6 Mar. 1914: 2.

The value of crowdsourcing the news: Belfast Evening Telegraph 9 Mar. 1914: 5 and 6 Mar. 1914: 2.

How important the films at the Panopticon were in propagating resistance to Home Rule is difficult to say, but the value of still images to the campaign is clear from the Belfast Evening Telegraph. In early 1914, the Telegraph had been encouraging the amateur photographers among its readers to send in photos of newsworthy events for possible publication. The paper carried a large number of professionally produced photographs, drawings and illustrated ads, and this crowdsourcing of photographs enhanced what was already probably Ireland’s most visually rich newspaper. The usefulness of such images to unionism was made explicit by the 9 March article “Pictures Tell the Story,” which relates how at a meeting in London, Unionist MP Andrew L. Horner distributed a Telegraph photo of a UVF battalion that amazed the audience with the numbers on parade. The method of dissemination here was crude but effective and repeatable: “Mr. Horner asked the audience to study the picture and pass it around, which they did […] Another paper, containing a similar photo, was sent by Mr. Horner to a candidate in Yorkshire, who has made good use of it” (“Pictures Tell the Story”). In this context, the usefulness of moving pictures in showing sympathetic audiences in Britain the extent of unionist opposition to Home Rule seems obvious, but a system of distribution that allowed the correct contextualizing of the films was required.

By June 1914, the full value of moving images of Ulster resistance would be realized when the Union Defence League fitted out four large vans with projectors, screens and films of Carson and the UVF to tour Britain spreading the message of opposition to Home Rule (Paddy, 18 Jun.). Already by March 1914, however, young supporters of the UVF were finding their drilling and cinema-going converging. 

References

“The Coliseum: A Strong Programme.” Cork Constitution 17 Mar. 1914: 6.

Condon, Denis. “Limelight on the Colleen Bawn: Resisting Autoexoticism in Provincial Irish Picture Houses in the Early 1910s.” Les cinémas périphériques dans la période des premiers temps. Peripheral Early Cinema: Domitor 2008. Presses Universitaires de Perpignan, pp. 245-255.

“’Life of St. Patrick.’” Evening Telegraph 17 Mar. 1914: 2

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 18 Jun. 1914: 1261.

“Pictures Tell the Story.” Belfast Evening Telegraph 9 Mar. 1914: 5.

“Princess Cinema, Rathmines.” Dublin Evening Mail 18 Mar. 1914: 2.

Solax. Ad for Dublin Dan. Moving Picture World 10 Aug. 1912: 729.

“Technical Students Drilling.” Weekly Irish Times 14 Mar. 1914: 6.

“World’s Fair Varieties: Life of St. Patrick.” Dublin Evening Mail 16 Mar. 1914: 4.

“Growing in Favour to an Enormous Extent”: New Media, Ireland 1914

A little after 7pm on Friday, 6 February 1914, architect and inveterate theatregoer Joseph Holloway and his niece Eileen O’Malley arrived at Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre to find that the parterre was already full and there was standing room only in the upper circle. They decided not to stand for that evening’s final performance of the pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk, which was a benefit for comedian Jay Laurier, the actor who played Miffins. Instead they walked to the Nassau Street corner of Grafton Street to take a tram to the Dorset Picture Hall where they spent the evening watching a series of “interesting” but unnamed pictures (Holloway). It’s not clear why they passed the other picture houses along the tram route across the city to favour the Dorset, but Holloway seems to have taken a liking to the Dorset, having seen Kissing Cup (Britain: Hepworth, 1913) there with Eileen on 2 January and The Child from the Sea alone on 28 January. He had also recently seen Germinal (France: Pathé, 1913) at the Princess Cinema in Rathmines and the show of Kinemacolor films at the Queen’s Theatre.

Handbill for films at the Dorset during the week of 15-21 June 1914 with three changes of programme.

Handbill for films at the Dorset during the week of 15-21 June 1914 with three changes of programme. National Library of Ireland.

Holloway’s diary entries on his visits to Dublin’s picture houses are both unique and frustrating, providing the only sustained first-hand account by an Irish cinemagoer of this period but also offering merely tantalizing details of his visits. This contrasts markedly with his often lengthy comments on the city’s theatrical shows, many of which he saw on their opening night. Although he was committed to the theatre, he had also become since 1910 – almost without realizing it himself, it seems – a regular picture-house patron. Although more detail on goings-on in cinemas from an audience member’s point of view would certainly be welcome, the way in which going to the picture house had become such a mundane activity is fascinating. In his diary, Holloway notes significant films alongside theatre shows at the start of a week and often integrates a film show into his schedule, sometimes choosing a film but often choosing to see whatever was on at a favoured picture house.

Holloway and other cinemagoers would have increasing choice as 1914 progressed. “Dublin has not by a long way stopped in its career of opening picture houses,” reveals Paddy in the trade journal Bioscope in early February 1914. He mentions plans to open 18 more cinemas in the city, with plans for eight already approved.

There is no doubt that some of these new fry will pay, because they are to be built in districts badly provided for in the matter of theatres, but when I hear that it is proposed to open three new houses in Grafton Street, and two more in Sackville Street, I wonder what will happen. (Paddy, 5 Feb).

Comments on the growing popularity of Dublin picture houses were not limited to the trade papers. “There can be no gainsaying the popularity of picture theatres in the Irish metropolis,” comments Irish Times columnist the Clubman. “They seem to be always crowded and their proprietors must be making plenty of money out of them. Of course, the ‘man in the street’ will tell you that ‘the pictures’ are only a ‘craze,’ but they are a craze which will, I think, live for some time in Dublin, at any rate (“Dublin Topics”).

It was not just in Dublin, and it would not be a passing craze. In mid-January 1914, the Bioscope’s “Jottings from Ulster” columnist noted that the

Belfast Corporation cinematograph inspector, Mr. Campbell, reported at the last meeting of the Police Committee, that on Christmas Day, Boxing Day, and the 27th ult., 124,087 persons patronised the fourteen picture theatres in the city. These figures show an increase of about 15,000 as compared with Christmas, 1912, It is of considerable interest to note that 124,000 is roughly one-third of the entire population of Belfast; it may, therefore, be taken that the cinema is growing in favour to an enormous extent. (“Jottings,” 15 Jan.)

These are very interesting figures, adding some statistical support to the impression conveyed by Holloway’s diary and newspaper and trade-press articles. It remains more difficult to discern a hundred years later the degree to which individual films that appear to do so actually address such important issues as women’s suffrage, the labour movement and Home Rule. These questions might without too much distortion be phrased in the language of 2014 as concerning the way in which new media engage with questions of the changing nature of work, gender inequality and national sovereignty.

Asta Nielsen as suffrage activist Nelly Panburne being force fed in The Suffragette (1913).

Asta Nielsen as suffrage activist Nelly Panburne being force fed in The Suffragette (1913).

Women’s suffrage was one of the most prominent political questions of the 1910s, kept in the headlines by suffragette activism, including that by the Irish Women’s Franchise League. Suffragettes in Ireland – but not Irish suffragettes – had most directly used the new cinema technologies as a form of protest on the evening of 18 July 1912, when as part of a wider protest, English suffragettes Mary Leigh, Gladys Evans and Lizzie Baker had attempted to set fire to Dublin’s Theatre Royal by igniting the highly combustible nitrate film in the theatre’s cinematograph box between evening shows. “Had the lighted matches come in contact with the films, the substances of which are, of course, highly inflammable, a terrible disaster might have to be chronicled” (“Serious Suffragette Outrage”). For this and for a hatchet attack on British prime minster HH Asquith’s carriage, in which Irish nationalist MP John Redmond was injured, Leigh, Evans and Baker were sentenced to prison terms in Mountjoy Jail, where they joined eight Irish suffragettes and began a hunger strike.

Belfast's Panopticon advertises Asta Nielsen in The Suffragette (1913).

Belfast’s Panopticon advertises Asta Nielsen in The Suffragette (1913); Belfast Newsletter 3 Jan. 1914: 1.

Events such as these were fictionalized in the German film The Suffragette (Projektions AG, 1913), which offered Irish audiences the rare opportunity of seeing suffragettes on screen treated as something other than just comedy. Featuring the Danish star Asta Nielsen as Nelly Panburne – modelled on Christabel Pankhurst – the film shows how Nelly protests by breaking shop windows; is force-fed when she goes on hunger strike in prison; and carries a bomb intended to kill Lord Ascue, a British minister modelled on Asquith opposed to women’s rights. The film attempts to contain its radical energies with a romantic subplot that sees Nelly save Ascue  from the bomb and marry him. Despite the closeness of the film to actual events, the Belfast Newsletter commented that when it was exhibited in January 1914 at the Panopticon Picture Theatre, it “creates great merriment. Asta Neilson, described as the greatest of all picture artists, is seen at her best” (“Panopticon”).

Carson v Redmond
The confrontation between Irish unionists and nationalists had become such a part of popular discourse in Britain in early 1914 that this ad for films that had nothing to do with Ireland could expect to draw attention by using the names of Edward Carson and John Redmond as if they were prize fighters. Bioscope 12 Mar. 1914, p. 1186.

Perhaps the importance of the political events of a different kind in Belfast was among the factors that inclined the Newsletter towards downplaying a fictional representation of the suffrage movement. To keep up pressure on Asquith’s government, Edward Carson again visited Belfast In mid-January 1914 to rally unionist opponents of Irish home rule and review the massed ranks of the Ulster Volunteer Force prepared violently to resist the imposition of home rule. Such nationalist newspapers as Dublin’s Evening Telegraph and Belfast’s Irish News presented unionist demonstrations as a farce and drew attention instead to the counter-demonstration in Belfast led by nationalist MP Joseph Devlin (“Carson Comedy Co.,” “U.V.F. Comedy,” “Mr. Devlin, M.P., in West Belfast”). The unionists, however, again proved themselves more competent with the new cinematic medium. A newsreel camera was again in Belfast to record and relay images not of Devlin but of Carson, and this time, it was operated by Dublin-based Norman Whitten, who filmed the demonstration for Weisker Brothers, a firm to which he had recently affiliated (Paddy, 29 Jan.). Paddy commended Whitten for having the film of Carson ready to screen at Belfast’s Picture House, Royal Avenue on the evening of the rally (ibid).

Of more immediate concern to Dublin’s media from mid-January to early February was the end of the Lockout with the defeat of the striking workers. For the first three days of the week beginning Monday 19 January, the Evening Telegraph’s notice for the Phoenix Picture Palace recommended A Leader of Men, “dealing in a thrilling and sensation manner with an organised strike in a big shipbuilding industry. It is decidedly a picture that will appeal strongly to all at the present time” (“Phoenix Picture Palace”). On the same day, the Telegraph was reporting the “Collapse of Strike: No Food and No Money: Mr. Larkin Advise Men: To Go Back to Work: But to Sign No Agreement” (“Collapse of Strike”). If that drama was too close for comfort to current events, audiences could also enjoy more diverting material on the same bill in the dramas Fortune’s Turn and The Dumb Messenger and the comedies The Honeymooners, When Love Is Young and Cartoons, Mr PiffleAs well as this, to whom and in what way the film would appeal is not clear given that it is unlikely many of the workers impoverished by months of strike could have afforded to attend.

Nevertheless, as cinema continued to develop and picture houses occupied more spaces on the Irish streetscape, films would attract audiences not only by providing escape but also by confronting – both directly and obliquely – important political issues.

References

“Carson Comedy Co.: Performing in Belfast To-Day.” Evening Telegraph 17 Jan. 1914: 6.

“Collapse of Strike.” Evening Telegraph 20 Jan. 1914: 3.

“Dublin Topics by the Clubman.” Irish Times 31 Jan. 1914: 4.

Holloway, Joseph. Holloway Diaries. National Library of Ireland. 6 Feb. 1914: 295.

“Jottings from Ulster.” Bioscope 15 Jan. 1914: 263.

“Mr. Devlin, M.P., in West Belfast: Great Rallies of the Progressive Forces Hear Inspiriting Addresses.” Irish News 19 Jan. 1914: 5-6.

“Phoenix Picture Palace.” Evening Telegraph 20 Jan. 1913: 2.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 29 Jan. 1914: 454.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 5 Feb. 1914: 547.

“The Panopticon.” Belfast Telegraph 6 Jan. 1914: 9.

“Serious Suffragette Outrage: Two Attempts to Set Fire: To the Theatre Royal: An Explosive Used: A Panic Avoided.” Freeman’s Journal 19 Jul. 1912: 6.

“U.V.F. Comedy: Parade of the East Belfast Regiment: Inspection by Sir E. Carson.” Irish News 19 Jan. 1914: 7.

Projecting Ulster Resistance, September 1913

Image

“A view of the scene today, 27th September 1913, at the Agricultural Show Grounds in Balmoral, where Sir Edward Carson reviewed a massive parade of Ulster Volunteers.” Illustrated London News, 4 Oct. 1913. Reproduced here from Century Ireland.

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”).

Panopticon Reopens Sep 1913

Advertisement for the reopening of the Panopticon. Belfast Newsletter 12 Sep. 1913: 4.

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.

Grosvenor Drink

Advertisements for cinematograph shows at many of Belfast’s Protestant halls, including the City YMCA (at which the film of Carson’s review of the UVF would be shown on 27 Sep.) and the Grosvenor Hall, which is . Belfast Newsletter 13 Sep. 1913: 6.

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.

References

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.