Screening the Funeral of Thomas Ashe, September-October 1917

Collins Funeral of Thomas Ashe

Michael Collins gives a pointed graveside oration in The Funeral of Thos. Ashe (Ireland: GFS, 1917)

At 10pm on Sunday, 30 September 1917, Dublin’s Bohemian Picture Theatre exhibited a special newsreel film of the funeral of Thomas Ashe that marked the spectacular public culmination of a protest against British government treatment of Sinn Féin prisoners in Mountjoy prison. The occasion of the protest was the death on 25 September of Thomas Ashe, president of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, as a result of force-feeding while on hunger strike. In a series of demonstrations carefully stage-managed by republican leaders, Ashe’s body became the emblem of a new public solidarity between the various insurgent nationalist groups that were moving towards coalition under the name of Sinn Féin. His body lay in state first at the Mater hospital and following a procession through the city, at City Hall. The protest’s highlight was Ashe’s funeral at Glasnevin cemetery on 30 September, the largest public demonstration since the 1916 Rising was suppressed, at which the Irish Volunteers marched openly under arms and fired three volleys of shots over the coffin, “the only speech which it is proper to make above the grave of a dead Fenian,” as Michael Collins put it in his laconic graveside oration (“Funeral of Thomas Ashe”).

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Ad for Bohemian Picture Theatre offering an exclusive screening of the full Funeral of Thos. Ashe film; Dublin Evening Mail 29Sep. 1917: 2.

The film of the funeral that the Bohemian showed was the work of Norman Whitten’s General Film Supply (GFS). The Evening Herald commended the exhibition on the evening of Ashe’s funeral “of films showing various ranges of the procession and scenes associated with it. The rifling part at the grave was included” (“30,000 Mourners”). The widespread publicity of organized events after Ashe’s death allowed Whitten and his “able lieutenant” J. Gordon Lewis to plan a newsreel special to supplement their regular Irish Events newsreel (“Films Up-to-Date”). In what might be called a prequel, some of the material relating to Ashe’s lying-in-state at City Hall was shown at such picture houses as the Rotunda and the Town Hall, Rathmines on the Saturday night preceding the funeral, with the complete film, including the procession through the city to the cemetery, due for general release on the following Monday. The final film was first exhibited, however, on the night of the funeral at the Bohemian, a picture house located on the route of the funeral procession out of the city, between Mountjoy prison and Glasnevin cemetery.

Rotunda THR Ashe 29 Sep 1917 DEM

Ads for Town Hall, Rathmines and Rotunda on Saturday 29 September featured newsreel of Ashe’s funeral, including scenes of the body lying in state at City Hall but not of the graveside; Dublin Evening Mail 29 Sep. 1917: 2.

Reporting on the filming of the funeral, the cinema journal Irish Limelight observed that people “took part in the procession, went home to have tea, and an hour later saw themselves on the screen. Some hustle on the part of the camera men!” (“Films Up-To-Date”). Reference has already been made here to the speed with which Whitten could prepare his films for exhibition, and this again distinguished the Thomas Ashe film produced for Irish Events from those of its competitors, in this case, from Charles McEvoy, proprietor of the Masterpiece Theatre, who also filmed the funeral but was unable to show his film until the Monday evening (ibid).

Bohemian Interior

Ad showing interior of the Bohemian Picture Theatre, Evening Telegraph 31 Jul. 1915: 3.

But the really interesting thing here is not just the speed with which the film was ready but also that it was shown at a picture house conveniently located for those who had attended the funeral. The Limelight report suggests that, having taken some refreshment, mourners reassembled at the Bohemian to reconstitute the political demonstration that the funeral represented. Here, they viewed the funeral distilled to its ten-minute highlights – twice the usual length of a newsreel – all taken from advantageous viewpoints. In a sense, the exhibition at the Bohemian represented the culmination of the political protest, of the concentration of the energies and emotions that had been built up over several days. That night the spectators were freed from the limited perspective available to people in a crowd; they saw all the key events from a sometimes privileged vantage point. The audience was now able to see itself, and specifically to see itself involved in a significant political protest. As such, the Bohemian screening of this film was a moment when the cinema assumed a key role in Irish political protest.

Thos Ashe funeral queues at City Hall

People queue to file past Ashe’s body in The Funeral of Thos. Ashe.

Although little information is available on what actually happened in the Bohemian that night, what does survive suggests that the film fostered audience interactivity – a participative kind of spectatorship – among the people who chose to attend its screening. While it is unlikely that many individual mourners could have identified themselves among the throngs depicted in long shot by the funeral film, the camera viewed many of the events from among the spectators and could therefore help re-create for its audience their participation in the funeral as a group by reproducing their optical perspective.

Thos Ashe removal from City Hall

Ashe’s Tricolour-draped coffin is removed from City Hall in The Funeral of Thos. Ashe.

Newspaper reports and photographs demonstrate that even such apparently god-like perspectives as the high-angle shots above the crowd reproduced the points of view of numerous mourners. “Over 200,000 spectators and sympathisers thronged the route,” declared one evening newspaper, “roofs, windows, verandas — even lamp-posts, railings, walls, hoardings, trees, statues, and monuments — every possible point of vantage was utilised by eager sightseers” (“30,000 Mourners”).

Ashe Funeral O'Connell Statue FJ 2 Oct 1917p6

Freeman’s Journal 2 Oct. 1917: 6.

The Freeman’s Journal reported that “residents of many houses were charging for seats at their windows, and that the sites were appreciated by those taking advantage of them was testified by the numbers who witnessed the procession from these points” (“Thomas Ashe”). The caption to a photograph in the Freeman reads:

Sunday at the O’Connell Statue: The above picture gives a very good idea of the dimensions of the crowd which surged round and up the base of the O’Connell Statue on Sunday afternoon. For fully two hours before the cortege was due to pass men and boys by the score fought to obtain a good view by climbing amongst the figures which adorn the plinth, until all but the statue itself was obscured.

Iron Strain Boh 30 Sep 1917

Still of Dustin Farnum and Enid Markey in The Iron Strain (US: Kay-Bee/New York, 1915), known in Ireland and Britain as A Modern Taming of the Shrew. Image from IMDb.

That said, other factors in the first exhibition of The Funeral of Thos. Ashe must have worked to dissipate this participative dynamic or to make it fleeting. Advertisements for the Sunday evening show at the Bohemian, for example, describe it as “a special long and interesting programme,” featuring “a five-part exclusive comedy-drama entitled, ‘A Modern Taming of the Shrew.’” This film – known in America as The Iron Strain – was a Western comedy starring Dustin Farnum and Enid Markey. With the evening performance beginning at 8.30 and the funeral film screening at ten o’clock, the audience would have experienced an hour and a half of A Modern Taming of the Shrew and other films before the funeral film. Nothing about this programming suggests that the audience was being kept in a suitably reverent, nationalistic or rebellious state of mind. There is also no report that the cinema’s well-publicized orchestra played dirges or patriotic tunes during the funeral scenes, although it seems very likely that it did during the screening of the funeral film itself because this was the practice on similar occasions.

As well as this, the Limelight article suggests that it was not primarily the continuation of the demonstration that brought mourners to the Bohemian but the narcissistic pleasure of seeing oneself on screen, of picking oneself out of the crowd. This kind of pleasure was certainly a feature of some of the earliest locally made films, which invited people who believed that they may have been filmed by a visiting cinematographer to “come and see yourself” on screen. And although there was a narcissistic potential here, early films also purposely employed the figuration of the crowd as an instance of identification with oneself not as an individual but as part of a collective.

May 1918 IL Irish Events ad CU

The cover of the May 1918 issue of Irish Events featured an ad listing 35 cinemas around Ireland that subscribed to Irish Events.

As such, this film and others like it address not only those who could claim this very direct form of spectatorial identification with the image that came from attending the event, but also those who would have wished to be there. In the weeks following the funeral, apart from cinema-goers who were indifferent or hostile, it is likely that screenings of the film in Dublin and around Ireland, not least in the 35 cinemas that subscribed to Irish Events, would have brought together spectators who had taken part in the demonstrations as well as those who had wished to but been unable to attend. From this perspective, these films are essentially local newsreels targeted at spectators who could decode them. Therefore, it was not only the actual participants who would be able to place themselves in the crowd, but also those who could fill in this “back-story,” those who would have wanted to be in the crowd and who, as a result, became virtual participants. These films worked on the desire to see oneself as a participant, whether or not one actually had been present at the event, and provided a semi-public context in which to experience this mediated participation.

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Irish Limelight Apr. 1918: 14

Such Irish Events specials as The Funeral of Thos. Ashe could be used to imply identification between the spectator and popular protest. In the period between the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence, GFS seems to have ensured its audience by being more obviously favourable to the nationalist cause. An ad on the cover of the April 1918 issue of Irish Limelight listed Irish Events specials: Irish Sinn Fein Convention; Funeral of Thos. Ashe; Release of the Sinn Fein Prisoners; South Armagh Election; Consecration of the Bishop of Limerick; Funeral of the Late John Redmond, M.P.; and Waterford Election. “It has been proved,” boasts the ad, “that topicals such as any of the above will attract a larger audience than a six-reel exclusive.” In the context of wider political events and especially when they took the place of the featured attractions at the top of the cinema programme, as The Funeral of Thos. Ashe did at the Bohemian Picture House on 30 September 1917, the political significance of these films becomes more fully visible.

References

“30,000 Mourners: Incidents in Yesterday’s Mighty Funeral.” Evening Herald 1 Oct. 1917: 3.

“Films Up-to-Date.” Irish Limelight Oct. 1917: 8.

“Funeral of Thomas Ashe: Sinn Fein Demonstration in Dublin.” Irish Times 1 Oct. 1917: 6.

“Sunday at the O’Connell Statue.” Freeman’s Journal 2 Oct. 1917: 6.

“Thomas Ashe: Funeral in Dublin Yesterday: Impressive Scenes: Enormous Crowds Throng the Streets.” Freeman’s Journal 1 Oct. 1917: 3.

“Peeps at Parochial Happenings”: Irish Events Newsreel Begins, June-July 1917

Political developments formed the context for the conception and launch of Ireland’s first newsreel, Irish Events, in the month between 18 June and 17 July 1917.

Jun 18 1917 ET Prisoners 2

The Evening Telegraph placed a very large photograph of the returned Irish prisoners leaving Westland Row station on its front page on 18 June 1917.

“Somewhere about 9 a.m. a man was about to enter his offices in Great Brunswick Street,” cinema trade journal Irish Limelight reported of the exciting events of 18 June 1917 in Dublin. On 15 June, the British government had announced a general amnesty for the remaining Irish people it had jailed for their roles in the 1916 Rising. Many of these prisoners had experienced jeers as they were marched out of Dublin in early May 1916; their homecoming would be very different, indeed a nationalist celebration. Nevertheless, there was tension in the city in the days leading up to their arrival because it was not clear when or by what route they would come. This was also true of the man leaving his office in Great Brunswick (now Pearse) Street. “It is possible that he was not feeling altogether in harmony with the glorious summer morning,” the Limelight observed.

For two days he had been on the alert, waiting and watching for the homecoming of the released Sinn Fein prisoners. He had no concern with their political views or with the views of the Government that set them at liberty. He was a kinematographer and he was out for business – and it looked as if the business was likely to elude him. (“Sinn Fein Prisoners’ Homecoming.”)

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Norman Whitten in his offices at 17 Great Brunswick Street; Irish Limelight 1:7 (Jul. 1917): 17. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

The man was Norman Whitten, managing director of General Film Supply, for whom the prisoners’ homecoming was “as good a ‘topical’ as had happened for a long time.” An English filmmaker who had learned the cinema business from pioneer Cecil Hepworth, Whitten had been working in Ireland since the early 1910s, making topical films of local interest and advertising films. He was also an agent for several British equipment manufacturers as well a distributor of certain films. Two days after the events described by the Limelight, he would be in Dublin’s nisi prius court successfully prosecuting James J. Fisher for outstanding monies related to the exhibition of the film Lost in the Eternal City, for which Whitten held the Irish rights (“Hire of a Film”). Whether Whitten ever received the £70 and costs awarded by the court is not clear because the Limelight pointedly reported on the same page as its account of Whitten’s filmmaking that Fisher, “so well known in Ireland in connection with the official war films, left for Salonika on the 25th June” (“Mr. J. J. Fisher”).

In any case, early on 18 June, Whitten was presented with an opportunity. Westland Row station was about five-minutes walk from his office. “His key was just in the lock when a wave of cheering came down the street from the Westland Row end,” the Limelight report continues:

Looking up he saw the Sinn Fein tricolour waving at the head of a procession just turning into Great Brunswick Street. One glance was enough, and in another he was feverishly active inside in the office. Where was that favourite camera? How many feet of film had he? Where was the other box? And the tripod! (“Sinn Fein Prisoners’ Homecoming.”)

Prisoners photo IL Jul 1917

A framegrab or “cinephoto” from Whitten’s film, showing the former prisoners passing the Queen’s Theatre in Brunswick Street, which was beside Whitten’s office. Irish Limelight 1:7 (Jul. 1917): 16. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Having assembled his equipment, “he was out again in the street, the tripod was mounted on a chair, the eye of the kinematograph was pointed directly at the oncoming procession and the first film of the ex-prisoners’ homecoming was being taken.” He followed the procession through the streets to Fleming’s Hotel in Gardiner Street, where some of the former prisoners obliged him by waiting in their carriages until he had set up his camera to film them getting down.

To capitalize on this scoop, however, Whitten had to show the “hustle” for which he was renowned by developing, printing and delivering the film to the Dublin’s cinemas interested in it. In doing this, he needed to be faster than the other filmmakers who were also out shooting these events, including Gaumont’s Mr Russell. Among its extensive production and distribution businesses, Gaumont produced its own newsreel, the Gaumont Graphic, and the company had shot their first topical in Ireland in June 1913 (“Irish Topical”). Its well-appointed offices in Dublin’s Lord Edward Street included facilities for developing and printing film, but for some reason – possibly lack of personnel – Russell had to send his film to England to be processed (“Building News”). Whitten, by contrast, processed his own film, and as a result, the excitement of the shooting in the streets was followed by

hours of swift and delicate work in the ruddy gloom of the developing room and in the arid light of the drying room. Three hundred and fifty feet of film had to be fixed on the developing frames and plunged into the tanks for eight minutes, then rinsed and fixed. In the balance of half-an-hour it was washed. Fifteen minutes later the whirling drums had dried it. (“Sinn Fein Prisoners’ Homecoming.”)

At this period, a film of 350 feet would usual run five to six minutes, but this was not the completed film. Whitten edited the raw footage and added end- and intertitles to produce a finished film that likely ran five minutes, the typical length of a newsreel. This was not a typical newsreel film, however, because a newsreel usually consisted of five one-minute items showing a mixture of news and social events. Instead, this was a special topical. “By 3 p.m.,” the Limelight revealed, “three copies had been printed and fully titled with a photograph of McGuinness added at the end and were rushed off in taxis to the picture houses which had been enterprising enough to book this ‘red-hot topical.’” Joseph McGuinness had been a prisoner in Lewes jail when he was elected MP in the May 1917 Longford South by-election, and he had been at Fleming’s Hotel to greet the returned prisoners.

Boh Release Prisoners 13 Jun 18 1917 DEM

Bohemian Picture Theatre with Whitten’s film of the released prisoners; Dublin Evening Mail 18 Jun. 1917: 2.

The film was ready for afternoon showings in Dublin’s picture houses, but its initial run of just three copies meant that it could only play at three venues: the Bohemian Picture Theatre in Phibsboro, the Town Hall, Rathmines (THR) and the city-centre Rotunda. The managers of these picture houses certainly believed that the film would be a draw, and the Bohemian and THR even managed to have it prominently mentioned in their ads in the evening newspapers. Among those who were attracted were some of the prisoners themselves:

Some of the ex-prisoners and their friends could not resist the temptation to see themselves “in the pictures,” and a contingent marched up to the Rotunda early in the afternoon. They cheerfully acceded to the genial manager’s request that they should leave their flags in the porch, and, when inside, gave every indication of enjoying not only “their own film” but the rest of the programme. (“Sinn Fein Prisoners’ Homecoming.”)

Markievicz IL Jul 1917

Cinephoto from Whitten’s film of the return of Countess Markievicz on 21 June 1917; Irish Limelight Jul. 1917: 16. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

The Limelight’s detailed account of Whitten’s work on this film suggests that he was working alone at this point on shooting, processing and dispatching; it does not mention any employees. Nevertheless, people in the business knew Whitten’s abilities from previous events he had filmed, and on Thursday of that week, he would repeat his achievement when he had a film of the arrival back in Ireland of republican leader Countess Constance Markievicz for showing at 10:30pm, even though she did not reach Westland Row station until 6:45pm. Nevertheless, for the Monday film, he appears to have been overwhelmed by the number of requests for copies and resorted to offering other topicals he had shot of Irish and National Volunteers and the funeral of republican Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. When even these supplies were exhausted, desperate exhibitors were prepared to accept even Irish-themed fiction films. “[W]hen everything that could by any stretch of the imagination have been utilised as a ‘topical’ was used up,” the Limelight commented, “they fell back upon ‘The Shaughraun,’ ‘The Colleen Bawn,’ and other film plays of the earlier ‘Irish’ type.”

The phenomenal success of this film and the one of Markievicz later in the week formed the basis for Whitten’s launch of an Irish newsreel service he called Irish Events just a month later. While he must have been considering an Irish newsreel for some time, the decision to launch it in July 1917 appears to have been a sudden one because he did not mention it to the Limelight reporter who so thoroughly covered his work on the film of the released prisoners. But then he was “a hustler from Hustlerville,” as the Limelight called him (“‘Irish Events’”). The Limelight did publish a long article on the launch of Irish Event in its August issue, urging all Irish exhibitors to subscribe to it, but by the start of August, three issues of Irish Events had already been released. “Irish people always will be glad to glimpse really interesting happenings in Great Britain and abroad,” it observed, “but when it comes to peeps at parochial happenings – well, they would certainly prefer to see pictures of sports at, say, Corke Park, instead of pictures of an English sports meeting” (“‘Irish Events’”).

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Members of the crowd smile and gesture happily when the newsreel camera is trained on them in Release of the Sinn Fein Prisoners (Ireland: General Film Supply, 1917). Courtesy of the Irish Film Institute.

Although some Irish Events would be released as specials like the film of the returning prisoners, the regular format of Irish Events mirrored that of the other newsreels such as Gaumont Graphic, Pathé News and Topical Budget. That is to say, it included both political and social events. The first few issues included “aquatic and other sports meetings, Phœnix Park demonstrations, the great funeral which the Sinn Feiners gave Mrs. MacDonagh, widow of their executed leader, the Twelfth of July Celebrations in Belfast and a fete in Lord Iveagh’s grounds” (“‘Irish Events’”). It is unlikely that Whitten could have covered all these events alone and run the other aspects of his business. Indeed, when the Limelight highlighted an Irish Events item on the Clontarf Aquatic Festival, it observed that it had been shot by both Whitten and his camera operator J. Gordon Lewis, who would become Whitten’s close collaborator. Over the Irish Events’ years of existence between 1917 and 1921, Whitten and Lewis would shoot such everyday occurrences and present them alongside some of the most momentous political events of Ireland’s history.

References

“Building News.” Irish Builder and Engineer 12 Apr. 1913: 250.

“Hire of a Film: ‘Lost in the Eternal City’: Action for £70.” Dublin Evening Mail 20 Jun. 1917: 4.

“‘Irish Events’: An Enterprise that Merits the Support of Every Exhibitor in this Country: News Films from the Four Provinces.” Irish Limelight 1:8 (Aug. 1917): 18-19.

“Irish Topical.” Bioscope 19 Jun. 1913: 857.

“Mr. J. J. Fisher.” Irish Limelight 1:7 (Jul. 1917): 17.

“Sinn Fein Prisoners’ Homecoming: Story of the Filming of Recent Remarkable Street Scenes in Dublin. Irish Limelight 1:7 (Jul. 1917): 16-17.

“Town Topics: Being a Casual Causerie.” Dublin Evening Mail 7 May 1917: 2.