“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 return 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.

Shadow Soldiers Flickering on a Screen: Irish Cinema and the Beginning of World War I

Provincial War Pics

These ads appeared in the Dublin Evening Mail 7 Aug. 1914: 2; and 18 Aug. 1914: 2.

“It is ever so much more a patriotic thing to go down the quays and give the soldiers a good send-off than it is to sit in a darkened picture house watching, perhaps, ‘shadow soldiers’ flickering on a screen,” reported Paddy, the Ireland correspondent of the British cinema trade journal Bioscope in August 1914 explaining the falloff in attendance at Dublin’s picture houses at the start of the Great War. “[T]he fact that the Lord Mayor of Dublin had to publicly ask the people through the medium of the Press, to refrain from causing a block on the quays and assist in getting the soldiers embarked more expeditiously shows how matters stand” (Paddy, 13 Aug., 673). Mobilization affected the cinema and its relationship with the popular audience in various ways. Those who lined the Dublin quays, Paddy suggested, were particularly the popular audience who would otherwise have occupied the picture houses’ cheapest – usually three-penny or 3d. – seats. Although Frederick Sparling, manager of Phibsboro’s Bohemian Picture Theatre, reported brisk business, “he experienced a great falling off in the attendances at the 3d. seats, and he expected that receipts generally would show a drop for a little time” (ibid).

Paddy claimed that the effect in Ulster was quite different, with the outbreak of the war bringing unionist and nationalist audiences together in the face of a common enemy. “[T]he one-time rivals now fraternise,” he observed, “and quiet, law-abiding and gaiety-loving citizens are now taking their pleasures with less sadness than had been their wont during the two gloomy years from which Ireland has just emerged” (Paddy, 13 Aug., 675). Unfortunately, this somewhat unlikely harmony would be short-lived because the difficulties of procuring enough flax and other raw material for Ulster’s factories would mean that mill workers, “the backbone of the support of the cinema in Ulster as in other manufacturing centres,” would be placed on half-time working at half-pay, leaving “nothing to spend on amusements of any description” (ibid).

Actuality films of the war appeared on the cinema programme alongside such  fiction film as D. W. Griffith's Judith of Bethulia (US: Biograph, 1914).

Actuality films of the war appeared on the cinema programme alongside such fiction film as D. W. Griffith’s Judith of Bethulia (US: Biograph, 1914). Dublin Evening Mail 24 Aug. 1914: 2.

Nevertheless, Irish picture houses attempted from a very early point in the war to provide shadow soldiers on the screen for their audiences, and not only working-class ones. On 7 August 1914, the Dublin Evening Mail carried the first of a series of unusually large ads for the Picture House, Grafton Street and the Picture House, Sackville Street showing films depicting “the latest developments of the War, day by day.” Both of these cinemas were owned by the London-based chain Provincial Cinematograph Theatres, which also ran the less-salubrious Volta in Mary Street and Belfast’s Picture House, Royal Avenue. The company promoted its venues – and particularly the recently renovated and extended Grafton on Dublin’s most prestigious shopping street – as offering luxuries suitable for prosperous city-centre shoppers. Strollers who stopped into the Grafton’s public café might be induced to see the war pictures by a sign that indicated which of the six-to-eight films typically on a cinema programme was currently playing in the auditorium.

Judith (Blanche Sweet) prepares to behead Holofernes in Judith of Bethulia.

Judith (Blanche Sweet) prepares to behead Holofernes in Judith of Bethulia.

Although such passersby or Evening Mail readers arrested by the prominent ads continued to be offered a programme of films after the outbreak of hostilities, they seem to have been presented with an overwhelming number of war-themed films. The Grafton featured England’s Menace (Britain: London, 1914), a “stunning naval drama,” for the week beginning 10 August, the six-day run representing twice the usual period for which a film was shown. For the first three days of the following week, the Grafton exhibited Maurice Elvey’s In the Days of Trafalgar (Britain: British and Colonial, 1914), supported by a programme that included the first part of the British Army Film (Britain: Keith Prowse, 1914), the second part of which ran in the latter half of the week on a bill headed by The Spy, or The Mystery of Capt. Dawson (1914), a detective drama involving the stealing of plans for a new quick-firing gun. The Belgian War Scenes advertised on 24 August were said to have come “from actual photographs [i.e., films] taken in Belgium on Thursday last,” and these played on the programme with D. W. Griffith’s Judith of Bethulia (US: Biograph, 1914), an adaptation of the biblical Book of Judiths story of war and decapitation.

Provincial was not the only cinema proprietor to show actual war footage – Dublin’s Rotunda, Phoenix and Bohemian all advertised their latest war films, as did many others in newspapers or through more ephemeral forms such as posters and handbills that no longer survive. Provincial, however, made a special effort to exhibit the actualities in programmes with other kinds of war-themed films to cater for – or indeed, help to create – a patriotic war fever. Given the recentness of the war, none of the fiction films just mentioned concerned the current conflict with Germany, nor did the British Army Film, a documentary about ordinary life in the army that was made before the war and that had attracted a protest in March. There was nothing new in popular culture assembling and re-presenting pre-existing elements in a new combination that served the prevailing ideology, particularly at a time of crisis. The live music that accompanied silent film in picture houses of the 1910s could add further jingoism. There were precedents for the use of film in war-time patriotic shows as early as the Boer War, but the popular audience in many parts of Ireland had often been vocally resistant to such anti-Boer/pro-British jingoistic shows (Condon).

What had changed between the turn of the century and the 1910s, however, was cinema’s place within the mediascape in Ireland as elsewhere. By 1914, Ireland had a large number of picture houses that provided news alongside dramatic entertainment. Although picture houses could not match the newspapers’ detailed coverage of topical events, newsreels from the front provided by such companies as Pathé and Gaumont offered something the press could not: moving images of battle sites and the people who fought in the war. Because newsreel scenes recorded on film needed to be physically transported from the front, their newsworthiness had dissipated. Some picture theatres, including the Grafton and Sackville, entered into agreements with telegraphic wire services to offer instantaneous messages during shows, a phenomenon that bears resemblance to a Twitter feed. One ad for these picture houses informed the public that “[a]rrangements have been completed with the Central News Agency for a complete service of telegrams from the Front, to be supplied to this Theatre. As the news arrives it will be immediately thrown on to the screen” (“The War”).

As the war began, commentators in the press debated cinema’s place among other media. To some, it was an absurd form. “In a city picture house, a man tells me,” confided Dublin’s Evening Herald columnist The Man About Town in mid-August 1914,

he has just acquired some curious and too little known facts about the Roman Empire. It would appear that the Caesars were in the habit of decorating their apartments with busts of Dante (which certainly showed remarkable foresight on their part), while their consorts sought relaxation by perusing printed volumes, handsomely bound. Verily, to live is to learn, but seeing is not always believing.

Seeing the past – or present – in the form of the “cineanachronisms” provided in the picture houses was not to be believed by this canny man about town. At least not always.

Other commentators took a more considered but not uncritical view of what had become the country’s most ubiquitous theatrical entertainment, reaching parts of small-town, rural and suburban Ireland that had never had regular professional theatrical entertainment before. By the end of 1914, Dublin Corporation approved licences for 25 premises to show films, with two or three others also under consideration. A small group of these were the theatres – the Theatre Royal, Tivoli Theatre, Empire Theatre and Queen’s Theatre – that had been showing films for two decades or more as part of their mainly live theatrical entertainments. The rest were dedicated picture houses in which the main entertainment was the projection of recorded moving pictures onto a screen, with the live elements limited to musical accompaniment, vocalists who sang between films, and in some venues, one or more variety acts. “Personally, I think we are carrying the picture business to excess,” opined the Dublin Evening Mail’s “Music and the Drama” columnist H.R.W. “The opening of theatres [i.e., picture houses] in the suburbs has much to commend it, but the many additions to the already large number of picture houses in the city is rather risky enterprise” (“War and the Drama”). This was not just a problem among competing picture house owners, but also among theatres proprietors because “ [t]he increasing popularity of the Picture Theatre is making the future of the drama and the music hall a serious problem” (“The Invasion of the Film”). H.R.W. felt that Dublin theatre managers had allowed this to happen by offering increasing amounts of music-hall entertainment and neglecting drama:

the vast public which desires something romantic and dramatic has been catered for by the activity of picture theatres, which, with their cheapness, the casual nature of the performances, and the liberty of smoking, has earned for them a considerable degree of popularity. (Ibid.)

By the outbreak of the war, cinema had become a truly mass medium, providing both news images and dramatic entertainment in a very particular setting. Even without overt propaganda films, individual picture houses or cinema chains could in their choice of films, music and other elements of their programmes present the war in ways that influenced the popular audience that governments needed to prosecute the war. If the Irish popular audience was indeed crowding the quays waving off Irish soldiers, it seemed likely that they would return to the picture houses to cheer on the screen’s shadow soldiers.

References

“Belgian War Scenes.” Advertisement. Dublin Evening Mail 24 August 1914: 2.

Condon, Denis. “Receiving News from the Seat of War: Dublin Audiences Respond to Boer War Entertainments.” Early Popular Visual Culture 9:2 (May 2011), pp. 93-106.

H. R. W. “Music and the Drama: War and the Drama.” Dublin Evening Mail 3 Aug. 1914: 2.

—. “Music and the Drama: The Invasion of the Film.” Dublin Evening Mail 27 Jul. 1914: 4.

The Man About Town. “Cineanachronisms.” Evening Herald. 13 Aug. 1914: 2.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 13 Aug. 1914: 673-5.

“The War: Picture House News Service.” Advertisement. Dublin Evening Mail 12 Aug. 1914: 2.