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.
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”).
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’”).
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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”).
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 Piffle. As 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.
“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.
By October 1913, picture houses had begun to be a permanent presence not only in such Irish cities as Dublin, Belfast and Cork but also in towns with even as few as 5,000 inhabitants. In such places, the film show would be the first professionally produced mass entertainment available on a long-term basis. However, many towns still relied on travelling companies to bring professional entertainment of any kind, including film shows. Clearly, population was not the only factor, but it was very likely in 1913 that a town with 10,000 people or more would have had at least one permanent picture house, but only some towns of around 5,000 had a dedicated film venue, and most of the latter were likely to be served by travelling picture or picture-and-variety shows. However, market towns of 5,000 might have a dedicated picture house if they also had a good train service and a local person or persons with access to capital who saw the opportunities being exploited successfully elsewhere.
In early October 1913, Paddy, the Irish correspondent for the British trade journal Bioscope reported on a film-and-variety show by Clarence Bailey in Ballina, Co. Mayo:
To County Mayo is rather a far cry. Nevertheless, picture shows go there from time to time, and no touring show is thought so much about as the “livin’ pictur’” one. At Ballina recently, we had Clarence Bailey’s show, a mixture of variety and films. Some of the latter included the “Derby of 1913.” Wild West subjects naturally predominate in travelling shows of this nature, the breathless rush over the dusty plains appealing to the wonder-seeking mind of the peasant (Paddy).
This piece’s use of brogue and mention of “the peasant” was typical of Paddy’s humorous condescension in covering small-town and rural Ireland. Peasants are hicks who live in the far-away west, unsophisticated provincials who lap up Westerns and out-of-date news and in so doing, provide a telling contrast to the readers of Paddy’s column as well as demonstrating the increasing reach of the metropolitan film business. Nevertheless, Paddy also provides some unique details of film exhibition in the west of Ireland a century ago. Travelling shows such as Bailey’s are very difficult to track because they often did not advertise in the local newspapers of the towns they visited, and consequently, the newspapers – the source most likely to provide details of local reception – frequently ignored them unless something else newsworthy occurred. The September-October issues of the Western People and Ballina Herald do not mention, let alone give details of the programme. Clearly, Bailey was not in the first rank of Irish travelling exhibitors, which included the town-hall showman James T. Jameson and the fairground exhibitor John Toft. Bailey’s name is known to film scholars (Barton 14), but Paddy allows us to place him in Ballina showing Westerns and the newsreel of the Epson Derby that retained some interest four months after the race not only because of an abiding interest in horseracing among an audience who had not yet seen these moving pictures but also because this was the race at which suffragette Emily Wilding Davison was killed by King George V’s horse (some fascinating discussion of this case here and here).
Ballina had recently experienced its own suffragette controversy, when Irish Women’s Franchise League members Helen Chevenix and Clara Moser visited the town on 14 August to organize a town-hall meeting for 2 September. When the women held an impromptu meeting in the street, the conservative Protestant Balina Herald claimed that “though on the whole the crowd seemed sympathetic, some unruly parties kept interrupting, and on one occasion an egg or an orange – we don’t quite know which – was flung and narrowly missed one of the ladies” (“Lady Suffragettes in Ballina”). At the September meeting, the Western People explained that the women lost the sympathy of the largely nationalist audience by a “very ill-timed reference to the assistance ladies in the North were giving Sir Edward Carson in his swash buckling campaign against Home Rule [which] made many persons think that the lady who unburdened her mind in this manner came there to preach the cause of Unionism, under the guise of a Suffragette” (“A Suffrage Meeting”). The People strongly denied the “statement that the motor car conveying the Suffragettes and their friends was stoned as it left the hall after the meeting,” all that occurred being “confined to derisive booing and shouting” (ibid.). How these local incidents may have affected reception of the film, or how the film may have cast new light on the local events, or even which film of the Derby was shown is difficult to say, but the picture shows by travelling exhibitors such as Bailey provided the opportunity, at least, to re-examine them.
With a population of 4,662, Ballina did not have a dedicated venue at which such opportunities might arise on a regular basis. However, Ballinasloe, a town with the slightly larger population of 5,608 was in October 1913 awaiting the opening of a long-running, if not permanent, film venue. Although in the western county of Galway, Ballinasloe is located along the Galway-Dublin road and rail line, at the terminus of the Grand Canal. It is on the eastern border of that county, which means that it was and is nearer to the middle of the country than the west coast, and as such has long been an important meeting point between east and west, epitomized in its longstanding October fair, one of the oldest in Ireland. The town transport links and the fair’s large crowds drew travelling entertainers, so that in September 1913 alone, two travelling film companies visited before John Toft arrived to take part in the fair.
Toft displayed a remarkable ability to manage publicity and consequently increase his audience. The East Galway Democrat praised his “readiness to aid every good work” that included his
“Benefit Night” this week in aid of the Temperance Hall, his generous subscriptions to the Nursing Fund, the Fund for the Poor, and the Gaelic League, as well as his kindness in giving the patients and inmates of our public institutions a little enjoyment. […] It is not to be wondered at that Mr Toft’s Amusements are well patronised, and that he makes friends wherever he goes (“Local Topics: Deservedly Popular Show”).
However, when Toft travelled on from Ballinasloe a few day after the end of the fair, local businessmen John Thomas Greeves-O’Sullivan and Timothy J Dolan opened a winter season of their Greeves-O’Sullivan and Dolan Picture and Variety Company, running at the Town Hall from 24 November and over the Christmas period. “No expense has been spared to provide first-class pictures,” the Democrat revealed, “and the machine to be used for the purpose of showing them is one of the latest on the market. An experienced operator has been engaged, and the Ballinasloe Orchestra will discourse selections during the entertainments” (“Local Topics: Picture and Variety Co. for Ballinasloe”).
The company advertised regularly in the press and were acknowledged with notices, including one on 6 December that appears to bear out their claim that they changed films nightly: “to-night (Friday) a grand feature film, ‘Heartt [sic] of the First Empire or The Days of Napoleon,’ a splendid Military Drama; Sunday 7th Dec., ‘The Kerry Gow,’ a three-reel Irish Drama, Monday, 8th Dec., ‘Woman’s Heart,’ and on Friday, 12th Dec., ‘District Attorney’s Conscience,’ a splendid emotional drama” (“Living Pictures”). Despite the use of “variety” in their name, the company appears primarily to have shown pictures and their variety seems to have been limited to selections from the orchestra between films, with the piano selections of Eddie Kelly being particularly singled out in one notice.
The use of such local resources as the orchestra for commercial gain was the main criticism of the company expressed in the press. In an exchange of letters with Greeves-O’Sullivan, the orchestra’s conductor James Roche refused to participate in the venture, explaining that although he had been working with orchestra for a year without remuneration, he was not prepared to continue unpaid “where the band was being used for a private commercial speculation” (“Correspondence”). Greeves-O’Sullivan replaced Roche with local hairdresser Patrick Burke and seems to have gone on using the orchestra, but the exploitation by local businessmen of such community resources as orchestras and town halls for their own profit did cause conflict elsewhere during this period in the development of cinema.
Barton, Ruth. Irish National Cinema. London: Routledge, 2004.
“Correspondence.” East Galway Democrat 13 Dec. 1913: 5.
“Lady Suffragettes in Ballina.” Ballina Herald 21 Aug. 1913: 3.
“Living Pictures.” East Galway Democrat 6 Dec. 1913: 5.
“Local Topics: Deservedly Popular Show.” East Galway Democrat 18 Oct. 1913: 4.
“Local Topics: Picture and Variety Co. For Ballinasloe.” East Galway Democrat 15 Nov. 1913: 5.
Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 2 Oct. 1913: 31.
Phelan, Martin. “Emigration.” East Galway Democrat 15 Nov. 1913: 7.
“A Suffrage Meeting.” Western People 6 Sep. 1913: 6.
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”).
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.
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.
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.