Exhibiting Tanks to Irish Cinema Fans, February 1917

A tank goes into battle in The Battle Ancre and Advance of the Tanks (Britain: British Topical Committee for War Films, 1917) from the Imperial War Museums.

A tank goes into battle in The Battle Ancre and Advance of the Tanks (Britain: British Topical Committee for War Films, 1917); Imperial War Museums.

Cinema was so popular in Ireland in February 1917 that the press had to search for a name for its adherents, and they found it in American vernacular. “This morning there is a heart-cry from a cinema fan,” the “Gossip of the Day” columnist in the Evening Telegraph noted on 21 February 1917:

He doesn’t know that he is a cinema fan, and that is the crux of the trouble – he is ignorant of the great American language. I gather from his pathetic note that he is a regular patron of the “silent drama,” yet he finds a difficulty in understanding the explanatory inscriptions with which American producers seek to help the intellects of those who sit in the outer darkness.

Although cinema was primarily a visual medium and as such offered the promise of an international language, it still required words to specify the meaning of what might otherwise be ambiguous images. The silent film’s intertitles carried those words, but they were often in a dialect not universally understood. The columnist was surprised at this because s/he believed that “regular patrons of this form of amusement were able to understand any announcement on the screen from the ‘slick’ slang of East Side New York to the weird attempts at English of the Italian, French and Danish producers.”

Most of the films that Irish cinemagoers saw were indeed American, but it was a British film that sought to attract as many Irish cinema fans as possible in February 1917. Monday, 19 February saw the Irish opening of The Battle of the Ancre and Advance of the Tanks (Britain: British Topical Committee for War Films, 1917), a War Office-sponsored propaganda film more often called simply The Tanks. Despite this foreshortened title, tanks featured only occasionally in the film. “Throughout the five scenes,” the Evening Herald’s Man About Town complained, “the Tanks are seen about four times altogether, each time only for a very brief passing moment.”

Whatever about the coming disappointment, anticipation for the film could build on tantalizing glimpses of this new war machine that had been accumulating for several months. In autumn 1916, Irish people had read about the first battlefield deployment of tanks, and in November 1916, Dubliners had even had the opportunity of seeing a tank film, albeit it the animated Tank Cartoon (Britain: Kineto, 1916). The cinema trade press had also informed its Irish readers about the shooting of the War Office tank film (“About Those Tanks!”).


The Dublin Evening Mail appears not to have been exaggerating when it noted that the “coming of the “Tanks’ Film’ to Dublin has been eagerly anticipated.” Publicity for the film could draw on what appears to have been a widespread fascination with this new weapon, in a similar way to which the earlier propaganda films had focused on artillery or aircraft. Previewing the coming shows at Dublin’s Theatre Royal, the city’s largest entertainment venue, the Mail writer observed that the “film portrays the most interesting happenings during the Battle of the Ancre, when the Tanks were first heard of, and promises to prove one of the most successful of the many interesting war films already seen in Dublin. The Battle of the Ancre stands out as one of the most striking phases of ‘The Big Push’” (“‘The Tanks’ at ‘The Royal’”).

Indeed, the Royal starting advertising the film as early as 10 February, when a short item warned patrons to book the film to avoid disappointment: “Your remember the trouble you had getting a seat at the ‘Battle of the Somme’ films, but you say to yourself that there will be no difficulty with ‘The Tank’ films, and you delay booking only to find yourself in the same position as before” (“‘The Tanks’ Film at the Theatre Royal”). The added attraction of The Tanks was that it included footage of Irish soldiers: “There were no Irish regiments shown in the Somme film, but Lieut. Malins, who took the pictures, succeeded in getting some splendid films of our gallant Irish Brigade.” Despite such extensive publicity of the film, the Royal only showed it at matinees (beginning at 2.30pm), except on Wednesday, when the film replaced the Royal’s two evening variety shows (beginning at 6.45pm and 9pm). Nevertheless, the film was presented at the Royal with “special music and effects that […] should help one to realise ‘what it is like.’ The band of the famous Faugh-a-Ballaghs will play at every performance” (“‘The Tanks’ at ‘The Royal’”). Unfortunately no review of the Royal shows appears to exist that specifies what effects – presumably sound effects imitating exploding shells – were used during the shows and how the audiences responded.


Dublin Evening Mail 19 Feb. 1917: 2.

The Royal was far from the only Dublin venue showing the film that week. Another large theatre, the Empire, showed the film all week alongside a somewhat reduced variety programme. Several of the most prestigious picture houses also screened it, with the Bohemian, Carlton, Masterpiece and Town Hall, Rathmines showing it for the first three days of the week, and the Grafton retaining it into the second half of the week. The Bohemian managed to show the film four times daily at 3, 5, 7 and 9, but this was eclipsed by the six shows that the Grafton managed to squeeze in at 1.45, 3.15, 4.45, 6.15, 7.45 and 9.15, “so that business men and others can all have an opportunity of making acquaintance with these new machines of war, of which Sir Douglas Haig says he cannot speak too highly” (“Grafton Picture House”).

While Dublin’s newspapers reviewed the film positively – even the Herald‘s Man About Town, despite his disappointment about the little screen time devoted to the tanks themselves – the Irish Times printed the longest review, and it was most forthright in clarifying the film’s ideological intent. Its “exhibition creates many thrills, and gives a very vivid conception of the war in all its phases,” the writer argued. S/he admitted that this had been done before, most notably by the very popular Battle of the Somme (Britain: British Topical Committee for War Films, 1916), but it had been criticized for showing British soldiers being killed. “[I]n the Tank films one is spared the somewhat gruesome side of the fighting. The tanks are awesome but not gruesome” (“‘Tanks in Action’”). In the face of so much evidence to the contrary, the film therefore helped recruiting by propagating a myth of British military invulnerability. “Should they stimulate our young men to help those Irishmen whom they see manning the trenches,” the Times writer concluded a lengthy review, “‘The Tanks in Action’ will be doing good work in Dublin.”


Dublin Evening Mail 24 Feb. 1917: 2.

The Times did not usually offer extensive reviews of films, but other newspapers were taking cinema increasingly seriously. On 19 February, the Evening Telegraph – the evening edition of the Freeman’s Journal – resumed publication after a hiatus caused by the destruction of its premises during the Easter Rising. Among its innovations was a Saturday column entitled “Kinematograph Notes and News.” The first series of notes on 24 February included both international items and some of particular Irish relevance. The latter included a notice that Aurele Sydney, star of Ultus series, would attend the Masterpiece Cinema during the following week’s screenings of Ultus and the Secret of the Night (Britain: Gaumont, 1917). Another note concerned the views of John Bunny, a film star who had visited Ireland five years previously and discussed the possibilities for film production in the country. Given that it made no mention of the Film Company of Ireland’s recent filmmaking efforts, the reason for the inclusion of the note on Bunny is unclear, unless it was to quietly contradict the claim made in the Masterpiece’s ad that Sydney was the first cinema star to visit Ireland.

This column was praised by a writer in the Irish Limelight, the cinema magazine that had begun publication in January 1917. “Readers of the Saturday Evening Telegraph got an agreeable surprise recently when they found that cinema notes were introduced,” “Movie Musings” columnist Senix observed. The surprise that the staff at the Limelight got on seeing the column may not have been all that agreeable, given that a weekly newspaper column might steal much of the thunder of the monthly journal. Nevertheless, Senix took it to be a positive development, commenting that “[t]his recognition of the people’s amusement proves pleasant reading after the many bitter attacks which have been made in the local Press. And the fact that it comes so soon after the appearance of the Irish Limelight sets us thinking.”

Dublin Evening Mail 17 Feb. 1917: 2

Dublin Evening Mail 17 Feb. 1917: 2

Despite Senix’s optimistic reading of the appearance of the Telegraph‘s column, bitter attacks on cinema were still very much evident in February 1917, both in the press and in the auditorium. When the “Gossip of the Day” columnist had attempted to define “cinema fan” for his/her readers, s/he speculated that “‘fan’ must be American for ‘fanatic,’ as it is used to designate people who are peculiarly addicted to any pastime.” However, there may be reasons for distinguishing between cinema fans and cinema fanatics. Certainly serial protestor William Larkin was a fanatic often to be encountered in cinemas but not a cinema fan. Since 1914, Larkin had mounted periodic protests in Dublin’s picture houses against films that he and the Catholic Irish Vigilance Association (IVA) considered to be morally dubious. These protests occurred in the auditorium during the screening of the films and involved Larkin shouting about the need for a Catholic-influenced Irish censorship and/or throwing ink at the screen. Larkin sought arrest to magnify the reach of the protest through the newspaper reports of the disturbance and subsequent trial. He had usually found that the magistrates treated him leniently – even indulgently – but in December 1915, he had been jailed when he refused to pay a fine imposed for a cinema protest.

After a period of apparent inactivity during 1916, Larkin’s latest – and last for some years – cinema protest took place on 21 February 1917 during a screening of The Soul of New York (US: Fox, 1915; released in the US as The Soul of Broadway) at the Pillar Picture House in Dublin city centre (“City Cinema”). It followed a well-established pattern. At about 10.25pm, the picture-house porter heard a commotion in the auditorium, found that Larkin had thrown “a blue liquid” at the screen and went to get manager J. D. Hozier. Larkin made no attempt to escape and admitted to having thrown the liquid, which not only caused damage estimated at £30 to the screen but also “bespattered” the instruments and clothes of musicians Herbert O’Brien, Joseph Schofield and Samuel Golding in the orchestra (“City Cinema Scenes”). After several court appearances, the case seems to have been struck out at the end of March.

Evening Telegraph 22 Feb. 1917: 1.

Evening Telegraph 22 Feb. 1917: 1.

Although this “exciting episode” certainly garnered press coverage, how Larkin’s direct-action methods complemented the Irish Vigilance Association’s ongoing campaign for cinema censorship is not clear. Indeed, despite his previous affiliation with the IVA, Larkin may have been acting on his own in this instance. The IVA’s well organized political lobbying for the introduction and effective exercising of film censorship was well advanced by February 1917. In June 1916, Dublin Corporation had appointed Walter Butler and Patrick Lennon as film censors, and in January 1917, it had engaged two women as “lady inspectors” of picture houses (“Amusement Inspectors,” “Dublin Lady Censors”). The IVA found a ready welcome at Dublin Corporation. On the last day of February, its Public Health Committee (PHC) invited a seven-member IVA deputation to address them on Sunday opening (“Cinema on Sundays”). Answering the deputation’s complaint that many cinemas opened at 8 o’clock on Sunday evenings, thereby intruding on hours set aside for Catholic devotions, PHC chairman and former mayor Lorcan Sherlock assured the deputation that the Corporation would enforce a 8.30pm Sunday opening.

Therefore, Irish cinema was engaging both fans and fanatics in February 1917.


“About Those Tanks! Extraordinary Interest of the Latest ‘Big Push’ Films.” Bioscope 12 Oct. 1916: 121.

“Amusement Inspectors: Reports to Be Made on Dublin Performances.” Evening Herald 10 Jan. 1917: 3.

“Cinemas on Sundays: Vigilance Association and the Hours of Opening.” Evening Telegraph 1 Mar. 1917: 2.

City Cinema: Exciting Episode: Blue Liquid Thrown.” Evening Telegraph 22 Feb. 1917: 1.

“City Picture-House Scene.” Dublin Evening Mail 28 Feb. 1917: 2.

“Dublin Lady Censors: Names Submitted.” Freeman’s Journal 15 Jan. 1917: 4.

“Gossip of the Day: Comments on Current Events.” Evening Telegraph 21 Feb. 1917: 2

“Grafton Picture House.” Dublin Evening Mail 17 Feb. 1917: 5.

“Kinematograph Notes and News.” Evening Telegraph 24 Feb. 1917: 5.

The Man About Town. “Thing Seen and Heard.” Evening Herald 19 Feb. 1917: 2.

Senix. “Movie Musings.” Irish Limelight 1:3 (Mar. 1917): 3.

“‘The Tanks’ at ‘The Royal.’” Dublin Evening Mail 17 Feb. 1917: 4.

“‘The Tanks’ Film at the Theatre Royal.” Dublin Evening Mail 10 Feb. 1917: 5.

“‘Tanks in Action’: Cinema Pictures in Dublin.” Irish Times 20 Feb. 1917: 3.

A Happy and Appropriate Synchronism: Passion Films at Easter 1914

The release of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (US: Paramount/Regency/Protozoa/Disruption, 2014) on cinema screens around the world in the run up to Easter 2014 is a distribution strategy at least a century old. “As a Passion Play,” wrote a reviewer  in Dublin’s Evening Telegraph of the latest release at the Rotunda’s in early April 1914, “‘The Messiah’ holds one with its intense impressiveness and pathos, and its exhibition just at this holy season is a happy and appropriate synchronism” (“‘The Messiah’ at the Round Room Rotunda”). This synchronism – or well-established distribution and exhibition strategy – was familiar to cinemagoers of the 1910s who would have seen the practice of releasing biblically based films for this religious festival as entirely unremarkable. In fact, this practice reproduced in a new medium the centuries-old Christian tradition of performing passion plays at Easter. Filmic passion plays were among the first moving pictures (Cosandey passim), and they were so popular that The Messiah shown in Dublin in April 1914 was the 1913 remake (dir. Maurice-André Maître) by French company Pathé of its La vie et la passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ, which the company had first produced in 1903 and again in 1907 (Abel 319-20). And this was just the output of one – albeit large – production company.


Rotunda manager James T. Jameson as he appeared in a caricature in the Bioscope in November 1911.

Easter Monday fell on 13 April 1914, but James T. Jameson, director of the Irish Animated Picture Company, and his son, Ernest, who managed the Rotunda, had begun the run up to Easter much earlier. In early March, Jameson senior had secured the Irish rights to two long “exclusives”: The Messiah and Spartacus, or the Revolt of the Gladiators (Italy: Pasquali, 1913) (“Items of Interest”). In its review of Spartacus at the Rotunda in the week beginning 23 March, the Dublin Evening Mail compared it to Quo Vadis? (Italy: Cines, 1912), the Italian epic that had been the biggest hit of 1913 and that had been available to Dublin audiences as lately as 2-7 March at the Camden Picture House (“Rotunda Pictures”). However, The Messiah was a more important film for the Rotunda than Spartacus. For one thing, it was longer; Spartacus shared its bill with the comedies The Awakening at Snakesville (US: Essanay, 1914) and When Cupid Takes in Washing (US: Lubin, 1914), but The Messiah was the only thing on the Rotunda’s programme for the two weeks beginning Monday, 30 March. As well as this, because it depicted the life of Christ, The Messiah had the potential to be as controversial as From the Manger to the Cross (US: Kalem 1913) had been the previous year. The superiority of The Messiah was emphasized by the Evening Telegraph, which urged “any person who witnessed “From Manger to Cross to pay a visit to the Rotunda and see what a drastic and extraordinary difference can be introduced in the treatment of the same subject, and more especially the grandeur of its colouring” (“‘The Messiah’ at the Round Room Rotunda”).

The Messiah was certainly a success at the Rotunda. Quoting figures supplied by the Rotunda management, the Telegraph revealed that by the Saturday of the first week of its run, it had been seen by over 22,000 people, “including a considerable proportion of the clergy of every denomination, and there have been nothing but the highest eulogies expressed by everybody who had the pleasure of seeing this marvellous production” (ibid). Paddy, the Irish correspondent of the British trade paper Bioscope, speculated that the audience for the full two-week run would number 50,000, commenting that the film “easily surpassed anything of the kind ever seen in Dublin, and the special music, so brilliantly rendered by Miss May Murphy’s Irish Ladies’ orchestra, added to the reverent screening of this great film” (Paddy). Although Jameson offered a new bill from Easter Monday featuring Christopher Columbus (US: Selig, 1912) and a film of the Grand National Steeplechase, he brought back – purportedly due to popular demand – The Messiah by the end of that week for selected matinees and early evening shows until Friday, 24 April.

This success of the passion films and such Italian historical epics as Quo Vadis? and Spartacus points to the existence of types of quality filmmaking based on high-cultural criteria. The Rotunda had long pursued a middle-class audience by promoting its film shows as both educative and entertaining, but Jameson had usually favoured programmes of shorter films – and some live variety acts – rather than a single long film. A review of the Rotunda in early March had stressed cinema’s multiple attractions:

The elaborate production of cinematograph films shows how much this form of entertainment has grown in public favour. Unlike skating rinks, living pictures seem to have come to stay. They supply an easy means of transporting oneself for a time from the uneventful round of daily life. Sitting in a comfortable seat, the spectator can in a moment travel from China to Peru, from the waste of the open sea to the sun-bathed mart of some Eastern town; he can witness fire and flood and return safely to a good supper by his civilized fireside (“Irish Animated Picture Company”).

The Rotunda had aimed to provide such a variety of attractions with multiple films in its two-hour shows, but the Italian epics could provide a range of spectacles in one film, as well as a patina of high-cultural value associated with classical education. As adaptations of literary works, Quo Vadis? – from Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novel – and The Last Days of Pompeii (Gli ultimi giorni di Pompeii; Italy: Ambrosio, 1913) – promoted as Lord Lytton’s great work” when it played at the Camden Street Picture House in the week beginning 20 April (“Camden Street Pictures”) – could benefit from recognition by middle-class audiences, as well as bestowing cultural prestige on the film and the picture house at which it was shown. Among other significant literary adaptations on exhibition in Ireland at Easter 1914 was Cines’ Antony and Cleopatra (Italy, 1913), a story that prospective spectators at the Opera House in Derry were informed “has been variously dealt with by many famous writers, including the immortal Shakespeare” (“Easter Amusements”).

Edison Talking Pictures at the Picture House, Royal Avenue, Belfast. Belfast Newsletter 3 Apr. 1914: 1.

Edison Talking Pictures at the Picture House, Royal Avenue, Belfast. Belfast Newsletter 3 Apr. 1914: 1.

The extent to which a shared or imposed set of cultural values deriving from literary culture, classical education and Christian doctrine was the source of the popularity of The Messiah or the Italian epics is difficult to say definitively without some discussion of how images of these circulated more widely (Uricchio and Pearson). Certainly, the promotion of such films as respectable by the trade press, newspapers and other forms of picture-house promotion did not prevent other cultural forces from continuing to attempt to impose their own control on cinema and its audiences. 

Easter 1914 seemed to be a particularly auspicious time for Irish nationalists. This point was well expressed in the nationalist Evening Telegraph, in which an editorial observed that

this will be the last Easter before Home Rule becomes the law, for the Home Rule Bill will reach the Statute Book in the course, probably, of the next five or six weeks. It is well that Easter should herald the coming of Ireland’s resurrection, for in the Christian sense it symbolises the Resurrection (“Easter”).

Christianity here meant the Catholicism of the Telegraph’s readership and of the majority of Dublin Corporation’s dominant nationalist faction. With Home Rule apparently imminent, more militant forces within the church were determined that cultural policy reflect a Catholic ethos, regardless of how this might affect the business interests of certain Catholic nationalist councillors.

Lord Mayor Lorcan Sherlock came under criticism from Catholic church-based groups in early March when he showed reluctance to introduce local censorship of films – the Corporation “are satisfied, as indeed are so many other civic bodies, with the verdict of the Board of Trade Censor” – or close picture houses on Sundays – “‘They have been,’ he said, ‘patronised to an extraordinary extent on Sunday by the working people of the city’” (“Picture Theatres: Conditions of Licensing”). Responding in a letter to the Telegraph, William Larkin, who had recently been praised rather than fined by a magistrate for protesting loudly during a theatre show, wondered whether or not the general public were “to be left at the mercy of the Corporation in the matter of taste in living pictures” whose “educational value […] in Dublin at present are nil” (“Sunday Pictures: For Working People”). He left no doubt that lay Catholic organizations would not let the matter rest:

Does his lordship know that the United Sodalities of Dublin (male and female) are out for reform of the picture theatres? Does his lordship know that the United Confraternities of the city are out for the same object? And does he also know that the Theatre Reform League of Dublin (which will later embrace all of Ireland) are on the watch against the class of production that has flooded our capital for some time now? (ibid).

Although Larkin and those named lay organizations would lead the campaign, priests and bishops lent the support of the hierarchy. A letter from a Father Gleeson calling for “an Irish National Censor, who understands the hearts and minds of the Irish people” accompanied Larkin’s  (“Letter from Father Gleeson”). In April, the Lord Mayor “stated that Archbishop Walsh was not in favour of closing picture houses on Sunday, but he thought that a limit should be placed in the hours of opening so that there would be no interference with the freedom of persons to attend divine worship.” Under pressure from both inside and outside the Corporation, Sherlock “was writing to Archbishop Walsh asking him whether he would take upon himself the responsibility of suggesting what type of censorship should be put into operation” (“Picture Theatres: The Archbishop’s Views”).

Belfast Newsletter 9 Apr 1914: 9.

Ad for the newly opened Great Northern Kinema in Belfast Newsletter 9 Apr. 1914: 9.

Larkin ended his letter on Dublin picture houses with some architectural criticism by remarking that “the building themselves are not even decent looking” (“Sunday Pictures: For Working People”), but Easter for Belfast’s picture houses was notable for its openings of distinct contributions to the city’s streetscape. The latest addition to Belfast’s substantial tally of picture houses was the Great Northern Kinema in Gt. Victoria Street, which opened in the first week of April, a little over a week after the 23 March opening of the Crumlin Picture House on the Crumlin Road. The Kinema, “[t]his new, most picturesque , and artistic home of the Moving Picture Art,” was located beside the Gt. Northern railway station, as well as on some of the city’s major tram lines (“Belfast’s Newest and Most Up–to-date Picture House”). No single film seemed to dominate the picture house programmes over the holiday period in the same way as The Messiah did in Dublin. At the “luxurious and attractive” Kinema, “[t]he star film during the early part of the current week is a two-reel drama entitled ‘Silent Heroes’” (US: Broncho, 1913) (“Kinema House”). The city’s most highly publicized cinema offerings were Edison’s Talking Pictures at the Picture House, Royal Avenue, where they were joined in the week beginning Easter Monday by a programme that included Selig’s Christopher Columbus. The different relationship between the churches and cinema is suggested by the fact that several of the Protestant halls – the CPA Assembly Hall, the Grosvenor Hall, the City YMCA and the People’s Hall – offered not only their usual Saturday cinematograph shows but also special film shows on Easter Monday and Tuesday.


Abel, Richard. The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema, 1896-1914. Berkeley: U of Califronia P, 1994.

“Belfast’s Newest and Most Up–to-date Picture House.” [Ad.] Belfast Newsletter 9 Apr. 1914: 9.

“Camden Street Pictures.” Evening Telegraph 21 Apr. 1914: 6.

Cosandey, Roland, André Gaudreault and Tom Gunning, eds. An Invention of the Devil? Religion and Early Cinema. Sainte-Foy and Lausanne: Éditions Payot/Laval UP, 1992.

“Easter.” Evening Telegraph 11 Apr. 1914: 4.

“Easter Amusements.” Derry Journal 13 Apr. 1914: 8.

“Irish Animated Picture Company.” Irish Times 10 Mar. 1914: 5.

“Items of Interest.” Bioscope 12 Mar. 1914: 1109.

“Kinema House.” Belfast Newsletter 14 Apr. 1914: 9.

“Letter from Father Gleeson.” Evening Telegraph 11 Mar. 1914: 5.

“‘The Messiah’ at the Round Room Rotunda.” Evening Telegraph 4 Apr. 1914; 7.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope16 Apr. 1914: 313.

“Picture Theatres: Conditions of Licensing.” Evening Telegraph 10 Mar. 1914: 3.

“Picture Theatres: The Archbishop’s Views.” Evening Telegraph 20 Apr. 1914: 3.

“Rotunda Pictures.” Dublin Evening Mail 24 Mar. 1914.

“Sunday Pictures: For Working People.” Evening Telegraph 11 Mar. 1914: 5.

Uricchio, William and Roberta E. Pearson. Reframing Culture: The Case of the Vitagraph Quality Films. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993.