“A Photo-Play of Unique National Interest”: Seeing Knocknagow in Irish Cinemas, January-April 1918

On 22 April 1918, Knocknagow  (Ireland: FCOI, 1918) opened at Dublin’s Empire Theatre after a tour of many of Ireland’s towns and cities.

Ad for Knocknagow in the Irish Limelight Feb. 1918: 10-11.

In inviting Irish exhibitors to the trade show of the long-awaited Knocknagow on 6 February 1918 at Dublin’s Sackville Street Picture House, the Film Company of Ireland (FCOI) described the film as “a photo-play of unique national interest.” Knocknagow would become the most significant film made in Ireland during the silent period. Appearing just over two months after the three-reel comedy Rafferty’s Rise, Knocknagow was very different from anything FCOI had yet released. An epic nine-reel (8,700-feet or 2 hours 25 minutes at 16fps) adaptation of the best-selling Irish novel of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Knocknagow was by far the FCOI’s most ambitious work to date. Part of the national interest of the film may have been in making accessible a novel that some critics have argued was very widely bought but very little read (Donovan). Indeed, when in August 1917 the film was announced and a stage adaptation was proving popular, the Evening Herald’s Man About Town wondered “what the opinion of the author of Knocknagow would be if he saw his novel on the cinema screen, or its dramatized version drawing crowded houses in the theatres throughout the country.”

Tailor Phil Lahy (Arthur Shields) fits out Mat the Thrasher (Brian Magowan) for a new coat in Knocknagow. Image and essays on the film available here.

One of the things he would likely have thought is that the film was very selective in what it took from the novel. “The story meanders along through over six hundred pages its placidity disturbed by very little of what the playwright dubs ‘action,’” the Evening Telegraph critic JAP noted of the novel in his review of the trade show.

To extract from the [novel’s] 600 pages enough incidents for a photoplay – which, above all things, must have virile action, – and to contrive that there should be sufficient continuity to sustain interest throughout a half-dozen reels, was a task to daunt the most expert scenario writer. (“Gossip of the Day.”)

Although impressed by the film in other ways, particularly the acting, JAP did not seem to think that the scenario attributed to Mrs. N. T. Patton had been particularly successful in delivering virile action. Indeed, two weeks later, although no long referring to Knocknagow, he argued that “the best books should not be filmed. To turn a book into a photo-play must be always an unsatisfactory business” (27 Feb.). He advising that “the action could be brisked up by sub-editing it down from eight reels to six, the sub-titles would be improved by more frequent quotations from the book and better choice of incidents would have helped to get more of the ‘atmosphere.’”

J.M. Carre as the villainous land agent Beresford Pender.

The version of Knocknagow that survives today is about an hour shorter than the original cut. As a result, it is difficult to say exactly what Irish audiences saw in early 1918, but a general description probably captures many of its essential features. Set in 1848, the film concerns the relationships among a large cast of characters who live on or adjacent to the lands of the absentee landlord Sir Garrett Butler, particularly in the village of Kilthubber and the hamlet of Knocknagow. Prominent among these are Mat “the Thrasher” Donovan (Brian Magowan); the tailor Phil Lahy (Arthur Shields), whose sickly daughter Nora (Kathleen Murphy) is betrothed to turfman Billy Heffernan (Breffni O’Rourke); large tenant farmer Maurice Kearney (Dermot O’Dowd) whose daughter Mary Kearney (Nora Clancy) is attracted to theology student Arthur O’Connor (Fred O’Donovan, who also directed); and villainous land agent Beresford Pender (J.M. Carre) schemes to remove tenants from the land to make way for more lucrative cattle grazing. The film interweaves scenes of rural work and leisure (ploughing, tailoring, Christmas celebrations, a wedding, a hurling match, a fair) with more strongly plotted sequences, such as the developing love stories or Pender’s strategies to evict certain tenants and frame Mat for robbery. “With a true appreciation of the artistic,” the reviewer in Cavan’s Anglo-Celt contended

the various degrees of tone have been lifted from the novel, and placed on the screen just as Kickham would have done it himself. The happy peasantry, the prowess of the youth at the hurling match, the hammer-throwing contest, the unexpected ‘hunt,’ the love scenes and the comedy – the life as it was before the agent of the absentee landlord came like a dark shadow on the scene, and with crowbar and torch, laid sweet Knocknagow in ruins – all were depicted by the very perfect actors who made up the cast. (“‘Knocknagow’ on the Film.”)

Pender’s eviction of the Brians, a farm labouring family, is depicted in detail, with titles superimposed on the images of the land agent dancing before their burning cottage.

Apart from transposing a bestselling Irish novel into an accessible screen format, two other definitions of “national interest” seem to be particularly relevant to thinking about the release of Knocknagow in early 1918: the commitment to local exhibition and the politics of Irish nationalism. The first of these is illustrated by the fact that the trade show had, unusually, followed rather than preceded a special premiere run in Clonmel from 30 January to 2 February, and the film’s first run after the trade show would be in the cities of Dublin or Belfast but in Carlow on 18-19 February. The Clonmel opening was designed to acknowledge that the film had been shot almost entirely in the Tipperary locations of Clonmel and Mullinahone associated with Kickham’s source novel. However, given that audiences not only in Clonmel and Carlow but in many other small towns saw the film before it opened to the public in Dublin on 22 April underscores FCOI’s commitment to a definition of national interest that associated it first and foremost with small-town Ireland.

The importance of the Tipperary landscape is emphasized at several points of the film, including a sequence of iris shots in which Mat says farewell to Ireland as he makes ready to emigrate.

Other aspects of the exhibition of Knocknagow deserve discussion, but the 22 April opening date of the film in Dublin also marked a turning point in Irish national politics. That day was flanked by two days of demonstrations against the conscription of Irish men into the British army. Sunday, 21 April represented a particular Catholic church influenced protest, with mass meeting and fiery speeches in every parish in the country, while Tuesday, 23 April was the day chosen by trade unions for a general strike that meant, among other things, that “there were neither newspapers nor cinema shows” during a “universal cessation of work throughout Nationalist Ireland” (“Labour’s Protest”). The British government’s determination to extend conscription to Ireland would finally succeed in uniting the warring factions of Irish nationalism against it.

Newsreel special of the by-election in South Armagh, Dublin Evening Mail 4 Feb 1918: 2.

This turning point of the conscription crisis came after the film’s release in much of the country, however, and it was in a political context of the rise of Sinn Féin that the film was produced and initially exhibited. In late 1917 and early 1918, the long stable link between the achievement of nationhood and the Home Rule of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) was severely under threat from the vision of a more radical independence offered in the wake of the 1916 Rising by the new Sinn Féin party. The set pieces of this struggle from the time Knocknagow began shooting in Tipperary in the early summer of 1917 and through the period of its exhibition in late winter and spring 1918 were a series of six by-elections in which Sinn Féin ran candidates in constituencies where the IPP had previously held Westminster seat, winning three of them. After losing four seats in all to Sinn Féin in 1917, the IPP may have seemed to be regaining the momentum by winning the three by-elections in early 1918, but one of these included the Waterford seat left vacant by the death on 6 March of the man most associated with Home Rule, IPP leader John Redmond. Cinema audiences could follow these developments through the newsreel footage of the by-elections and Redmond’s funeral provided by Irish Events and exhibitors such as William Kay of Dublin’s Rotunda who filmed these events.

General Film Supply sought sales of its film of the Funeral of the Late John Redmond, M.P. beyond its usual Irish Events network by placing this ad with the entertainment ads in the Evening Telegraph of 11-12 Mar. 1918.

As well as these party-political events, Knocknagow was released in a country that was experiencing increasing incidents of local unrest of many kinds, with a large number of prosecutions for cattle driving and for illegal drilling by Irish Volunteers, as well as a hunger strike by Sinn Féin prisoners in Mountjoy Jail. In early March, County Clare was placed under martial law, and Major-General W. Fry issued a proclamation “prohibiting the holding of any meeting or procession within the Dublin Metropolitan Police Area between March 6 and March 27,” a period that included St. Patrick’s Day (“Proclamation”). In one high-profile case, men arrested for illegal drilling in Dundalk refused to recognize the court and sang “The Soldier’s Song” to disrupt proceedings. This tactic became so common that one defendant (Michael Murray) in a Clare cattle-driving case refused to recognize “this concert” (“Court Scene”). However, when during the Dundalk case, a variety company sang the same “Sinn Féin” songs at one of the local picture house, a section of the audience left in protest (“Round Up”). More seriously, members of an audience at Limerick’s Tivoli Picture House on 4 March became victims of violence when 15 to 18 soldiers who had been involved in running battles with young men in the street burst into the auditorium and attacked the crowded audience at random with sticks and truncheons, injuring many, including the musical director (“Soldiers & People in Conflict”).

Mat leads the Knocknagow hurling team for a match that the Derry Journal reviewer thought was “a topsy-turvey affair, resembling a rugby scramble more than a game of caman” (“‘Knock-na-Gow’ at the Opera House”). Some more on that aspect of the film here.

In these circumstances in which, it seems, politics could irrupt into the auditorium at any moment, Knocknagow looks like quite an indirect, even tame intervention. The FCOI’s choice of Kickham’s novel as the basis for its first landmark film seems, on the one hand, an overtly nationalist statement: its author was a former president of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and one of the best known Irish revolutionaries of the latter half of the nineteenth century. On the other hand, the nature of the book – rich in detail of Irish country life in the 1840s but also sprawling and sentimental rather than overtly political – was such that it could be adapted without courting political controversy. As such, the film contrasts with the films made in Ireland between 1910 and 1914 by US filmmakers Sidney Olcott and Gene Gauntier for Kalem and subsequently their own production companies, some of which openly feature armed political rebellion against Britain, albeit that these films are also set in the past.

ArthurO’Connor and Mary Kearney pursue their romance.

This is not to argue that FCOI were politically conservative but that the company had to negotiate strict censorship. The attempt to show Ireland a Nation (US: Macnamara, 1914) in Dublin in January 1917 or even the more recent controversy over the potential banning of the Finn Varra Maa pantomime had shown that to have produced a film that the authorities judged to have been overtly nationalistic would undoubtedly have been to see the film immediately banned under the particularly strict wartime censorship provisions of the Defence Against the Realm Act. Apart from anything else, the banning of Knocknagow would have been a financial disaster for the already struggling FCOI.

Scenario competition in Irish Limelight Dec 1917: 11.

In this context, Kickham’s work took on a renewed importance in its ability to subtly re-articulate a familiar set of representations in a political way through its association with the author’s republicanism. Despite its setting in the mid-19th century, Knocknagow still resonated with Irish audiences, as the popularity of the stage adaptation shows. And 1918 would be the year of Kickham film adaptations: with a similar setting in time and place, Kickham’s other major novel Sally Cavanagh would be adapted by J. A. McDonald for a scenario competition run by the Irish Limelight in early 1918. Given that Knocknagow’s director Fred O’Donovan joined Limelight editor Jack Warren in judging the competition, it is perhaps not surprising that McDonald’s scenario, Untenanted Graves, won, but its seems never to have been realized (“Untenanted Graves”).

Film made in Ireland by US filmmakers Sidney Olcott and Gene Gauntier for Kalem dominated this list of Irish films available to Irish exhibitors through Dublin-based General Film Supply; Irish Limelight Dec. 1917: 18.

As the Kickham film that was made, Knocknagow in itself, and in the company’s rhetoric around it, emphasized its embeddedness in particular Irish locations that were different from the ones popularized by previous, foreign filmmakers in Ireland, especially the Killarney of the enduringly popular Olcott-Gauntier films. Unlike Olcott and Gauntier, the FCOI filmmakers were – predominantly – Irish born, and the company was based in Dublin. In keeping with this rhetoric, local exhibition was of more than usual importance to Knocknagow. FCOI had opened previous films in regional picture houses, despite the claim by the Dame Street Picture Theatre in Dublin that all the company’s productions could be seen there first. But for Knocknagow, regional exhibition was a part of its national significance.

Ad for premiere of Knocknagow at Magner’s Theatre, Clonmel; Nationalist 26 Jan. 1918: 6.

Indeed, successful regional exhibition in Ireland was to be part of the promotion of the film with audiences and exhibitors abroad. On 13 April, while Knocknagow was showing in Derry, Dublin’s Evening Herald published a brief interview from its drama critic Jacques with FCOI producer James Mark Sullivan. Sullivan was on the cusp of bringing the FCOI films to America (on the film in America, see here and here), and Jacques quoted him on the company’s intentions:

“We desire,” he says, “to show Ireland sympathetically; to get away from the clay pipe and the knee breeches; to show Ireland’s rural life, with pride in the same; to show Ireland’s metropolitan life intelligently, depicting the men and women of the 20th century – in short, Ireland at its best in every walk of human endeavour.”

This may have been his desire but if it had any basis in a reality beyond advertising rhetoric, it must have referred to the earlier FCOI films and not Knocknagow. Knocknagow persisted in representing the Irish of the mid-19th century and doing so in familiar ways, including costumed in knee breeches. In addition, Sullivan made specific claims about the way that Knocknagow was being welcomed in Ireland “like no other picture was ever received in Ireland or out of Ireland before. From every place where it has once been shown,” he contended,

we are receiving return bookings—a remarkable thing in the case of a picture, though very ordinary in that of a play or opera. For instance, the city of Limerick gave us four bookings, and I question if any other picture every received over two. The same is true of Waterford, Clonmel, Cork, Carlow, and other towns. This week we are breaking all records in Waterford. I mention these facts to indicate that there is prospect of promise and permanency in our enterprise.

The ad for Knocknagow at Derry’s Opera House was dwarfed by an ad for the opening of the city’s newest picture house, the Rialto, on 29 April. Derry Journal 12 Apr. 1918: 2.

Although the surviving evidence in Ireland’s regional newspapers does not quite support Sullivan’s attempts to boost Knocknagow in advance of its Dublin opening, the film had been shown – or in the case of Limerick, was about to be shown – in the towns he named. To clarify, before its week-long run at the Empire Theatre in Dublin (22-27 Apr.), the film was shown at Magner’s Theatre in Clonmel (30 Jan.-2 Feb.), the Sackville Picture Theatre in Dublin (trade show, 6 Feb.), the Cinema Palace in Carlow (18-19 Feb.), the Town Hall Cinema in Cavan (25-27 Feb.), the Cinema in Kilkenny (6-7 Mar.), the Opera House in Cork (18-23 Mar.), the Coliseum in Waterford (1-6 Apr.), the Opera House in Derry (8-13 Apr.), the Empire Theatre in Belfast (15-20 Apr.), the Shannon Cinema in Limerick (15-17 Apr.) the Picturedrome in Tralee (18-20 Apr.) and the Town Hall in Galway (22-24 Apr.).

Anglo-Celt 23 Feb. 1918: 7.

A survey of the reception of Knocknagow in the run up to the Dublin opening has shown something of the way in which the film resonated with audiences around the country. It makes clear that the film was certainly popular with Irish cinemagoers, with local critics consistently praising its fidelity to Kickham’s novel the quality of the acting and the beauty of the Tipperary scenery. However, few reviews mentioned the film’s contemporary political relevance. Indeed, some suggested that audiences abroad would be particularly impressed by the film, including the Anglo-Celt‘s reviewer, who subtitled his notice “A Picture Play that Will Create a Furore in America” (“‘Knocknagow’ on the Film”). Despite such potentially politically sensitive scenes as the eviction, this was probably due to the fact that such events were depicted in the past, safely distanced, with Cork Evening Echo emphasizing that the film would attract “all those who take an interest in the economic and social development which has taken place in this country during the past two generations” (“Opera House”).

An illustrated intertitle introduces the eviction scene, emphasizing its importance.

It was only really in Galway that the critic saw the film’s immediate relevance by arguing that it

pointed a topical moral at the present time. We saw the evictions, the crowbar brigades, the burnings, the landlord oppression of 70 years ago, the attempt to wipe out a race. Such memories – only of the other day – as it revived scarcely accommodated the mind of the beholder to the nation of conscription. (“Town Hall.”)

By the time this reviewer was writing on or about 26 April, conscription had become the politically unifying issue for nationalists that it had not been earlier in Knocknagow’s run.

While FCOI could not have foreseen such events, the company enhanced its connection to the local audience in many of the places Knocknagow was shown by having members of the cast sing at screenings. This was a unique feature of the film’s exhibition in Ireland. Film actors had on rare occasions attended screenings of their films, but they did not contribute to the events’ live music. Brian Magowan, the film’s main star and an actor familiar with musical theatre, appeared most often, regularly accompanied by fellow cast member, Breffni O’Rourke. This was not Magowan’s first vocal accompaniment of a FCOI film; he had sung at the premiere of the company’s first film, O’Neill of the Glen. In the case of Knocknagow, however, the FCOI gave this feature special prominence by having Magowan and O’Rourke, dressed in character, sing folk songs connected with the film. Although they did not appear at every venue where the film was shown, and of course, they could not have when the film was showing simultaneously in geographically remote locations, Magowan’s and O’Rourke’s live appearances were regular features of the first run of the film in Ireland.

While ploughing a field with a view of Slievenamon (mountain), Mat pauses to sing “The Farmer’s Boy,” with an intertitle helpfully providing musical notation and the song’s refrain.

Their earliest appearance seems to have been in Cavan, where the Anglo-Celt reported that “[a]n interesting feature of the entertainment was that Mr. J. McGowan, who, as ‘Mat the Thrasher’ was the hero on the film, appeared each evening in the flesh and sang some old Irish ballads in very charming voice, while Mr. Breffni O’Rourke (‘Bill Heffenan’ in the play) gave some traditional Irish lays and witty stories” (“‘Knocknagow’ on the Film”). Magowan most important contribution was “Slievenamon,” a song about the Tipperary mountain whose lyrics Kickham had composed. The centrality of this song to the FCOI’s conception of the ideal accompaniment of the film is underlined by the reproduction of Magowan’s arrangement of the song for voice and piano that was included in a programme for a later (probably 1919) run of the film (NLI).

The film has many musical scenes, including this one in which Billy Heffernan plays the flute while the Lahys dance.

The reviews are unclear on whether they sang before, after or during the projection of the film, but the film itself includes moments that motivate vocal accompaniment. In an early scene of the film, Mat is introduced by an intertitle and then shown ploughing a field in long shot. In a mid-shot, he turns around to the camera, and an intertitle appears with a musical stave and the refrain from the folk song “The Farmer’s Boy.” The cut back to Mat shows him singing animatedly before he returns to his ploughing in the shadow of Slievenamon. These on-screen cue might provide the place for Magowan to sing or they might encourage the audience to sing these popular tunes. A similar series of shots occurs later when tailor Phil Lahy sings “The Black Horse,” whose opening lines are printed on an intertitle.

Made and released during a fraught historical moment, Knocknagow sought to engage its audiences with a bestselling literary text and popular songs and involve them in the process of readjusting the representation of the Irish on screen.

References

“Court Scene: Clare Cattle Drivers Refuse to Recognise ‘this Concert.’” Dublin Evening Mail 16 Mar. 1918: 3.

Donovan, Stephen. “Introduction: Ireland’s Own Film.” Screening the Past 33 (2012). Available at <http://www.screeningthepast.com/2012/02/introduction-ireland%E2%80%99s-own-film/&gt;

Jacques. “Knocknagow Filmed: Wonderful Irish Picture of Storied Incident.” Irish Limelight Apr. 1918: 5.

JAP. “Gossip of the Day: Film Version of Kickham’s Most Famous Novel.” Evening Telegraph 7 Feb. 1918: 2.

—. “Gossip of the Day: The Present Fashion in Films.” Evening Telegraph 27 Feb. 1918: 2.

“‘Knock-Na-Gow’ at the Opera House.” Derry Journal 10 Apr. 1918: 4.

“‘Knocknagow’ on the Film: A Picture Play that Will Create a Furore in America.” Anglo-Celt 2 Mar. 1918: 6.

“Labour’s Protest.” Freeman’s Journal 24 Apr. 1918: 2.

The Man About Town. “Thing Seen and Heard.” Evening Herald 22 Aug. 1917: 2; 9 Mar. 1918: 2.

NLI (National Library of Ireland). MS 50,000/272/82, Liam O’Leary Archive. Programme for Knocknagow, n.d.

“Opera House.” Evening Echo 14 Mar. 1918: 2.

“Proclamation: Processions Forbidden for the Next Three Weeks in the Dublin Area.” Dublin Evening Mail 7 Mar. 1918: 3.

“A Round Up: Many Volunteers Arrested.” Evening Telegraph 12 Mar. 1918: 3.

“Soldiers & People in Conflict: Scenes in Limerick.” Irish Independent 6 Mar. 1918: 3.

“Town Hall.” Galway Express 27 Apr. 1918: 4.

“The Untenanted Graves.” Irish Limelight Apr. 1918: 13.

“The Birth of a Nation” in Ireland, Autumn 1916

Theatrical poster; Wikipedia.

Theatrical poster; Wikipedia.

D. W. Griffith’s racist epic The Birth of a Nation (US: Epoch, 1915) caused a sensation when it finally reached Ireland in the autumn of 1916, more for its epic ambitions than for its racism. It played exclusively at just three venues: first, at Belfast’s Grand Opera House, for the three week from 7 to 26 August; next, at Cork’s Opera House for the week of 28 August-2 September; and finally, at Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre for a two-week run from 18 to 30 September. Clever marketing to middle-class tastes, a mastery of filmic spectacle and even its title in a country consumed by a struggle for or against the birth of a more-or-less autonomous nation propelled it into the Irish consciousness like few previous films.

“‘Ireland will never be fit to take its place among nationalities, big or small, until it is recast and remade. It is in the melting-pot now…. What picture of the process of remoulding will the historian of the future give his generation? ” This question from US senator Patrick J. Maguire appeared as “To-Day’s Thought” at the top of the Man About Town’s “Seen and Heard” column in the Evening Herald on 26 September 1916.  In the column’s “Afterthought,” the Man About Town answered: “Why a moving picture, of course – another ‘Birth of a Nation.’” As writers in the Bioscope and Dublin Evening Mail had earlier in the year, the Man About Town thought that the historiography of the near future would be written not on the page but on the screen, with the light of the film camera and projector. Unlike these previous writers who had discussed British propaganda films, the Man About Town was referring to the fictional Birth of a Nation, which was then starting the second of its two-week run at the Gaiety.

Dublin Evening Mail 16 September 1916: 2.

One of a series of large display ads for The Birth of a Nation in the Dublin Evening Mail, this one appeared on 16 September 1916: 2.

“By the way, have you seen it – the ‘Birth of a Nation’ at the Gaiety?” the Man About Town continued, clearly somewhat overwhelmed by this version of the American Civil War and period of Reconstruction that followed it. Focusing on the Northern Stoneman and Southern Cameron families, Griffith depicts the Civil War as a national tragedy, that was followed by the assassination of Abraham Lincoln which allowed such radical Republicans as Austin Stoneman (George Siegmann) – a fictional version of Thaddeus Stevens – to unleash on the defeated South a plague of carpetbaggers and state legislatures of freed blacks incapable of governing even their own behaviour never mind a state. Order could only be restored when Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) founded the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), which restores order and rescues white women from the sexual depredations of black men. Awed by the film’s technical achievements, Irish journalists tended to treat it as a factual retelling of events. “If you fail to see it you are missing a part of your education,” the Man About Town warned. “I have sat out some kinema shows in my time, but nothing to come near this. It’s the greatest screened drama that ever came to Dublin.”

Childhood friends but belonging to opposing Union and Confederate armies, the youngest sons of the Cameron and Stoneman families meet on the battlefield and die in each other's arms.

Childhood friends but belonging to opposing Union and Confederate armies, the youngest sons of the Cameron and Stoneman families meet on the battlefield and die in each other’s arms in The Birth of a Nation.

Under the title “Absolutely It,” Jacques’ review at the Evening Herald concluded that it was “the most enthralling thing in film land ever presented to a Dublin audience” and declared the reviewer lost for words. “If you ask me to give a full and detailed account of all the characters, love stories, historical incidents and thrilling incidents that occurred during the two hours that ‘The Birth of a Nation” reel kept spinning at the Gaiety Theatre last night,” he confided, “I’m sorry to say I can’t do it.” He nevertheless usefully provided what he called “but the baldest outline”:

The film shows us with almost overwhelming detail life in America, both North and South, just previous to and during the course of the Civil War. Mixed up with the fighting we follow the fortunes of two families united by ties of friendship but on opposite sides in the struggle. Then, when the war is over, we see the rising of the blacks, who, thanks to the slushy policy of the North, get all the power into their own hands and become bestial tyrants in consequence.

Kindly before our eyes is pictured the inception of the biggest secret society the world has ever seen, for it embraced every white in the South and yet remained secret. Finally we see how this society – the Ku-Klux-Klan – by the employment of mailed glove methods and working on negroid superstition, was enabled to stamp out the black peril and permit the whites in the Southern States to live without the men carrying their lives (and their six-shooters) in their hands.

Jacques was somewhat unusual among Irish reviewers in focusing on the second, more audaciously racist part of the film, which deals with the Reconstruction, and his use of such terms as “bestial tyrants,” “negroid superstition” and “the black peril” leaves little doubt that he accepted the film’s racism.

The very picture of imperilled femininity, Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish) awaits her forced marriage to the mixed race Silas Lynch in The Birth of a Nation.

In just one climactic instance of racially imperilled femininity, Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish) awaits her forced marriage to the mixed race Silas Lynch in The Birth of a Nation.

The Man About Town largely avoided explicit white-supremacist phrasing but made clear that the film’s affective power – frequently evoked with images of imperilled femininity – was deployed to ensure that the audience identified with Southern whites:

It gives you every emotion in the human gamut. One time you marvel at the beauty of the sunny cottonfields, then you smile at the quaint costumes. You want to kiss and cuddle the sweet young person loved by heroic young men. You feel an all-overness when you see howling mobs surging in flaming towns; you grip yourself at the sight of men amuck smashing and tearing houses above the heads of cellared women; you feel the shock of battle. You laugh and cheer and cry. It’s better than a good play. It’s a marvel.

The reviewer at the Belfast News-Letter contended that the emotional charge was intensified over the film’s three-hour span in order to offer the audience a final release by cheering the KKK. “Historically of the greatest value,” s/he claimed,

“The Birth of a Nation” holds the audience enthralled for over three hours, and the enthusiasm of the spectators waxes stronger and stronger with each succeeding scene, until, towards the close, they seize the opportunity afforded by the thrilling exploits of the Ku Klux Kan [sic] to give vent to their long pent-up emotions in frequent and hearty outbursts of applause. (“Grand Opera House”  BN.)

Only the reviewer at Cork’s Evening Echo in any way questioned the film’s racial politics. “The southern cotton planters were persuaded nature intended the negroes to be bought and sold and to cultivate cotton,” s/he observed, commenting that the “outlook of these planters appears peculiar at the present day,” but undermining what may be a mild criticism by adding that “one can to some extent understand it” (“Opera House”). “Mr. Griffith, it is easy to see, has a strong Southern bias,” the Northern Whig reviewer pointed out, “but this would not matter if it did not lead him to overstate an excellent case.” This overstatement was particularly evident in the depiction of the KKK: “to represent [the KKK] as a new order of chivalry is simply fantastic.” However, the writer’s problem appears to have been historical accuracy – the fact that it “is tinged too deeply with melodrama” – and not racist ideology: “If the Ku-Klux-Klan cannot be adorned with a halo, Mr. Griffith uses it to produce some splendid sensational thrills and the final fight for Piedmont is as good a realistic spectacle as one has ever seen staged” (“Grand Opera House” NW 8 Aug.).

It is possible to track these difference in reception of The Birth of a Nation because it received so much newspaper coverage, and this in turn was because it played exclusively at three of Ireland’s most prestigious theatres rather than at Belfast’s, Cork’s and Dublin’s picture houses. This formed part of a deliberate international exhibition strategy designed to distinguish The Birth of a Nation as a cultural event unlike any previous film screening. Rather than be distributed through existing distribution companies, the film was exhibited in a “road show” format, brought to the cities in which it was to be shown by a travelling company of technical crew and musicians. The company’s arrival was heralded by an elaborate marketing campaign that included large newspaper display ads describing – or rather exaggerating – the film’s unprecedented scale (Stokes 121). The claim repeated most often in Irish newspaper ads related less to the film’s narrative than to the assertion that the extent of the production needed to be measured in the thousands:  18,000 people, 5,000 horses and £10,000 costs.

This ad quoted the overwhelmingly positive reviews in Belfast's papers; Northern Whig 9 Aug. 1916: 7.

This ad quoted the overwhelmingly positive reviews in Belfast’s papers. Notable missing is the nationalist daily Irish News, which did not advertise or review the film. Northern Whig 9 Aug. 1916: 7.

Every ad also carried a note from director D. W. Griffith guaranteeing that “‘The Birth of a Nation’ will never be presented in any but the highest-class theatres and at prices charged for the best theatrical attractions.” Theatrical prestige was financially lucrative. “At both houses yesterday large audiences attended,” the Irish Times’ reviewer noted in the course of a comparatively short review of the Gaiety shows, observing that luxury and expense were sometimes forced on “later comers at the evening performance [who were] unable to obtain admission, except to the dearer parts of the theatre” (“‘Birth of a Nation’” IT). The Irish exhibition of The Birth of a Nation awaited a British road-show company that came – according to the ads – “direct from its sensational success at Drury Lane, London.” As a result, the film had taken a year and half to reach Ireland.

Belfast News-Letter 15 Aug. 1916: 1.

The Panopticon’s “mirth of a nation”; Belfast News-Letter 15 Aug. 1916: 1.

The attempt to suggest that the prestige theatres should be the exhibition spaces for prestige films was, not surprisingly, resisted by picture-house owners. During the Belfast run, the rival Panopticon advertised that if not “the birth of a nation,” it was providing “the mirth of a nation,” albeit that its main feature Burnt Wings (Britain: Broadwest, 1916) – in which a woman adopts her husband’s illegitimate child – does not seem altogether mirthful (“Panopticon”). For distributors of other high-profile films, the choice of picture house or theatre appears to have been more pragmatic. When the most ambitious of the British government’s propaganda films The Battle of the Somme finally opened on 11 September, it was first shown in Dublin at a theatre, the Theatre Royal, but in Belfast, it was shown at the luxurious Picture House, Royal Avenue. “[N]ever have the facts of war been more vividly brought home to people living far away from the scene of action,” the Belfast News-Letter commented. “For this latter feature we are indebted to the pictures which have from time to time been obtained by means of the cinematograph [… F]rom the moment of preparation, all through that deadly, but glorious, First of July, on to the crash of victory, the story is unfolded in all the strength and simplicity which such photography can give ” (“Battle of the Somme”).

Dublin Evening Mail 26 Aug. 1916: 2.

Carmen, a silent-screen opera; Dublin Evening Mail,  26 Aug. 1916: 2.

Undoubtedly, certain picture houses were capable of mounting productions that rivalled the theatres’ biggest spectacles. In the week beginning 28 August, Dublin’s Bohemian capitalized on its acknowledged superiority in musical attractions by exhibiting the opera film Carmen (US: Lasky, 1915), directed by Cecil B. DeMille and starring Metropolitan Opera diva Geraldine Farrar in her first film role. Farrar did not, of course, appear at the Bohemian to sing her part, but the live musical accompaniment by the Bohemian orchestra was supplemented by both concert instrumentalists Achille Simonetti and Clyde Twelvetrees and vocalists Belgian tenor Carlo Berckmans and Irish basso Irvine Lynch.

Although it did not have such vocal attractions, The Birth of a Nation outdid all of these in other ways. One of these was its exceeding length, running almost three times longer than either Carmen or The Battle of the Somme. Indeed, its running time of over three hours was 50-100% longer than most picture-house programmes, which usually consisted of several films. And however exaggerated the figures that appeared in its ads, local reviewers recognized it as an unusually lavish production. “The Grand Opera House was filled to overflowing last night,” the Belfast News-Letter‘s reviewer observed,

and collectively and individually, without exception, the members of the huge audience that peopled the vast auditorium were thrilled to the very core by the stupendous historical drama that was unfolded before their eyes. “The Birth of a Nation” is unquestionably the finest cinematograph production ever seen in this city, but it represents far more than that; it is one of the mightiest and most moving spectacles ever seen upon any stage, and its creation is an epochal event in the history of the art of cinematography. (“Grand Opera House” BN.)

Joseph Holloway saw several films apart from The Birth of a Nation in September 1916, including a second viewing of the Film Company of Ireland’s O’Neil of the Glen, at which he sketched actor J. M. Carre.

Joseph Holloway saw several films apart from The Birth of a Nation in September 1916, including a second viewing of the Film Company of Ireland’s O’Neil of the Glen, at which he sketched actor J. M. Carre.

However, it seems that audiences in Dublin and those in Belfast interpreted the spectacle in different ways. Writing of Dublin, Nicholas Andrew Miller has pointed out that “[i]f the film produced a local political impact on the Irish audience, then, it is not because it narrated Irish historical experience, but because it created a discursive space in which local Irish references – and memories – could appear in the guise of spectacle” (115). Citing the diary of inveterate theatregoer Joseph Holloway, Miller shows that members of the Gaiety audience used the film to criticize post-Easter Rising Ireland. Holloway had attended the Gaiety on 20 September, when he thought the film “stupendous […] & to say that I was thrilled by visiting it is to state but downright fact. It is a story of the War between North & South & its after effect until the negroes were again put in their proper place.”  Holloway also reports that his neighbour Miss Conroy told him of shouts at one of the screenings concerning British Army commander John Maxwell, who had imposed harsh martial law on Dublin in the aftermath of the Rising and had executed 15 of the leaders. The comments came during a scene in the film in which

Lincoln refuses to deal harshly with the Southern Leaders, & says, “he’ll treat them as if nothing occurred at all!” – on a shout coming from one of the audience “where is Sir John Maxwell to hear that?” followed by great approval & the contrary, till she got quite frightened of there being a row.

(The barber’s assistant, who was present at opening show first night, said one on gallery called out after seeing the above incident – “For our second Cromwell!”). (Holloway.)

For Miller, the memories and local references the film evoked related to nationalist politics, in this case, the Easter Rising.

This film ad openly praised the Ku Klux Klan; Belfast News-Letter 3 Aug. 1916: 7.

This film ad openly praised the Ku Klux Klan; Belfast News-Letter 3 Aug. 1916: 7.

The Belfast context was quite different. As no equivalent of Holloway’s diary exists for Belfast and as the Irish News – the city’s main nationalist newspaper – did not advertise or review the Grand Opera House shows, the surviving responses to The Birth of a Nation come from the city’s unionist newspapers. As well as this, the film opened on 7 August, more than a month earlier than in Dublin, putting it in the high summer, when an exodus from the city to seaside resorts was being reported (“Holiday Scenes in Belfast”). “Even in such hot weather as we have been experiencing recently a visit to the Opera House to see the ‘Birth of a Nation’ will not be regretted, but on the other hand will long be remembered with much pleasure by all who pay it” (“Birth of a Nation” NW). Despite this, the film ran for three weeks, a week longer than in Dublin, and the papers reported that the enthusiasm of Belfast audiences had not waned even by its third week, “which finds the film in higher favour than ever. […] Not only is Mr. Griffith’s spectacle continually drawing new admirers but a great many people are discovering that it well repays a second and even a third visit” (“Grand Opera House”  NW 22 Aug.).

For the reviewers in Belfast, the outstanding feature of local relevance in The Birth of Nation was its depiction of war, which made it particularly timely given that the papers were elsewhere reporting on the battles of the Somme and Verdun and at one point, on the increased use of non-white soldiers in battle (“Coloured Men and the War”). “The battle of Petersburg, in which the Federal troops sustained their greatest and final defeat, caused great interest on account of the close analogy it bears to the fighting on the Western front to-day,” the Belfast News-Letter observed, “it was one of the earliest, if not the first occasions in history, on which the contending armies entrenched in the open with the opposing lines only a few yards apart” (“Grand Opera House” BN).

However, the film’s contemporary relevance came  not just for these battlefield details but also from the depiction of the emotions felt by soldiers’ families.

The departure of the troops for the scene of action, the pathos of parting from their friends and relatives, the tragic letters which tell of their devotion and sacrifices, the sorrow and suffering that are bravely endured by grief-stricken parents who have given their sons to their country – all these things are typical of what is happening at the present time. No one can witness this mighty spectacle without being moved to tears. There are scenes of indescribable pathos, and there are also scenes of surpassing beauty and of infinite sweetness and tenderness. (“‘Birth of a Nation’” BN.)

Although a greater emphasis fell on the war scenes in Belfast – “where picture houses thrive and claim thousands of habitués” – it was also true of Dublin and Cork that “[t]he prophesy that the film would create a sensation wherever it was produced has been fulfilled to the letter” (“Grand Opera House” NW 15 Aug.). Irish filmgoers – but not cinemagoers – thronged to see Griffith’s massive spectacle in the autumn of 1916, were duly impressed by it and few had qualms about its racism.

References

“The Battle of the Somme: Historic Film to be Exhibited in Belfast.” Belfast News-Letter 18 Aug. 1916: 8.

“The Birth of a Nation.” Northern Whig 12 Aug. 1916: 6.

“‘The Birth of a Nation’: Impressive Spectacle at the Grand Opera House.” Belfast News-Letter 12 Aug. 1916: 2.

“‘The Birth of a Nation.’” Irish Times 20 Sep. 1916: 3.

“Cinema’s Popularity: Manifold Potentialities: Shows What Theatre Only Tells.” Belfast Evening Telegraph 29 Sep. 1916: 4.

“Coloured Men and the War.” Belfast News-Letter 4 Aug. 1916: 8.

“Grand Opera House: ‘The Birth of a Nation.’” Belfast News-Letter 8 Aug. 1916: 2.

“Grand Opera House: ‘The Birth of a Nation.’” Northern Whig 8 Aug. 1916: 7; 15 Aug. 1916: 7; 22 Aug. 1916: 7.

Holiday Scenes in Belfast: Big Exodus to the Seaside: The Railway Stations Besieged.” Belfast News-Letter 8 Aug. 1916: 4.

Holloway, Joseph. Holloway Diaries. National Library of Ireland.

Hughes, Tom. How Belfast Saw the Light: A Cinematic History. Belfast: Hughes, 2014. Pp. 237-40.

Jacques. “Absolutely It: Amazing Realism at Gaiety Theatre: ‘Birth of a Nation.’” Evening Herald 19 Sep. 1916: 3.

The Man About Town. “Things Seen and Heard.” Evening Herald 26 Sep. 1916: 2.

Miller, Nicholas Andrew. Modernism, Ireland and the Erotics of Memory. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002).

“Opera House: ‘The Birth of a Nation.’” Evening Echo 29 Aug. 1916: 2.

“Panopticon.” Belfast News-Letter 15 Aug. 1916: 2.

Stokes, Melvyn. D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation: A History of “the Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time.” New York: Oxford UP, 2008.