Irish Cinema and Population Control in November 1916

District Attorney Richard Walton (Tyrone Power) stands over the body of his wife (Helen Riaume), whom he has thrown to the ground after learning she has had multiple abortions in Where Are My Children? (US: Universal, 1916). Image from the Women Film Pioneers Project.

District Attorney Richard Walton (Tyrone Power) stands over the body of his wife (Helen Riaume), whom he has thrown to the ground after learning she has had multiple abortions in Where Are My Children? (US: Universal, 1916). Image from the Women Film Pioneers Project.

Cinema representations of birth control and abortion caused anxieties in Ireland a century ago, illustrating some of the class and gender questions the new medium brought to the fore in late 1916. “All thoughtful citizens look forward to the day when the cinematograph will be a great instrument of public education,” began a lead article in the Irish Times of 2 November 1916. “When it claims the right, however, to deal with moral and medical questions of the utmost gravity and delicacy we confess to misgivings” (“Morality Films”).

The occasion of these misgivings was the 8 November exhibition in London of Where Are My Children? (US: Universal, 1916). This film had been co-written and co-directed by Lois Weber, one of the most prominent of early women filmmakers, whose adaptation of the opera The Dumb Girl of Portici (US: Universal, 1916) was on release in Ireland at this time. That Where Are My Children? – or indeed The Dumb Girl of Portici – had been made by a woman writer-director was not the issue or even mentioned by the writer in the Times, who was probably not aware of the fact; even the British trade journal Bioscope misnamed her Louis Weber (“‘Where Are My Children?’”). The Times’ problem was that taboo subject matter was being treated by a popular media form and therefore risked being seen by the wrong sorts of people and in contexts in which it could not be properly controlled by the established authorities in the area, doctors and clerics.

An ad for a powder that relieves a

The cinema was the occasion for another medical intervention in late 1916, when this ad suggested that a cinemagoer take Daisy powder to relieve her “cinema headache.” Sunday Independent 10 Dec. 1916: 5.

However, the first exhibition that the Times referred to was to be to a “distinguished audience” that included “the Duchess of Marlborough, Lady Sydenham, the Bishop of Barking, the Chief Rabbi, the Rev. F. B. Meyer, Sir Home Gordon, Sir John Kirk, Mr. Joynston-Hicks, M.P., Dr Saleeby, Principal Garvie, and many others” (“The Birth-Limitation Picture”). Despite this litany of the thoroughly right people from the aristocracy, government and clergy, the Irish Times was not impressed that the film had been passed by the National Council of Public Morals, which

can furnish no guarantee that the public exhibitions of this film which illustrates “the wrecking of happiness and health,” will always be confined to spectators who are interested in “social uplifting.” There is a danger, it seems to us, that such exhibitions may tend, in the main, to give a stimulus to prurient curiosity.

where-are-my-children-bn-9-mar-1918p5

The first Irish screenings of Where Are My Children? appear to have been at Belfast’s Grand Opera House in early 1918; it seems not to have been shown in Dublin. Belfast News-Letter 9 Mar. 1918: 5.

To prevent such prurience even in its own readers, the Times was a little coy in describing what the film’s problematic subject matter actually was, merely quoting a synopsis that called it “a social photo-drama dealing with some of the causes and effects of the declining birthrate,” Apart from the concern to avoid crudity, this coyness was also no doubt due to the fact that the writer had not seen the film, and indeed probably never saw it because it seems never to have been publicly shown in Dublin. Even though s/he also had also not seen it at the time of writing, a writer at the cinema trade journal Bioscope was more explicit: “The plot, we understand, introduces the subject of illegal operations, and treats boldly of their physical and moral results.”

The Irish Times was not above joining in with the frivolity offered by cinema. The Weekly Irish Times printed episodes from the serial The Red Circle (US: Balboa, 1915) while it was showing at Dublin's Dame Street Picture House and Electric Theatre, Talbot Street. Ad for the Irish Times 4 Nov. 1916: 4.

The Irish Times was not above joining in with the frivolity offered by cinema. The Weekly Irish Times printed episodes from the serial The Red Circle (US: Balboa, 1915) while it was showing at Dublin’s Dame Street Picture House and Electric Theatre, Talbot Street. Ad for the Irish Times 4 Nov. 1916: 4.

Although the Times considered issues of sexual health and mores to be beyond the competence of a cinema whose “uses are still mainly frivolous,” the leader writer indicated several areas in which cinema was making progress as a public educator. The epitome of this role was “[t]he official films from the various battle fronts[, which] illustrate the methods of modern war for the stay-at-home taxpayer.” Certainly, The Battle of the Somme continued its triumphant progress among not only taxpayers in the cities but also those in towns across the country, with well-advertised runs in November at Mullingar’s National Picture Palace (9-11 Nov), Jameson’s Picture Palace in Queenstown (Nov. 27-29), Carlow’s Burrin Street Picture House (Nov 30-Dec 2), Kildare Picture Palace (Nov 30-Dec 2) and Omagh’s Picture House (Dec. 4-6).

Dublin's Theatre Royal showing matinees of the official Italian war film On the Way to Gorizia; Dublin Evening Mail 6 Nov. 1916: 2.

Dublin’s Theatre Royal showing matinees of the official Italian war film On the Way to Gorizia; Dublin Evening Mail 6 Nov. 1916: 2.

Meanwhile, war films continued to premiere at special matinees at Dublin’s Theatre Royal. In November 1916, these including the official Italian war film On the Road to Gorizia (Nov. 6-11), which was exhibited under the patronage of the Lord Lieutenant and the Italian ambassador, and the French war film The Allies on the Eastern Front (Nov. 27-Dec. 2), which was shown with Tank Cartoons, about which the Dublin Evening Mail enthused – quoting the publicity material – the “[t]he man who invented the tanks, whoever he may be, is a genius, but the man who conceived this film is more – he is a genius, a humourist, and an artiste rolled into one” (“War Films at the Theatre Royal”).

For the Times writer, this kind of film – but perhaps not the at-least-somewhat-frivilous cartoons – provided a model for cinema’s wider role as the public educator of the near future. “When peace returns the State should be able, by the same means,” s/he argued, “to instruct the public in matters concerning trade policy, the opening of new markets, and the development of national industries.” As well as this, “the cinematograph may be in general use in the technical schools and universities for the teaching of mechanics and engineering.”

But the cinema had not yet attained this role of general usefulness to the state, and the picture houses remained too likely to be the refuge of shirkers and of idlers rather than of citizens informed about imperial economics and of scholar-technicians. In mid-November 1916, the Weekly Irish Times reprinted a report from the London Times on the halt in Irish recruiting: “[in Dublin,] a man of military age, even if he be a young man of the cap brigade, may loiter at street corners, saunter about the city, or seat himself in a Picture House or Music hall in the full confidence that no recruiting sergeant, official or self-appointed, will come along to trouble him” (“Recruiting in Ireland”). Not enough was, apparently, being done in Dublin to force young working-class men onto the battlefields, but with growing ubiquity of propaganda film, the picture houses were presumably not the refuge they once might have been.

The map shows the location of Asylum Yard (ringed) and the Brunswick Street Picture House (red block) that

This map shows the location of Asylum Yard (ringed) and the Brunswick Street Picture House (red block).

Nevertheless, four Dublin working-class teenage boys – William Byrne, Patrick Carey, Edward McDonnell and Myles Brady – seem to have enjoyed an evening at the end of October at a picture house, likely the one at 30 Great Brunswick (now Pearse) Street, which was the one nearest to where they lived. However, the reason that a record of their outing survives is that the events of their evening landed them in court and the case was reported in the newspapers. Arriving home late to their homes in the area between Townsend Street and Brunswick Street, Byrne, Carey, McDonnell and Brady found themselves locked out. They took shelter in 12 Asylum Yard, burning floorboards and window sashes to keep warm (“After the Pictures”). In a sense, the press accounts provide just one more of the numerous reports of the period that invoke the increasingly inevitable constellation of young working-class boys/men, picture houses and criminality (see here, here and here). Despite potential, cinema was still a juvenile, delinquent medium; it needed to mature and be disciplined.

Report of the Departmental committee appointed by the Local government board for Ireland to inquire into the housing conditions of the working classes in the City of Dublin

From the Report of the Departmental committee appointed by the Local government board for Ireland to inquire into the housing conditions of the working classes in the City of Dublin (Dublin, 1914). Available from Dublin City Libraries’ Derelict Dublin collection.

Some of the details of the case, however, point the finger of criminality in another direction. The name Asylum Yard was among those that became notorious in the aftermath of the 1913 collapse of tenements in Church Street. Asylum Yard housed more than a hundred people in 20 unsanitary dilapidated cottages, 15 of which – the highest number of any street in the city – had been condemned by Dublin Corporation in 1912 as unfit for human habitation and ordered to be demolished if not repaired within a given time (“Tenements Unfit for Habitation”). When on 1 November 1916, the four boys appeared in the city’s Southern Police Court charged with causing malicious harm to 12 Asylum Yard, it was also revealed that this cottage was owned by Arabella Mitchell of Tivoli Terrace, Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire). The contrast in housing standards between Tivoli Terrace and Asylum Yard – and the inequalities of the people who lived in them – would have been difficult to exaggerate.

Cinema features strongly among the small ads in the Irish Independent, 2 Nov 1916: 2.

Cinema featured strongly among the small ads in the Irish Independent, 2 Nov 1916: 2.

If cinema played some part in relieving the misery of the lives of those forced to live Dublin’s slums, it was worth defending.

References

“After the Pictures: City Boys’ Night Out.” Dublin Evening Mail 1 Nov. 1916: 2.

“The Birth-Limitation Picture: Delicate Subject Discussed on the Screen.” Bioscope 9 Nov. 1916: 561.

“Cinema and Youths.” Evening Herald 1 Nov. 1916: 2.

“Morality Films.” Irish Times 2 Nov 1916: 4.

“Recruiting in Ireland.” Weekly Irish Times 18 Nov. 1916: 3.

“Tenements Unfit for Habitation: Corporation Inaction: Instructive Figures on Death-Traps.” Irish Independent 11 Sep. 1913: 5.

“War Films at the Theatre Royal: The Allies on the Eastern Front.” Dublin Evening Mail 17 Nov. 1916: 5.

“‘Where Are My Children?’ Special Review of Remarkable Film Sermon.” Bioscope 16 Nov. 1916: 631.

Watched by Millions of Eyes: Irish Cinema’s Manifold Potentialities in October 1916

British military personnel sift through the wreckage of Airship SL11, shot down near Cuffley, Hertfordshire, on 3 September 1916. Image from Europeana.

British military personnel sift through the wreckage of Airship SL11, shot down near Cuffley, Hertfordshire, on 3 September 1916. Image from Europeana.

“The potentialities of the picture-theatre are truly manifold,” a writer in the Belfast Evening Telegraph contended in a lengthy article at the end of September 1916. “The cinematograph is the popular drama of the day,” s/he argued; “it arrests the eye, and is led by its avenues straight to the heart. It has touched a public which every day is growing vaster.” Although the ability of cinema to show things that could only be told about on the stage was particularly highlighted by the article’s subheading – “Shows What Theatre Only Tells” – the potentialities were widespread, ranging from the cheapness and comfort of picture-house seating, through the advantages of its complete darkness to a young man and his sweetheart, and on to cinema’s promotion of temperance among the poor. Cinema’s commercial nature and its potential for harm were also addressed, with the article concluding that “[b]eing a commercial concern […] the entrepreneurs of cinemas provide the people with what is most likely to pay, and, as in the boxing ring, where the cry is for gore, so in the cinema the authorities find it in their interests to yield to the popular clamour for sensation” (“Cinema’s Popularity”).

Film lover Dr Knott. Holloway Diaries.

Joseph Holloway sketched film enthusiast Dr John Knott in his diary in August 1914. National Library of Ireland.

In the course of a chat on the tram into Dublin city centre on 26 October 1916, architect and diarist Joseph Holloway heard from his young neighbour Jack Murray that the growing popularity of cinema over theatre had to do with the speed of the new medium. “Then he told me,” Holloway wrote, “he was mad on Movies & went at least twice a week to see them. He saw Bella Donna on the pictures & afterwards saw it at Gaiety when he found it hard to sit out,– it dragged so & was so slow.” When Holloway told Murray that several prominent Dublin citizens also had a picture-house “infatuation” – including dancing teacher Professor Maginni, authors Æ and D. J. O’Donoghue, and Dr John Knott – “he said he was pleased to be in such good company in his taste” (Holloway 26 Oct 1916: 1002).

Leaflet issued by the National Union of Women Workers of Great Britain and Ireland. Available at Century Ireland.

Leaflet issued by the National Union of Women Workers of Great Britain and Ireland. Available at Century Ireland.

“Comedy, tragedy and melodrama,” the Telegraph writer observed on cinema’s potential for speed; “[t]he picture palace caters for the whole of these, and they pop up successively in the space of a few minutes.” Not everyone was so impressed by this potentiality. At a meeting of the Dublin branch of the National Union of Women Workers (NUWW) of Great Britain and Ireland, the Hon. Mrs. Frankland argued that “it was not good for children to see different things as quickly as they did in picture houses.” Unlike the working-class Irish Women Workers’ Union founded by Delia Larkin in 1911, the Dublin branch of the NUWW had been “formed at a Drawingroom meeting held, by invitation of Lady Wright, in November” 1915. At a subsequent meeting in June 1916, Wright was elected president of the branch, “and a resolution was passed urging the appointment of women police in Dublin, submitted by the Irish Girls’ Protection Crusade”. By the time of the October meeting, picture houses had come to the NUWW’s attention as suitable for patrols. “With regard to cinemas,” Frankland reported, “about which people were thinking a good deal, though they had their educational value, they also had possibilities for harm.” A model for activity in Dublin was provided by branches in Britain, where “[s]ome of the police authorities had asked the Union to lead some of their patrols to go round to cinemas and report on various questions, such as lighting, general control of buildings, etc.” (“Union of Women Workers”).

However, British exhibitors vigorously opposed the activities of “lady inspectors.” Noting that a Birmingham cinema owner had been pleasantly surprised by the lady inspector who visited his business, Rambler in the Bioscope’s regular “Round and About” column on 19 October 1916 commented rhetorically that “[t]here is no reason to doubt the charm and tact of lady inspectors; the point is, are they properly qualified to give an opinion on the suitability of films?” The title of another article in the same issue described lady inspectors of another organization, the Women’s Local Government Society, as “Spies Manufactured Wholesale!” with the unambiguous subtitle “A Glimpse of the British Prude Factory at Work.” “It is a colossal outrage,” it concluded, “that a crew of impertinent idlers should be allowed to make themselves public nuisances in the name of public interest. And this is war-time?”

The appointment of lady inspectors of cinemas would take some time in Dublin, but concern about cinema’s potential for harm manifest itself in renewed efforts to introduce Irish film censorship in October 1916. “I am gratified to observe that the crusade against sheer indecency in our theatres has promptly borne fruit,” columnist the Man About Town told readers of Dublin’s Evening Herald on 6 October:

I know one cinema house where a certain picture which claimed to be artistic, but was nothing but an appeal to the lowest human passions, was not shown after the “trial” exhibition. Cutting down and chopping was no use. The film was considered valueless without the objectionable features!

The crusade against indecency in cinemas was waged with particular vigour by the Catholic Irish Vigilance Association (IVA), which in June had welcomed the appointment by Dublin Corporation’s Public Health Committee of building inspector Walter Butler and Councillor Patrick Lennon as film censors. At the same time, the IVA had criticized the delay in putting the censors to work, which required the confirmation of the whole Corporation, and this did not happen until the 2 October. On that day, a deputation of lay and clerical members of the IVA addressed the meeting. Canon Dunne urged that the wording of the Corporation’s licence be emended to ensure that the job could not be done by “a man from some other country, a man from the Continent, or a man who was connected with some of these [picture] houses.”  IVA solicitor Thomas Deering appealed to the nationalism of the majority of councillors: “When the English Parliament put this power into their hands he did not see why the Council should hesitate to exercise this small measure of Home Rule” (“Censorship of Films”).

On 9 October 1916, the Corporation effectively introduced local film censorship by adopting the Public Health Committee’s report but with the IVA’s emended stipulation that “[a]ll films exhibited shall bear the mark of the Censor of Cinematograph Films for the City of Dublin or any censor duly appointed in Ireland pursuant to the Cinematograph Act, 1909” (“Cinema Films”). The IVA condemned the four councillors – out of 47 – who voted against adoption of the report. One of these, Councillor John Ryan wrote to the Freeman’s Journal explaining that he voted against the appointment of Butler and Lennon not because he opposed censorship but because “it is impossible for two men to examine and pass (or otherwise) all the films shown in twenty-six picture houses simultaneously.” He explained that

[t]he films arrive in Dubllin on Monday and Thursday mornings and are screened at one o’clock thus leaving about three hours for examination. As it takes about two hours to show a programme in each house, viz., fifty-two hours in all, I cannot yet see how two men are to accomplish it. (“Cinemas and Censors” 17 Oct.)

This was a legitimate point, albeit with some exaggeration. However, the IVA disputed it without addressing Ryan’s argument about the sheer number of films but by merely asserting that such unimpeachable authorities as Dublin’s Archbishop, Alderman Lorcan Sherlock and the two censors themselves said it could be done (“Cinemas and Censors” 20 Oct.).

Cinema’s potentialities were evident to the newspapers, who in their reporting of film censorship and other cinema-related matters in October were also positioning themselves in relation to the new medium. Most of the Catholic nationalist papers, including the Freeman’s Journal, Irish Independent and Evening Herald positioned themselves in opposition to cinema by actively supporting the campaign to introduce film censorship. A Herald editorial, for example, noted with satisfaction Home Secretary Herbert Samuel’s speech on 23 October, in which he undertook to introduce a centralized official film censorship (“Censorship of Cinemas”). Such a stance did not mean that these newspapers in any sense rejected the revenues from cinema advertising on their entertainment pages. Such ordinary business pragmatics were not to be disrupted by the introduction of film censorship. Indeed, Deering in his address to the Corporation argued that Irish picture-house owners would not be adversely affected by censorship because “there were hundreds and thousands of people in the City of Dublin who would neither go to picture houses themselves, not allow their children to go, on account of a certain class of pictures shown there (hear, hear)” (“Censorship of Films”).

Dublin audiences could first experience The Diamond from the Sky serial in written form before seeing it on screen at the Masterpiece and Camden. Dublin Evening Mail 28 Sep. 1916: 8.

Other papers allied themselves more closely with cinema in autumn 1916. These included the Protestant unionist Dublin Evening Mail – along with its sister papers the Daily Express and Irish Weekly Mail. “Now that ‘serials’ are the fashion in the moving picture world,” the Evening Mail observed, “it is gratifying to be able to recommend to the attention of serial readers and picture-goers the wholesome story and film to be published and exhibited in Dublin under the title of ‘The Diamond from the Sky’” (“Diamond from the Sky”). Film serials were by no means a new phenomenon; they had been showing in Ireland since November 1913. And The Diamond from the Sky was not wholly new either; it had already been shown in Irish cities and in such towns as Tralee (beginning 29 May 1916) and Cavan (beginning 10 July 1916). Serials that appeared in newspaper at the same time as they were being screened in the picture houses were also as old as 1913’s What Happened to Mary. The novelty in autumn 1916 was that the story appeared in an Irish paper rather than in a British one.

Lottie Pickford in The Diamond from the Sky (US: American, 1915)

Lottie Pickford in The Diamond from the Sky (US: American, 1915). Image from Wikipedia.

Beginning on 2 September 1916, the story was serialized in weekly episodes in the Irish Weekly Mail. Although “[c]rowded with sensational incidents and full of that ‘punch’ which successful films and stories must always possess,” it was “absolutely free of crude sensationalism, and anything ‘grisly’ in the nature of crime” (“Diamond from the Sky”). Starring Lottie Pickford, sister of the more famous Mary, its title referred to a diamond found in a meteor that became an heirloom of the aristocratic Stanley family, who to ensure a male blood line fatefully buy a baby boy from an unscrupulous gypsy. This wholesome subject matter first hit the screen of the Masterpiece Theatre on, Monday, 4 September to coincide with the story’s release in the previous Saturday’s Weekly Express. It was also being serialized at the same time in the Westmeath Exminer and the Mullingar Cinema Theatre (“Mullingar Cinema Theatre”). The film had a second Dublin run at the Camden Picture House beginning on 29 September, by which point the tie-in with the Express was well out of sync.

With The Miser's Gift, the Dame Street Picture House became the cinema that premiered the Film Company of Ireland's productions. Dublin Evening Mail 26 Oct. 1916: 2

After The Miser’s Gift, the Dame Street Picture House became the cinema that premiered the Film Company of Ireland’s productions. Dublin Evening Mail 26 Oct. 1916: 2

Although not noted in contemporary sources, the film The Diamond from the Sky had local interest in its Carlow-born co-director William Desmond Taylor, but more obvious Irish filmmaking interest was raised by the October release of the Film Company of Ireland’s (FCOI’s) second film The Miser’s Gift (Ireland, 1916). The film premiered at Cork’s Coliseum on 12 October, ran at Tralee’s Picturedrome 19-21 October, before opening at Dublin’s Dame on 26 October 1916. In its advertising of the film, the Dame announced that it had secured the “initial presentation of all the films produced by the Film Co.” (“Dame Street Picture House”). The FCOI’s third film, The Food of Love, would open there on 2 November. This arrangement with the Dame seems to have been part of the arrangements that FCOI made in the successful wake of their first film. At the end of September, Paddy, the Irish correspondent at the Bioscope, revealed that they had fitted out their offices at 34 Dame Street with developing rooms and advised that “[s]cenario writer could do very much worse than submit them a sample of their work” (Paddy 28 Sep.). For aspiring scenario writers, the Irish Times recommended J. Farquharson’s Picture Plays and How to Write Them, which included Benedict James’s film scenario for Arthur Pinero’s The Second Mrs Tanqueray, which was on release at Rathmines’ Princess Cinema for the three days beginning Monday 23 October 1916 (“Picture Plays”).

Paddy – identified for the first time in the Bioscope of 28 September 1916 as Godfrey Kilroy of 34 Windsor Road Dublin – assessed The Miser’s Gift as “greatly in advance of the first [film] as regards the quality and if this company stick to their guns they should still be well in the front rank of British producers.” Seeing it at the opening screening, Joseph Holloway noted that Abbey actor J. M. Kerrigan, who also directed,

played the role of miser. It was a story of dreaming of Fairy gold three times & the miser giving as wedding gift the contents of the crock he came by owing to his dreaming. It was effective & interesting & many scenes in the fair at Killaloe etc were really delightful glimpses of country life.

Others were more forceful in promoting the film’s potential to raise the general quality of cinema offerings. “I do not really think that the majority of people can be so degraded n their tastes as to prefer the rubbish trans-Atlantic films to really good pictures,” wrote HTH in a letter to the Evening Herald. S/he thought that by encouraging home produced film such as those from the FCOI, “in time, they would tend to oust numbers of inanities and vulgarities which at present fill up the programmes of nearly every cinema theatre. Such pictures would elevate the mind as well as to amuse, and they would be clean” (“Clean Amusement”).

James J. Fisher wasthe Irish agent for the official war films; Dublin Evening Mail 31 Oct. 1916: 2

James J. Fisher was the Irish agent for the official war films; Dublin Evening Mail 31 Oct. 1916: 2.

While the potential of Irish film production was just beginning to be realized, cinema’s role in wartime propaganda was quickly developing with a realization that military technology offered opportunities for the kind of spectacle that could harness the popular audience to the war effort. Newspapers that had long carried sensational stories of submarines, airships and airplanes now added accounts of such innovations as tanks – first mentioned in mid-September 1916 – and flamethrowers (“German Flame Attacks”). Artillery, tanks and flamethrowers would remain battlefield weapons, but long-range weapons that brought the war to civilian populations had a particular ideological charge that could be exploited by filmmakers. Nevertheless, the press remained the fast news medium, with newspapers offering lengthy and vivid accounts of successes against the feared airships. On the night of 1 October, an airship downed near London was reported to have been “watched by millions of eyes as it fell, lighting up earth and sky like some great celestial torch” (“Another Zeppelin”). This and other reports appeared in Irish papers on 2 October, and although by the following day, Dublin’s Picture House, Grafton Street and Masterpiece Theatre were showing a film of downed Zeppelins, it was  The Wrecked Zeppelins in Essex (Britain: Gaumont/War Office, 1916), which had been filmed the previous week.

Beyond their news value, however, the official war films were also popular in Ireland, following the success of The Battle of the Somme (Britain: British Topical Committee on War Films, 1916). The War Office and film companies recognized the high demand for such films, and in October, James J. Fisher – “military correspondent and author of the work entitled ‘Immortal Deeds of Our Irish Regiments’” (“Battle of the Somme”) – was appointed Irish agent for the British official war films. Fisher premiered the films at Dublin’s largest theatre, the Theatre Royal, usually with military bands providing accompaniment. Despite incidents of Republican attacks on soldiers in the streets of Dublin, several picture houses also exhibited the films. When William Kay took over management of the Rotunda Pictures on 2 October 1916, he arranged with Fisher to show the recently released French film of the battle of the Somme for the week beginning 30 October 1916. The programme included “the wonderful cartoon showing how Lieut. Robinson, V.C., brought down the Zeppelin,” the first official film from the Egyptian front, music by the band of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, and recitations by Sergeant W. H. Jones of the 5th Lancers (“An Attractive Programme,” “Platform and Stage”).

These were just some of cinema’s manifold potentialities in October 1916.

References

“An Attractive Programme.” Dublin Evening Mail 26 Oct 1916: 5.

“Another Zeppelin Brought Down in Flames Near London.” Dublin Evening Mail 2 Oct 1916: 3.

“Censorship of Cinemas.” Evening Herald 24 Oct. 1916: 2.

“Censorship of Films: Deputation to the Corporation.” Freeman’s Journal 3 Oct. 1916: 2.

“Cinema Films: Corporation and Question of Censoring.” Evening Herald 9 Oct. 1916: 2.

“Cinemas and Censors.” Letters. Evening Herald 17 Oct. 1916: 2; 20 Oct. 1916: 2.

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

“Clean Amusement: Chance for Good Irish Films.” Evening Herald 23 Oct. 1916: 3.

“Dame Street Picture House.” Dublin Evening Mail 24 Oct. 1916: 4.

“Diamond from the Sky.” Dublin Evening Mail 30 Aug. 1916: 4.

“German Flame Attack: Driven Off by the British.” Dublin Evening Mail 16 Oct. 1916: 3.

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

“Ireland’s Claim.” Dublin Evening Mail 21 Oct. 1916: 2.

The Man About Town. “Things Seen and Heard.” Evening Herald 6 Oct. 1916: 2.

“Mullingar Cinema Theatre.” Westmeath Examiner 7 Oct. 1916: 5.

“Picture Plays.” Irish Times 21 Oct. 1916: 9.

“Platform and Stage.” Irish Times 28 Oct. 1916: 8.

“Provincial.” Weekly Irish Times 28 Oct. 1916: 3.

Rambler. “Round and About.” Bioscope 7 Sep. 1916: 869.

“Spies Manufactured Wholesale!” Bioscope 19 Oct. 1916: 224.

“Union of Women Workers: Meeting of the Dublin Branch: The Work of the Women Patrols.” Irish Times 21 Oct. 1916: 4.

“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.

Irish Audiences Watch “O’Neil of the Glen,” August 1916

If cinema in Ireland in July 1916 prompts reflection on film as a weapon of war, developments the following month show significant developments in the emergence of film as an expression of national culture. On 7 August 1916, audiences at Dublin’s Bohemian Picture Theatre were the first to see O’Neil of the Glen (often spelled O’Neill of the Glen), the first Film Company of Ireland (FCOI) production to be publicly released. Formed in March 1916 by James Mark Sullivan and Henry Fitzgibbon, the FCOI would become the most important indigenous fiction film producer of the 1910s. Ò’Neil of the Glen itself, however, is believed to be a lost film, like all FCOI’s other production except Knocknagow (1918), Willy Reilly and His Colleen Bawn (1920) and one reel of the two-reel comedy Paying the Rent (1920). Nevertheless, its success with audiences was vital to securing FCOI’s future.

O'Neil Boh 7 Aug 1916

Ad for the first public exhibition of O’Neil of the Glen, at Dublin’s Bohemian, Dublin Evening Mail 7 Aug. 1916: 2.

That success was won in part by the careful management of publicity, a fact that means that the surviving ads, articles and reviews in the press must be treated with caution. It may be a forgivable exaggeration for the papers to have hailed the premiere of O’Neil of the Glen as the start of a new Irish industry, but it was not true that this was “the first picture-play ever produced in Ireland by an Irish company of Irish players,” a claim repeated almost verbatim in several paper, indicating that the journalists were working from the same FCOI publicity materials (“New Irish Industry,”  “O’Neill of the Glen,” “Irish Film Triumph”). Most recently, Charles McEvoy of Dublin’s Masterpiece Cinema had funded Fun at Finglas Fair – even if it had allegedly been destroyed during the Easter Rising before being publicly shown – and in 1912-13, cinema-owner and mayor John J. Farrell had made a number of films with his company Irish Film Productions (Rockett 95, Condon 237).

IRISHLIMEGHT1_MAY_P6 001

Abbey Theatre and Film Company of Ireland actor – and later director – Fred O’Donovan; Irish Limelight 1:5 (May 1917): 6.

Nevertheless, although O’Neil of the Glen was not the first indigenous Irish fiction film, it was a very significant one by the country’s most important film production company of the 1910s. On 29 June, FCOI announced a “trial exhibition,” or what would now be called a test screening, of their first completed production, O’Neil of the Glen, at Dublin’s Carlton. By this time, and in the context of management difficulties at the Abbey Theatre, FCOI had been able to contract J. M. Kerrigan and Fred O’Donovan, two of the Abbey’s biggest stars, albeit that they were permitted to appear in certain plays (“Abbey Theatre,” “Platform and Stage”). Kerrigan, indeed, directed and played a part in O’Neil of the Glen, a three-reel feature based on a script adapted by W. J. Lysaght from M[argaret] T. Pender’s story of the same title that had been serialized in the Shamrock in 1891. The film told how Don O’Neil (Brian Magowan), the son of a landowner who had been defrauded by the solicitor Tremaine (J. M. Carre), saves the life of Tremaine’s daughter, Nola (Nora Clancy), whose love he wrests from Graves (O’Donovan), a blackmailing suitor (“Bohemian,” Evening Mail).

“The film is of a quality which leads one to anticipate success for the venture,” wrote an Irish Times correspondent at the trial exhibition, noting that it was part of a process of perfecting the film: “the promoters are engaged in a ruthless revision of the film to bring it up to the highest possible standard” (“Irish Film Production”). The Bioscope’s Irish correspondent Paddy’ was less complimentary about this early cut of the film, pointing out that although “[g]reat care was taken with the production and camera work,” it possessed “many of the weak points common to first productions” (“Paddy,” 13 Jul.). Addressing a lunch for the press at the Gresham Hotel after the screening, Fitzgibbon claimed that FCOI “had started an industry which would eventually be a source of great revenue in Ireland.” For his part, Sullivan argued that the film showed that Irish productions – taking advantage of Irish “imagination, ideals, and artistic temperament and beautiful scenery” – could competing with those anywhere (“Irish Film Production”).

Paddy began to revise his lukewarm opinion of O’Neil of the Glen in light of the news that Frederick A. Sparling had booked the film for its first run at his Bohemian for the week of 7-13 August. The Bohemian was one of Dublin’s biggest and most luxurious cinemas, and Sparling’s commitment to a run that was twice the usual three days “speaks well for the film and the undoubted drawing powers such a production will have for Irish audiences” (Paddy, 27 Jul.). In the event, Sparling also included an unplanned Sunday show to take advantage of the phenomenal level of interest.

Although FCOI appears to have taken the bookings itself, prominent local distributor Ben Cowan of Express Film Agency handled this and other FCOI films from 1916 by running trade shows and placing advertisements in the daily and trade press. It was likely one of Cowan’s “novel ideas in the advertising line” for FCOI cameraman John A. Bennett – a former projectionist at Dublin’s Rotunda – to film the audience on the first night and for this local film to be shown subsequently with the feature (Paddy, 27 Jul.; 17 Aug.). “Don’t miss this chance of seeing what you look like on the Screen,” ads warned the opening-night audience. The musical attractions included a special programme of Irish melodies and the cinema’s “world-renowned violinist” Signor Simonetti playing a fantasy on the “Snowy Breasted Pearl” at the evening shows. “It is confidently hoped that large audiences will visit the Bohemian during the coming week,” revealed a preview in the Evening Mail, “and thus mark in a tangible manner their appreciation of what may justly be described as a really first-class picture-play, and one that is sure to bring the work and the players of the Film Company of Ireland right into the forefront of popularity with audiences and trade alike” (“Bohemian”).

The surprising extent of the success of O’Neil of the Glen must be measured in the first instance as a marketing victory rather than an artistic one, by FCOI. The degree to which these early films challenged existing ways of representing the Irish is questionable, but many contemporary commentators seem initially to have been content that films with wholly Irish creative input were finally being made. Nevertheless, the way in which the company were able to capitalize on the interest and goodwill attending the exhibition of this first indigenous Irish fiction film and, crucially, to publicize the large attendances not only in Ireland, where interest was likely to be strong in any case, but also in Britain, appears to have secured a British distribution deal and thereby to have ensured the company survival in this initial period. This success was built on what appears to have been a genuinely surprising level of interest in the picture. “The film, which was expected to prove a good draw, actually surpassed all anticipations,” observed Paddy, warming further to the film, “a record being established for the week, and queues being the rule every evening” (17 Aug.). The Irish Times commented that enthusiastic audiences in a crowded cinema “proves that the Dublin public is always ready to support and encourage Irish enterprise” (“Film Company of Ireland,” 9 Aug.). “That the genuine enthusiasm displayed last night at the conclusion of the film will be the means of bringing before the public a second production by the Irish Film Company in the near future,” observed the Freeman’s Journal, “is a universal wish” (“Bohemian”).

O'Neil Victoria 9 Sep 1916p4

Ad for Galway’s Victoria Cinema Theatre for the week in which O’Neil of the Glen featured. Connacht Tribune 9 Sep 1916: 4.

This wish would be soon fulfilled, and O’Neil of the Glen was exhibited around the country in the following weeks and months. When following substantial runs in Dublin and Belfast it was announced for a three-day run at Galway’s Victoria Cinema Theatre on 11-13 September, a Connacht Tribune reporter distinguished its attractions from that of American films, which were unrivalled “in the matter of cinematographic thoroughness and all-round fullness and finish of technique, but one can get too much of a good thing.” The FCOI’s “national or […] patriotic enterprise” offered something that monotonously perfect and ubiquitous American films could not: “The production is Irish, the subject is Irish, the mise-en-scene is Irish, and the actors and actresses are Irish” (“‘O’Neill of the Glen’”). A writer in the Cork Examiner during the film’s run at Cork’s Coliseum Theatre (14-16 September) concurred, arguing that

[t]hrere certainly should be an opening for cinema representation of Irish drama as played by native Irish actors, whose one object is to show Irish life in its true perspective, without grotesque exaggeration, or what is just as bad, giving an unreal picture of it, even when the intention is friendly to the country and the people. (“Coliseum Theatre.”)

A journalist at the Derry People was particularly interested in the local connections of a film “in which well-known Irish artistes will be screened, and details dealing with Tyrone and neighbouring localities introduced in splendid style” (“Hall”). The film’s second Dublin run was at the Dame Street Picture House (21-3 September) – the cinema closest to FCOI’s offices and where all their subsequent 1916 films would premiere – before it had first and second runs in Belfast, at the Duncairn (28-30 September) and the Clonard (2-4 October). Subsequent screenings included Mullingar’s National (14-15 October), Kilkenny’s Cinema (18-19 October) and Dublin’s Fr Mathew Hall (2 December).

FCOI IT 14 Aug 1916p4

Irish Times 14 Aug. 1916: 4.

While O’Neil of the Glen toured the country, the company quickly followed up this successful debut with the announcements of their next films in the dailies and trades. On the Monday after the last show of O’Neil of the Glen at the Bohemian, the Dublin papers carried an advertisement headed “Films that Draw Crowded Houses Every Night!” that recommended FCOI’s new films on the basis of the audience-drawing power of that first film. Four two-reel comedies were scheduled for release in September – The Miser’s Gift, Woman’s Wit, Food of Love and An Unfair Love Affair – and nine other forthcoming productions were named, only one of which, “Willie Reilly,” is recognizable as a subsequent FCOI release. An Evening Mail reporter who attended The Miser’s Gift trade show at the Dame Street PH later that week commented that “[i]t is not only characteristically Irish, it is characteristically good. The Irish Picture-House manager who does not support an Irish company which can produce work of the class of ‘The Miser’s Gift’ is missing an opportunity of giving his shows a touch of distinction” (“‘Miser’s Gift’”).

The Miser’s Gift is also lost, but its narrative appears to involve a scheme of Eileen Dolan (Nora Clancy) and her lover, Ned McGrath (Fred O’Donovan), to get her miserly father (J. M. Kerrigan) drunk and dream of leprechaun gold so that he will look favourably on their relationship. “It is agreeable to have pictures such as this,’ commented the Irish Times, “preserving a genuinely Irish atmosphere and that inherent charm which is to be found in Irish life. The sight, for instance, of lepracauns and other little people who live in legend disporting themselves in a fairy fort is a feature which surely is pleasing to Irish eyes” (“Film Company of Ireland,” 18 Aug.). The Irish public got its first chance to delight in authentic Irish leprechauns disporting themselves on the cinema screen at the Dame from 26–8 October 1916.

Ch5One

Bioscope 24 Aug. 1916: 754.

As these arrangements were being made for Ireland, FCOI also entered the British film market on the foundation of O’Neil of the Glen’s Irish success. The Bohemian debut was the subject of an article on the company in the Bioscope of 24 August, which also carried a full-page advertisement listing the actual and intended films mentioned in the Irish papers (“First Irish Film”). Both the article and the advertisement included quotes from Sparling on the huge business the film generated, “the absolutely whole-hearted appreciation of every person who has seen it,” and the fact that “the ‘music’ at the pay-box has kept time with the orchestra throughout.” In contrast to Paddy’s original critical assessment of the film, this article described the audiences’ appreciation of “the exceptional excellence of the first film produced in Ireland by an Irish company and by Irish players.” A month later, although mentioning the film’s success everywhere it had been exhibited, Paddy contended that FCOI’s “second picture, ‘The Miser’s Gift,’ is greatly in advance of the first as regards the quality, and if this company stick to their guns they should still be well in the front rank of British producers” (28 Sep.). Despite Paddy’s reservations, the message prevailed that O’Neil of the Glen packed cinemas in Dublin and Belfast and that Irish exhibitors were eager for more, a message that helped FCOI to acquire a British distributor (Paddy, 14 Sep.). The company did this at the end of October, when Davidson’s Film Sales Agency bought the rights for FCOI’s 1916 films (Paddy, 2 Nov.).

Indigenous Irish film production may not have started with O’Neil of the Glen, but it did enter a new phase.

References

“Abbey Theatre.” Irish Times 7 Aug. 1916: 3.

“The Bohemian.” Dublin Evening Mail 5 Aug. 1916: 5.

“The Bohemian.” Freeman’s Journal 8 Aug. 1916: 6.

“Coliseum Theatre: ‘O’Neill of the Glen.’” Cork Examiner 15 Sep. 1916: 2.

Condon, Denis. Early Irish Cinema, 1895-1921. Dublin: Irish Academic, 2008.

“The Film Company of Ireland.” Irish Times 9 Aug. 1916: 6; 18 Aug. 1916: 2.

“First Irish Film: Success of ‘O’Neil of the Glen.’” Bioscope 24 Aug. 1916: 689.

“The Hall.” Derry People 16 Sep. 1916: 5.

“Irish Film Production.” Irish Times 30 Jun. 1916: 7.

“Irish Film Triumph: Several New Plays.” Cork Examiner 16 Aug. 1916: 6.

“‘The Miser’s Gift’: New Irish Comedy.” Dublin Evening Mail 17 Aug. 1916: 2.

“New Irish Films: Four Coming Comedies.” Freeman’s Journal 15 Aug. 1916: 4.

“New Irish Industry: Film Company of Ireland.” Connaught Telegraph 5 Aug. 1916: 8.

“New Irish Industry: The Film Co. of Ireland: A Promising Enterprise.” Freeman’s Journal 30 Jun. 1916: 6.

“‘The O’Neill of the Glen.’” Derry People 12 Aug. 1916: 5.

Paddy. “Ireland: With the Renters and Exhibitors.” Bioscope 13 Jul. 1916: 173; 27 Jul. 1916: 359; 17 Aug. 1916: 655; 14 Sep. 1916: 1060; 28 Sep. 1916: 1285; 2 Nov. 1916: 518.

“Platform and Stage.” Irish Times 7 Oct. 1916: 9.

Rockett, Kevin. The Irish Filmography. Dublin: Red Mountain, 1996.

“Topics of the Week.” Bioscope 10 Aug. 1916: 466.

 

War as a Cinema Picture in Ireland, July 1916

Monster Guns IWMa

A range finder telegraphs the location of German positions in With Britain’s Monster Guns; Imperial War Museums.

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History Without Tears in Irish Cinemas, June 1916

Framegrab from The Fight at St. Eloi; Imperial War Museums.

Framegrab from The Fight at St. Eloi (Britain: British Topical Committee for War Films, 1916); Imperial War Museums.

The London-based trade journal Bioscope opened its first June issue with an editorial entitled “The Moving Picture: The New National Weapon” and subtitled “A Force which Cannot Be Destroyed and Should Therefore Be Utilized.” “The new Defence of the Realm Regulations contain a warning that penalties will be incurred by the exhibition of unpatriotic cinematograph films,” it began, before confidently asserting:

We are happy to believe that the precaution was unnecessary. The power of the pictures has never yet been used in this country for the furtherance of disloyal or anti-British objects. It has, on the other hand, not seldom been employed with the utmost success in patriotic causes.

Nevertheless, the British government did see a reason for tighter legislative control of cinema in pursuit of the ideological goal of promoting patriotism, unanimity and support for recruitment in the context of a lengthy and costly war. The economic need to fund the war through increased tax had most directly affected cinema through the recently introduced Entertainment Tax.

"Trade Topics." Bioscope 1 Jun. 1916: 958

“Trade Topics.” Bioscope 1 Jun. 1916: 958

In many ways, cinema in Ireland in June 1916 looked like a mature industry, regulated by these laws, but also highly cognizant of and largely aligned with the London-based trade. Even Ireland’s laggardly film production showed considerable development when the Film Company of Ireland press-showed its first production, O’Neil of the Glen, on 29 June at Dublin’s Carlton Cinema (“Irish Film Production”). The Bioscope was one of the ways in which this alignment was achieved, and although it was certainly read in Ireland, members of the Irish cinema trade might have been less confident of the claims of this editorial. In the same 1 June issue, the journal’s “Trade Topics” column published the assertion of J. Magner of the Clonmel Theatre that the Bioscope was the best of the cinema trade papers. And in 22 June issue, Irish columnist “Paddy” informed readers that the Bioscope was available at Mrs Dunne’s shop in Dublin’s Brunswick Street – close to the Queen’s Theatre, Norman Whitten’s General Film Supply, distributor Weisker Brothers, and other cinema businesses.

In the aftermath of the Easter Rising, however, it was questionable to what the Irish population at large was loyal. Support for the war still dominated the mainstream Irish press, but antiwar and pro-republican sentiments were becoming less marginal. By June, some theatres and picture houses anxious to maintain displays of their loyalty to the Crown – and by extension, that of their patrons – encountered protests. The large Theatre Royal had been one of the first places of amusement to open after the Rising, when it had offered British Army propaganda films. This did not, however, mean that its audience could all be considered loyalists.

On 26 June, for instance, William Charles Joseph Andrew Downes, a church decorator living at 15 Goldsmith Street, Dublin, was arrested for riotous behaviour during a live show at the Theatre Royal. He had shouted abuse related to the Boer War at a uniformed soldier who had responded to a magician’s call for a volunteer from the audience (“Scene in City Theatre”). The Boer War of 1899-1902 had been extremely divisive in Ireland, with popular support for the Boers’ stand against the British Empire extending from fiery speeches by Parnell’s Irish Parliamentary Party in Westminster to attacks on British soldiers in the streets of Dublin, and it was directly linked to the Rising in the person of executed leader and former Boer Irish Brigade major John McBride (Condon). As Downes was being escorted out the door of the Theatre Royal, he drew attention to the Irish republican badge he was wearing – a display of solidarity with the Easter rebels – and suggested that it was the reason he was being expelled.

Downes’ outburst could not be completely dismissed as the actions of a drunk – the arresting constable described him as neither drunk nor sober but “half-and-half” – and it was not isolated. The previous week, seven young people between the ages of 17 and 29 – four men and three women – had been charged in Dublin’s Police Court with offenses under the Defence of the Realm Act and with assaulting the constables who had attempted to seize the green flag at the head of a procession of 400 republican supporters that had been followed through the city centre by a crowd of around 2,000 (“Amazing City Scenes”). The crowd had also shouted republican slogans and booed and groaned passing soldiers. The mass arrests and deportations in May had failed to quell advanced nationalist activism that was now consciously identifying itself as republican.

Town Topics June 1916

Dublin Evening Mail 19 Jun. 1916: 2.

This republican riot on Dublin’s streets provided an immediate if unacknowledged context for press commentary on the educational value of the official war films. “The boys of the future will have many advantages over the boys of the past,” observed the Dublin Evening Mail’s “Town Topics” columnist. “They will learn by picture-houses as well as by paradigms. It has been said that there is no Royal road to learning. There may be a Theatre Royal road, however” (“Town Topics”).

Official war films at the Gaiety; Evening Herald 14 Jun. 1916: 2.

Official war films at the Gaiety; Evening Herald 14 Jun. 1916: 2.

In a telling slippage, he was in fact discussing a new programme of official war films at the Gaiety Theatre rather than at the Royal. Although his point was about the ease or gaiety with which cinema could teach history, it is clear that this history would inculcate loyalty to the crown and war effort. “When I was in statu pupillari,” he continued,

history was taught me not without tears. The boys of the future will learn of the great war at the picture-palaces. I saw some of the official war films last week at the Gaiety Theatre. I saw the Irish regiments marching to Mass. I saw the heavy artillery attacking a German block-house. […] I saw our men in the trenches, preparing to seize the crater of a mine explosion. I saw them lobbing bombs like cricket balls at the enemy. Then I saw them – gallant Canadians at St. Eloi – fix bayonets and out over the parapet to charge across No Man’s Land and leap at the foe. Who would read the dull chronicles of Caesar of Livy after that?

Framegrab from Destruction of a German Blockhouse by 9.2 Howitzer; Impeial War Museum.

Framegrab from Destruction of a German Blockhouse by 9.2 Howitzer (Britain: British Topical Committee for War Films, 1916); Imperial War Museums.

In making this argument, the Town Topics writer was aligning himself with the Bioscope early 1916 description of the cinema as the “nation’s historian.” Although certainly exciting, these official films were not mere entertainment but a new kind of visual historiography. And this was not just a boon for schoolboys but also a new historical method that could help historians to overcome the wartime measures introduced by governments to control the flow of information. He argued that while “[a]t the beginning of the war it was thought the historians would be bankrupt, because the censorship hid deeds of our men in the mystery of the night,” in fact, “[t]he cinema will save the historian, and at least help him to pay ten shillings in the pound.”

Other press coverage of the Gaiety shows gives further details of how this new history was presented and received. The choice of a large “legitimate” theatre such as the Gaiety rather than in a picture house associated the films with a site of serious cultural production aimed at a discerning audience. On the other hand, the Gaiety adapted picture-house exhibition practices in showing the films at three shows a day beginning at 3pm. “[T]he Gaiety Theatre opens a practically new chapter in its career,” the Freeman’s Journal commented, “by the fact that the attraction is not the familiar drama, musical or otherwise, but the production of a series of official war pictures which are, beyond all doubt, of transcendent interest” (“Amusements”). “In imagination,” observed the Irish Times, “one may see Irish soldiers at work and play, the Connaught Rangers and Munster Fusiliers amongst them, and Captain Redmond is seen leading his company to the front lines” (“Public Amusements”). Similar to other entertainments at the theatre, “a most excellent musical accompaniment is supplied by the Gaiety orchestra” (“Amusements”). Although music might contribute to the ease with which these images could be perceived, the musical director would presumably have had to be careful to avoid evoking not tears of schoolboy struggle but those of poignant loss among audience members with relatives and friends in France.

More chapters of this history that could – a least theoretically – be assimilated without tears, were on the way. “At the General Headquarters of the British Army in France,” reported the Dublin Evening Mail on 22 June, “there was last night exhibited before a large gathering of distinguished officers and their guests the latest series of the official war films, which in due course will be presented to the public at home and to neutral Powers, amongst which the desire to learn what our troops are really doing is unquestionable very keen” (“Pictures Taken at the Front”). This first run before an expert military audience could not, however, guarantee how resistant audiences in Ireland or elsewhere might react.

The Irish Catholic Church seemed to also believe that the cinema could not easily be destroyed and should therefore be, if not utilized for its own purposes, at least shaped by its ideology. With the appointment in June 1916 by Dublin Corporation’s Public Health Committee of Walter Butler and Patrick Lennon as film censors, a milestone was reached in the church’s campaign to introduce local censorship that would reflect a distinctly Irish Catholic sensibility (Rockett 50). Films shown in Ireland already bore the certificate of the British Board of Film Censorship, which had been established by the film trade as a form of self-regulation to avoid government-imposed censorship. Even as Butler and Lennon were being appointed, the British industry was discussing renewed government determination to introduce official censorship. Among the cases cited that raised this issues in London was the banning of A Tale of the Rebellion, a film about the Easter Rising that showed an Irishman being hanged (“London Correspondence”). Even as they announced the introduction of censorship in Dublin, however, the Irish Vigilance Association (IVA) expressed impatience with the lack of urgency demonstrated by the Corporation in appointing censors (“Film Censors for Dublin”).

Musical attractions at the Pillar; Dublin Evening Mail 1 Jun. 1916: 2.

Musical attractions at the Pillar; Dublin Evening Mail 1 Jun. 1916: 2.

From the IVA’s perspective, censorship was increasingly urgent given cinema’s growing appeal for the middle class, epitomized by improvements to cinematic music in June 1916. Three Dublin picture houses led the musical field: the city-centre Pillar and Carlton and the suburban Bohemian. Reviewing the Pillar at the end of June, the Irish Times revealed that its “orchestra including such favourites as Mr. Joseph Schofield, Mr. Harris Rosenberg, Mr. H. O’Brien, Miss Annie Kane and Mr. S. Golding, continue[s] to delight large audiences” (“Pillar Picture House”). Just a few doors away from the Pillar on Sackville/O’Connell Street, the Carlton boasted in Erwin Goldwater an internationally renowned violinist as its orchestra leader and soloist.

Dublin Evening Mail 10 Jun. 1916: 2.

Dublin Evening Mail 10 Jun. 1916: 2.

The Bohemian, however, outdid both of these when it engaged Achille Simonetti. “Dubliners will keenly appreciate the enterprise of the management of the Bohemian Picture Theatre in permanently engaging the services of one of the most noted violinists of the day in the person of Signor Simonetti,” the Dublin Evening Mail argued. “Henceforth Signor Simonetti will act as leader of the Bohemian orchestra – which has won such a wide repute – and will give solos, as well as Mr. Clyde Twelvetrees, Ireland’s greatest ’celloist” (“Play’s the Thing”). Simonetti debuted alongside Twelvetrees at the Bohemian on Whit Monday, 12 June 1916, when the bill was topped by Infelice (Britain: Samuelson, 1915), based on a novel by Augusta Evans-Wilson and starring Peggy Hyland. And if this was not enough to draw a large audience, the Bohemian announced that it would revise its pricing back to pre-Entertainment Tax rates, adding the line “We Pay Your Tax” to future advertisements.

No ordinary musicians need apply to Bangor’s Picture Palace; Irish Independent 9 Jun. 1916: 6.

No ordinary musicians need apply to Bangor’s Picture Palace; Irish Independent 9 Jun. 1916: 6.

The Bohemian added violist George Hoyle two weeks later. “The management now consider that they have the most perfect arrangement of stringed instruments and performers for a picture theatre,” the Irish Times reported (“Platform and Stage”). In a rare article focused on “Picture House Music,” Dublin Evening Mail columnist H.R.W. agreed that the Bohemian’s orchestra was the best in the city and that Simonetti’s “distinguished abilities attract large numbers of people from the most distant parts of the city.”

Commenting favourably on the tendency for picture-house orchestras to add strings and avoid brass and woodwind, s/he observed that while “the theatre orchestra was allowed to degenerate into mere noisy accompaniments to conversations in the auditorium during the interval,” in the picture house, “conversation is subdued, the music is subdued, the lights are subdued. The whole effect is soothing to the nerves.” Referring to Twelvetree’s impressive rendering of Max Bruch’s arrangement of “Kol Nidre,” s/he speculated that “the exact atmosphere is created by the fact that the solos are played in half light. The attention paid by the audience shows that this new feature is appreciated to the fullest extent.” S/he concluded that “the picture houses are affording us an opportunity of hearing the very best music, and in the hands of such fine artists as I have mentioned we can hear anything from a string quartet to a symphony.”

Although the official war films were not shown at the Bohemian, music of this kind could certainly play a role in assimilating the new tearless history.

References

“Amazing City Scenes.” Dublin Evening Mail 19 Jun. 1916: 3.

“Amusements: The Gaiety Theatre.” Freeman’s Journal 13 Jun. 1916: 6.

“Bohemian Picture Theatre.” Irish Times 13 Jun. 1916: 2; 20 Jun. 1916: 7.

Condon, Denis. “Politics and the Cinematograph in Revolutionary Ireland: The Boer War and the Funeral of Thomas Ashe.” Field Day Review Issue 4 (2008); and “Receiving News from the Seat of War: Dublin Audiences Respond to Boer War Entertainments.” Early Popular Visual Culture Vol. 9, No. 2 (2011).

“Film Censors for Dublin.” Freeman’s Journal 22 Jun. 1916: 6.

H.R.W. “Picture House Music: Its Growth and Development.” Dublin Evening Mail 28 Jun. 1916: 5.

“Irish Film Production.” Irish Times 30 Jun. 1916: 6.

“London Correspondence.” Freeman’s Journal 16 Jun. 1916: 4.

“The Moving Picture: The New National Weapon.” Bioscope 1 Jun. 1916: 955.

“Pictures Taken at the Front: Splendid New Series: Operator Gets Bullet Through His Cap.” Dublin Evening Mail 22 Jun. 1916: 3.

“The Pillar Picture House.” Irish Times 27 Jun. 1916: 6.

“Platform and Stage.” Irish Times 24 Jun 1916: 10.

“The Play’s the Thing.” Dublin Evening Mail 10 Jun. 1916: 6.

“Public Amusements: The Gaiety Theatre.” Irish Times 13 Jun. 1916: 2.

Rockett, Kevin. Irish Film Censorship: A Cultural Journey from Silent Cinema to Internet Pornography. Dublin: Four Courts, 2004.

“Scene in City Theatre: ‘There Is a Brave Man.’” Dublin Evening Mail 26 Jun. 1916: 4.

“Town Topics: Being a Casual Causerie.” Dublin Evening Mail 19 Jun. 1916: 2.

Dublin Wreckage Films, Martial Law and Daylight Saving Time in May 1916

Dublin's smoking ruins. Image from Come Here to Me.

Dublin’s smoking ruins in May 1916. Image from the blog Come Here to Me.

Smoke still rose from the ruins in Dublin city centre at the start of May 1916, including from those of the Grand Cinema, but the weather was about to quench the remaining embers. “The remark of the elderly Dublin citizen who, gazing out of the window on Saturday morning, exclaimed: ‘There has been insurrection, famine, and fire; now we’re going to have a flood,’ were more or less justified by the state of the weather,” observed the Ulster Herald of the period of 6-8 May. “From the early hours of Friday morning until Sunday, Dublin has been under a never-ceasing deluge of rain, and even the most curiosity stricken of those who are themselves within its borders are deterred from wandering forth on visits of inspection amongst the ruins” (“Rising in Dublin”).

A photograph of the Picture House, Sackville/O’Connell Street taken during the week of 8-13 May. Image from RTÉ Archives on Twitter bit.ly/1bFWG0U

A photograph of the Picture House, Sackville/O’Connell Street taken during the week of 8-13 May. Image from RTÉ Archives on Twitter.

Despite the fact that the city seemed to be under attack from the four horsemen of the apocalypse, some normality was returning by Monday, 8 May. “Two cinema houses have re-opened in O’Connell street up to 6.30 each evening,” the same source reported, “and one of them displays a large poster announcing ‘All Easter Week: ‘The Christian.’”One of the earliest surviving photographs of a Dublin picture house shows that this was the Picture House at 51 Lower Sackville/O’Connell Street, which was remarkably unscathed given that it faced the totally destroyed Grand. Most of the people in the photograph are not interested in The Christian, however, but are – in the Ulster Herald’s terms – stricken by curiosity to see the ruins.

A photograph of Sackville/O’Connell Street in flames. Image from Letters of 1916.

A photograph of Sackville/O’Connell Street in flames. Image from Letters of 1916.

The Rising itself struck some observers as inherently cinematic. “For spectacular purposes nothing I have seen compares with the bombardment late yesterday afternoon of the Irish Republican flag on the cupola of the building nearly a mile from the hotel,” a Lloyd’s News Service journalist reported from his/her hotel room. “Fully fifty shells burst around the cupola before the flag fluttered to the ground. A cinema picture of this side-show would have been worth thousands” (“Dublin Rebellion”).

No cinematographer seems to have captured scenes of the Rising itself that might have satisfied the curiosity of those who could not get to Dublin’s city centre. This is disappointing but hardly surprising given the dangers from fire, bombardment and snipers. Nevertheless, several newsreel films were made of the aftermath of the Rising showing the city in ruins by Pathé News, Gaumont Graphic and Topical Budget. The Irish Independent’s London correspondent noted that “Dublin wreckage films” were being shown in London theatres and picture houses offering a “picture of gaping ruins far more appalling than the London public has been prepared for” and a heartbreaking sight for Dubliners in exile (“Our London Letter”).

The programme at Dublin's Carlton for the week of the 8-13 May included Topical Budget's Dublin in Ruins. Dublin Evening Mail 9 May 1916: 2.

The programme at Dublin’s Carlton for the week of the 8-13 May included Topical Budget’s Dublin in Ruins. Dublin Evening Mail 9 May 1916: 2.

These films were also shown in Dublin itself once the picture houses reopened, which happened mostly in the week of 8-13 May. At this point, martial law restrictions allowed them to open only to 8pm. “The fabric of that historic building, the Rotunda, has happily escaped almost unscathed from the recent ordeal of fire,” the reviewer in the Irish Times noted on 9 May, “and an excellent programme of living pictures was yesterday presented to a succession of large audiences” (“Rotunda Pictures”).  Further down Sackville/O’Connell Street and closer to the centre of the fighting during the Rising, the Carlton also opened on 8 May with “a superb programme, the Topical Budget included ‘Dublin Ruins,’ depicting the desolation of the Irish metropolis consequent upon the insurrection” (“Carlton Cinema”). “Though the Pillar Picture House was well within the fire zone during the recent disturbances,” the Irish Times also noted, “the building has escaped with very minor injuries, and, despite the difficulties of transport, the management were able to re-open yesterday at noon with a very attractive programme” (“Pillar Picture House”). Although business at the Mary Street Picture House was “somewhat hampered by the dislocation of cross-Channel communication,” it offered a programme that included Chaplin’s A Film Johnnie (US: Keystone, 1914) and the Gaumont Graphic with all the latest topical features, and recent events in Dublin” (“Mary Street”).

Boh Dublin Rising DEM 12 May 1916

The Bohemian advertised The Dublin Rising and Ruins of the City with musical accompaniment by Clyde Twelvetrees. Dublin Evening Mail 12 May 1916: 2.

In the second half of that week (11-13 May), the Bohemian exhibited what appears to have been a longer film of the city’s ruins, Dublin Rising and Ruins of the City. Its prominence in advertising suggests that this was not just another newsreel item but something more substantial. The only surviving newsreel film of more than a few minutes is the Imperial War Museum’s (IWM’s) 14-minute Easter Rising, Dublin 1916. The IWM has little information on the origins of the film, and its intertitles are missing.

Ad for the exhibition at Belfast’s Panopticon of Dublin Revolt, a long film of the aftermath of the Rising; the similarly titled film at the Imperial is actually the Topical Budget. Belfast News-Letter 8 May 1916: 4.

Ad for the exhibition at Belfast’s Panopticon of Dublin Revolt, a long film of the aftermath of the Rising; the similarly titled film at the Imperial is actually the Topical Budget. Belfast News-Letter 8 May 1916: 4.

However, under the title Dublin Revolt, the IWM film was shown at Belfast’s Panopticon for the week of 8-13 May, and in other Belfast cinemas for the latter half of that week. The film had intertitles, including “[‘T]he Sinn Feiners marching into Dublin,’ ‘The Parade of the National Volunteers and Sinn Feiners,’ ‘Liberty Hall,’ ‘British Picket at the Custom House,’ ‘Wounded Sinn Feiners in Hospital,’ ‘British Armoured Car’” (“Panopticon,” 9 May).  The Panopticon’s ad in the Belfast News-Letter claimed that the film was “Taken by Our Own Operator,” but it may have been shot by Norman Whitten of General Film Supply, Ireland’s most prominent maker of film topicals. Paddy, Irish correspondent of the trade journal Bioscope, reported that Whitten “was out very early with his camera, and secured practically 2,000 feet of exceptionally interesting views.” Given the chaos of the picture-house business in Dublin after the Rising and the international interest in events, he sold these to “Messrs. Jury’s Imperial Pictures, Limited, and Mr. Whitten crossed over to England with the negatives so as to make sure that they reached their destination” (Paddy, 18 May). The Bohemian may have secured a 1,000-foot cut of the GFS film (Condon).

Framegrab from Easter Rising, Dublin 1916 (IWM 194) showing newsboys selling the Irish Times of 3 May 1916 against the ruins of Eden Quay.

Framegrab from Easter Rising, Dublin 1916 (IWM 194) showing newsboys selling the Irish Times of 3 May 1916 against the backdrop of the ruins on Eden Quay.

In Dublin, these films appear to have been designed to attract into the picture houses the people who were wandering the destroyed city centre fascinated by the ruins. Paddy reported that “people are not too keen on pictures just at the moment,” but were instead watching as “[o]dd walls of ruined buildings are being pulled down in Sackville Street […T]he streets are packed with people in dense masses, quite oblivious to the fact that some portion of the bricks and mortar may fall on them” (Paddy, 18 May).

Dublin Evening Mail 10 May 1916: 2.

Dublin Evening Mail 10 May 1916: 2.

Films in other venues were fulfilling different purposes. For four days beginning on 10 May, Dublin’s Theatre Royal – a legitimate theatre that only occasionally showed films – chose films that emphasized the loyalty of Dublin citizens. The Royal showed the War Office films, The Battlefield of Neuve Chapelle, which had previously been exhibited in the city, and the new With the Irish at the Front. “The pictures will be of special interest to all citizens,” observed the Irish Times, “but particularly to those whose relatives figure in the scenes from which the photographs have been taken” (“Theatre Royal”). This demonstration of loyalty appears to have been successful because the “pictures were warmly applauded by the audience, among which were many soldiers.”

Belfast News-Letter 6 May 1916: 8.

Belfast News-Letter 6 May 1916: 8.

The disruption to communications and transport caused by the Rising had effects on cinema around the country. “Splendid programmes have been submitted at the ‘National’” in Mullingar

where, despite the dislocation of all business resulting from the troubles in Dublin at Easter, the management were enabled to keep up a capital supply of films. In the case of the ‘Exploits of Elaine,’ however, the films could not be procured by any cinema, during the period of traffic dislocation, and it was only this week that the welcome announcement could be made that the great serial would be resumed. (“National Picture Palace.”)

Although the second week in May brought Dublin Revolt to Belfast’s Panopticon, the lack of a train service between Dublin and Belfast until 3 May meant that manager-proprietor Fred Stewart could not show the films he had advertised for the first week (“Panopticon,” 2 May). As well as this, the cancellation of the planned visit by the D’Oly Carte Opera Company during the week of 15-20 May caused Belfast’s Opera House to retain the film Britain Prepared for a second week (“Grand Opera House”).

Given the disruption and excitement generated by the Rising, other developments seem to have been taken in stride. These included the introduction of the Entertainment Tax and of Daylight Saving Time, and a government focus on cinema as the cause of juvenile crime. Irish newspapers widely reported Home Secretary Herbert Samuel’s statement in Westminster that one of the causes of the considerable rise in juvenile crime in provincial towns was “the character of some of the films shown at cinematograph theatres” (“Crime and the Cinema”). The Leitrim Observer took up the issue in its editorial at the end of May. “There can be no doubt that the cinema has abundantly established its claim as a cheap, popular, and harmless form of amusement and recreation, so far as the adults are concerned,” it argued. “Whether the ordinary cinematograph entertainment is good for young children is another matter” (“Children and Cinemas”). Although acknowledging that parents without childcare had to bring their children to the picture houses with them, the writer thought this a poor excuse if harm was actually being done to the young people.

Article explaining rates of Entertainment Tax; Evening Telegraph 15 May 1916: 1.

Article explaining rates of Entertainment Tax; Evening Telegraph 15 May 1916: 1.

The much heralded Entertainment Tax came into force on 15 May 1916. A reporter for the Cork Examiner gave the matter considerable attention, interviewing theatre managers and analyzing who was paying most. The writer found picture-house managers relatively untroubled by the measure, arguing that if there was any effect at all, it would likely only be for the first week or so.  The writer also pointed out that if there were any decreased attendance, it might in any case be attributed to good summer weather.

Dublin's Bohemian advertises new tax; Evening Telegraph 15 May 1916: 2.

Dublin’s Bohemian advertises new tax; Evening Telegraph 15 May 1916: 2.

However, s/he also noted that the percentage increase “reverses the rule of imposing the highest percentage of tax on the well to do” (“Entertainment Tax,” 16 May). The tax increased the price of the cheapest penny tickets by a ½p  or 50% while those paying for expensive seats between 2s 6d and 5s paid only 3d or between 10% and 5%. “As the actual increases in prices are comparatively small,” s/he nevertheless concluded, “the public will in all probability adapt themselves to the new conditions without any serious demur.” The writer of the Southern Star’s “Bandon Notes” column took a similar view. “The young lads of the town who constantly patronise the pictures in large numbers will be, one would be inclined to think, seriously hit by the tax,” s/he initially contended. “However, where a young lad would be able to make out 3d for the pictures, he would also be able to find 4d. Therefore, from their point of view, we think things will go on as usual.”

Examining the amount raised during the tax’s first week, the Belfast News-Letter found that the bulk of the receipts came from picture houses rather than theatres. Using figures from Liverpool, it estimated that £900 of the £1,600 tax collected in the city came from cinemas (“Entertainment Tax,” 24 May).

The introduction of Daylight Saving Time on 21 May proved even less controversial in the Irish cinema trade. Among the Dublin theatre and picture house managers/proprietors interviewed by an Irish Independent reporter, manager Richard Bell of the Sackville Picture House and John J. Farrell, who owned several Dublin picture houses, expressed the view that the measure would not affect them in any way and that they saw no reason to change their hours of opening. Only Barney Armstrong of the Empire Theatre thought the regulation “would likely have the effect of slightly reducing the attendances during the summer months, especially at the first ‘house’” (“Daylight Saving Act”). For picture houses that opened from the early afternoon, this was less of an issue.

By the end of May, life in the Dublin appeared to be returning to normal, albeit among the ruins of the city centre. Paddy noted that “[m]arital law in Dublin has been considerably modified, people now being allowed out until 12 o’clock. This means that one can visit a theatre or music hall in comfort and still be able to catch the last tram home.” Even if many picture houses were slower in settling down after the Rising, this was due to good weather, which “proved equally as strong an attraction as the spectacle of falling buildings” (Paddy, 25 May).

References

“Bandon Notes.” Southern Star 20 May 1916: 5.

“The Carlton Cinema.” Irish Times 9 May 1916: 3.

“Children and Cinemas.” Leitrim Observer 27 May 1916: 3.

Condon, Denis. “‘Pictures in Abeyance’: Irish Cinema and the Aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rising.” Moving Worlds April 2016.

“Crime and the Cinema.” Leitrim Observer 20 May 1916: 7.

“Daylight Saving Act: Favourable Irish Recption.” Irish Independent 19 May 1916: 4.

“The Dublin Rebellion.” Southern Star 6 May 1916: 2.

“Entertainment Tax Comes into Operation.” Cork Examiner 16 May 1916: 6.

“The Entertainment Tax: £1,600 the First Week’s Yield in Liverpool.” Belfast News-Letter 24 May 1916: 4.

“Grand Opera House: ‘Britain Prepared.’” Belfast News-Letter 16 May 1916: 2.

“Mary Street Picture House.” Irish Times 9 May 1916: 3.

“National Picture Palace.” Westmeath Examiner 20 May 1916: 4.

“Our London Letter: Dublin Wreckage Films.” Irish Independent 15 May 1916: 2.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope  18 May 1916: 845; 25 May 1916: 911.

“The Panopticon.” Belfast News-Letter 2 May 1916: 2; 9 May 1916: 2.

“The Pillar Picture House.” Irish Times 9 May 1916: 3.

“The Rising in Dublin: Scenes in the Ruins.” Ulster Herald 13 May 1916: 3.

“Rotunda Pictures.” Irish Times 9 May 1916: 3.

“Theatre Royal.” Irish Times 9 May 1916, p. 3.