“Growing in Favour to an Enormous Extent”: New Media, Ireland 1914

A little after 7pm on Friday, 6 February 1914, architect and inveterate theatregoer Joseph Holloway and his niece Eileen O’Malley arrived at Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre to find that the parterre was already full and there was standing room only in the upper circle. They decided not to stand for that evening’s final performance of the pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk, which was a benefit for comedian Jay Laurier, the actor who played Miffins. Instead they walked to the Nassau Street corner of Grafton Street to take a tram to the Dorset Picture Hall where they spent the evening watching a series of “interesting” but unnamed pictures (Holloway). It’s not clear why they passed the other picture houses along the tram route across the city to favour the Dorset, but Holloway seems to have taken a liking to the Dorset, having seen Kissing Cup (Britain: Hepworth, 1913) there with Eileen on 2 January and The Child from the Sea alone on 28 January. He had also recently seen Germinal (France: Pathé, 1913) at the Princess Cinema in Rathmines and the show of Kinemacolor films at the Queen’s Theatre.

Handbill for films at the Dorset during the week of 15-21 June 1914 with three changes of programme.

Handbill for films at the Dorset during the week of 15-21 June 1914 with three changes of programme. National Library of Ireland.

Holloway’s diary entries on his visits to Dublin’s picture houses are both unique and frustrating, providing the only sustained first-hand account by an Irish cinemagoer of this period but also offering merely tantalizing details of his visits. This contrasts markedly with his often lengthy comments on the city’s theatrical shows, many of which he saw on their opening night. Although he was committed to the theatre, he had also become since 1910 – almost without realizing it himself, it seems – a regular picture-house patron. Although more detail on goings-on in cinemas from an audience member’s point of view would certainly be welcome, the way in which going to the picture house had become such a mundane activity is fascinating. In his diary, Holloway notes significant films alongside theatre shows at the start of a week and often integrates a film show into his schedule, sometimes choosing a film but often choosing to see whatever was on at a favoured picture house.

Holloway and other cinemagoers would have increasing choice as 1914 progressed. “Dublin has not by a long way stopped in its career of opening picture houses,” reveals Paddy in the trade journal Bioscope in early February 1914. He mentions plans to open 18 more cinemas in the city, with plans for eight already approved.

There is no doubt that some of these new fry will pay, because they are to be built in districts badly provided for in the matter of theatres, but when I hear that it is proposed to open three new houses in Grafton Street, and two more in Sackville Street, I wonder what will happen. (Paddy, 5 Feb).

Comments on the growing popularity of Dublin picture houses were not limited to the trade papers. “There can be no gainsaying the popularity of picture theatres in the Irish metropolis,” comments Irish Times columnist the Clubman. “They seem to be always crowded and their proprietors must be making plenty of money out of them. Of course, the ‘man in the street’ will tell you that ‘the pictures’ are only a ‘craze,’ but they are a craze which will, I think, live for some time in Dublin, at any rate (“Dublin Topics”).

It was not just in Dublin, and it would not be a passing craze. In mid-January 1914, the Bioscope’s “Jottings from Ulster” columnist noted that the

Belfast Corporation cinematograph inspector, Mr. Campbell, reported at the last meeting of the Police Committee, that on Christmas Day, Boxing Day, and the 27th ult., 124,087 persons patronised the fourteen picture theatres in the city. These figures show an increase of about 15,000 as compared with Christmas, 1912, It is of considerable interest to note that 124,000 is roughly one-third of the entire population of Belfast; it may, therefore, be taken that the cinema is growing in favour to an enormous extent. (“Jottings,” 15 Jan.)

These are very interesting figures, adding some statistical support to the impression conveyed by Holloway’s diary and newspaper and trade-press articles. It remains more difficult to discern a hundred years later the degree to which individual films that appear to do so actually address such important issues as women’s suffrage, the labour movement and Home Rule. These questions might without too much distortion be phrased in the language of 2014 as concerning the way in which new media engage with questions of the changing nature of work, gender inequality and national sovereignty.

Asta Nielsen as suffrage activist Nelly Panburne being force fed in The Suffragette (1913).

Asta Nielsen as suffrage activist Nelly Panburne being force fed in The Suffragette (1913).

Women’s suffrage was one of the most prominent political questions of the 1910s, kept in the headlines by suffragette activism, including that by the Irish Women’s Franchise League. Suffragettes in Ireland – but not Irish suffragettes – had most directly used the new cinema technologies as a form of protest on the evening of 18 July 1912, when as part of a wider protest, English suffragettes Mary Leigh, Gladys Evans and Lizzie Baker had attempted to set fire to Dublin’s Theatre Royal by igniting the highly combustible nitrate film in the theatre’s cinematograph box between evening shows. “Had the lighted matches come in contact with the films, the substances of which are, of course, highly inflammable, a terrible disaster might have to be chronicled” (“Serious Suffragette Outrage”). For this and for a hatchet attack on British prime minster HH Asquith’s carriage, in which Irish nationalist MP John Redmond was injured, Leigh, Evans and Baker were sentenced to prison terms in Mountjoy Jail, where they joined eight Irish suffragettes and began a hunger strike.

Belfast's Panopticon advertises Asta Nielsen in The Suffragette (1913).

Belfast’s Panopticon advertises Asta Nielsen in The Suffragette (1913); Belfast Newsletter 3 Jan. 1914: 1.

Events such as these were fictionalized in the German film The Suffragette (Projektions AG, 1913), which offered Irish audiences the rare opportunity of seeing suffragettes on screen treated as something other than just comedy. Featuring the Danish star Asta Nielsen as Nelly Panburne – modelled on Christabel Pankhurst – the film shows how Nelly protests by breaking shop windows; is force-fed when she goes on hunger strike in prison; and carries a bomb intended to kill Lord Ascue, a British minister modelled on Asquith opposed to women’s rights. The film attempts to contain its radical energies with a romantic subplot that sees Nelly save Ascue  from the bomb and marry him. Despite the closeness of the film to actual events, the Belfast Newsletter commented that when it was exhibited in January 1914 at the Panopticon Picture Theatre, it “creates great merriment. Asta Neilson, described as the greatest of all picture artists, is seen at her best” (“Panopticon”).

Carson v Redmond
The confrontation between Irish unionists and nationalists had become such a part of popular discourse in Britain in early 1914 that this ad for films that had nothing to do with Ireland could expect to draw attention by using the names of Edward Carson and John Redmond as if they were prize fighters. Bioscope 12 Mar. 1914, p. 1186.

Perhaps the importance of the political events of a different kind in Belfast was among the factors that inclined the Newsletter towards downplaying a fictional representation of the suffrage movement. To keep up pressure on Asquith’s government, Edward Carson again visited Belfast In mid-January 1914 to rally unionist opponents of Irish home rule and review the massed ranks of the Ulster Volunteer Force prepared violently to resist the imposition of home rule. Such nationalist newspapers as Dublin’s Evening Telegraph and Belfast’s Irish News presented unionist demonstrations as a farce and drew attention instead to the counter-demonstration in Belfast led by nationalist MP Joseph Devlin (“Carson Comedy Co.,” “U.V.F. Comedy,” “Mr. Devlin, M.P., in West Belfast”). The unionists, however, again proved themselves more competent with the new cinematic medium. A newsreel camera was again in Belfast to record and relay images not of Devlin but of Carson, and this time, it was operated by Dublin-based Norman Whitten, who filmed the demonstration for Weisker Brothers, a firm to which he had recently affiliated (Paddy, 29 Jan.). Paddy commended Whitten for having the film of Carson ready to screen at Belfast’s Picture House, Royal Avenue on the evening of the rally (ibid).

Of more immediate concern to Dublin’s media from mid-January to early February was the end of the Lockout with the defeat of the striking workers. For the first three days of the week beginning Monday 19 January, the Evening Telegraph’s notice for the Phoenix Picture Palace recommended A Leader of Men, “dealing in a thrilling and sensation manner with an organised strike in a big shipbuilding industry. It is decidedly a picture that will appeal strongly to all at the present time” (“Phoenix Picture Palace”). On the same day, the Telegraph was reporting the “Collapse of Strike: No Food and No Money: Mr. Larkin Advise Men: To Go Back to Work: But to Sign No Agreement” (“Collapse of Strike”). If that drama was too close for comfort to current events, audiences could also enjoy more diverting material on the same bill in the dramas Fortune’s Turn and The Dumb Messenger and the comedies The Honeymooners, When Love Is Young and Cartoons, Mr PiffleAs well as this, to whom and in what way the film would appeal is not clear given that it is unlikely many of the workers impoverished by months of strike could have afforded to attend.

Nevertheless, as cinema continued to develop and picture houses occupied more spaces on the Irish streetscape, films would attract audiences not only by providing escape but also by confronting – both directly and obliquely – important political issues.

References

“Carson Comedy Co.: Performing in Belfast To-Day.” Evening Telegraph 17 Jan. 1914: 6.

“Collapse of Strike.” Evening Telegraph 20 Jan. 1914: 3.

“Dublin Topics by the Clubman.” Irish Times 31 Jan. 1914: 4.

Holloway, Joseph. Holloway Diaries. National Library of Ireland. 6 Feb. 1914: 295.

“Jottings from Ulster.” Bioscope 15 Jan. 1914: 263.

“Mr. Devlin, M.P., in West Belfast: Great Rallies of the Progressive Forces Hear Inspiriting Addresses.” Irish News 19 Jan. 1914: 5-6.

“Phoenix Picture Palace.” Evening Telegraph 20 Jan. 1913: 2.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 29 Jan. 1914: 454.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 5 Feb. 1914: 547.

“The Panopticon.” Belfast Telegraph 6 Jan. 1914: 9.

“Serious Suffragette Outrage: Two Attempts to Set Fire: To the Theatre Royal: An Explosive Used: A Panic Avoided.” Freeman’s Journal 19 Jul. 1912: 6.

“U.V.F. Comedy: Parade of the East Belfast Regiment: Inspection by Sir E. Carson.” Irish News 19 Jan. 1914: 7.

Projecting Ulster Resistance, September 1913

Image

“A view of the scene today, 27th September 1913, at the Agricultural Show Grounds in Balmoral, where Sir Edward Carson reviewed a massive parade of Ulster Volunteers.” Illustrated London News, 4 Oct. 1913. Reproduced here from Century Ireland.

The organizers of Edward Carson’s  inspection of the Ulster Volunteer Force in Belfast on Saturday, 27 September 1913, made careful plans that this show of strength would leave nobody in Ireland, Britain or beyond in any doubt of Unionist opposition to Home Rule. Carson had been appointed head of the provisional Ulster government established at a meeting earlier that week, and the inspection was to give evidence of the growing army he could call on to resist attempts to impose a Dublin-based Home Rule parliament dominated by Ireland’s nationalist majority. These events were carefully stage-managed to ensure maximum publicity, with special accommodation made for the media. Under an elaborate headline decorated with unionist flags and emblems, the Belfast Newsletter’s lengthy report revealed that the “Pressmen were even more numerous on Saturday than at the demonstration held at Balmoral on Easter Tuesday, 1912, when Mr. Bonar Law, M.P., made an important speech; and the photographers were ubiquitous” (“Ulster Volunteer Force”). As well as in word and photograph, the proceedings would be recorded on film: “the cinematograph operators were also kept busy, but they were not properly tested until the troops came in sight. Then the machines began to work, and this week in nearly all the picture theatres in the United Kingdom views of the parade will be exhibited, and the electors of Great Britain, will have the opportunity of seeing for themselves what the Ulster Volunteers are doing in preparation for a great emergency” (“Ulster Volunteer Force”).

Panopticon Reopens Sep 1913

Advertisement for the reopening of the Panopticon. Belfast Newsletter 12 Sep. 1913: 4.

Although the local press was clear that this spectacle was not just for local consumption, prominent among the cinematographers were those engaged by Frederick Stewart, proprietor of the Panopticon Picture Theatre in Belfast’s High Street, and his primary audience was in the city. “Mr. Fred Stewart, of the Belfast Panopticon,” the Bioscope reported, “is supplying local topicals, and each day finds the seating capacity of his hall taxed to its utmost – despite the fact that he has only recently doubled the accommodation. Last Saturday he scored again by screening a film record of the review of the Ulster Volunteers. The picture, which was about 200 ft. long, was shown by Mr. Stewart within four hours after the event took place, a piece of work which for smartness and expedition has not been eclipsed locally” (“Jottings from Ulster”). The Newsletter offered some more precise details, claiming that Stewart was “entitled to great credit for being the first to exhibit pictures of the Review of the Belfast Division of Ulster’s Volunteer Force on Saturday, the films being in use at 8.40 p.m., about a couple of hours after the proceedings at Balmoral had come to a termination. It was gratifying to all patrons of yesterday’s entertainment to see those delightful views, which convey a very fine impression as to the strength and general effect of the display by one section of the loyalist army (“The Panopticon,” Newsletter).

Although this suggests that the Panopticon’s clientele was as unionist as the readership of the Newsletter; the account of the exhibition of the film by Belfast’s main nationalist daily, the Irish News, indicates that the showing was sufficiently low key to be treated as news rather than celebratory spectacle. “Whatever one may think of that demonstration as a political incident,” it observed, “it was undoubtedly a news item of some interest, and credit is due to Mr. Stewart, the popular manager of the Panopticon, for his enterprise in arranging to have the affair filmed and shown on the screen as early as nine o’clock on Saturday night” (“The Panopticon,” Irish News). However, after this praise of a local exhibitor, the reviewer devoted more attention to Florence Lawrence’s role in The One Good Turn, pointing out that the actress was no longer with the Vitagraph Company and was rumoured to be considering a series of films in Ireland in 1914.

Grosvenor Drink

Advertisements for cinematograph shows at many of Belfast’s Protestant halls, including the City YMCA (at which the film of Carson’s review of the UVF would be shown on 27 Sep.) and the Grosvenor Hall, which is . Belfast Newsletter 13 Sep. 1913: 6.

The militant Ulster unionism on display at Balmoral was also Protestant, and the Protestant churches’ attitude to the cinema helps to explain the prominence of the cinematograph in the mediation of this event. Unlike a commercial picture house that might aim to appeal across both Catholic nationalist and Protestant unionist communities in order to maximize its audience, church halls only appealed to one side of the politico-sectarian divide. By 1913, many of Belfast’s Protestant church halls added the exhibition of moving pictures to their Saturday social activities. Although some Irish Catholic halls – such as the Gillooly Memorial Temperance Hall in Sligo – showed films (Condon), Protestant organizations embraced film exhibition far more wholeheartedly. The second venue that showed Stewart’s film of Carson’s review at Balmoral was the City YMCA Hall, where the audience would have broadly shared religious and political views. The Newsletter‘s review of this exhibition noted that “the great audience in the Y.M.C.A. Hall were surprised and delighted to witness a splendid series of moving pictures of Sir Edward Carson and the march past of the volunteers,” which they greeted “with loud cheers, again and again renewed” (“Smart Cinematograph Work”).

Despite the historical interest of the Carson film, cinema culture in Belfast was not dominated by films of current events. Preachers at the halls sometimes used films to highlight religious subjects, as the Methodist minister Robert Ker did when he explained “the lessons of the great picture, ‘The Curse of Drink’” before it was screened at Belfast’s Grosvenor Hall on 13 September 1913 (“Grosvenor Hall”). An understanding that Belfast audiences would appreciate a film with a temperance theme may have contributed to the Panopticon’s showing of The Temptation of Drink beginning on 22 September.  A strong additional – if it was not primary – reason was that this film featured Danish star Asta Nielsen; Stewart had also chosen Nielsen’s Spanish Blood to reopen the extensively refurbished Panopticon on 12 September. If nationalist and unionist journalists and their readers inevitably disagreed on the value of political films, they agreed on the drawing power of such star actresses as Asta Nielsen and Florence Lawrence.

References

Condon, Denis. “’Brightening the Dreary Existence of the Irish Peasant’: Cinema Transforms Leisure in Provincial Ireland.” Early Popular Visual Culture 11.2 (2013): 126-39.

“Grosvenor Hall.” Ad. Belfast Newsletter 13 Sep. 1913: 6.

“Jottings from Ulster.” Bioscope 9 Oct. 1913: 143.

“The Panopticon.” Belfast Newsletter 30 Sep. 1913: 11.

“The Panopticon.” Irish News 30 Sep. 1913: 8.

“Smart Cinematograph Work.” Belfast Newsletter 29 Sep. 1913: 7.

“Ulster Volunteer Force.” Belfast Newsletter 29 Sep. 1913: 8.