A century ago, on 23 May 1914, Dublin’s newspapers announced the opening of the Picture House in Phibsborough (or Phibsboro), on the northern edge of the city. The papers are a little vague on the exact day of the opening, but as the 23 May was a Saturday, some of the papers cover the opening in their weekly theatrical column. “The grand opening of the new Picture House situated at Blaquiere Bridge, Phibsborough,” declared the Dublin Evening Mail’s The Play’s the Thing column, “took place this week, with signal success” (“New Picture House in Phibsborough”). That morning’s Irish Times had carried the same article, and a shorter notice in the Evening Herald was clearly working from the same publicity material provided to the Mail and Times. “The promoters deserve every congratulation, not only as regards the excellent film presented, but also in as far as design, furnishing, lighting, ventilation, etc., are concerned,” commented the Herald. “The house is most comfortable, and great crowds have been enjoying both the comfort and excellent fare provided. The architect, Mr. Aubrey V. O’Rourke, C.E., was paid a very high compliment by the directors at the opening ceremony” (“New Phibsborough Picture Palace”).
Certainly, the only still circulating photograph of the original facade – taken almost 40 years later – shows an attractive addition to the streetscape in this part of the city. Construction work had begun in summer 1913, but even after this had started, alterations were made to the design, probably in order to better compete with the Bohemian Picture Theatre, which was also under construction close by on Phibsborough Road. “It is intended to amend the design and planning generally of the new cinematograph theatre now in the course of construction at Madras Place, Phibsboro’,” revealed the Irish Builder.
The front of the building will be carried out in brickwork and terra cotta dressings, and will present a more handsome and bolder appearance than the original design. It is intended to erect a balcony, and to increase the seating capacity considerably. The emergency passage will be covered in, and the gentlemen’s sanitary accommodation approached from this passage. The machine enclosure, rewinding room, and office will be situated at the back of the balcony, and the generating chamber in the basement. The internal decorations, which are to be of a handsome character, are to be carried out in fibrous plaster.” (“Building News”)
The British cinema trade journal Bioscope offered the first indication of the capacity and ownership of the new picture house:
The theatre is specially designed, and will be an up-to-date hall, accommodating 600. Although a separate company from the Irish Kinematograph Company, Limited, the new company will be worked in conjunction with that Company’s Mary Street House. Messrs. Hibberts will have a controlling interest, and Alderman Farrell is to act as managing director. Mr. Bob O’Russ – the popular manager of the Mary Street house – will take over the duties connected with the secretaryship. (“Our View”)
City councillor and former mayor, John J. Farrell already had interests in the Electric Theatre, Talbot Street, the Mary Street Picture House and the soon-to-be announced Pillar Picture House in O’Connell Street. For the Phibsboro venture, however, Farrell registered the Phibsboro Picture House company on 2 September 1914, in partnership with William King, a farmer and horse breeder of Belcamp, Co. Dublin; and British cinema owners Henry Hibbert and T. Wood (“World of Finance”). Construction on the Phibsboro – and all other Dublin buildings – stopped in September 1913 because of the Lockout (Paddy, 30 Oct. and 11 Dec.), but it resumed with the end of the general strike in early 1914.
The first ads for the Phibsboro on 23 May reveal that the performances were continuous from 3 to 10:30 rather than at set times, that the programme changed on Monday and Thursday – initially with no Sunday show, that the pricing was 3d, 6d and 9d, and that there would be an “exclusive” film in every programme. However, they gave little indication of what exactly the first exclusives were. Helpfully, however, the Bioscope’s Paddy reported on 4 June that he
went round the other evening to see the picture theatre in Phibsboro’, and particularly did I admire the “sunrise and sunset” system of lighting, which was concealed round the walls of the building. The building holds, roughly, 600, and the tip-ups are in Rose Barri shade, the carpets being of a darker colour. The harmonizing effect is thus very beautiful. The balcony, to which admission is covered by the nimble shilling, runs in a wide curve, and has a splendid “rake.” (Paddy, 4 Jun.)
The main film Paddy saw that night was Lieutenant Rose and the Sealed Orders (Britain: Clarendon, 1914) “and it was followed with intense interest by a packed house,” as well as the John Bunny comedy Bunny’s Mistake (US: Vitagraph, 1914) and The Vanishing Cracksman (US: Ediston, 1913).
The first film that the Phibsboro actually advertised was the Danish film I Tronens Skygge, translated as In the Shadow of the Throne (I Tronens Skygge; Denmark: Kinografen, 1914). It was due to run for three days beginning on Monday, 1 June, but its opening had some unintended consequences, many – but not all – unpleasant for the management. The film caused a campaign by members of the Catholic Church’s Vigilance Committee, which had been formed in 1911 to campaign against “evil” literature but which had developed a campaign against theatre shows and films. Part of this campaign involved protests in theatres and cinemas carried out by William Larkin and his twin brother Francis.
The campaign began when P. Donnelly sent a letter to the Freeman’s Journal complaining about the film and asking “How long is Catholic Dublin going to stand this sort of thing?” (“A Cinematograph Show Objected To,” Condon 228). Donnelly objected to the fact that a nun said Mass and that a newly professed nun fell into the arms of a prince. The controversy caused a range of reactions. John J. Farrell responded by retaining the film for the second half of the week, writing a letter to the Freeman contradicting Donnelly’s claims (and perhaps, as alleged in court, threatening legal action if the paper did not print a retraction), and inviting a reporter from the newspaper to give an “objective” assessment of the film. The resulting publicity brought around 600 Dubliners, the seating capacity of the cinema, to subsequent showings of the film. Among these on Friday were William and Francis Larkin, who ended a shouted protest in the auditorium by throwing ink at the screen, splattering the blouse and music of Miss Eager in the orchestra. The Larkins were arrested, found guilty and fined a nominal 5 shillings, a punishment whose leniency suggested – not for the first time – the tacit support of the magistrate for Vigilance Committee activities.
To devote too much attention to the Larkins is to turn away from the story of the cinema, but the newspaper accounts of the case provide details of the working of the Phibsboro that do not survive otherwise. They reveal the name of the attendant Daniel McEvoy, whom William Larkin accused of handling him roughly while removing him, and also two women musicians from the orchestra who would otherwise be anonymous: Miss Eager, the musical director whose blouse was inked, and Miss Duffy, who testified in court. Daniel McEvoy and Miss Eager remain obscure, but Miss Duffy is likely to have been Evelyn Duffy who is listed in the 1911 Census as a 23-year-old professional vocalist living at 106 Phibsboro Road, close to the cinema.
Just three weeks after it opened, the Phibsboro had become a part of the city in several ways. It had become a significant part of the streetscape of north Dublin, a successful business for Farrell and his partners, and a place of employment for McEvoy, Eager and Duffy. Beyond that, it had become central, if only briefly, in one of Ireland’s cultural controversies.
“A Cinematograph Show Objected To.” Freeman’s Journal 2 Jun. 1914: 5.
“Building News.” Irish Builder 30 Aug. 1913: 563.
Condon, Denis. Early Irish Cinema, 1895-1921. Dublin: Irish Academic, 2008.
“New Phibsborough Picture Palace.” Evening Herald 23 May 1914: 4.
“New Picture House in Phibsboroough.” Dublin Evening Mail 23 May 1914: 3.
“Opening of the New Picture House in Phibsborough.” Irish Times 23 May1914: 9.
“Our View.” Bioscope 24 Jul.1913: 238.
Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 30 Oct. 1913: 395; 11 Dec. 1913: 1077; 4 Jun. 1914: 1069.
“World of Finance.” Bioscope 18 Sep. 1913: 933.