Denis Condon’s blog Early Irish Cinema looks back at the early development of cinema in Ireland on the anniversaries of those developments and offers information on what cinemagoers could have seen in Irish cinemas a century ago. Here Denis takes a look at a diary that offers fascinating glimpses into the city’s emerging cinema culture.
Joseph Holloway’s self-portrait “My Reflection in Mirror at Barbers,” 21 Sep. 1914. National Library of Ireland.
On Friday, 31 July 1914, Joseph Holloway – the sometimes architect but more often theatregoer – recorded a moment of cultural angst: “Was at two picture Houses during the day – the Grafton & Rotunda, where a few good films were on view,” he noted in his diary before adding: “It’s terrible to be driven to see pictures instead of plays! I fear the theatres in Dublin are dead for the present.” The death of theatre in Dublin was a cause of serious concern for Holloway, whose diary records the minute attention he paid to shows at Dublin’s “legitimate” theatres – the Theatre Royal and Gaiety – at its melodrama house – the Queen’s Royal Theatre – and at its music halls – the Empire and Tivoli. Despite his unhappiness with theatrical offerings at this time, he nevertheless attended as many plays and shows as he could fit in a life largely filled with the leisure that a small inheritance allowed him. The diary in which he records the details of these shows – as well as his conversations and correspondence with the luminaries and ordinary people of the time – is an incredible work of life writing that has been estimated as running to more than 25 million words (Ferriter). This is not because of the great critical insights he offers; his diary has been described by Irish author Frank O’Connor as “that donkey’s detritus” and by Sean O’Casey as “an impossible pile of rubbish” (ibid). Nevertheless, despite the limited perspective of a middle-class conservative Catholic nationalist, it offers fascinating glimpses into life and leisure as they were experienced in Dublin in the 1910s, including the city’s emerging cinema culture.
Holloway’s viewing of the two film shows in late July 1914 was not unprecedented, nor was it the first time he had expressed his dissatisfaction with picture houses while being a regular cinemagoer. Since the Picture House in Sackville/O’Connell Street had opened in April 1910, Holloway had often visited it and the other picture houses that opened with increasing regularity in its wake. Although he sometimes visited picture houses alone, he also accompanied his mother Anne Holloway and his niece Eileen O’Malley, with whom he lived, demonstrating the popularity of the picture house across three generations (Condon 143). By September 1914, Holloway’s life was changing along with the city’s entertainment offerings, not to mention the political upheavals of the period. The death of his mother in May 1912, and the marriage of Eileen on 16 September 1914 left him living alone and without a cinema-going companion.
Theatre Royal, Dublin.http://archiseek.com/2012/1897-theatre-royal-hawkins-st-dublin/#.VCrJYBYg9OI
As well as this, the breakdown of the longstanding distinctions between Dublin’s legitimate theatre, melodrama house and music hall was particularly visible just as the war began in the autumn of 1914. This was part of an international process by which entertainment companies were buying up and building theatres of all kinds to create chains that sought large popular audiences by providing a modified form of variety entertainment that could accommodate popular music hall artistes and dramatic actors, as well as film. Dublin’s Theatre Royal had long been experimenting with this modified variety, which it called by a name already popular in many British cities: hippodrome. Marvelling at the popularity of the Royal’s hippodrome seasons during the summer period when the theatres usually closed, the theatrical columnist of Irish Life dubbed hippodrome “the Chief Priest and Apostle of the Music Hall in Dublin” (“Between the Acts”). “[I]ts hold over the public is simply amazing. The “two-nightly house” show can apparently thrive under any circumstances. In Dublin it has captured all classes, and has proved itself a most profitable undertaking to those engaged in it” (ibid). Film featured not only as part of the evening programme in the guise of the Royal Bioscope but also at a separate film matinee.
Poster for the Theatre Royal Hippodrome and Winter Gardens, Sep. 1914, featuring film matinees of Nature’s Zoo(Britain: Cherry Kearton, 1913), a film that the Royal also exhibited a year earlier.National Library of Ireland.
In early August, Ireland’s Attorney-General and Solicitor-General heard application for patents that would allow legitimate drama from the Star Theatre of Varieties, Ltd., the company that ran the Empire, and from the Premier Picture Palace (Dublin), which proposed to build a large theatre in the city centre on a site off Henry Street and close to the GPO. As the latter’s name suggests, this company had initially planned to open a large picture house but had decided that a variety theatre with the flexibility of mounting plays and showing films would be more profitable. The company would eventually open in April 1915 what was then known as the Coliseum Theatre, a short lived venue that would not be rebuilt following its destruction a year after its opening during the 1916 Rising. The proprietors of the Coliseum included Lord Mayor Lorcan Sherlock, two directors of Dublin’s Tivoli Theatre and theatrical agent Fred Willmott (ibid.). Holloway attended the hearing and spoke as an expert witness – “as an old theatre-goer with 40 years experience” – in support of the Star Theatre of Varieties’ application, arguing that the granting of a dramatic patent would benefit the city by providing the opportunity for more play to be performed (“What Is a Revue?”).
Handbill for opening of the Masterpiece Theatre preserved in Holloway’s diary (Holloway 27 Jul.)
While lobbying in support of more plays and continuing to attend theatrical shows of all kinds, Holloway also visited picture houses regularly. Between July and September 1914, he records twenty visits to Dublin picture houses, eleven of them in July. On the evening of Thursday, 2 July, he went to what he insisted on calling the O’Connell Picture House (but the proprietors persisted in calling the Picture House, Sackville Street); on the afternoon of Monday, 6 July, he saw two films at the Rotunda; in the evening of Wednesday, 8 July, he saw a Western and Joseph Chamberlain’s funeral at the Grafton; on the evening of Friday, 10 July, he saw From the Lion’s Paw at the Rotunda; on the evening of Saturday, 18 July, the films he saw at the Grafton included one of rival architect George O’Connor at the Civic Exhibition; on the evening of Monday, 20 July, he enjoyed both a French thriller and a US Indian film; on the afternoon of Tuesday, 21 July, he was amused by The Blood Test at the Rotunda; on Thursday, 23 July, he visited the Grafton and later the Rotunda; on the evening of Friday, 24 July, he saw His Reformation (Britain: London, 1914) at the O’Connell; on Monday, 27 July, he was bored by Joan of Arc (Italy: Savoia, 1914) at the opening of the Masterpiece Theatre but enjoyed a love story and a John Bunny comedy later at the Grafton; on Friday, 31 July, he had the two visits to the Grafton and Rotunda that caused him such anxiety about the death of theatre.
Evening Telegraph review of programme at the Masterpiece, 22 Sep. 1914: 2.
Whether or not he felt that he was overindulging in cinema, Holloway appears to have paid far fewer visits to picture houses in August and September. On Wednesday, 12 August, he saw England’s Menace (Britain: London, 1914) with Eileen at the Grafton; on Friday, 14 August, he attended the 6:30 show at the Rotunda; a month later, on Wednesdays, 16 September and 23 September, he attended the show at the Rotunda; on Saturday, 26 September, he went to the Masterpiece Theatre, which two months after it had opened was handing over management to the well-known comedian Cathal MacGarvey. MacGarvey’s appointment drew some welcome publicity to the Masterpiece. As a result, notices show that MacGarvey’s first programme at the Masterpiece featured the dramaEtta of the Footlights (US: Vitagraph, 1914) with Maurice Costello and Mary Charleson – which was also showing at the Sackville/O’Connell – “some daring feats of equestrianism by the 18th Hussars” in Our Cavalry’s Wonderful Horsemanship, the scenic film From Inverlaken to Shiedegg, and a Gaumont Graphic newsreel that included “a review of the National Volunteers at Enniscorthy by Mr. John Redmond and (“Masterpiece Theatre”). It is likely that the location of the last film is mistaken and that this was a film of the infamous speech at Woodenbridge, Co. Wicklow, in which Irish nationalist leader Redmond called on the Volunteers to join the British Army.
Film lover Dr Knott. Holloway Diaries. National Library of Ireland.
Unlike his often very detailed accounts of theatre shows, Holloway wrote frustratingly little on the films he saw, often not even giving their names. He does, however, sometimes note the names of members of the audience, some of whom he occasionally sketched. On the evening of Monday, 1 June 1914, he reveals, the large audience at the Grafton included “AE (George Russell) & Prof. Maginnis.” Dr John Knott, “haunts the picture houses” (16 Sep 1914) and seems to be constantly “seated rather close up to screen” (30 May 1914). Like Knott, Holloway also haunted Dublin’s picture houses, and despite his periodic fears about cinema displacing his beloved theatre, he appears largely to have enjoyed the times he spent in front of the screen.
Denis Condon lectures in film at NUI Maynooth.
Condon, Denis. “‘Temples to the Art of Cinematography’: Cinema on the Dublin Streetscape, 1895-1929.” Visualizing Dublin: Visual Culture, Modernity and the Representation of Urban Space. Ed. Justin Carville. Bern: Peter Lang, 2013. 132-54.
“Drama in Dublin: Premier Picture Palace Application: Lord Mayor’s Views.” Evening Herald 7 Aug. 1914: 2.
Ferriter, Diarmaid. “Holloway, Joseph.” Dictionary of Irish Biography Online. Cambridge UP and Royal Irish Academy, 2009. Web. 30 Sep. 2014.
Holloway, Joseph. Holloway Diaries. National Library of Ireland.
“Masterpiece Theatre.” Evening Telegraph 22 Sep. 1914: 2.
“O’Connell Street Pictures.” Evening Telegraph 15 Sep. 1914: 2.
“What Is a Revue? Manager Tries to Explain It: Drama in Dublin.” Evening Herald 6 Aug. 1914: 3.