This cartoon from the fan magazine Pictures and the Picturegoer (6 Nov. 1915: 154) suggests that children were particularly interested in cinema. Although published in London, the magazine received frequent letters and competition entries from Irish readers, including to its “Young Picturegoer” column. Source: Media History Digital Library.
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 looks at the moral campaign to purify the picture houses.
“Though in our towns we have no theatres or music halls,” noted Cardinal Logue, head of the Irish Catholic church, in a letter published in the Freeman’s Journal on 1 November 1915, “we have the pictures everywhere, and these require close watching” (“Clean Amusements”). November 1915 saw the culmination of some strands of the struggle to regulate Irish cinema, which occurred first between Dublin’s picture-house owners, church groups and city councillors. In a way, of course, this showed that cinema was now too ubiquitous a part of Irish culture to be ignored, as it largely had been by the Catholic church until 1915. The purpose of Logue’s letter was to praise the changed focus of the Dublin Vigilance Committee’s (DVC’s) campaign from “combating unclean and demoralising literature” to “purify[ing] the theatres, music halls and picture houses” (ibid.). Such efforts were especially needed in the case of picture houses because a “great body of those attending them are mere youths and children, and it is to be feared that suggestive and exciting scenes are often presented to them which have a most injurious effect on character and morals” (ibid.).
The timing of the publication of Logue’s letter was no accident but part of a strategy to build a consensus that a distinct layer of Irish film censorship was required. On 2 November, a DVC deputation was permitted to address Dublin Corporation’s Public Health Committee (PHC), the body that issued picture-house licences under the Cinematograph Act (1909) (“Cinematograph Licences in Dublin”). The delegation noted that they had “exercised supervision over the cinema theatres for some time past, and they had to say, with the exception of one particular house, they had no serious complaint to make” (ibid). They discussed their suggested amendments in relation to music, Sunday opening, auditorium lighting, closing on important religious festivals and censorship. PHC chairman James J. Kelly assured them that “he, and the Committee, were in entire sympathy with the views of the Vigilance Committee” and that the PHC “would as far as they could legally go, assist the Vigilance Committee in attaining the objects they had in view” (ibid). The first substantial steps towards a church-sanctioned film censorship had been taken.
Dublin’s Protestant churches were also determined to assert their authority over cinema. A deputation protesting against Sunday opening appeared before the urban council of the Dublin township of Rathmines on 3 November. Although it also included the Catholic parish priest Archdeacon Fricker, it was mainly constituted of Church of Ireland clerics – Ernest H. Lewis Crosby, James Sandys Bird and James Hawthonthwaite – as well as the Methodist minister William B. Lumley (“Rathmines Urban Council”). Three cinemas fell within Rathmines Courcil’s remit: the Princess Cinema and the Town Hall in Rathmines and the Sandford Cinema in Ranelagh. The Rathmines councillors were just as deferential to this deputation as Dublin Corporation had been to the DVC. Chairman John Russell expressed the council’s “very sympathetic feeling with the deputation in the matter” and promised that “[w]hen the time came for the renewal of those licences the Council would try to merit by their action the approval of the deputation” (Paddy, 11 Nov.).
The churches attention extended even to the ways the cinema industry communicated with its audience through advertising. In October, Dublin’s Catholic archbishop, William Walsh had written to the Freeman’s Journal complaining that the advertising hoardings around the city remained “widely open for the display of alluring enticement to evil” (“Objectionable Performances in Dublin Theatres”). “There is surely very little to be gained by the efforts of parents who conscientiously seek to guard their children from the evil influences of lascivious displays in the theatre,” he reasoned, “if some of the most seductive of the sights to be witnessed there are openly displayed along the highways, and even the by ways, of our city” (ibid.). The newspapers – who derived a substantial part of their income from advertising entertainments – had been quick in following up this story about a rival. On the day following the Archbishop’s letter, the Freeman’s Journalhad “made inquiries regarding the powers of the Corporation and the police, and the attitude of the principal firm of billposters in the metropolis, in connection with the display of indecent or suggestive pictorial publications” (“Picture Posters”). It found that a poster censorship committee already existed – or had quickly been formed in answer to the controversy – consisting of theatre and picture-house proprietors and the main billposting company, David Allen and Son. If this suggests a close collaboration between these parties, other developments suggest that complete harmony did not exist. On 8 November 1915, the Irish Court of Appeal affirmed a judgement that William King of Madras Place, Phibsboro, Dublin, was in breach of contract with the firm of David Allen and Son Bill Posting, Ltd. King was ordered to pay £80 to Messrs Allen because they had not been able to put an advertising hoarding on the side wall of the Phibsboro Picture House as agreed (“Phibsborough Picture House”).
However, the churches did not have it all their own way. On 19 November, the Recorder of Dublin – the city’s chief magistrate – struck down an appeal by William Larkin of the DVC against his conviction and fining in October on a charge of offensive and riotous behaviour. This was something of a personal victory for Frederick Sparling, proprietor of the Bohemian Picture in Phibsboro. When Larkin had been arrested on 14 September for his protest at the Bohemian against A Modern Magdalen (US: Life Photo Film, 1915), the case had been summarily dismissed by the magistrate as Larkin had publicly predicted it would be. Having been the victim of Larkin’s protests on previous occasions, however, Sparling was determined to teach him a lesson, so he prosecuted him again. This second prosecution was unprecedented and gave rise to some consequences Larkin had not foreseen. At this second trial, Larkin argued that his protest against A Modern Magdalenwas legitimate because in the film’s so-called mad-cap scene, protagonist Katinka danced topless, a detail the prosecution and most of the witnesses disputed. The case was adjourned for a week while the magistrate viewed the film, and he concluded that it was not indecent or objectionable, imposing a fine and costs on Larkin. The Recorder confirmed this judgement.
More interestingly, in order to prove the charge that Larkin had caused a panic, Sparling called cinema staff and audience members to testify, and Larkin’s lawyers called the DVC members who had been present as defence witnesses. As a result, this is one of the few instances in which the views – or even the names – of ordinary members of an Irish audience were recorded. The court provided a forum for these ordinary audience members to confront the coercive behaviour of the DVC.
Map showing from where members of the Dublin audience travelled from to get to the Bohemian Picture Theatre in Phibsboro on 14 Sep. 1915. Purple stars represent people who supported William Larkin’s account of his protest; green stars represent people who challenged Larkin’s account. Yellow squares represent picture houses in north Dublin.
Like Larkin himself, however, these people have left very few archival traces beyond their names, addresses and professions. In all, fifteen people testified in court, including Larkin, Sparling and Mathewson. The DVC members, for the defence, were Richard Jones, chairman of the Richmond Asylum; Mrs. A Murphy of Capel Street; P.J. Walsh, a Phibsboro accountant; Philip Lavery, a justice of the peace from Armagh; and Peter Tierney, a china and glass merchant of Bolton Street. The cinema staff who testified were the operators William Jones and Scallan; advertising agent Robert Moss; and cashier Rachel Smith. Three “unaffiliated” witnesses also spoke for the prosecution: Mrs. Evans of Grangegorman, civil servant Charles Millen and Daisy Sandes. They said similar things, perhaps best put by the youngest of them, Daisy Sandes, who worked at a retouching studio in Henry Street and lived with her working-class family in an artisan dwelling about ten minutes walk from the Bohemian. “I was amazed,” she commented, when asked about Larkin’s behaviour. “I did not see why anyone should object” (“Scene in Dublin Picture Theatre”). Sandes’ utter rejection of Larkin’s arguments refuted the DVC’s claim to speak for ordinary people too timid and accepting to speak for themselves. It seems also to mark a point at which she and other young working-class men and women were increasingly going to the cinema for their entertainment.
Although Sparling seems to have had little support from other exhibitors, other individual picture-house proprietors and the industry as a whole also responded to these attacks by presenting cinema as a public good. The directors of the Grand Cinema in Blackrock, Co. Dublin, gave their premises on Saturday, 30 October to a local committee who had organized a matinee entertainment that raised over £10 for the Red Cross and St. John’s Ambulance (Paddy, 4 Nov.). Such charitable gestures had long been an important way in which picture-house proprietors had asserted the direct utility of their business to local communities. By November 1915, bringing someone to the cinema was considered socially acceptable not only for children or dating couples. As part of her efforts to support recruiting, Florence Blacker-Douglass invited 90 wives of soldiers in the Irish Guards to meet her for a film shows at Dublin’s Sackville Picture House followed by tea at the nearby D.B.C. restaurant (“Entertainment to Wives of Soldiers”).
Ad for a command performance at the Princess Cinema, Rathmines to mark Cinematograph Trade Ambulance Day, for which patrons were encouraged to attend their favourite cinema.Freeman’s Journal 23 Nov. 1915: 4.
A much more ambitious cooperation of the industry as a whole also occurred in November. Following a very successful event in England on 9 November, Irish representatives of the Cinema Exhibitors’ Association set 23 November as Ireland’s Cinematograph Trade Ambulance Day. On that day, participating picture-house owners agreed to donate a portion – in most cases, all – of their takings to fund ambulances for the war effort. Addressing a meeting of exhibitors from southern counties at Cork’s Metropole Hotel on 19 November, exhibitor David Frame argued that “the trade should associate itself with a scheme ambitious in scope, useful in purpose, and which will be more closely identified with the kinematograph industry, as an industry, rather than with its individual members” (“Kinematograph Trade and the War”) The generous press coverage suggests that Cinema Ambulance Day was a successful public relations event for the industry as a whole. “The public-spirited action of the Cinema proprietors is deserving of the most cordial support,” observed the Irish Times, “and there is no doubt that they will get it in the fullest measure” (Cinema Ambulance Day”). The cinema industry as a whole had aimed “to provide the sum of £30,000 to equip and present a fleet of fifty motor ambulances for Red Cross work at the front, so that every picture-goer should make a special effort to attend his or her favourite picture house to-day” (“Cinema Ambulance Day in Dublin”).
Illustrated ad for The Exploits of Elaine at the Sackville; Evening Telegraph 28 Oct. 1915: 4.
Although such good causes drew crowds on 23 November, the acknowledged ubiquity of cinema in 1915 was based largely on the attractiveness of the films provided. On 18 October, the first episode of The Exploits of Elaine (US: Wharton, 1914)), one of the most popular serials of the period, was released. The trade press had long heralded it arrival with a wide variety of advertisements from distributors Pathé. An article in the Bioscopenoted that the
stories of the film will be published in the News of the World each Sunday, commencing October 17th, and in conjunction with this paper, Messrs. Pathé have arranged to give away to each of the first thousand applicants an “Elaine” hat, which is an exact facsimile of that worn by Miss Pearl White. (“Publicity for ‘The Exploits of Elaine.’”)
Ad for the opening episode of The Exploits of Elaine at Dublin’s Rotunda; Irish Independent 18 Oct. 1915: 4.
This was just the beginning of the publicity stunts arrange for the launch of the serial in Britain. The opening in Dublin was less spectacular. James T. Jameson of the Rotunda had secured first run, and he set his patrons a literary competition, offering in the newspaper ads “£25 for the cleverest epitomised version, or the new literary negative reading of what this extraordinary serial of animated episodes might suggest in the opposite sense of that of original story, and in which could be introduced criticisms of the realisms, or otherwise, of the respective tableaux.”
Paddy, the Irish correspondent at the trade journal Bioscope, had little to say about the Irish launch of The Exploits of Elaine, saving his praise for The Million Dollar Mystery (US: Thanhouser, 1914), another serial that opened at the Rotunda on 22 November. “I had the pleasure of seeing this last Monday, and it held me more enthralled than the first part of any serial ever has,” he revealed. Offering the public two mysteries, it was “the right kind of serial that forces you to come again. It was loudly applauded as only the patrons of the Rotunda know how to applaud” (Paddy, 25 Nov.).
It was such compelling films that helped to make cinema ubiquitous by 1915.
Denis Condon lectures in film at NUI Maynooth.
“Cinema Ambulance Day.” Irish Times 20 Nov. 1915: 9.
“Cinema Ambulance Day in Dublin.” Irish Times 23 Nov. 1915: 3.
“Cinematograph Licences in Dublin.” Irish Times 4 Nov. 1915: 9.
“Clean Amusements: Letter from Cardinal Logue.” Freeman’s Journal 1 Nov. 1915: 6.
“Entertainment to Wives of Soldiers.” Irish Times 6 Nov. 1915: 8.
“Kinematograph Trade and the War: Ambulance Day in Cork.” Cork Examiner 23 Nov. 1915: 6.
“Objectionable Performances in Dublin Theatres: Letter from Archbishop.” Freeman’s Journal 11 Oct. 1915: 4.
Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 4 Nov. 1915: 596; 11 Nov. 1915: 667; 25 Nov. 1915: 960.
“Phibsborough Picture House: Bill Posting Litigation.” Irish Times 9 Nov. 1915: 3.
“Picture Posters for City Theatres and Picture Houses: The Archbishop’s Letter.”Freeman’s Journal 12 Oct. 1915: 8.
“Publicity for ‘The Exploits of Elaine.’” Bioscope 26 Aug. 1915: 969.
“Rathmines Urban Council.” Irish Times 4 Nov. 1915: 2.
“Scene in Dublin Picture Theatre: Question as to the Morality of the Film.” Evening Herald11 Oct. 1915: 5.