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 representations of birth control and abortion in Irish cinemas 100 years ago.
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 Bioscopemisnamed 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.
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.
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 Bioscopewas more explicit: “The plot, we understand, introduces the subject of illegal operations, and treats boldly of their physical and moral results.”
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).
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.
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.
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.
If cinema played some part in relieving the misery of the lives of those forced to live Dublin’s slums, it was worth defending.
Denis Condon lectures in film at NUI Maynooth
“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.