Early Irish Cinema: “Would We Ever Have It in Reality?” Ireland a Nation “For Two Days Only” in January 1917
Joseph Holloway spent the last evening of 1916 wandering around Dublin, celebrating the end of a momentous year in Ireland, when he came across a poster for Ireland a Nation (US: Macnamara, 1914). “For a week or more,” the architect and theatre buff observed, “I’ve been reading on the hoardings on a large 15 feet by 9 feet poster bordered with shamrocks – with large ones at angles & printed on green which tells me of the finest picture film ever produced / Ireland a Nation / Nothing like it has been seen before!” (Holloway, 31 Dec. 1916: 1608).
When Waterford-born but New York-based scriptwriter and producer Walter Macnamara had made Ireland a Nation in 1914, the film reflected a very different political situation. Macnamara conceived a film that would trace the history of Irish struggles against British rule from the passing of the Act of Union by the Irish Parliament in 1800 to the passing of the Home Rule bill by Westminster in 1914. He had shot historical scenes – among them the Irish parliament, Robert Emmet’s 1803 rebellion and Daniel O’Connell’s duel with political rival D’Esterre – on location in Ireland and at studios in London, but the film had ended with actuality footage of crowds of Irish nationalists jubilantly welcoming what they thought was the achievement of Home Rule.
The film had been shown in US cities, debuting at New York’s Forty-Fourth Street Theatre on 22 September 1914, but it had not been seen in Ireland (McElravy). The outbreak of World War I had not only caused the suspension of Home Rule, it had also delayed the Irish exhibition of Ireland a Nation. “When Dame Fortune refuses to smile upon a venture,” commented an article in the second issue of Ireland’s first film journal Irish Limelight on the sequence of events that prevented Ireland a Nation reaching the country to date, “things will somehow manage to go wrong if only out of sheer cussedness.” Two prints of the film sent to Ireland at different times had been lost en route: “[I]t is understood that the first copy dispatched by [the Macnamara Co. of New York] was lost with the ill-fated Lusitania; a duplicate copy was substituted, but as this also failed to successfully run the submarine ‘blockade,’ it became necessary to forward a third” (“Between the Spools”).
These delays meant that it was to a Dublin with many new hoardings erected around buildings destroyed during the Easter Rising that the film returned in late 1916. A large green poster with the slogan “Ireland a Nation” emblazoned on it meant something different in this context. “You read it & wonder when it is to be shown & what is to be the nature of it!” Holloway marvelled. “I have heard it whispered that it is a fake – there’s no such film at all, but those who love Ireland thought that a good way to keep ‘Ireland a Nation’ in the public eye. And the wideawake authorities haven’t tumbled to its purpose!”
A week later, however, a new poster near Holloway’s home on Haddington Road confirmed that this was, in fact, a film and providing more details of the coming exhibition. “I saw on hoarding near Baggot St end of Haddington Rd. that – ‘Ireland a Nation’ for ‘one week only’ was announced for Rotunda commencing Monday next & week,” he noted, “& I thought would we ever have it in reality – for ‘one week only’ even.” (Holloway, 5 Jan. 1917). Holloway’s melancholy reflection related to the distant possibilities for a self-governing Irish nation beyond filmic representation, but even a film of Ireland achieving nationhood would prove impossible to show in January 1917.
Frederick Sparling was responsible this poster campaign, after he secured the British and Irish distribution rights to show the film in March 1916. The imposition of martial law in the aftermath of the Rising in April made it impossible to screen the film until late in 1916, when Sparling submitted the film to the military press censor (“Irish Film Suppressed”). The censor wrote back to Sparling on 1 December 1916, allowing exhibition if six cuts were made:
Scene showing interruption of a hillside Mass by soldiers.
Scene showing Sarah Curran roughly handled by soldiers.
Scene of execution of Robert Emmet – from entry of soldiers into Emmet’s cell to lead him away.
Scene of Home Rule Meeting in 1914.
Telegram from Mr. Redmond.
Irish Flag displayed at end of the performance.
The following should also be omitted:—from the titles of scenes shown, (in addition to all titles referring to portions of the film which have been censored as above,) “A price of £100 dead or alive on the head of every priest.” (CSORP.)
This constituted much of the contentious political material, including the actualities of the Home Rule meeting, but Sparling had no choice but to make the cuts. And although he was the proprietor of the suburban Bohemian Picture Theatre, he hired Dublin’s largest picture house, the city-centre Rotunda, which had a capacity of 1,500 people, a third more than the Bohemian (“Irish Film Suppressed”).
Prominent press ads that followed the poster campaign ensured that potential patrons far and near were well informed of the coming shows. Although the Dublin Evening Mail published these ads, this did not stop a Mr Whitehead from the Daily Express office, which published the Mail, writing to the Chief Secretary’s office, enclosing a copy of the ad and warning that “[i]t is an American Cos film & is of a bad type, indeed, the man in charge of it expresses astonishment that it has passed the British Censor” (CSORP). Inspector George Love of the Dublin Metropolitan Police attended the 2-3pm show on the opening afternoon, Monday, 8 January 1917. Love reported that Sparling had adhered to the censor’s stipulations, but his most interesting comments were those about the effect on the audience:
About 100 persons were present at the opening production and the Picture was received with applause throughout, except some slight hissing, when Lord Castlereagh and Major Sirr were exhibited.
The Films deals mainly with Rebel Leaders and their followers being hunted down by the Forces of the Crown and Informers, and has a tendency to revive and perpetuate, incidents of a character, which I think at the present time are most undesirable and should not be permitted.
While Chief Secretary Edward O’Farrell considered Love’s suggestion that the film be banned by the authorities – and a military observer reported on the opening night to Bryan Mahon, the General Officer Commanding British forces in Ireland – Holloway went to another afternoon screening that had a far larger attendance than the sparse 100 that Love reported at the 2pm show. Indeed, because of the queue at the box office of the ground-floor “area,” Holloway ended up on the balcony. However, the film did not impress him. It reminded him of the increasing repertoire of Irish nationalist history plays by Dion Boucicault, J. W. Whitbread, and P. J. Bourke that had been staples of Dublin’s Queen’s Theatre for decades.
Other commentators provided more positive reviews. Perhaps not surprisingly for a nationalist newspaper whose slogan was “Ireland a Nation,” the reviewer in the Freeman’s Journal was enthusiastic, calling the film “[f]rom a historical standpoint, and indeed, from the standpoint of realism, […] undoubtedly excellent” and bound to “attract numerous visitors to the Rotunda during the week” (“Irish History Films”). Although not so wholeheartedly appreciative, the reviewer at the unionist Irish Times confirmed it popularity, noting that “[t]he film, which treated the rebel cause with sympathy, and the music, which included a number of Irish patriotic tunes, were received with loud and frequent applause by the audiences” (“Rotunda Pictures”).
Holloway suggested that although the audience was aware of the film’s limitations, it was determined to make the most of this opportunity to celebrate a still imagined Irish nation. “The audience was willing to applaud national sentiments,” he noted, “but was far more impressed by the words card on the screen than by the way the various characters played their parts before the camera.” Indeed, he believed that the film’s title and intertitles carried particular importance. “Truly the man who thought of the title ‘Ireland a Nation’ was worth his weight in gold to the Film Co that produced it,” he argued. “It is the title and not the film drama will attract all patriotic Dublin to the Rotunda during the week.”
Indeed, he was in no doubt that the film did draw unprecedented crowds to the Rotunda. Passing the picture house again later on Monday evening, he recorded:
I rarely saw anything like the crowds that stormed the Rotunda about eight oclock seeking admission. I am sure several thousands were wedged up against the building […]. The night was piercingly cold but the patient waiters kept themselves warm and in good humour by cheering all who left the building & made room for others behind. On the other side of the streets around the Rotunda crowds of people stood looking at the dense black masses clinging on to the walls of the Rotunda like barnacles to the bottom of a ship
When these later audiences got inside, they were more rowdy than those earlier in the day had been. Love reported that “the Picture was received with applause throughout, except some slight hissing, when lord Castlereagh and Major Sirr were exhibited” and Holloway that the Irish airs played by the augmented orchestra “were taken up by the audience & sung.” As the evening wore on, audience behaviour grew more explicitly political. “At the last performance of the film on Monday night,” the Bioscope reported, “a large section of the audience sang the song, ‘A Nation Once Again’” (“Irish Film Suppressed”). The military observer advised Bryan Mahon that “the film in question was likely to cause disaffection, owing to the cheering of the crowd at portions of the Film, the hissing of soldiers who appeared in the Film and the cries made by the audience” (CSORP).
As a result, Mahon decided to ban the screenings, but on finding that Sparling had sought and got permission from the military censor, he agreed to try cutting the film further and observe how the Tuesday night screening would be received. “The result of the reports of Tuesday night were more adverse than those of Monday night,” O’Farrell noted, “and in consequence Sir B. Mahon issued an order prohibiting the performance of the Film throughout Ireland, which was served on Mr. Sparling at about 1 o/c on Wed. Afternoon” (CSORP).
The order served to Sparling made clear that the audience’s behaviour caused the prohibition:
The reports received from witnesses, of the affect produced on the audience at the display of the above Film last night, the 9th. Inst., and the seditious and disloyal conduct apparently caused thereby, make it clear that the further exhibition of the Film in Ireland is likely to cause disaffection to His Majesty, and to prejudice the recruiting of His Majesty’s forces.
I therefore forbid any further exhibition of the said Film in Ireland, and hereby warn you that any further such exhibition will be dealt with under the Defence of the Realm Consolidated Regulations, 1914.
“The Military only allowed Ireland a Nation ‘for two days only,’ at Rotunda,” Holloway observed. He also noted that even the posters did not escape the general prohibition: “In O’Connell Street a man was pasting green sheets of paper on the announcement on the hoarding of IRELAND A NATION. Only a field of green would soon show where Ireland a nation once proclaimed itself.”
Denis Condon lectures in film at NUI Maynooth
“Between the Spools.” Irish Limelight 1:2 (Feb. 1917): 19.
CSORP/1919/11025. National Archives of Ireland.
Holloway, Joseph. Holloway Diaries. National Library of Ireland.
“The ‘Ireland a Nation’ Film: Criticisms of Historical Inaccuracies.” Irish Limelight 1:2 (Feb. 1917): 3.
“Irish Film Suppressed: ‘Ireland a Nation’: Military Stop Exhibition at Dublin.” Bioscope 18 Jan. 1917.
“Irish History Films: ‘Ireland a Nation’ at the Rotunda.” Freeman’s Journal 9 Jan. 1917: 3.
McElravy, Robert. “‘Ireland a Nation’: Five-Reel Production Giving Irish History in Picture Form.” Moving Picture World 3 Oct. 1914: 67.
“Rotunda Pictures.” Irish Times 9 Jan. 1917: 3.