Early Irish Cinema: “A Photo-Play of Unique National Interest”: Seeing Knocknagow in Irish Cinemas, January-April 1918

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 introduces Knocknagow, “the most significant film made in Ireland during the silent period.”


On 22 April 1918, Knocknagow  (Ireland: FCOI, 1918) opened at Dublin’s Empire Theatre after a tour of many of Ireland’s towns and cities.

Ad for Knocknagow in the Irish Limelight Feb. 1918: 10-11.

In inviting Irish exhibitors to the trade show of the long-awaited Knocknagow on 6 February 1918 at Dublin’s Sackville Street Picture House, the Film Company of Ireland (FCOI) described the film as “a photo-play of unique national interest.” Knocknagowwould become the most significant film made in Ireland during the silent period. Appearing just over two months after the three-reel comedy Rafferty’s RiseKnocknagow was very different from anything FCOI had yet released. An epic nine-reel (8,700-feet or 2 hours 25 minutes at 16fps) adaptation of the best-selling Irish novel of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Knocknagow was by far the FCOI’s most ambitious work to date. Part of the national interest of the film may have been in making accessible a novel that some critics have argued was very widely bought but very little read (Donovan). Indeed, when in August 1917 the film was announced and a stage adaptation was proving popular, the Evening Herald’s Man About Town wondered “what the opinion of the author of Knocknagow would be if he saw his novel on the cinema screen, or its dramatized version drawing crowded houses in the theatres throughout the country.”

Tailor Phil Lahy (Arthur Shields) fits out Mat the Thrasher (Brian Magowan) for a new coat in Knocknagow. Image and essays on the film available here.

One of the things he would likely have thought is that the film was very selective in what it took from the novel. “The story meanders along through over six hundred pages its placidity disturbed by very little of what the playwright dubs ‘action,’” the Evening Telegraph critic JAP noted of the novel in his review of the trade show.

To extract from the [novel’s] 600 pages enough incidents for a photoplay – which, above all things, must have virile action, – and to contrive that there should be sufficient continuity to sustain interest throughout a half-dozen reels, was a task to daunt the most expert scenario writer. (“Gossip of the Day.”)

Although impressed by the film in other ways, particularly the acting, JAP did not seem to think that the scenario attributed to Mrs. N. T. Patton had been particularly successful in delivering virile action. Indeed, two weeks later, although no long referring to Knocknagow, he argued that “the best books should not be filmed. To turn a book into a photo-play must be always an unsatisfactory business” (27 Feb.). However, in the trade-show review, he advised that “the action could be brisked up by sub-editing it down from eight reels to six, the sub-titles would be improved by more frequent quotations from the book and better choice of incidents would have helped to get more of the ‘atmosphere.’”

J.M. Carre as the villainous land agent Beresford Pender.

The version of Knocknagow that survives today is about an hour shorter than the original cut. As a result, it is difficult to say exactly what Irish audiences saw in early 1918, but a general description probably captures many of its essential features. Set in 1848, the film concerns the relationships among a large cast of characters who live on or adjacent to the lands of the absentee landlord Sir Garrett Butler, particularly in the village of Kilthubber and the hamlet of Knocknagow. Prominent among these are Mat “the Thrasher” Donovan (Brian Magowan); the tailor Phil Lahy (Arthur Shields), whose sickly daughter Nora (Kathleen Murphy) is betrothed to turfman Billy Heffernan (Breffni O’Rourke); large tenant farmer Maurice Kearney (Dermot O’Dowd) whose daughter Mary Kearney (Nora Clancy) is attracted to theology student Arthur O’Connor (Fred O’Donovan, who also directed); and villainous land agent Beresford Pender (J.M. Carre), who schemes to remove tenants from the land to make way for more lucrative cattle grazing. The film interweaves scenes of rural work and leisure (ploughing, tailoring, Christmas celebrations, a wedding, a hurling match, a fair) with more strongly plotted sequences, such as the developing love stories or Pender’s strategies to evict certain tenants and frame Mat for robbery. “With a true appreciation of the artistic,” the reviewer in Cavan’s Anglo-Celt contended

the various degrees of tone have been lifted from the novel, and placed on the screen just as Kickham would have done it himself. The happy peasantry, the prowess of the youth at the hurling match, the hammer-throwing contest, the unexpected “hunt,” the love scenes and the comedy – the life as it was before the agent of the absentee landlord came like a dark shadow on the scene, and with crowbar and torch, laid sweet Knocknagow in ruins – all were depicted by the very perfect actors who made up the cast. (“‘Knocknagow’ on the Film.”)

Pender’s eviction of the Brians, a farm labouring family, is depicted in detail, with titles superimposed on the images of the land agent dancing before their burning cottage.

Apart from transposing a bestselling Irish novel into an accessible screen format, two other definitions of “national interest” seem to be particularly relevant to thinking about the release of Knocknagow in early 1918: the commitment to local exhibition and the politics of Irish nationalism. The first of these is illustrated by the fact that the trade show had, unusually, followed rather than preceded a special premiere run in Clonmel from 30 January to 2 February, and the film’s first run after the trade show would not be in the cities of Dublin or Belfast but in Carlow on 18-19 February. The Clonmel opening was designed to acknowledge that the film had been shot almost entirely in the Tipperary locations of Clonmel and Mullinahone associated with Kickham’s source novel. However, given that audiences not only in Clonmel and Carlow but in many other small towns saw the film before it opened to the public in Dublin on 22 April underscores FCOI’s commitment to a definition of national interest that associated it first and foremost with small-town Ireland.

The importance of the Tipperary landscape is emphasized at several points of the film, including a sequence of iris shots in which Mat says farewell to Ireland as he makes ready to emigrate.

Other aspects of the exhibition of Knocknagow deserve discussion, but the 22 April opening date of the film in Dublin also marked a turning point in Irish national politics. That day was flanked by two days of demonstrations against the conscription of Irish men into the British army. Sunday, 21 April represented a particular Catholic church influenced protest, with mass meeting and fiery speeches in every parish in the country, while Tuesday, 23 April was the day chosen by trade unions for a general strike that meant, among other things, that “there were neither newspapers nor cinema shows” during a “universal cessation of work throughout Nationalist Ireland” (“Labour’s Protest”). The British government’s determination to extend conscription to Ireland would finally succeed in uniting the warring factions of Irish nationalism against it.

Newsreel special of the by-election in South Armagh, Dublin Evening Mail 4 Feb 1918: 2.

This turning point of the conscription crisis came after the film’s release in much of the country, however, and it was in a political context of the rise of Sinn Féin that the film was produced and initially exhibited. In late 1917 and early 1918, the long stable link between the achievement of nationhood and the Home Rule of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) was severely under threat from the vision of a more radical independence offered in the wake of the 1916 Rising by the new Sinn Féin party. The set pieces of this struggle from the time Knocknagow began shooting in Tipperary in the early summer of 1917 and through the period of its exhibition in late winter and spring 1918 were a series of six by-elections in which Sinn Féin ran candidates in constituencies where the IPP had previously held Westminster seats, winning three of them. After losing four seats in all to Sinn Féin in 1917, the IPP may have seemed to be regaining the momentum by winning the three by-elections in early 1918, but one of these included the Waterford seat left vacant by the death on 6 March of the man most associated with Home Rule, IPP leader John Redmond. Cinema audiences could follow these developments through the newsreel footage of the by-elections and Redmond’s funeral provided by Irish Events and exhibitors such as William Kay of Dublin’s Rotunda who filmed these events.

General Film Supply sought sales of its film of the Funeral of the Late John Redmond, M.P. beyond its usual Irish Events network by placing this ad with the entertainment ads in the Evening Telegraph of 11-12 Mar. 1918.

As well as these party-political events, Knocknagow was released in a country that was experiencing increasing incidents of local unrest of many kinds, with a large number of prosecutions for cattle driving and for illegal drilling by Irish Volunteers, as well as a hunger strike by Sinn Féin prisoners in Mountjoy Jail. In early March, County Clare was placed under martial law, and Major-General W. Fry issued a proclamation “prohibiting the holding of any meeting or procession within the Dublin Metropolitan Police Area between March 6 and March 27,” a period that included St. Patrick’s Day (“Proclamation”). In one high-profile case, men arrested for illegal drilling in Dundalk refused to recognize the court and sang “The Soldier’s Song” to disrupt proceedings. This tactic became so common that one defendant (Michael Murray) in a Clare cattle-driving case refused to recognize “this concert” (“Court Scene”). However, when during the Dundalk case, a variety company sang the same “Sinn Féin” songs at one of the local picture house, a section of the audience left in protest (“Round Up”). More seriously, members of an audience at Limerick’s Tivoli Picture House on 4 March became victims of violence when 15 to 18 soldiers who had been involved in running battles with young men in the street burst into the auditorium and attacked the crowded audience at random with sticks and truncheons, injuring many, including the musical director (“Soldiers & People in Conflict”).

Mat leads the Knocknagow hurling team for a match that the Derry Journal reviewer thought was “a topsy-turvey affair, resembling a rugby scramble more than a game of caman” (“‘Knock-na-Gow’ at the Opera House”). Some more on that aspect of the film here.

In these circumstances in which, it seems, politics could irrupt into the auditorium at any moment, Knocknagow looks like quite an indirect, even tame intervention. The FCOI’s choice of Kickham’s novel as the basis for its first landmark film seems, on the one hand, an overtly nationalist statement: its author was a former president of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and one of the best known Irish revolutionaries of the latter half of the nineteenth century. On the other hand, the nature of the book – rich in detail of Irish country life in the 1840s but also sprawling and sentimental rather than overtly political – was such that it could be adapted without courting political controversy. As such, the film contrasts with the films made in Ireland between 1910 and 1914 by US filmmakers Sidney Olcott and Gene Gauntier for Kalem and subsequently their own production companies, some of which openly feature armed political rebellion against Britain, albeit that these films are also set in the past.

ArthurO’Connor and Mary Kearney pursue their romance.

This is not to argue that FCOI was politically conservative but that the company had to negotiate strict censorship. The attempt to show Ireland a Nation (US: Macnamara, 1914) in Dublin in January 1917 or even the more recent controversy over the potential banning of the Finn Varra Maa pantomime had shown that to have produced a film that the authorities judged to have been overtly nationalistic would undoubtedly have been to see the film immediately banned under the particularly strict wartime censorship provisions of the Defence Against the Realm Act. Apart from anything else, the banning of Knocknagow would have been a financial disaster for the already struggling FCOI.

Scenario competition in Irish Limelight Dec 1917: 11.

In this context, Kickham’s work took on a renewed importance in its ability to subtly re-articulate a familiar set of representations in a political way through its association with the author’s republicanism. Despite its setting in the mid-19th century, Knocknagow still resonated with Irish audiences, as the popularity of the stage adaptation shows. And 1918 would be the year of Kickham film adaptations: with a similar setting in time and place, Kickham’s other major novel Sally Cavanagh would be adapted by J. A. McDonald for a scenario competition run by the Irish Limelight in early 1918. Given that Knocknagow’s director Fred O’Donovan joined Limelight editor Jack Warren in judging the competition, it is perhaps not surprising that McDonald’s scenario, Untenanted Graves, won, but its seems never to have been produced (“Untenanted Graves”).

Films made in Ireland by US filmmakers Sidney Olcott and Gene Gauntier for Kalem dominated this list of Irish films available to Irish exhibitors through Dublin-based General Film Supply; Irish Limelight Dec. 1917: 18.

As the Kickham film that was made, Knocknagow in itself, and in the company’s rhetoric around it, emphasized its embeddedness in particular Irish locations that were different from the ones popularized by previous, foreign filmmakers in Ireland, especially the Killarney of the enduringly popular Olcott-Gauntier films. Unlike Olcott and Gauntier, the FCOI filmmakers were – predominantly – Irish born, and the company was based in Dublin. In keeping with this rhetoric, local exhibition was of more than usual importance to Knocknagow. FCOI had opened previous films in regional picture houses, despite the claim by the Dame Street Picture Theatre in Dublin that all the company’s productions could be seen there first. But for Knocknagow, regional exhibition was a part of its national significance.

Ad for premiere of Knocknagow at Magner’s Theatre, Clonmel; Nationalist 26 Jan. 1918: 6.

Indeed, successful regional exhibition in Ireland was to be part of the promotion of the film with audiences and exhibitors abroad. On 13 April, while Knocknagow was showing in Derry, Dublin’s Evening Herald published a brief interview from its drama critic Jacques with FCOI producer James Mark Sullivan. Sullivan was on the cusp of bringing the FCOI films to America (on the film in America, see here and here), and Jacques quoted him on the company’s intentions:

“We desire,” he says, “to show Ireland sympathetically; to get away from the clay pipe and the knee breeches; to show Ireland’s rural life, with pride in the same; to show Ireland’s metropolitan life intelligently, depicting the men and women of the 20th century – in short, Ireland at its best in every walk of human endeavour.”

This may have been his desire but if it had any basis in a reality beyond advertising rhetoric, it must have referred to the earlier FCOI films and not KnocknagowKnocknagow persisted in representing the Irish of the mid-19th century and doing so in familiar ways, including costumed in knee breeches. In addition, Sullivan made specific claims about the way that Knocknagow was being welcomed in Ireland “like no other picture was ever received in Ireland or out of Ireland before. From every place where it has once been shown,” he contended,

we are receiving return bookings—a remarkable thing in the case of a picture, though very ordinary in that of a play or opera. For instance, the city of Limerick gave us four bookings, and I question if any other picture every received over two. The same is true of Waterford, Clonmel, Cork, Carlow, and other towns. This week we are breaking all records in Waterford. I mention these facts to indicate that there is prospect of promise and permanency in our enterprise.

The ad for Knocknagow at Derry’s Opera House was dwarfed by an ad for the opening of the city’s newest picture house, the Rialto, on 29 April. Derry Journal 12 Apr. 1918: 2.

Although the surviving evidence in Ireland’s regional newspapers does not quite support Sullivan’s attempts to boost Knocknagow in advance of its Dublin opening, the film had been shown – or in the case of Limerick, was about to be shown – in the towns he named. To clarify, before its week-long run at the Empire Theatre in Dublin (22-27 Apr.), the film was shown at Magner’s Theatre in Clonmel (30 Jan.-2 Feb.), the Sackville Picture Theatre in Dublin (trade show, 6 Feb.), the Cinema Palace in Carlow (18-19 Feb.), the Town Hall Cinema in Cavan (25-27 Feb.), the Cinema in Kilkenny (6-7 Mar.), the Opera House in Cork (18-23 Mar.), the Coliseum in Waterford (1-6 Apr.), the Opera House in Derry (8-13 Apr.), the Empire Theatre in Belfast (15-20 Apr.), the Shannon Cinema in Limerick (15-17 Apr.) the Picturedrome in Tralee (18-20 Apr.) and the Town Hall in Galway (22-24 Apr.).

Anglo-Celt 23 Feb. 1918: 7.

survey of the reception of Knocknagow in the run up to the Dublin opening has shown something of the way in which the film resonated with audiences around the country. It makes clear that the film was certainly popular with Irish cinemagoers, with local critics consistently praising its fidelity to Kickham’s novel, the quality of the acting and the beauty of the Tipperary scenery. However, few reviews mentioned the film’s contemporary political relevance. Indeed, some suggested that audiences abroad would be particularly impressed by the film, including the Anglo-Celt‘s reviewer, who subtitled his notice “A Picture Play that Will Create a Furore in America” (“‘Knocknagow’ on the Film”).

Despite such potentially politically sensitive scenes as the eviction, this was probably due to the fact that such events were depicted in the past, safely distanced, with Cork Evening Echo emphasizing that the film would attract “all those who take an interest in the economic and social development which has taken place in this country during the past two generations” (“Opera House”). These events had happened “many years ago” even for those such as the Evening Herald’s Jacques, for whom the film vividly recalled personal memories of “the cabin doors broken and the furniture flung out, and the poor half-dressed occupants lying on the roadside amid the wreckage of their home.”

An illustrated intertitle introduces the eviction scene, emphasizing its importance.

It was only really in Galway that a critic saw the film’s immediate political relevance by arguing that it

pointed a topical moral at the present time. We saw the evictions, the crowbar brigades, the burnings, the landlord oppression of 70 years ago, the attempt to wipe out a race. Such memories – only of the other day – as it revived scarcely accommodated the mind of the beholder to the nation of conscription. (“Town Hall.”)

By the time this reviewer was writing on or about 26 April, conscription had become the politically unifying issue for nationalists that it had not been earlier in Knocknagow’s run.

While FCOI could not have foreseen such events, the company enhanced its connection to the local audience in many of the places Knocknagow was shown by having members of the cast sing at screenings. This was a unique feature of the film’s exhibition in Ireland. Film actors had on rare occasions attended screenings of their films, but they did not contribute to the events’ live music. Brian Magowan, the film’s main star and an actor familiar with musical theatre, appeared most often, regularly accompanied by fellow cast member Breffni O’Rourke. This was not Magowan’s first vocal accompaniment of a FCOI film; he had sung at the premiere of the company’s first film, O’Neill of the Glen. In the case of Knocknagow, however, the FCOI gave this feature special prominence by having Magowan and O’Rourke, dressed in character, sing folk songs connected with the film. Although they did not appear at every venue where the film was shown, and of course, they could not have when the film was showing simultaneously in geographically remote locations, Magowan’s and O’Rourke’s live appearances were regular features of the first run of the film in Ireland.

While ploughing a field with a view of Slievenamon (mountain), Mat pauses to sing “The Farmer’s Boy,” with an intertitle helpfully providing musical notation and the song’s refrain.

Their earliest appearance seems to have been in Cavan, where the Anglo-Celt reported that “[a]n interesting feature of the entertainment was that Mr. J. McGowan, who, as ‘Mat the Thrasher’ was the hero on the film, appeared each evening in the flesh and sang some old Irish ballads in very charming voice, while Mr. Breffni O’Rourke (‘Bill Heffenan’ in the play) gave some traditional Irish lays and witty stories” (“‘Knocknagow’ on the Film”). Magowan most important contribution was “Slievenamon,” a song about the Tipperary mountain whose lyrics Kickham had composed. The centrality of this song to the FCOI’s conception of the ideal accompaniment of the film is underlined by the reproduction of Magowan’s arrangement of the song for voice and piano that was included in a programme for a later (probably 1919) run of the film (NLI).

The film has many musical scenes, including this one in which Billy Heffernan plays the flute while the Lahys dance.

The reviews are unclear on whether they sang before, after or during the projection of the film, but the film itself includes moments that motivate vocal accompaniment. In an early scene of the film, Mat is introduced by an intertitle and then shown ploughing a field in long shot. In a mid-shot, he turns around to the camera, and an intertitle appears with a musical stave and the refrain from the folk song “The Farmer’s Boy.” The cut back to Mat shows him singing animatedly before he returns to his ploughing in the shadow of Slievenamon. These on-screen cue might provide the place for Magowan to sing or they might encourage the audience to sing these popular tunes. A similar series of shots occurs later when tailor Phil Lahy sings “The Black Horse,” whose opening lines are printed on an intertitle.

Made and released during a fraught historical moment, Knocknagow sought to engage its audiences with a bestselling literary text and popular songs and involve them in the process of readjusting the representation of the Irish on screen.

Denis Condon lectures in film at NUI Maynooth.

Contact: denis.j.condon@nuim.ie


“Court Scene: Clare Cattle Drivers Refuse to Recognise ‘this Concert.’” Dublin Evening Mail 16 Mar. 1918: 3.

Donovan, Stephen. “Introduction: Ireland’s Own Film.” Screening the Past 33 (2012). Available at <http://www.screeningthepast.com/2012/02/introduction-ireland%E2%80%99s-own-film/&gt;

Jacques. “Knocknagow Filmed: Wonderful Irish Picture of Storied Incident.” Irish Limelight Apr. 1918: 5.

JAP. “Gossip of the Day: Film Version of Kickham’s Most Famous Novel.” Evening Telegraph 7 Feb. 1918: 2.

—. “Gossip of the Day: The Present Fashion in Films.” Evening Telegraph 27 Feb. 1918: 2.

“‘Knock-Na-Gow’ at the Opera House.” Derry Journal 10 Apr. 1918: 4.

“‘Knocknagow’ on the Film: A Picture Play that Will Create a Furore in America.” Anglo-Celt 2 Mar. 1918: 6.

“Labour’s Protest.” Freeman’s Journal 24 Apr. 1918: 2.

The Man About Town. “Thing Seen and Heard.” Evening Herald 22 Aug. 1917: 2; 9 Mar. 1918: 2.

NLI (National Library of Ireland). MS 50,000/272/82, Liam O’Leary Archive. Programme for Knocknagow, n.d.

“Opera House.” Evening Echo 14 Mar. 1918: 2.

“Proclamation: Processions Forbidden for the Next Three Weeks in the Dublin Area.” Dublin Evening Mail 7 Mar. 1918: 3.

“A Round Up: Many Volunteers Arrested.” Evening Telegraph 12 Mar. 1918: 3.

“Soldiers & People in Conflict: Scenes in Limerick.” Irish Independent 6 Mar. 1918: 3.

“Town Hall.” Galway Express 27 Apr. 1918: 4.

“The Untenanted Graves.” Irish Limelight Apr. 1918: 13.





Fred O’Donovan: not just Knocknagow


Fred O’Donovan: not just Knocknagow



Charles Barr examines the career of Fred O’Donovan, the director of the Film Company of Ireland’s ambitious feature-length adaptation (1918) of Charles Kickham’s novel Knocknagow.

O’Donovan’s career began as an Abbey Theatre actor from 1908, and then director, after which he was a freelance actor in theatre, film and radio, before going on to become prolific pioneer director of live drama for BBC Television, in 1938-39, and again, after the wartime closedown, from 1946 till his death in 1952. He was celebrated for his long-take one-camera style, of which there are fascinating anticipations in Knocknagow.

This article derives from an all-day event organised by Ruth Barton at TCD in May 2016, in honour of Professor Kevin Rockett on his retirement. Fifteen papers were presented by a range of Kevin’s associates and admirers. This one is given topical interest by the approaching centenary in 2018 of the landmark film of Knocknagow.



I owe my interest in Fred O’Donovan to two notable scholars. One is, appropriately, Kevin Rockett, the other is John Wyver.


Sometime in the early 1980s I heard Kevin give a pioneering film history talk in Dublin, and became aware for the first time of a pre-Independence Irish cinema; in 1987 came the Cinema in Ireland book, after which I watched the British archival print of Knocknagow (1918). That interest lay dormant for 25 years until the film acquired a sudden new prominence, as subject of an issue of the Australian online journal Screening the Past. Even that made little reference to O’Donovan as the film’s director, but the omission was soon rectified, for me, by encountering John Wyver’s work-in-progress on his career as a director of live drama in the early days of BBC Television, in the late 1930s and, after the wartime closedown, for another six years up to his death in 1952. Wyver’s initial online essay begins thus: ‘Among major creative figures in British television drama, there are few who are as forgotten, as lost and as neglected as Fred O’Donovan.’ A main reason for this obscurity is the fact that no example of his work survives, since recording of the electronic image did not become seriously feasible until the year after his death. But to call him ‘a major creative figure’ in TV may be no exaggeration.


Could this really be the same Fred O’Donovan? There is more than one media figure of that name, as a Google search at once confirms. But the director of Knocknagow did indeed go on to become a pioneer television director. He had been a central figure at the Abbey Theatre for a decade from 1908: as an actor in Dublin and frequently on tour, and latterly as director of plays and, for a short time, of the theatre overall, before he left in early 1919. Nearly two decades later he began his equally intensive association, either side of the war years, with BBC TV. How can these two distinct phases be linked, in personal career terms and also in cultural and aesthetic terms?  Wyver had established that he stayed active in the interim, in a much less settled way, as a freelance actor and director, mainly in England, for theatre and, increasingly, radio, and playing occasional small parts in films; and he traces his TV career assiduously through BBC files and through printed records, mainly the weekly Radio Times and intermittent press reviews. These show O’Donovan quickly becoming noted for a distinctive TV-studio strategy. He preferred ‘to use just a single camera to shoot very lengthy scenes, often lasting 20 minutes or more’.  A contemporary commentator on his work noted that  ‘One-camera production demands the highest degree of precision, and when perfect co-ordination is achieved between cast, cameraman and producer the result is often a smoother and more polished presentation than the more complicated many-angle technique.’


Already in Knocknagow there are striking anticipations of this strategy. The print we have is a bit of mess, uneven in visual quality and with evident gaps that at times make the narrative hard to follow. Even allowing for this, there are ways in which the film seems ‘primitive’. With Ireland offering no access to a film studio, interiors had to be open to the elements in order to get adequate light, and tablecloths are seen to flutter in the breeze. There is an absence of point-of-view shots when we might expect them, and more generally of shot-reverse-shot constructions. Typically of its Hollywood-centric viewpoint, Variety, when it eventually got to review the film, was ready to patronise it, seeing it as stylistically backward for 1921. It had of course had been shot four years earlier, in 1917, the precise year which historians have seen as a decisive transitional point into the mature ‘classical’ system: the standard 1985 book on Classical Hollywood Cinema by David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson carries the subtitle ‘Film Style and Production from 1917’. It is not surprising if Ireland, with its lack of a studio and of any kind of solid native industry, in some ways lagged behind. But the standard Hollywood way is not the only one, and many scenes in Knocknagow embody an attractive alternative. For much of the film’s length, O’Donovan focuses on conveying maximum information and affect without cutting within scenes, or moving the camera, rather in the manner of the early work of D.W. Griffith (ahead of Birth of a Nation) or of Victor Sjostrom in Sweden, both of whom had, like him, long experience in theatre. Whether or not he would have gone on, like them, to develop a more fragmented style we cannot tell, since he directed no further films; the evidence of his TV work suggests that he would have done so in a limited way at most, and that he could indeed have gone on, given improved resources and support, to become a distinctive stylistic presence within cinema, as he later became in early television.


I shall focus on three early scenes and one late one.


Knocknagow opens with a slow pan in long shot across the Tipperary landscape. Then a title: ‘They speak friendly greetings one day in old Kilthubber, not seeing the  cloud in their sky, which as yet lies low on their horizon.’ A street scene then illustrates the title. A lot of care has gone in to the staging of this simple functional one-shot introduction. The camera is set at what Barry Salt, an early historian of film style, has termed the ‘cinematic angle’, placed at an angle to the setting and people, a rich variety of whom wander past: the placement allows us to see them, but does not block their movement, and there is incidental action to notice in doorways deep in the frame, enhancing the sense of a community (Fig 1). The shot ends (Fig 2) with one man coming a bit closer to the camera and veering off, separate from the friendly others: later we will get to know him as Pender the land agent, the ‘cloud in their sky’, but for now the visual hint is still restrained and mild, matching the line about the cloud being still ‘low on their horizon’.



Fig 1


Fig 2


Soon after this comes the first meeting between identified characters. Again it is a one-shot exterior scene with fixed camera, which this time observes from square-on. From the left of frame comes one couple, Mary Kearney and her mother, and from the right of frame another: Arthur O’Connell, played by O’Donovan himself, accompanied by the priest who has befriended him (Fig 3). Introductions are made, and the two young people retire to the background to begin an intimacy that will lead at the end of the film to marriage. Through the space thus opened up between the older and younger couples come first, from the left, a pair of passer-by girls (Fig 4), and then from the right a horse and cart driven by the film’s other romantic lead, Mat (Fig 5). He stops to offer Mary and her mother a lift, goodbyes are said, and the cart exits left; the two men watch it go (Fig 6), and finally exit right themselves.



Fig 3


Fig 4


Fig 5


Fig 6

This is plainly a theatrical kind of ‘blocking’, with the use of upstage and downstage areas, and entrances and exits from and into the wings, a system here lucidly carried over into cinema with the asset of its fixed spectator positioning – and of palpable location space. This factor is exploited more fully in the scene that comes  shortly after, still only eight minutes into the film, again featuring Arthur and Mat.



Fig 7


Fig 8


Here, they both walk towards us along a country lane, Arthur being some 50 yards in front. Successively, they stop to have a word with the comic figure of Barney, who is leading his donkey-cart along the road in the other direction. At the start of the shot (Fig 7) Barney enters from back left to be accosted by Arthur, who asks for directions and moves on; meanwhile Mat has been walking steadily from deep in the shot, and himself speaks to Barney (Fig 8), looking out beyond the camera as he refers to Arthur, now out of shot, and to his love for Mary; Mat in turn exits, and we cut to Mary in her garden. Throughout this shot, the camera has again been static. It is a pity in a way that it is broken up by two dialogue titles, but the shot/scene – plan-séquence in French terms – is still very pleasurable, in line with the pleasure one feels that O’Donovan and colleagues must have felt in setting it up and executing it, playing with space within the frame, and also beyond it in the unseen space behind the camera. How satisfying it is to have placed Mat so precisely in the distance and given him the cue to start walking at just the right moment. It doesn’t seem forced, because the road is straight and narrow; there is only one realistic place to put the camera, and how effective it is to let it run.


Putting the three scenes together, one senses a real exploratory relish in covering so much in single shots, and in handling space and movement in a variety of ways, the composition and movement being successively diagonal, lateral, and direct towards camera. Impressive in a different way is the much slower, solemn three-minute interior scene, much later in the film, around the bed of the youthful Norah Lahy, who is dying from tuberculosis.



 Fig 9


Fig 10


The master shot (Fig 9) encompasses the whole space, but O’Donovan does not make a fetish of the plan-séquence, and cuts unobtrusively in the middle of the scene to a somewhat tighter shot (Fig 10) before ending back on the wider one. The takes must have been shot successively rather than by two cameras simultaneously, but strict continuity of time and angle is observed, and it feels like a single take. The mise-en-scene is very precise, incorporating important background detail and some movement of characters around the bed; O’Donovan is again clearly drawing on his Abbey Theatre staging experience while exploiting the greater closeness and control of viewpoint enabled by cinema.


The film’s cast is worth attention. The deathbed scene has in fact contained a third set-up, a single brief cut-in – still looking in the same direction – to frame Norah’s grieving father (Fig 11). He is played by Arthur Shields, who like O’Donovan had a long Abbey Theatre career. In the background of his shot, as of the other shots, playing Norah’s lover Billy, is Breffni O’Rourke (spelling of his name varies), who was also, more briefly, an Abbey actor; he and Shields and O’Donovan were on stage together there in November 1916 in The Playboy of the Western World, not long after Shields had been released from the prison camp where he was sent for his role in the occupation of the Post Office in the Rising of Easter week.


Shields made no more films until John Ford took him to Hollywood in 1936 as assistant director of his film of The Plough and the Stars, and to play the role based on Pearse (Fig 12); thereafter he had a steady career in American cinema and TV. O’Rourke became a prolific character actor in British films for some years up to his death in 1947; his weightiest role is in the Launder-Gilliat comedy-thriller I See a Dark Stranger (1946, set in 1944). Like Shields in real life and in the Ford film, his character was active in the Rising, but his role in this British film three decades later is to serve British purposes, assuring Deborah Kerr’s militantly anti-British  Irishwoman that all of that bad feeling is now history, and that the annoyance of Partition is sure to be sorted out in friendly fashion once the war is over (Fig 13). Something very similar happens with the young Cyril Cusack, who vigorously plays the young son of Knocknagow’s evicted O’Brien family (Fig 14). With virtually no more Irish films to be part of for decades after, he too becomes a familiar British film presence, available likewise to serve British ideological interests when required, as in another film set in 1944, The Man who Never Was (1955). As an Irish taxi-driver in London (Fig 15), he receives and supports another Irishman, a pro-Nazi spy – played by Stephen Boyd, Irish actor of a later generation – who has been sent from Berlin to attempt to unravel British plans ahead of D-Day (Fig 16).



Fig 11


             Fig 12


Fig 13


      Fig 14


 Fig 15


Fig 16


The point of this is to reinforce what we already know to be the importance of Knocknagow, a landmark film ‘made in Ireland by Irish men and women’ at a pivotal historical moment, which for complicated reasons led nowhere, so that several of its great talents went on to serve other cinemas, as well as Irish and other theatres. Among them Fred O’Donovan himself.


It is possible that recordings exist of some of his radio productions, particularly from the war years. But almost certainly the only visual footage to survive, after Knocknagow, derives from his minor acting roles in some British films of the 1930s and 1940s. Only two are of any real interest. Ourselves Alone (1936) is a rare film of the period to be made mainly by Irish men – but not, now, by Irish women, and in England rather than Ireland, though it is set in the rural south during the War of Independence. Director is the Belfast-born Brian Desmond Hurst, who wrote the script in tandem with Abbey Theatre playwright Denis Johnston; a number of the cast are Irish, including Niall McGinnis as the local IRA leader, Abbey veteran Harry Hutchinson as an informer, and O’Donovan as barman at the pub that functions as a nationalist HQ.  He takes the lead in hiding guns when Black and Tans mount a raid, and has a great moment (Fig 17) when their officer demands a glass of porter, and complains of it being undrinkably sour: the barman responds that ‘Maybe it’s the blood that does be pouring into the waters of the Liffey these days that makes it so’, and turns his back contemptuously.


A year later he has an uncredited role in the comedy-thriller Young and Innocent. He is just about identifiable as a detective helping to investigate the murder of a woman washed up on the beach, at the start; only for a brief moment is his face visible beneath his hat, and he does not reappear (Fig 18). The director is Alfred Hitchcock, and that connection will be worth returning to.



    Fig 17


Fig 18


His main work meanwhile has continued to be in theatre. It’s impossible to know, pending new biographical evidence, whether he will have regretted leaving the intensity of the Abbey and Ireland for a less rooted career in England, but he certainly stayed busy, as is demonstrated by a trawl through the records. To sum up: he worked variously as actor and director, on long commercial runs and more specialist short seasons, and on Irish and non-Irish drama.


Many times between 1921 and 1934 he is found linking up with the London-based Irish Players, Abbey exiles who had left before he did, playing alongside actors like Arthur Sinclair, Sarah Allgood and her sister Maire O’Neill for runs of several weeks. 1921 and 1930, as Christy in J.M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. 1926 and 1930, as Jack Clitheroe in Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars. 1927 and 1934, in O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, latterly as Joxer Daly. Occasionally he directs as well. There is nothing Irish after 1934 apart from three short plays by Yeats and Lady Gregory, a few performances of each in specialist venues. But O’Donovan makes up for this in a big way when he moves into Television.


If one continuity between his years in Dublin and, decades later, with BBC TV is the renewal of the long-take aesthetic of Knocknagow, another is his privileging of Abbey playwrights.


His first work for the newly-launched BBC TV service, in 1936, is an acting role, as Michael Mikell in the short play by Lady Gregory, The Workhouse Ward. He had himself created this role as early as 1908, soon after he joined the Abbey company, and played it frequently thereafter in Dublin and London.


Once he joins the small BBC staff, he continues to direct Abbey material, presumably by his own choice. Abbey plays make up about a quarter of his output in the years that follow. In summary:


Lady Gregory          3 plays (+ two of her translations from French)

J.M. Synge              3

W.B. Yeats              2

Sean O’Casey          2

Lennox Robinson     2

Denis Johnston        2


The two most ambitious productions are of Juno and the Paycock in 1938, and of The Playboy of the Western World in 1946. Floor plans of the former survive in the BBC archives. Critics at the time were impressed by the effects achieved by depth of field, even on the tiny screens of that era.


It must have been a strange experience for O’Donovan, in his fourth production after TV resumed in 1946, to direct The Playboy. He had himself played the youth of the title, Christy Mahon, more often, surely, than any other actor has ever done, starting in 1909. W.G. Fay had originated the role at the Abbey, when it famously provoked an audience riot during its first run, but he left the Abbey soon after and O’Donovan took over, playing it repeatedly thereafter in Dublin and in England, Canada and America. Indeed he had his own riot experience in 1911 in New York (fig 19).



Fig 19


The newspaper – undated, but it must be from the last week of November 1911 – gives an account of the passions stirred up in Boston and New York by conflicting groups of Irish-Americans over its depiction of, especially, Irish women. James Joyce is on record as having praised O’Donovan’s characterisation over that of Fay, his predecessor in the role.


How different it will have been in 1946. One wonders how much time he spent in reminiscing to his new Christy, played by Patrick Boxill – not a famous name, but he had played Johnny Boyle in the Juno production of 1938. O’Donovan did at least have Arthur Sinclair from the old days in Dublin and London, as Michael Flaherty, as well as his own wife, Joyce Chancellor, as Sara Tansey, and Maureen Cusack, wife of his Knocknagow child star Cyril, as Susan Brady. That production would be high on the wish-list for recordings, had such a process then existed.


O’Donovan’s continued loyalty to Abbey material and Irish players, after decades away from Dublin, is revealing, and indeed rather moving. It would be nice to argue that he was helping to fly the flag effectively in Britain for Irish culture after the tensions of the war years, but it must be remembered that TV still had a very small audience, restricted for technical reasons to a small area around London, and also by the high cost of TV sets. Nevertheless, plays did get some press reviews, and they may have had a certain cultural impact out of proportion to the size of their audience.


What is certain is that O’Donovan’s long-take strategy, likewise dating back to his formative Irish years, attracted interest in and beyond the BBC. In the early days of TV broadcasting in France, he was brought over to Paris in order to demonstrate his single-camera system, part of a wider Anglo-French exchange but also, it seems, in order to provide a specific form of masterclass for French technicians. The result was broadcast there in late June 1952, and was well received. It turned out to be his final production. Already ill, he went into hospital on return, and died in London on 19th July.


That final production, in the French language, was of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, which had been the subject of Alfred Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film in 1940. When O’Donovan was refining his single-camera strategy for TV in the late 1940s, Hitchcock was doing something very similar in cinema, for the ‘ten-minute takes’ of Rope (1948) and Under Capricorn (1949). Ten minutes was the maximum time for a Hitchcock take before the film ran out; in live TV, O’Donovan could run on for longer, creating an unbroken theatre-style continuity. A review in the French weekly Radio Cinéma Television took the production very seriously, exploring the comparison with Hitchcock’s Rope, and asking in its headline: ‘Single Camera: is this the future for televised drama?’ The caption to an illustration draws admiring attention to the effects achieved by profondeur du champ (depth of field; composition in depth).


A regular reviewer of broadcasts for that magazine at that time was the great film critic André Bazin, whose TV reviews are only now starting to be collected. It is frustrating that he did not review the TV Rebecca: with his strong attraction to the cinema aesthetic of long takes and profondeur du champ, he is sure to have had interesting things to say about it. Instead, the review is by Janick Arbois, wife of the journal’s founder, both of them being good friends and associates of Bazin; it is almost a Bazin review by proxy, but it would be a more satisfying end to O’Donovan’s career if it were by Bazin himself – and would belatedly give him more exposure, when Bazin’s collected TV writings are published.


Somehow this is typical of the ill luck which has kept him neglected for so long. He was not in the original cast of any of the major Abbey plays, as opposed to minor ones and short ones: despite acting Synge’s Christy Mahon for so long, he did not originate the part, and he left the theatre before the advent of O’Casey, which helps to explain the wide neglect of him in Abbey histories. The films he directed for the Film Company of Ireland are lost, other than Knocknagow, and his input even to that as actor and director has often been overlooked; the collapse of the company at a time of political turbulence meant that he had no successor film to direct. He acted in the second London staging of Juno and the Paycock, but not the first, the production which made such a strong impression on Alfred Hitchcock, otherwise he might well have been cast in Hitchcock’s early-sound adaptation of it. Above all, there is the ill luck of having none of his TV work survive, because of the dates of his career and the time of his death, just before the first telerecording of a BBC TV play in 1953. And the last of these plays was evidently not seen by the Frenchman who might have given it a solid critical after-life.


I like to fantasise about the time his path did cross briefly with that of Hitchcock in 1937, during the shooting of Young and Innocent. In a lunch break, they discuss Ireland and O’Casey, and the novel Rebecca, which is not yet quite published, but they have heard advance reports, and both like the idea of dramatising it. They talk of the lure of the long take, of which O’Donovan has experience from way back; they resolve to pursue it systematically when they get a chance, and ten years later they are both doing so.


One famous; one forgotten, but not for ever. The work of John Wyver, distinguished TV producer as well as critic, is sure to make a difference. And Knocknagow survives, and is being more widely shown. It is likely to get more exposure at centenary time, at Festivals and elsewhere, especially if better print material can be found. The British archive has some tinted footage that could be printed up, and there may be fuller and better versions surviving in the US, where the film was shown widely and successfully at the time. Reader, please help if you can!



Author’s Note: I am grateful for various kinds of help and advice to Alain Kerzoncuf, Stephen Donovan and Dudley Andrew; to Barry Houlihan of NUI Galway; and especially to John Wyver, whose article on O’Donovan’s TV career is forthcoming in the Historical Journal of Film Radio And Television.


Charles Barr is Emeritus Professor at the University of East Anglia, has taught at UCD and at NUI Galway, and was a Research Fellow at TCD in 2014. His books include Ealing Studios and English Hitchcock.


A note on main sources 


Knocknagow. See issue 33 (2012) of the Australian online journal Screening the Past for a diverse collection of scholarly essays edited by Stephen Donovan, and for a link to the film itself.



The Abbey Theatre. There are many books, but few that mention O’Donovan, except sometimes in passing. The online database is invaluable:


A link supplies information about the more extensive Abbey materials held in the Special Collections section of the James Hardiman Library at NUI Galway, which also holds the Arthur Shields collection.

London Theatre. The fullest database is evidently still a printed one, the multi-volume The London Stage: A Calendar of Plays and Players, by J.P.Wearing, covering the years 1890-1959 – a great enterprise and a great resource. Original publication by Scarecrow Press, 1976-1993.

BBC Television. This excellent new database enables O’Donovan’s TV work to be traced in detail:


It derives from an AHRC-funded research project ‘Screen Plays: Theatre Plays on British Television’, based at the University of Westminster from 2011 to 2015.  (Principal Investigator John Wyver, Research Fellow Amanda Wrigley.)