Wednesday 13 December 2017

Irish agog at moving pictures

First films shown less than year after cinematograph invention, writes Fergus Cassidy

A still from 'The Lad From Old Ireland'.
A still from 'The Lad From Old Ireland'.

In the early 1900s one newspaper referred to the cinematograph as an invention that "is beyond all doubt one of the most marvelous of the century".

Whatever about the rest of the 20th century, the years between 1896 and 1916 saw the new media of silent film projection firmly established in Ireland. It was no passing fad, and it experienced growth and popularity that continued to the present. Moving pictures and film-making initially availed of the plentiful theatres throughout the country, before the emergence of dedicated cinemas. The success also brought regulation, firstly on safety grounds, then classification, followed by censorship.

Ireland didn't lag behind international trends as less than a year after Auguste and Louis Lumière displayed their cinematograph invention in Paris in 1895, the first films were shown in Dan Lowrey's Star of Erin Theatre of Varieties (now the Olympia) in Dame Street, Dublin. These were very short films made by the Lumière brothers themselves. The following year the brothers sent camera crews to film on the streets of Belfast and Dublin, the latter footage lasting less than 30 seconds.

In 1908, a dedicated picture house opened at St George's Hall, High Street, Belfast, and was followed by the Star Picture Palace in that city. The Evening Mail pointed out that: "In England there is a growing demand for cinematograph entertainments. Every important town has its permanent 'picture show', and the Colonial Picture Combine see no reason why Ireland should not be adequately represented in this respect." The comment marked the opening of the People's Popular Picture Palace at the former Queen's Theatre in Dublin's Brunswick Street (now Pearse Street) with over 1,000 seats.

Another dedicated cinema opened to the public on 21 December 1909 in 45 Mary Street, Dublin, called the Volta Electric Theatre. It was set up and managed by the writer James Joyce. There was room for 420 people who paid from 3d to 6d (1.5 to 3cent). The opening night featured La Pourponièrre, The First Paris Orphanage, and Beatrice Cenci. The Grafton cinema opened its doors in Grafton Street, Dublin in 1911.

In March 1912 Rotunda Pictures, Dublin, showed Objections Overruled, a wild west comedy, a drama Princess of the Hills, and Easter Celebrations in Malta. Music was provided by the Irish Ladies' String Quartet.

Films were initially accompanied by a pianist, but many cinemas hired up to ten musicians per show. Local soloists were put on contracts, providing openings for professional players. The Irish Examiner carried a tongue-in-cheek article under the heading "A New Profession", declaring: "Among the new callings which the cinematograph has brought into being is that of 'film reviewer'. The trade journal, The Irish Builder, reported in 1914 that there were "26 buildings for cinematograph display in Dublin alone". The total for Britain was 5,000 in that same year.

Following several serious fires, caused by flammable nitrate film stock, the Cinematograph Act came into operation in January 1910. This placed responsibility on local authorities to license cinemas. While limited to the safety aspects of buildings, there were calls to go further and regulate the content of films. Two years later the British Board of Film Censors was established. It offered two certificates, U (suitable for all) and A (adults only).

The Irish Vigilance Association campaigned to stop the spread of "bad and unsavoury literature". This was extended to cinemas where films were occasionally disrupted by the group. They weren't alone. Joseph O'Shea, a Fianna na hÉireann member in Cork, recalled a protest against the showing of a British Army recruiting film. "We were to have got rotten eggs but they could not be got and we had to use good ones. About six boys went into the gallery, and when Míceál Ó Cuill blew a whistle signal in the pit we battered the screen with the eggs."

While films about Ireland were made, they were produced by companies such as the US-based Kalem and aimed at Irish-American audiences. Its first film, The Lad from Old Ireland (1910), was shot in Kerry and New York and ran for 12 minutes. The company also made Colleen Bawn (1911). The Film Company of Ireland produced the drama Fun Fair at Finglas in 1915. It featured the adventures of two escaped prisoners and was shot in Finglas, Westland Row railway station and Blanchardstown. The film was never released as the footage was destroyed during the Rising.

Irish Independent

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