SOURCE: Newsreels in Film Archives. A Survey Based on the FIAF Newsreel Symposium, ed. Roger Smither and Wolfgang Klaue, Associated University Press, NJ, 1996.


Sunniva O’Flynn, Irish Newsreels: An Expression of National Identity?

Any examination of newsreel production in Ireland, of the effect newsreel exhibition may have had on audiences, of the response they may have elicited from the British authorities prior to independence, or of the political intentions of their generators, is severely constrained by the relatively modest levels of indigenous production and the sparsity of film and related material which has survived through the intervening decades.  In the absence, until relatively recently, of a national film archive, much early indigenous newsreel material which still exists does so because it was salvaged as material of “historical” importance.  Two notable collections of early newsreels exist in Ireland.  In the 1940s the National Library acquired film material deemed of political significance from the national film censor’s office, from the Irish Film Society and from private sources.  This material, together with supplementary material from the British news libraries, was compiled in the late 1950s by George Morrison into two feature-length documentaries based almost exclusively on contemporary newsreel and actuality footage.  The films – Mise Éire (I am Ireland) and Saoirse? (Freedom?) – examine the history of Ireland between 1900 and 1922 and present a potent expression of a formative period in Irish history.  However, the salvage of newsreels towards the production of these films was inevitably a selective process.  The newsreel items which have survived are illustrative almost exclusively of political and “historical” activity, without the balancing effect of the social interest / magazine items which were common in complete newsreels at the time.

Another source of surviving newsreel images from this early period is the Baum Collection, which recently came to auction in Dublin.  Harold Baum, cinema owner and film distributor, avidly collected early Irish and British newsreels.  However, he appears to have been interested only in those films which illustrated political and military activity, or related to aviation.

The Irish Film Archive recently preserved a collection of films made by camera-man Gordon Lewis who worked originally with Norman Whitten on the Irish Events Newsreel and later as a stringer for Pathé in Dublin. The collection donated to the Archive by Sean, son of Gordon, Lewis includes fragments of original camera negatives of Irish subjects filmed for both the Irish and British news companies. Most are images of political significance:   British troops in Ireland; Dublin after the 1916 Rising; Sinn Fein funerals; Michael Collins during his election campaign in Armagh.  There are also sequences of social interest such as an agricultural show at the RDS and a garden party in Dublin Zoo.  It is not yet clear what, if any, was Lewis' selection criteria for these surviving images or indeed if the donated collection represents all of the material he retained.

While it is therefore true that, because of the existence of the moving image, our impressions of Irish history in the 20th Century are qualitatively different from any earlier period, the selective rescue of images from this period creates a somewhat distorted impression of that history.

The history of cinema in Ireland is almost as old as the history of cinema itself.  Dublin had its first public screening of films from the Lumière brothers in April 1896, just months after the Paris screenings. The first Irish subject films were made by an agent of the Lumière Brothers - probably Alexander Promio - in late September 1897.  Items included panoramas from aboard the Belfast-Dublin train, activities of Dublin and Belfast Firemen, and horse-back displays by the 13th Hussars. In 1898 Robert A Mitchell, a Belfast medical practitioner, became the first Irish-born  filmmaker when he filmed the Bangor Yacht Race, before heading to South Africa where he filmed several local activities (now preserved in the National Film and Television Archive in London).

The first newsreel proper which we know to have been produced in Ireland was for the visit of Queen Victoria to Dublin in 1900.  It was a splendid affair with great pageantry, filmed by Englishman, Cecil Hepworth.  Hepworth may have returned to Ireland in 1903 to film the Gordon Bennet Car Race (which could not be run in Britain because of a ban on car-racing on public roads).

Foreign newsreels widely recorded Irish events.  In the years prior to independence and following the consolidation of the Irish State in 1923, news was being produced by British companies:  Pathè Gazette, Topical Budget and Gaumont Graphic.

The earliest home-produced newsreel which can be dated is a commemoration celebration of Irish revolutionary Wolfe Tone in Bodenstown, 1913, which was shown in cinemas throughout Ireland.  It was filmed by James T Jameson of the Irish Animated Picture Company on the advice of Tom Clarke, one of the leaders of the 1916 Rebellion.  We know from Tom Clarke’s correspondence that he hoped the film could raise money for the Wolfe Tone Fund and further the Irish nationalist cause in the United States.

Although it does not appear that the tradition was as common in Ireland as in the UK, there are a number of surviving examples of “local topicals” – those local newsreels were made by enterprising cinema and shown locally guaranteed a full house.  Thomas Horgan in Youghal, County Cork, filmed a series of local events, beauty spots, religious processions and rallies for his occasional newsreel, The Youghal Gazette. Of the surviving material, it is interesting to see how the Gazette appears to transcend any political bias, with one issue showing great celebrations at the release of hunger strikers from Wormwood Scrubs prison – local men, who had been interned for their role in the 1916 Rising – and a later issue marking the glorious return of local men from the First World War where they had fought alongside British soldiers.  Like any self-respecting cinema owner, Horgan knew that any event that attracted such enormous crowds was worthy of filming, regardless of the underlying political agenda: his two lengthiest issues were of the annual Corpus Christi procession, attended by thousands of townspeople,  and of crowds of church-goers leaving Sunday Mass.

In 1910 Norman Whitten, the photographer of Cecil Hepworth’s film Rescued by Rover, set up the General Film Supply Company originally as a distributor of films in Dublin.  The work of Whitten and his cameraman, Gordon Lewis, through Whitten’s company, the General Film Supply, and later through his Irish Events newsreel which ran between 1917 and 1920, is particularly noteworthy because of the political climate in which they were working.  The newsreel and a handful of films they shot prior to the launch of Irish Events recorded incidents surrounding the Rebellion in Dublin in 1916, the subsequent execution of its leaders, and activities leading up to the War of Independence. We know that in 1914 Whitten filmed the funerals of the Bachelor’s Walk victims who had been shot by British soldiers following an Irish Volunteer Force gun-running incident.  In 1915 Whitten filmed the funeral of the Fenian, and founder of the Phoenix Society, O’Donovan Rossa.

In 1917 Norman Whitten set up the first continuous Irish newsreel, Irish Events; Gordon Lewis was appointed his camerman.  The Irish Events issues were at first infrequent but later became regular. Both Lewis and Whitten filmed the funeral of Thomas Ashe, the Sinn Féin leader who died on hunger strike in 1917.  In June 1917, in an impressive display of speed and skill, Whitten filmed the return of Sinn Féin prisoners from British prisons and by the same evening had the film processed and on several of Dublin’s cinema screens.  Kevin Rockett refers to the Irish Limelight account of the day:

Some of the ex-prisoners and their friends could not resist the temptation to see themselves “in the pictures”, and a contingent marched up to the Rotunda in the afternoon.  They cheerfully acceded to the genial manager’s request that they should leave their flags in the porch, and, when inside, gave every indication of enjoying not only “their own film” but the rest of the programme.

Rockett describes how the interest generated throughout the country in this and events filmed over the next few months, such as the opening of the Irish Convention, the funeral of Mrs MacDonagh (mother of John MacDonagh, a filmmaker of some significance, and of Thomas MacDonagh, the 1916 martyr), the Phoenix Park demonstrations and the 12 July celebrations in Belfast, ensured that Irish Events became a firm fixture in most cinema programmes.  He describes how the newsreel caught the attention of the military authorities in 1919 when a compilation newsreel outlining the history of Sinn Féin – the party which formed the New Irish Assembly of Dáil Éireann – was produced by Irish Events.  On demand, the film was submitted for police inspection.  The report deemed it propagandist and objectionable, and, despite Whitten’s insistence that all the footage had been previously released by Irish Events and that many items had been included in Pathé Gazette and the War Office Official Topical Budget, it was banned from further screening.  It has since disappeared, denying us a valuable opportunity to compare indigenous impressions of Sinn Féin activity with the British newsreel companies’ impressions of the same events.

Although many of these Irish Events items survive today, providing vibrant images of an interesting and volatile period of Irish history, we must remember that our viewing of the images today is quite different from how they originally would have been seen.  These news items would have been diluted by the accompanying uncontroversial items.  In January 1918 the Irish Limelight carried an advertisement for Irish Events which listed no overtly political material in their catalogue.  It included:

The Galway Races                                                  Puck Fair

The Lucan Horse-Jumping Competition             A Red Cross Pageant

Ford Works at Cork                                                  Jockeys’ Football Match

A British Military Tournament                                Films Taken From Aeroplanes

The First All-Irish Cartoons Drawn by Frank Leah and Filmed by Gordon Lewis

To our knowledge, none of these items exists today.

The Irish Events series seems to have ceased production in 1920.  Whitten and Lewis worked together on one final project, In the Days of Saint Patrick, an elaborate feature film about the life of Saint Patrick in which a thousand local artists appeared.  Whitten then made three more feature films in Ireland – comedies starring the well-known Jimmy O’Dea – before returning to England.  Gordon Lewis, however, returned to newsreel production.  He seems to have joined Pathé Gazette and continued to work for them as a news cameraman, filming in Ireland throughout the 1920s.  He filmed both Irish and British military activities.  His scoops included the first film of Michael Collins, and the British Army stopping and searching civilians.

An interesting footnote to newsreel production activities in this period is a short film (a copy of which survives) by John MacDonagh.  It was made in 1919 during the filming in Patrick Pearse’s school, St Edna’s, of Willy Reilly and His Colleen Bawn, a film which carried a message of reconciliation.  MacDonagh was in no doubt about the propaganda value of film and took advantage of the production facilities to hand designed to make a short film promoting the sale of Republican Loan Bonds. These were designed to generate funds for the fledgling government which had not yet been recognised by Westminster. The film featured Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith, Patrick Pearse’s mother and sister, and widows of some of the men executed in 1916. In Ireland the film was distributed by Irish Volunteers, who would force projectionists at gunpoint to interrupt the programme and to run the Republican Loan film.  The film ran for just 6½ minutes – sufficiently long to convey a message so effective that the film helped raise £350,000 for the Sinn Féin government, and sufficiently short to allow the Volunteers to escape with the film from the projection box before the authorities arrived.

Following this busy period of indigenous newsreel activity, there was a long silence due to lack of facilities and film stock during the Second World War, and, probably more importantly, due to the tight hold the studio-controlled distributors had on cinema screens.  Throughout the 1920s and 1930s British newsreels were standard fare, punctuated occasionally by Irish editions.  From the mid 1930s Movietone had a twice-weekly Irish edition, which included at least one Irish item, and produced an annual, exclusively Irish edition.  During the war the Department of Defence produced a series of Army recruiting shorts which were included in the Irish edition of Movietone.

In 1946 Scathann na hÉireann was produced on film equipment which had been used in the making of The Dawn (1936), Ireland’s first indigenous sound feature film.  Unfortunately, during production of the newsreel, which focused on an Irish-language pantomime at the Abbey Theatre, the primitive camera equipment, which had not apparently been well-maintained in the intervening ten years, broke down.  Sound was recorded simultaneously on disc by Radio Éireann and, together with the picture that had survived, was sent to London for processing.  Sadly, on its first screening, the film was so badly synchronised that the film’s sponsors, the New Ireland Assurance Company, disowned the project and it went no further.

In 1949 the Leichmann Brothers from London set up the First National Irish Film Corporation, establishing studios in an old lead mine outside Dublin and installing equipment from the Limegrove Studios in England.  Three issues of The Irish Pictorial Review were produced.  The newsreels, directed by Anthony Housset, were issued with no regularity.  Two have survived are preserved in the Irish Film Archive.  Items on the first issue were all Dublin stories and included a schoolboy's sports meet in Crumlin,  a chimpanzees tea party in the zoo and a Corpus Christi Procession in Mount Argus.  The second issue featured filmed include a football match, the 1949 Dawn Beauty Competition fashion show, and a formation dancing competition in which an Irish team loses to a British one and for which the commentary was far from objective. Without a firm distribution network and faced with stiff competition from Movietone’s Irish editions, Pathé and Universal newsreels, the failure of The Irish Pictorial Review was somewhat inevitable.

In the 1940s and early 1950s the Rank Studios had a hold on all the major screens in the country and Universal News was shown in all of these.  As it became increasingly apparent that there was a hunger for Irish material in the cinemas, Rank’s man in Dublin, Bobby McHugh, persuaded the studio to produce an Irish edition.  Between 1952 and 1959 the Universal Irish News was produced.  Although essentially a British production, it is worthy of mention here.  It was issued twice-weekly with one Irish item added to the standard British issue and a customised Irish commentary by Eamon Andrews.

1956 saw the launch of Ireland’s most successful and longest running newsreel series.  Amharc Éireann (A View of Ireland), an Irish-language newsreel, was produced by Colm O Laoghaire for Gael Linn.  The series ran from June 1956 to July 1964, firstly in a monthly, single item per issue, magazine format (1956-1959), and later as a standard, weekly, multi-item issue newsreel; both were shot on 35mm.  The early single-term issues were shown with Universal Irish News until 1959, when all foreign newsreels were withdrawn from Irish cinemas.  The multi-item weekly issues subsequently took off.  On average, four items a week were covered, with the duration of each issue remaining at approximately four minutes. Occasionally an issue would concentrate on a single special event.  Compilation issues were released at the end of the year.

Amharc Éireann’s subject matter, although rarely controversial, was wide-ranging, drawing on political and diplomatic activities, human interest stories, fashion and beauty competitions, sporting events, and parades and state occasions.  Distributed to cinemas nationwide, the series provides a clear picture of a relatively prosperous and stable period of Irish history.  In its use of the Irish Language and its focus on domestic affairs, it provides a distinctly Irish picture of Ireland.

As in many other countries, the role of the newsreel was subsumed by television.  Amharc Éireann came to an end.  Its demise can be attributed both to the general decline in cinema audiences and to the influence of Radio Telefís Éireann (RTE), the recently established national broadcasting service.

To the modern eye, more acquainted with the daily and even round the clock bulletins broadcast by television, the theatrical newsreel may seem quaint and lacking in the hard immediacy of today’s news.  However, the weekly theatrical newsreel had not only to convey news, but also to be entertaining, to maintain the interest of a broad based cinema audience, and, in the case of he Amharc Éireann series, to rejuvenate the Irish language.  In Ireland the cinema newsreel, particularly The Irish Pictorial Review and the Amharc Éireann series, focused primarily on local events and those of human and topical interest.  The tone, although up-beat, was rarely as overtly patriotic or propagandist as the tone of contemporaneous British newsreels, but the promotion of Ireland and Irishness through a focus on its social and cultural activities is clear.  The existence of an indigenous newsreel is probably of most significance in a country such as Ireland where the tradition of production was patchy and where cinema screens were more often saturated with films from Britain and the United States.  The importance of the indigenous newsreel images of Ireland for Irish people can not be overestimated.

There is more to be learned about the subject from newsreels yet to be found and from further research on contemporary written material.  Two invaluable sources of information on the subject and on the wider subject of Irish cinema exist: Kevin Rockett’s contribution to Cinema and Ireland provides an historical and analytical examination of cinema in Ireland; Memories in Focus, produced by Peter Canning and researched by Robert (Bob) Monks is the definitive television history of indigenous Irish film production.  This essay could not have been written without Bob’s generosity and his phenomenal memory.

Note: Irish Limelight 1:7 (July 1917): 16-17, quoted in Kevin Rockett, Luke Gibbons and John Hill, Cinema and Ireland (London: Sydney: Croom Helm, 1987): 34

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