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On Sunday, 23 November 1919, the Star Picture House opened in the west of Ireland town of Castlebar, Co. Mayo, offering patrons a programme topped by two Irish films, the eight-reel epic Knocknagow (FCOI, 1918) and the one-reel comedy Widow Malone (FCOI, 1917). This paper proposes to explore the degree to which this opening at the end of the 1910s epitomizes the role that Irish films had played on Irish screens during the picture house’s first decade in the country. Although Irish screens in the 1910s were dominated by foreign-produced films with most titles originating in the United States, the depiction of Ireland and the Irish on film seems to have played a significant role in integrating the new medium of cinema into Irish cultural life. Although the volume of Irish film production during the decade was always modest, these films remained in circulation for many years, and as such, differed from most other films, which were “likely to be part of a movie theatre audience’s experience of cinema for three days or less with little opportunity to leave a lasting impression before [they] disappeared indefinitely” (Maltby, Biltereyst and Meers 7-8). Programming Irish films seems to have been particularly important during the heightened cultural nationalism of the 1910s, when the majority nationalist population revived or invented “ancient” Gaelic cultural practices as a way of creating a uniquely Irish identity as a bulwark against a dominant Britishness that sought to maintain a cultural, political and military hegemony in Ireland, in part through an espousal of its “modernity.” In such a context, exhibiting Irish films might have been one way for exhibitors to demonstrate their own political loyalties and circumvent or ameliorate nationalists’ suspicions of the new technological medium of cinema, even suggesting its cultural usefulness. Focusing on post-World War I rural cinema openings, the paper investigates the degree to which Irish film may have acted in some senses like a favoured genre.
Maltby, Richard, Daniel Biltereyst and Phillippe Meers, eds., Explorations in the New Cinema History: Approaches and Case Studies, Wiley-Blackwell, 2011
Rockett, Kevin and Emer Rockett, Film Exhibition and Distribution in Ireland, 1909-2010, Four Courts, 2011.
Thissen, Judith, and Clemens Zimmermann, eds., Cinema Beyond the City: Small-Town and Rural Film Culture in Europe, BFI, 2016.
Treveri Gennari, Daniela, Danielle Hipkins and Catherine O’Rawe, eds., Rural Cinema Exhibition and Audiences in a Global Context, Palgrave, 2019.
Denis Condon lectures on cinema at the Departments of English and Media Studies, Maynooth University, Ireland. His research focuses on early cinema, and his publications on this subject include the book Early Irish Cinema, 1895-1921 (2008), and articles in such journals as Early Popular Visual Culture, Screening the Past, Alphaville and Field Day Review. He is currently working on a monograph on Ireland’s First Cinemas and co-editing a collection on music and visual culture. He also runs a research blog at https://earlyirishcinema.com/.
In an article on cinema-going in rural Belgium, Philippe Meers and Daniel Biltereyst suggest that “the aim of oral history research on cinema-going is not to objectively reconstruct the past based on subjective memories of respondents but to look at how memories of cinema-going are constructed and how they complement (or contradict) institutional, economic, or text-based approaches to the historical study of film reception” (“Belgian Film Culture Beyond the Big City”, 142). The championing of a certain palimpsestic approach to how we research and present histories of cinema-going and cinema memories, echoes Annette Kuhn’s identification of the appeal that memory studies holds for researchers: “memory work presents new possibilities for enriching our understanding not only of how films work as texts, but also of how we use films and other images and representations to make ourselves, how we construct our own histories through memory, even how we position ourselves within wider, more public, histories” (An Everyday Magic, 46)
Using these complementary observations as a starting point, and with due recognition of cinema as “a site of social and cultural exchange” (Maltby, 3), this paper examines how archival research and oral histories may be productively combined to offer insights into the exhibition practices of a representative selection of rural cinemas in the county of Cork, between the mid-1930s and the early 1960s. I assess patterns of exhibition and promotion by cinema operators (including an analysis of the practices of the Lyons travelling cinema); identify which genres and which specific films appear to have had measurable impact on cinema patrons—and posit some reasons why; and illuminate how exhibitors responded to pressure from state-sponsored bodies, and from the Catholic Church, to influence or censor film programming.
Kuhn, Annette. An Everyday Magic: Cinema and Cultural Memory. London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2002
Maltby, Richard, Daniel Bilteryst, and Phillipe Meers, eds. Explorations in New Cinema History: Approaches and Case Studies. Chicester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.
Meers, Philipe and Daniel Biltereyst, “Belgian Film Culture Beyond the Big City: Cinema-Going in the Provincial and Rural Periphery of Antwerp”. Rural Cinema Exhibition and Audiences in a Global Context ed. Daniela Treveri Gennari, Danielle Hipkins, Catherine O’Rawe. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018
Gwenda Young is a lecturer in Film and Screen Media at University College Cork. She was an Associate Investigator on the IRC-funded project “Capturing the Nation: Exploring Irish Amateur Film, 1930-70”; co-edited (with Barry Monahan and Laura Rascaroli) the collection, Amateur Filmmaking (Bloomsbury, 2014), with Pierluigi Ercole co-edited an issue of Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media devoted to “Reframing Cinema Histories” (2013). She is Principal Investigator on the Creative Ireland/Cork County Council/UCC
Almost a third (28%) of participants that responded to the Irish Cinema Audiences questionnaire ranked war films among their top three genres. Steve Neale (2000) argues that war films belong to an ‘uncontentious category’, which are generally understood to be films about ‘the waging of war in the 20th century’. Within Neale’s definition, this genre category includes films ‘set in the First World War, Second World War, Korea and Vietnam’ (Ibid). In the context of research on 1950s audiences and cinema-goers that lived through the Second World War, the category of the war film provides an interesting example of the way that cinema allowed audiences to revisit and process recent events, or even to form ‘prosthetic memories’ (Alison Landsberg, 2004) of experiences that they may not have lived directly, but nevertheless had a strong impact on the collective memory of wartime nations.
Unlike post-war cinema audiences in the UK and mainland Europe, who were viscerally impacted by the conflict and upheaval of the Second World War, Irish cinema-goers that lived through the 1940s experienced it as a period of state imposed neutrality. Although the country was not completely immune to the effects of war – the rationing of food and fuel was widespread – the censorship of the press and other media during this time meant that ‘Ireland had cut itself off not only from war but from the vital flow of ideas that was shaping the new world’ (Clair Willis, 2007, p. 5). In light of this period of cultural isolation, Irish audiences of the 1950s provide a particularly unique case study for the reception of war films. Using a combination of archival materials and oral histories, this paper will explore how Irish cinema-goers responded to films that dealt with the events of the Second World War. Exploring how genre theory can enhance our understanding of film reception and programming practices across rural and urban contexts, I will examine how a generation of cinema-goers that experienced (or came to learn of) the war as a period of Irish neutrality responded to the stories and ideologies of films like The Fighting Sullivans (Llyod Bacon, 1944, USA) and Carved Her Name With Pride (Lewis Gilbert, 1958, UK).
Bruce Kuklick (2016) The Fighting Sullivans: How Hollywood and the Military Make Heroes, Kansas: Kansas University Press.
Steve Neale (2000) Genre and Hollywood, London and New York: Routledge.
Clair Willis (2007) That Neutral Island: A Cultural History of Ireland during the Second World War, London: Faber and Faber.
Sarah Culhane is a CAROLINE Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at Maynooth University. In collaboration with Age Action Ireland her current research project, ‘Irish Cinema Audiences: Engaging older audiences and sustaining Ireland’s cultural heritage’, investigates the significance of cinema-going and film in the everyday lives of Irish people in the 1950s.
She holds a PhD in Italian studies from the University of Bristol. Her PhD research was conducted as part of the Italian Cinema Audiences project (AHRC 2013-2016). From 2017-2018 she worked as a Research Fellow on the Italian Cinema Audiences follow-on project, CineRicordi (2017-2018). CineRicordi is an online archive that allows users to explore the history of cinema-going in 1950s Italy.
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