Knocknagow, the Film Company of Ireland, and Other Irish Historical Films, 1911–1920

Click here to view Knocknagow (1918)


Ireland occupies a marginal position in world cinema.[1] Indeed, despite the expansion in the Irish film industry during the last twenty years, this is as true of the 2010s as it was of the 1910s. Unlike in most other European countries there has been no language barrier to insulate the country from the powerful English speaking cinemas of America and, to a lesser degree, Britain, the two countries that remain the most significant external cultural and political references points for Irish people. Even in the silent era, and especially before World War One, when European films were released in considerable numbers in Ireland, American cinema was the most pervasive, not only in the number of films released, but also in the treatment of Ireland and the Irish as themes. While American films throughout the history of cinema have adopted a largely sympathetic view of Ireland’s history of anti-colonial rebellions and Irish economic fortunes, British filmmakers, at least until the mid-1940s, generally steered clear of Irish history and politics, confining themselves for the most part to recycling stereotypes of the backward or comic Irish, and, in the silent period, to celebrations of events surrounding Britain’s role in Ireland, such as royal visits and the activities of the Lord Lieutenant.

The 1910s was the most productive decade for indigenous Irish film production until the 1970s. The films produced by the Film Company of Ireland between 1916 and 1920, together with earlier Irish-themed films made by the American companies Kalem and the Gene Gauntier Feature Players during 1910 and 1914, established for the first time a sense of a complex Irishness in fiction film production. While many of these films were comedies and literary adaptations, the decade’s most interesting film work is usually found in its reconstructions of Ireland’s past, of which Knocknagow was the first feature film.

Irish rebel narratives, 1911–1916

While at least thirty-seven fiction films were made about Ireland’s past between 1908 and 1916, most of these were set during the 1798 Rising or the 1803 Rebellion, the last period before the 1916 Rising when there was widespread armed resistance in Ireland to English occupation, rather than concerning the brief 1848 rebellion and the 1860s Fenian conspiracies. One of the few exceptions was The Shaughraun, a Fenian story based on one of Irish playwright Dion Boucicault’s most popular works, which was released as a film, directed by Sidney Olcott, in 1912. The period 1798–1803 also suited the turn towards longer dramatic narratives which cinema had taken in the late 1900s as well as lending itself to one of the important early film genres, the chase film.

In 1910, Sidney Olcott, who was American company Kalem’s top producer and whose family were from Ireland, arrived in the south of Ireland with a small group to make The Lad From Old Ireland, a story of Irish migration to the USA that is now regarded as the first integrated complex fiction film to have been shot in the country.[2] When the film proved popular with American audiences, Kalem sent Olcott back to Ireland the following year with a larger cast and crew. There followed a sustained period of fiction film production in the country that continued until 1914, in association with Gene Gauntier, an actress who also wrote most of the screenplays.[3]

The first film they made in 1911, an adaptation of Boucicault’s popular melodrama, The Colleen Bawn, was followed by Rory O’More (USA 1911, dir. Sidney Olcott), a tale of the 1798–1803 whose title came from a novel by Samuel Lover of 1836. In the film, a rebel, Rory, evades capture by English soldiers with the aid of his sweetheart, Kathleen, before being eventually captured. After being freed from the gallows by a priest, he is spirited away to America with his mother and sweetheart. The theme of 1798 was echoed a year later in IMP Films’ Shamus O’Brien (USA 1912), and, again, in Olcott’s For Ireland’s Sake (1914). In the latter, a reworking of Rory O’More, a priest not only helps the rebel, Marty, to escape, but, importantly, throws away the gun that Marty has taken from an English soldier, indicating that in America such guns will not be required. As they leave for America, the final title announces: “To the West/ To the West/ To The Land of the Free”.

As is clear from these descriptions, the priest is marked as an increasingly significant character who, by mediating the rebel’s departure from Ireland, allows himself to be seen as sympathetic to the Irish cause while at the same time displacing the rebel from the position of community leader and attractive hero. While occasionally, as in Eileen of Erin (USA 1913, dir. Raymond B. West), the priest joins the rebel (and the rebel’s mother and sweetheart) on the journey to America after the rebel is freed from the scaffold (Moving Picture World, 27 December 1913, 1594), more usually, he remains within the community where he reinforces the status quo. Even in those narratives which echo the mythologizing accounts of Father Murphy of Boolavogue, a real 1798 priest, by featuring a priest’s death— a priest “sacrifices” himself (as the inter-title states) to save Rory in Rory O’More (fig. 1) , and another is executed following the rebel’s escape in True Irish Hearts (Domino Film Co., 1914) (Moving Picture World, 10 January 1914, 220)—the death serves to reaffirm the authority and power of the church within the society over any rival claim by rebels.

At one level, the informer can be read as the dark angel of the Catholic Church in that by his actions the potential liberator is expelled from the community, allowing the church to position itself against secret societies as the community’s sole leader. From the American perspective, particularly in relation to the assimilation of Irish emigrants, coding the informer in this way serves in part to dissolve tensions between Ireland and Britain by suggesting that responsibility for Ireland’s colonial status ultimately rests with the Irish. After all, it was unlikely that the producers of these films—even those of other ethnic groups, such as Jews, who attained a degree of economic power in Hollywood never achieved by the Irish—would have wished to produce films that criticized Anglo-Saxon attitudes towards the Irish.[4] These are, then, films that decontextualize or misrepresent the anti-colonial struggle, despite their apparent engagement with history and efforts to understand the colonial past. And this holds true regardless of the director’s own sympathies and whether the film relies on the stereotypical dichotomy of informer/villain versus rebel/hero or develops a more complex personal narrative, such as in Olcott’s All For Old Ireland (USA 1915) in which a rejected suitor frames and informs on a rival charged with conspiracy against the Crown.[5] The anti-radical version of Irish history in these films is reinforced by representations of the informer, invariably a shifty hunchback in black whose appearance is a physical signifier of his mental and emotional state. That the film’s most reprehensible character is Irish allows for the focus to be moved from the English and on to the Irish themselves. Indeed, while English soldiers are occasionally portrayed as brutal, for example, in Ireland a Nation (USA 1914, dir. Walter MacNamara), they are generally depicted in a neutral and even sympathetic light. In Rory O’More, a soldier is willing to let Rory escape in recognition that he, with no thought for his own liberty, saved him from drowning. The English soldier’s morality is then contrasted with that of the Irish informer, Black William, who, unmoved, demands that Rory be put on trial so that he can claim the reward. At the trial, the officer once again pleads unsuccessfully on Rory’s behalf. Informers, by contrast, are the object of popular revenge. In Shamus O’Brien, an informer is attacked by a crowd at the gallows, as he is in For Ireland’s Sake by the same people who have helped the rebel to escape. In identifying the community with the rebels, these films transcended and undercut the conventional roles of the sweetheart and priest.

Cinematic depictions of the 1803 Rebellion led to the emergence of Robert Emmet, the principal leader of the rebellion, as an identifiable screen persona. Already the subject of many plays in the nineteenth century, he was first portrayed on film in Thanhouser Film Corporation’s Robert Emmet (USA 1911).[6] Predictably, the film centres on the celebrated love affair between Emmet and Sarah Curran, his secret fiancée, while omitting any reference to Anne Devlin, his other companion, who acted as Emmet’s housekeeper and refused while imprisoned to divulge information about the United Irishmen to the British authorities.[7] While in prison, Emmet, who was captured following the rebellion on a visit to Sarah, “shielded Sarah from the prying authorities,” and in the words of the company’s synopsis, “offered to plead guilty if she was not subject to official annoyance.” Olcott’s version of the Emmet story, Bold Emmet, Ireland’s Martyr (1915), has Emmet visits his revolutionary colleagues in disguise as an old woman. In real life Emmet was executed by the British authorities, which may explain why the film’s shifts its main focus away from Emmet to the relationship between Con, another United Irishman, and his sweetheart Norah. Captured by the British, Con is about to be hanged when another United Irishman, acting on Emmet’s orders, fires a shot that severs the rope. By the time another rope is found, a messenger has brought a pardon secured by Norah’s mother, and Con and Norah are reunited.[8]

Of course the happy ending was perfectly suited to the longer and more sophisticated linear cause-effect narratives in demand at this time, as exemplified by the Irish story Brennan of the Moor (Edward Warren, Solax Co., 1913), whose eponymous hero—the “witty Irish outlaw” driven to this kind of life as a result of “persecutions of the English”—was, according to one commentator, sure to command the “warm sympathy” of audiences (Moving Picture World, 6 September 1913, 1070). Despite the fact that political resolution remained a distant prospect and the status quo apparently intact, films dealing with Irish history promulgated a popular message that celebrated and validated fugitive rebels as fighters in a just cause against oppression.[9]

Despite the move away from early cinema’s exhibitionist or spectacle-based aesthetic with the drive towards linear narrative, it was often the case that attention was drawn, by both the films themselves and reviewers, to the landscape in which the film’s action unfolded, thus shifting the emphasis from issues of historical authenticity to the film’s status as scenery. Indeed, the Kalem films make frequent references to the locations where the films were shot: the Lakes of Killarney, the Gap of Dunloe, South Kerry’s rocky shores, Blackrock Castle, Cork, and in The Colleen Bawn, the Colleen Bawn Rock. In Rory O’More, as Luke Gibbons comments, they “only succeeded in throwing the action off course to the point of ruling out any possibility of developing a coherent, realist narrative” (Gibbons, 223). By 1916, as the seamless style of classical cinema began to assert itself, such “tourist gazes” had largely disappeared from the cinema.

In 1914, with the storm clouds of war gathering and Irish rebellion again being planned, the British film industry was in no mood to take a benign attitude towards Irish “treason”. It is striking, therefore, that the wartime film It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary (Britain 1914, dir. Maurice Elvey) should have featured an Irish nationalist who gives his life to save a rival Ulster Volunteer (Bioscope, 19 November 1911, 801), although the film’s ideological thrust—the unproblematic comradeship of Orange and Green in defense of empire—was of course blatantly propagandistic. Even American companies began to shy away from Irish rebel stories after the 1916 Easter Rising, an epochal event that was to mark all subsequent representations of Irish history. Kalem, the company most associated with Irish historical narratives in the early 1910s, released a film titled The Irish Rebel just four days after the last of the Rising’s leaders had been executed, although it was probably just a retitled version of The O’Neill (USA 1912) intended to capitalize on the topicality of rebellion. The film, Moving Picture World commented significantly, was “of the time when Ireland first started to rebel against her English rulers” (3 June 1916, 1712).

By the end of 1916, military censors were closely scrutinizing all cinematic representations of Ireland’s past. In December 1916, the American company Vitagraph released Whom the Gods Destroy (USA 1916, dir. J. Stuart Blackton), a story of two men’s rivalry for a girl set against the background of World War One and the Rising: “one an Irish patriot, the other an English naval officer, bosom friends, each true to his particular country, both in love with the same girl” (Variety, 8 December 1916, 29). Notwithstanding its producers’ claims to the contrary, the film featured a thinly disguised portrait of the Irish republican Roger Casement, whom the British had executed for treason in August. Whom the Gods Destroy was banned in Britain and Ireland, a fate that also befell the historical film Ireland a Nation (USA 1917, dir. Walter MacNamara) after audiences sang rebel songs and cheered at scenes of English soldiers being killed during screenings in Dublin in January 1917. Even though it had already been issued with a public exhibition certificate, the military censor banned the film immediately.[10] Under increasing pressure from Irish nationalists and republicans, and concerned at the impact of such films on military recruitment in Ireland, the British authorities were unable to tolerate even such limited representations of Irish history.

Upon its formation in early 1916, therefore, Ireland’s first indigenous Irish film company knew that it would have to eschew the directness of the films of the previous five years when tackling historical subjects. Indeed, with the significant exception of Irish Destiny (Ireland 1926, dir. George Dewhurst), a drama set during the Irish war of independence, Irish history did not receive cinematic treatment again until the 1930s when a cycle of films produced were set during the Anglo-Irish War of 1919–1921.

Film Company of Ireland

The Film Company of Ireland, the most important Irish film production company of the silent era, was registered by Henry M. Fitzgibbon and James Mark Sullivan in March 1916, only a month before the Easter Rising. As a boy, Sullivan had emigrated with his family from Killarney to the United States, where he had become a successful lawyer. On his return to Ireland he decided to introduce a fully professional approach to indigenous film production.

The first films produced in 1916 by the Film Company of Ireland (FCOI), however, were destroyed during the Easter Rising, or “lost in the Dublin fire,” as the Rising was described in the debut issue of Ireland’s first film magazine, the Irish Limelight (January 1917). The FCOI offices, which lay near the headquarters of the Rising in Sackville St, were also destroyed in the fighting. Despite losing an expert producer and cameraman, who had been hired by the company and who left as a result of the Rising (Irish Times, 14 January 1922, 9), production was resumed that summer. By October, nine short films had been made, all but one directed by J. M. Kerrigan, an established leading actor at the Abbey Theatre and later a Hollywood character actor who appeared in John Ford’s The Informer (USA 1935). Kerrigan made his debut as a cinema actor in the first of the FCOI’s productions to be released, O’Neil of the Glen (Ireland 1916, dir. J. M. Kerrigan). The cast also included Abbey actor Fred O’Donovan, already famous for his portrayal of Christy Mahon in J. M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. Other actors in this film were J. M. Carre, Nora Clancy, R. V. Justine, J. Smith, and Brian Magowan, who was to become the company’s leading actor.[11]

O’Neil of the Glen was an adaptation by W. J. Lysaght of Mrs M. T. Pender’s story of the same name. Set in Ulster, it concerned an incident in which Don O’Neil (Kerrigan), the son of a landed proprietor, saves the life of Nola (Clancy), daughter of Tremaine (Magowan), a solicitor, who had defrauded Don’s father. Meanwhile, Nola is being blackmailed by her suitor, Graves (O’Donovan), but Dan and Nola fall in love and Graves is overcome. O’Neil of the Glen, a three-reeler, premiered at the Bohemian Picture Theatre, Dublin, on 7 August 1916, and ran for one week, twice the length of the normal exhibition pattern. Dublin’s Evening Mail, reporting considerable provincial interest in the film, commented:

[T]he people of . . . Ireland will have the privilege of witnessing one of the finest cinematographic productions shown for quite some time . . . a really first-class picture-play, and one that is sure to bring the work and the players of the Film Company of Ireland right into the forefront of popularity with audiences and trade alike. (5 August 1916, 5)

While this first film dealt with a “realistic” subject, most of the other films released in 1916 and early 1917 were comedies. These also proved popular with Dublin audiences, many of them being given three or four cinema runs during their first six months on release. A Girl of Glenbeigh (Ireland 1917, dir. Sidney Olcott) was described by the Evening Mail as “a powerfully dramatic story of lrish life . . . taken amidst some superb Irish scenery” (26 August 1916, 5) and received five screening in Dublin in 1917. (The Mail also noted that O’Neil of the Glen had “created a perfect furore” at the Bohemian but unfortunately gave no details of the disruption.) J. M. Kerrigan, Fred O’Donovan, and Kathleen Murphy starred in many of these films, including Woman’s Wit (Ireland 1917, dir. J. M. Kerrigan), “a big attraction” that was shown on three occasions in January 1917 alone (Evening Mail, 27 January 1917, 6). The Food of Love (Ireland 1917, dir. J. M. Kerrigan), another comedy set in Glendalough, was “full of real Irish humour” and “magnificent” scenery (Evening Mail, 20 January 1917, 6). The Widow Malone (Ireland 1917, J. M. Kerrigan), a one-reel comedy about a rich widow who feigns poverty in order to thwart a councillor and a schoolteacher, was praised by the Evening Mail as “an agreeable change from the usual knock-about comedies so abundantly supplied” by other countries (4 November 1916, 6). The Miser’s Gift (Ireland 1916, dir. J. M. Kerrigan) was a comedy about a girl and her lover who trick a mean father into dreaming of leprechaun’s gold after making him drunk! An Unfair Love Affair (Ireland 1916, dir. J. M. Kerrigan) with Kerrigan, O’Donovan, and another FCOI (and Abbey) actress, Nora Clancy, concerned a man who conspires with a tinker to foil his rival and win the girl. Other titles included The Eleventh Hour (Ireland 1917), a three-reel drama with Magowan and Murphy, was directed by O’Donovan. A Puck Fair Romance (Ireland 1916, dir. J. M. Kerrigan) was a one-reeler.

Knocknagow (1918)

In its second year of production the FCOI began to move away from comedies, a reflection, perhaps, of the intensifying political (and, later, military) situation in Ireland. While A Passing Shower (Ireland 1917, dir. Fred O’Donovan) and Rafferty’s Rise (Ireland 1917, dir. Fred O’Donovan) were both comedies, the company’s two major productions were a six-reel rural drama, When Love Came to Gavin Burke (Ireland 1917, dir. Fred O’Donovan) and an eight-reel adaptation of Charles Kickham’s novel, Knocknagow, directed by Fred O’Donovan.

In adapting Knocknagow as their first major production, the FCOI chose one of the best-known books and authors of the nineteenth century. Kickham, the son of a prosperous drapery shop owner, had been associated with the abortive 1848 Rising, part of which took place near his home town of Mullinahone, Tipperary. In 1865, after writing for The Irish People, the newspaper of the Fenian movement, he was arrested and sentenced to fourteen years in prison. He was released in 1869 on the grounds of ill-health, and the following year began issuing parts of Knocknagow in serial form. This long and highly derivative novel, which finally appeared in 1873, quickly established itself as the most widely read Irish rural novel of the nineteenth (and perhaps also the twentieth) century (see Green).[12]

The immediate catalyst for the FCOI’s decision to turn Kickham’s novel into a film was probably the screening of The Birth of a Nation (USA 1915, dir. D. W. Griffith) in Dublin in September 1916. Knocknagow had the kind of epic sweep which made it an obvious choice for the theme of Ireland’s first major film. Notwithstanding its suitability for cinematic adaptation, the novel and film diverge at a number of points, including its precise dating. It is generally accepted that the novel is set in the 1850s or even the 1860s, while the film claims to depict “the joys and sorrows of the simple kindly folk who lived in the homes of Tipperary seventy years ago” (Intertitle 4), thus clearly identifying the story’s setting as being 1848, the height of the Famine. The bulk of the novel is taken up with a series of convoluted love stories that are eventually resolved by a number of marriages. With the exception of the last hundred pages, in which various loose ends are rather crudely tied up, the book is dominated by long rambling interludes of conversation and dialogue, often anxious, about personal relationships. In the film, however, much more emphasis is placed on the protagonists’ relation to the land. Two characters are central in this respect: the land agent Pender (J. M. Carre) (fig. 2) , “the one black cloud” (Intertitle 38), who is seeking to clear the land of tenants to make way for more profitable cattle grazing, and Mat “the Thrasher” Donovan (Brian Magowan), the sturdy labourer who owns a small patch of land in freehold.

Kickham describes Mick Brian as having been “one of the most comfortable and respectable small farmers in the neighbourhood . . . . And now . . . he was reduced to poverty” (Kickham, 394). Kickham goes on to comment in one of the book’s most direct statements, and perhaps a justification of agrarian crime, that “when we think of all this [the catalogue of injustices inflicted on people such as Mick], we find it hard to brand Mick Brien as a MURDERER” (Kickham, 395). Kickham adds a personal note to distinguish those convicted of such acts and those who are ordinary criminals: “And surely no one will for a moment class him with the human wild beasts with whom the writer of these pages was doomed to herd for years; and among whom at this hour Irishmen, whose only crime is the crime of loving their country, are wearing away their lives in the Convict Prisons of England?” (Kickham, 395). Mick’s eviction, though, was not the result of his refusal to pay rent; indeed, he was not even given the option of paying higher rent as his lease was simply terminated because his farm “wasn’t large enough” (Kickham, 391). What this probably means is that the land was being cleared for cattle grazing, one of the book’s themes, though Mick may also have been suspected of being involved in an agrarian secret society. By the end of the book, the Brians economic fortunes are said to have improved, though a reference at the same time to fairy tales perhaps suggests it may all be imaginary.The most numerous inhabitants of the land, small farmers and cottiers (the characters precise economic relationship to the land is not identified either in book or film), are dispirited and down-trodden by the actions of the land agent. One of those small farmers is Mick Brian. In Kickham’s novel the Brians are already evicted and living in a shelter in a ditch when introduced, whereas in the film the eviction scene is shown. This cinematic decision has two particular resonances. Many of those in the film’s first audiences would have remembered the emotionally charged mass evictions which had taken place during the Land War of 1879–81 and later in the 1880s, a period from when iconic photographs of evictions survive. In turn, these recall the evictions of the Famine years of the 1840s. As Pender prepares for the evictions, Mat tells him: “There will be a stern reckoning for this one day, Pender, if not in our time, then when other men will know how to deal with this oppression” (Intertitle 76). As the Brians are evicted, their neighbours are held at bay so that Pender and the bailiffs can burn the cottage. Later in the film, another family, the Hogans, are evicted.

Those evicted have to choose between starvation or emigration. When Mat also declares his intention to go to America, the film takes up the anti-emigration cry explicitly: “What curse is on this land of ours, when men like Mat Donovan are forced from its shores” (Intertitle 121). This form of direct address, which is absent from the book, would undoubtedly have had a powerful impact on Irish audiences in America. As Mat leaves Ireland, he cries: “Good-bye, dear Ireland, you are a rich and rare land altho’ poverty is forced upon you” (Intertitle 124). Mat’s absence is brief since Pender has conspired to frame Mat for his own theft of the landlord’s rents. Arrested in Liverpool, Mat is brought back to jail in nearby Clonmel. When he is eventually cleared of the crime, an intertitle declares:

“FELLOW IRISHMEN. Let us take to heart the lesson in the vindication of Mat Donovan’s honor and in the proof of his innocence. We must cultivate under every dire circumstance, patience and fortitude to outlive every slander and to rise above every adversity. We are a moral people, above crime, and a clean-hearted race must eventually come into its own, no matter how long the journey, no matter how hard the road.” (Intertitle 155)

It is not hard to imagine how this call to national pride and unity would have affected Irish nationalist audiences on the eve of the War of Independence.

The novel pivots on the suffering which Sir Garrett Butler (Charles Power), the largely absentee landlord, and Maurice Kearney (Dermot O’Dowd), his well-off but indebted large tenant farmer, effectively inflict on their tenants and sub-tenants. In sharp contrast, the film portrays the landlord as a benign albeit somewhat simple-minded man who, when made aware of the eviction tactics of his land agent, immediately returns to Knocknagow and restores harmony. Kearney, whom the book depicts as a exploiter (albeit for the most part unwittingly) of both his sub-tenants and his servants and labourers, is treated even more generously. After Kearney is himself saved from eviction, Mat calls to the other labourers and small farmers: “And three cheers, boys, for Maurice Kearney, never too prosperous to stand by his own country and people” (Intertitle 158). For his part, Kearney admonishes the landlord: “The men of your class, Sir, are guilty of starving a people in the midst of plenty” (Intertitle 166).

Given that Kickham refers to Kearney’s eviction of a family of his “under-tenants”, this rebuke to Sir Garrett redirects the film towards an accommodation with the big farmers, who at this time were perceived as Sinn Fein’s opponents. Indeed, one of Kearney’s visitors describes the “disgraceful” living conditions of Kearney’s workmen as: seven or eight men huddled together in an outhouse, lying on rotten straw and covered with old blankets and quilts. While Kearney does act on this information, there is an indication that his defence of the marginal classes is a late conversion, and the depiction at the beginning of the film of Sir Garrett and his nephew, Henry, having a Christmas breakfast at the Kearneys serves to emphasize the class affinities of the two families. Indeed, in the first quarter of the novel Henry, who is depicted sympathetically, is a house guest of the Kearneys, where he spends much of his time trying to convince Kearney’s daughter to marry him.

This subtle realignment of the major themes in Knocknagow needs to be placed more firmly in the context of the events of 1917 and early 1918, the period during which it was made and released. Throughout the summer and autumn of 1917 when filming and post-production work was carried out, the shifts in public perception of the events of Easter 1916 became more pronounced. In June, the remaining Sinn Fein prisoners, including Eamon de Valera and Countess Markievicz, were released, being greeted by enthusiastic crowds on their return to Dublin. In July, de Valera won a by-election to Westminster on an absentee platform; the following month, William Cosgrave took another parliamentary seat. In September, Thomas Ashe, a hunger striker, died after forcible-feeding; 30,000 marched in his funeral procession as countless thousands lined the streets. In October, de Valera took over the leadership of Sinn Fein and, in November, he became President of the nationalist movement’s military wing. Across the country that winter thousands drilled, using hurleys as substitute guns, for the coming fight. Twenty-eight prisoners went on hunger-strike in Mountjoy Jail, Dublin, in February 1918, by which time the prospect of conscription being extended to Ireland was becoming a reality.

In this increasingly charged environment, the release of Knocknagow was certain to be interpreted in the light of current events. Following its premiere in Clonmel on 30 January 1918, the film was shown to an invited audience on 6 February. Its first public showing in Dublin was on 22 April when it commenced a one-week run at the Empire Theatre. The choice of date, the second anniversary of the Easter Rising, was hardly coincidental. But this premiere was also sandwiched between events that were to have momentous significance for the future of the nationalist movement. On the previous day, a Sunday, hundreds of thousands of people had signed an anti-conscription pledge after mass. For the first time, all segments of nationalist Ireland—the Irish Parliamentary Party, Sinn Fein, the Labour movement, and others—had joined in a conference to co-ordinate a united response to the passing of the Conscription Bill on 16 April. They sought and received the support of the Catholic hierarchy for the pledge, which was, in effect, a plebiscite of Catholic nationalist Ireland. At a meeting of the Trades Union Congress, fifteen hundred delegates declared a twenty-four-hour general strike against conscription, which took place successfully on 23 April, the second day of Knocknagow’s run. These events had served, as Dorothy Macardle notes, “to unite in a common effort men who had contended mightily against one another for a decade” (Macardle, 232).

Echoing the contemporary view that the anti-conscription campaign had served as a unifier of Irish Catholic nationalist consciousness, Dublin’s Evening Mail observed on the day before the pledge was due to be signed, that the film Knocknagow, itself concerned with such unity, “should make a very strong appeal to all classes of playgoers” (20 April 1918, 4). Irish Limelight also promoted this view: “It visualises the genius of its famous author in a manner that cannot fail to appeal to all classes and creeds” (February 1918, 8).

That Knocknagow should find common cause among the Irish as well as dealing sympathetically with landlords is hardly surprising in the context of contemporary events. The suppression of internal contradictions among the Irish population was, after all, crucial to the form of unity envisaged by nationalist leaders, especially de Valera. It was not just a “Labour Must Wait” view which was to the fore at the 1918 General Election, when Sinn Fein won an overwhelming victory over the Irish Parliamentary Party at Westminster, but a drive to suppress the differences between the various rural classes. Given the way that the Irish rural classes had been reorganized as a result of the Famine and the Land War, this could have been expected. Indeed, Knocknagow offers auguries of these future changes. The Brians and the Hogans, whether small farmers or cottiers, belonged to a huge marginal class which had been evicted for inability to pay for their holdings; were decimated by emigration, starvation, and disease in the Famine; or were being displaced during the struggle between those wishing to till the land and graziers favouring livestock farming. To these “losers” of the 1840s and 1850s had been added the landless labourers with little or no security, who, in both the book and the film, are mobilized to underpin the worth of the larger tenant-farmers. In fact, the Famine, if anything, would have been a period of opportunity for the Kearneys. With the marginal classes reduced to a fraction of their pre-Famine numbers, and many landlords made bankrupt, more prosperous tenant-farmers (and others, often non-farmers) were able to expand their holdings. The Land War of the early 1880s would have further benefitted those, like the Kearneys, who managed to consolidate their holdings through gaining fixity of tenure, fair rent, and freedom of sale. Those such as the remaining landless labourers and marginal land holders excluded by these arrangements, like those promoting more radical solutions such as land nationalization, saw little opportunity for improving their position.[13]

Knocknagow’s displacement of social relations on the land away from inter-class and internal Irish conflict accorded with contemporary nationalist politics. For example, Sinn Fein, while adhering to a policy of land redistribution, did not envisage a radical transformation of social relations on the land (as, indeed, the history of post-independence Ireland confirms). That a nationalist movement led by tenant farmers and the urban middle class should seek to bury economic differences is hardly surprising. What makes Knocknagow remarkable in this regard, as a film made in 1917, is that it does not attribute all of Ireland’s wrongs to an absentee (British) landlord. Rather, the film directs its odium at the land agent, whom the film portrays in a way that strongly resembles the callous land agent/bailiff in the short drama The Lad From Old Ireland (1910) and the slinking informer in the historical film Rory O’More (1911). In Knocknagow, landlord, small and large tenant-farmers, and labourers all stand united against the reprehensible agent.

With its narrative resolution of economic and personal conflict, Knocknagow proved a “triumphant” commercial success in Ireland and was distributed in the United States and Britain (Irish Limelight, June 1918, 6). In Boston, it ran for three weeks and was said to have taken “more money than the much ‘boosted’ Birth of a Nation (Evening Telegraph, 13 December 1919, 4). However, when shown in Britain in 1919, the film was criticized by the film trade publication Bioscope for having a “vehemently Irish point of view” and “more than a soupcon of underlying propaganda” as well as being “dangerously tinged with political feeling” (16 October 1919, 58). Despite finding the narrative at times difficult to follow, and recommending the attention of an expert editor, Bioscope nevertheless conceded that Knocknagow was “by no means without charm and interest”.

Willy Reilly and his Colleen Bawn (1920)

The land question was given a new inflection in the FCOI’s second major feature, Willy Reilly and his Colleen Bawn (1920). The choice of subject and director, John MacDonagh, also signalled an even closer affinity than hitherto between the FCOI and the accelerating struggle for independence. By the time of the production of Willy Reilly and his Colleen Bawn in 1919 the war was intensifying and many FCOI personnel were overtly sympathetic to or involved in the nationalist movement. They included George Nesbit, who plays Squire Folliard, and Jim Plant (Sir Robert Whitecraft), both of whom used false names in the credits to avoid detection. John MacDonagh had the greatest cause for concern. He was the brother of the executed 1916 leader, Thomas MacDonagh, and was possibly a member of the Irish Republican Army. Thomas MacDonagh was also one of the founders of the breakaway group from the Abbey Theatre, the Irish Theatre Company, which had a much more radical nationalist programme than the Abbey. The FCOI, and John MacDonagh in particular, became more closely identified with the Irish Theatre Company from 1918 onwards. MacDonagh also used a pseudonym (Richard Sheridan), in the credits to protect himself in the role of Tom the Fool. The film was shot at St Enda’s, Rathfarnham, County Dublin, to further emphasize the film’s nationalist reference points. This was the school founded by Patrick Pearse, the executed 1916 leader, and Thomas MacDonagh as a response to British education in Ireland which Pearse characterised as “the murder machine”. The school’s stress on Irish language, culture and history made it an important symbol for Irish nationalists. These references were not lost on the authorities either and production was interrupted when “some of the cast were arrested and carried off to spend time in British prisons” (Downing, 44).

During the filming of Willy Reilly and his Colleen Bawn John MacDonagh displayed quite openly his sympathy for the nationalist movement. He made a short film for the Republican Loan Bonds campaign which featured Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith, and other prominent nationalists. In Ireland, the film had unorthodox exhibition when Volunteers entered cinema projection rooms, ordered the projectionist at gunpoint to remove the film being shown and to put on the Republican Loan film. By the time the authorities were alerted, the Volunteers and their film had disappeared.[14]

While Willy Reilly and his Colleen Bawn had a much less direct message than the one contained in the Republican Loan film, it had an equally forceful impact on contemporary audiences. Just as Knocknagow displaced tensions between landlords, tenant-farmers and other classes, Willy Reilly and His Colleen Bawn sought to dissolve tensions between Protestant and Catholic landowners. The film is based on William Carleton’s Willy Reilly and his Dear Colleen Bawn: A Tale Founded on Fact (1855). By the time Carleton wrote the book, the tale of the young couple had been immortalised in often rude ballads and verse. Carleton’s 450-page novel weaves the story of the young Catholic man and the young Protestant woman against a background of contemporary events. It is set between the mid-1740s, when the bigoted anti-Catholic Lord Chesterfield was Governor-General of Ireland, and the 1750s, when the anti-Catholic penal laws became increasingly ignored or liberalised.

MacDonagh ignores the book’s broader international perspective with its references to the attempts by the Scottish “Pretender”, Charles Edward Stuart, to secure the English Crown, but whose defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 ended hopes of the Catholic House of Stuart being restored to the British throne, an event that, in turn, served as a catalyst for the gradual repeal of the penal laws. MacDonagh confines himself to representing the implications for the young couple of the anti-Catholic restrictions on inter-marriage which had been introduced by Lord Chesterfield. While necessarily compressing the material and cutting out various sub-plots and minor characters, MacDonagh does not essentially alter the book’s narrative in its exposition of contemporary religious attitudes.

Both film and book open with the kindly, if bigoted, Protestant Squire Folliard being rescued from highwaymen Red Raparee and his men by a young Catholic gentleman and landowner, Willy Reilly (Brian Magowan). Willy announces that he is one of “The O’Reillys”, thus emphasising his Gaelic aristocratic ancestry. He is also, as the inter-title puts it, the “instrument of God’s will” in rescuing the Squire. Willy has a group of his own men, a sort of private army of his tenants and servants. At one stage they defend the Squire’s house against Red Raparee’s plan to kidnap the Colleen Bawn, the Squire’s daughter Helen (Frances Alexander). The Squire declares himself helpless except for the presence of Willy and his men.

The affinity between O’Reilly and the Folliards and indeed, most Protestants, is quickly established through their dress and demeanour. As the relationship between Helen and Willy develops (fig. 3) , the narrative revolves around three main issues: the attempt by the Squire to convince Willy that he should change religion in order to marry Helen; the response to Willy by another of Helen’s suitors, Whitecraft, a bigoted Protestant; and the support Willy receives from sympathetic Protestants.

The [Penal] Code had a different effect upon different classes of the subjected Irish population. For the Catholic landowners there were ways of escape. They could make a formal submission to Protestantism. They could convey their estates in trust to sympathising Protestants who could as the nominal owners shelter them from the law while leaving them in continued possession in fact. With Protestant connivance they could provide education for their children in England or on the Continent. A sense of class-solidarity made the bulk of the Protestant landowners collaborate with them in evading all the more offensive personal restrictions of the Code. (Jackson, 69)Willy’s dilemma centres on how to protect his substantial property against Whitecraft’s use of anti-Catholic penal laws restricting Catholic land ownership. A solution emerges through the close social affinity, except for religion, between Reilly and the Protestant gentry. As the novel records, Reilly has one thousand acres, a big house, tenants and servants and is fluent in three Continental languages. He is also leader of the Catholics in the area and has close personal relations with “liberal and fair-minded” Protestants, including Rev. Brown and a friendly landlord, Hastings. It is Hastings who secures his property through a device used by wealthy Catholics during the penal era, for, as T. A. Jackson notes:

However, Jackson adds, “the great mass of the Irish people were debarred by their poverty . . . from any such easy way out” (Jackson, 69).

Underscoring Willy’s affinity with the Squire, his house is almost identical to that of the Squire’s, an inadvertent result perhaps of using St Enda’s as a location for both houses. Subordinating religion to class, the film presents discussion between the Squire and Helen and the Squire and Willy is presented less in terms of fixed theological beliefs than in terms of integrity and being true to oneself. If Willy did change to Protestantism, Helen tells her father, he would not be true to himself. The Squire eventually accepts Willy as his son-in-law, but, the book makes clear, not as a late conversion to religious pluralism but from concern for Helen, now melancholic following Willy’s exile from Ireland after being found guilty of abducting her.

Reilly is not only a good landowner, giving a rent-free cottage and garden to one of his tenants, Widow Buckley, who harbours him while on the run, but his character is as pure as that of the Colleen Bawn. His attachment to his religion is sufficiently devout to make him a potential martyr. By contrast, his rival for Helen’s hand, Whitecraft, is not only unpleasant and uncouth but has a bitter, blood-thirsty attitude to Catholics in general and priests in particular. In addition, as Carleton sketches him, he has a very dubious personal morality, fathering at least one illegitimate child and maintaining a relationship with at least two other women. His interest in Helen, as Carleton puts it, is both sensual and avaricious. Otherwise, the issue of a reprobate sexual morality is absent from the film, perhaps in deference to conservative Irish reaction at the mere hint of aberrant sexuality in the wake of the outcry caused by J. M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World in 1907.

The restriction on marriage also limited Catholics’ rights of inheritance. By the end of Willy’s seven-year exile, about the mid-1750s, these restrictions had been modified and were increasingly ignored. In 1757, the Duke of Bedford promised to amend the law; by this time, the Reillys and their children in Carleton’s narrative had already left Ireland and settled on the Continent, where their children, it is said, would distinguish themselves in various European armies. For MacDonagh, the narrative ends earlier in Ireland with the Squire still alive—an image of religious and familial harmony for the audience to take away.

At one level the film appears to display a naiveté common to Irish nationalists when exploring Protestantism. This is especially true in the humanistic resolution of the sectarian divide in the form of young love. On the other hand, the FCOI’s choice of Carleton’s novel—set as it is in the mid-eighteenth century, when not even the Protestant Ascendancy was synonymous with unionism—indicates a desire to find common pre-Union ground between the religions. Nevertheless, that difference was unlikely to be overcome by kindly Protestant gentlemen allowing their daughters to associate with (gentlemen) Catholics. The utopianism of the film Willy Reilly and his Colleen Bawn, which shows the bigoted Protestant, Whitecraft, being charged after the intervention of his fellow Protestants, was further underscored by a line of dialogue (absent from the book) given to the Protestant clergyman, Rev. Brown: “Rising above every consideration is the fact that we are fellow Irishmen.”

The premiere of Willy Reilly and his Colleen Bawn at the Bohemian Cinema, Dublin, on 19 April 1920, the fourth anniversary of the Easter Rising, leaves no doubt about the particularity of these contemporary resonances. By now, the war situation in Ireland had been intensifying for many months. In late March General Macready had been appointed Commander-in-chief of British military forces in Ireland with a free hand to crush the rebellion. To this end, the dreaded Black and Tans began arriving in Ireland from the end of March. By this stage the Volunteers may have numbered as many as 15,000 (though the British thought as many as 100,000 were under arms) and they were successfully pushing the police from rural Ireland. On 5 April, 60 Volunteers went on hunger-strike at Mountjoy Jail. A week later the Irish Labour Party and the Trades Union Congress called an indefinite general strike in support of the hunger-strike. After three days the prisoners were unconditionally released. In this environment of modest success, and with the severest repression yet to come, nationalists almost ignored the crucial “Partition Bill” then going through Parliament.

For Irish Limelight, the optimism of Willy Reilly and his Colleen Bawn was very welcome. While declaring it “remarkable that the film was beating the commercial success of Knocknagow,” it also noted that “it is not so remarkable when one considers the temper of the public mind at the present time and when one realises that in the hearts of most of the Irish people is a yearning to have buried forever the mean wicked head of bigotry wherever it rises” (April 1920, 6). Writing in 1980, at the height of the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, Liam O’Leary expressed the same view: “The story is of particular interest today in its plea for tolerance and friendship between Catholic and Protestant.”[15]

There was a more serious intent in the depiction of the economic relationships between Whitecraft as a Protestant land grabber and Willy, one that had a critical and ironic contemporary resonance. Since 1918 land grabbing from Anglo-Irish landlords and later Catholic big farmers was leading to serious divisions within the nationalist movement, and provoked intense anxiety among southern unionists about their role, if any, in a future Ireland. Eventually, in a resolution proposed by Austin Stack, and accepted by Dail Éireann on 29 June 1920, two months after the release of Willy Reilly and his Colleen Bawn, it was decreed that for the most part claims made in land cases were “of old date, and while many of them may be well-founded others seem to be of a frivolous nature and are put forward in the hope of intimidating the present occupiers” (Gaughan, 136). In a reflection of the broad coalition of social forces Sinn Fein wished to mobilize, it further decreed that “the present time, when the Irish people are locked in a life and death struggle with their traditional enemy, is ill-chosen for the stirring up of strife among our fellow countrymen; and that all our energies must be directed towards the clearing out—not the occupiers of this or that piece of land—but the foreign invader of our Country” (Gaughan, 136–7). Stack, who was in charge of the Republican courts which enforced the Dail decrees, was given the military backing of the Republican forces. The fact that 299 land cases were dealt with in 23 counties between May 1920 and June 1921 is an indication of the success of this policy (Gaughan, 138). It may not be ironic, therefore, to view the intervention of the Protestant, Hastings, in protecting Willy’s ancestral lands as signalling to Catholic nationalists that not all Anglo-Irish landlords were of the Whitecraft variety.

Stylistically, Willy Reilly and his Colleen Bawn has been compared favourably with the best of contemporary Swedish productions (Morrison) and its undoubted sophistication made it popular American, British and Spanish audiences.[16] John MacDonagh was no newcomer to film-making, having written the script for The Fugitive (USA 1910, dir. D. W. Griffith) while still an actor on the New York stage (O’Leary 1976, 10). But Willy Reilly and his Colleen Bawn was to be the Film Company of Ireland’s swansong. With the deteriorating military situation, it is surprising that Willy Reilly and his Colleen Bawn was made at all. Such an avowedly nationalist group of people would have been particularly exposed in the increasingly open military confrontations. John MacDonagh himself was liable for arrest and he went to Scotland to avoid detention and to promote Willy Reilly and his Colleen Bawn (O’Leary 1976, 11–12). And since the film’s producer James Mark Sullivan was a friend of Michael Collins, he, too, would have been under surveillance by the authorities. Yet it was an unforeseen event that hastened the demise of the Film Company of Ireland. After the death of his wife and child during an influenza epidemic, Sullivan returned to the United States, thereby depriving prospective filmmakers of the most important Irish film producer of the period.

The FCOI films continued to be viewed favourably as the independence struggle entered another crucial phase. Willy Reilly and his Colleen Bawn, Knocknagow and another FCOI film, Paying the Rent (Ireland 1919, dir. John MacDonagh), were shown in two different Dublin cinemas for a week from 19 December 1921, while the Dail debate on the Anglo-Irish peace treaty was in progress. However, the humanistic pleading of Willy Reilly and his Colleen Bawn must have come to seem irrelevant after the outcome of the Treaty debate became evident, leading to splits in Sinn Fein and the IRA, and, ultimately, to Civil War. The optimistic hopes evinced in Willy Reilly and his Colleen Bawn of uniting Catholics and Protestants were shattered in the early 1920s. Between December 1921, when the Anglo-Irish Treaty was concluded, to March 1923, anti-Treaty forces burned down 192 Protestant-owned big houses and clubs (Buckland, 279). And in May 1922, five months after Dail Éireann approved the Treaty, a deputation including the Church of Ireland’s Archbishop of Dublin pathetically asked Michael Collins “to be informed if they were to be permitted to live in Ireland or if it was desired that they should leave the country” (qtd. in Buckland, 288).

The impression that FCOI chose to suppress the most awkward features of Irish reality in Knocknagow and Willy Reilly and his Colleen Bawn, is confirmed by consideration of three other FCOI films, two of them comedies. Rafferty’s Rise (Ireland 1917, dir. J. M. Kerrigan) deals with a Royal Irish Constabulary policeman who is a favourite with women but is interested only in becoming a sergeant. In the political climate of 1917, the Royal Irish Constabulary could still be seen in a non-contradictory light, and the depiction of the policeman as bumbling and ineffective policeman made Rafferty’s Rise popular with audiences (Irish Limelight, November 1917, 6). During the War of Independence, however, the RIC became a principal target of the IRA, losing 176 men in 1920, a year in while British 54 soldiers died.

When the issue of rent, the mediating factor in social relations on the land, was foregrounded in another FCOI comedy, Paying the Rent, the problem was cast to the winds of fate at the races. A tenant, Paddy Dunne (Arthur Sinclair), is on his way to pay the rent with borrowed money when he is waylaid by two friends, one a suitor to his daughter Molly. They convince Paddy to go to the Curragh races where the Irish Derby is being run. The horse he backs wins, leaving Paddy with enough money to pay the rent and what he owes. While Paddy is away at the races the family are under threat of eviction for non-payment of rent. Mrs Dunne borrows more money from another of Molly’s suitors, Thady, but she has to agree to allow Molly to marry him. All ends happily when Paddy turns up at the church as Molly and Thady are due to marry; Molly switches partners as the bewildered priest agrees to the change.

By contrast, the FCOI’s When Love Came to Gavin Burke (1917) anticipates the conservative ethos that was to be a feature of the new Irish state. A young woman, Kate, is engaged to Gavin Burke, a poor farmer, Gavin Burke, but she rejects him for the easier life as a hotelier’s wife. As Kate’s husband lapses into alcoholism and ruins the business, Gavin becomes prosperous but bitter and introspective. After the increasingly impoverished hotelier dies by falling from a horse. Kate’s daughter goes to Gavin’s nearby home seeking help. Cheered by her, Gavin offers her a home but rejects her mother. Years pass, and in a reprise of Kate’s own youth, her daughter is pursued by two suitors, one rich and one poor. Unlike her mother, she chooses the one she loves, the poor one. After giving away his wealth to Kate’s daughter, an act which returns him to his humble origins and material frugality, Gavin accepts Kate in marriage.

Although unique among Irish films of the period in its exploration of the nature of the family, When Love Came to Gavin Burke was clearly intended to reinforce traditional morality and offer a temperance message. Punishment awaits the woman who chooses pleasure over poverty and happiness, a theme not uncommon in some Hollywood films of the period. The film’s moral conservatism is further underlined by the contrast between the hard-working small farmer, Gavin, and the alcoholic hotelier, and by extension, townsman and businessman. Such unfavourable oppositions of the rural and the urban were to become a feature of the ideology of the new state.

For all their limitations, the two major fiction film production companies working in Ireland during 1910 and 1920, Kalem (1910–14) and the FCOI (1916–20), succeeded in creating the first positive fictional images of Ireland on film. The first popular historian of American cinema, Lewis Jacobs, assessed Kalem thus:

The traditional (Irish) trade-marks of shiftlessness, clay-pipe smoking and the kettle of beer were . . . discarded. You’ll Remember Ellen, Kerry Gow (from Irish “Gabha” or blacksmith) and The Colleen Bawn metamorphosed the “Begorrah and b’gosh” comedian into an authentic social being moved by real emotions. Irish pride of heritage and the injustices of Ireland’s past were explained in such films as The Mayor of Ireland, The O’Neil (from Erin’s Isle), Rory O’More and Ireland the Oppressed. (qtd. in Ó Conluain 1953a, 98)

While not all present-day critics would agree with this verdict, Proinsias Ó Conluain notes that “Olcott made a sincere effort to portray Ireland and the Irish as he found them, and to deal sympathetically with their history” (Ó Conluain 1953a, 98). For the Irish Limelight, the FCOI presented Ireland “to the rest of the world as she had never been known before; to let outside people realise that we have in Ireland other things than the dudeen, buffoon, knee breeches and brass knuckles” (January 1917, 3). Declaring that the press and people of Ireland had given these films their “generous and unanimous approval”, it added that with the films’ distribution to the United States, Britain, Australia, Italy and France, showed that “a substantial industry has taken root”. Sadly, it was not to be.


The biggest problem faced by the Film Company of Ireland was one that has confronted all Irish film production companies: the reality of the world film economy. Not only was Ireland an economically marginal country whose main export was with agricultural products, it had an extremely low gross cinema box office revenue relative to other countries. In the 1930s, for example, when the first reliable figures are available, Ireland’s box office revenue was estimated at only £1.5 million, of which £895,000 was taken in the independent Irish Free State (now Republic of Ireland). Of course, almost all that revenue went to American (and to a lesser extent) British film companies where it further strengthened their respective film industries. A comparative view of Ireland’s position in the global film economy reveals that while the American domestic market has historically accounted for roughly half of the global market, and Britain five per cent, Ireland accounted for only about one quarter of one per cent. (At present, Ireland represents about 10 per cent of the British and Irish market, and about one per cent of the European Union’s box office, a figure that roughly corresponds to its population size.) As a result, Irish filmmakers have always been faced with the dilemma of whether to produce modest and small scale indigenous productions suited in the first instance to Irish culture and society, or to make larger budget films more attuned to American and British audiences in the hope of recouping the cost from sales overseas.

The Film Company of Ireland chose the former option by anchoring its films in an explicitly Irish milieu and within Irish literary and theatrical traditions, a decision that sheds an interesting light on the most important political films of subsequent decades, such as Irish Destiny and The Dawn (Ireland 1936, dir. Tom Cooper), as well as those of the first wave of Irish cinema between 1975 and 1987. Even so, the FCOI’s films already seem formally “old-fashioned” when compared with the production values, pacing, and editing style of classical narrative cinema, which was establishing itself during the short period of the company’s existence. In short, whatever their political significance, the Film Company of Ireland’s films failed to create a basis for continuity of production, let alone a film industry. As became clear in the early sound era, genre cinema rather than seemingly national or even parochial concerns was to be in the ascendant internationally, where it would be dominated, then as now, by American cinema.


Figure 1. Frame still from Rory O’More (1911).

Figure 2. Image from Knocknagow’s press book.

Figure 3. Frame still from Willy Reilly and his Colleen Bawn (1920) with leads Brian Magowan and Frances Alexander.

Works Cited

Bioscope (London).

Buckland, Patrick. 1972. The Anglo-Irish and the New Ireland, 1885–1922. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan.

Burns-Bisogno, Louise. 1997. Censoring Irish Nationalism: The British, Irish and American Suppression of Republican Images in Film and Television, 1909–1995. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Comerford, R. V. 1979. Charles J. Kickham: A Study in Irish Nationalism and Literature. Dublin: Wolfhound Press.

Condon, Denis. 2008. Early Irish Cinema, 1895–1921. Dublin: Irish Academic Press.

Downing, Taylor. 1979/80. The Film Company of Ireland. Sight and Sound 49.1 (Winter): 42–5.

Evening Mail (Dublin).

Evening Telegraph (Dublin).

Gaughan, J. Anthony. 1977. Austin Stack: Portrait of a Separatist. Dublin: Kingdom Books.

Gibbons, Luke. 1987. Romanticism, Realism and Irish Cinema. In Cinema and Ireland, ed. Rockett et al, 212–21.

Green, E. R. R. 1968. Charles J. Kickham and John O’Leary. In The Fenian Movement, ed. T. W. Mooney. Dublin: Mercier Press.

Irish Limelight (Dublin).

Irish Times (Dublin).

Jackson, T. A. 1947. Ireland Her Own. New York: International Publishers.

Jacobs, Lewis. 1939. The Rise of the American Film: A Critical History. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Kickham, Charles J. 1887. Knocknagow; or, The Homes of Tipperary. Dublin: James Duffy. First published in 1873.

Macardle, Dorothy. 1968 [1937]. The Irish Republic. London: Corgi: 1968.

Morrison, George. 1976. Hibernia, 7 May: 32.

Moving Picture World (New York).

Ó Conluain, Proinsias. 1953a. Scéal na Scannán, Dublin: Oifig an tSoláthair.

—–. 1953b. Ireland’s First Films. Sight and Sound (October–December): 96–7.

Ó Fearail, Padraig. 1977. When Films Were Made at Bray. Irish Times, 16 August: 8.

O’Leary, Liam. 1945. Invitation to the Film. Tralee: The Kerryman.

—–. 1976. Cinema Ireland 1895–1976. Dublin: Dublin Arts Festival.

—–. 1990. Cinema Ireland 1896–1950. Dublin: National Library of Ireland.

Rockett, Kevin. 1987. The Silent Period. In Cinema and Ireland, ed. Kevin Rockett, Luke Gibbons, and John Hill, 16–32. London: Croom Helm.

—–. 1994. The Irish Migrant and Film. In The Creative Migrant, ed. Patrick O’Sullivan, 170–191. Leicester: Leicester University Press. Reprinted In Screening Irish America, ed. Ruth Barton. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2009.

—–. 2001. Representations of Irish History in Fiction Films Made Prior to the 1916 Rising. In Rebellion and Remembrance in Modern Ireland, ed. Laurence M. Geary, 214–228. Dublin: Four Courts Press. Accessible at

—–. 2004. Irish Film Censorship: A Cultural Journey from Silent Cinema to Internet Pornography. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Rockett, Kevin, and Emer Rockett. 2011. Magic Lantern, Panorama and Moving Picture Shows in Ireland, 1786–1909. Dublin: Four Courts.

Rockett, Kevin, Luke Gibbons, and John Hill. 1987. Cinema and Ireland. London: Croom Helm.

Variety (New York).


[1] The following text draws on Rockett 1987 and 2001.

[2] In 1905, the (British) New Century Company showed a programme of films at the Rotunda, Dublin which included perhaps the first Irish narratives. These were A Race for a Wife, which was filmed in the Phoenix Park, and was a race between a jockey on a racehorse and a chauffeur in a motor car; and An Irish Eviction, described as an “amusing episode”. See Kevin Rockett and Emer Rockett 2011. A restored version of The Lad from Old Ireland can be viewed together with a number of the other films discussed in this section at www.tcd/ieIrishfilm/silentfilms.

[3] See Rockett et al., 7–12, and Condon 2008.

[4] For a broader discussion of the representation of the Irish in American cinema for this and later periods, see Rockett 1994.

[5] Moving Picture World, 10 July 1915, 37. Variety commented on 16 July 1915 that “the beautiful natural scenery . . . will hold this feature up alone” despite having “a weak finale” and being a “rather poorly constructed tale”. It added that “views of Ireland seem to possess a certain interest for everyone and particularly for the Irish themselves,” many of whom were “listed in the directory of picture fans.”

[6] Moving Picture World, 18 March 1911, 608; Bioscope, 30 January 1911, iii.

[7] It was not until Anne Devlin (Ireland 1984, dir. Pat Murphy) that this hidden history was brought to the screen, although Devlin features briefly as a character in Ireland A Nation.

[8] The death of Irish political and military leader Michael Collins in 1922 provided similar difficulties for American film-makers. The producers of Beloved Enemy (USA 1936, dir. H. C. Potter), a thinly disguised film about Collins, made two versions of the film; in one, Collins dies in the conventional way; in the other, he appears to live on to continue his relationship with Lady Helen, a character based on Lady Lavery. The producers were sensible enough to confine the distribution of the second version of the film to the USA.

[9] In The Rise of the American Film: A Critical History (1939), Lewis Jacobs writes that because of the controversial nature of Olcott’s historical films, they “provoked much disturbance in the Home Office, and Kalem wanted to recall Olcott. Promising to keep clear of explosive subject-matter, Olcott remained in Ireland and turned to the plays of Dion Boucicault” (Jacobs 123; qtd. in O’Leary 1945, 155). In quoting Jacobs, Liam O’Leary changed his words “home office” (lower case) to upper case, an important difference that has had the effect on subsequent writers that this is a reference to the British government department, the Home Office, or interior ministry, rather than Kalem’s New York “home” office.

This has in turn led to claims being made about interference by the British authorities in Olcott’s Irish historical films (e.g. Ó Conluain 1953b). O’Leary, without citing a source, also says in a 1990 booklet, Cinema Ireland 1896–1950, that the Kalem films “were very anti-British in feeling and as far as the British authorities in Ireland were concerned they were subversive in the extreme” (O’Leary 1990, 12). Louise Burns-Bisogno has also asserted this perspective in her book Censoring Irish Nationalism: The British, Irish and American Suppression of Republican Images in Film and Television, 1909–1995 (1997) and in her interview for Blazing the Trail: The O’Kalems in Ireland, a 2011 documentary on the Kalem Co. in Ireland.

Accepting the O’Leary error, and the misinterpretation of ‘Home Office’ by subsequent writers, including this one in Rockett et al. 1987, in pointing the finger at the British, is there any evidence beyond what is in Lewis’ 1939 account to indicate that Kalem’s head office was upset at Rory O’More, or other Irish historical films, which would, of course, have included the Boucicault films? While Colleen Bawn is not concerned with political events in the nineteenth century, both Arrah-na-Pogue, a play banned throughout the British Empire in 1867, and The Shaughaun, are Fenian stories set in the 1860s/1870s. In fact, Gene Gauntier had prepared the scenarios for Rory O’More, The Colleen Bawn and Arrah-na-Pogue before leaving New York for Ireland in 1911, suggesting that the ideas for the scripts would have been approved by Kalem’s management before departure. Further evidence of Kalem’s satisfaction with the Irish historical films is reflected in their rapid release in the USA: Rory O’More, the first film made and the first one released, in September 1911, was re-issued three years later; The Colleen Bawn was released in October 1911, followed by Arrah na Pogue in December. In January 1912, another Irish historical film, The O’Neill, was released by Kalem, a film apparently re-released after the 1916 Rising with the title The Irish Rebel.

The most telling evidence, though, comes from Gene Gauntier’s unpublished memoirs at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, which had been consulted by Jacobs. Gauntier makes no reference to any controversy surrounding the historical films, but reports on a priest’s denunciation at Sunday mass of the Kalem players, in make-up, performing for the camera on church grounds. Other than that, an issue which they took up with the local bishop, who ensured there was no further public criticism of the company, Gauntier says nothing but positive things about their treatment in Ireland. Did Jacobs misinterpret the priest’s comments regarding Kalem, as reported by Gauntier, as political intrigue? Indeed, flouting any warning anyone may have received, Olcott persisted in filming stories of Irish rebellion every year he made films in Ireland, that is to 1914, including For Ireland’s Sake (USA release, January 1914) and Bold Emmet, Ireland’s Martyr (USA release, August 1915).

Despite research in Kalem Kalender and other film trade publications since my 1987 piece was written, I have found no contemporary verification of British interference in Olcott’s Irish productions. This view is also shared by Herbert Reynolds who has been researching the Kalem company for more than two decades and has found no contemporary account of what he calls “this persistently unsubstantiated allegation”. He adds that “I’ve always been disturbed by its repetition when what’s called for is some hard evidence. . . . It’s so much easier to print the legend—and a patriotic legend is hard to resist” (email to the author, 9 February 2012). In light of the analysis in the main text of the relatively sympathetic way English military personnel are represented in Olcott’s films, this uncorroborated assertion seems to be a nationalist myth, as suggested by Reynolds, to whom I am grateful for assisting with this note.

[10] For an extended account of the controversy see Rockett 1987, 12–16. On film censorship more generally in Ireland, see Rockett 2004.

[11] I have standardized this spelling since, in addition to this version, McGowan and MacGowan are used in film credits and the press.

[12] R. V. Comerford identifies Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village and Charles Dickens, Kickham’s favourite author, among Knocknagow’s influences: “The most glaring case of an idea borrowed from Dickens is Norah Lahy, the doomed consumptive girl, too good for this life—a disastrous imitation of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop (Comerford, 200–1). Alluding to George Eliot’s Adam Bede (1859), Comerford asserts that there “can be no coincidence about the resemblances between the upright village carpenter Adam Bede” and Mat the Thrasher: “Putting it all together to create his greatest character would be beyond his powers of composition without a model to guide him and, without a doubt, Adam Bede is that model” (Comerford, 201).

[13] These particular struggles during the Land War were the subject of a 4,000-feet film, Rosaleen Dhu (Dark Rosaleen) (1920) by the Celtic Cinema Co, which was established by William Power, a barber from Bray, County Wicklow, and other locals. Its first production was Willie Scouts While Jessie Pouts (1919), a one-reel comedy written, produced, and directed by Power. According to the Dublin Evening Mail (1 May 1920, 2), the first film shown at Dublin’s re-opened Rotunda, Rosaleen Dhu, was a “well acted drama, dealing with the early days and most exciting incidents of the Land League”. The narrative included an eviction scene as a result of which a Fenian has to leave Ireland: “He joins the Foreign Legion and marries an Algerian girl, who, when he returns to Ireland, turns out to be an heiress to an Irish estate!” (Ó Fearail). In 1920, production began on An Irish Vendetta, but Power died after being thrown from a horse while filming a sequence at a racecourse, and the Celtic Cinema Co. folded shortly after.

[14] John MacDonagh’s unpublished memoirs, qtd. in O’Leary 1976, 11.

[15] Programme note, Liam O’Leary Collection, National Library of Ireland, 1980.

[16] Irish Limelight, qtd. in Liam O’Leary collection programme note, National Library of Ireland.

About the Author

Kevin Rockett

About the Author

Kevin Rockett

Kevin Rockett is Associate Professor in the Drama Department, Trinity College, Dublin. His most recent publications are two volumes co-authored with Emer Rockett: Magic Lantern, Panorama and Moving Picture Shows in Ireland, 1786–1909 and Film Exhibition and Distribution in Ireland, 1909 – 2010 (Four Courts Press, 2011). He is also the author of Film History and National Cinema (co-editor with John Hill) (Four Courts Press, 2005), Irish Film Censorship: A Cultural Journey from Silent Cinema to Internet Pornography (Four Courts Press, 2004), Ten Years After: The Irish Film Board 1993–2003 (Irish Film Board, 2003), Neil Jordan: Exploring Boundaries (with Emer Rockett) (The Liffey Press, 2003), and The Irish Filmography: Fiction Films 1896–1996 (Red Mountain Media, 1996).View all posts by Kevin Rockett →