The Making of an Irish Nationalist: James Mark Sullivan and the Film Company of Ireland in America

Click here to view Knocknagow (1918)

Film producer James Mark Sullivan (fig. 1) was born in Kerry in 1873 and emigrated with his family to the United States in 1882. This was a time of growing unrest in Ireland. After years of vigorous fundraising in the United States, the Fenian Brotherhood had launched an abortive uprising in Kerry in 1867. Irish public opinion had remained largely unmoved by Britain’s efforts at educational, religious and land reform, and popular agitation for Home Rule, initiated by nationalist parliamentarian Isaac Butt in 1871, was intensifying under the charismatic leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell. In 1882, a Fenian terrorism campaign culminated in the murder of two British officials in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. In the following decade, two Home Rule bills were defeated and Parnell was publicly disgraced in a divorce scandal. Parnell’s untimely death in 1891 deprived the Home Rule movement of its most effective statesman, and the formation of the Ulster Unionists in 1885 marked the beginning of militant resistance to the break up of the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland. Frustrated with the political process, Irish nationalists turned their attention to culture, promoting a Gaelic renaissance that did much to strengthen the case for Irish independence.

By the time the FCOI closed its doors in 1922, it had made history, thanks to the commercial and critical success of its two best-known films, Knocknagow (dir. Fred O’Donovan) and Willy Reilly and his Colleen Bawn (1918, dir. John MacDonagh).[2] It is hard to overestimate the importance for Irish cinema of a native company that used exclusively Irish actors, settings, and themes. In addition to a number of longer fiction features, the FCOI made at least one explicit propaganda film in order to help raise funds for the nationalist cause. As the following essay will show, Sullivan’s background in American politics and diplomatic service during the administration of Woodrow Wilson, coupled with the nationalist sympathies of his family and his Irish nationalist connections, played a crucial part in shaping the direction he gave to the first Irish film company.Sullivan’s production of Knocknagow (1918) was a natural expression of his commitment to the cause of Irish independence. Having pursued a career as an Irish-American politician, he knew that film could be a powerful tool for publicizing the nationalist cause both in Ireland and among the Irish-American community in the United States. He had married into a prominent Irish nationalist family and was undoubtedly familiar with classic works of Irish literature such as Charles Kickham’s Knocknagow (1873), popular ballads such as Willie Reilly and his Colleen Bawn, and successful plays such as Don Boucicault’s The Colleen Bawn; or the Brides of Garryowen (1860). As Sullivan knew, film adaptations of these stories would find a ready audience in the Irish diaspora. In March 1916, inspired by D. W. Griffith’s use of film as a vehicle of political propaganda, Sullivan established the Film Company of Ireland (FCOI) in partnership with Henry M. Fitzgibbon.[1]

Family Background

James Sullivan had strong family ties to the Irish cause. He was related to Alexander M. Sullivan and Timothy D. Sullivan, members of the Young Ireland Movement and editors of its mouthpiece, The Nation (1842–92). Timothy Sullivan, Lord Mayor of Dublin from 1886 to 1887, had worked with Parnell in the Land League movement and later served as a Member of Parliament. But James Sullivan was also more intimately and directly linked to militant Irish nationalism by his wife’s family. While visiting to Ireland in 1910 to “settle an estate in the interest of heirs living in America” (New York Times, 19 September 1910, 7), he met and married Ellen (“Nell”) O’Mara, who came from a large and actively nationalist Limerick family. Nell’s grandfather, Stephen O’Mara was a prominent Limerick businessman, active nationalist, and member of the Land League. He joined Sinn Fein during the Great War, and two of his sons, James and Stephen, fought in the 1916 Easter Rising.

Nell’s father, James, served as a Member of Parliament between 1900 and 1907, successfully introducing legislation to make St Patrick’s Day a national holiday (see Humphrys) before resigning his seat to join Sinn Fein. Within a decade, he became its Director of Finance and trustee of Dáil Éirann funds, traveling to the United States with DeValera in 1920 to pursue a fundraising drive. Like his father and his new brother-in-law, James was pro-Treaty, and he served briefly as Ireland’s first ambassador to the United States. Sullivan’s other brother-in-law, Stephen O’Mara, Jr., was also an active member of Sinn Fein, and Mayor of Limerick during the War for Independence.[3] After James resigned as DeValera’s Director of Finance, Stephen Jr. took over as fiscal agent for the Irish Republic. He was a loyal supporter of DeValera, and thus anti-Treaty, for which he was briefly interned by the Free State Government. For Sullivan, an Irishman raised in America, marriage into the O’Mara clan brought him into the thick of Irish nationalist politics. With such ties, it is no wonder that Irish independence became so significant a factor for his diplomatic career and founding of the FCOI.

In July 1911, Sullivan delivered a speech on Republicanism at the grave of nationalist hero Wolfe Tone. Organized by Arthur Griffith, Tom Clarke, and the IRB to keep nationalist agitation under control during an official visit by George V, the ceremony was meant to be a political antidote to the newly crowned King’s visit (Felter and Schultz 2004, 27). Why Sullivan was chosen is unclear. Possibly his O’Mara connections were responsible, possibly his status as a prominent lawyer in the United States. Sullivan, who was continuing to practice law in the United States, found himself at the center of nationalist activities in Ireland, and his speech brought him to the attention of Irish nationalists as they prepared to push again for Independence. In 1918, however, he and Nell returned to the States.

Much confusion and contradictory information surround Sullivan’s early years. Sullivan was born in 1870 (possibly 1873) in Killarney, County Kerry, to James Sullivan and Julia Mary Coakley Sullivan. According to family tradition, his father was a maths teacher who had a “house with a slate roof and emigrated with two servants”; if so, it is hard to believe that he took his family to the States in search of a “better life”.[4] Sullivan senior had spent most of his early life in the States. His family had emigrated to America in 1884, settling in Connecticut.[5] While he may have completed high school in Palmer, Massachusetts, his granddaughter believes that he left school to support his family after the death of his father.[6] He worked for the Hartford Courant and the Waterbury American, either as a contributor or a salesman (Logan, 76; White, 362). Around this time he met William Jennings Bryan, also a newspaper man, who became his political sponsor.[7] After attending Yale Law School, Sullivan’s law career began in Connecticut in 1902, but four years later he moved to New York City where he maintained a “struggling practice” reportedly based on Tammany Hall connections and ties to underworld and gambling interests.[8]

Sullivan’s political interests were both Irish and American. He used his Yale oratorical skills as a speaker for the Democratic Party between 1898 and 1912, the heyday of three-times Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan (White, 362). Known as “the man with the Golden Voice,” Sullivan focused his efforts on Irish-Americans in the North-East, where he was mentored by James K. McGuire, Democratic mayor of Syracuse, New York and a prominent Irish nationalist.[9] His connections to the powerful Democratic machine in New York State began to pay off. In 1912, Sullivan campaigned successfully for Woodrow Wilson and achieved notoriety for his part in the Becker-Rosenthal trial, a case that provided him with invaluable professional contacts.[10] Becker-Rosenthal ingratiated Sullivan with shady Tammany politicians, reinforcing his links to prominent Irish-American nationalists and enabling his appointment as United States Ambassador to the Dominican Republic in 1913 (Logan, 256–8).

Diplomatic Career

It was in Santo Domingo that Sullivan’s Irish nationalist sympathies became apparent. Indeed, his dismissal in 1915 may have been prompted by questions about his loyalty to the United States. Sullivan, who had neither relevant experience nor diplomatic skills (he did not even speak Spanish), received the appointment as an act of Democratic Party patronage.[11] Prior to his departure to Santo Domingo, Sullivan took the dais with local priests and politicians at New York City’s Celtic Park for a review of regiments of Irish volunteers (Phelan, 6; New York Times, 11 August 1912, 7), and joined John Devoy, leader of the Clan na Gael, in protesting the New York production of J. M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. [12] The timing of these events, like his later machinations with German diplomats in Hispaniola, suggest that Sullivan, if not a member, had strong ties to the Clan na Gael and the IRB.[13]

Sullivan initially sought an appointment as New York District Attorney, but was persuaded against it by Secretary Bryan and various businessmen who were anxious to have a Minister in Santo Domingo friendly to their concerns.[14] As a Catholic, Sullivan would likely have had greater credibility than other candidates for the post of ambassador to the predominantly Catholic Dominican Republic. Sullivan applied for the position in May of 1913, was appointed in July, confirmed in August, and took up his post in September (Phelan, 7, 10; New York Times, 27 July 1915, 5). Euphemistically termed “exigencies of the situation” often forced politicians to overlook intrinsic merits of a candidate, just as political expedience sometimes dictated that party grandees be seen to bestow patronage. Even so, Sullivan’s lack of diplomatic experience proved an embarrassment. His stated reasons for applying were, if honest, hardly noble: “I was anxious to secure this post for the purpose of getting even [financially] by means of the good salary that goes with the place” (Phelan, 7, 8). Unfortunately, the Caribbean was at that time politically volatile.[15] Sullivan helped those to whom he owed favors to get lucrative contracts on the island, and, while he may have brought baseball to Santo Domingo, his tenure was for the most part not a success. By December 1914, he was the subject of a Congressional investigation, and by the following July had been asked to resign.

In its so-called Phelan Report (named after Congressman James Duval Phelan who spearheaded the committee), the Congressional investigation found Sullivan guilty of deportment, cronyism, misrepresentation to superiors of the Dominican situation, and biased interference in local politics. It is likely, however, that Sullivan had also embarrassed the United States government by becoming involved with Germany, an enemy of Britain and a growing force in the Caribbean. Germany, like America, was a new industrial force, a late-comer to imperial expansion, and a growing naval power. American policy in the Caribbean was shaped by the possibility, real or imagined, that Germany was moving into the Caribbean and thereby compromising America’s strategic interests. Imperial Germany’s connections with militant Irish nationalists in America and Ireland had heightened American suspicions about pro-German activity in the area.

During the Congressional investigation into Sullivan’s misadventures in Santo Domingo, Wilson claimed that Sullivan had been merely foolish, but Bryan was convinced that those pushing for Sullivan’s appointment had misrepresented his integrity (Link 1956, 108–10). How much they knew about Sullivan’s activities in Santo Domingo, including their possible links to the Irish cause, remains unclear. Michael Streich argues that only rarely in American history are the press or the public given a full account of the reasons for the government’s actions (Streich). And this may have been the case with Sullivan. Direct as well as circumstantial evidence suggests that his dismissal was actually the result of suspicions about his loyalty, suspicions fuelled by events in the United States as well as by Sullivan’s fraternizing with Irish nationalists.

As early as 1913, Sullivan’s associate, James McGuire, had made contact with Roger Casement, an Irish nationalist who would be executed for treason in 1916 (Golway, 203–4; Cronin, 53).[16] In 1914, Home Rule had once again been deferred, further embittering the Irish at home and in the diaspora. Casement was in America in 1913, addressing Irish Nationalist organizations and appealing for funds. By August 1914, the leaders of the Clan na Gael and the IRB were in talks with representatives of the German Imperial government about plans for an uprising in Ireland and for smuggling Casement into Germany (Cronin, 53; Golway, 203–4). Meanwhile, prominent nationalist leaders Bulwer Hobson and Padraic Pearse were speaking at Clan rallies in America and acting as liaison between Irish-Americans and the IRB (Hay, 114–15; Edwards, 1919). In February 1915, as a result of increased American exports to “belligerents,” the vast majority of which went to the Allies, the German government declared a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare which led to the sinking of the RMS Lusitania on 7 May.

It has been claimed that Wilson knew the liner was carrying contraband and that Britain considered it an auxiliary naval vessel but that he and Bryan suppressed the information in order to maintain American neutrality (Streich). Shortly after, as Sullivan was leaving his post in Santo Domingo in late June, details were made public of the Annie Larsen affair, a conspiracy by German agents and Irish nationalists in the United States to run guns to Indian nationalists. German agents’ American contact was Joseph McGarrity, an Irish-American nationalist and longtime associate of Sullivan’s friend and colleague James McGuire. In late July, Secret Service agents obtained intelligence of a multi-million-dollar German espionage, sabotage, and propaganda ring in the United States, which President Wilson revealed in hopes of curtailing such activities. By December, the administration had expelled a number of German diplomats (Wittenberg, 110–11).

These circumstances suggest a cogent reason for Sullivan’s dismissal in his fellow Irish-American nationalists’ support for German victory. Irish-American leaders such as McGuire and Jeremiah O’Leary, who worked with German agents and received money from the German Embassy, carried on anti-Allied propaganda ceaselessly. Sullivan was likely also involved. His granddaughter remembers her mother relating that Sullivan had failed as an ambassador because he was so anti-British, refusing even to allow British ships to refuel in Santo Domingo.[17] Wilson, now increasingly intolerant of “hyphenate” political allegiances, may thus have been sending a message to leaders of militant Irish-American organizations. In October 1915, he demanded the resignation of T. St. John Gaffney, United States consul in Munich, on the grounds of his public support for Germany and pro-Irish sympathies. According to documents in the German Foreign Office archive, Sullivan intrigued with German diplomats in Haiti and the Dominican Republic (Link, 23n). He may have been a pawn in the game of international politics but he was nonetheless linked to anti-British, pro-German, Irish-Nationalist figures and groups.

Return to Ireland

Sullivan returned to Ireland, where he and Henry Fitzgibbon registered the Film Company of Ireland, with offices at 34 Dame Street, Dublin, in March 1916 (Rockett, 20). One of FCOI’s early recruits was John MacDonagh, actor, filmmaker, and Irish nationalist who later recalled: “A dynamic Irish-American lawyer named Sullivan had come over to start filmmaking. He had already started, principally with Knocknagow, when we met. He painted rosy pictures of the money to be made, and interested a group of public men, who between them, put up about £5000” (qtd. in Slide, 10).

In his study of Irish filmmaking prior to the FCOI, Anthony Slide notes that as early as 1904, Irish-made films had fallen under the suspicion of the British authorities (Slide, 1). Many of these early film efforts were tour guides of the Irish countryside and newsreels (Slide, 3, 4), but they soon took on a nationalist edge, starting with The Life of St Patrick (Ireland 1913). According to its promotional literature, The Life of St Patrick was “directed by an Irishman” and “enacted by Irish peasants in Ancient Historical costumes” (Slide, 7). Slide argues that Irish nationalists seized on motion pictures as propaganda vehicles as early as 1913. In a letter to John Devoy, Thomas J. Clarke suggested that J. T Jameson, a propaganda newsreel cameraman and exhibitor, “with his ring of picture houses showing our pictures will do good business and the Dublin newspapers may go to hell or to the Empire” (qtd in Rockett, 33). These early propaganda films, then, were consciously devised to aid the cause of Irish nationalism (McLoone, 28).

The Film Company of Ireland, the first Irish film company owned by an Irishman with all-Irish stars and Irish directors, participated fully in this propaganda effort in support of the cause. Some of FCOI’s early work, however, may have been destroyed during the 1916 Easter Rising when the Dame Street office went up in flames.[18] Although Sullivan himself was arrested and charged with complicity in the Rising (Rockett, 17; New York Times, 5 May 1916, 1), charges denied by family members in the United States who hoped to secure his release (New York Times, 8 May 1916, 6). As a friend of Michael Collins, Sullivan would in fact have been under surveillance by the authorities (Rockett, 29), a fact confirmed by Sullivan’s granddaughter.[19] It has even been claimed that Sullivan fought with the rebels (Humphrys), and his niece later recalled:

[He] never made any bones about opinions he held and, when the risings began, he did not hesitate to wish the rebels well. He was promptly taken prisoner. . . . [T]hey persuaded the authorities that uncle Jim was a purebred American born citizen who had been plenipotentiary to Santo Domingo, and was a person of some consequence. He was released in time for the christening of his little baby . . . named Ellen Sinn Fein Sullivan. . . . Jim Sullivan was the life and soul of the prisoners up at Kilmainham Goal [….] Uncle Jim came in on them [the prisoners] like a fresh breeze with his hearty laughter and his big voice and American wisecracks and without a tremor of fear; for who could touch an American citizen if all came to all. (Lavelle, 112–13)

The truth may never be known. In any event, Sullivan was arrested on Easter Monday and interned with many others, first at Dublin Castle and later at Kilmainham, a prison which housed almost every major Irish independence hero, and possibly also in an English prison (New York World, 5 May 1916, 1–2). American relatives and friends campaigned for his release. John D. Moore, National Secretary of the Friends of Irish Freedom (FOIF), notified Wilson by telegram of Sullivan’s arrest, although the President was judged “ not likely to intervene” (New York World, 5 May 1916, 2). Pressure from the State Department, Sullivan’s contacts at Tammany, some of whom were active in both the Clan and the FOIF, and letters from his sisters eventually secured Sullivan’s release from Kilmainham (New York World, 9 May 1916, 2). The British authorities may also have been bowing to American pressure to release American citizens in hopes that the United States would enter the war on the Allied side.

Sullivan may well have been involved in the Rising but there is no direct evidence. Two things would, however, have made Sullivan an object of suspicion to the British: first, his suspicious behavior in Santo Domingo; and, second, his friendship with Michael Collins. An unpublished fragment of a personal journal entry Sullivan wrote about Collins during the summer of 1920 indicates a level of trust between the two men that, given Collins’s wariness about enemies, must have been established over a long time. Sullivan records an incident when Collins took shelter in his home in Dublin, entrusted some papers to him for safe-keeping, and sat around telling stories about patriotic O’Sullivans, both famous and obscure, placing James Mark Sullivan in this distinguished lineage. Sullivan thought that Collins was “more concerned with the safety of the papers than myself” and noted having “never before [had] quite the same opportunity to get a glimpse of the soul of the man.” Collins, he recorded, had said: “I have much too often escaped situations where there seemed no avenue open to permit me to doubt that something better than blind chance was on my side. . . . I believe, James, God is smiling on Ireland and he is directing us.”[20] Sullivan exchanged numerous telegrams and letters with Michael Collins, and wrote newspaper articles endorsing the provisional government in which he acknowledged Collins’s role in leading Ireland to independence (Humphrys). Their friendship confirms Sullivan’s involvement in the armed nationalist struggle and strongly suggests his complicity with MacDonagh in making propaganda films.

The FCOI and revolution in Ireland

Establishing an Irish film company was thus a logical move for an Irish-American who increasingly identified with Ireland as his homeland, and Sullivan and Fitzgibbon’s first efforts at an all-Irish production were largely successful (Rockett, 17). While most of its early films were comedies, the FCOI responded to rising political tensions in the wake of the Rising by producing historical films such as Knocknagow and Willy Reilly and his Colleen Bawn to further the nationalist cause. Kickham’s 1873 novel Knocknagow depicts the plight of Irish peasants during the Great Famine with its evictions and attendant miseries. Its account of how a man of the people rises up in their hour of need to challenge the power of the landlords, prophesying a day of reckoning, made the novel a perfect vehicle to reflect Irish unity. In turn, as Rockett notes, the film’s popularity must be understood in the wider context of current events: the release of the remaining prisoners of the Rising, the victory of Sinn Fein leaders Eamon DeValera and William Cosgrove in the parliamentary election, and massive resistance to forced conscription (Rockett, 21).

Irish Limelight endorsed the work of the FCOI, reporting in January 1917 that the company’s mission was to “make Ireland known to the rest of the world, as she has never been known before, to let outside people realize that we have in Ireland other things than the dudeen, buffoon, knee-britches, and brass knuckles” (qtd. in Rockett, 33). The FCOI’s connection to militant Irish nationalism was reinforced when it agreed to work with John MacDonagh and the Irish Theatre Company, a short-lived group which broke away from the Abbey Theatre to pursue a “more radical agenda”[21] (Rockett, 24). The Bioscope’s reviewer, criticizing the cinematography and direction of Knocknagow, noted that “propagandistic elements” are “discretely veiled but is unmistakably present” (16 October 1919, 58). Citing intertitles such as “It’s a land of plenty, and God forgive those who come to Ireland to starve the Irish” (now lost) as well as “What curse is on an Irishman that he cannot even have poverty’s crumb for his dear ones?” (Intertitle 121), the Bioscope acknowledges the film’s “biased tone” (16 October 1919, 58). Ruth Barton is more explicit about the film’s agenda: “Knocknagow marks the beginning of a more overtly politicized cinema. By choosing to adapt Charles J Kickham’s popular novel . . . . the Film Company of Ireland invited the audience to locate the revolutionary movement within a historical perspective and, in particular, reminded them of the long history of injustice suffered by the Irish people under colonialism” (Barton, 24). The fact that Knocknagow and its successor Willy Reilly and the Colleen Bawn made their public debuts on the anniversary of the Rising was of no small significance to Irish patrons (Rockett, 21, 27).

By 1919, it was apparent that FCOI personnel were intimately associated with Irish nationalism. Indeed, John MacDonagh made a propaganda film for the Irish Republican Bond loan while directing Willy Reilly and his Colleen Bawn.[22] MacDonagh’s film was shown at gunpoint in various theaters throughout Ireland by Irish Volunteers, who then made a quick escape (Rockett, 24). While Sullivan may not have been officially connected with the Republican Bond film, his “propagandistic” feature films were, like the Republican Bond film, used to raise money and shore up nationalist support in the United States and Ireland. It is hard to imagine that he was not personally involved.

The FCOI, then, was peopled by individuals with strong affinities to Sinn Fein (McLoone, 28), which may be one reason why Sullivan, who returned to the United States in 1918, was not allowed to re-enter Ireland until after the war. But the major reason for Sullivan’s return to the United States was to incorporate the FCOI in Boston so as to be able to better market the films to American audiences.[23] His wife and family, however, did return to Dublin, where Nell and their son Donal succumbed to influenza in 1919 (Lavelle, 136). According to several sources, the wake of the death of his wife and son, Sullivan became disenchanted and returned to the US to resuscitate his moribund law practice (Felter and Schultz 2004, 32; Slide, 16). Upon his return to the States, he served for a time a member of a commission representing the IRA (Humphreys) and the following year was reported as the first American representative from the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State (White, 362–3).

Ironically, this appointment put Sullivan at odds with one branch of his wife’s family, the O’Maras. Stephen O’Mara supported DeValera in the Civil War and, as “republican government special envoy to the United States” (“Death of a Prominent Limerick Citizen”), came to the States with Harry Boland in 1921 to raise money for DeValera’s American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic. Sullivan’s brother-in-law, James O’Mara, initially supported DeValera, whom he accompanied on funding drives between 1919 and 1921 before resigning as trustee of the Dáil Éirann fund after a disagreement with DeValera. James O’Mara served briefly as the first Irish ambassador to the United States, returning to Ireland to serve in the Dáil. Sullivan, intimately involved in Irish and Irish-American politics, was chosen to take charge of Piaris Beasli’s American tour arrangements.[24] A journalist who had been interned after the Rising, Beasli had reported news of the Aud to John Devoy and the Clan na Gael and Friends of Irish Freedom in Liverpool. Like Sullivan, he knew Michael Collins well—his official biography, Michael Collins and the Making of New Ireland (1926), earned him the enmity of Eamon DeValera—and he had been jailed twice for editing nationalist publications. The connection with Beasli further confirms Sullivan’s intimacy with militant Irish nationalists. Indeed, Beasli’s papers show that in 1922 Sullivan was in charge of arrangements and publicity for “Sinn Fein’s Irish American supporters,” presumably members of the FOIF and the Devoy-Cohalan faction of Irish America.[25]


Sullivan’s nationalist message is evident in Knocknagow, which is filled with scenes and images calculated to rouse the audience’s support for Irish independence: good peasants; evil landlords and bailiffs; white thatched cottages; cosy warm hearths; flute-playing; jig-dancing; stone walls; country roads; evictions; a hurling match; and references to Cruiskeen Lawn (i.e. poteen or moonshine). The film contrasts the simple life of peasants with the wealthy hunting and sporting life of the landlords, and the hare-coursing scene in which hounds are seen tearing the hare apart perhaps offers a metaphor of the relationship between landlord and peasant. Although the intertitles do not use a particularly Celtic or Gaelic type, several are bordered with Celtic designs and carry the motif of a hound jumping through a circle labeled “KELTIC” (fig. 2) The author and copyright holder of the screenplay is identified in the opening title as Ellen Sullivan, James Sullivan’s wife. She follows the Kickham novel by beginning the film with an excerpt from Thomas Davis’s poem “Tipperary,” which is illustrated with an title card in the contemporary Arts and Crafts style (fig. 3) .[26] Most of the text slides are simple white text on black background without the Keltic border; but some probably use illustrations from contemporary books to mark key scenes. The eviction scene, for example, begins with a title card that highlights the stone walls of the previous shot as well as the contrast between landlord and peasant (fig. 4) .

Come back in spirit to the time when our great grandfathers faced a world that had little to offer.But it is not only the images in the film that appeal to Irish and Irish-American sympathies for the independence struggle. Nell Sullivan’s text itself seeks to evoke nationalist sentiments. When Phil Lahy, the tailor, sings “The Airy Bachelor” in a romantic rustic setting of home, hearth, and happiness, an intertitle shows the song’s opening lines, “Come all you airy bachelors/ A warning take by me” (Intertitle 45), which would presumably be known to the audience and perhaps have been played by the musicians accompanying the film.[27] The song would have been particularly apt in the aftermath of the First World War when Britain broke its promise to grant Ireland Home Rule for its service in that war. The language of the film’s intertitles, despite including comic pieces about the peasant life, deliberately seeks to pull the heart-strings of its audience at the same time as reminding them of the need for Irish independence:

We turn back the pages of time to the Ireland of “48” when Irish smiles broke through every cloud of oppression. (Intertitle 3)

By locating the film during the Famine and focusing on the good-humour of the Irish people amid poverty, James and Nell Sullivan underscore their point: Ireland must move forward, overcome oppression, and ennoble Ireland’s peasantry, not as a backwards people who smile and smile but as a people ready to take their country back from their oppressors. In its use of visual imagery, language, musical and literary reference, and graphic design, the film can be seen to drive this message home.

Sullivan’s strong connections to Irish nationalist leaders in the United States and Ireland motivated him early on make silent films in the cause of Irish freedom. His audiences, both in Ireland and in America, were but a generation or two removed from the events depicted in his films; their memories were still fresh. But Sullivan’s American audiences, nostalgic for the “old sod,” wanted a romanticized version of this past. What Sullivan had learned from D.W. Griffith was a “historiographical strategy, a return to the Irish past by literary means” (Miller, 123–4). Accordingly, the film version of Knocknagow strategically uses a famous novel associated with the nationalist cause, simplifying the plot and animating and dramatizing individual scenes in order to glorify the land and the Irish peasantry, and send a clear signal that rebellion against oppression was not only right but imminent.


After 1920, James Mark Sullivan disappears from the record of FCOI, although his brother in law Joseph O’Mara was listed as treasurer (Wharton Releasing Corporation Records). According to Sullivan family tradition, he retired to St Petersburg, Florida in 1930 and worked as a sports writer, passing away in August 1935. The following year his body was returned to Ireland and buried next to Nell’s grave in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin (see James Mark Sullivan).[28] Although Sullivan began his life in Ireland and was returned there in death, in a sense he never left. A frequent visitor, his ties to his native country were reinforced by his marriage to an established Irish nationalist family, his ties to various groups and organizations of Irish nationalists in America, his close following of political events in Ireland, and his intrigues as American diplomat on behalf of Irish independence. Yet his greatest achievement was the establishment of the FCOI, whose nationalist films and characters attest to his deep commitment to a cause that he was finally able to see come to fruition. While there are a number of notable films credited to the FCOI, its most enduring legacy is arguably Knocknagow.

In the light of Sullivan’s complex political engagement, Knocknagow is revealed as not just a romantic adaptation of a popular Irish novel, but an important early attempt to use the new medium of film to entertain nostalgic Irish-Americans even as it sought to enlist their aid in the fight for Irish independence.


Figure 1. James Mark Sullivan and Ellen (“Nell”) Sullivan.

Figure 2.

Figure 3.

Figure 4.

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Rockett, Kevin. 1988. The Silent Period. In Cinema and Ireland, ed. Kevin Rockett, Luke Gibbons, and John Hill, 3–50. New York: Syracuse University Press.

Slide, Anthony. 1988. The Cinema and Ireland. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Stewart, A. T. Q. 1997. Michael Collins: The Secret File. Belfast: Blackstaff Press.

Streich, Michael. The Lusitania Sinking and Secretary of State Bryan’s Resignation. Accessed January 2011.

Sullivan, James M. Casement Journal. Unpublished. Courtesy of Mary Rose Callaghan.

Werner, M. R. 1928. Tammany Hall. New York: Garden City Publishing Company.

Wharton Releasing Corporation Records ca 1916–1923. Cornell University Rare Books and Manuscripts Collections. Box 3924.

White, James T., ed. The National Cyclopedia of American Biography. 1892. Clifton, NJ: J. T. White.

Wittenberg, Ernest. 1965. The Thrifty Spy on the Sixth Avenue El. American Heritage Magazine 17.1 (February): 110–11.

[1] On the history of the FCOI, see Felter and Schultz 2004. Biographical information on Fitzgibbon is lacking.

[2] Although the FCOI ceased production in Ireland in 1920, correspondence bearing company letterhead indicates that it continued in the United States until 1922. See Felter and Schultz 2004.

[3] “Death of Prominent Limerick Citizen,” Undated cutting from Limerick Leader. http://en.wikipedia.ord/wiki/Stephen_M._o%27Mara. Accessed 1 June 2011.

[4] For generously providing detail on Sullivan family history, the authors wish to thank Mary Rose Callaghan, granddaughter of James Sullivan.

[5] The New York World (5 May 1916, 1) and the New York Times (17 August 1935, 13) erroneously place Sullivan’s early years in Brooklyn.

[6] Date uncertain. A page, now missing, in the Sullivan family Bible gives the date of James Sullivan’s death as 1912.

[7] Mary Rose Callaghan, email to authors, 9 October 2002.

[8] White, 362; Phelan, 6; Logan, 76; Link 1960, 107. Tammany Hall, a Democratic political organization in New York City, and later upstate New York, had been synonymous with Irish Catholic political corruption since the 1870s. Tammany won Irish immigrant support by naturalizing thousands of immigrants, often illegally, and providing assistance to the poor and patronage jobs for the party faithful. Periodically checked by scandals, its power was finally dissolved by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s. See Connable and Silberfarb; Werner; Myers.

[9] A long-time associate of Sullivan. McGuire was a leading Irish nationalist with ties to Clan na Gael and Friends of Irish Freedom. He was a paid agent and publicist for the German Imperial Government during the First World War, for which he was subsequently investigated (Link 107).

[10] This notorious trial, which ran from 1912 to 1914, concerned the gangland killing of Herman Rosenthal at New York’s Hotel Metropole. New York City police officer Charles Becker was convicted, becoming the first American police officer to be executed for murder, but questions remain about his guilt. Sullivan represented “Bald Jack” Rose, whose testimony, crucial to the prosecution, he successfully traded for his client’s immunity. Other prominent Irish-American nationalists involved in the case included: John F. McIntyre, a Tammany lawyer and defender of Fenians; John Goff, a judge; and District Attorney Charles Whitman, later a governor, Sullivan’s candidacy for ambassador, calling him “honorable, upright, commendable” (Logan, 282).

[11] After the 1912 election, Bryan, now Secretary of State, wished to reward “deserving Democrats” for their loyalty and replaced many veteran career diplomats with politically naïve appointees. Sullivan’s anti-imperial stance applied only to Britain, as he and other Irish Nationalists courted the support of Imperial Germany for Irish independence (Werner, 438–9; Connable and Silverfarb, 250–2).

[12] Synge’s play had sparked a riot at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre; at its New York premiere, Irish-Americans also protested at what they saw as its demeaning portrait of Irish men and women. The Clan na Gael was a secret organization begun in 1867 America by discontented Fenians, which recruited among new Irish immigrants and by the 1870s had a nationwide membership. Well organized with strong ties to the Irish Republican Brotherhood (whose members included Charles Kickham, author of Knocknagow), it coordinated activities in Ireland and the United States. Under John Devoy’s leadership, it established “The New Departure,” a unification of the parties (physical force, land reformers, Parnellite Home Rulers) agitating for Irish independence. The Clan na Gael cooperated with Parnell’s visit to the United States in 1880 and initiated a tradition of cash remittances from Irish immigrants in the United States to dissidents in Ireland. See Funchion, 74–93.

[13] Mary Rose Callaghan, email to authors, 17 June 2002; Golway185–6.

[14] At this time, lobbying by Irish-American organizations resulted in the appointment of many Irish Catholics to Foreign Service and minor cabinet-level positions.

[15] Accusations included trying to replace a major Dominican creditor with a financier backed by Sullivan’s own political supporters, and giving public works and construction contracts to associates and relatives (Link, 54). After Sullivan’s resignation, the newspapers had a field day, accusing him of greeting diplomats while wearing a shirt with no tie, and drinking.

[16] A disenchanted British consul who exposed humanitarian abuses in the Congo Free State and Peru, Casement joined the Irish cause and convinced Clan na Gael members, whose leaders were mounting a rebellion in Ireland with German help, to recruit Irish POWs in Germany. His efforts failed and in attempting to land arms from a German submarine of the Irish coast, he may have alerted British authorities to the Easter Rising.

[17] Mary Rose Callaghan, email to authors, 14 January 2003.

[18] The claim that the company’s first films were burned during the Rising, barely a month after its founding, appears in many sources but is undocumented. The story may have circulated because it was good advertising and reinforced the FCOI’s connection to the nationalist cause.

[19] Mary Rose Callaghan, email to authors, 16 June 2002.

[20] James M. Sullivan, Casement Journal , unpublished. Quoted by kind permission of Mary Rose Callaghan.

[21] The Irish Theatre Company (1914–20) was founded by Edward Martyn, Thomas MacDonagh, and Joseph Plunkett in in direct response to commercial Irish theatre companies as well as the Abbey Theatre, which focussed on peasant drama. It staged plays in Irish, urban dramas, and continental plays (but no English drama), and hosted lectures and theatrical performances by Irish nationalist Padraic Pearse. After Thomas MacDonagh and Plunkett were executed for their participation in the Easter Rising, the company briefly continued under the direction of Martyn and MacDonagh’s brother John. See Feeney.

[22] This film was shot using FCOI equipment, on the campus of Padraic Pearse’s St. Enda’s School after the Easter Rising at the same time that FCOI was filming Willy Reilly and his Colleen Bawn. John MacDonagh, brother of slain rebel leader Thomas MacDonagh, directed Michael Collins, who “starred” in the film along with the relatives of some of the slain rebels: Padraic Pearse’s mother, Tom Clarke’s widow, and James Connolly’s daughter. See Stewart 29.

[23] See Felter and Schultz 2004 and 2006.

[24] Journalist, official biographer of Michael Collins, and member of the Gaelic League, IRB, and Irish Volunteers.

[25] Piaras Beasli Papers, National Library of Ireland, 4–6, 25. Accessed 18 January 2011.

[26] For more on Davis, including the text of his poem “Tipperary,” see the essay by Natzén in this issue.

[27] For the text of “The Airy Bachelor,” see the essay by Natzén in this issue, note 3.

[28] “James Mark Sullivan, L.L.B. 1902.” Yale University Obituary Record: 216. Accessed 16 January 2011.

About the Author

Dan Schultz & Maryanne Felter

About the Authors

Dan Schultz

Dan Schultz is Professor of Social Sciences at Cayuga Community College, Auburn, New York, where he teaches American history and sociology. His work has appeared in New Directions for Community Colleges, Canadian Journal for Irish Studies, New Hibernia Review, and Crossroads.

Maryanne Felter

Maryanne Felter is Associate Professor in the English Department, Cayuga College, SUNY. Her publications include Crossing Borders: The Work of Mary Rose Callaghan (University of Delaware Press, 2009), Write for a Reason (co-edited with Bird Stasz and Matthew Adams), contributions to Irish Women Writers: An A-Z Guide (Greenwood Press, forthcoming), and numerous journal articles on literary history and film.View all posts by Dan Schultz & Maryanne Felter →