Ireland through the newsreel eye
If images could not be captured, then film-makers often resorted to restaging events or even substituting “similar” footage for the real thing, as in the case of the sinking of Titanic. In all instances, however, the reality was necessarily “reformed”: firstly, by the ideological and/or aesthetic choices with regard to filming (shot content and type or angle of shot); secondly, through the addition of intertitles or, by the 1930s, the more intrusive “authoritative” commentary and rousing music; and finally, by the editorial process of the various companies’ programming policies, whereby, for example, only six or seven of a possible 60-90 stories supplied by their camera operators would be selected each week for distribution.
Notwithstanding that most British-
produced newsreel items were concerned with sporting events, royalty and famous personalities, Chambers places most emphasis on newsreels depicting the competing ideologies of nationalism and unionism in Ireland, and how they used already established stereotypes of the two traditions. Dividing the text into four main periods – Home Rule and the first World War; the War of Independence and the Civil War; the 1930s; and the second World War – she traces these stereotypes and argues that the newsreels contrasted the “masculine” urban north, with its industrial heartland, against the “feminine” and “backward” rural south. Clearly, this had an impact on their reception in both parts of Ireland.
There is evidence, for example, that certain films, such as British recruitment propaganda during the first World War, were disrupted in Dublin cinemas. The authorities were sufficiently alert to the possibility of strong nationalist responses that, in 1919, they banned Sinn Féin Review, a newsreel compilation produced by Irish Events, the maker of The Agony of Belfast (circa 1920), a film that depicts the complexity of the city by including not just a Catholic eviction but also the poverty of loyalist Belfast. Though research into contemporary newspaper and magazine sources might have provided more complete accounts of the reception of the newsreels in the two Irish jurisdictions, it seems, from the limited evidence uncovered, that loyalist Belfast, unsurprisingly, embraced images of the union with more enthusiasm than the south.
Though the two world wars and especially the Battle of the Somme, in 1916 – the subject of a graphic and controversial documentary/newsreel, which, ironically, did not feature Ulster’s soldiers – helped most to knit unionists into a sense of British identity, nevertheless, even before the outbreak of war, newsreels were sympathetically representing unionist opposition to Home Rule, especially through the unionist strategy of building up Edward Carson as an iconic figure in 1912-14.