Ireland before the Rising: From Gallipoli to the Little Tramp
Cinema had made household names of Charlie Chaplin and Jack Johnson but did did little to boost recruitment for the Great War
By 1915 picture houses in Dublin advertised special films about Chaplin in addition to their usual features and held competitions to find the best Chaplin imitator among audiences.
On boxing day 1907 Jack Johnson secured his place in sporting history when he became the first black heavyweight champion of the world. Fighting Tommy Burns in Sydney Australia, the fight was eventually halted when the police intervened in the fourteenth round. Photograph: Hulton Getty/Allsport
If John Maynard Keynes had been able to take time off from his treasury job in the autumn of 1915 to write a moment-defining prequel to his famous treatise on the peace conference he might have called it The Economic Consequences of the War. In late September British prime minister Herbert Asquith revealed that the campaign was costing £5 million a day. Coal and bread were in short supply.
On the assumption that chancellor of the exchequer Reginald McKenna was planning substantial tax rises in his imminent budget, there was a run on tea, sugar and tobacco; one Dublin tea merchant reported that his stocks had virtually disappeared. But although McKenna raised income tax by 40 per cent, such was the worry about the possible scale of the new indirect taxes that a nine-fold increase in the sugar duties and 50 per cent on tea were greeted with equanimity by Irish retailers.
The exemption of spirits from punitive taxation was greeted with relief but the budget was but another sign of how, after a year, the war had become a banal but insidious feature of everyday life.
The enthusiasm of the first months when enlisting men had been cheered off at the train stations by crowds singing It’s a Long Way to Tipperary had given way to a burdensome sense of indefinite sacrifice. Millions of casualties on the western front had produced little progress.
Every day the papers carried lists of the dead and reports of funerals. In the late summer of 1915 as the disaster of the Gallipoli campaign unfolded, the scale of the Irish losses at Suvla Bay hit home. The censorship regime precluded official public celebration of heroic deeds. Instead, an awareness emerged in letters from the front reaching national and local newspapers that the Irish soldiers had been treated as cannon fodder, betrayed by the callous incompetence of British generals.
Suddenly the invective of the small band of anti-war nationalists seemed in tune with the prevailing mood of cynicism and indifference. From deriding the Irish recruits as dupes the papers and news sheets dubbed by British officials as the mosquito press had switched to portraying them as brave and gallant men whose lives were being wasted in an imperial war. They claimed to show the reality of life in the trenches concealed by the censorship.
James Connolly’s Workers Republic printed an account by a soldier who had been at the Battle of Mons which prefigured the kind of war literature which would become commonplace a decade later. “Men’s arms, legs, heads and intestines were mixed with rock and clay and were blown skywards, and the rain of human blood which came down was indescribable.”
The relentless debunking of official propaganda pointed to unforeseen ramifications of an increasingly global conflict. In October 1915 Arthur Griffith warned in Nationality that “the introduction of savage Asiatics and Africans into Europe in war between civilised Powers is unparalleled in European history since anno domini. It is a betrayal of the white race, and an infamy pregnant with a grim and horrible danger and woe in the future”.
The mosquito press enjoyed limited sales but readers of Griffith’s polemics became ventriloquists for his arguments. And in towns and cities across Ireland anti-recruiting posters amplified the message that this was not Ireland’s war. In the autumn of 1915 there was a notable fall-off in enlistment, scarcely concealed by official euphemisms. “Though there have been no distinct rushes to the various recruiting offices”, a correspondent in The Irish Times reported at the beginning of September, “the response, taken as a whole, has been reasonably satisfactory, and not at all discreditable to the City of Dublin.”
The ire of the recruiting agents turned on shop assistants who were singled out as a class of men with a unique propensity for shirking which suggest that their work had rendered them effeminate. Unlike men accustomed to a robust outdoor life, they had been corrupted by the creature comforts afforded by standing behind counters.
In a speech in Clonmel, the director of the new body established to organise recruiting fulminated that “no man had a right to do anything but a man’s job, and if he was doing a woman’s job for God’s sake let him put on a woman’s skirt”.
But rugged and virile farmers’ sons were proving no less reluctant than their cosseted urban peers; they listened to such speeches leaning against walls with hands in their pockets, oozing indifference and hostility. Marching bands and the exhortations of local dignitaries did little to lift the mood of recruiting meetings. Nor did a significant new marketing tool, touring vans displaying film of war scenes from Champagne and Flanders, showing the ruins caused by German bombardment.
The boasts that these carefully chosen images were shot at the front at great risk to the cameramen who captured them may well have reinforced the determination of sullen audiences not to go anywhere near the battlefield. The fact that they were used at all is a clue to how the cinema had gripped the imagination of Irish audiences.
Well before the war, picture halls were opening in the smallest of Irish provincial towns, “brightening the dreary existence of the Irish peasant” as the British trade journal Bioscope noted in 1913. While the British and French film industries withered during the war, American production companies flooded Europe with slick and compelling features.
By 1915 the United Kingdom was biggest foreign market for American films. Packed halls from Mullingar to Mallow were captivated by alluring visions of a lifestyle in which everybody chatted on the telephone, ate in restaurants instead of at home and danced to jazz music; unmarried women thought nothing of dining alone with young men and accepting a lift home in a shiny car.
The American movie houses had also begun to create stars, names guaranteed to fill a theatre. None was bigger than Charlie Chaplin, whose box office popularity enabled his studio to make demands which outraged British picture house proprietors. One member of the London Cinema Exhibitors’ Association ventured that it was possible to have too much of Charlie Chaplin, prompting The Irish Times to suggest that the cinema owners were at odds with public opinion. Chaplin, an editorial asserted, “has become almost a craving with many persons”.
There was plenty of evidence to suggest that this was true. Picture houses in Dublin advertised special films about Chaplin in addition to their usual features and held competitions to find the best Chaplin imitator among audiences. Professional Chaplin impersonators took to the stage and at the end of September the Coliseum Theatre put on a revue entitled Charlie Chaplin Mad featuring “the only Charlie Chaplin girl extant”.
Cross-fertilisation did not stop at cinema and theatre: professional boxing was now a transatlantic spectacle, its leading practitioners drawing tens of thousands to open-air stadiums with millions more watching films of their bouts at picture houses around the world.
Champions such as Jack Dempsey and Jack Johnson – the first black man to win the world heavyweight crown – emerged as celebrities, signing lucrative contracts with film companies and photo agencies. Promoters doubled as film producers and theatrical agents.
Six months before the Easter Rising, Dublin was not untouched by this remarkable transformation in commercial entertainment. In October 1915, Jack Johnson – who the previous April had lost the world heavyweight title he had held for seven years – arrived to present his revue, Seconds Out, at the Theatre Royal. He was accompanied by his white wife Lucille – who promised to perform the risqué “Oyster Dance” billed as the latest American craze – and a cast of dancing girls, magicians, comedians and acrobats.
Three years earlier Johnson had relocated to Europe after being convicted of a racially motivated charge of kidnapping his wife. Such was his celebrity that soldiers on the western front had nicknamed big German shells “Jack Johnsons” because of the pall of black smoke they produced. When a reporter pointed out to the boxer in Paris in May 1915 that his name would now go down in war history, Johnson replied: “Wasn’t I in history before this war?”
On opening night in Dublin the first of two performances was packed, with almost a thousand people waiting outside the Theatre Royal to be admitted to the second show. Johnson’s appearance on stage was greeted with cheers and applause. But a picture of a naked female figure resting on an easel behind him drew shouts of anger from some members of the audience. Johnson ordered its removal and then thanked the audience for their intervention, requesting them to make their wishes known if anything else should offend them.
He made a short speech, sang a song, presented his face to be covered with soap suds by the comedian and gave a boxing exhibition with a sparring partner before asking if any patrons would be prepared to go a few rounds themselves. A Mr O’Neill accepted the challenge and took to the stage. “Although a man of fine physique,” a correspondent noted, “he was overshadowed by the champion.”
Furious interruptions such as Johnson experienced were not uncommon in Dublin theatres. A couple of weeks earlier a man called William Larkin appeared in court on charges of causing a disturbance in the Bohemian Picture House in Phibsborough during a showing of A Modern Magdalen.
Witnesses said they had heard Larkin hiss loudly when a woman appeared on screen in Eastern costume dancing on a supper table. He roared “Dirty Catholic Dublin” and then continued shouting at the top of his voice causing teenage girls to flee their sixpenny seats, before making his way outside and shouting from the steps that there was a woman prostituting herself on the screen inside.
Asked by Mr Larkin’s counsel if he had seen the woman with a bunch of grapes in each hand feeding a gentleman, Charles Millen a civil servant said the film appeared to him to be perfectly clean. “The figure of the woman was not naked to the waist. She was bare to the breasts.”
Larkin had previously created disturbances at other theatres and turned out to have accomplices dedicated to invigilating immoral cinema, noting down what they regarded disgraceful scenes to document their case for stricter censorship.
At the annual conference of the Catholic Truth Society that autumn a prominent layman, Sir Joseph Glynn, called for a campaign to blacklist unsuitable productions thrust on the people in theatres and cinemas and ensure that “the Press did its duty in a vigorous attack on anything savouring of indecency”. But he accepted that to lay all the blame for depraved tastes on theatres was analogous to blaming publicans for intemperance.
The playhouses, he acknowledged, were crowded with young men and women (and even their fathers and mothers) drawn not by the musical charms of the “beauty chorus” but by their physical attractions.
Much the same conclusion was drawn by the Freeman’s Journal in its slighting review of Jack Johnson’s sketches, which it conceded had included “some pretty spectacular effects” and had captivated those watching. “The crowded houses which received him last night give testimony . . . to the ex-champion’s shrewd judgment of what the public require from the stage and the peculiar taste in the matter of entertainment that the public have lately been developing.”