‘Passion and Politics’ lecture series part 1

While I wait for With Casement’s Irish Brigade, I’ll get back to some of several talks I attended during the last few months. Specifically, I’ll try to cover some of the memorable series of lectures that accompanied a major exhibition of Sir John Lavery‘s works hosted by the Hugh Lane Gallery last autumn. Both exhibition and lecture series were completely free to the public. I attended the following lectures:

Visual Culture in Ireland: The Revival and After (26 September)
Visualizing a New Ireland – artists, nationalism and independence (3 October)
Sir John Lavery’s “High Treason: The Trial of Roger Casement”: the political encryption of a history painting (10 October)
E.O. Hoppé (12 October)
Pathé and Politics (17 October)

A technical glitch held up Kenneth McConkey’s talk John Lavery – Irish Artist Reporter on 24 October. After over an hour with little progress, I had to leave, but as it was not rescheduled, I assume it went ahead eventually. I also went to a screening of the Empire Marketing Board‘s film One Family in which Hazel Lavery played a part.

To get my brain into gear I’ll start with Kevin Rafter’s talk because the lecture notes aren’t as extensive as some of the others. Because there is a lot to cover overall, I’ll try to keep commentary to a minimum, and anything I have to say will be in square brackets.

The beginning of the twentieth century saw technical advances and market changes that revolutionised art and the media. Lord Northcliffe’s Daily Mail targeted the lower middle class. T.P. O’Connor developed gossip journalism and sought to exploit a female market. The new medium of commercial film had a faltering start in Ireland, but it developed rapidly, and by 1916 there were 140 halls and venues listed as showing films.

The 1916 Rising was as much a media event as a military event – the first media event in modern Ireland. The Irish School of Wireless Telegraphy was occupied and the aerial repaired so that on Tuesday messages c0uld be sent though not received. The transmitter was taken to the G.P.O. where a message was given by James Connolly for transmission. Prior to this, messages were sent point to point, but on this occasion a message proclaiming the declaration of an Irish Republic was broadcast for reception by ships etc.

Arthur Griffith’s leading role in the Irish revolution stemmed from the fact that, essentially, he was a spin doctor. Clair Willis has brought up the role of mass-produced memorabilia in promoting post-Rising fervour. [It could be argued that they were a response to the DORA censorship restrictions which placed huge restrictions on how the Rising could be commemorated.] British ineptitude in their response to the Rising and the threat of conscription also played a role. In this atmosphere, the new medium of film was extremely influential. Information about the war took on the language of the market: in the U.S. the war was to be “sold”. The line between entertainment and information was blurred. Film images of parades, the process of Terence MacSwiney’s death, treaty delegates, became an integral part of the memory of the period.

Dublin Castle monitored patriotic films closely. Audiences responded strongly to a story about Robert Emmet and filmed images from the Tone commemoration at Bodenstown in 1913. Tom Clarke wrote to John  Devoy that the cameraman had related that no other film he had witnessed had received such a reception. The room in the Rotunda where it was screened seemed to shake. An office was opened in Dublin for “Irish events”, which filmed newsreel footage. Ireland’s first film publication, Irish Limelight, ran from 1917 to 1920. Norman Whitton also produced newsreel film during this period. Having set up in Ireland in 1910, he also produced promotional films for the railway, Paterson matches etc. His cameras were at Westland Row for the release of the 1916 prisoners. The same prisoners were able to watch the film the same evening. Some material had to be sent to Britain for processing which took up to 24 hours.

A 10 minute film was made of Thomas Ashe’s funeral in 1917, the filming of which was said to have been stage-managed by Michael Collins. Whitton also made a film called “Sinn Féin review”, but his company closed down in 1920. Footage of the Black and Tans caused accounts of their misdeeds to be more present to the minds of audiences. A film in which two Volunteers are forced to march through Dungarvan with a British flag by Black and Tans and military was intended to chasten the populace, but instead caused outrage. Sir John Lavery, who had been knighted in late 1917, said that the deeds of the Black and Tans reversed his earlier feeling that whatever Ireland got, it was what “we” deserved.

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