While sojourning in Dublin last month, I picked up a copy of a new film history which I’d managed to miss up until now. Denis Condon’s Early Irish Cinema 1895-1921, published by Irish Academic Press, describes itself as examining “early and silent cinema and its contexts in Ireland”. It is a history not just of film production in Ireland (at a time when politically it was still a part of the United Kingdom), but its exhibition and its social and cultural contexts as well. Although there have been several histories of Irish film which include accounts of filmmaking in the silent era, so far as I am aware this is the first book dedicated to the early and silent cinema period alone.
Irish film production in the silent era was small-scale (and has attracted little interest among film scholars except those from Ireland) but Condon argues the attention given to these films by Irish commentators suggests that they have “a symbolic significance far out of proportion to their numbers”. The first Irish-produced fiction films did not appear until 1913 – one-reelers made by Irish Film Productions such as Michael Dwyer and Love in a Fix – and did not seriously begin until 1916 with the formation of the Film Company of Ireland, which made O’Neil of the Glen (1916), Knocknagow (1918) and Willy Reilly and his Colleen Bawn (1920), the latter two of which survive. Irish-themed films were made in profusion in America, however, mostly notably by Kalem, which sent a company headed by Sidney Olcott and Gene Gauntier over to Ireland and made such titles as The Lad from Old Ireland (1910), Arrah-na-Pogue (1911), The Shaugraun (1912) and Come Back to Erin (1914) (the latter one of those made by the Gene Gauntier Players, rather than Kalem). On the non-fiction side, there was Irish production from early on with local views produced by exhibitiors such as James T. Jameson, through to Norman Whitten’s General Film Supply, whose most interesting production was the newsreel Irish Events (1917-1920). Again, the greater number of Irish-themed non-fiction films came from outside, particularly British companies such as the Warwick Trading Company and the Charles Urban Trading Company, which produced assorted travelogue series.
This history Condon covers in remarkable detail. There appear to be few documentary sources that he has not examined, and his notes and sources will be plundered by future researchers for years to come. However, though he piles on the detail, he has arranged the book most interestingly. Avoiding too slavish an adherence to chronology, he divides the book into chapter entitled ‘Retrospection and Projection’, ‘Theatre’, ‘Virtual Tourism’, ‘Participation’ and ‘The Great Institution of Kinematography’. These reflect Irish cinema’s roots, its cultural inheritance, the importance of external producers’ work, Irish production itself, and a larger conception of cinema which includes the distribution of films, their exhibition and reception. The construction makes think about how Irish cinema was constructed.
This is a worthwhile, rigorous academic study. It is based on a thesis (and reads like it), with arguments about the institutional and pre-institutional form of early cinema which are designed to appeal to the film studies crowd. But it is also jam-packed full of every sort of detail, fascinating to dig through, and comes with a very helpful filmography that includes both films extant and films lost. My thought on reading it was that, despite the author’s progressive historiographical aims, there is something about the national film history which is a little quaint these days. We’ve done with the histories of this country and that country’s films, or we should have done. If cinema history teaches us anything it is that distribution had to flow over borders, if films were to make money. Condon certainly looks beyond Irish film production, and admirably so, but it is what audiences saw (American films, largely unmentioned except for the Kalem films) and what those audiences were (mostly absent from his book) that is the heart of the matter, not what any one country made.