Emmet on film

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 3 (Autumn 2003), Robert Emmet, Volume 11

The release in September 1911 of Sidney Olcott’s ten-minute Rory O’More, a 1798 rebel-on-the-run story, set in train a series of historical films that sympathetically depicted the rebel cause. (Red Mountain Media)

The release in September 1911 of Sidney Olcott’s ten-minute Rory O’More, a 1798 rebel-on-the-run story, set in train a series of historical films that sympathetically depicted the rebel cause. (Red Mountain Media)

When Ireland a Nation, a film made in 1914 that centred on the political and military events in Ireland from the late eighteenth century to the Famine, was screened at the Rotunda, Dublin, in January 1918, it was seized by the military authorities after just two days—despite having already received a permit from the press censor. What prompted the volte-face was the audience reaction to the sympathetic portrayal of the Irish struggle for national self-determination: ‘rebel’ songs were sung and the on-screen killing of Redcoats was cheered. Clearly the authorities had underestimated the power of this already popular medium to rouse an Irish audience with a stirring (if occasionally inaccurate) account of Irish history.

Irish history a staple of early cinema

Irish history on the screen had been a staple of the cinema from the time short narrative films began to be regularly produced. Thus The Irish Blacksmith (1908) features the eponymous hero who is wrongly accused of storing weapons by the military, while An Irish Hero (1909) is one of many filmed versions of Dion Boucicault’s Fenian play The Shaughraun, a short version of which was produced as early as 1907. Shamus O’Brien (1908) focuses on the leader of a secret organisation who is saved from the gallows through a pardon, a familiar trope of American narrative cinema featuring the last-minute rescue scene. As American cinema sought new markets at home—including amongst its large Irish diasporic population—and abroad, one of its most successful companies, Kalem, sent crews and casts to Ireland during 1910–12 to produce the first series of fiction films to be made in the country. As its key director, Sidney Olcott, was of Irish extraction, it is unsurprising that he should focus on the (cinematically) exciting military events in Ireland during the 1798–1803 period.
While Olcott did not make the first film about Robert Emmet, the release in September 1911 of his ten-minute Rory O’More, a 1798 rebel-on-the-run story which draws on Samuel Lover’s 1836 novel of the same name, set in train a series of historical films that sympathetically depicted the rebel cause. One of these was Thanhouser’s Robert Emmet, which was released three months later. Like other films about Emmet, and Irish history generally, it plays fast and loose with the facts. Nevertheless, in ten minutes, it covers his time at and expulsion from Trinity College, Dublin, as well as his subsequent exile in France, which, as in Ireland a Nation, features a meeting with Napoleon. It also shows the 1803 Rebellion and, like the later film, effectively blames his capture on his desire to see Sarah Curran. In this version of the tale, Emmet seeks to protect Sarah from the authorities and offers to plead guilty provided she is not subjected to official annoyance. As is so frequently the case with historical films, the love story is elevated and often takes precedence over the communal action of the protagonists. Here, as Thanhouser’s publicity put it, ‘the pathetic love story of Emmet and Sarah Curran is a page of history that will never be forgotten by their countrymen’.

Sidney Olcott’s 1915 Bold Emmett [sic]—Ireland’s Martyr displays more fully the limitations of historical depictions on screen and the nature of the myth of Emmet. (Red Mountain Media)

Sidney Olcott’s 1915 Bold Emmett [sic]—Ireland’s Martyr displays more fully the limitations of historical depictions on screen and the nature of the myth of Emmet. (Red Mountain Media)

While over thirty films were made during 1907–1915 about aspects of Irish history (before the 1916 Rising transformed such ‘distant’ events and gave them a powerful contemporary resonance), almost all, including Robert Emmet, were actually made in the USA, though a few, amongst them Michael Dwyer, the Irish Outlaw (1913), were produced in Britain. While Dwyer’s fate is inextricably linked with Emmet’s, this film is exclusively set in Wicklow and features, as does Ireland A Nation, the events at Dwyer’s cottage when wounded Sam McAllister ‘sacrifices’ himself by holding off English soldiers as Dwyer escapes. Another 1914 film, For the Wearing of the Green, also shows McAllister’s death, but in this case the protagonist is called ‘Paddy’ Dwyer.

Anne Devlin escapes to Australia with Michael Dywer!

Made by Waterford-born Walter MacNamara, whose claim to fame was his involvement in the first major American sexploitation film, Traffic in Souls (1914), Ireland a Nation was filmed in Britain and Ireland in summer 1914. Though advertised as an elaborate review of ‘the history of Old Erin’ from 1798 to 1914, the main events depicted are those of the 1798 and 1803 periods. While the version of the film that survives does not contain the 1798 Rising, the 1803 section seems to be complete. This shows Emmet (played by Barry O’Brien) meeting Napoleon (an event which may or may not have occurred); the role of an informer who tries to elicit Anne Devlin’s help in betraying Emmet; and her attempt to dissuade Emmet from visiting Sarah Curran. As he is visiting his sweetheart, soldiers arrive, but he escapes only to be captured at Harold’s Cross. In prison, Emmet is interrogated by Major Sirr and is visited by Sarah, and at his trial he defends himself on the grounds that what he tried to achieve for Ireland was akin to what Washington did for America. After the trial he is once again visited by Sarah, and this section concludes with Michael Dwyer, not a prisoner about to be exiled but disguised in a cloak given to him by Anne Devlin, beating up the informer and, in a flourish of romantic fiction, leaving by ship with Anne to travel to Australia!
Clearly, the film’s choice of the 1798–1803 timeframe suggested impatience with the dominant Home Rule constitutional approach of the period. However, MacNamara included as a coda in the finished film a telegram of support from the Irish Parliamentary Party leader, John Redmond. Although this was subsequently cut by the military censor before its 1918 release, it allowed MacNamara to claim that the ‘Nationalist party gave us unofficial sanction’. Additionally, the military censor also cut other sections of the film before temporarily allowing its release. The deleted scenes depict Sarah Curran being ‘roughly handled by soldiers’ (though this may have been a mistake by the censor as it is Anne Devlin who is strung up as she refuses to reveal Emmet’s whereabouts); Emmet’s execution; an inter-title, ‘A price of £100 dead or alive on the head of every priest’, in a section concerning a hillside Mass which is raided by soldiers; and the display of the Irish flag at the end of the film. After the 1918 banning, the film was not shown in Ireland again until after independence. By then, newsreel footage had been added, including Eamon de Valera’s 1919–20 American tour, Terence MacSwiney’s and Michael Fitzgerald’s hunger strikes in 1920, and British Prime Minister Lloyd George reviewing Black and Tan troops.
While Ireland a Nation was to prove the most controversial Irish ‘political’ fiction film of the period, Bold Emmet—Ireland’s Martyr, made in 1915 by Sidney Olcott, perhaps displays more fully the limitations of historical depictions on screen and the nature of the myth of Emmet. During the time these two films were made, Patrick Pearse made a series of speeches in which he drew inspiration from Emmet, accentuated in part by the proximity of his school, St Enda’s, Rathfarnham, to Sarah Curran’s family residence. From 1914 onwards he spoke of Emmet ‘the dreamer’ who became ‘a man of action’, but did so in the same breath as paying tribute to the support given to him by Anne Devlin. Though conceivably MacNamara and Olcott were influenced in their view of Emmet by Pearse’s speeches, it remains the case that Pearse was only the latest to invoke his memory, as Emmet was the subject of more than forty plays and many more novels during the nineteenth century.

While filming Willy Ryan and his Colleen Bawn (1920) on location in Patrick Pearse’s St Enda’s, John MacDonagh, brother of Thomas, executed in 1916, found time to direct Ireland’s first-ever propaganda documentary, showing Minister for Finance Michael Collins presiding over the signing of Dáil bonds, with Emmet’s execution block serving as a symbolic table. (Kilmainham Gaol)

While filming Willy Ryan and his Colleen Bawn (1920) on location in Patrick Pearse’s St Enda’s, John MacDonagh, brother of Thomas, executed in 1916, found time to direct Ireland’s first-ever propaganda documentary, showing Minister for Finance Michael Collins presiding over the signing of Dáil bonds, with Emmet’s execution block serving as a symbolic table. (Kilmainham Gaol)

Emmet in uniform

The enduring representation of Emmet is in a soldier’s uniform. If the uniform was an assertion of Irish national identity, it also elevated his and his followers’ status and detached them from the fate of the rebels of 1798 who were summarily executed. Should his rebellion fail, he believed they would be treated as prisoners-of-war. This fetishising of the soldier’s uniform was most poignantly and brilliantly explored in writer/director Pat Murphy’s 1984 film Anne Devlin. In that film, as Luke Gibbons points out, ‘Emmet’s political activity seems to operate largely at the level of signs and representations’. One such instance is when Anne comes across Emmet’s splendid green uniform. She holds it up in front of a mirror, at which point Emmet enters the room. Asked what she thinks of the uniform, she replies that she doesn’t think much of it, to which Emmet responds by lauding how such a military ‘costume’ would affect an army. Down-to-earth Anne responds by saying that they look like a green version of the Redcoats’ uniforms, and continues by asserting that ‘we should rebel as ourselves’. Emmet is having none of it. He tells her that ‘it will be like a green wave, like the land itself rising up’, at which point Anne, clearly frustrated at his ‘dreaming’, says that they will be seen ‘a mile off’. Of course, Pearse was not immune to such a display, and the two earlier films represent Emmet mostly in uniform.
In Ireland a Nation Emmet is seen in uniform with, amongst others, Anne Devlin, Michael Dwyer and (after his capture) Major Sirr. Indeed, he is the only one to be so represented in the film. In Bold Emmet he is represented in uniform on a number of occasions, but the film’s major surprise is his being dressed shabbily so as to pass himself off as a ‘fifer’ in order to allow him to visit United Irishmen in the countryside. However, this disguise, including an eye-patch, is discarded once he reaches the safety of United Irishman Con’s (played by director Sidney Olcott) home. Once there, his resplendent uniform is revealed beneath the fifer’s cloak.

Last-minute pardon

While the title of that film suggests that it is primarily about Emmet, surviving prints of the film in fact suggest that he is subsidiary to the central narrative, which concerns on the one hand Con’s relationship with Norah, and on the other Con’s activity as a United Irishman. Con is no ordinary Irishman, however, as he rescues an injured English major (a scene reminiscent of how pursued rebel Rory O’More rescues an English soldier in the 1911 film of that name) and with the help of a priest helps to save him from ‘hot-heads’ who want to take advantage of his wounds whilst being cared for by Norah and his mother. Later, when Con himself is captured and sentenced to death for treason, the major provides the last-minute rescue when a full pardon arrives just as he is about to be hanged. Similarly pardoned is Norah, who had been sentenced to seven years’ exile, and the couple are reconciled. Thus, in tandem with broader cinematic narrative developments during the 1910s, the focus shifted from the doomed man of action, Emmet (as it would with later films about Michael Collins), to the romantic hero who survives so that the happy love story can end the film. With the impossibility of a happy resolution for Emmet and Sarah Curran, the film’s emphasis moved to the ‘fictional’ Con and Norah. Nevertheless, a qualification must be inserted here, as the accompanying still from the film shows Emmet’s trial. It can reasonably be concluded, therefore, that those sections featuring Emmet’s capture, trial and execution were deleted from surviving prints of the film so that the ‘happy’ love story could fully emerge, and thus this version of the film would conform to ‘classical’ narrative cinema conventions. But Emmet is not ignored at the end of the film. The community toast his having ordered the firing of the shot that delayed Con’s execution, thus allowing time for the pardon to be delivered.

Pat Murphy’s Anne Devlin (1981) was more concerned with deconstructing the male discourse surrounding the myth of Emmet. (Irish Film Archive)

Pat Murphy’s Anne Devlin (1981) was more concerned with deconstructing the male discourse surrounding the myth of Emmet. (Irish Film Archive)

The informer as villain

While neither offers anything remotely like a critique of 1803 Ireland or Emmet’s motivations, the two films displace Irish/English issues on to informers. Both have the informer as their villain. In the case of Bold Emmet the informer is ostracised not just by the community but also by the English, who believe they have been misled by him. In common with other historical films of this period, the informer (the enemy within) is the film’s most reprehensible character. In this way, the Emmet films, similar to films such as Rory O’More and For Ireland’s Sake (1912), displace the colonial relationship on to a disgraced Irishman, the informer. As a result, and despite the films’ focus on the insurrectionary 1798–1803 period, the colonial status quo is maintained, though Ireland a Nation clearly resonated with the post-1916 Irish audiences.
When Pat Murphy approached the same events 70 years later, it was in the context of a changed political climate but one no less fraught with tensions than that of 1914–15. While the events in Northern Ireland were no nearer stability than a decade earlier, the emergence of the women’s movement in the 1970s was a key motivation for Murphy’s first feature (co-directed with John Davies) Maeve (1981) and Anne Devlin, released three years later. Whereas in the past the focus would have been on the ‘man of action’, Emmet, the leader of the 1803 Rebellion (or a version of the romantic hero), Murphy was more concerned with deconstructing the male discourse surrounding the myth of Emmet and in turn asserting an alternative, or complementary, female or gendered approach to the period, resonating, inevitably, into the present. Concerned as it is with challenging the myth, Murphy’s film is likely to retain a resonance into the future in a way the earlier films are unlikely to.

Kevin Rockett is a Lecturer in Film Studies at Trinity College, Dublin.

Further reading:

L. Gibbons, Transformations in Irish culture (Cork, 1996).

K. Rockett, ‘Representations of Irish history in fiction films made prior to the 1916 rising’, in Laurence Geary (ed.), Rebellion and remembrance in modern Ireland (Dublin, 2001).

K. Rockett, L. Gibbons and J. Hill, Cinema and Ireland (London, 1987).

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