Celluloid Menace, art or the essential habit of the age?

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2007), Volume 15

‘Depression or no depression, the cinema grows more popular everyday in Ireland—already there are more than 30 cinemas in Dublin with more to come. In face of these facts, it may seem perverse to ask if anyone in Ireland is really interested in the cinema at all’ (‘Film Notes’, Irish Times, 29 June 1935, p. 4).

‘Instead of visiting and storytelling, there are cinemas and night-walking, often with disaster to virtue’ (Bishop Gilmartin, Irish Catholic Directory, 1928).

It is difficult not to concur with A. J. P. Taylor’s assessment that cinema-going was ‘the essential social habit of the age’. It was an epoch-making invention, a social institution and the pinnacle of popular culture. Despite the protestations and paranoia of the Catholic hierarchy, cinema-going was immensely popular in Ireland. Cinema was dynamic and vibrant. It was urban and modern. It was church and theatre all in one. Even though the consumerist ideologies of Hollywood threatened to undermine the limited successes of the cultural nationalist movement, the cinema had arrived and was here to stay. In a climate of intense conservatism, it was unsurprising that the cinema was viewed as antithetical to the social, cultural and moral fabric engineered by the Free State government. For the masses it was an ‘attractive possessive palliative, an escape from reality, a drug’. For the Catholic Church it remained a ‘menace’, but to cineastes it was always an evolving art that ‘made rich contributions to culture’.

‘An oblong opening into the world of fantasy’

What did cinema-going (‘the pictures’) mean to people (including children)? How popular was it? Was anyone really interested in the cinema or was it just a cheap and easy form of entertainment, a passive ‘social habit’? What did the cinema mean to the average person? Why did they go to the ‘picture-houses’ with such enthusiasm and regularity? Was it to escape the dismal and often depressing reality experienced by many? Or was it something more? Elizabeth Bowen’s reasons are pertinent here:
‘. . . I go to be distracted (or “taken out of myself”); I go when I don’t want to think; I go when I do want to think and need stimulus; I go to see pretty people; I go when I want to see life ginned up, charged with unlikely energy; I go to laugh; I go to be harrowed; . . . I go because I like bright light, abrupt shadow, speed; I go to see America, France, Russia; I go because I like wisecracks and slick behaviour; I go because the screen is an oblong opening into the world of fantasy for me; I go because I like story, with suspense; I go because I like sitting in a packed crowd in the dark, among hundreds riveted on the same thing; I go to have my most general feelings played on.’

This enthusiastic and rather comprehensive litany of reasons is certain to have been reflected across most of the Irish population. Cinema was the premium social outlet at this time. More than the theatre, more than the circus, the cinema was a phenomenon capable of affecting every member of society. Is there a danger, however, of overemphasising its importance? Was it really a compensation ‘for the monotony and predictability of daily life’? Shéamus Smith, the former Irish film censor, recalls his childhood cinema experiences in a small town in Roscommon:

‘While the 1940s America had the movies, we in Ballaghadereen . . . went to “the pictures”. As in Cinema Paradiso, the local cinema, the Roxy, was owned by the church—not that the priest needed to censor the films, given the enthusiasm with which that task was undertaken by the official censor in Dublin.’

Elizabeth Bowen-‘. . . I go [to the cinema] to be distracted (or “taken out of myself”): I go when I don't want to think . . .'.

Elizabeth Bowen-‘. . . I go [to the cinema] to be distracted (or “taken out of myself”): I go when I don’t want to think . . .’.

Crowds queuing at the Metropole c. 1938. (National Library of Ireland)

Crowds queuing at the Metropole c. 1938. (National Library of Ireland)

The use of the word ‘enthusiasm’ here is interesting and perhaps reveals the sense of power enjoyed by the state censorship office under James Montgomery and Richard Hayes as they shaped what the public saw and did not see, with the Ten Commandments as their guide. The ‘picture-house’ was an integral part of a community, its majestic title adding an air of magnificence to its presence, and, for some, even the staff were highly respected:

‘If we were asked to list the most important people in the community, the cinema usher would have been high on the list. He was God. Queuing up, the dreaded words were “three seats left” when you were fourth in the queue . . . What lofty names they gave my local picture-houses—Stella, Apollo, Princess, Classic, Rialto, Camden, Theatre Deluxe . . . often [with] wooden seats but we never complained.’ (Frank Feely’s memories, quoted in McBride and Flynn 1996)

Effect on children

On 23 March 1933 the Kinematograph Weekly, a British film trade journal that occasionally reported on Irish events, asked, ‘What do Irish children think of films and the kinema [sic]?’ The analysis showed that more than half the children visited the cinema at least once a week, and more than a quarter seldom or even not at all. Only half of the children went with a ‘pal’, and one in six went alone. Cowboy films, comedies, war and gangster films were the most popular attractions. In responding, boys revealed that watching films taught them to ‘box, fight, think before you act, to shoot, to rob banks, not to lose your nerve when in danger’ and, interestingly, many stated that they learnt history, geography and dances from films. The girls revealed slightly less, citing ‘good bravery, manners, love of country [and] generosity’. The report doesn’t publish the entire analysis but, according to the correspondent, ‘many of the comments appear to show the educational value of the film is greater than supposed’. The irony in Ireland was that, even with strict censorship in place and an omnipresent Catholic Church acting as moral guardian, children were in fact able to attend every film that was on show. Almost all films were certified for general audiences. Films were either certified or banned on the basis that ‘even the youngest child could see them’. Montgomery’s view was that to certify a film ‘fit for exhibition to adults only would excite morbid and unhealthy curiosity, and tend to tempt the excluded categories to evade the law’. The general certificate policy remained in place until the mid-1960s. In contrast, Britain had ‘A’, ‘H’ and ‘X’ certificates. During his tenure as censor, Montgomery banned an astonishing 1,905 films, or 1,561 after appeal, compared to the 177 banned by the British film censors between 1924 and 1940.
The effect of the cinema on children had been engaging the attention of governments, educationalists and social workers for many years. There was even an Advisory Committee on Social Questions in Geneva in 1938 to deal with juvenile reaction to the cinema.

Front and back of a Savoy cinema programme, c. 1930s. (National Library of Ireland)

Front and back of a Savoy cinema programme, c. 1930s. (National Library of Ireland)

There were calls for restricted admission, and even proposals to emulate Russia and Bulgaria’s special cinemas exclusively for children. There were conflicting opinions as to the connection between the cinema and delinquency. Parents were often too quick to blame the cinema for a child’s ‘lapse into crime’. The cinema did cause problems but, as noted by Judge Henry A. McCarthy in The Bell in 1942, of a different nature:

‘The greater part of my court work consists of the investigation of petty thefts by children, and nearly all of these offences are committed to provide the delinquents with the price of an admission to the cinema. The more attractive we make the cinema for the child the greater will be the danger to our gas meters. Our orchard walls are high and hard to climb—yet our apples are stolen. Shall we cut down our trees for bringing forth such fruit?’
The socially conscious writer proposed ‘free recreation, free cinema for our poorer children’. He did not consider ‘cutting down’ the cinema. Children needed the cinema, he claimed, and its form of entertainment and escapism could only make children happier. Admirable as this proposal was, the chances of the cinema trade acquiescing were slim. In fact, according to Dr Hayes, ‘the cinema audiences may conceivably be as much as 80 per cent children’, while the Abbey enjoyed 100 per cent adult audiences. Cinema exhibitors would not have relinquished this lucrative demographic.

The greatest cinema-goers in the world?

In Irish film censorship: a cultural journey from silent cinema to internet pornography Kevin Rockett argues that ‘one of the myths of Irish film exhibition has been that the Irish are the greatest cinemagoers in the world’. While attendances were high relative to the following decades, a comparative study of other countries during the 1930s is revealing. In her thesis ‘Cinema statistics in Saorstát Éireann’, Thekla Beere (1936) conducted the first statistical analysis of the cinema in Ireland. She wondered why the cinema had escaped a statistical investigation for so long:

‘The many new buildings erected in recent years in our main thoroughfares, the large capital investments which these undertakings represent and the employment which they provide, the long queues patiently waiting for admittance, the sum paid for admission and the share the exchequer collects by way of entertainments tax, the enormous amount of space devoted to cinema advertisements, both in our newspapers and on the hoardings—all these things must arouse the curiosity of even the most casual observer, while to the statistically minded they demanded investigation.’

According to Beere, there were hitherto no officially published statistics of the industry and cinema exhibitors were ‘loath to disclose their business’. She notes that ‘the last thirty years have seen the cinema rise from a little-known new invention to one of the greatest social institutions the world has ever known’.

The 1944–6 programme of the Irish Film Society. After a false start in 1930 the Society was not finally established until 1936. (National Library of Ireland)

The 1944–6 programme of the Irish Film Society. After a false start in 1930 the Society was not finally established until 1936. (National Library of Ireland)

A discussant took exception to this assertion, stating that ‘if by this was meant “socially beneficial”, then she was mistaken’. But the fact was that the cinema played an enormous role in people’s lives, and the statistics she produced bore this out. Significantly for its time (1936), Beere’s paper was not concerned with the morality of the cinema nor with its influence, and in many ways this makes her thesis unique.
In 1935 the Irish Free State had 190 cinemas, with a total seating capacity of 111,438. This translated to 27.2 people per cinema seat. Because no official record was kept of the total number of admissions to the cinema, Beere divided the total amount of entertainments tax paid by cinemas making certified returns by the average amount of tax per admission; she arrived at a figure of 18.25 million, representing an average of six visits per annum for every man, woman and child in the Saorstát. This is in fact quite a low figure when compared to Britain’s 22 visits per head per annum (more than three times more). Dublin, which accounted for 60 per cent of cinema receipts in Ireland and had 36 cinemas, averaged 23 visits per capita, illustrating the stark urban–rural imbalance. This translates into a visit every fortnight, which compares favourably with other major cities; Liverpool had 35 admissions per capita, followed by the Canadian cities of Vancouver, Toronto and Winnipeg with 31, 30 and 28 per capita respectively. Consideration of these statistics must carry a caveat, however. Many factors were not taken into account, such as the relative cost of admission, the cost of living, economic prosperity, entertainment choice and definitional variations across countries as to what constituted a cinema. For example, the wage of the average Dublin working-class family was only two-thirds of that of their British counterparts. Nevertheless, the statistics do demonstrate a thriving cinema-going scene in Ireland, particularly in Dublin.
In Ireland the most public manifestation of the ‘cinema’s prosperity’ was the famous Dublin cinema queue. Beere commented, however, that ‘these queues were only at certain hours, and as a rule only in respect of the cheaper-priced seats. There may often have been a queue outside and many empty seats inside.’ It must be remembered that there were increased ticket prices at this time, and this may have contributed to lengthening the queue, as many people were obliged to seek a less favourable part of the house than they had previously been accustomed to patronise. Whether or not the cinema queues were reflections of the economic standing or the class of an individual is debatable. Photographs from the period suggest that outside the most popular and prestigious cinemas, such as the Savoy, the Carlton or the Theatre Royal (the largest and most up-to-date cinema of its time), the queues were peopled by a cross-section of the community. On the other hand, working-class Dubliners may have dressed in their ‘Sunday best’ for the weekly outing to the picture-house. In addition, while the popular houses experienced substantial queues, those with less attractive programmes may have been left with vacant seats.


Ireland’s first sound film was a record of the Catholic Emancipation centenary celebrations on 1 July 1929 at Dublin’s Capitol cinema. Sharing the bill that night were two Hollywood comedies and the twelve Capitol Tiller Girls. This was an ironic combination considering that the Catholic Church and its various bodies had conducted a vituperative anti-cinema campaign during the 1920s and, indeed, intensified it well into the 1930s. The immediate effect of the ‘talkies’ was that the standard of cinema dropped considerably. This closing of the barriers to non-English-speaking films secured the monopoly of English and American films in Irish cinemas. Writing in Ireland Today, Liam Ó Laoghaire, one of the foremost commentators on Irish cinema at the time and also a founding member of the Irish Film Society, effectively dismissed cinema-going as a mere ‘habit’:
‘Dublin and, consequently, Ireland is accepting at the present moment a standard type of entertainment machine-made with the dead efficiency of the machine. The cinema habit has caught on and the public can’t do without their visit to the films whatever the subject, content or treatment may be.’
Film literature
The film literature and culture of the period provide a glimpse of the utter disillusionment and insecurity felt by the more ‘sophisticated’ cinema-goers. There was no shortage of reading material for the public on the cinema. While reviews of films were scarce in the 1920s, the 1930s saw an improvement. Bob Monks, film archivist at the National Library, recalled that in the 1920s it was a case of cinema, particularly Hollywood films, not being worthy of ‘proper’ reviews, such as the ones given to literature. In the rare instance that a film was good enough, then it deserved a review.
As well as regular film columns from Liam Mac Gabhann in the Irish Press and ‘Film Notes’ every Tuesday in the Irish Times, there were various articles in journals such as Studies, Irish Monthly, The Capuchin Annual, Dublin Magazine, Ireland Today and, later, The Bell and Scannán. In 1928, even before the ‘talkies’ arrived, Mona Price bemoaned the current cinema as ‘the exploitation of the lowest sort of sensationalism and sentimentality in the masses’.

The Irish Film Society

In August 1930, at the Peacock Theatre, Dublin, Lennox Robinson introduced the first efforts at forming what was to become the Irish Film Society. In his report welcoming the new enterprise, he claimed that cinema had been hijacked by capitalists who undermined its potential as an art form and exploited it for financial gain. The previous January the Dublin Film Society had been formed and had proposed opening a season of shows at the Grafton Cinema, starting off with Battleship Potemkin (Russia, 1925). It was an abortive attempt, however, as legal barriers put an end to it. Ó Laoghaire recalls: ‘. . . £200 would have to be handed over to the state for each programme . . . The Dublin Film Society estimated they needed 500 members paying a subscription of 30s. a year’. According to Ó Laoghaire, ‘the direct impetus for the formation of the movement was the monopoly of the public screens by the American sound film in 1929’. Up until then, all films of all nations received reasonably good exposure, as long as they passed the censor. He and other aficionados began reading about interesting new films that were unavailable in Ireland in such magazines as Close Up and Cinema Quarterly. In a period of evolving film scholarship and with the formation of the London Film Society in 1925, Ó Laoghaire, Edward Toner and others were certainly products of their time, but their pioneering efforts must be admired in the context of the culturally repressive Ireland of this time.
It was not until 1936 that the Irish Film Society was finally established, to cater specifically for the people who took an ‘interest in the films themselves’. (In an entirely separate development a Belfast Film Society was founded in the same year.) To quote from the prospectus:
‘The Irish Film Society organises the public by making available information on the cinema and introducing the best type of film into Ireland. It will work for the improvement of general standards of film entertainment, for children and the linking up of the cinema with the educational programme of the country. Whenever possible, it will encourage native film along the paths which will make it of some value in the achievements of cinema.’

Liam í“ Laoghaire, one of the foremost commentators on Irish cinema at the time and a founding member of the Irish Film Society. (Irish Film Institute)

Liam í“ Laoghaire, one of the foremost commentators on Irish cinema at the time and a founding member of the Irish Film Society. (Irish Film Institute)

The annual subscription was fixed at five shillings a year and was payable to the honorary treasurer, at 41 South Circular Road, Portobello, Dublin. The Society sought to attract ‘the greatest possible number of the general public and those interested in the cinema from any angle whatsoever’. The best film of the month was recommended to its members, ‘who also received a periodical devoted to the subject of the cinema’. The membership grew from 40 in its first season to 100 in its second and third seasons. In 1947, it was in its twelfth year with 1,000 members. Liam Ó Laoghaire commented that ‘the healthy extension of the society’s work should help dispel the idea that the movement is an esoteric one’. The ‘Film Society movement’ claimed to have played its part in breaking down the prejudice that existed in the public mind against foreign films. It may have made valiant efforts to achieve this but the fact remained that the vast majority of cinema-goers were only interested in what came out of Hollywood—‘the cheap mediocrity and superficial sensation, which so often, but not always, disfigure the films of the commercial cinema’.
To get a taste of the kind of films shown by the Society, a programme from 1941 reveals that the first five years included such films as Westfront 1918 (Germany), Guests of the Nation by Denis Johnston (Ireland, 1936), The River (USA), The Cheat (France), Dood Water (Netherlands) and La Grande Illusion by Jean Renoir (France). Its success may be reflected in the loyalty and enthusiasm of its members and voluntary workers. Much positive work was carried out in fostering a more intelligent appreciation of the most popular form of culture of the time, ‘building audiences for the world’s best pictures and [encouraging] criticism and discussion of the work of outstanding directors’. Membership only hovered over the 1,000 mark, however, and this was no match for the 230,000 weekly cinema admissions in Dublin alone. Accusations of élitism and esotericism may well have been levelled against the Film Society, and their often-condescending dismissals of cinema for the masses do appear pretentious.

The lavish, cathedral-like interior of Dublin's Savoy Cinema, c. 1930s. (National Library of Ireland)

The lavish, cathedral-like interior of Dublin’s Savoy Cinema, c. 1930s. (National Library of Ireland)

Their efforts should be applauded, however, particularly in the context of suffocating censorship. Ironically, they made unlikely allies of officialdom by regretting the homogenising incursions and cultural forays from America—what Montgomery referred to as ‘the Los Angelisation of Ireland’. But their alternative remedies differed.
It is estimated that during the 1930s in Ireland 50,000 people went to the cinema each day—a social opiate with an unparalleled circulation. While to some extent the official fears of a ‘denationalising’ or a ‘Los Angelisation’ effect hold some merit in the context of a post-colonial Ireland and its native cultural endeavours, the centrality of cinema-going to many people’s lives should not be viewed as a negative influence. In the absence of an indigenous film industry, Irish cinema culture was defined by Hollywood. The work of the Irish Film Society, not only in promoting an appreciation of cinema as an art but also through its initiatives to encourage native film production, was never up to the gargantuan task of competing with American hegemony. Cinema was undoubtedly an entertainment tonic for the masses, a ‘social habit’. An attractive distraction from the ‘habitual and banal’ routine of daily existence, the cinematic experience was most definitely of interest to its Irish audience. As the acerbic and moral attacks played out on the pages of Catholic journals, in papal encyclicals and in the state censor’s office, Irish cinema-goers were not listening: they were sinking comfortably into the plush, cushioned seats, in a darkened interior, enjoying the shadowy shimmering of celluloid magic.

Gavin Finlay is a freelance film critic and a postgraduate history student at NUI, Galway.

Further reading:
S. McBride and R. Flynn, Here’s looking at you, kid!: Ireland goes to the pictures (Dublin, 1996).
B. McIlroy, World cinema 4: Ireland (London, 1989).
L. O’Leary, ‘Ireland’s film culture: past and present’, Hibernia 7 (February 1975).
K. Rockett, Irish film censorship: a cultural journey from silent cinema to internet pornography (Dublin, 2004).


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