Moving images of events that shook society to core

We’ve never been closer to the past. The continuing proliferation of online searchable material is making available to us all an ocean of information and artefacts from our past. 

Moving images of events that shook society to core

Facsimiles of documents and pictures, as well as clips of audio and film, are there at the fingertips of professional historians and enthusiasts alike. A format which could only have dreamed of.

Cork City Library and The National Library of Ireland, among others, have put a host of guide books, street directories and other documents plus photographs online in recent years making it simple for us to search our past. And a number of big projects have caught the public’s imagination, such as the census returns of 1901 and 1911, digitised and put online by the National Archives.

But there is something even more compelling and immediate about pictures, and especially moving images, from deep in our past — for instance the release in 2004 by the British Film Institute of Mitchell & Kenyon in Ireland featuring street scenes from 1902.

Similarly in April of last year, when British Pathé made almost 82,000 pieces of historic film available to view on YouTube: the volume of traffic about it on social media on the day of the release suggested it had generated phenomenal interest worldwide, including in Ireland. Pathé News was one of the firms that made short films — news, sport, travelogues and documentaries — for cinema distribution. Such ‘actualities’ were not merely accompaniment but a popular part of the bill.

There is of course a wealth of Irish-related material (there are links online at exa.mn/3gb).

One of the Lusitania-related pieces in the haul of films turned out to be a little revelation. Disaster Funeral (1915) was labelled by Pathé as ‘unknown location’ but it became clear immediately by comparing it with the photos taken by Thomas Barker (see page 4) that in fact it featured forgotten film footage shot in Queenstown a century ago.

There are crowded street scenes which may not have been shot in Ireland. But the clip also includes a short shot of the mass burial at the Old Church Cemetery near Cobh, as well as a series of shots of boats, perhaps lifeboats, and some people on the quayside in the centre of town itself. This second sequence is clearly filmed from another boat.

Pathé has put 82,000 pieces of film on YouTube including Disaster Funeral (1915) which includes scenes of the mass burial near Queenstown (Cobh). It may be the same film exhibited in the Coliseum cinema.

Remarkably, cinemagoers in Cork would have been able to see film of the burials just days after it had taken place. On May 13, The Cork Examiner carried an advertisement for the Coliseum on King Street (now MacCurtain Street) which read “Last week of Kinetophone — Scenes at Queenstown and Funeral of Lusitania Victims.”

The reference to the Kinetophone may be a red herring, albeit an interesting one. The Kinetephone was Thomas Edison’s latest effort to synchronise film and recorded sound. It was a major advance on the inventor’s earlier attempts, which could only be viewed by one person at a time, whereas the new Kinetophone was projected. The machine in the Coliseum was on tour, having previously visited Belfast and Dublin for screenings.

However, it would have formed only part of the bill. According to an advert the previous week, on Monday May 3, Kinetophone shorts (including rib-ticklers such as A Few Shamrocks From Ireland and Edison Minstrels) would screen alongside regular silent film accompanied, most probably, by live musicians. Readers on would have twigged that the Kinetophone and the local newsreel were different items on the bill.

How did it feel to be alive in Ireland on that early summer’s day in 1915? While war and frictions within the then still United Kingdom were obviously the greatest stories even before Lusitania, the thought that people a century ago might attend a cinema which screened soundies and a newsreel shot just three days previously might nudge one to speculate how modern life must have seemed. Change was in the air, partly led by technology.

In the same edition, Baker & Wright on St Patrick’s Street were advertising kit presumably aimed at men going off to serve in armed forces. “Service compasses, field glasses and vest pocket Kodaks,” the reliable foldable camera must have seemed quite an innovation.

Newsom’s, a byword for beverages in Cork, was down with the kids, inviting students to try their instant coffee for a fast-moving age.

Another advert assures us that “all roads” led to “Ireland’s premier college, the Irish School of Telegraphy” on Dyke Parade in the city. The ad assures us several Wireless and Cable appointments had been secured by its graduates and that it also held “special classes for Lady Telegraphists”.

It must have seemed a thoroughly modern world even as war on foreign fields was becoming ever more gruelling, and militarisation here at home was about to take some surprising turns.

irishnewsarchive.com corkcitylibraries.ie nli.ie earlyirishcinema.wordpress.com

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