“Researching Cinema in the First World War” Workshop Report, 25 August 2023, Maynooth University, Ireland

Alan Corley

30 November 2023

Throughout my academic journey, I have largely relied on the writings of others, searching through books and articles in search of details and perspectives that could help me approach whatever my research. My biggest challenge has been independent research as I found it difficult to know where to look for potential sources. My current research examines the cinema-going experience in Ireland during the 1910s and 1920s, with a focus on what sort of films were shown to audiences and how they responded to them. Naturally, the First World War affected the distribution of film across Europe, and so I was interested in this time period especially. When I heard about this workshop, it sounded ideal. I can definitely say I came away from this workshop far more confident in my knowledge of available resources and my ability to use them.

The event was sponsored by the International Association for Media and History (IAMHIST) through the IAMHIST Challenge awarded to Dr. Veronica Johnson (Maynooth University), and hosted by the Media Studies department at Maynooth University, with presentations by Dr. Denis Condon (Maynooth University), Kasandra O’Connell (Irish Film Institute), and Dr. Johnson.

The focus of the workshop was on efforts to research and study cinema during the First World War. Given the delicate and fragile nature of material items of this time, much has been lost in the century since; many films have been lost due to decay, purposeful destruction, and/or negligence, while paper material was seen as discardable ephemera. These facts can make it extremely difficult to research early cinema – and with the added element of global warfare, information from the time can be hard to come by. This workshop was designed to showcase what is available and how to go about accessing it, from online resources to physical documents held in libraries and archives.

Dr. Condon, author of Early Irish Cinema: 1895-1921, opened the presentation portion of the day with his talk: “Researching Newspaper Archives”. He began by discussing how the film industry was disrupted by the war, moving on to the benefits of using archival newspapers, which he called the best way of researching this time in history as most information was spread in this format. Newspaper articles, advertisements, reviews, etc., can all show the cinema’s relationship to the Irish public and vice versa. He encouraged researchers to look outside of purely digital sources and pursue analog material with the same energy, going into detail about the microfiche holdings of the National Library in Dublin. Dr. Condon also spoke about the travelling nature of early film screenings, with groups bringing films to rural areas in an evolution of the travelling theatre groups of earlier times, with the films themselves being the main attraction.

Kasandra O’Connell followed with a presentation on “Using Film Archives,” detailing the holdings of the Irish Film Institute and the Irish Film Archive, explaining some of the IFI’s early history and how it began to build up its collection of film and ephemera. One of the things I found most interesting in her talk was the relationship the IFI has with donors and owners of film material, and the legal rights surrounding this material. Despite little indigenous film production in Ireland until relatively recently, the archive currently houses over 30,000 cans of film, with much work being put into making as much material public as possible, through the IFI Player and a variety of other access routes. I have previously viewed the O’Kalem and 1916 Collections of the IFI Player and it was extremely interesting to hear how one can go about contacting the access officer for access to other material.

Dr. Johnson closed the presentations with her talk on “Using Multiple Resources,” highlighting how researchers have to utilise all available sources as well as consider alternative routes. She spoke about her research into the Film Company of Ireland, the first indigenous narrative film company in Ireland, about which little has been written, which I found to be a fascinating topic (I had only been familiar with Irish Destiny (1926) prior to this). Providing an extensive list of journals, archives, and online libraries, including a large number of resources available to researchers that I had not come across before: Early Popular Visual Culture, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, the Media History Digital Library, and also pointed to Ancestry.com as a potentially useful resource. Dr. Condon and Dr. Johnson’s presentations taken together provided a vast and helpful education around both availability and the varying formats worth exploring. There are numerous online newspaper archives that have been digitized from original paper prints and can be searched digitally, research groups that freely share their findings for others to read and build upon, physical holdings in universities and libraries, microfiche copies of documents that have not been digitized due to time and expense limitations but are available to search through.

Following the talks, there was an hour-long workshop, during which attendees could share their research projects with the speakers and fellow attendees and receive feedback and advice. Much of my study, when I was working towards my Masters, was in the German film industry, with my dissertation being on the portrayal of gender and sexuality in the films of F.W. Murnau, which I am hoping to expand to book length. Since then, I have decided to look into the cinema-going experience closer to home, finding out what sort of films were imported into Ireland during the silent era, what films proved successful, or how audiences of the time responded to them. Were certain genres more appealing to the Irish people en masse, and were there themes or concepts that drew them in more so than others? I enjoyed hearing feedback from the speakers and my fellow attendees and was fascinated by their own topics and what drew them to researching them.

After lunch, the group moved to the Irish Film Archive, housed a few minutes away on the Maynooth University campus, for a tour of its facilities. I must admit that this was what initially caught my eye about this workshop. Film preservation and restoration have long been a source of fascination and passion for me and I was eager to see the inside workings of a professional film archive. It was staggering to see the volume of film cans and I spent some time seeking out titles I was familiar with (such as Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984), a personal favourite).

Tour of the Irish Film Archive (Maynooth University)

Before breaking for the day, we returned to the workshop room to view an extract from an early Irish film, Knocknagow, directed by Fred O’Donovan in 1918. Produced by the Film Company of Ireland, it is the oldest surviving Irish-made film to be produced in Ireland. I found the extract fascinating and thought its use of on-location shooting in Tipperary an excellent way to boost its production value. One of the charms of the silent era, from my perspective, is the immediacy of the film itself, almost functioning as a direct connection to a place and time in a way that I don’t particularly feel in other eras of film history. Despite being set in the 1870s, it is a window into the landscape of Ireland in the 1910s and I think it is well worth a watch.

I found this workshop to be massively beneficial and thanks to it I feel more confident in my research abilities, and more familiar with the material available to me. Beyond my research into the Irish cinema-going experience, I have used the resources mentioned by the speakers to build up my knowledge of my main areas of interest and use that to build up my regular articles and writings. I want to thank the organisers for setting this up, creating an easy and welcoming atmosphere, and for presenting myself and my fellow attendees with a wealth of information in such a great way.

Alan Corley holds an M.Phil. in the Theory, History, and Practice of Film Studies from Trinity College, Dublin. His interests include the silent film era, the development of film as an art form, social contexts of horror films, and film preservation. He currently writes for the FanFare publication on Medium, where he explores a variety of films through aesthetic, historical, and critical lenses (https://alancorley.medium.com/).

Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

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