Infinite Variety: Post-Independence Leisure
Following Irish independence and the end of civil war hostilities, leisure pursuits in Ireland experienced unprecedented growth. The Football Association of the Irish Free State and the new Free State League following the split from the Belfast-centred Irish Football Association (IFA) would form a cornerstone of popular working-class leisure, particularly in Dublin, where the first new league season saw all eight teams coming from the capital. Over the course of the 1920s, these Dublin clubs would be joined by Athlone, Fordson FC formed by workers the Ford marina plant in Cork and by 1930, Waterford FC. Many of the staple sides of the League in that era were from the factories of Dublin including Jacobs and St. James’ Gate. Dalymount Park was then the home of Irish soccer, and the game was in such rude health that as well as the Freemans Journal Saturday supplement, Sport, for a few brief years at least, a soccer-only newspaper, the Football Sports Weekly came out. As well as clicking through the turnstiles at Dalymount and elsewhere, you could find your favourite footballers in the back of cigarette packets, as cigarette cards with sporting heroes were reproduced for the Irish market. Better again, you could relive glorious goals and near misses watching, for a couple of pence, the newsreels before the main feature.[i]
If soccer wasn’t your thing, Shelbourne Park hosted from 1927 onwards greyhound racing as well as soccer. The sport, which began in the United States, soon found its way to the United Kingdom, with a track at Belle Vue Park opening in Manchester in 1926. Only a year later, the first greyhound races, with the electric hare whirring around the track, began at Belfast’s Celtic Park and followed quickly in Dublin. If you fancied a flutter but hadn’t the price of a special train to the races, or the price of admission, you could walk your way down to the newly opened licensed betting shops and lay a half crown on a horse, and if your luck was out there, there was always the hospital sweepstakes.
The development of this infinite variety of entertainments, argue Kevin and Emer Rockett, were part of the process that led to the development of cinema, but were also part of creating entertainment venues that could be controlled, unlike the unruly fairs and pattern festivals of the eighteenth century and earlier, such as the notorious Donnybrook; this was a process similar to that which drove the modernisation of sport.[ii] While the legitimate theatre developed in the late nineteenth century for Ireland’s emerging middle class, working-class people had their own theatre: music hall and vaudeville, described by Kevin and Emer Rockett as “a form of entertainment that emerged from an altogether more basic source: the pub or public house.”[iii] Of course, the music halls and similar venues frequented by working-class people often used the forms available in these theatres to poke fun at their social superiors.[iv]
The music halls, argues Christina Herr, occupy an important place in the work of James Joyce in his rendering of Dublin in Ulysses, particularly in the “Circe” episode of the novel, reflecting the importance of the music halls in the Dublin of Joyce’s time for working-class people.[v] Cinema in the 1920s in Dublin would occupy a similarly important place. Kevin and Emer Rockett write that the appeal of the cinema, not unlike the music halls was “of a shared communal space, which was characterized in the first instance as pleasure-giving rather than being as part of, or governed by, the instrumental rational order of capitalism, the state, or the church.”[vi] This demand for the cinema was all a result of greater purchasing power of unskilled workers, the regulation of opening hours for the cinemas, particularly on a Sunday – the most important day for adult attendance at the cinema, and a boom in the building of cinema spaces.[vii] Such was the demand and interest in the cinema in post-independence, that hundreds of people were employed in the sector. These hundreds worked as ushers, projectionists and did other work in the cinemas, along with hundreds more musicians who, solo or together as orchestras, provided the soundtracks to the newsreels, cartoons and feature films watched by people in their thousands.
The theatres and cinemas in Dublin had a body called the Theatre and Cinema Association (TCA), an employers’ organisation, who set wages and conditions for staff. Most of the cinema and theatre workers were part of the ITGWU – ushers, bar attendants, and projectionists, although there was also a cinema operators union. The musicians who provided the sound in the silent film era had a union too, a union unafraid to speak up on behalf of their members. Amid the troubles of the war of independence in 1921, for instance, a minor dispute between the Musicians’ Union and the TCA over employment conditions saw the musicians threaten a stoppage of play which resulted in representatives of both bodies meeting at the Theatre Royal, a meeting that ended amicably.[viii] Close to twelve months later, a dispute between staff and management at the Theatre Royal that involved the TCA, ITGWU and the Musicians’ Union was resolved by a settlement, in talks held by the government’s Department of Labour.[ix] These disputes were relatively minor by comparison with what happened in 1923, when a draft proposal by the TCA was rejected by ballot of the cinema workers who were members of the ITGWU.
The draft proposal asked that the employees take a wage reduction of between 12.5 and 15%. As a result, the management of the city’s cinemas, theatres and music halls threatened that they would lock-out the workers. This decision to reject the ballot and the possibility of a lock-out meant that the musicians, who played and earned their living through the same theatres, would also lose out on work and pay. As the Irish Times noted what this meant in real terms was a reduction in pay of 2s 6d for women cleaners in the theatres, as well as wage reductions, apparently depending on the standing of the theatre, for bar attendants, checkers, ushers and stage workers. For cinema workers it meant reduced pay as well rolling back on ‘certain rights peculiar to the trade, which had become established by custom’ which had been recognised in the previous agreement.[x] When matters came to a head on June 17 1923, the Sunday Independent ran a story with the headline “No Plays No Pictures” and quoted a manager of one of the theatres as saying “we are locking up tonight and taking keys from staff. There will be no performance here, nor in any other theatre in Dublin, on Monday night, and we don’t know when we are opening again.”[xi]
According to a member of Dublin Corporation interviewed in the same article, it was estimated that some 25,000 people went through the doors of the various theatres, cinemas and music halls a night on average. The lock-out was expected to have a knock-on effect for everyone from the restaurant trade to printers and bill posters. The Freemans Journal meanwhile was reporting that the management were firm on the issue writing that one manager said ‘with great determination’ that “my house will remain closed until the staff returns to work on the terms already laid down. We are quite prepared for a long period of idleness.” The same report, reproducing figures the same as those in the Sunday Indpendent, reckoned it affected roughly 250 theatre employees.[xii] The closures would last roughly a fortnight, when an agreement between the workers and the management was reached at a conference held in the Mansion House by Alderman A. Byrne.[xiii] The settlement of this dispute seems to have satisfied the workers in the cinemas, theatres and music halls for a period at least, although the difficulties experienced by the ever-growing and ever-popular entertainments industry wouldn’t have to wait too long before trouble reared its head once again.
The Main Event: The 1925 Lockout
It was 1925 which proved to be a watershed year in the rumbling disputes between cinema and theatre workers and musicians on one side and their management on the other. This time the dispute was being led by the musicians, rather than the other staff. According to a report in the Irish Times the Musicians’ Union demanded a new agreement for wages and conditions, which it was felt, had the potential to lead to a serious dispute. The musicians demanded a pay increase of 25% along with double-time pay for all Bank holidays, and a fortnight’s paid holiday. It also sought the right to refuse playing on Sundays, Good Fridays and Christmas, unless the show was open by permission of the authorities, and in which case they demanded double-time for playing.[xiv] In June, the Irish Independent ran a piece on the demands of the musicians with the headline “Grave Theatre Crisis”.
According to one theatre manager interviewed for the article, musicians in the theatre orchestras of Dublin had big wages during the day and could not claim to have a living wage. By July, with no apparent agreement reached on these new terms looked for by the musicians, the newspaper was reporting that the musicians were “out” and the TCA were offering to engage musicians on the old terms if they were willing to take that pay in order, the management insisted to prevent inconvenience to the public.[xv] The same day that saw this story run, there was an ad placed elsewhere in the Irish Times by the musicians’ union’s secretary HJ Leeming. Leeming’s ad sought to rectify that a 25% increase in salary had not in fact been asked for, but rather an increase by that degree in minimum rates of pay and that the management use union-only musicians instead of hiring foreign musicians. It also insists that the situation was the fault of the TCA, since they jumped the gun by locking out the musicians before there was a conciliation board arranged by the Ministry of Industry and Commerce.[xvi]
The employers, for their part, we busily engaged in hiring non-union musicians and it was ‘anticipated that the managers would have no difficulty in getting full orchestras after a short time.’[xvii] Likewise the Irish Independent ran a story with the headline “Amusement as Usual” assuring readers that the shows would go on. [xviii]Some 250 or so musicians were involved in the dispute, and after the first week, the picketing of the musicians appeared to have had little impact as managers reported that their business had been unimpaired and the improvised orchestras were described as “working satisfactorily”. One band who were engaged from England to play the Theatre Royal, the Frank E Lubin’s band, returned by night mail boat when they learned of the dispute. The band’s leader explained that as members of a similar union in England they didn’t wish to cross the picket line. According to the newspaper report, AT Cullen, President of the musicians’ union, thanked Lubin’s band for “their manly action.”[xix] In another show of support, the Irish Dance Bands’ Association agreed to co-operate with the musicians’ struggle in the cinemas and theatres. There was almost no popular support for the dispute it seems, or very little. People continued to attend the cinemas and theatres.
As the month of July wore on, and positions became entrenched there seemed less and less hope of a conciliation board being arranged for a discussion of terms. One theatre manager interviewed by the Irish Independent felt that many of the musicians had no grievance and felt that the terms of the old agreement, given the apparent depressed state of the economy was a fair one.[xx] Indeed for that newspaper, the musicians strike was just one among many in what it called the “city of strikes”, before detailing the “latest menace” of hotel and catering workers about to begin a dispute with the Hotel, Restaurant and Caterers’ Association.[xxi] Pickets outside of the theatres continued, and marches through the street by a band of fifty took place, while they also played at the East Pier in Kingstown and another band played a garden party at Shankill.[xxii] HJ Leeming continued to write to the Irish Times insisting that the dispute had been misrepresented generally in the press, insisting that this was not a strike action but a lockout by employers, and that they were willing and waiting to engage with the management to work out a deal at a conciliation board but they had not yet heard from either the secretary of the department in government or from the managements’ association.[xxiii] The strike would last right into August, with the Irish Times reporting its collapse in the middle of the month, and the comprehensive defeat of the musicians in their hopes of improved pay, conditions and use of union musicians.
A few years after the 1925 lockout, as the talkies made their way to Dublin, some in the Irish press were sceptical, quoting great silent film star Charlie Chaplin as saying “I can say anything I want to say by a gesture”; the intermission imposed by Dublin’s unionised cinema musicians was itself a gesture that said loudly as any of Chaplin’s movements, fair wages, good working conditions and the right to union membership while at work were worth fighting for.
[i] See the appendices of Chambers, Ciara, Ireland in the Newsreels, Dublin: Irish Academic Press 2011 for a fairly comprehensive list of newsreels produced about Ireland and to get some sense of how much of this material was sport related
[ii] Rockett, Kevin and Rockett, Emer, Magic Lantern, Panorama and Moving Picture Shows in Ireland, 1786-1909, Dublin: Four Courts Press 2011, pp. 169-216; On the suppression of Donnybrook see Ó’Maitiú, Séamas, The Humours of Donnybrook: Dublin’s Famous Fair and its Suppression, Dublin: Irish Academic Press 1995
[iii] Rockett and Rockett, Magic Lantern, Panorama and Moving Picture Shows, p. 205
[iv] See Selenick, Laurence, “Politics as Entertainment: Victorian Music Hall Songs”, Victorian Studies, Vol. 19 No. 2 December 1975, pp. 149-180. For some good general reading on music hall see also Bratton, JS (ed.), Music Hall: Performance & Style, Milton Keynes: Open University Press 1986 and Bailey, Peter (ed.), Music Hall: The Business of Pleasure, Milton Keynes: Open University Press 1986; Vicinus, Martha, The Industrial Muse: A Study of nineteenth century working-class literature, London: Croom Helm 1974 and most recently Maloney, Paul, Scotland and the Music Hall, 1850-1914, Manchester: Manchester University Press 2003. Little is written on music halls in Ireland except for Watters, Eugene, and Murtagh, Matthew, Infinite Variety: Dan Lowrey’s Music Hall, 1879-97, Dublin: Gill and MacMillan 1975 and McDowell, Jim, Beyond the Footlights: A History of Belfast Music Halls and Early Theatre, Dublin: The History Press Ireland 2007
[v] Herr, Christina, Joyce’s Anatomy of Culture, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986, pp.189-221
[vi] Rockett, Kevin and Rockett, Emer, Film Exhibition and Distribution in Ireland, 1909-2010, Dublin: Four Courts Press 2011, p.42; See also Daly, Mary, Dublin: The Deposed Capital, a Social and Economic History, 1860-1914, Cork: Cork University Press 1984
[vii] Rockett and Rockett, Film Exhibition, pp.41-47
[viii] Irish Times, 29 July 1921
[ix] Irish Times, 15 May 1922
[x] Irish Times, 6 June 1923; 12 June 1923; 28 June 1923
[xi] Sunday Independent, 17 June 1923
[xii] Sunday Independent, 17 June 1923; Freemans Journal, 18 June 1923
[xiii] Sunday Independent, 1 July 1923
[xiv] Irish Times, 21 May 1925
[xv] Irish Times, 6 July 1925
[xvi] Irish Times, 6 July 1925
[xvii] Irish Times, 7 July 1925
[xviii] Irish Independent, 7 July 1925
[xix] Irish Times, 14 July 1925
[xx] Irish Independent, 9 July 1925
[xxi] Irish Independent, 20 July 1925; to judge by the pages of the Voice of Labour during the summer months of 1925 this other dispute centred largely on staff in the Metropole.
[xxii] Irish Times, 22 July 1925; 27 July 1925
[xxiii] Irish Times, 22 July 1925