Ireland’s First Political ‘Talkie’: W.T. Cosgrave on Film (1933)

Along with Dr Jason Knirck (Central Washington University) and Dr Mel Farrell (NUIM), I am editing an anthology of 1920s Ireland. We have a great line up of contributors — both established and upcoming academics — and a diverse range of topics. In considering the subject of my chapter, I was immediately drawn to the area I found most fascinating when I was researching The Cosgrave Party. As I detailed in that book, Cumann na nGaedheal, at times, used a range of ingenious electioneering techniques in the late 1920s. There is one aspect that I want to explore in further detail and will make the subject of my chapter for the anthology: election posters. They serve as symbols of political trauma, acting as a commentary on the development of political life in the nascent Free State. Returning to the subject of electioneering, I was reminded once more of the party’s many clever initiatives, including the use of a political film with sound for the 1933 general election.

Clearly influenced by campaign developments in the international arena — especially in Britain — Cumann na nGaedheal showed a willingness in 1933 to undertake new methods of extending party publicity. By this stage, of course, the party was in opposition, and although many commentators have argued that the party was completely demoralised, there was a more positive note to its campaign than had been the case at the general election just one year earlier.

Ronan Fanning has described the 1933 election as ‘arguably the most bitter, turbulent and colourful in the history of independent Ireland’.  He also notes the record turnout of 80 per cent.  Indeed, voter participation had grown steadily since the birth of the Free State.  With the widening of the franchise and a readiness on the part of the Irish electorate to do their civic duty, there was more pressure than ever on politicians to get their message out to as wide an audience as was possible.

Paul Smith has noted that ‘film arrived when the conditions of politics were being drastically changed in Europe by the coming of manhood suffrage and the beginnings of mass political participation or mobilisation’.  In 1918, men over 21 and women over 30 gained the vote.  The electorate in Ireland rose from 700,000 in 1910 to just under 2 million in 1918.  The voting age for women was later lowered to 21 in 1923, thus increasing the electorate even further.  This enlarged audience placed new demands on politicians.  In an age before television, film effectively became a means for mass communication.  2RN, the Irish radio station, had come into existence in 1926.  However, as Richard Pine in his study of its origins points out, programming in the early days was predominantly cultural and social, marginally political and determinedly non-ideological. It was certainly not a tool for electioneering, and the first party political broadcasts were not made until 1954.  (Incidentally, Clann na Poblachta’s Sean MacBride requested permission to make a political broadcast in 1948 but was told by the Department of the Taoiseach that ‘[radio] should not be used for the purpose of political party controversy’).  So, without the hope of getting airtime on radio, the election film was a realistic response to existing circumstances.  Irish television, after all, lay almost three decades in the future (1961).

The advent of sound in the 1930s, made film an even more effective tool for the politician.  Not only did they allow parties to reach audiences on a much wider scale, but they also proved effective in providing the illiterate voter with information otherwise ‘locked away’ in print media.  Film was an attempt to come to terms with the needs for political education.

Viewed in a global context, the development can be widely identified.  The Russian Bolsheviks used cinema trains and cinema vans in the early 1920s.  In 1932, Hitler used ten short sound films that showed speeches of leading Nazis.  Mobile vans were used to show them at open air meetings.  He summed up their effectiveness when, writing in Mein Kampf, Hitler noted that ‘the picture in all its forms … has greater possibilities. Here a man needs to use his brain even less; it suffices to look, or at most to read extremely brief texts, and thus many will more readily accept a pictorial presentation than read an article of any length’.  In the case of America, film was supplemented with other tools for mass communication.  Radio was free from the type of restrictions that had been placed on 2RN in the Free State and even the BBC in Britain.  By 1939 Franklin Roosevelt had become the first president to appear on television, and by 1950 the first political ad had been produced.

It is probable that Cumann na nGaedheal’s decision to use film was influenced by the Conservative Party in Britain, which first used cinema vans in 1925 and remained the only party in the country to do so until 1939.  By 1929 they had assembled a fleet that toured the country and had even bought the patent on the sound-system used in the vans.  Feeling that the Labour Party had a distinct advantage with the popular press, film was believed to be one of the most potent and effective methods of publicity at the Conservative Party’s disposal.  For the 1933 general election, Cumann na nGaedheal adopted this emerging new technique, and, as far as Irish electioneering was concerned, the party took the lead.

W.T. Cosgrave — former President of the Executive Council and leader of Cumann na nGaedheal, later Fine Gael — recorded a twenty-minute speech on film, which was made by Messrs Lethbrige and Green.  While Clann na Poblachta has been credited with the first political propaganda film in Ireland, Cosgrave’s was the first recorded leader’s address accompanied by sound.  As the Cork Weekly Examiner noted, for the ‘first time in Irish political history the invention of the talking film has been requisitioned to aid electioneering’. Alfie Byrne, the Lord Mayor of Dublin, also made a film for the election, although his was recorded after Cumann na nGaedheal’s and showings were limited to his constituency of Dublin North.

WT Cosgrave (Click for image source)
WT Cosgrave
(Click for image source)

‘Applause please’, wrote an Irish Independent journalist who noted that ‘behind it [the film] lies a remarkable story of ingenuity and hustle that reflects the greatest credit on all concerned’. The film was recorded at the Imperial Hotel in Waterford.  Michael Hayes, the former Ceann Comhairle, introduced Cosgrave.  Cosgrave then made a vigorous speech, lasting close to twenty minutes.  Assuming the pose that has become traditional in such political films and, later, party political broadcasts, he sat behind a desk from where he spoke into a microphone.  The projected image was very much controlled. With Cosgrave looking straight into the camera, the idea was to create a feeling of intimacy between him and his viewers.  There were a number of friendly interruptions from an imaginary audience, giving him an opportunity to reply to his critics, free from the type of heckling common at public meetings.

The specially constructed van from which the film would be shown was intended to travel to those parts of the Free State, in particular the rural areas, which Cosgrave was unable to visit personally on his two-week tour of the constituencies.  The film was also shown in parts of Dublin, and reports indicated that it ‘aroused considerable interest’. It was noted with particular interest that the registration plate of the van read ZZ 1916. Films were a way of reaching not only the converted, but, more importantly, the unconverted.  Indeed, only those who had already accepted the aims of a party or were in process of doing so would subscribe to a party newspaper or even read a pamphlet.  Films presented an idea to the viewer with more force than the written word.  They also communicated Cumann na nGaedheal’s message to the illiterate or near-illiterate voters in a way that was not possible through printed material; this was certainly an advantage that the party had over its rivals at the 1933 election.  Given the novel nature of the idea, aside from spreading the party’s policies into areas otherwise un-accessed, the ‘talkies’, as they were contemporaneously referred to, would undoubtedly have generated more interest than an ordinary meeting.

The use of film for campaigning coincided with the growth of cinema.  By 1930, there were 265 cinema houses on the island of Ireland.  Film was a novelty and the draw of a free show was sufficient to attract large audiences of mixed political persuasions – both party faithful and even floating voters.  Where a candidate was present, he could then take over an audience already captured.  As T. J. Hollins explained in his study of the use of film in British elections, ‘clearly the cinema van’s original function was not just to propagandise in its own right but also to act as a crowd-puller for what then became an ordinary, if unusually large, political meeting’.  The events of the film’s first showing, for example, were somewhat dramatic.  As the Irish Independent reported, ‘at 4.30 p.m. yesterday a plane flew over Howth, and a little later landed at Baldonnel aerodrome.  It brought a film which was shown three hours later, under the moonlight sky, at a Cumann na nGaedheal meeting in Howth’.  The Irish Times recorded it a great success, observing that ‘people around the meeting place were able to remain at the windows of their homes and see and hear the speakers without any difficulty’.

We can only surmise as to how Cosgrave performed on film as there is no known surviving copy of the reel.  It is probable that he came across quite stiff.  As with any new technology, politicians often found it difficult to adapt to the cameras and the image they projected in the early years tended to be one of uncertainty.  Additionally, in the absence of a contemporary survey of audience response, we cannot know the impact or influence it had on the voters.

The film did show, however, the party’s ingenuity at election time and its willingness to adapt to changing times; this is something that its successor (Fine Gael) has often been criticised for failing to do.  Moreover, this approach runs contrary to the popular notion that Cumann na nGaedheal was an amateur party.  Nonetheless, as is the case with all of the innovations adopted by Cumann na nGaedheal in the late 1920s — hiring an advertising agency, using a plane for electioneering, etc — the power of film should not be overstated: Fianna Fáil’s organisational efficiency ultimately trumped Cumann na nGaedheal’s electioneering ingenuity.

You can read more about Cumann na nGaedheal’s approach to electioneering in my book The Cosgrave Party: a History of Cumann na nGaedheal, available to buy from the Royal Irish Academy website.

Published by Dr Ciara Meehan

Reader in History at the University of Hertfordshire.

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