The History Show

The History Show

Sunday, 6pm

The History Show Sunday 22 December 2013

Winter and Christmas 1913

This week, we went back to winter 1913 to paint a picture of life in Ireland this time 100 years ago.

The run up to Christmas witnessed a frenzy of consumerism and activity. But there was a huge contrast between wealth and poverty - not only in the capital but also, elsewhere in the country.  

As the Lockout headed into its fifth month, thousands of hungry and beleaguered workers faced a bleak festive season with their families.

Mike Cronin, Mark Duncan and Paul Rouse of Century Ireland discussed political, sporting and social events.

Other items covered included a huge increase in parcels an post arriving in the country, Gaiety Panto, films for the festive season, shop windows and the weather.

1913 News Roundup

As Christmas 1913 approached and the Lockout headed into its fifth month, thousands of hungry and beleaguered workers in the capital faced a bleak festive season with their families   

Lorcan Clancy took at look at how the events of 1913 set the stage for what was to come in the following years.


Christmas 1913 at the Pictures

Christmas 1913 saw cinema audiences treated for the first time to the screen adaptation of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. His 1843 novel was produced as a silent movie starring Seymour Hicks as the miserly businessman, Ebenezer Scrooge.   But that’s just one of the films that was on offer to enthusiastic audiences that year which saw picture houses spread as rapidly here as elsewhere in the world – as Ruth Barton, head of film studies at Trinity College told us. 

 Christmas 1913 at the Pictures

by Ruth Barton

By 1913, going to the pictures was a popular leisure activity, particularly in the two main Irish cities of Dublin and Belfast.

For the last several years, eager entrepreneurs had put themselves to converting halls, shops and old warehouses into venues for this still-new public entertainment.

Not all were picture palaces – most were rickety, cheap conversions, reeking of damp and dirt and the stale remnants of drink and cigarettes, where patrons sat on wooden benches and luxury meant a kitchen chair. But some such as the Picture House on Dublin’s O’Connell Street and Belfast’s Royal Avenue Picture House were the height of sophistication. With its polished granite columns on the façade and marble walls and floors in the interior, and the promise of the latest in modern sanitation and ventilation, The Grafton Picture House in Dublin was a beacon to well-heeled shoppers.

Not for them the long running penny dreadfuls that packed in small boys (and occasionally their sisters) to the cheap seats of the working class halls. Instead, the middle classes were lured with the promise of tasteful adaptations of classic literature often starring well known stage actors, America’s Mrs Fiske, and the scandalous Sarah Bernhardt. Outside of the cities, travelling showmen added moving pictures to their repertoire, projecting grainy, flickering images onto the walls of their tents.

By Christmas 1913, Kingstown’s Pavilion Gardens was promising a changing programme of pictures for children: Babes in the Wood, Pinocchio, A Christmas Carol and Cinderella, for prices ranging from four pence to sixpence to a shilling, while in Dublin’s city centre the Rotunda was advertising the latest instalment in the thrilling serial Who Will Marry Mary? in which Mary receives a proposal from a sculptor, introducing ‘incidents of a highly amusing character’. And if that wasn’t enough, audiences were promised thrills of a ‘sensational type’ in The Master Crook, also showing at the Rotunda.

At Cavan’s Electric Picture Palace, the chief attraction was Detective Burns and the Swindlers followed by the thrilling and exotic The Rajah’s Casket. The Galway Town Hall was also offering the latest instalment of Who Will Marry Mary? to be followed by The False Friend, and the comedies, Billy’s First Quarrel and Two Lunatics.

If exhibitors might fear that their patrons would be distracted by Christmas shopping and other festivities, they were confident that on St Stephens Day, with the shops closed, and family and religious obligations over, people would be looking to get out of their homes. They must have been thrilled then to wake up to a day of blustery winds and drenching showers. The long list of outdoor activities was disregarded, and as the Sunday Independent reported ‘Folks are bent on going somewhere on bank holiday – they will not be denied their share of gaiety – and consequently the dreary and deserted streets had their contrast in the packed theatres and picture houses.’ 

But if there was one picture that suggested the loftiest kind of Christmas entertainment, it was the long running From Manger to Cross, a nativity drama directed by the famed Irish-Canadian Sidney Olcott, written by and starring Gene Gauntier. Yet this was the film that had set all Dublin alight with controversy. Outraged clerics, many of them of the Protestant faith, had filled the Mansion House as they fulminated on the impropriety of reproducing such images for profit. Grave injury to the spiritual life of the community, they warned, would be done by the showing of such a picture. What’s more, did this not illustrate the dangers of the cinematograph itself? It would, one incensed writer to the Irish Times averred, ‘act as a sort of drug on the national character....amusing us with the faintest mental exertion on our part.[…] with every fresh dose the effect of the drug becomes more fatal and the victim less capable to reacting to the realities of life.’

With the realities of life encroaching on all sides, the citizens of Dublin made their own decision. From Manger to Cross was the longest running film of 1913. 

Christmas 1913 - Grafton Street, Dublin

Similar to today, Grafton Street was a frenzy of activity in the run up to Christmas a hundred years ago. Louise Denvir painted a picture of the windows, the lifestyle and the gifts in some of the street’s department stores. 

Interestingly, department stores actually bought in cheaper versions of their products to sell as charitable donations. 


Irish Volunteers December 1913

The Irish Volunteers hold a meeting to establish a branch in Cork in December 1913.

The meeting ends in chaos after Prof Eoin MacNeill calls for the crowd to give three cheers for ‘Sir Edward Carson’s Volunteers’. The meeting was presided over by Mr. J.J. Walsh, Chairman of the Cork GAA County Board and supported by, amongst others, Sir Roger Casement, Prof. Eoin MacNeill of the National University of Ireland and Liam De Roiste of the Gaelic League.

Newspaper reports of the meeting tell of the platform being attacked by a mod armed with seats and sticks and of the chairman, JJ Walsh (a future Minister in the first Free State Government) being knocked to the ground by two blows of a chair. It was a wonder, The Irish Times reported, that MacNeill and his supporters weren’t ‘maimed for life’.

In the wake of the meeting, MacNeill writes to The Irish Times to clarify his views on Volunteering and his political allegiances. 

Ernest Shackleton announces plans for Antarctic expedition

Ernest Shackleton became a hero in 1909 when he had become the first man to get within 112 miles of the South Pole.

1912 had seen the failure of Captain Scott’s attempt to reach the Pole and the success of the Norwegian Amundsen. Shackleton had always been keen to go back to the Antarctic, and attempt a crossing of the entire continent, what he called, ‘the one great object of Antarctic journeying that remained open to him’.

Just after Christmas 1913, Shackleton made public his plans for the attempt at the Continental crossing (announced in a letter to the Times, 29/12/13).

It would be the longest Antarctic journey ever under taken, some 1,700 miles, and Shackleton planned to start the expedition in earnest when it leaves Buenos Aeries in October 1914. He talked enthusiastically about the use of new technology, including aeroplane sledges, but also acknowledged the dangers of undertaking a journey along a route that had never been used before. Shackleton envisages taking two ships to the far south, with a combined crew of 35 men.

The final transcontinental journey would be undertaken by six men, supported by 120 dogs and two aeroplane sledges. Frank Wild, who was Scott’s second in command in 1901-4 and was with Shackleton, 1907-9, has agreed to be second in command. Having announced the expedition, Shackleton will now work to raise money (he stated he needed c £50,000 -current value £4,063,000), and also began receiving applications to join his crew (he would receive over 5,000, and has been criticised for his selection process, e.g. physicist Reginald James was asked if he could sing.

In the event they would leave on 8 August 1914 despite the outbreak of WW1, not returning until May 1917 after a disastrous expedition that became heroic due to the open boat journey of part of the expedition crew from Elephant Island to South Georgia and the successful rescue of the remainder some months later. 

Vegetarian Athletes 1913

Irish Times editorial about the possibility

of a team of vegetarian athletes for the 1916 Berlin Olympics.

The context here is first that there is an ongoing debate about whether vegetarianism is a positive dietary choice or whether such people are total crackpots. There was a body of vegetarian advocates in Dublin at the time, including Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, Rosamund Jacob and Margaret Cousins. In the Olympic context, the suggestion that there would be a vegetarian team, as opposed to the team of a nation state – which would be unthinkable now – was not that out of kilter. The IOC/nation state rule was only formally fixed post-WW1, and before that, particularly in the run up to the 1916 games, there were all sorts of suggestions, e.g. trade union teams, teams representing political and ideological beliefs.

“It has been reported that a team of vegetarian athletes may be set to participate in the next Olympic Games, which are scheduled for Berlin in the summer of 1916.

The very prospect is sure to re-enliven discussion around the various claims of food reformers and a creditable performance by vegetarian athletes may go some way to countering a general scepticism about the benefits of a diet of nuts, tomatoes, and the like. The prevailing wisdom remains that half-cooked beef-steak – and plenty of it – is best suited to athletic performance demanding strength and endurance.

Of course, vegetarian athletes are not entirely unheard of, with Mr Eustace Miles, the ex-tennis and croquet champion, being perhaps the best known among them. Mr Miles is a former English and World real tennis champion who, at the age of 39, won a silver medal for tennis at the 1908 Olympics in London.

Miles has been advocate of food reform and has written extensively on the relationship between diet, fitness and physical exercise. But Mr Miles and others like him are, an Irish Times editorial has observed, still regarded as ‘strange freaks of nature, who have succeeded, in spite of their diet, not on account of it.’ So can a successful vegetarian athletic team change what we eat and how we think about food?

According to The Irish Times, the answer is yes and no. A good showing by vegetarian athletes might indeed strengthen the argument against the eating of meat and lead some athletes to forsake it while in training. ‘But they would not persuade the general public to banish roast beef from its dinner tables, however clearly they might demonstrate the dietary superiority of nuts.

We all know that tobacco is strictly forbidden to athletes who are in strict training, yet the great majority of men in those countries continue to smoke. They do so because they enjoy it, and they are even prepared to sacrifice “fitness” to it to a certain extent’”.

ETERNAL SITE: Read Eustace H. Miles on ‘The Failures of Vegetarianism (1902)

ETERNAL SITE: Read Eustace H. Miles on ‘What foods feeds us’ (1905)

Land Dispute in Westmeath

In the small town of Kilgarvin in Co. Westmeath, two people – one an infant child – were killed when shots were fired into the farmhouse of the elderly Thomas Hickey.

In the house at the time was Mr. Hickey’s daughter and grandchild. The child, aged one and half, was killed instantly, while Mr Hickey’s daughter sustained serious injuries to the head and was left for dead.

Following the shooting, Mr. Hickey went to seek out help for his daughter, falling, it first appeared, into a drain when attempting to cross a little bridge in the darkness of the night. When his body was found by the police at daylight, it was initially thought that he had died of exposure, but a closer medical inspection revealed the lifeless man to have been ‘literally riddled’ with bullets. Two shots had been fired at the pensioner from close range.

Mrs Coughlan’s husband, Kieran, returned to his home at 9pm to find a pane of glass broken and, inside, his wife lying motionless on the floor. He called out in vain to his father-in-law and, on moving into the bedroom, found his infant lying dead at the foot of the bed. Nothing about the incident or scene would suggest that this was anything but a deliberate act. Dr Everard, who attended to the victims at the scene, stated that he found no fewer than nine pellets on the right side of the baby, while two others entered the heart causing instantaneous death.

Mr. Hickey’s son, John Hickey, aged 45, has been arrested in connection with the shootings and charged with murder of the child and attempted murder of his sister. He has been brought to Brawney Police station. The tragedy has its roots in a dispute over the 30 acre family farm. It is understood that Hickey junior wanted tenancy of the farm which was been occupied by his father, whose daughter, Mrs Coughlan, her husband, Kieran Coughlan, and child lived with him.

John Hickey had left the farm sometime previously and was residing elsewhere, though always with the intention, it appears, of returning to take possession. It is understood that he spent some time in America and on his return, was given 10 of the 30 acres, on which he built a house and started “up on his own”. Although a subtenant to his father, it was stated that he did had not paid rent and that this had been the cause of a recent court proceedings. That litigation ended with the county court finding in favour of John Hickey but it had been appealed by Kieran Coughlan, his brother-in-law, and his wife.

The murders shocked the local community, but incidents like this were by no means isolated. In December alone you had incidents in West Galway, in Kerry, Offaly and Westmeath where shots were fired into houses either to intimidate or to harm those who lived within. None ended as tragically as the shooting in Westmeath, but what these incidents highlight is how, notwithstanding all the land reforms of the previous 30 years and the decline in agrarian agitation, the land question had not been resolved to everybody satisfaction.

Christmas Post 1913

The run-up to Christmas witnessed a frenzy of consumerism and activity. Nowhere was this more evident than in the postal depots of Dublin. . It has been expected that the labour dispute in Dublin would have had an adverse effect on the Christmas trade, but the opposite has been the case. 

Instead, there was a 40% increase in the number of parcels delivered in the city area alone. The volume of foreign mail was reported to be heaviest ever. On a single day, 20th December, the Olympic brought 212,000 letters and newspackets, with 1,949 registered letters. In addition, 290,000 letters, 9,000 newspackets and 3,245 registered letters were brought by the New York passenger liner. And this was not the sum of it. The Empress of Ireland also dispatched 130,000 letters 4,000 newspackets, of which 1,338 were registered packets.

In coping with this influx, and in the absence facilities at the Customs House Docks - owing to the labour dispute and the congestion of goods at the port - the authorities were required to procure additional premises at Metropolitan Hall in Abbey Street, while they also temporarily extended their Amiens Street parcels department.

In dealing with this massive influx of mail, the Post Office has been credited for performing with admirable speed and efficiency. The amount of lost mail had never been smaller owing to better wrapping and a decline in the use of ‘tie on labels’. The Christmas season also provided much needed temporary employment in the city, with 1,000 extra hands taken on to cope with the rush.

All-Ireland football final and the Purchase of Croke Park

In mid-December 1913, Kerry defeated Wexford to win the All-Ireland football title before an attendance of about 20,000 spectators at what was already being called Croke Memorial Park.

The sports grounds on Jones’s Road had only recently been purchased by the GAA from Frank Dineen - a journalist, IRB man and former President and Secretary of the Association. It was bought with the proceeds of a hugely successful tournament ran over the summer months of 1913, the Croke Memorial Cup which had been run ostensibly to raise money to finance the building of a memorial to the deceased Archbishop of Cashel, Dr. Croke, one of the GAA’s first patrons.

The decision was hugely significant for the GAA and Irish sport – it provided them with a permanent headquarters in the capital; it solved a problem of sourcing adequate and enabled them to invest in its improvement.

Every All-Ireland hurling and football bar – 1937, 1947, 1984 – has been held at the venue. 


Weather Christmas 1913

The country endured a particularly cold snap in the week between Christmas and the New Year – snowfall of between 2 and 4 inches was reported on the outskirts of Dublin and in the city the streets wore a coat of white frost.

In the Phoenix Park, the ponds froze over with the more adventurous of visitors taking to sliding and skating on their surface. For the most part, though, the cold weather drove people indoors in their search for recreation and the theatres, music halls and picture houses reported good business.

Outside of Dublin, in the Shannon Region, Salmon exporters took advantage of the cold weather by storing ice, negating the need to import the same from Norway, while also providing much needed local employment.

About The Show

Bringing the past to life! Discover how our world was shaped as Myles Dungan and guests explore events ranging from medieval times to the recent past.

We want to help explain ourselves to ourselves. We will search out fresh angles on familiar topics, seek out the unfamiliar and will not shy away from bizarre or controversial issues. Our ultimate goal is to make The History Show the primary port of call for those with an intense or even a modest interest in the subject. We want to entice the casual and the curious to join us in celebrating the past.

Our aim is to create informative, reflective, stimulating and above all, entertaining radio.

Join us on Sundays from 6.05pm for The History Show with Myles Dungan on RTÉ Radio 1.

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Presenter: Myles Dungan

Producer: Lorcan Clancy


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