There’s a bit of YouTube to the 100-year-old film clips that emerged back in 1995 from barrels in English basement. They’re short, unscripted, a little rough around the edges, the stars were regular people and, in what would pass for 4G speed in 1900, they would be shot in the afternoon and screened that same evening. But unlike digital media, they weren’t supposed to live forever, given the unstable and highly flammable nature of the nitrate film stock.
Miraculously, about 800 of these slice-of-life films hibernated safely through most of the 20th century in barrels in the cellar of the Mitchell & Kenyon film company, among them several shot in Ireland.
Producing “Local Films for Local People,” Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon would shoot their “Topicals”--street scenes, sporting events, vacation spots—during the day and show them that night at traveling carnivals, fairground tents and local meeting halls. Lured by banners advertising “See Yourselves as Others See You,” people paid to see if Mitchell & Kenyon had captured them or their friends on film.
The audience appetite for “Topicals” would wane eventually and in the 1920s, Mitchell would seal the films into those time capsules. In 1995, when the building was demolished, workers found the barrels and had to good sense to drop them off at a video business on the way to the junkyard. The proprietor sent them to a local film history buff who kept collection in safekeeping until a consortium led by the British Film Institute began the slow, costly work of preserving and digitizing the images.
Most “Topicals” were shot on other side of the Irish Sea, but here are two made in Ireland, starting with a pre-auto Belfast streetscape shot in 1901 from the top of a double-decker horse-drawn tram.
According to the narrator the street is Royal Avenue. Probably the oddest little details are those pushcarts carrying advertising for a film exhibition by the North American Photo Animation Company (as Mitchell & Kenyon produced films in Ireland for that company the ads were likely for its own films). In the other, the filmmakers jostled for position to record the finals of the 1902 Cork Regatta International Cup rowing on the River Lee.
There are “Topicals” of Dublin, Wexford, Cork by tram, local dignitaries attending the Cork International Exhibition, scenic routes from Cork to Blarney Castle and footage of a Wales v. Ireland football match.
A 75-minute DVD compilation called Mitchell & Kenyon in Ireland is available in the Ireland and the UK, but I was unable to locate it for sale in the US in the NTSC TV standard used stateside. For more on Mitchell & Kenyon go to http://www.bfi.org.uk/features/mk/ (there’s also a Google Maps overlay that shows the locations of their shoots.) Though it’s scant of Irish footage, here’s an evocative “Topicals” montage of a vanished world, pulled from the barrels in Mitchell & Kenyon’s basement.