Research on audiences in the past is challenging, particularly in the case of historical audiences in periods beyond living memory. This paper explores the degree to which archival research, spatial analysis and other methodologies of the New Cinema History can illuminate Irish audiences of the 1910s.
Writing in the introduction to 2019 Routledge Companion to New Cinema History, Daniel Biltereyst, Richard Maltby and Phillippe Meers argue that New Cinema History aims to provide a corrective to a failing of “film studies[, which] has not sought to provide sophisticated answers to basic questions about the operation of cinema as a social phenomenon” (2). The New Cinema History’s methodologies for researching historical audiences have an urgent relevance for work on Ireland. Cinema has played too little part to date in the widespread process of public history that Ireland has been engaged in over the last seven years, as it has commemorated the centenaries of the events of the revolutionary decade between 1912 and 1922 that saw the creation of the island’s two polities of the Irish Free State (later the Republic of Ireland) and Northern Ireland. Although the processes of memory creation and mediation have been a central cultural concern in the country, the role cinema played as the new mass medium of the period has remained underexamined, in part because discussion of cinema remains institutionally tied to a film studies still largely focused on the analysis of films. Focusing on Irish audiences for cinema in the 1910s, this paper explores the necessities and challenges of researching cinema as a social phenomenon in a period now well beyond living memory.