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WWI Centennial: Irish Troubles

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The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in August, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 119th installment in the series.

May 25, 1914: Irish Troubles

In the tortuous history of Anglo-Irish relations, 100 years isn’t really that long a time—so it’s no surprise Britain, Ireland, and Northern Ireland are still dealing with the repercussions of decisions made a century ago.

English involvement in Ireland dates back to the 12th century, when the Norman invaders who conquered England in 1066 turned their attention to neighboring Ireland, eventually establishing the feudal “Lordship of Ireland” in 1171. But many Normans intermarried and “went native,” and English authority was patchy at best until the second English conquest of Ireland, begun by Henry VIII in the 1530s and brutally completed by his daughter Elizabeth I in the Nine Years’ War from 1594 to 1603.

By this time, the fight had become mixed up with religion, as most English were now Anglican, Puritan, or otherwise Protestant (loosely defined) while the Irish for the most part remained loyal Catholics. To stamp out Irish Catholic resistance in the island’s troublesome northern province of Ulster, Elizabeth’s successor James I created the Plantation of Ulster, a colony settled by Protestants from England and Scotland—the latter mostly Presbyterians who eventually became known as the “Ulster Scots” or “Scots-Irish.”

Across Ireland, brutal repression, religious discrimination, and rapacious English landlords provoked uprisings on numerous occasions, including 1641, 1798, 1803, and 1867. Meanwhile, the horrific Irish Potato Famine in the second half of the 1840s, when at least a million Irish peasants starved to death, stirred sympathy in England for the plight of poor Irish, and the rise of the British Liberal Party under William Gladstone laid the groundwork for reforms in Ireland.

Early reforms bolstered tenants’ rights and ended the requirement that Catholics pay tithes to the Anglican Church in Ireland—but in the decades that followed it became clear many Irish wanted greater autonomy or even independence. The issue of “Irish Home Rule,” or self-government for Ireland, split the Liberal Party in two in 1886, as the “Liberal Unionist Party” aligned with the Conservatives led by Lord Salisbury, who also opposed to self-government for Ireland.

However, the Liberal Unionists eventually ended up splitting (again) over free trade and tariffs, and the Liberals returned to power in 1906, setting the scene for a final showdown over Irish Home Rule. Now the scene moved to the House of Lords, the aristocratic upper house of Parliament, which still wielded veto power over the democratically elected House of Commons. This feudal holdover allowed the House of Lords to veto the Second Irish Home Rule Bill for Irish Home Rule, which the (mostly Conservative) Lords felt threatened the very fabric of the United Kingdom.

But the Lords overplayed their hand and were finally stripped of their veto following their rejection of a Liberal budget including welfare measures with broad popular support (the “People’s Budget”) in 1909. The Lords’ veto of the budget, which had passed the Commons by an overwhelming margin, was the final insult that provoked the Liberals in the House of Commons – with support from Irish nationalists—to ask the recently enthroned King George V to step in and bring the Conservative-dominated Lords to heel.

George V, bowing to the popular will, warned the Conservative members of the House of Lords that if they didn’t pass the Parliament Act, acknowledging the constitutional supremacy of the House of Commons, he would use his royal prerogative to flood the House of Lords with hundreds of new Liberal peers—who would then pass the Parliament Act anyway. Presented with this fait accompli, in 1911 the House of Lords caved and yielded their right of veto. Under the new rules the Lords could reject any bill passed by the Commons twice, but if the Commons passed the bill a third time they could override the Lords and send it directly to the king.

That’s exactly what happened with the Third Irish Home Rule Bill: after the House of Commons passed the bill granting Ireland self-government in 1912, the House of Lords predictably rejected it in January 1913, forcing the Liberals to reintroduce the bill in 1913, whereupon the Lords rejected it yet again. Finally, on May 25, 1914, the House of Commons passed the bill for the third time and sent it to George V, sidestepping the House of Lords. At long last, it looked like Irish Home Rule was about to become a reality. 

But this was hardly the end of the matter. The Protestant population of Northern Ireland bitterly opposed Irish independence and feared that without British protection they would be persecuted by Ireland’s Catholic majority. Soon both sides began arming themselves in preparation for a civil war. The main Protestant militia, the Ulster Volunteer Force (above), claimed to have 100,000 members, all prepared to fight Irish Home Rule and keep Ulster in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile the Irish nationalists organized a rival force, the Irish Volunteers, committed to defending Ireland’s hard-won self-government. 

Even worse, the British government was apparently powerless to restore order in Northern Ireland, because British officers—mostly Protestant and staunchly patriotic—refused to act against the pro-British Protestant “Unionists” in Ulster, some of whom were former colleagues from the British army. In fact in March 1914 a number of senior British officers threatened to resign if ordered to move against the Ulster Volunteers, in what became known as the Curragh Incident or Curragh Mutiny (after the main British army camp west of Dublin).  

For professional officers in a European army to threaten mutiny in peacetime was an astonishing—and deeply embarrassing—state of affairs, reflecting the depths of division in British society over Irish Home Rule. Thus in the final months of peace the British government, press, and public were wholly absorbed by the situation in Ireland, where it seemed civil war might break out at any moment, and Parliament scrambled to find some sort of compromise that would prevent bloodshed. Ultimately the solution they settled on—a partition of Ireland—simply deferred the problem, as Irish nationalists still considered Ulster part of Ireland, and Ulster Protestants still considered Ireland part of the United Kingdom. 

The situation remained tense and uncertain into the summer, culminating in the Buckingham Palace Conference of July 21-24, 1914, when George V called representatives from both sides to meet in an effort to hammer out an agreement that would allow Irish Home Rule while respecting the rights of the Protestants in Northern Ireland. But the conference proved fruitless and soon the Irish question seemed less pressing, as all eyes turned to Europe following the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia on July 23, 1914.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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Netflix's Most-Binged Shows of 2017, Ranked
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Netflix might know your TV habits better than you do. Recently, the entertainment company's normally tight-lipped number-crunchers looked at user data collected between November 1, 2016 and November 1, 2017 to see which series people were powering through and which ones they were digesting more slowly. By analyzing members’ average daily viewing habits, they were able to determine which programs were more likely to be “binged” (or watched for more than two hours per day) and which were more often “savored” (or watched for less than two hours per day) by viewers.

They found that the highest number of Netflix bingers glutted themselves on the true crime parody American Vandal, followed by the Brazilian sci-fi series 3%, and the drama-mystery 13 Reasons Why. Other shows that had viewers glued to the couch in 2017 included Anne with an E, the Canadian series based on L. M. Montgomery's 1908 novel Anne of Green Gables, and the live-action Archie comics-inspired Riverdale.

In contrast, TV shows that viewers enjoyed more slowly included the Emmy-winning drama The Crown, followed by Big Mouth, Neo Yokio, A Series of Unfortunate Events, GLOW, Friends from College, and Ozark.

There's a dark side to this data, though: While the company isn't around to judge your sweatpants and the chip crumbs stuck to your couch, Netflix is privy to even your most embarrassing viewing habits. The company recently used this info to publicly call out a small group of users who turned their binges into full-fledged benders:

Oh, and if you're the one person in Antarctica binging Shameless, the streaming giant just outed you, too.

Netflix broke down their full findings in the infographic below and, Big Brother vibes aside, the data is pretty fascinating. It even includes survey data on which shows prompted viewers to “Netflix cheat” on their significant others and which shows were enjoyed by the entire family.

Netflix infographic "The Year in Bingeing"
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14 Fascinating Facts About Saturday Night Fever
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Paramount Pictures

We can tell by the way you use your walk that you're a fan of Saturday Night Fever, the 1977 blockbuster that made John Travolta a mega-star and brought disco into the mainstream. (Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of opinion.) To enhance your appreciation of what was the highest-grossing dance movie of all time until Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) and Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike (2012) beat it, here's a groovy list of facts to celebrate the film's 40th birthday. Put on your boogie shoes and read! 

1. THERE WAS A PG-RATED VERSION OF IT, TOO.

Saturday Night Fever was an instant hit when it was released in December 1977, quickly becoming one of the highest-grossing movies of the year. What's especially impressive is that it did this despite being rated R and thus (theoretically) inaccessible to teenagers, the very audience that a disco movie would (theoretically) appeal to. And so in March 1979, the film was re-released in a PG version, with all the profanity, sex, and violence either deleted or downplayed. This version took in another $8.9 million (about $30 million at 2016 ticket prices), bringing the film's U.S. total to $94.2 million. Both versions were released on VHS and laserdisc, though the R-rated cut didn't become widely available on home video until the DVD upgrade. 

2. IT WAS BASED ON A MAGAZINE ARTICLE THAT TURNED OUT TO BE SEMI-FICTIONAL.

"Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night," a detailed look at the new generation of urban teenagers by British journalist Nik Cohn, was published in New York Magazine in June 1976. The central figure in the article was Vincent, "the very best dancer in Bay Ridge," whose name was changed to Tony Manero for the movie. But years later, Cohn confessed: "[Vincent] is completely made-up, a total fabrication." The styles and attitudes Cohn had described were real, but not the main character. Cohn said he'd only recently arrived in Brooklyn, didn't know the scene well, and based Vincent on a Mod he'd known in London in the '60s.

3. THE BEE GEES HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT.

Most of the film had already been shot when music producer-turned-movie producer Robert Stigwood commissioned the Bee Gees to write songs for it. The brothers, only modestly successful at that point and hard at work on their next album, didn't know what the movie was about but cranked out a few tunes in a weekend. They also repurposed several songs they'd been working on, including "Stayin' Alive," a demo version of which was prepared in time to be used in filming the opening "strut" sequence. (You'll notice Travolta struts in sync with the music.) So if the movie's signature songs didn't come until later, what were the cast members listening to when they shot the dance scenes? According to Travolta, it was Boz Scaggs and Stevie Wonder. 

4. THE SOUNDTRACK ALBUM BROKE ALL KINDS OF RECORDS.

With 15 million copies sold in the U.S. alone, Saturday Night Fever was the top-selling soundtrack album of all time before being supplanted by The Bodyguard some 15 years later. It's also the only disco record (so far) to win the Grammy for Album of the Year, and one of only three soundtracks (besides The Bodyguard and O Brother, Where Art Thou?) to win that category. It was the number one album on the Billboard charts for the entire first half of 1978, and stayed on the charts until March 1980, long after the supposed death of disco.

5. THE MOVIE EXTENDED DISCO'S LIFESPAN BY A FEW YEARS.

Disco had been popular enough in the mid-1970s to land multiple disco tunes on the Billboard charts, but by the end of 1977, when Saturday Night Fever came out, the backlash had started and the trend was on its way out. But thanks to the movie (and its soundtrack), not only did disco not die out, it achieved more widespread, mainstream, middle-America success than it ever had before.

6. IT HAS SOME ROCKY CONNECTIONS.


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First connection: It was supposed to be directed by John G. Avildsen, whose previous film was Rocky. Ultimately, that didn’t work out and Avildsen was replaced with John Badham a few weeks before shooting began. Second connection: Tony has a Rocky poster on his bedroom wall. Third connection: Saturday Night Fever’s 1983 sequel, Staying Alive, was directed by ... Sylvester Stallone.

7. TRAVOLTA WAS ALREADY SO FAMOUS THAT MAKING THE MOVIE WAS A HASSLE.

Saturday Night Fever made Travolta a movie star, but he was already a teen heartthrob because of the popular sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, where he played a delinquent teenager with the hilarious and timeless catchphrase "Up your nose with a rubber hose." Still, nobody was prepared for how Travolta's fame would affect the movie, which was to be shot on the streets of Brooklyn. As soon as the neighborhood found out Travolta was there, the sidewalks were swarmed by thousands of onlookers, many of them squealing teenage girls. (Badham said there were also a lot of teenage boys holding signs expressing their hatred for Travolta for being more desirable than themselves.)

Co-star Donna Pescow said, "The fans—oh, my God, they were all over him. It was scary to watch." Badham said, "By noon of the first day, we had to shut down and go home." Since it was nearly impossible to keep the crowds away (or quiet), Badham and the crew resorted to filming in the middle of the night or at the crack of dawn. 

8. THE WHITE CASTLE EMPLOYEES WEREN'T ACTING WHEN THEY LOOKED SHOCKED. 


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In the brief scene where Tony, his boys, and Stephanie are loudly eating at White Castle, those were the real burger-flippers, not actors. Badham told them to just go about their business. He also told his actors to cut loose and surprise the White Castlers in whatever way they saw fit. The shot that's in the movie appears to be a reaction to Joey standing on the table and barking, but Badham said it was actually in response to something else: "Double J (actor Paul Pape) pulling his pants down and mooning the entire staff of the White Castle."

9. THE FEMALE LEAD GOT THE PART THANKS TO A SERENDIPITOUS CAB RIDE.

Casting the role of Tony's dance partner, Stephanie, proved difficult. Hundreds of women auditioned, but nobody seemed right. Meanwhile, 32-year-old Karen Lynn Gorney was looking for her big break into show business. As fate would have it, she shared a cab with a stranger who turned out to be producer Robert Stigwood's nephew. He mentioned that his uncle was working on a movie, and Gorney replied, "Oh, am I in it?"— her standard joke whenever she heard about a film being made. The nephew wound up submitting Gorney as a candidate, and the rest is history. 

10. TRAVOLTA’S GIRLFRIEND DIED DURING FILMING.

John Travolta stars in Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Paramount Pictures

Travolta met Diana Hyland on the set of the TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, in which she played his mother. (She was 18 years older than him.) They had been dating for six months when Hyland succumbed to breast cancer at the age of 41, after filming just four episodes of her new gig on Eight Is Enough. Travolta was able to leave Saturday Night Fever and fly to L.A. in time to be with her before she died, then had to return to work. 

11. THE COMPOSER HAD TO SCRAMBLE TO REPLACE A NIXED SONG.

For Tony and Stephanie's rehearsal scene about 30 minutes into the movie, Badham had used the song "Lowdown" by Boz Scaggs, going so far as to shoot the scene, including the dialogue, with the song actually playing in the background. (That's usually a no-no, for exactly the reasons you're about to read about.) According to Badham, no sooner had they wrapped the scene than Scaggs' people reached out to say they couldn't use the song after all, as Scaggs was thinking of pursuing a disco project of his own. Badham now had to have the actors re-dub the dialogue (since the version he'd recorded was tainted by "Lowdown"); what's more, he had to find a new song that would fit the choreography and tempo of the dancing. Composer David Shire rose to the occasion, writing a piece of instrumental music that met the specifications, and that’s what we hear in the movie. 

12. THEY MADE UP A DANCE BECAUSE THE CHOREOGRAPHER DIDN'T SHOW UP.

In another rehearsal scene 55 minutes into the movie, Tony and Stephanie do the "tango hustle," which looks like a combination of both of those dances. This was something Travolta and Gorney invented as a matter of necessity: the film's choreographer didn't realize he was supposed to be on the set that day, and the actors didn't have any steps prepared. The tango hustle, alas, never quite caught on.  

13. TONY’S ICONIC WHITE SUIT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE BLACK.

Travolta and Badham both assumed Tony's disco outfit would be black, as men's suits tended to be at the time. Costume designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein convinced them it should be white, partly to symbolize the character's journey to enlightenment but also for practical reasons: a dark suit doesn't photograph very well in a dark discotheque. 

14. TONY’S SUIT WAS LATER SOLD FOR $2000—THEN FOR $145,500.

Von Brandenstein took Travolta to a cheap men's clothing store in Brooklyn (swamped by teenage fans, of course) and bought the suit off the rack—three identical suits, actually, so they wouldn't have to stop filming when one became soaked with Travolta's sweat. Two of the suits disappeared after the movie was finished; the remaining one, inscribed by Travolta, was bought at a charity auction in 1979 by film critic Gene Siskel, who cited Saturday Night Fever as one of his favorite movies. He paid about $2000 for it. In 1995, he sold it for $145,500 to an anonymous bidder through Christie's auction house.

In 2012, after a lengthy search, curators at London's Victoria and Albert Museum found the owner (who still preferred to remain anonymous) and persuaded him to lend it for an exhibit of Hollywood costumes. It is now presumably back in that man's care, whoever he may be. (P.S. Badham says on the 2002 DVD commentary that the suit is on display at the Smithsonian, a tidbit repeated by NPR in 2006 and Vanity Fair in 2007. But they must be mistaken. The suit’s sale in 1995 and rediscovery for the 2012 museum exhibit are verified facts; the suit isn't in the Smithsonian's online catalogue; and finally, a 2007 Washington Post story about the Smithsonian lists the suit as one of the items the museum director wanted to get.)

Additional sources:
John Badham DVD commentary
DVD featurettes

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