Giving British Pathé the Storyful treatment
British Pathé did a beautiful thing recently. They put every scrap of film in their archives on YouTube. 85,000 news videos dating back to the early 20th century, a treasure for historians and media scholars alike.
The catch? It’s not very well catalogued. In almost every case, we have no more than a title and a brief description. This video sums up the problem: until a user wrote in, British Pathé had no idea the other man in the video was Richard Mulcahy — only the number two in the National Army at the time. After a bit of poking around on the Pathé YouTube channel, you might even think the videos are good for little more than nostalgia and B-roll for historical documentaries.
And you’d be wrong. Metadata is interpretation. Metadata could be wrong. Metadata, frankly, is for losers, and anyone prepared to observe, think, and persevere can get a lot more out of a visual source than any metadata could give them. Social media newswire Storyful has a blog full of awesome techniques for verifying social media information, and they’d know, because their business is finding and verifying the hard core of user-generated content they can sell on in the 72 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute.
This post inspired me to apply their techniques to the newsreels.
This is a Youtube video uploaded by British Pathé called ‘Somewhere in Ireland (1922). I chose it for this post because the title sounds like a direct challenge to go and bloody well find out where.
It opens with a title card. “SOMEWHERE IN IRELAND – National Troops continue victorious advance. – Remarkable pictures taken in the firing line of a battle in progress.” We already know it’s 1922. “Continue victorious advance” — this suggests the national offensive in the summer. The opening sequence confirms it’s the summer: strong sunlight casting defined shadows on the bone-dry roads. Only a minority of the troops we see in this sequence are wearing their greatcoats, and many of these wear them open. It might not be very hot, but they’re dressed right for an Irish summer.
The shot starting 2:36 shows a captured anti-Treaty fighter as he walks towards the camera flanked by National soldiers, cap in had. His riding boots and collarless shirt add an touch of Han Solo, but his flat cap and jacket bring him firmly back to Ireland. I’ve seen this guy before, I know it. He’s on the cover of Ryle Dwyer’s Tans, Terror and Troubles: Kerry’s Real Fighting Story 1913-23. But this can’t be Kerry, can it?
Let’s find out. Google “Tans, Terror and Troubles.” There’s the cover there. If you’re on Chrome, just right-click on the Google image result and hit “Search Google for this image” (you could also try TinEye).
Boom. Better data. The first result is a Mercier Press book about the Battle of Kilmallock. The second is the original image uploaded to Flickr by the National Library. This suggests the film was shot around the time of this incident. The battle involved the encirclement of ant-Treaty forces in the triangle between Kilmallock, Bruree and Charleville, on the Limerick-Cork border.
As proof that there’s no such thing as an original thought, the commenters found the video two years back on Pathé’s original site. The other thing this proves is that metadata truly is for losers. Even though someone figured this out two years ago, I couldn’t find the information starting from the YouTube video. Without the tricks of the image search algorithm, the happy folk are blind.
Unlike the newsreel footage, this shot by Dublin photographer W.D. Hogan is properly exposed. The sky is washed out, but we can see facial expressions instead of silhouettes. Also visible is the Pathé cameraman — he’s the lad standing in the ditch wearing impractical shoes holding something at chest height.
The sequence starting 3:57 shows National troops manning a roadblock in a town. Location unknown, but there’s lots to work with. Clue one: the long shadows cast on the ground are almost perpendicular to the street. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, which means the road runs roughly north-south. Clue two: the buildings in the background are very distinctive — the nearest is four stories tall, with big chimneys and narrow sash windows. Peeking out behind it we see a distinctive porch structure leading into a shorter building set back further from the road.
Now it’s a case of looking for towns south of Limerick City on roads which run north to south. We can save ourselves some time by looking at the bigger ones first — after all, this place was big enough to warrant building something four stories high AND setting up a roadblock. It’s not Kilmallock at any rate, as the roads point the wrong directions, and it isn’t Bruree or Croom either.
For a second, I thought it could be this convent-looking place in Charleville. It’s tall and it has a porch; but the buildings further back are different and the chimneys are missing… and there’s the inconvenient existence of another wing. Damn. If the NLI is right about the date of Hogan’s photograph, the Battle of Kilmallock was another three days away at least. I was probably looking too far south.
North along the Limerick road from Kilmallock is Bruff. It was a great candidate: a decent-sized town on a crossroads like a compass rose, just north of a river crossing. A little bit of poking around and… bingo.
It’s a perfect match — the chimneys, porch, windows and archways are the same.
Applying the same technique gets us the probable location of this later sequence.
A broad 45-degree turn on a road aligned roughly north-south, with a staggered junction visible. There are a few candidates near Bruff, but this spot north of the village was the best fit.
And whaddya know, the brick patterns on the wall to the right of frame seem to match pretty well, and the hole in the opposite one matches the lighter-coloured masonry of a later repair visible in Street View. Scoot up the road a little, and you can even match the gable end of the house in centre frame to one concealed by trees today.
You could spend all day looking at maps to figure this stuff out, but the returns can become marginal. We’ve narrowed down this video’s location to the Bruff area around 22 July 1922, just before the battle of Kilmallock, by finding locations with distinctive features and consulting other contemporary sources. A few trips to the Military Archives, and you could probably have a list of the soldiers who were fighting in the area. Find some grandchildren, and you could start naming the soldiers in the newsreels. But that shot of the captured Irregular under guard, the boyish icon of the fight? That’s probably impossible to pinpoint like this. The hedgerows morph in time, and there are too many roads.
P.S. If anybody’s feeling particularly brave, they could try and figure out which grid box the officer in this shot is pointing at.