SOURCE: Cineaste Vol XXIV, Nos 2-3

Harvey O’Brien, Documenting Ireland

Despite the interest with which social and political developments on the island of Ireland are followed by the rest of the world, Irish documentarists face many challenges when approaching them as subjects. A survey of recent major Irish documentaries and documentary series reveals a relatively small number of films which tackle important issues head-on.

Louis Lentin’s Dear Daughter (1996) remains the most serious look at the clerical abuse which has so shaken the foundations of the Catholic Church in Ireland. Yet the film dealt only with instances of physical abuse in one orphanage in the 1950s and was more a contributor to the debate than an exploration of the problem. Donald Taylor Black’s Hearts and Souls (1995) is still the one outstanding divorce film, a cinéma-vérité portrait of the “No” campaign leading up to the historic referendum. But it confined itself to the quiet ridicule of the people involved, allowing their behavior and language on camera to demonstrate their conservative prejudices. It did not attempt to contextualize the changes in society which were implied. Poverty and homelessness are largely agreed to be significant issues in modern Ireland, yet only one episode of an otherwise lightweight lifestyles series, Home (1998), has given the subject close scrutiny.

The Troubles is usually considered too sensitive for direct documentary analysis. Most films on the subject tend either towards the expositional and news-related or deal tentatively with questions of self-definition in individual people such as Brendan J. Byrne’s How Far Home (1997) or Sonia Nic Giolla Eaisbuig’s In the Cell of Death 1980-1981 (I gCillín na mBháis 1980-1981, 1998). There are also many films which focus on the past rather than the present, and though the events portrayed in 1798 and Since (1798 agus Ó Shin, 1998), about the 1798 Rebellion, and The Madness From Within (1998), about the Irish Civil War, have obvious links with the current political state of the nation, the buffer provided by the dead hand of history often deflects the discussion onto more general questions of revisionism than things as they are now.

Part of the difficulty may be that the economics of documentary production in Ireland remain unfavorable for innovative or challenging filmmakers. Despite the recent introduction of two new television stations, Telefís na Gaelige (TnaG, an Irish language station) and TV3, films being made even in the independent sector have a limited palette of sponsors. Eventually all roads lead to The Irish Film Board and the state broadcaster, RTÉ, both of which have limited financial resources that they are reluctant to make available for projects not immediately destined for broadcast within a predetermined block of programs. Theatrical distribution is virtually nonexistent, though Liam McGrath’s Francis Barret Southpaw (1998) and John T. Davis’s The Uncle Jack (1996) were screened at the Galway Film Fleadh and the Dublin Film Festival respectively (Southpaw has also been distributed theatrically in Ireland and was selected for screening at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival).

Though the BBC, Channel 4, and ITV offer a viable alternative for some people, there is always a question of just how well the interests of a country’s documentary tradition are served by the export of its talents and by the demands of foreign-based series editors fulfilling their own programming needs. Perhaps a more telling problem is the attitude to freedom of expression and, indeed, expression in general in Ireland, which underlies the research and production of documentaries. While the Constitution guarantees freedom to speak one’s mind, it is qualified by ill-defined moral precepts typical of the authorities responsible for its drafting in 1937 the Catholic Church and the Government of Eamon de Valera. Article 40 of the Constitution states that citizens have the right to freely express their convictions and opinions, but notes:

The education of public opinion being, however, a matter of such grave

import to the common good, the State shall endeavour to ensure that organs

of public opinion, such as the radio, the press, the cinema, while

preserving their rightful liberty of expression, including criticism of

Government policy, shall not be used to undermine public order or morality

or the authority of the State. (Article 40, Section 6, 1, (i))

The criteria by which precepts such as public order, public morality, or the authority of the State may be understood are not included here, except in the implicit assumption that the Catholic and nationalist principles upon which the Constitution is founded are understood by all. Though this moral hegemony has led to well documented and famous cases in literature and theater, the limits of this freedom have never really been tested in broadcasting and visual arts.

RTÉ is a semi-state body and its remit of public service has always made it subject to the State’s definition of how the public is best served. Though films like Bob Quinn’s The Family (1978), which dealt with a commune living in the West of Ireland in defiance of the ideals of family enshrined within Catholicism and the Constitution, or Cathal Black’s docudrama Our Boys (1981), which highlighted the physical abuse heaped upon young boys by Christian Brothers in primary schools throughout the country, can go unscreened for a decade or more, the reasons given are usually commercial rather than moral. The silence itself is telling and the lack of challenge is symptomatic of the instinctual repression of the dissenting voice in favor of more subtle or gradual means of exploring the boundaries of Irish social and political life. The majority of documentaries made for public consumption in Ireland are intended for broadcast in the ordinary television schedules. A set amount of independent projects per year are approved and shown, the rest are internal RTÉ productions or coproductions in conjunction with the BBC or other international commissioning bodies.

Since its inception, TnaG has sponsored films in the Irish language which are subsequently rebroadcast on RTÉ, though the base funding and personnel often come from there in the first place. Though films and filmmakers may be engaged by foreign-based companies or commissioning editors, and while events and circumstances in Ireland are equally subject to examination by non-Irish documentarists such as the Disney produced The Long Journey Home (1997), a lengthy saga of immigration and the Irish Diaspora, or BBC’s Provos (1997), dealing with the history of the violent Republican tradition in Northern Ireland, some valid questions might be asked of the documentary tradition within Ireland.

Documentary is an important though frequently neglected element of the practice of filmmaking in any country and contributes to its democratic well being. If the so-called renaissance in Irish fiction film production indicates a new and healthy eruption of creative energy and a challenge to long-held notions of what it means to be Irish, by what standards may we judge documentary practice on the same terms, and what can it tell us about the state of things?

Three films from the history of nonfiction in Ireland are important in laying the foundation Our Country (Liam O’Leary, 1948), Mise Éire (George Morrison, 1959) and Rocky Road to Dublin (Peter Lennon, 1968). Our Country was the first politically provocative documentary, made at the behest of Clann na Poblachta, a new political party contesting the general election in that year. The film offered contemporary Irish audiences a picture of urban squalor, ill-health, poverty, and emigration in stark contrast with the self-congratulatory, touristic films which had preceded it. It was unique in its focus on the present state of Ireland in the wake of independence rather than on the achievement of independence as an end in itself. It argued that atavistic attitudes to social and political problems had resulted in stagnation and “a slow bleeding to death” of the country. When released, it led to heated debate in political circles regarding the use of “propaganda.” The film earned its maker a number of powerful enemies who would later frustrate his efforts to make other films. He eventually left the country to work in England and though he later returned to become a pioneer archivist, the irony of the situation is not lost.

Subsequent Governments were more careful to regulate and control documentaries, and, armed with the Constitution, stood guard over the education of public opinion. Mise Éire (I Am Ireland) was a good example of the way things went afterwards. The film was the first of two in a never completed trilogy which documented Ireland’s recent political history through the use of newsreel footage. It was nothing less than an official history of the State, narrated in Irish and sponsored by the Irish language promoting body Gael Linn. It told a triumphalist tale of liberation from British oppression, concentrating on major political and military events including the 1916 Rising and climaxing with Sinn Féin’s landslide victory in the 1919 General Election. The film was premiered at the Cork Film Festival in 1959 in the presence of Government officials (most of them veterans of the conflicts portrayed on screen). It was a national event and an affirmation of nationalist ideology on a grand scale. Its sequel, Saoirse? (Freedom?, George Morrison, 1961) was less successful with critics and the public, charting as it did the more problematic years leading to the outbreak of the civil war. The third part was never filmed.

Director George Morrison later made lofty claims for the trilogy, which he argued was intended to explore the basis of nationalist ideology rather than enshrine it. His position is not borne out by close study though, for while the events in Saoirse? are darker in tone, they remain unquestioned within a view of Irish history as a progression of violent political struggles leading to a state of ultimate independence from the Other, be it the British Empire or the anti-Treaty forces. Mise Éire and Saoirse? are also notable because of the style in which they were made. They present themselves as a definitive writing of Irish history and do not invite further investigation of the events portrayed. The use of newsreels and newspaper headlines as authentic and unquestionable documents of the history makes the history itself unquestionable. By appealing to the emotions and assuming a didactic, schoolroom tone, these films proved that

the medium could inscribe ideological values, particularly those upholding the principles of the Constitution.

The 1960s saw a certain amount of reaction to these ideas, and also the establishment of RTÉ (Radio Telefís Éireann), the country’s only indigenous broadcaster and one overseen by a board of political appointees, in 1961. Within a few years several of its employees had rebelled against its policies and sought work in the independent sector. Rocky Road to Dublin became their rallying point and a symbol of their resistance, although it was made by an Irish journalist working abroad and not employed by RTÉ. The film was a direct assault on the old guard of Church and State armed with an exile’s perspective and informed by immediate esthetic and political events taking place in France in the late 1960s where its director, Peter Lennon, was working. Returning to the premise of Our Country, the film asked, What do you do with your revolution once you have it? and portrayed Ireland as a moribund nation enclosed by repressive and self-perpetuating institutions and values. It specifically targeted the collusion between Church and State, which Lennon’s voice-over observed was “not so much a matter of an evil conspiracy as a bad habit.”

The film noted, for instance, that because primary education was almost entirely run by The Christian Brothers, Irish people were indoctrinated with orthodox morality and the idea of conformity and obedience to religious authority within a State institution early on. Lennon also argued that postindependence political and cultural movements such as the Gaelic revival were a waste of time, focusing people’s minds on romantic cultural questions when it was “time to live a little less in the folkloric past and do something serious about unemployment and emigration.” Partly because of his use of cameraman Raoul Coutard and partly because of the subject of the film, it was selected for a Critics Week screening at the Cannes Film Festival in 1968. It was then adopted by some of the striking students and screened at an amphitheater in the Sorbonne “still rancid with CS gas,” as Lennon describes it. The irony was that the film was never screened in its home country outside of Dublin. Rural exhibitors would not touch it and local distribution networks which screened films in town halls or community centers were often run by the clergy the film so vehemently condemned. To this day it has never been screened on RTÉ. At the time Lennon came under sustained attack by the organs of public opinion named in the Constitution and was even accused of being a communist on a major national television talk show. The film became a public controversy without ever being seen by the public, and though it was not actually banned, it was cast adrift in a sea of political anger unable to make its voice heard.

Contemporary documentary practice has a more tempered approach to social and political issues. The Irish voice now prefers to whisper. While the majority of films are news documentaries lacking thematic substance or sustained rhetorical argument, a small amount of recent films have attempted to critically examine the state of the Nation. The favored format seems to be the use either of a person or events in the past as a medium via which the issues of the present may be discussed. Brendan J. Byrne has been one of the most interesting contributors dealing with Northern Ireland. In The Kickhams (1993), the plight of a Belfast-based Gaelic football team served as a study of the siege mentality of nationalists. One scene neatly illustrated the problems by showing how the club had to contend with an army helicopter landing strip right behind their grounds (an image also seen in Louis Marcus’s official history of the Gaelic Athletic Association, Sunday after Sunday, in 1985).

He extended this approach to the study of one man’s personal struggle with sanity in How Far Home (1997), namely Gerry Conlon, convicted of the 1974 Guildford Pub Bombings, but proved innocent and released after twenty years of imprisonment. In this film the freed and exonerated Conlon was the subject of a sustained psychological examination, which revealed an exhausted man ill equipped to deal with everyday life having been first a prisoner, then a symbol of injustice and political beliefs he felt he did not hold. He described In the Name of the Father (1994) as a millstone around his neck, and Byrne neatly managed to suggest that the human cost of recent history has not been measured enough in terms of its effects on the living.

Other films have been more circumspect and less successful in following much the same direction, such as the TnaG film In the Cell of Death 1980-1981 (Sonia Nic Giolla Eaisbuig, 1998). This tackled the mindset of hardline republicanism through a series of interviews with survivors of the 1980-1981 hunger strikes. Rather than suggesting a context for the material, however, the film relied heavily on their testimony to create an emotive and subjective history of the events. It did not so much focus on the issues as raise them by inference, given that the hunger strikes automatically invoke questions of the role and methods of republicanism in Irish history. Similarly, films dealing with Irish history such as Rebellion (1998), a three-part record of the 1798 rebellion, and the docudrama Ballyseedy (1997), dealing with an atrocity committed by Free State troops during the Irish Civil War, have tended to let the facts speak for themselves, charting a turbulent past which has produced a turbulent present without feeling the need to intervene and suggest direction or purpose for the study of the events. They do not attempt to discuss the manner in which the past has shaped the present, or how the Irish people have learned from the experiences of such conflicts, if at all. They are content to work within an expository mode rather than an interrogative one.

Only Irish documentary veteran Louis Marcus, whose work includes the Oscar-nominated Flea Ceoil (1967), a cinéma-vérité film of a traditional music festival held in Kilrush, Co. Clare, and the series The Irish Condition (1993), reviewing Irish cultural identity one hundred years after the foundation of The Gaelic League, has managed to chart direct connections between remote history and the problematic present in 1798 and Since (1998). Made for TnaG with the cooperation of RTÉ, the film actively challenges the received assumptions about the 1798 rebellion through juxtaposing the comments of historians and antiquarians from both North and South and using footage of a rehearsal for 1798 commemorations to draw attention to the artificial and constructed nature of our concept of the past. It demonstrates how history may be appropriated for mythology and incorporates footage from the Drumcree standoff and from other Irish historical events captured on film to demonstrate the role played by history in the formation of the political unconscious.

The more elaborate and expensive RTÉ series Rebellion (1998) followed the more conventional approach in charting the same history, documenting events in the didactic manner of Mise Éire and Saoirse? It received much more publicity and a tie-in book was successfully marketed by RTÉ Commercial Enterprises. Such films often lead to arguments about revisionism, with one side in favor of historical continuity and the other calling for a reassessment of long-held and outdated notions of self and nation. As elsewhere in the world, this issue is irresolvable, but the struggle has a more deadly context in Ireland given the relationship between ideological debates and events in recent Irish history. It is as if control of the past is as important as life in the present, and many are unwilling to entertain the possibility that history recorded in the light of Catholic and Nationalist triumphalism after the foundation of the State might be subject to reassessment with the benefit of hindsight. This alone might explain why relatively few filmmakers are willing to enter the arena of debate.

But the North is far from the only issue affecting life in modern Ireland, much as it tends to attract the attention of politicians, writers, and commentators the world over. A number of films and filmmakers have emerged in recent years who are of interest not only in terms of the subjects they deal with, but also the manner in which they do so. By far the most interesting director currently active is John T. Davis, who also works as a cinematographer and is often teamed with producer Sé Merry Doyle. His films demonstrate a willingness to reflect on the larger questions which may affect his work, especially those which relate to his sense of self as an Irish filmmaker. He often relates his experiences to ostensibly American subjects, including the life of transients in Hobo

(1991), the wild and barren spaces of Route 66 (1985), and the inspirations of country and western songwriters in Heart on the Line (1990), and has said he feels Ireland has more in common with the United States than it does with anywhere else in the world. Even his more specifically Irish films Power in the Blood (1989) and Dust on the Bible (1989) demonstrate American influences.

Dust on the Bible examined the evangelical tradition within Northern Ireland’s protestant community, featuring street preachers in Belfast. He claims he was “fascinated by the madness in their eyes and as a projection of the madness in this country. I saw it also in Preacher Casey in The Grapes of Wrath. There’s a madness in his eye that you see in the preachers on the streets of Belfast.” Power in the Blood followed religiously-inspired Nashville singer Vernon Oxford on his tour of Northern Ireland, even more specifically locating American cultural icons within Northern culture, where Oxford’s brand of religious country and western was well received. Eschewing journalistic documentaries in favor of more personal and stylized films, Davis has significantly contributed to the ability of documentary film to move beyond the obvious and explore the linkage between mere events and the philosophies which underlie them. His semiautobiographical film The Uncle Jack probes even his own reasons for being a filmmaker though a self-conscious, reflexive style otherwise unseen in Irish films. The film relates the story of Davis’s eccentric uncle, an architect and cinema owner in Northern Ireland, with one of Davis’s own childhood. Jack’s obsessions with physical processes such as the construction of buildings and model planes are juxtaposed with Davis’s own obsession with the man himself, and with the dreams and ideas he had as a child which drove him to become an artist. An elegiac and emotionally powerful film, it significantly stretched the boundaries of documentary film in Ireland, though it remains alone at the cutting edge.

Alan Gilsenan has also forged an international reputation for himself, mainly through his

acclaimed television series God Bless America profiling figures such as Gore Vidal and Scott Turow. It has been noted that these films cast an outsider’s eye over American culture to powerful effect. He is also well regarded for The Road to God Knows Where (1988), produced by Martin Mahon and Yellow Asylum Productions for Channel 4 (U.K.), a film which tackled the then current issue of emigration with a mixture of irony and surreal humour, focusing on the experiences of emigrants and would-be emigrants and contrasting them with the views of politicians and commentators who would prefer they remain at home. His ongoing television series Home Movie Nights (1996- ) has brought to light the personal histories of amateur filmmakers and first hand observers of the microhistories which constitute an important element of Irish life. His most recent film, The Green Fields of France (1998) dealt with the Irish soldiers who fought and died in the First World War. It particularly focused on Francis Ledwidge, Patrick McGill, and Thomas Kettle, whose poems and letters home were read over images of the conflict itself and contemporary footage of the Flanders fields. Gilsenan’s greatest strengths are his ironic aloofness and his ability to adapt himself chameleonlike to whatever subject is at hand. In many ways the opposite of John T. Davis, he succeeds in exploring from without rather than within.

Donald Taylor Black has made two of the most notable public-interest films of recent years, the divorce campaign film Hearts and Souls and the series The Joy (1997) dealing with conditions in Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison. Hearts and Souls followed the progress of the “No” campaign during the months leading up to the referendum of November 1995 after which divorce was finally made legal (the final tally was 50.3% in favor, 49.7% opposed). Though Hearts and Souls ultimately failed to address specific questions of the role of divorce in Irish culture, its presentation of the conservative point of view through interviews with prominent antidivorce activists provoked considerable public debate and therefore contributed to the ongoing discussion. The Joy was a more ambitious project which managed to combine the views of prisoners and guards in a manner which directed focus on key issues such as drug abuse and space problems within the prison, which were themselves subject of a later official report. His Dublin film In Flags or Flitters (1991) was a conscious attempt to redress the mythology of the city by using the critical comments of writers and artists to counterpoint common images of its heritage and history which had been so prominently celebrated during the 1988 millennium commemorations. As he did in Hearts and Souls, he allowed the inanities to expose themselves and maintained invisibility as an authoring presence.

Black represents the classic Irish documentarist, a person with something to say but careful to say it with quiet understatement rather than loud exclamations. Veterans of Irish documentary practice still active include Bob Quinn, whose often radical work including Atlantean (1983), a playful (some have argued semiparodic) tracing of Irish roots to nomadic tribes from North Africa, has found new audiences on TnaG, and Louis Marcus, who continues to contribute both single films and documentary series on a regular basis. Quinn remains a potent symbol of independence. His dedication to an Irish cinema which represents Ireland in a unique manner was instrumental in the evolution of an indigenous fiction film tradition in the 1970s. He remains an important producer and contributor to the economy and infrastructure of Irish documentary through the production company Cinegael. Marcus worked as an assistant editor on Mise Éire and continues to direct and produce films in the Irish language on a variety of subjects, including 1798 and Since (1998).

More recent talents to emerge include Liam Wylie, whose Harvest Emergency (1997) managed to combine the project of film restoration with a more general aim of examining a previously neglected moment in Irish history - the struggle to save the wheat harvest in 1946 and Darragh Byrne, who has done some interesting work with Graph Films. Hallelujah Love and Stuff (1996) dealt with the attitudes and expectations of four different couples about to be married. The contrast between stories was highly illuminating and granted interesting insight into contemporary moral values. Byrne also directed the less effective series on the experiences of Irish emigrants in America, The Morrison Tapes (1995), which under budgetary constraints frequently failed to fully develop the stories of the individuals being interviewed, weakening the impact of the series on the whole.

The recent film Francis Barret Southpaw, chronicling the adventures of the first member of Ireland’s travelling community (a nomadic people whose cultural and historical traditions are largely separate from the mainstream and who are largely disenfranchised from the political infrastructure) to compete for the country in an international sporting competition (boxing at the Atlanta Olympics), saw the meeting of two other newly established producing/ directing talents. The film’s producer, Robert Walpole of Treasure Films, was also behind the 1994 World Cup documentary The Road to America (Paddy Breathnach, 1994) which had the distinction of being the top-selling Irish videocassette. He and Breathnach are also known through their recent fiction film, I Went Down (1997), which received a U.S. release in 1998.

Director Liam McGrath first came to notice with his student short Boys For Rent (1993), chronicling the previously taboo subject of the experiences of Irish male prostitutes. It won a prize at the 1993 Cork Film Festival. This was followed by Male Rape in 1996, consisting of interviews with several men who had been subject to rape and other sexual abuse either as children or adults, and the television series Home, also in conjunction with Walpole and producer Lesley McKimm, in 1998. Home was interesting largely because of its final episode which dealt with the homeless. Other episodes in the series had dealt with different types of homes and the attitudes of those who lived there, but only with this final installment did any measure of social critique come in. Following the efforts of several homeless individuals to find shelter for the night in Dublin city, the episode managed to problematize a number of issues about attitudes to welfare, poverty, and housing in a way which none of its predecessors did. It is perhaps all the more notable because it is unlikely that this episode would have made it into the schedule had it not been accompanied by the others. Though this cross-section of thumbnail descriptions would seem to suggest a relatively healthy documentary practice, it must be noted that these represent the most significant contributions of recent years.

Much of the documentary material screened on Irish television dealing with social and political issues would fall within the less challenging news/journalism category. The favored forum for public debate on important events is the current-affairs talk show, with RTÉ’s Prime Time, the long-running Questions and Answers series, and the radio show Morning Ireland the site of some of the most useful discussion. For many years Gay Byrne’s long-running radio and television shows fulfilled a similar function, but this is finally coming to an end with Byrne’s imminent retirement. Such programs do not allow the space which a fully developed and articulate documentary film needs to examine a subject however, and they are a poor substitute. They can also easily degenerate into a series of sound-bites, as the politicians and journalists involved come up with convenient answers to complex questions which never satisfactorily address the problems.

Most Irish documentaries are concerned not with issues but with entertainments. Subjects like travel, sport, and music are most common. Many are subsequently distributed on video both in PAL and NTSC format, which is a good indicator of why they were made in the first place. They are usually intended for both domestic and international consumption and do not examine the country critically (the recent, phenomenal international video success of Riverdance and Lord of the Dance even produced successfully marketed spin-off making-of films). These types of films market Ireland both at home and abroad to attract tourist revenue, selling an idea of the country which is more convenient contrivance than critical documentary. Some even incorporate the past to suggest picturesque continuity for the heritage industry, such as Loopline Films Hidden Treasures (1997-98), charting a series of ancient Celtic rituals and customs which continue to survive. The series is slow to point out, though, that they survive largely as tourist attractions.

Yet in a way all films made within Ireland reflect something about the Irish mindset and the attitudes of people who live on the island. Irish documentaries are best understood in relation to other Irish documentaries and to a close and careful study of the circumstances in which each has been produced. The Irish documentarist is quiet and cautious when it comes to questions of social and political change, working as they must in the shadow of the Constitution and the patrimony of the State. This is a singular paradox from a people reckoned to be among the most political in the world, but it is

perhaps characteristic.

© 2017 Northern Ireland Screen. All Rights Reserved.