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The Start of Irish Cinema


The Start of Irish Cinema – Craig O Reilly delves into the origins of Irish movie making  

The earliest origin of Irish filmmaking was originally newsreels, but by the 1920s with the advent of the “talkies” cinema had achieved huge popularity especially in Dublin. Michael Collins, as he was preparing a vision for Ireland before he was killed, had seen the role of films as central to the development of the nation. His successors however, disliked the opposition that Hollywood films gave to the idea of Irish self sufficiency. Particularly the early radio broadcasts and films in English undermined the efforts of the Gaelic Revival. The creation of an Irish Film industry suffered hurdles from the start.

The censorship of Films Act 1923 showed the insecurity of the new Irish state; many imported films were banned if they contained messaging contrary to Catholicism, such as films containing depictions of divorce, or infidelity. There was a fear that Ireland would be swamped by influences from around the world if it did not use censorship to promote film and the arts in line with the Irish state’s values. The natural answer to this would have been to create Irish films and support a local Irish film industry. Unfortunately, due to political instability after the civil war, the correct infrastructure wasn’t really put in place, and it was Hollywood and British film companies that interpreted Ireland on film during the country’s formative years.

There are however, still a host of early films capturing Ireland’s landscape during this time. Aspiring film-makers became enchanted with the Irish landscape and its history. Sidney Olcott’s film Rory O’ Moore depicted the 1641 and 1798 rebellions, and it actually drew disapproval from both the British establishment and from the Catholic Church. Early Irish films therefore came to fruition in a tense and restrictive environment, but there are many examples to draw from nonetheless.


Romanticism Versus Realism: Robert J Flaherty’s Man of Aran

Perhaps one of the most successful early Irish films is Man of Aran, directed by Robert J Flaherty. There was tremendous interest in the Aran islands at the turn of the century, with Irish literary figures like W.B Yeats and JM Synge collecting folklore and depicting a rustic way of life. Seeing these islands on film for the first time however, was quite new. Flaherty was one of the pioneers of the documentary film, or to be more specific the Docudrama, a style of filmmaking that originated before the separation of documentary and drama had occurred. In this way his scenes of the Aran islands were romanticised and scripted to be idealised, but they still evoke a strong sense of real life in a harsh environment.

The film is stylishly edited for the time, employing cinematography like never before to capture the sea-scapes and evocative countryside. There has been much debate over apparent inaccuracies in Man of Aran, it’s been noted by some for instance, that Aran Islanders had not hunted sharks in the manner depicted in the film for over fifty years. Yet, others view the film with reverence for its innovation and dramatic scope.

The film grossed well on release and won an award at the Venice Film festival. Flaherty had built his studio at Inishmore, and even if the depictions were looking back to a way of life that was already changing, recreating it on film provides an insight into not just how people lived but some of the origins of Irish Cinema itself.


Tom Cooper and The Dawn, An Early Irish Indie Film

In contrast to Robert J Flaherty’s Man of Aran, Tom Cooper’s The Dawn has entirely different and more obscure origins. Cooper was a garage owner from Killarney, who one day set out to make his own Irish film. The film was made in 1935 and was set during the War for Independence. It shows how the fight for Irish freedom affected local families.

The plot of the film is very ambitious for the time, and shows the continuity of collective memory that was very much present in Irish families at this time: Brian Malone is falsely accused of being an informer during the fenian rising of 1886. Years later his Grandson tries to clear his name by serving with the IRA in 1919.

This multi-generational narrative gives the film a sense of depth and drama. Funnily enough, though Man of Aran is lauded as a documentary, many of the people in the local area actually acted in Cooper’s The Dawn, and some of them were actually ex-IRB men themselves, which lends itself to an ironic form of realism given how this film is more based on fiction than Man of Aran.

The film is quite sympathetic to the IRA’s side, more than most other films of the time, and the amateur cast adds a level of authenticity to the affairs. Long before indie flicks like the Blair Witch project and other DIY pictures, Tom Cooper was innovating from the outset.

These two are just a small mention out of so many early Irish films that many will have not seen until recently.

Man of Aran can be purchased on DVD and often comes with a special features documentary that seeks to decipher myth from reality as it pertains to Flaherty’s depiction.

The Dawn was digitised and restored in 2016 and had a run of showings for the first time in many years. Prints are currently held by the IFI and RTE.

For an in-depth look at early Irish Cinemas, FRG’s Shane Adlum has an extensive article about many of these venues and their history:

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