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Irish Cinematography : Difficult History, Important Movies

The history of Irish cinematography is intimately connected with the history of the country which, above all else, is the history of the constant battle for independence and national, political and cultural identity.

The history of Irish cinematography is closely connected with the history of the country which, above all else, is the history of the constant battle for independence and national, political and cultural identity. Ireland, pushed aside for a long time as Europe’s backwater and remaining in the shade of the British Empire, could only begin to raise itself once it had achieved its independence. The cinematography of Ireland is a reflection of these changes.

The first feature film, which was silent, The Lad of Old Ireland, was produced in 1910 by the American Sidney Olcott and was the typical immigrant story about a young man forced by economic conditions to search for his fortune overseas. It was pretty successful in the USA because of the prevalent theme of the day regarding emigration to the United States – the Promised Land for newcomers from the Old Continent. Kalem, the company created in Killarney, specialised in such productions and by the 1920’s had almost serialised emigrant sagas. In 1916 James Mark Sullivan founded The Film Company of Ireland in Dublin. The company produced mainly melodramas, comedies and history movies telling about the Irish battle for independence. In 1918, Sullivan directed Knocknagow, which received acclaim from abroad as being the Irish reply to The Birth of Nation by D.W.Griffith.

Soon after Ireland gained independence and the Irish Free State was proclaimed, the Censorship of Films Act was resolved (1923) to control the content in both national and foreign movies, mainly from the Catholic and Republican point of view. The most important film of that time looked at the subject of the battle for independence. Amongst these belong Guests of the Nation (1935) by Denis Johnson, The Dawn (1936) by Thomas Cooper and international productions from the American John Ford The Informer (1935) and the Briton Robert Flaherty Man of Aran (1935).

During the Second World War Ireland remained neutral. Its primary concern was to rebuild its own national identity and to develop its historical and cultural continuity. In 1943 a National Film Institute was founded, a government body working under the auspices of the Pope, financing mainly documentaries designed for distribution abroad. The purpose of these movies’ was to show an Independent Ireland as a country in which battle for independence closely interlocks with the struggle to defend Catholic Church laws. In 1945, on government order, the propaganda documentary A Nation Once Again was produced, showing the relationship between Catholicism and the policies of Ireland.

The revival of Irish cinema came in the late 1950’s. In 1958, the production company Ardmore Studios was created, which coincided with a change of political course and progressive movements in Ireland. It was all to move away from the republican-catholic tradition. One of the signs of this new tendency was a documentary, made by the Irish journalist Peter Lennon, Rocky Road to Dublin (1960) in which he radically attacked the previous policies of the Irish government and church institutions holding them responsible for the stagnation and underdevelopment of the country. The movie was even shown at the Cannes International Film Festival. Another important documentary, Flea, equally accusatory, was shot by Luis Marcus in 1967. The movie won the Silver Bear Award at the Berlin International Film Festival.

In 1975 the first picture of the Irish New Wave was made, directed by Bob Quinn, titled Caoineadh Airt Ui Laoire, and based on a traditional Irish poem, took up the subject of national identity. This movie propelled Bob Quinn to became one of the most prominent Irish indie directors. Another film made by Quinn at that time was Poitin (1978), where he looked at the violence within a family. A characteristic of Irish movies of the New Wave was that they were taken from often tricky and current subjects, particularly for the mainly Catholic Ireland, such as homosexuality, sexual abuse, violence. Besides Quinn, the New Wave was co-created by Thaddeus O’Sullivan, Pat Murphy, Kieron Hickey and Joe Comerford, who were the leading Irish directors of 70’s and 80’s. Thaddeus O’Sullivan shot the experimental movies A Pint of Plan (1977), On a Paving Stone Mounted (1977) and The Woman Who Married Clark Gable (1980) and Joe Comerford created Down the Corner (1977) and Withdrawal (1979) both about taking real social problems in modern times, leading him to make deeply reflexive movies such as Reefer and the Model (1985).

In 1981 Comerford shot Traveler, a movie to the script written by Neil Jordan, who then just started on the road to his notable career. Neil Jordan together with Jim Sheridan and Pat O’Connor constituted a group of filmmakers which made Irish cinematography famous in the 1980’s and the 1990’s. Cal, the movie made by O’Connor in 1984 about love flourishing between the British-Irish barricades, was a big success all over the world and got a nomination for the Golden d’Or in Cannes. For his next movie A Month In the Country (1987) O’Connor hired Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh.

In the 1980’s Neil Jordan, probably the best known Irish director produced the adult fantasy Company of Wolves (1984), the psychological drama Mona Lisa (1986) and the comedy High Spirits (1988), all produced in Ireland. After that, like many other Irishmen, not only filmmakers, he started working abroad.

The year 1989 Jim Sheridan produced My Left Foot, the movie that began boom for Irish cinema. The biographic story about a physically challenged artist gave Oscars to both protagonists Daniel Day-Lewis and Brenda Fricker. Daniel Day-Lewis quickly became Sheridan’s favourite actor and was cast in his other famous movies: In the Name of the Father (1993), the story of Gerry Conlon, imprisoned for terrorist acts he didn’t commit and Boxer (1997), a movie about Danny Flynn, ex-IRA soldier, trying to put his life together after he’s released from prison.

The 1990’s saw Ireland produce films that were to become instant cult movies, and as such watched by millions. To these belong: The Commitments (1991) by Briton Alan Parker, the story of a rock band from the Dublin suburbs; The Crying Game (1992), Michael Collins (1996) and The Butcher Boy (1997) by Neil Jordan, considered to be the most important Irish movies of the end of the twentieth century. At the same time in Ireland, two substantial international productions were shot: Braveheart (1995) directed by Mel Gibson and Saving Private Ryan (1998) by Steven Spielberg.

Over the last couple years, one can identify a more significant interest in Ireland’s history. The attempt of a new look at Ireland’s past was a para-documentary drama by the British director Paul Greengrass Bloody Sunday (2002), about the massacre during the riots in Northern Ireland in 1972. Another revisionist movie, awarded with the Golden d’Or in Cannes, was Wind That Shakes the Barley by Ken Loach, in which he showed the dramatic choices that IRA combatants faced because of the division of the country. The exciting thing is that the most insightful movies about Ireland history are shot by the Britons who were considered to be the biggest Irish concern over the years and caused most of the problems to the Irishmen. It’s like the Britons feel obliged to count up their ordinary historical affairs to be able to come to terms with it.

Special notice should also be paid to Once, a small production made by Irishman John Carney in 2006. This classic love story set in Dublin gained great sympathy amongst the audience worldwide, and the music from the movie was awarded the Oscar.

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Magda Olchawska is an award-winning independent filmmaker, writer and screenwriter. She writes not only about making films and writing but also about financially independent and sustainable lifestyle. Her current projects include Ecotopia Universe and School Runs.

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