Seoda: Treasures from the Irish Film Archive 1948-1970 (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Michael Gray

Once Upon a Tram

Once Upon a Tram

An Irish Film Institute release; a two-disc, multi-region DVD, B&W and color, in English and Irish with English subtitles, running time approximately 200 min.,

The Irish Film Institute in Dublin has served Ireland as a producer of films since the mid-1940s, when it was founded by the Catholic archbishop of Dublin as the National Film Institute. The Institute’s mandate was to produce short documentaries for government and semistate bodies covering events of cultural interest in Ireland, as well as instructional films and public-service shorts pertaining to issues of health and economics. The establishment of an archive at the IFI in central Dublin in the 1990s created a venue for the preservation and restoration of these and other Irish films dating back to the early days of the silent era, a collection that would quickly become an invaluable resource for students of Irish cinema. The IFI makes available a wide range of preserved and restored films for viewing at its Dublin premises, and recently reached out to a wider audience by producing a television series of archived films from the mid twentieth century for the national broadcaster’s Irish-language TV channel, TG4. The films were aired in an eight-part series of half-hour programs called Seoda (gems, in Gaelic), and are now available on DVD. The eight programs in the series cover a wide range of topics from the late 1940s up until 1970, some culled from the government-sponsored spectrum, and some independently produced.

The series opens with a pair of films by Liam O’Leary. Our Country was produced in 1948 by Clann na Poblachta, a now extinct political party that enjoyed a brief interlude in power in the Irish coalition government of the late 1940s. The film, directed by O’Leary, founder of Ireland’s national film archive, was intended to bolster the party’s campaign in the run-up to the 1948 Irish elections. Our Country features grim scenes of urban poverty, infant illness, and rural decline due to emigration, implicitly blamed on the ruling Fianna Fáil party, and sternly narrated by Clann na Poblachta leaders Noel Hartnett, anti-TB campaigner Dr. Noel Browne, and future Nobel Prize winner Sean McBride. Four years later, O’Leary shot his second film, Portrait of Dublin, thematically the opposite of the preceding short—a black-and-white celebration of the Georgian architecture of Ireland’s capital city and its renowned authors, poets, and composers, set to a lush soundtrack of Celtic harp music, and designed to persuade viewers to come visit. A casual beholder might be forgiven for thinking that the nation’s ills had all been cured in the interim between his two films. O’Leary’s career as a director soon ended following a dispute with the government minister charged with funding his work, and this film would be his last. He emigrated to England shortly after making Portrait of Dublin to embark on a further career as film archivist at the British Film Institute. His involvement in Irish film would come full circle late in his life—a compulsive collector of moving images, he became the custodian of a growing trove of early Irish features, which he donated to the Film Institute on his return to Dublin, giving the national archive the cornerstone of its current collection.

Government shorts Coisc an Gadai/Stop ThiefTuras Tearnamh/Voyage to Recovery, and A Thaisce Agus a Stor/For Love and Money, shot in Gaelic, and subtitled, follow the O’Leary films—didactic tales of feckless husbands who squander paychecks or contract serious illness, while fretful wives dither about how to solve their money and health problems. The films show a pattern of patriarchal condescension on the part of the government that is symptomatic of the isolated, premodern island that Ireland used to be, four decades after independence.

The remaining independent films in the series broaden the palate. A black-and-white short, The Irish Village, made in 1959 by Ealing Studios filmmaker Jim Clark (later an Oscar-winning editor for The Killing Fields), is a paean to the rural beauty of Crookhaven, a small fishing port in County Cork. A favorite holiday spot for Clark for many years, Crookhaven is depicted as a rustic utopia in which we see local farmers and fishermen at work, at rest, and playing music in the local pub. A village like any other, laments the narrator, “except that it is dying.” Emigration to Britain and the U.S. had depleted the population of Crookhaven to just a few dozen families by the time Clark made the film.

The theme of loss also underscores Once Upon a Tram, a charming color short from the same year that pays homage to the soon-to-be defunct Howth streetcar, which ran for decades from the bustling heart of Dublin to the quiet fishing village of Howth, seven miles northeast of the city center. Back when a journey of seven miles from Dublin counted as travel and not a commute, inner-city dwellers would embark on the tram’s outbound run to what is now an adjacent suburb, to take the sea air, stroll on the strand, and buy fish off the trawlers in Howth Harbor. The filmmakers were two apprentice photographers, John Sarsfield and James Maguire, who were undeterred by a lack of filmmaking experience in shooting the nuances and rhythms of this short streetcar journey. The film opens with a montage of slashing diagonal shots and harsh city sounds interspersed with views of farmland and coast from the open-topped tram as it proceeds on its littoral journey, creating an effect that would imply more than a passing familiarity on the part of the filmmakers with the brusque editing of the burgeoning Nouvelle Vague, and the gentler cadences of the work of Albert Lamorisse. The tram journey comes full circle back to the city over the course of its half-hour running time, and wraps up at the tram shed with an air of sad finality. Cyril Cusack, patriarch of the Cusack acting family, and later a star of Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451, narrates a poetic text by codirector Sarsfield.

The 1963 visit to Ireland by John F. Kennedy gets the full color treatment from a missionary religious order, the Columban Fathers, in President Kennedy in Ireland, a strictly-for-export documentary on the three-day trip by the returning son of Erin in June of that year. The Kennedy ancestral home in Wexford is depicted, with the farmyard decked out with buntings and a spread of teapots and salmon sandwiches for the honored guest and the distant cousins who had gathered to meet him. Kennedy revels in the warm reception accorded him by the people of Ireland, and repeatedly wows the assembled crowds in Dublin, Cork, and Limerick with a selection of zingers and platitudes from the JFK phrasebook. Narrated by John Scott in an American accent that mangles the Gaelic names of places and people, and awash with bagpipes on the soundtrack, the film is clearly intended for Irish-American audiences at Columban fund-raisers for their missionary work in the U.S. Nonetheless, it presents fascinating footage of an energetic and charismatic leader who had a mere five months to live when the film was made.

Two films by Louis Marcus round out the programs on the second DVD of the two-disc set. Flea Ceol, a 1967 documentary of the annual Irish music festival in Kilrush, County Clare, preserves a moment in the history of the local music when it was enjoying a national resurgence but had not yet achieved global renown. Marcus’s black-and-white footage shows the festival at street level, with musicians and dancers at every corner, and singers and poets in every pub. The film was produced by the Irish music record company, Gael Linn, and went on to win a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.

Gael Linn continued their sponsorship of Marcus’s work to produce Pobal (People), an ambitious documentary from 1970 in which the director strives to capture the Irish spirit and character on film. Marcus shot in color this time to depict events and customs from all around Ireland, at cattle markets, sporting events, and the annual pilgrimage to the top of Croagh Patrick, a jagged shale pile in County Mayo that the devout have climbed barefoot for centuries. The film is augmented by an impressive soundtrack from Ceoltóirí Chualann, precursors of The Chieftains, and their mentor, Ireland’s preeminent composer of the time, Sean Ó’Riada.

The DVD package comes with a booklet that gives further details on the films and filmmakers, and outlines the mission of the IFI in producing this series. The individual programs are linked by a narration in Gaelic, with English subtitles. The DVDs will be of great interest to students of Irish cinema and popular culture, and it is to be hoped that the success of this series on Irish TV will yield further gems from the Irish Film Archive in the years to come.

Michael Gray is an architect in New York City, film critic for The Irish Echo, and author of Stills, Reels and Rushes: Ireland and the Irish in 20th Century Cinema.

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Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.