Tadhg Dennehy
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Desmond Bell

Cork: Cork University Press, 2023, 496 pages.

ISBN: 9781782055778

“What do sociologists write about when they write about themselves?” asks Desmond Bell, quoting Adrian Grama, in his newly published anthology, Ireland Through a Critical Lens: A Miscellany of Life-writing on Politics, Culture and Film (2023). Well, the answer is as follows: they engage in an auto-ethnographic exploration of their life’s work through a diverse collection of essays, encompassing academic discourse and personal narratives, leading the reader through a critical exploration of Irish cultural and civic life, unique to their own position and perspective within a divided society, as both academic and practitioner, scholar and filmmaker. At least that’s what Desmond Bell, the sociologist, writes about when he writes about himself. But Bell is not just a sociologist, he is not an academic stuck behind a desk. As detailed throughout this handsomely presented volume, published by Cork University Press, that brings together Bell’s published work over the last forty years, he has genuine skin in the game. He is a filmmaker, a cultural practitioner committed to a form of immersive ethnographic and auto-ethnographic filmmaking, exploring a range of issues of cultural identity, politics, and art on the island of Ireland, north and south. As both a filmmaker and academic, Bell seeks to draw on the power of the lens to make sense of the past”, an ethnographic and auto-ethnographic probing at the role of “popular memory and cultural practice in shaping political dynamics and choices” (4). Bell uses his camera to “negotiate/investigate/explore [a range of] issues that could not be explored in any other way” (xix). The book is neatly divided into four distinct sections covering these themes, including: questions around identity and politics in Northern Ireland, specifically exploring Loyalist identity within this context; an examination of modernity and tradition in postmodern Ireland; visualisation and representation of the Irish diaspora; utilising documentary film as a means of cultural preservation and engaging with popular memory; Irish studies as a transdisciplinary field for probing cultural identity; and the role of creative arts, particularly filmmaking, in navigating and responding to historical and cultural shifts.

In the book’s opening section, “The Loyal Sons of Ulster”, Bell explores Loyalist popular culture and Loyalist identity. These auto-ethnographical writings – what Bell terms “life witing”, where “the emphasis is on the triangulation of autobiography with historical trajectory and sociological context” (Bell 2023: 3) – are particularly illuminating given the relative lack of Loyalist perspectives within Irish and Northern Irish cultural production. As noted by Brian McIlroy in Shooting to Kill: Filmmaking and the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, “the prevailing visualisation of the ‘Troubles’ in drama and documentary […] is dominated by Irish nationalist and republican ideology” (McIlroy 1998: 1), a tendency not strictly limited to visual media. In the first chapter of this section, “Journey from a Protestant Past”, Bell details the circumstances that led to the publication of his 1989 book Acts of Union, an attempt at an “informed sociological analysis” in order to understand the Protestant mindset at the intersection of youth culture and sectarianism. This study, Bell details, was in response to a reductive view of loyalism from certain factions of the left in the Republic of Ireland, who felt Loyalists had a “‘false consciousness’ with regard to their material situation [and that] their interests were best served in a united Ireland” (2023: 43). The process of researching for Acts of Union, through “observing Loyalist youth at close quarters in the territories they sought to control” (42), led Bell to realise the potentialities of film and photography in ethnographic fieldwork and research. This, Bell details, led him to “becoming a film-maker and, hopefully, a visually literate social researcher” (2023: 43). “Journey from a Protestant Past” serves to fill some of the “missing links” identified by Bell in his research for Acts of Union, offering the reader, through sociologically informed auto-ethnographic writing, a considered Protestant perspective on the situation in Northern Ireland, and the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland throughout the tumultuous period of the 1960s up to the late 1980s. The following chapters in this opening section of the book, including pieces published by Bell throughout the 1980s, continue this theme of unpacking the intricacies of Protestant identity in Northern Ireland, critically interrogating ideas of nation, identity, and historical memory.

The second section, “New Beginnings: Postmodern Ireland”, brings together a collection of papers written by Bell in Dublin during what he terms “the dismal 1980s” and 90s. As was also evident across mainstream cultural production of the period, for instance in films like My Left Foot (1989), these writings are an attempt by Bell to address the clash of traditional Irish cultural and societal values with modernity, with the emerging “new” Ireland of “rapid internationalisation and liberalisation” (Bell 2023: 7). The first chapter in this section details the context around the production of Bell’s film Dancing on Narrow Ground (1995), another ethnographic study of Northern Irish youth culture, this time in the form of rave gatherings, where “young people could freely mix across the sectarian divide” (126). Bell likens 1990s rave culture to the Northern Irish punk scene of the 1970s and 80s, which included bands such as Stiff Little Fingers and The Outcasts. He draws on Noel McLaughlin and Martin McLoone’s social history of Irish rock music, where they state that “punk in NI ‘was a rebellion against the complacent certainties of a sectarian culture that delivered nothing but social disharmony and communal breakdown’” (2023: 130). Bell positions 1990s rave culture as inheriting the mantle from punk as an “indigenous counter-culture capable of challenging sectarian ideology” (2023: 131), and almost suggests that one way to achieve peace and empathy across the sectarian divide would be a collective MDMA trip! Also included in this section of the book is a fascinating reworking of a 1987 funding proposal for a documentary film on Field Day, the Derry based theatre company.

The fourth and final section, “Imaging the Past: History, Memory and Lens-based Practice”, features essays that explore how we represent the past on film and “the challenge of employing cinematic means to re-address [the] oral tradition” of Irish storytelling (2023: 7). Included here is the transcript of a conversation between Bell and historian Fearghal McGarry, what is termed a “working dialogue between film-maker and historian” (383) about the making of Bell’s film The Enigma of Frank Ryan (2012). Questions are raised around visual historiography, history on film, the complexities of representing history on the screen, and the differences – or similarities – between traditional historians and filmmakers in terms of their approach to historical representation. Bell agrees with Robert Rosenstone’s central thesis, that visual media has the potential to enhance and “extend the reach of historical understanding [and] refashion the methods of history”, rather than the perceived “‘dumbing down’ of traditional text-based history” (2023: 385) when translated to the screen. The conversation that follows is a fascinating illumination of the process of historical adaptation for the screen, recalling Rosenstone’s own work with Warren Beaty on Reds (1981). Bell and McGarry’s dialogue focusses on the filmic adaptation of a monograph by McGarry concerning Frank Ryan, a prominent Irish republican whose later years, spent “living clandestinely in Germany as a wartime guest of the Nazis to whom he had looked for assistance in driving the British out of Ireland” (2023: 384), continue to be the cause of controversy and debate. They highlight the differing emotional responses garnered from readers of the original monograph and Bell’s subsequent film, highlighting the vitriol aimed at McGarry, in contrast to the softer reception The Enigma of Frank Ryan received on release. “The film invites you to empathise with Ryan [whereas] a historical text seeks to look at Ryan’s activities in Berlin in a dispassionate way” (Bell 2023: 389). This statement perhaps subscribes to the above-mentioned “dumbing down” of traditional text-based history, in that film, and particularly in this instance narrative-based historical fiction, requires a certain emotional investment from an audience for it to succeed as a storytelling device. Yes – recalling Hayden White – traditional text-based history does of course conform to various narrative tropes in the process of its writing, but that notion of audience engagement and emotional investment is not crucial to its reception. While these are not new or radical ideas, this dialogue between historian and filmmaker is a fascinating insight into this process of adapting historical texts to the screen.

The material presented in this anthology, which encompasses Bell’s critical writing and reflections over a forty-year period, is refashioned for a contemporary readership and supplemented with original essays that enable the reader to cross-reference the critical and creative themes covered. Bell describes the body of writing collected here as “an exemplar of a specifically Irish tradition of cultural study characterised by [a] transdisciplinary impetus and public purpose” (2023: 2). This “tradition of cultural study”, in which Bell positions himself and his academic and filmmaking practice oeuvre, is one born out of a close, critical engagement with “Irish culture, history and identity”, one that “came of age against the backdrop of the Troubles” (2023: 1). Bell states that this tradition, described as intellectually open, articulate in its critical engagement with history, and pluralist in its post-colonial context, has “played a not insignificant role in modernising the thought structures and discourses of the island” (2023: 1). Given Bell’s positioning of himself within this discourse, one he helped shape and continues to be an active participant in, his claim might be considered self-aggrandising. However, what follows does little to dissuade the reader from full-throated agreement with Bell’s positioning of his writing and filmmaking practice as essential in this uniquely Irish, interdisciplinary field of cultural studies. To paraphrase the book’s opening exchange: yes, Ireland is indeed a small country, but Bell’s critical writing, personal reflections, and filmic output stands loud and resonant.

Works Cited

McIlroy, Brian (1998). Shooting to Kill: Filmmaking and the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland. Wiltshire: Flicks Books.

McLoone, Martin and Noel McLaughlin (2012). Rock Music in Ireland: Before and After U2. Dublin: Irish Academic Press.