by Seaghan Mac an tSionnaigh. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
Visions of Ireland Gael Linn’s Amharc Éireann film Series, 1956-1964
Reimaging Ireland Vol. 65, ed. Dr Eamon Maher
Oxford: Peter Lang, 2015
The 2015 publication of Visions of Ireland Gael Linn’s Amharc Éireann film Series, 1956-1964 heralds for Mairéad Pratschke the culmination of an admirably substantial research project spanning at least ten years; “A Look at (Irish-Ireland): Gael Linn’s Amharc Éireann series, 1956-1964” appeared in the autumn 2005 edition of New Hibernia Review during the “earliest days” of the undertaking (viii). The ‘Amharc Éireann’ films constituted a series of documentary films on the subject of Irish life, made and first broadcast in well attended Irish movie theatres during the period under discussion. Although few of the literary sources cited in Visions of Ireland are 21st century publications, with only one of them hailing from the five year period preceding the completion of this work, the scope of her reading is no less apparent. The same can be said of the primary research conducted as part of which, for example, she consulted with Colm Ó Laoghaire’s (the series producer) daughter (246) as well as taking the time in so doing to familiarise herself with eight years of “nigh-on unseen” archival footage (in the slightly hyperbolic words of the Irish Film and Television Network; 2010).
The arrangement of her filmography section in the back of the book reflects the overarching two-part distinction between the “Eyes of Ireland” documentary films, to which are devoted the two chapters of Part 1, and the Gaelic newsreels, which are dealt with over the four chapters of Part 2. The short single-item “Eyes of Ireland” films, or “vest pocket documentaries” as Ó Laoghaire called them (Ó Laoghaire, 1957), are all titled bilingually, whereas the “Gaelic News” films of the second series rather ironically sport monolingual English titles. Pratschke deals with twenty-six of the thirty-six films in the initial “Eyes of Ireland” series. The “Gaelic News”, after the inaugural trial issue, ran through a further 269 editions, or éagrán [sic] as in an endearing imitation of contemporary usage she occasionally terms them. Each of the 270 ‘eagrán’ was further divided into two, three, or four segments. Although Pratschke could not possibly have dealt in any detail with each and every one, she manages to comment informatively on almost two hundred segments in total, with consistent detailed reference to their historical context.
The cover image Pratschke has selected depicts an elderly gentlemen clad in suit as he explores authoritatively a recent feat of aeronautical engineering in the youthful company of some of the very first Irish ‘air hostesses’. One eyes with suspicion the workings of Ó Laoghaire’s camera crew filming the entire group gathered beside one of the earliest Aer Lingus aircrafts. The scene alludes to Irish womanhood’s sudden accession to a modern workforce in an increasingly international free market society, relentless in its march towards dependence on new technology, of which both the jet and the camera documenting it are very immediate examples. The very presence of the tradename Aer Lingus, as a willing deformation of the word “aerloingeas” from which it derives, bears witness to the rather skewed popular perception of the Irish language.
The overall cover design leaves a bit to be desired, but suffice to say that Pratschke’s choice of cover image tidily reconciles the social, economic, aesthetic, and ideological criteria by which she makes her assessment of Gael Linn’s foray into film-making. Other such images as are reproduced nicely complement Pratschke’s work, and are an incitement to visit irishphotoarchive.ie, to whom we may be grateful for these precious impressions of Ireland in this period. One might have welcomed the interspersion throughout the text of some screen captures from the films themselves, courtesy of the ever helpful Sunniva O’Flynn, who is thanked twice in the book (p. 1).
An introduction outlines the novelty of the Amharc Éireann (or ‘Views of Ireland’) series as a brave undertaking which finally put the Irish language on screen (1). By way of both comparison and association, Pratschke reminds us that before Gael Linn’s venture, the residual Irish language culture had been conserved by means of the Mobile Recording Unit operated by folklorists such as Pronsias Ó Conluain and Séamus Ennis, whose research involved six years travelling the west on a bicycle (208). The newfangled newsreels were originally heard as Gaeilge without English subtitles, and, just as later TG4, RTÉ, and BBC reappropriations of original Gael Linn footage would impose subtitles, Pratschke ably interprets the commentary by means of her own translations.
Pratschke goes on to draw attention to the historiographical significance of her pertinent response to Harvey O’Brien’s call to engage critically with the Amharc Éireann films (2) in light of Louis Marcus’ The Years of Change (1996), which O’Brien accused of robbing the series of “its specificity by historical distance” (O’Brien, 2000: 345). Pratschke proceeds to outline the events leading up to the commissioning of Colm Ó Laoghaire’s project in 1956 (23), through to its discontinuation which is attributed rather matter of factly to the failure of Gael Linn’s bid to become the national broadcaster (233). Chapter two deals with industry, attempting to resolve a tension, perceived to be inherent in the films, between the abstract importance of native industry for Irish identity and the more immediate necessity for foreign involvement. Chapter three focuses on their presentation of the increasingly active tourism industry in Ireland, closing with an account of the kinds of insights into Irish society to be gained from a consideration of the films’ treatment of gender issues in the Irish workforce. In obvious anticipation of the series of 1916 commemorations scheduled for 2016, Pratschke devotes chapter four (derived from a previously published article available online) to a discussion of the films dealing with various state historical commemorations and heritage tourism, along with the symbolism that these involved. Chapter five deals with the Republic’s relation with its diaspora as well as its approach to foreign affairs, accounting for the country’s progression from emboldened role model for fellow decolonising nations to world weary member of an international community increasingly burdened with the complexities of peacekeeping on a postcolonial planet. Chapters six and seven identify the ramifications of the very sudden changes described in the preceding chapters, as well as those of urbanisation, for both the social and physical landscape of Ireland, and chapter eight considers how the same factors informed popular perceptions of the Irish language, its decline in later years, and the relevance of Gael Linn amidst such developments.
The overall critical engagement yields the conclusion that the films’ commentary betrays an anti-modern tension between past and present, a conclusion at odds with the progressive outlook identified by other critics. In one film, for example, a racially integrated Dublin student demonstration is depicted during their march in solidarity with black South Africans. This is, according to an anecdote recounted by Sarah Pierce, who values the Amharc Éireann series for the challenges it mounts to traditional accounts of the past, in contradiction of dinner table claims thirty years later that only for the previous five or so years were “black people” to be seen in Ireland (Pierce 2009). Of a similar opinion is Joe Marcus (son of Gael Linn documentarist, Louis Marcus), director and producer of Amharc Aneas (2010), a four-part documentary series compiled from the Amharc Éireann footage, and subsequently broadcast on BBC and TG4, yet curiously ignored by Pratschke. Marcus Junior speaks of the admirable disregard for the sectarianism of the era, evident in a report on the 12th of July parades in Belfast featuring the comment “this is the only black Orangeman we found” (IFTN 2010). However, if such throw-away lines can be said to favour competing narratives of the past, other lines serve to confirm prejudices traditionally ascribed to the period. Pratschke takes particular issue with a comment made in “Mná Spéire (Air Hostess Training)”, as the camera pans across prospective Aer Lingus flight attendants undertaking exams, that “there is no question on how to pick up a rich passenger” (76).
However, her objection to the articulation of the history of Waterford Glass in “Gloine Phortláirge”, on the grounds that Ó Laoghaire seems to avoid mention of the fact that the thriving initiative was founded by Anglo-Irish stock (42), seems about as relevant as if the film-maker had been criticised for having neglected to recall that glass was invented in Mesapotamia in 3500BC. One wonders whether an unironic anachronistic reference to O’Connell Street as “Sackville Street” (4) is intended as an ever so slightly retaliatory gesture towards proponents of the republican narrative, of whom Pratschke is too often too dismissive.
Thus, the possibly legitimate concerns of cultural nationalist politicians who bemoaned the prevalence of British and American productions due to their affording an unfair advantage to the English language are, for example, said to be less “cerebral” than those of Seán McEntee who is lauded for his campaign to introduce Russian cinema to Irish theatres (6). On the other hand, Pratschke disputes the cultural sophistication of politicians whose reluctance to invest in Georgian Dublin was based on a stance of postcolonialism and argues that this contributed to a degenerating housing situation in which those Dubliners lucky enough to have escaped collapsing tenements were ignobly located to tiny temporary dwellings (42). That the gravity of the situation was overlooked during the period is fairly demonstrated by Pratschke who objects to an Amharc Éireann commentator’s remark that the minute caravans, presented rather deceptively as a “modern cottages”, had “every comfort in them – water, cooking, facilities – and [were] decorated very nicely”. “Another benefit,” he continued, was “the space”, and Pratschke rightfully upbraids him for this “joke made in very poor taste” (172). Writing in 2015, Pratschke does well to highlight this aspect of the human cost associated with a period of rapid social and economic transformation, in which rural Ireland, the travelling community, as well as the urban working class, were being left behind, issues that are part of a trend which continues to the present day.
Pratschke quite rightly finds issue with the series’ willingness to uphold state ideology, and in so doing makes explicit many of the rather implicit expressions of support in the series for the Fianna Fáil government of the period during which it was made. Pratschke notes the glaring absence of pro-treaty figures such as Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, and of left-leaning Jim Larkin and James Connolly (104, 168). Similarly, however, Pratschke herself omits to name the “leading Gaelic League members”, such as Páraic Ó Máille, Fionán Lynch, and of course, Éamonn de Valera, who went on to become key figures in Free State political life. Seemingly indifferent to accepted modern language planning practices, Pratschke saddles the governmental successor of the Gaelic League with the blame for having institutionalised the language, a phenomena to which she in turn attributes the later disappearance of the Irish language (21), without offering as much as a mitigating reference to the tremendous work done by that cultural organisation up until its having been declared illegal in 1919 by the British State. Indeed, she makes clear her admiration for Gael Linn’s ability to operate almost independently of state funding later on (226). In another context, however, with broadcaster RTÉ’s foundation independent of the civil service, it is precisely the de-institutionalisation of the Irish language which is identified as contributing to the reduction of its stature in Ireland (237).
Mairéad B. Pratschke, in coming to these conclusions, shrewdly discerns the subtle expression of a particularly “Irish-Ireland” ideology in the Amharc Éireann films. Of course, it should come as no shock that an Irish series which Pratschke herself categorises as a “cultural nationalist project” (2) might appeal to “Irish-Ireland” sensibilities. It is, however, not the business of Visions of Ireland with its express aim of restoring an awareness of “historical specificity” to discussions of the series, to compensate for any breaches of subjectivity on the part of Colm Ó Laoghaire and his crew. Outright historical objectivity, then, is not one of the many merits that may be ascribed to Pratschke’s compelling text. Although at times appearing too eager to criticise perceived proponents of nationalist and republican agendas, Pratschke rightly flags the presence of state propaganda in what was supposed to be the product of independent cultural activity commissioned by Gael Linn.
IFTN (The Irish Film and Television Network). 2010. “The BBC looks north with Amharc Aneas”, 8 March. http://www.iftn.ie/news/?act1=record&aid=73&rid=4282917&tpl=archnews&only=1 [retrieved 14/1/2016]
Marcus, Joe. 2010. Cited in “The BBC looks north with Amharc Aneas”, The Irish Film and Television Network. 8 March. http://www.iftn.ie/news/?act1=record&aid=73&rid=4282917&tpl=archnews&only=1 [retrieved 14/1/2016]
O’Brien, Harvey. 2000. “Projecting the Past: historical documentary in Ireland”, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 20.3: 335-50.
Ó Laoghaire, Colm. 1957. “Gael-Linn ‘Vest Pocket’ Documentaries”, Irish Film Quarterly 1.1 (March). 9 – 11.
Pierce, Sarah. 2009. “The Archival Fourth Dimension”, Afterall. 23 November. http://www.afterall.org/online/the.archival.fourth.dimension#.VqjcLlIgvIU [retrieved 5/01/2016]
Pratschke, B. Mairéad. 2005. “A Look at (Irish) Ireland: Gael Linn’s Amharc Éireann series, 1956-64,” New Hibernia Review 9.3: 17-38.
_______. 2007. “Resurrecting the Past: Republican Memory in the Amharc Éireann News Film Series, 1959-1964”, National Identities 9.4: 369-94.