Contributed by Seán Lucey
On December 2nd the Irish Film Institute premiered two DVDs released this year, Irish Destiny and Seoda. Irish Destiny is a feature length film set during the war of independence and was originally screened in 1926 to mark the tenth anniversary of the 1916 rising. The film was thought lost until found in the Washington Library of Congress in the early 1990s. It was restored by the Irish Film Archive who commissioned the renowned pianist, Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, to compose a full score for it. Ó Súilleabháin was present at the premiere and not only introduced the film but also played the music live to the film for the opening twenty minutes.
Unsurprisingly, Irish Destiny is full of historical resonance. Filmed in Dublin, Wicklow and Shephard’s Bush, London, it re-enacted famous events during the troubles such as the burning of the Custom House. The film was the brainchild of a Dublin G.P. named Isaac Eppel who was also a theatre impresario and cinema owner. Actual members of the IRA were cast in the film and a former Dublin IRA leader, Kit O’Malley, was enrolled as military advisor to production.
Considering the context of the period of filming, it is unsurprising that Irish Destiny fully subscribed to the political ideal of the fledging Irish Free State. The IRA is portrayed in an idealist manner as an organisation which not only fought the repressive Black and Tans but also outlawed illegal poteen distilling, a clear acknowledgement of the Catholic social ethos which permeated official Ireland during this time. The film ends with the truce in 1921, which in itself is depicted as a victory for the IRA, and doesn’t follow on into the divisions in Irish republicanism and the subsequent Civil War.
The film provides an insight into early national commemorations of 1916 and the revolutionary period. Importantly, the first screening of the film in Dublin’s Corinthian Cinema on Easter Sunday 1926 was condoned by the Free State with William Cosgrave and his whole cabinet in attendance. The simplistic black and white narrative perpetuated in the film formed the mainstay of nationalist historical consciousness for years to come and was evident in the 1966 documentary film to mark the 1916 rising, Mise Eire and even in Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins of 1996.
Interestingly, public reaction to the film in 1926 varied. The Irish Independent commented that the work was an improvement on any other Irish production and ‘a tribute to Irish talent’. However, it also stated that the topic was ‘worthy of a better story’ that would have appealed to those who ‘lived throughout that terrible period’. Illustrating deeper and more complex attitudes towards the troubles, the newspaper believed that while nothing ‘derogatory’ was said of the volunteers there was ‘little that is forceful or satisfying’ (Irish Independent, 25 Mar. 1926). This Dublin perspective contrasted significantly with provincial opinions towards the film: the Meath Chronicle praised the portrayal of events that were ‘still fresh in the hearts of Irishmen’ as ‘excellent’ and ‘first class’ (Meath Chronicle, 05 June 1926).
The second DVD launched at the premier, Seoda, consists of eleven short films which were shot in Ireland between the 1930s and 1970s and deal topics such as ‘health and hygiene, emigration, politics, savings and tourism.’ These were selected from a collection of over 1000 films located in the Irish Film Archive. One of these films ‘For Love and Money’ was screened last night. Filmed during the economic colds of 1950s Ireland, it was commissioned by the National Savings Board and the Department of Posts and Telegraphs in an attempt to promote thrift and self responsibility amongst the population by saving in Post Office accounts. Adopting a humorous tone, the film offers an interesting insight into the state’s efforts to influence the lives of its citizens. Along with the Seoda DVD, the IFI will start a new season of films selected from its extensive archive next January and will have a screening twice weekly. Both DVDs demonstrate Ireland’s rich film heritage and the importance of the work undertaken by the Irish Film Archive in its preservation and should not only be enjoyed by the general public but also the focus of academic attention.
Seán Lucey is an IRCHSS postdoctoral fellow in the Department of History at Trinity College Dublin. His research project examines social and welfare practices in Ireland from 1918-1932.