Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2012, Irish: The Enigma of Frank Ryan
Saturday, 18th February, 6.30pm, Light House

The Enigma of Frank Ryan is Desmond Bell’s ambitious dramatization of the life of the Irish republican socialist Frank Ryan, probably best known for his role in the Spanish Civil War. Bell’s film tackles this alongside his involvement in the IRA and his controversial time in Nazi Germany. A dynamic figure, Limerick-born Ryan was very much a multdimensional character, which the film tries to show, and attempts to deal with the complexity of Frank Ryan that history served up and the political self-contradictions that he was.

The enigma of the title refers to Ryan’s actions during his life as a revered Irish Republican leader of the 1920s and 1930s and leader of Ireland’s International Brigade volunteers fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War, yet ending his life in some quarters being regarded as some sort of ‘crypto-Nazi’ and branded a collaborator for his time in Nazi Germany split ideologically by the adage ‘England’s misfortune is Ireland’s opportunity’.

Ryan’s story is told in flashback, with Ryan recording his tale for German radio in war-time Berlin, before his death in a hospital in Dresden in 1944. Bell’s film makes skillful use of archival footage effortlessly interweaved throughout the narrative and is held together by Dara Devaney’s solid central performance as Ryan.

While some may have problems with the film’s reading of events it’s clear that Bell’s intent is to bring a more expressive interpretation of historical fact to an audience, which he succeeds in doing in a fertile manner. The film invites debate and functions as a gateway for further research for those interested.

In a lively Q&A after the screening Desmond Bell explained how he had been aware of the story for a long time referring to it as an ‘elephant in the room’ when he was active in politics on the left himself 25 years ago. It was always a story he had wanted to tell but it was a question of how to find the resources and the strategy to deal with the story in its breadth. Bell was joined by Queens lecturer Dr Fearghal McGarry, who acted as historical consultant on the film. McGarry told the audience he found it very challenging to participate in the making of the docu-drama because the project involved using historical imagination and that his role was not simply to provide historical detail but to determine whether the film is getting the essence of the story across and support the dramatic sense of the project. Bell admitted that he had to sacrifice complex intellectual and ideological argument for the sake of getting the broad contours of the story across to a general audience.

An informative, engaging  and well-constructed film, Desmond Bell’s The Enigma of Frank Ryan is an engrossing story of great scale and significance of a fascinating character from Irish history and beyond.

Steven Galvin

The Enigma of Frank Ryan will screen again at the IFI on Saturday, 26th February at 12 noon.


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