Sean Finnan talks to filmmaker Aodh Ó Coileáin about his documentary, which explores the connection between people and place, as expressed in Irish poetry and local lore.
Fís Na Fuiseoige screens at the Light House Cinema on Wednesday, 24th February 2016 at 6:15PM as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival
Where did the idea of the documentary come from?
Well, the company Counterpoint Films was contemplating a film on sense of place. When I became involved, in March 2013, the canvas was extremely wide. We were looking at English language short stories, English language drama, English language poetry, Irish language poetry. After a number of processes we decided to place the focus on the literary tradition on this island, which is poetry through the medium of the Irish language, in that it can be traced right back to the early centuries – the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries; the monks writing poetry in places like Skellig and Glendalough. Of course the tradition is intact right up to the present day, as illustrated in the film, with some of our most brilliant Irish language poets… or just poets full stop. Paddy Bushe, Gearóid Mac Lochlainn, Cathal Ó Searcaigh, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Biddy Jenkinson, Jackie Mac Donncha and Louis de Paor.
At the start of the film you quote lines from the first century AD Irish poet Aimhirgin, who names the place before he steps foot on it. That idea that poets have the power to create a sense of identity with the landscape.
Yes. West Limerick poet Michael Hartnett said that the very act of poetry is a rebel act. And this idea of naming Patrick Kavanagh called the “love act”. There is a strong tradition of naming places in Ireland, like Úirchill an Chreagáin and Sliabh Geal gCua na Féile, and these place names being used in poetry as if to validate a place in the poet’s head.
It reminded me of Yeats and how he uses Irish language place names. These Irish words have a magic around them, whereas the English feels flat. Because of their authenticity they bring something else to his poetry.
I think the very sound of the words were attractive to Yeats. Also, he had a certain appreciation of the history and lore and poetry in itself attached to these place names. They had value in their own right to be included in their Irish form. Louis de Paor mentions in the film that the translation of these places was a translation into gibberish. That Dublin, Cork, Belfast, Tipperary have no meaning. They are Anglicisations of the Irish place name and that the project of the coloniser was to separate the people from the place by calling the place something else.
That runs through the whole documentary, that fracturing, that loss of identity. That it was the biggest act of dispossession. Even more than the taking of the land physically was the taking of the identification of the land.
That is the central theme in the film. If you take John Montague’s poem A Lost Tradition, he speaks of:
All around, shards of a lost tradition:
From the Rough Field I went to school
In the Glen of the Hazels. Close by
Was the bishopric of the Golden Stone;
The cairn of Carleton’s homesick poem.
He goes on to say, and Professor Declan Kiberd quotes it in the film, that:
The whole landscape a manuscript
We had lost the skill to read,
A part of our past disinherited;
But fumbled, like a blind man,
Along the fingertips of instinct
and if these codes, this ability to read the landscape, was taken from the people then it wouldn’t be so difficult to control the people or to colonise the people.
The film takes on a further significance in the fact that we’re in the centenary of 1916.
When one considers that from 1890 onwards that there was a cultural revolution in the country and that it was people like Patrick Pearse, Thomas McDonagh, Joseph Plunkett and James Connolly, who were all poets. 4 out of 7 of the leaders of the Rising were poets. Much of their project was to retake or re-seize Ireland’s cultural heritage and to promote it. By the end of the day, of course, by 1915 and the following year they realise that they needed an armed uprising as well as a cultural uprising.
This film re-ascertains the Irish people’s connection with the land, the Irish people’s love of the land, and why these men thought it was worth going out and doing what they did… because what they did didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell.
The fact that we have put on the screen six very brilliant Irish language poets makes a statement in its own right – what if the field be lost; all is not lost. The tradition continues. While it is small, while maybe few enough people read the poetry in English, and even much fewer in Irish, at least it is there and these people still feel it is still worth writing in Irish.
On that point, I should mention that the support we got from TG4 and the BAI shows that there are still idealistic people around who believe in films like this because they are intrinsically good and are therefore worth making. That, in its own right, 100 years after the Rising, is evidence that the importance of the cultural is still very much alive in Ireland.
Fís Na Fuiseoige screens at the Light House Cinema on Wednesday, 24th February 2016 at 6:15PM
The 2016 Audi Dublin International Film Festival takes place 18th and 28th February 2016.