Jack O’Dwyer was at the Cork Film Festival for Local Films for Local People: Cork on Camera, a programme of short films made in and about Cork from the collections of the IFI Irish Film Archive showing Cork city and country life from the 1900s to the 1970s.
This selection of archival footage related to Cork, its history and its people has been compiled by the Irish Film Institute, and screened at the Triskel Arts Centre during the Cork Film Festival. This invaluable selection of footage allows a local and national audience to witness the history of Cork first-hand, and acquire unique insights which cannot be gained by walking its streets.
As an exploration of Cork’s representation on screen over the course of some seventy years, this archival compilation fittingly begins on Patrick’s Street, in 1900. The clip lasts about half a minute and, typical of the period, features a static, flickering image of horse-drawn carts, women in shawls and top-hatted men going about their daily routine, unaware of the camera’s presence. The usual realization that an audience has when viewing such footage – that all those on screen are long dead and perhaps forgotten – is all the more striking and hallucinatory here given the familiarity of the location to citizens of Cork and Ireland. We can remain distant from those in the Lumieres’ films of the period; they are alien to us in distance as well as time. The footage presented here, however, transforms Patrick’s street into a space for both the living and the dead, which is hard to ignore as a local viewer. Just as fascinating is the next piece of archival footage, which shows a crumbled, smouldering Cork in 1920, following widespread fire and destruction during the War of Independence. Disconcerted citizens wander amidst the rubble of more familiar locations such as City Hall and Carnegie library. The images of Cork presented here are almost comparable to World War two footage of levelled cities like Dresden and Coventry, which is shocking to today’s residents, many of whom, myself previously included, are no doubt unaware of this historical chaos in their city.
While these early clips lend an insider’s eye into Cork’s visual history, there are also two pieces featured which are produced by Pathé, whose newsreels were ubiquitous throughout 20th century Britain. The first of these pieces from across the pond focuses on Irish revolutionary icon Michael Collins. It is initially peculiar to observe Collins, one of the most revered yet controversial figures in Irish history, strolling around among the throngs, and engaging in stilted handshakes with camera-shy citizens. He appears almost normal until the second act of this carefully-crafted sequence, when the camera frames him from below as he rallies a sprawling crowd, in a way almost reminiscent of Lenin or Trotsky, his revolutionary contemporaries. Finally, after being depicted as both ordinary man and elevated saviour, Collins is shown as a mourner at the funeral of Arthur Griffith; a piece of film which is doubly poignant in light of it being the last-known footage of Collins, who was assassinated 10 days after Griffith’s death. While this newsreel can be called a sympathetic view of the Irish by Britain, then the other Pathé newsreel featured here – a colour film of Cork men playing road bowling in 1957 – pokes wry fun at their neighbours. The men performing the illegal game are portrayed as recalcitrant rogues, which leads to snide, tongue-in-cheek remarks from the narrator about the mischievous nature of the Irish character.
There are two films in this collection which provide a comprehensive visual account of Cork and its surrounding areas. The first, entitled The Irish Riviera, is a travelogue produced by the Irish Tourist Association in 1936. Featuring the nasally narrator’s voice and gloriously hyperbolic descriptions of similar British newsreels, this journey around Ireland’s south, said to be ’’thrusting jaggedly into the Atlantic Ocean’’, glosses over any blemishes while focusing on the area’s most Edenic features. Beginning in Mizen Head, the camera weaves its way in and around Cork, capturing Cobh’s cathedral and the Shandon Tower in endearingly laborious tilts and pans. As a touristic account of the area, the film is impressively exhaustive given its 14-minute runtime, making trips to Kinsale, Youghal and various coastlines, with each sight doused in saccharine music. At Glengarriff, windows and gates open languidly in a way which seems suited to a Hollywood melodrama, while the narrator enticingly remarks, ‘’the sun is at your window and the sea is at your door!’’. Rhapsody of a River, from 1965, is similar in concept to The Irish Riviera. However, the Louis Marcus-directed film decides to eschew narration in favour of striking visuals and rhythmic, precise cutting accompanied by grand orchestral music. In doing so, it emerges as a dynamic, visual ode to a city in the vein of Berlin: Symphony of a City, Man With a Movie Camera or Koyaanisqatsi, and undoubtedly the highlight of this collection of films for me. From early on, the film can be seen as a visual symphony, with a traffic conductor taking the place of a music conductor as he is intercut with whirring images of Cork city life. Unlike the unchanging music of The Irish Riviera, the music here underscores and magnifies the images with an affecting ferocity. The thunderous images of large industry and the gritty determination of the workers in the background are reminiscent of Humphrey Jennings’ powerful British wartime films such as Listen to Britain and Fires Were Started. There are also a number of fantastic contained sequences in the film. One features a series of Cork’s architectural highlights seen in grand scope from below, which brilliantly conveys their majesty. Another shows old etchings and paintings of Cork transforming into footage of their 1960’s locations, which is truly magical to observe. This wonderful orchestra of images ends with tranquil footage of Cork’s lakes paired with a sentimental ballad about the city; a poetic tribute evocative of Yeats’s ‘’Lake Isle of Innisfree’’.
With the first half of the archival footage having focused on the external features of Cork, the second half focuses more on the domestic life of Cork families. Adoption Day, a short documentary by the prolific Irish catholic production company Radharc, is a brave and charming film made in 1967 which, indicative of its release year, is a strange mix of the old-fashioned and the modern. It details the process by which a Cork family adopts a little girl from a catholic adoption home. Despite some humorously outdated comments from the interviewer – who questions the potentially ‘’unsavoury’’ background of many children put up for adoption – the film treats its subjects with real tenderness and warmth. Particularly touching is the scene in which the family meet their new member for the first time, with a static shot capturing the heart-warming moment with admirable sympathy and respect. The film concludes on a similarly warm note, as the narrator remarks that the baby, shown in close-up, will leave ‘’five broken hearts behind her’’ if she is ever to be reclaimed by her birth mother.
The collection finishes with an equally heart-warming fictional film from 1959 entitled Larry, which is an adaptation of Frank O’Connor’s famous short story ‘’My Oedipus Complex’’. Set in the hazy, working-class streets of Cork, this story of a young boy’s reaction to his father’s return from war and the birth of his sister is uproariously funny and subtly compassionate. Though firmly rooted in its God-fearing Irish catholic setting, the film presents universal truths about the stubborn naiveté of childhood and the carrot and stick nature of parenthood. For Fergal Stanley’s wonderfully spirited central performance alone, the film should be more widely available.
Collections like this are important because they help us to smooth out the rough edges of our perception and cast a fresh eye on the streets we walk every day. The films which reside in the rich, illuminating depths of the IFI film archive bring us closer to our local history and heritage with unique immediacy. That such a small selection of the films available can have such a sobering effect is testament to the continuing power and vitality of the visual archive.
Local Films for Local People: Cork on Camera screened on 12th November 2017 as part of the Cork Film Festival