LIT Film Festival Keynote Speech and Screening with Lelia Doolan



(Bernadette Devlin McAliskey)

LIT Film Festival Keynote Speech and Screening with Lelia Doolan

LIT Millennium Theatre, Limerick.

Friday the 27th of April at 9.30am


The keynote speech at any festival is always a treat and this years offering was no exception.  Lelia Doolan is the ‘whose who of Irish film and television’.  Lelia is a not only a producer, but a director, actress and was one of the founders of the Galway Film Fleadh.


Lelia has had many achievements including acting and presenting for RTE following the establishment of RTE in 1961.  She was also a producer/director, following training in the United States, at the station. In her time there she was responsible for the establishment of ‘The Riordans’.  Shortly after she was made head of light entertainment and resigned with Jack Dowling and Bob Quinn in protest at the political and commercial policies of RTE. Together, the three wrote a book detailing their experience at the station, Sit Down and be Counted.


Following her exit from RTE, she was artistic director of the Abbey for two years.  She then returned to academia, pursuing a PhD in Anthropology at Queen’s University.  While at Queen’s, she also worked in community video and adult education in Belfast.  She then taught at the College of Commerce, Rathmines between 1979 and 1988, where she established the first Irish course in Media Communications.


In 1987 she produced Reefer and the Model, with director Joe Comerford.  In April 1993 she was appointed chairperson of the Irish Film Board, a role she fulfilled for three years before retiring.  She was also a founder and director of the Galway Film Fleadh.  She recently won an IFTA for her documentary Bernadette: Notes on a Political Journey (2011).


Attending the speech and screening was an intimate crowd of film students from all over Ireland and some film professionals.


Due to a minor glitch the event began a little late.  Lelia, ever the professional, entertained the crowd with a couple of interesting anecdotes from her time as head of the Galway Film Fleadh.  One of these was a funny story about a Hungarian director and the screening of his film at the Fleadh.  She explained how the audience was completely unaware that it was going to be all in Hungarian.  The director was also unaware that they had received the wrong copy of his film.  Apparently the audience’s and the director’s faces were a picture.


Once the screening began you could not hear a pin drop, the place was so quiet.  The screening was of Lelia’s IFTA award winning documentary film; Bernadette: Notes on a Political Journey (2011).  The documentary was primarily about the public life of well-known Northern Ireland civil rights activist and feminist, Bernadette Devlin McAliskey.  Through the words of Bernadette the audience is afforded the opportunity to reflect on the history of ‘the troubles’ in Northern Ireland.


The film contains some fantastic archive news footage from ABC, BBC, ITN, Anderson Town News and RTE.  It is narrated by Bernadette in a set of intimate interviews.  The piece outlines the main events of her public life.  These include her being a member of the People’s Democracy movement in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s.  She was elected MP for Mid-Ulster when she was just a 21 years-old student and rattled the Wilson government and the Westminster establishment.  She witnessed the Bloody Sunday massacre, and went on to co-found the Irish Republican Socialist Party, only to leave it soon afterwards.  She survived an assassination attempt while campaigning for the H-Block hunger strikers in the early 1980s.  Her family suffered harassment for years beyond that.  This documentary is a very honest portrayal of this remarkable Irish woman and it is a story that should not be forgotten.


There was a questions and answers session afterwards with Lelia, as director and producer.  It was a great opportunity to ‘pick the brains’ of one of the most important women in Irish television and film.  Lelia was asked by a member of the audience how she got such great archive footage.  She replied that it was very difficult to get her hands on it and they spent years looking all over Ireland, Britain and theUnited States.  In the end she pulled in favours and bit by bit she got what she wanted.  She especially thanked Barbara in RTE Archives for getting her some great material.  She was also asked did they plan early on to tell the story in chronological order.  Lelia replied that it was not a conscious decision to make it this way.  It just happened to fall naturally into this order.  She then reflected that they had made the decision early on to just let Bernadette’s words and the news footage tell the story.  This is why there are no interviews with other politicians.  Bernadette also had to agree the final cut of anything produced.


What was interesting from a historical point of view is that this is a history that most of us have lived through but never really talked about.  A lot of the students in the audience reflected afterwards that they had never even heard of some of the events, which was shocking.  To be honest this event was the highlight of the whole festival for me.  To have access to one of the most interesting and experienced members of the Irish media was a real treat.


Eleanor McSherry



Cinema Review: Bernadette: Notes on a Political Journey – Film of the Week


DIR: Lelia Doolan • PRO: Lelia Doolan • ED: Gordon Bruic

Made over a period of nine years Bernadette: Notes on a Political Journey is Lelia Doolan’s excellent documentary on Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, one of the most significant figures of the Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland. Her slogan in 1969 when she fought for election was ‘I will take my seat and fight for your rights’. The documentary, which won Best Feature Documentary at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh, includes John Bowman’s introduction of her on RTE’s Questions & Answers: ‘She was not prepared to grow old in an unjust system. At 21, she was a veteran of the Battle of Bogside. Described as an Irish Joan of Arc and a mini-skirted Castro, she won the mid-Ulster by-election in 1969, the youngest woman ever elected at Westminster. She survived an assassination attempt in 1981 and remains a radical socialist republican.’

The film is constructed around fascinating archive footage, which is interlaced with a series of interviews Doolan conducted with McAliskey over the last nine years. An articulate and engaging subject, McAliskey reflects on her life fighting as a feminist, republican and socialist for civil rights for the people of Northern Ireland.

She served as an MP at Westminster from 1969 to 1974 for the Mid Ulster constituency. The documentary includes the incident in 1972 when in the House of Commons she punched Reginald Maudling, the then Secretary of State for the Home Department in the Conservative government, after he had stated that the British Army had shot at Bloody Sunday protestors in self-defence.

Her passionate actions to defend what she believes in are backed up by her articulate, engaging manner, sharp mind and humour that come across in the interviews. Speaking of the British Army using tear gas to disperse protestors, she says, ‘I was smoking 30 cigarettes a day at the time, so tear gas meant nothing to me’.

These days McAliskey is engaged in community politics with the South Tyrone Empowerment Programme and works with migrant workers in an effort to improve how they are treated.

This film is clearly McAliskey’s story and rather than being about her it is her – so there’s no critical engagement with the subject, more so that Doolan gives her a space to construct her story. In doing so it stands as a valuable document of an iconic Irish figure. McAliskey’s uncompromising sense of justice and her commitment and passion for what she believes in, coupled with an array of archive footage, make for a riveting 90-minute portrait of a woman of admirable courage, determination, and principles.

According to Doolan, she made the film because she believed McAliskey’s role as a human-rights campaigner and as a radical ­feminist was being wiped from history. With this documentary Doolan has added a gem of a film to history.

Steven Galvin

Bernadette: Notes on a Political Journey is released on 18th November