Deirdre de Grae reports from the IFI Local Films for Local People event screening at Thoor Ballylee, which took place as part of the 30th Galway Film Fleadh. The films screened were ‘Coole Park and Ballylee’, Queens University Belfast; ‘The Workhouse Ward’, dir. Ria Mooney; and ‘Cradle of Genius’, dir. Paul Rotha.
Entitled ‘Local Films for Local People’, a special screening of IFI archive films was presented at Thoor Ballylee, Co. Galway, a former summer home of W.B. Yeats. The curated selection celebrated the work of Yeats’ friend and co-founder of Ireland’s national theatre, Lady Isabella Augusta Gregory, who owned the nearby Coole Park estate. After her husband, Sir. William’s death in 1892, Lady Gregory welcomed many artists and writers to Coole, including: Yeats, Shaw, Synge, Hyde, and O’Casey. Together they created a renaissance of Irish literary, artistic and political thinking and action.
28-year-old Isabella Augusta Persse (Lady Gregory) on her wedding day (image from Coolepark.ie)
I was drawn to this film event because of a long standing romantic and nostalgic connection with Thoor Ballylee (and the neighbouring Coole Park estate). This fairy-tale tower, situated on a small rivulet, was – to my dramatic teenage self – visually and aesthetically straight out of a pre-Raphaelite painting (think Ophelia) and echoed lines to me from ‘The Lady of Shallot’. As a pre-teen in the late ’80s, I was assigned to complete a ‘research project’ on the tower, of which I remember little except detailed drawings (and swans). Sadly, the tower became inaccessible to the public for years following flood damage in 1995 and 2009-2010, but it has been renovated and is now re-opened to the public, thanks to the Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society. I had not been in many years and was delighted to be able to attend this event screening by the IFI here.
It was an intimate gathering of about 15-20 people and the highlights were the eloquent introductions given by Lelia Doolan (former Artistic Director of the Abbey Theatre and board member of Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society) and the ever informative Sunniva O’Flynn (head of Irish film programming at the IFI), who has a deep knowledge of Irish archive film, and is generous with sharing that knowledge. It would be fantastic to have had longer time allocated to Sunniva, I would love to hear her give an entire lecture at a screening.
A downfall was that the films were shown on (quite a small) TV screen, which was a disappointment given that it was part of the Film Fleadh. A more pleasant experience would have been to watch the films in a cinemobile parked at the tower, and to visit the tower itself afterwards. Invasions and distractions were provided by the many video cameras (including an RTÉ news crew) who filmed before and during the screening (once retrieving a forgotten microphone left in front of the TV mid-film). It did feel like there were more people documenting the event than audience attending, maybe due to lack of transport to the location from Galway city.
I commend the Film Fleadh’s efforts to bring the festival to the county of Galway. An idea for realising this in future years could potentially use Element’s cinemobile – a ‘repeat screening’ of the most popular films the week after the Film Fleadh, in neighbouring rural locations. Another solution would be to use the already established film clubs in, say, Athenry and Gort, and screen the most popular films there, as an extension of the Film Fleadh.
Thoor Ballylee (Ballylee Castle)
Coole Park and Ballylee (1976), Producer: Queen’s University Belfast
The first film shown in Thoor Ballylee was the twenty-minute documentary Coole Park and Ballylee, made in 1976 by a crew from Queen’s. The film is a collage of Coole Park nature images, with a voiceover reading the poem by Yeats, ‘Coole Park and Ballylee’. It was an incredibly relaxing experience to simply watch the 1970’s bright Kodak colour images, while listening to the poem being read. The style of the camera work was wonderfully representative of the era, with high colour saturation and contrast and some gorgeous circular lens flares from the sun – and all actual film artefacts, not added on ‘in post’, as per J.J. Abrams!
This film was different than the others in the collection, being in colour and without actors, but it was the one I enjoyed the most. As children we used to climb in the ancient trees of Coole Park, so the place holds some memories for me. Lady Gregory is quoted as saying: ‘These woods have been well loved, well tended by some who came before me, and my affection has been no less than theirs. The generations of trees have been my care, my comforters. Their companionship has often brought me peace.’ (Coolepark.ie)
The Workhouse Ward’(1950), dir. Ria Mooney.
The second film screened was The Workhouse Ward, a 1950 adaptation of the eponymous one-act play written by Lady Gregory and starring cast from the Abbey Theatre Players.
The dialogue and writing is incredibly witty, capturing a certain type of cantankerous personality who would rather stick with the misery they know than have the courage to move to a better life. The outcome is exasperating, but all too familiar, and makes one wonder where Lady Gregory got her inspiration from. The observation and investigation of the two male characters (useless, inert) is both insightful and witty. The play was first staged in the Abbey in 1908, ahead of its time (or lost in time), preceding similar themed work such as Waiting for Godot, which was not staged until 1953. Lady Gregory wrote comedy, as well as tragedies and histories. Her prison-escape play The Rising of the Moon, first staged in the Abbey in 1907, was also later adapted for a John Ford film in 1957.
The Workhouse Ward, is available to watch free online, on three separate charming film reels, thanks to the British Pathé archive: https://www.britishpathe.com/video/the-workhouse-ward-reel-1
‘The Workhouse Ward’
Cradle of Genius (1959), dir. Paul Rotha
The final film screened was Paul Rotha’s Cradle of Genius, which was nominated for an Oscar in 1962 as the ‘Best Short Documentary’ for Plough Productions, produced by the late Tom Hayes. Hayes, feted as an ‘ingenious filmmaker and tireless advocate for the Irish film industry’ by the Irish Times, made his name as the producer of this film, in a time before Irish Film Board funding existed. The film was well received in Ireland and the US, with Irish distribution undertaken by the Rank Organisation.
This 42-minute scripted documentary, written by Frank O’Connor, features some famous Abbey actors, all draped in wonderful tweeds, with R.P. accents straight from BBC radio, and the deportment of Hollywood stars – despite their Irish origins. The adaptation of regional accents on arrival in Dublin is still a phenomenon today, but it did make me wonder if the cast reverted to their native tones when they left the Pale!
The documentary was filmed in the Abbey theatre, after a fire destroyed the building in 1951, and comprises monologues and conversations of famous Abbey performers, reminiscing about the theatre. The cast include: Barry Fitzgerald, Siobhán McKenna, Harry Brogan, May Craig, Ria Mooney, Shelagh Richards, Sean O’Casey and Ernest Blyth.
Cradle of Genius
If you are lucky enough to live or work in Dublin city, the IFI frequently screens films from their archive at lunchtime in their Temple Bar cinema, which are free to attend. More details here: https://ifi.ie/archive-at-lunchtime/
Otherwise, a huge array of archive films can be viewed online for free using the IFI Archive Player: https://ifiplayer.ie/browse/
Local Films for Local People – Archive screenings at Thor Ballylee took place on Thursday, 12th July 2018 as part of the Galway Film Fleadh (10 – 15 July)