JDIFF 2012: The Enigma of Frank Ryan

Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2012


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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Issue 115 – The Lads and Lasses from Ould Ireland

Lads and Lasses
Lads and Lasses

The birth of cinema coincided with the period of greatest immigration into the US. Movies were made for and by the new Americans. The Irish poured into the eastern seaboard cities of the US in the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth. Many became enthusiastic customers for the filmic novelties offered in the arcades and nickelodeons springing up on every downtown street corner. What sort of films were they watching? What sort of representations of the Irish were present in early silent cinema? What role did the Irish play in forging early cinema? To what extent was early cinema coloured by the diasporic imagination?

A number of film researchers, like myself, are now looking into this forgotten aspect of film history. My interest in this topic initially resulted from my involvement in the documentary film The Hard Road to Klondike, completed in 1999 for RTÉ and TG4, and later invited to the Venice Film Festival. We used a range of early film archive to tell the story of Donegal emigrant, Micí Mac Giobhann’s journey through the US to the Alaskan Gold Rush. With researchers Declan Smith and Bonny Rowan I unearthed a fascinating range of early film material locked in the vaults of the Library of Congress, a small sample of which we reworked for our film. The Klondike project gave us the opportunity to share with an Irish television audience some of the earliest films.

I imagined hat the first thing a newly arrived Irish emigrant like Micí Mac Giobhann might have done, after clearing the immigration controls on Ellis Island, would have been to make their way to Broadway and to the Mutoscope (peep show) arcades located there. For five cents anyone could experience the magic of motion pictures. You can imagine the sense of wonder the immigrants would have had as they glimpsed panoramas of the city in which they had just arrived, the wild west about which they could only dream and professional boxing matches (where Irish pugilists were well represented). The Irish arrivals would also have seen far from flattering portraits of themselves in films like the The Finish of Briget McKeen (1901) and actualities of the Irish American community like St.Patrick’s Day Parade in Lowell, Mass. (1905).

The full article is printed in Film Ireland 115.