Katrina Costello, Director of ‘The Silver Branch’

June Butler spoke with director Katrina Costello about her documentary The Silver Branch, which tells the story of Patrick McCormack, a farmer and poet whose family have lived in the Burren for generations. The film explores McCormack’s relationship with the Burren; its nature, history and the struggle to preserve it.

In April 1991, the Government announced the establishment of a national park in the Burren and construction of a £2.7 million interpretative centre. The Burren Action Group took a case against the Government to halt proceedings in order to maintain the natural integrity of the landscape and to protect the environment. They viewed the Burren and the area of Mullaghmore as a “sacred site”, a holy ground that needed to be defended – especially in a country whose sites of profound historical importance are rapidly disappearing.

 

The story of the documentary focuses on the Battle of Mullaghmore but at its heart the film is really an ode of praise to our land.

Absolutely. People put different weight on the Battle of Mullaghmore, which we called it when we were creating the storyline. This was woven through the documentary and everything hung off it. But I like to think that this film is really a eulogy to the agrarian culture and to our heritage and the natural world.

 

The battle was a defining event that caused Patrick McCormack to stand up and say we are connected to the land, we have lived here all our lives. This is more than just a building that we’re building, this is a total ruination of something that will resonate negatively in generations to come.

That’s it. I think that The Burren Action group had no problem with the interpretive centre being built in one of the towns but they didn’t want it at the foothills of Mullaghmore mountain. Not just because of the pollution and the 450,000 people coming there; it’s the whole widening of the roads. For 2 buses to pass on that road, it’d be basically making a motorway through a wilderness area and through an area that’s been farmed for generations. The Burren wasn’t developed like other parts of Ireland because it’s so rocky and the small little field system still remains intact – forts, Mesolithic tombs, famine villages and thousands of miles of stone walls that go right back maybe 6,000 years.

 

When Patrick spoke about the ancient warriors and people gathering around the campfire, I felt very much that he is not of this era. I feel that he’s a wiser, older soul.

I think Patrick probably has his legs in both worlds – in the contemporary world and the ancient world. What’s fascinating about him is that he can be so ordinary. He’s a farmer, he’s maintaining stone walls, throwing rocks around. He’s got this fantastic vision, which, I suppose, is the vision of a poet. Like Heaney and Kavanagh he’s just grounded in the earth with a beautiful vision and a very rare gift of being able to articulate his most intimate thoughts. He’s constantly searching for his own defining line, his own unity of being, for harmony, to be free. Basically, when this battle came to him, he had no choice but to take it on because he could foresee that, for future generations, this interpretive centre would’ve actually spoiled the whole wilderness area.

 

I love the opening scenes where the branches intermesh with each other. Patrick talks about the silver branch singing and telling the story of ancient times.

The silver branch in essence was a mythical wand of the ancient druids and was used to bring them to the Tir Na Nog, for example. It was used to go on a journey of enlightenment or to seek truth. This is why I really love the title The Silver Branch because, for me, it is just that – it is inviting people to go on their own sort of hypnotic journey into themselves. It brings them to a place where they haven’t been to for many, many years – the wonder of being a child.

 

The Burren looks amazing in the film. I have to talk about the beautiful cinematography, like the flowers opening and closing, and of birds feeding and being fed. It must have required a lot of patience to capture so much beauty.

For sure, any time that you go out to film something in the natural world it requires a lot of patience. You have to wait for hours for nature to settle around you. Once you go into that environment you could be 4 or 5 hours before you actually see any proper activity. You have to wait to capture the moments of magic. But it never felt like a day’s work. I love the Burren. I think there’s no place like it in the whole world, to be honest with you. It’s as spectacular as any place I’ve ever seen on earth… and I’ve travelled a lot – through Asia, America, Australia South America. It’s an incredible landscape not just for the wildlife, of which there is an abundance. There’s always something fantastic happening. There’s foxes and ravens and hares, peregrine falcons, butterflies and dragonflies, you name it. And then it has all of this cultural significance as well. It’s a very, very rich atmosphere.

 

 

There’s a beautiful scene where he’s telling the blonde child how he me his wife,  Cheryl. He says she was on the back of a fox, and that he tempted the fox out with a bit of cheese. The fox came out with Cheryl on its back and he grabbed her off the fox.

Everyone loves that scene!

 

And the child is incredulous. He tells the story in such a way. I found myself delighting in the fun of it. It was a golden moment. You can see how fun he is.

Absolutely. He’s a seanchaí, he’s a poet, he’s a farmer… but he really comes into himself when he’s with kids or when he is with Jonjo, his dear neighbor. He loves that interaction with children and is in total awe of people like Jonjo and his generation.

 

I could have listened to Patrick for many hours. His poetry and his language is so beautiful. He reminded me of Heaney with his beautiful turn of phrase. I was amazed then when I found out he didn’t complete his schooling.

Isn’t it incredible? He did leave school when he was 14. He hated it. He found it a degrading, demoralizing experience. But he did have a strong love for the great masters, as he would call them himself – for English, poetry and history.

 

Coming away from the film, I felt that we really need to re-connect to this way of life that is so in tune with nature and the land. Something that has great resonance and depth to it and something that many of us have lost.

It’s just about giving yourself time in nature. Even something simple like leaving the phone behind you. Nature is something we can all connect to. I strongly believe that the natural world is part of all of us, whether we live in the city or in the country. I think deeply and instinctively we feel that and although we can become disconnected, it’s important to make that connection. I think that, although this is Patrick’s story and his battle, it resonates with us all because it is a story of all of our struggles in modern-day life. This is a story about love and what he would do for love, and commitment, and family. He is a warrior and thankfully it’s a battle that came to a good end. We still have that fabulous wilderness to enjoy – and there is an interpretive centre in both Corofin and in Kilfenora.

 

The Silver Branch screens at

IFI, Dublin:                               Fri  Oct 5th to Thursday 11th

Moat Theatre, Naas:               Sun Oct 14th 7pm

Glór, Ennis:                              Sat  Oct 20th 8pm

Belltable, Limerick                 Mon Oct 22nd

St. John’s Theatre, Listowel:   Tue Oct 23rd 8pm

Siamsa Tíre, Tralee:                Wed Oct 24th 8pm

Triskel Arts Centre, Cork         Mon Nov 26th for 4 nights

 

 

Review of Irish Film @ Galway Film Fleadh: The Silver Branch

Irish Film Review: The Silver Branch

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Irish Film Review: The Silver Branch

 

DIR: Katrina Costello

 

Katrina Costello’s The Silver Branch is plainly gorgeous. As she examines farmer and poet Patrick McCormack’s life on his farm in the Burren, she shows her eye for framing natural beauty. She sits her viewers by the side of a dying cow, forcing us straight into empathy with it and its caretakers. She places us in torrential rain which obscures the surrounding landscape and highlights McCormack’s hay-collecting efforts in a baroque-like manner. The camera examines in slow motion predatory hawks as well as rural funeral marches and in fast-forward we see flowers bloom before our eyes. These visuals alone merit an attentive watch.

What elevates this film, however, is its extraordinary ability to pair its visuals with Patrick McCormack’s narration. As the film displays his daily work on the farm, his legal struggles to protect the Burren, his despair as many of his children leave for America, and the environment he calls home, Patrick unveils the wisdom he has gained from his deep connection with the land. We are placed in this world with Costello to guide us visually, McCormack to guide us verbally, and James Dornan to blend the two together through his beautiful score.

It is when Costello’s imagery imbues McCormack’s words with greater meaning and vice-versa that the film is able to find a truly unique means of expression. The film often imbues a single image with multiple, contradictory-yet-compatible meanings by virtue of the cinematography and McCormack’s reflections. A predatory hawk becomes associated with both a threatening, encroaching form of modernity and with a sense of comfort for the poet who fights this encroachment. A rainstorm can be a symbol of renewal as well as fragility for him. These universal themes, drawn out by McCormack’s rootedness with the land he tends, are the film’s great achievement.

Though some visuals work better than others (images of boxers in a ring layered over court proceedings are a bit on the nose), the movie is consistently able to blend together McCormack’s narration and poetry with a visual examination of The Burren in a way that places this particular human experience within what McCormack calls the “web of nature,” revealing our own fragile, yet important place in the natural world, a world that we are not separate from, but one that we are inextricably a part of. The film gets at these insights by digging into the reciprocal process between human and non-human elements of this web. The film’s poetry, visuals, and score combine to show us how sitting at the side of a dying cow can help us to discern some part of our uncertain place in this massive “web” and how that discernment informs how we interact with our landscape. In the mists that so frequently border sweeping shots of the farm, Costello and McCormack let us see our own ephemerality as well as the responsibility placed on us by our own temporary nature.

That this film illustrates this reciprocity so well does it credit and, due to this achievement, the Irish film community should anticipate whatever Costello produces next.

Sean O’Rourke

75 Minutes
The Silver Branch is released 5th October 2018

 

 

 

 

 

Katrina Costello, Director of ‘The Silver Branch’

 

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Review of Irish Film @ Galway Film Fleadh: The Silver Branch

Ruth McNally ponders Katrina Costello’s philosophical vision-poem.

 

Katrina Costello’s The Silver Branch is a documentary that tells the story of Patrick McCormack, a farmer and poet whose family have lived in the Burren for generations. The film explores his relationship with the Burren; its nature, history and the struggle to preserve it. The world premiere was screened in the Cinemobile on Friday night. With the rain battering outside, the crowd piled into this quiet space to escape the elements and instead be transported to the wild west at its best.

Though director Katrina Costello and Patrick McCormack were at the screening, the introduction was handed over to Film Fleadh founder Lelia Doolan, for whom the film also had particular significance. Lelia was part of the Burren Action Group and one of the seven Plaintiffs in the court case featured in the film. The case was fought for over ten years against the Government’s Office of Public Works (OPW), to halt the building of a large tourism-targeted centre at Mullaghmore in the heart of the Burren National Park. It took a toll on the Group, both financially and personally, and caused a lasting divide in the local community. Doolan said the process was “exhausting, demanding and terrifying”, but described it in the end as a labour of love.

The film’s great strengths are its endearing characters, poetic narration and sublime imagery. In order to give a background to the struggle that came from the case against the OPW, we must first see what the Group was fighting to preserve. In comes our narrator, Patrick McCormack, who is both naturally poetic and candid in his speech. He tells us of the generations of people who lived in the Burren; people who “had it all, just by being”. They had an intricate knowledge and respect for the land, as their livelihoods were dependent on it. McCormack and his friend and fellow farmer John Joe Conway keep up this old way of life; from rebuilding stone walls “that no one might see” to nurturing their livestock almost as if they were pets.  The friendship and common outlook of these two farmers bridges the obvious gap between generations; McCormack in his cowboy hat and leather jacket and John Joe in his gentlemanly overcoat. Their affection for the place is contagious, particularly McCormack’s, who attaches an almost spiritual sense of importance to it.

Watching the film is an immersive experience. As McCormack speaks meditatively of the effects that nature can have on a person, the cinematography works to draw you into the place. Alongside exhibiting the beauty and wildness of the Burren landscape, Costello has also captured incredible, intimate shots of Irish wildlife. We see such rare sights as birds of prey exchanging an animal mid-air, young fox cubs play-fighting and a small robin feeding a comically large cuckoo chick. We feel privy to a secret world, hidden behind the hedgerows and in the trees and reserved for those who take the time to sit and wait. We never leave the Burren during the film; there is enough drama in the nature there to reflect all aspects of the human experience.

There is a shift in tone as the film deals with the controversy surrounding the building of the interpretive centre and the subsequent court case. The centre was to provide a much-needed economic boost to the area, bringing hundreds of thousands more visitors a year and creating jobs for the younger generation. This was at a time when the OPW was not subject to planning laws and works commenced on building this large-scale centre and car park despite objections surrounding the impact it would have on the local environment. It was the site that was chosen for the centre – Mullaghmore – that caused McCormack and the other members of the Burren Action Group to decide to fight this seemingly inevitable development. Consequently they took a case against the OPW, arguing that government offices should be subject to the same planning laws as other bodies. While McCormack tells us of the difficulties and personal stresses of this period – from financial strain to loss of friendships – we are constantly drawn back to the bigger picture. He wants us to understand why this case was so important as to warrant the sacrifices that came with it. The film reminds us that for the group, there was something greater at risk of being lost.

In this age of convenience and rapid development, where oftentimes you would have to go to great lengths to find an area of pristine nature, The Silver Branch feels particularly relevant. It captures the sense of uncertainty that comes from being in a generation in which so much change has occurred; caught between nostalgia for the past and concern for the future. The film could be seen for the imagery of the Burren and its wildlife alone, however, McCormack’s poetry and the story give another context to the images; guiding us from meditative appreciation to solemn awareness of the place’s vulnerability. As McCormack at one point notes, the “grief within beauty”.

The film was five years in the making by director Katrina Costello and, as with the case taken by McCormack and the Burren Action Group members, it is a testament to patience, determination and love of a place.

 

 

The Silver Branch screened on Friday, 14th July 2017, as part of the 29th Galway Film Fleadh (11 – 16 July).

 

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