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).