Sandra Costello marvels at Irish Destiny made soon after the events it depicted. The first fiction film dealing with the War of Independence in Ireland, a 35mm print of the film was restored and repatriated from the US by the IFI in the early 1990s.
Directed by George Dewhurst and written by Isaac Eppel, Irish Destiny was the first film made about the Irish War of Independence in 1926 and its release marked the ten-year anniversary of the 1916 Rising. Lost for many years and only rediscovered in the 1990s, the film has a precious quality that makes the viewer feel privileged to be able to watch it.
The plot concerns a brave young man called Denis, played by Paddy Dunne Cullinan, who comes from a privileged background. He is in love with Moira, a kind-hearted schoolteacher, who is played by Frances MacNamarra. After being away from home, Denis returns and becomes upset by the arrival of the Black and Tans in his remote and idyllic village of Clonmore. He joins the local IRA group and quite quickly becomes embroiled in dangerous operations.
The film opens in the lavish family home of Denis where we meet Denis’s father playing chess with the local priest. The writer of the film, Isaac Eppel, a doctor and pharmacist, perhaps wished to depict the story of a man whose background was close to his own. With the presence of the priest, we can instantly locate the Catholic Church as central in this community and central to Ireland’s quest for independence. Later, when news of Denis’s shooting filters through to his home and as his parents mourn, it is the priest that tells them they must pull themselves together and think of the bigger cause.
The Irish countryside is beautifully captured in all its splendour and in a way that reminds us that a thorough knowledge of these surroundings is what allowed the IRA to effectively conduct their Guerrilla warfare. This is displayed in an ambush scene where a small number of IRA members is able to attack a far larger number of Black and Tans.
A healthy range of exciting action scenes is provided by this film. Denis races against a wayward horse in order to save Moira, speeds across the country fending off armed RIC forces and finally rushes to save a captured Moira from the clutches the villainous Gilbert Beecher. In each of these scenes an effective use of parallel editing thoroughly quickens the pace and builds tension. Micheál Ó Súilleabháin’s impressive score aids in the creation of this tension as the first ominous notes of the soundtrack come with the introduction of the Black and Tans.
Shots of Denis being chased over O’Connell Bridge and up O’Connell Street are genuinely thrilling both in terms of plot and having the opportunity of viewing our capital city almost one hundred years ago. The presence of the trams make O’Connell Street appear very modern especially considering that the Luas (Dublin’s current tram) has only been extended onto this street within the last couple of years.
There is an impressive blending in of newsreel footage within the film giving it a more authentic quality. The film also ambitiously dabbles in special effects with what appear to be painted images of flames in order to depict buildings which have been set alight. These are quite conspicuous in colour, yet, convincing and impressive in black and white.
The film effectively displays the speed at which many became involved in the War of Independence and how quickly they may have forfeited their lives as a result. The chemistry between the Moira and Denis is very warm and sincere. Indeed, Denis is shown to have many loving familial ties, but he is still willing to sacrifice everything, almost at the drop of a hat, in the quest for Irish independence. And, it’s not long before Denis lands himself in extreme danger after joining the IRA.
Ultimately, though, this film is a very hopeful one that aptly conveys the great solidarity that existed amongst the majority of Irish people during the War of Independence. We witness people on the streets of Dublin supportively cheering the IRA members as they are arrested, the IRA working together to facilitate a mass escape from a prison camp, and a kind stranger giving an exhausted Denis a glass of milk as he makes his way home. The film’s ending offers up a prayer for a peaceful and happy Irish future for all, a future that makes all the sacrifice worthwhile.
Irish Destiny screened as part of the 65th Cork International Film Festival (8 – 15 November 2020)