Ciara Chambers, University College Cork
27 November 2018
The IFI Irish Film Archive recently launched The Irish Independence Film Collection on the IFI player amidst a flurry of media attention in Ireland and beyond. The project, funded by the Irish government’s Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht through the 2016 project office, has repatriated newsreel stories covering Ireland by Pathé and Topical Budget between 1914-1930. The IFI Irish Film Archive worked closely with British Pathé and the British Film Institute, encouraging a return to the original nitrate stock to digitise it to the highest possible quality, offering much sharper digital transfers than the older, low resolution standard-definition telecines. This is groundbreaking work in the preservation of newsreel material, and it has happened at a time of acute reflection, nostalgia and re-evaluation of national identity. Setting aside Ireland’s complex relationship with Britain as the Brexit crisis unfolds, the country is currently in the middle of a ‘decade of centenaries’, a period between 2012 and 2022 marked by a range of public commemoration as modern Ireland reconsiders the twentieth-century events that were part of the founding of the state, with a particular focus on the Easter Rising (1916), the War of Independence (1919-21), the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty (1921) and the Irish Civil War (1922-23).
This is just one of a range of innovative projects undertaken by the Irish Film Archive. It recently restored, digitized and catalogued 8000 rolls of 35mm film containing a large collection of Irish advertisements. An important focus of this project, funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, was to make the material accessible to the general public, and it can now be viewed here: https://ifiplayer.ie/adverts/ The Irish Film Archive also collaborated with University College Cork on Capturing the Nation (funded by the Irish Research Council) which focussed on the digitization and cataloguing of small-gauge Irish amateur film. With innovative projects like these, the IFA strives to achieve a balance between preservation and access, always ensuring that material is made available to the general public through screenings, the IFI player and DVD projects (some of these, for instance GAA Gold – depicting archival material covering Irish sports – were bestsellers in Ireland). The expert team, headed by Kasandra O’Connell, works tirelessly and often with limited funding to preserve and contextualise Ireland’s filmic heritage. The innovative nature of IFA projects has not gone unnoticed by the International archive community; Access and Digital Collections Developer Kieran O’Leary was awarded Focal International employee of the year in 2018.
Founded in 1986, the IFI Irish Film Archive includes in its vaults a range of indigenous film production from 1897 to the present day including feature films, documentaries, newsreels and amateur material. The work of prominent industry directors is preserved alongside films made within local communities, capturing representations of Ireland that chart shifting social attitudes and conditions.
The portrayal of Ireland on film has been a largely problematic one due to a lack of a sustained indigeneous film industry until the 1970s. Prior to this, in narrative filmmaking, Ireland was depicted by external filmmakers and often appeared as rural idyll (particularly in American depictions like John Ford’s The Quiet Man, 1952) or as dark, violent and dangerous territory (as in some British portrayals like Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out, 1947). Even the majority of newsreels produced for cinema audiences (and the only source of onscreen news available to the Irish population before the advent of television in the 1950s) were, with a few exceptions, produced by external companies with a tendency to depict scenes of rural primitivism and an inherent violent Irish disposition. This meant that Ireland watched a portrayal of itself which was tinged with postcolonial connotations and often at odds with day-to-day reality. However, throughout this time amateur local filmmakers were capturing events which hold valuable clues to an internal social and historical perspective on twentieth-century Ireland. Digitizing and exploring this material poses questions on how the Irish amateur gaze depicted modern Ireland and offers the possibility of constructing an alternative narrative to that of mainstream cinema. Sitting alongside professional representations of Ireland in the Irish Film Archive’s facilities in Dublin and Maynooth, this material is a significant cultural resource for researchers keen to understand the development of filmic portrayals of Ireland.
Visiting the Irish Film Archive, located in Temple Bar, the heart of Dublin city centre, is a pleasure. It is attached to the Irish Film Institute, a bustling three-screen arthouse cinema space which hosts a range of festivals and special events and runs an extensive lifelong learning education programme. Local filmmakers and artists often use the IFI’s busy café bar as a meeting spot and you never know who you might bump into there at any time of the day or evening.
Bookings need to be made in advance, and often the viewing facilities are booked out for extended periods of time so it’s vital that you make a reservation and liaise with staff about the material you’d like to see, particularly since the catalogue is not available online. Preliminary enquiries should be made in writing, addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org. If the material you need to view is held on film and has not yet been digitized, it will be added to the transfer list and this could take up to six weeks to complete, so it’s important that you plan your visit well in advance. The staff are generous in sharing both their time and expertise and it’s likely that after a visit you’ll come away with even more information about the collections than you anticipated. And if you’re looking for contextual material, the IFI also hosts the Tiernan McBride library, one of the largest collections of film-related publications in Ireland.
A large collection of books and DVDs are also available for purchase in the IFI shop:
Ever proactive in facing the challenges of a small nation with a contested and problematic history, the Irish Film Institute is currently compiling a Moving Image Register to better assess the range of material in need of preservation. A similar survey of archival material is being conducted in Northern Ireland, which does not have a dedicated physical space for the preservation of moving images. However, in 2000, the Digital Film Archive (DFA) was launched by the Northern Ireland Film Commission (now Northern Ireland Screen) and a range of material has been added to it since. The DFA holds narrative and experimental film, television, news, animation and amateur material from 1897 through to the present day and is currently available at a range of museums, libraries, universities and heritage-related locations in Northern Ireland. A full catalogue and a range of the collections are available for viewing here: www.digitalfilmarchive.net
If you are looking for material related to Northern Ireland, it is worth checking on both the Digital Film Archive and in the catalogues of the Irish Film Archive. For queries related to the DFA, and to learn more about its educational outreach programme, see here: https://digitalfilmarchive.net/contact
Northern Ireland Screen is also working closely with the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) to preserve the archives of local broadcaster UTV and it is hoped that some of this invaluable material will soon join other UTV gems on the DFA http://www.northernirelandscreen.co.uk/news/utv-archive-preserved-public-record-office-northern-ireland/
If you’re visiting Dublin from outside Ireland, a large amount of accommodation is available within walking distance of the Irish Film Institute and you’ll find numerous pubs and eateries along the cobbled streets of Temple Bar. Be warned though, it’s a lively spot, particularly on weekends, so if you need some quiet time to reflect on your research, you may want to stay somewhere a little more serene. Dublin, of course, is the home of Guinness, so if you’d like to indulge in a pint or an Irish coffee after a hard day’s research, neither will be hard to find… Sláinte!
Dr Ciara Chambers is Head of Film and Screen Media, University College Cork, author of Ireland in the Newsreels (Irish Academic Press, 2012) and co-editor of Researching Newsreels (Palgrave, 2018). She is a member of the editorial board of Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media, book reviews editor for the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television and a member of the IAMHIST Council. Her research interests include newsreels, amateur film and the recycling of archival images. She has worked on a range of archival projects and digitization initiatives with the Irish Film Archive, Northern Ireland Screen, Belfast Exposed Photography, UTV, BBC, and the British Universities Film and Video Council. She is scriptwriter and associate producer on Éire na Nuachtscannán (Ireland in the Newsreels), a six-part television series broadcast on TG4 in autumn 2017 http://www.irelandinthenewsreels.com
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