A Day at the Archives…. National University of Ireland, Galway

Veronica Johnson, National University of Ireland, Galway

22 May 2019


I’m writing this blog while sitting in the archive that I’m about to describe. It’s a beautiful early spring day. To the right and in front of me I can see vast swathes of daffodils through the floor to ceiling windows that occupy two sides of the Special Collections Reading Room where all archives and special collections material are examined. It’s quite here today, just two other manuscript researchers and three online researchers.

I first came here in February 2017 when I was lucky enough to receive a Moore Institute fellowship https://mooreinstitute.ie/ which funds up to one month in this archive. This fellowship also provides a desk in the Hardiman research building and access to the main Hardiman library. I came to examine the Shield’s Family Archive and the Abbey Theatre Archive as part of my research into the Film Company of Ireland (1916-1920). I was interested in the relationship between this first significant Irish fiction film company and the Abbey Theatre as the owners of the Film Company of Ireland hired most of their actors and directors from the Abbey Theatre. Very little is known about this area, so I was delighted to have access to two archives that might shed some light on the interactions between the theatre and the film company.

The Shield’s Family Archive relates mostly to the actor Arthur Shields, who began his career in the Abbey Theatre and then had a long career in film and television in America. He is best known for his work with John Ford, playing the protestant minister in The Quiet Man (1952) when his more well-known brother William Joseph Shields (Barry Fitzgerald) played the matchmaker. One of the first Abbey Theatre actors that the Film Company of Ireland recruited was J. M. Kerrigan. Kerrigan was well-known as a versatile, comic character actor in the Abbey. He was in charge of training young actors and in this capacity, he became a mentor for Arthur Shields when he joined the Abbey in 1914. Kerrigan directed the first films for the Film Company of Ireland in 1916 and 1917 as well as acting in them. He was also one of the first people to invest in the company and seems to have acted as a casting director for the company also. I had hoped to find out more information about J. M. Kerrigan from the Shields archive and it did not disappoint. The friendship between these two men began when Shields joined the Abbey in 1914 and lasted until Kerrigan’s death in 1964. Of particular help in this archive were letters from Shields and Kerrigan, clippings of newspaper interviews and drafts of a biography of Arthur Shields by his wife Laurie Shields. This archive gave a context to the acting methods of the Abbey Theatre at that time, methods which were greatly influenced by Kerrigan in his role as tutor. As none of the films by J. M. Kerrigan for the Film Company of Ireland are known to have survived, it was useful to examine accounts of the acting methods he used in theatre and to compare this to press reviews of the films which he directed.

J. M. Kerrigan. Shields Family Archive. T13/B/269. National University of Ireland, Galway

I then turned to the second archive I examined in this period, the archive of the Abbey Theatre itself, digitised and available to search in the Special Collections reading room. This is a large archive containing programmes, minutes of meetings, photography of actors, sets and plays, scripts, administrative and production files. This archive proved very useful in tracing the careers of J. M. Kerrigan and also Fred O’Donovan, the second major actor recruited from the Abbey. O’Donovan was a leading actor at the Abbey who also directed plays there and who subsequently went on to manage the theatre. By examining theatre programmes and minutes of meetings in this archive I was able to trace the movement of Kerrigan and O’Donovan between their stage acting and their film acting.

The archive and special collections of the National University of Ireland, Galway opens from 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday with late opening until 9pm on Tuesdays during term time. The holdings of the archive can be examined at http://archivesearch.library.nuigalway.ie/. Booking is not required, although it is a good idea to get in touch with the archive in advance of your visit so that the materials you want will be available when you arrive. Document retrieval times are 10:00, 12:00 and 15:00. A registration form is required before accessing the archive and a Register must be signed on each entry into the Special Collections Reading Room. There are lockers for personal possessions, only pencils and laptops are permitted for notetaking. Permission must be requested before photographing or photocopying items. The staff are excellent, incredibly knowledgeable about the holdings and extremely pleasant and helpful. They do everything they can to make accessing the archives and consulting them pleasant and easy. As it is situated in the National University of Ireland, Galway, the archive is close to a number of restaurants and coffee shops on campus. The university itself is located about 15 minutes from the centre of Galway city where there is a variety of places to eat and sleep. In addition to the archives mentioned above, there are a number of other archives related to film and media history. These include the Huston Family Collection, an archive of scripts and production material and legal documents from the films of John Huston, mostly relating to his final film The Dead, the Éamon de Buitléar Collection, a collection of video, audio and manuscripts from the wildlife broadcaster and film-maker, the Diaries of Joseph Holloway (1895-1944), a regular attendee of theatre and cinema in Dublin, an invaluable source of information about the entertainment scene in Dublin during this period, and the Killanin Collection of books on film, literature and art from Michael Morris, 3rd Baron Killanin, film producer.

Galway is a warm, welcoming, compact and lively city with a good arts scene. Any trip to the archives at the National University of Ireland, Galway will be complemented by all that the city has to offer, not to mention the beauties of the Burren and Connemara close by. If you do make the journey, come over and say hello, I’ll be sitting close to one of the many windows knee-deep in all the archive has to offer on early Irish cinema and film.


Veronica Johnson teaches film studies at the National University of Ireland, Galway. Her research focuses on the Film Company of Ireland (1916-1920), early cinema and the cinematic unconscious. A recent attendee at the IAMHIST masterclass, her article “Dublin cinemas in 1916 and the growth of the middle-class audience” is forthcoming from the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television.


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