Kasandra O’Connell, Irish Film Institute
22 May 2020[print-me]
“It’s somewhere between art and education, if you can capture those two things, you’re home and dry”[i]
Se Merry Doyle, Loopline films
In May 2020 the Irish Film Institute (IFI) [ii] published the second volume of the Loopline Collection on its online platform- the IFI Player. [iii] This material is the output of Loopline Films, one of Ireland’s most influential independent production companies, founded in 1992 by filmmaker Sé Merry Doyle. The internationally award-winning company named after the River Liffey viaduct, AKA the Loopline Bridge in Dublin’s Inner City, specialises in producing documentaries and TV series “with heart”.[iv] Merry Doyle and his collaborators forgo traditional documentary techniques, such as narration, preferring a more experimental approach to their subjects.[v] Since its inception Loopline has become renowned for its perceptive, political and poetic body of work, particularly a series of portraits of prominent cultural figures and a succession of programmes highlighting pressing social issues and documenting changes in Irish society. Amongst the material made available on the IFI Player in April 2019 was previously unreleased footage of U2 playing live on Dublin’s Sheriff Street in 1982, the inclusion of which ensured international media interest in the project.
The genesis of the collaboration between the IFI and Loopline was an approach by Loopline’s founder Sé Merry Doyle, to the IFI Irish Film Archive in 2015.[vi] This resulted in funding being secured from the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland’s (BAI) archiving scheme in order to preserve the output of the production company. [vii] Over the following year, Merry Doyle and archivist Eugene Finn assessed and catalogued the various media elements that made up the collection, which had resided in the Loopline offices for many years. This material included a wide variety of formats: 16mm and 35mm films, a multitude of tape formats, numerous audio materials and a significant amount of born digital content held on hard drives and camera cards- illustrating the transition of the production world from analogue to digital through the period in which the production company has operated. When Loopline closed its studios in 2017 this material was transferred to the IFI Irish Film Archive, where the IFI began its part of the project to catalogue, digitise and preserve the collection, eventually making it available to the public via the IFI Player.
Despite the fact that IFI Archive team had been provided with a sample of the collection’s content in order to write the BAI funding application, it was only when the entire collection was transported to the IFI premises for assessment that its full value was appreciated. In addition to 47 finished programmes chronicling the social, cultural and political landscape of Ireland between 1982 and 2015, the collection contained outtakes, interviews, pilots and additional material not included in the final broadcast programmes, thus giving unparalleled access not only to the programme subjects but to Merry Doyle’s immersive, and instinctive approach to filmmaking.
The collection contains undeniably starry content including such high profile figures as U2, Patrick Kavanagh, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Maureen O’Hara, J.G. Ballard, Margaret Atwood and Gore Vidal amongst many others, but it is the footage chronicling changes in Irish urban and rural society and documenting key areas of Irish history and the arts that is of particular value to the IFI. Although the IFI Irish Film Archive collection holds material from 1890s to the present day it is weighted towards the mid-20th century, so the inclusion of such a wide ranging and extensive (over 900 hours of footage) collection covering the latter part of the 20th century provided some welcome curatorial balance. This was also the first full broadcast collection that the IFI archive had acquired and processed in conjunction with the filmmaker, thus providing a valuable opportunity to work with Merry Doyle to ensure the material was correctly documented, the context of its creation was captured and allowing staff to gain a deep insight into the production process itself.
An instinctive practitioner, Merry Doyle stumbled into filmmaking with no formal training. Born into the working- class Dublin suburb of Finglas he began his artistic career in the theatre. A contemporary of director Jim Sheridan and actors Gabriel Byrne and Liam Neeson, his first foray into filmmaking was in the early 1980s when he borrowed footage from the legendary Irish documentary maker George Morrison editing it into a theatre set piece, the success of which encouraged him into a career as a film editor in Dublin and then London. [viii] Returning to Ireland in the 1990s he officially set up Loopline films, although his first work Looking On (1982), was created prior to his departure to England.
The Dublin Merry Doyle returned to was in flux as the last vestiges of tenement life and the old city were being swept away by internationalism, capitalism and a sense of the modern. Merry Doyle was acutely aware of the internal tension within the capital as communities fought to retain their identity in the face of economic and social change. He felt compelled to capture not only the Dublin he knew before it disappeared, but also the struggle of working-class communities as they tried to navigate their changing environs; and so, he began to film those around him. This resulted in a trio of films that are still relevant as they deal with issues that continue to effect Dublin, urban regeneration and gentrification and social and economic deprivation. Looking On, Loopline’s inaugural work focuses on a 1982 cultural festival, spearheaded by community activist Mick Rafferty and the Independent politician Tony Gregory; this landmark event sought to reclaim the inner city for the local population and instil pride in an area facing financial hardship, lack of employment and increasing levels of drug abuse. It notably features an early rooftop appearance by U2 in Alive Alive O: A Requiem for Dublin, Merry Doyle’s first full length documentary featuring original poetry from Paula Meehan and footage shot by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Robbie Ryan, chronicling the fight of Dublin’s iconic street traders to maintain their livelihood against the threat of commercial interests in the inner city who seek to expel the traders from their traditional locations of the Iveagh Market and Moore Street.[ix]
Liam McGrath’s Essie’s Last Stand depicts 76-year-old Essie Keeling’s fight to stay in her home as developers attempt to demolish St Ultan’s, the block of flats she has resided in for four decades. One of the last remaining tenants she and a neighbour refuse to be evicted, determined to thwart the ambitions of developers to create luxury apartments on the site of their home. The film is considered a companion piece to Alive Alive O by Tony Tracy as it similarly depicts a “proud and marginalised community defying mainstream expectations”.[x]
In addition to topics that explore the shifting community and values within the city, Loopline’s other focus is creating intimate portraits of renowned Irish cultural figures. These deeply personal works include Patrick Scott: Golden Boy, produced by Andrea Pitt and Maria Doyle Kennedy of Mermaid Films, which gives an insight into the work of one of Ireland’s foremost abstract painters; the film includes footage shot by Seámus McGarvey, the Oscar-nominated cinematographer. Patrick Kavanagh: No Man’s Fool which focuses on the life of the renowned poet, with contributions from poets John Montague and Macdara Woods, writer Dermot Healy, and actor T.P. McKenna. James Gandon: A Life which looks at the career of the renowned 18th-century architect responsible for some of Dublin’s most iconic buildings including the Customs House and the Four Courts; the documentary is notable for an extensive interview with former Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Charles J. Haughey at his Gandon-designed home in Abbeyville, North Dublin.
Loopline also made several series for television, including Imprint which was hosted by the poet Theo Dorgan and first broadcast on RTÉ between 1999 and 2001. It features in-depth and revealing interviews with some of the literary world’s most notable figures such as Margaret Atwood, Richard Ford, Gore Vidal, Eavan Boland and Colm Tóibín, while the six-part series A Good Age, originally broadcast in 1997, is an intriguing look at the issues facing older people, with candid personal testimonies about intimacy, self-care, and ageism. The most recent series for television was Muintir na Mara (People of the Sea) which ran for six series on TG4.[xi] A travel programme of sorts, presented by traditional boatbuilder Pádraig Ó Duinnín, it followed his journey around the Irish coastline as he visited Cork, Kerry, Galway, Clare and Sligo/ Mayo, engaging with a variety of local characters, before ending his travels in Donegal. The series illustrates Loopline’s continuing preoccupation with location and identity albeit it in a vastly different setting to previous urban focussed works. Ó Duinnín explores and memorialises the activities of range of crafts people, artists, musicians as well as addressing “contentious issues facing Ireland’s coastal towns”, such as “over regulation of the fishing industry, the impact of multinationals on communities and the natural environment and the demise of the fishing community and traditions”.[xii]
Rural life is also the focus of a particularly valuable sub-collection within the Loopline corpus; the material shot for the BBC/RTE series Hidden Treasures directed by Anne O’Leary in 1998 explores a range of trades, crafts and traditions widely practised in rural Ireland from the 1850s to the 1950s. The series is built around a collection of 16mm films commissioned by the National Museum of Ireland’s Folklife Division, in association with the Irish Folklore Commission and filmed from the 1950s through to the 1970s and which is also preserved as part of the Irish Film Institute collection.
These films emphasise the self-sufficiency of rural householders and crafts specialists, through their use of everyday materials to make objects for practical use in their daily lives and cover a wide variety of pre-industrial practices, such as rope-making, tinsmithing, various forms of fishing and grain-threshing, turf-cutting, tillage, and straw and seaweed gathering. They are a beautifully shot record of a fading Ireland and indicative of Loopline’s preoccupation with changing tradition, landscape and place.
Another prominent strand within the Loopline output is work that memorialises the lives of Irish women, although the company has sometimes met with controversy whilst doing so.
Martina Durac’s documentary Mairéad Farrell: Comhrá nár Chríochnaigh (An Unfinished Conversation) is about the Republican activist who was shot by the British Army in Gibraltar in 1988, in which her friend historian Bríona Nic Dhiarmada, attempts to uncover the complex woman behind the mythology that has been woven around her.
MNÁ AN IRA is a six- part series that focuses on the role played by female members within the Provisional IRA, taking a very personal approach to its subject matter the series explores what motivated the women to become involved in the conflict. The sympathetic tone taken by the filmmakers led to criticism of the series, not least by Concubhar O Liathain, a member of the TG4 board, who asked for the decision to broadcast the series to be reviewed following the airing of the episode featuring Rose Dugdale, as he felt its tone would prove “heart-breaking for the victims of the IRA and their relatives”.[xiii] In response the producers of the series Vanessa Gildea and Martina Durac, defended their work explaining that it was “an attempt to understand part of the recent history of our country and why certain people became involved in violent activity — by hearing their personal stories and finding out what motivated them into such drastic action.”
Another less controversial female figure that is celebrated within the collection is Kathleen Lynn, Rebel Doctor a programme that rediscovers the legacy of this extraordinary humanitarian. Structured around Lynn’s diaries, the programme explores Lynn’s remarkable journey from a clergyman’s daughter in the West of Ireland to become a physician and suffragette who founded the first Irish children’s hospital St Ultan’s and was chief medical officer for the Irish Citizen Army. This celebration of women’s achievements continues with Merry Doyle’s next project Hanna and Me which tells the story of republican suffragette Hanna Sheehy Skeffington through the eyes of her great granddaughter Micheline.
Value of the collection
In addition to the completed programmes within the collection, Loopline project archivist Eugene Finn highlights the value of the uncompleted works, projects which Loopline began but were unable to progress due to lack of financial support, thus illustrating the difficulty in “raising funding for serious social cultural and historical documentaries”.[xiv] These fragments provide an insight into the subject matter which fascinates Merry Doyle and his collaborators, as the abandon works offer a glimpse of partial profiles of figures such as the controversial writer Ulick O’Connor, and trade unionist and socialist politician Jim Kemmy. Equally tantalising is a series of interviews with international practitioners such as D.A. Pennebaker, Kim Longinotto, Les Blanc and Molly Dineen amongst others, for an unfinished project entitled Documentary Where Art Thou?
In his piece for Cassandra Voices, Finn also remarks on the value of the collection in providing a window into the production process, as outtakes and rushes document “the filming of establishing shots”, and “ the pursuit of best takes” and show how the “ideas that arise during interviews” are developed into new concepts, giving us an unparalleled insight into the development the and construction of the work. In an in-depth interview at the IFI Merry Doyle’s further emphasises the instinctive and organic nature of the production process, as relationships, coincidence and circumstance led Loopline from one topic to another.[xv]
Availability of the collection
The first tranche of the Loopline Collection was made available on the IFI Player in April 2019, with the second tranche published in May 2020. Volume 2 can be viewed here. In preparation for publication the IFI player curatorial team mapped out an online programming strategy, working with Merry Doyle to identify themes within the material in order to present the collection to the public in an engaging and accessible way.[xvi] Video segments and introductions were filmed with a range of contributors to provide context and create a route for further critical engagement with the content. Additionally, the IFI programmed a retrospective of Loopline films in its cinemas, including a career interview with Merry Doyle to coincide with the public availability of the work. The collection is now available on the IFI Player without geo-blocking so that an international audience can explore and enjoy its diverse subject matter. Taken as a whole the collection is fascinating document of recent Irish history and the changing cultural life of the nation.
Merry Doyle’s interest in complex themes such as changing identity, social justice, and the creative process, has ensured that the collection contains a rich seam of material for researchers, historians, sociologists and programme makers to mine. Similarly, Merry Doyle’s innate ability to find the human story within universal themes, will no doubt ensure that the work of Loopline continues to resonate with audiences long into the future.
You can view the trailer for the Loopline Collection, Volume 2 here.
[i] ‘900 hours of footage that tells the story of Ireland’: Video from the last 30 years archived at IFI https://jrnl.ie/4594823 Apr 16th 2019, Journal.ie Andrew Roberts.
[ii] The Irish Film Institute is Ireland’s national cultural institution for film with a remit to Exhibit, Preserve and Educate.
[iii] The IFI Player is a virtual viewing room for the IFI Irish Film Archive’s collections. Launched in 2016, it gives fee global access to a range of material from the IFI’s collections, and acts as a platform to publicise the IFI’s preservation and digitisation projects. In collaboration with tech partners Axonista a suite of apps for Android, Apple and Roku was launched in 2017.
[iv] IFI Career interview.
[v] Merry Doyle was not always at the helm and collaborated with a range of accomplished producers and directors such as Martina Durac, Vanessa Gildea, Anne O’Leary, Liam McGrath amongst others stepping in.
[vi] The IFI Irish Film Archive is part of the IFI. It has a mission to collect, preserve and share Ireland’s moving image heritage.
[vii] The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland is Ireland’s broadcast regulator, but also runs an archiving scheme which aims to promote a culture of preservation within the broadcast sector and provides funding for preservation projects for audio-visual material made for broadcast.
[viii] George Morrison is an Irish documentary maker, best known for his ground-breaking film Mise Eire (1959) which is created entirely from archival footage and tells the story of events around and during the Easter Rising.
[ix] Alive Alive O, review Film West, Issue 39, Dan McCarthy
[x] Essie’s Last Stand review, Flim West,issue 41, Tony Tracy
[xi] TG4 is Ireland’s Irish language television station.
[xiii] IRA series Seriously stains TG4, Independent, 8th Jan 2012
[xiv] ‘Archiving the Recent Past: the Loopline Collection’, EUGENE FINN ON JULY 19, 2019 https://cassandravoices.com/uncategorized/archiving-the-recent-past-the-loopline-collection/
[xvi] Shauna Lyons, Kasandra O’Connell, Sunniva O’Flynn and Saskia Vermeulen
Kasandra O’Connell has been Head of the IFI Irish Film Archive custodian of Ireland’s national moving image collection for two decades. Prior to this she worked in conservation at the National Museum of Ireland and has a postgraduate qualification in Archival Science, an M.A. in Museum Studies and is currently undertaking PhD research in moving image preservation and policy at DCU. She is on the editorial board of the Association of Moving Image Archivists journal and has written about digital preservation and moving image archiving for a number of publications including Film Ireland, History Ireland, Journal of the Society of Archivists and International Journal of Film Preservation; she has also contributed to a number of television and radio programmes on the subject. She devised and teaches an MA module in digital media preservation at Maynooth University and was one of a group of international experts selected as faculty for 2018 FIAF preservation and restoration workshop in India. Her focus in recent years has been devising and implementing the IFI Irish Film Archive’s Digital Preservation and Access Strategy, developing the award winning IFI Player and undertaking large scale preservation and access projects such as the Irish adverts project, Loopline and the Irish Independence film collection.
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