This documentary film has only recently come to light again after being missing in action for the last forty years. Made by Peter Lennon in 1967, it features cinematography by Raoul Coutard who was hugely influential in the Nouvelle Vague school of French cinema.
It’s a partly affectionate and partly scathing portrait of a country just beginning modernization but still struggling to look outward into a world that it had long held at arm’s length. On St. Patrick’s Day 1943 the then Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland, Eamonn DeValera, made a famous radio speech in which he said “The ideal Ireland that we would have, the Ireland that we dreamed of, would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age. The home, in short, of a people living the life that God desires that men should live.” In keeping with this vision Ireland had become a society uninvolved with the rest of the world. Even the Second World War was not acknowledged as such. In a neutral Ireland it was known as The Emergency. Strenuous attempts were made to resist contamination of the Irish psyche by jazz music, English novels and films, immoral dancing and the myriad possible temptations of the modern world. Attempts were made to codify and categorize native Irish culture and sports — attempts that in the case of Irish traditional music often drove the means of its survival into the industrial cities of England and the US.
The tone of the film is apparent very early on. The writer Seán O’Faoláin who had fought in the Irish Civil War and was author of the cultural history, ‘The Irish’, speaks of the post-1916 generation. He says: “The kind of society that actually grew up was a society of what I call urbanized peasants. They were a society which was without moral courage, constantly observing a self-interested silence, never speaking in moments of crisis and in constant alliance with a completely obscurantist, repressive, regressive and uncultivated Church.” A very different tone from that of DeValera. Or as Bulmer Hobson, one of the main actors of the 1916 said in 1956 — quoted in Roy Foster’s Vivid Faces — “I cannot and will not write about the people and times when we were young, for reasons that are long and complicated. Briefly the phoenix of our youth has fluttered to earth such a miserable old hen I have no heart for it …”
The film was entered at the Cannes film festival in 1968 and was shown just before the the festival was abandoned in support of student protests of that year. It managed to have a brief run of two weeks in Dublin to sold-out audiences. It has never been shown on Irish television and despite the (not surprising) snub that it received in Ireland it became a huge success with those very students who brought the Cannes film festival to close. The film provided a cautionary answer to the old question of “What do you do with your revolution now that you have it?’ In Ireland that answer, sadly, was “Give it to the Church and the bourgeoisie.”
The full film is actually now available for viewing on Youtube. The quality of the file conversion was not terribly good so the resolution is poor compared to the DVD. It's still quite watchable though.