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“Ar son an Náisiúin”: The National Film Institute of Ireland’s All-Ireland Films

From: Éire-Ireland
Volume 48, Issue 1&2, Spring / Summer 2013
pp. 191-210 | 10.1353/eir.2013.0014

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On 4 september 1948 the Irish Independent carried a small announcement on page ten indicating that the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) had authorized the filming of the All-Ireland hurling and football finals of that year. These finals were to be filmed by the National Film Institute (NFI) of Ireland, set up three years earlier, and this announcement marked the beginning of the first sustained period of indigenous filming of Gaelic games in Ireland. Although important research has been done on the crucial link between the codification and popularization of Gaelic games in Ireland and the development of Irish nationalism in the late nineteenth century, the role that filmic representations of sport may have played in this developing process in the twentieth century has as yet been the subject of limited investigation.2 This article builds on previous research about the representation of Gaelic games in early newsreels between 1920 and 1939 in order to consider the filmic depictions of All-Ireland finals produced by the NFI and their role, particularly in the 1940s and 1950s, in representing and affirming the Irish nation through sport.3 These films also offer fascinating insights into Irish society in the postwar period, while sharing intriguing links with one of the most accomplished (and controversial) sports films ever made, Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938).

Filming Gaelic Games after Irish Independence

The first two decades of independence saw little indigenous film work produced in Ireland, with coverage of Gaelic games left primarily to foreign newsreel companies. These representations, found in Pathé, Movietone, and British Gaumont Newsreels and less often in some American major studio shorts, though important as among the only moving-image representations of players of the period we have, nonetheless sometimes presented these games condescendingly. Even where depictions were more positively disposed, the narration, offered in contrived, clipped, upper-class “Oxford” accents, often indicated less about the sport and more about the lack of understanding of Gaelic games among British commentators.4 The GAA itself expressed alarm at some of the more questionable representations; the release in Britain and Ireland in 1937 of one particularly offensive depiction of Irish sport, the short film Hurling (figure 1) produced by MGM in 1936, motivated a delegation from the GAA to visit the Irish film censor and demand that offensive scenes be removed.5

The NFI of Ireland

The year 1936 would also be crucial for the facilitation of indigenous filming in Ireland, including that of Gaelic games. In 1936 Pope Pius XI issued his encyclical “Vigilanti Cura,” which recognized the potentially “great advantage to learning and to education”

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Figure 1. 

Press sheet for the 1936 MGM film Hurling, which described the game as “Ireland’s athletic assault and battery.” Press sheet kindly supplied by Paul Balbirnie. Copy available at http://www.irishfilmposter.com/hurling_presssheet.html.

of the cinema.6 Pope Pius’s words inspired clergy members to get more involved in film production and eventually to organize the NFI of Ireland in 1945 under the patronage of Dr. John Charles McQuaid, archbishop of Dublin. The Institute was initially set up to import and distribute educational films around Irish schools and parish halls but soon began making films of its own. From the beginning these films would place a strong emphasis on affirming and celebrating the still relatively new independent state of Ireland. This is apparent in one of its first documentary films, A Nation Once Again (Brendan Stafford, 1946), made to mark the centenary of the death of Thomas Davis, the leader of the nationalist Young Ireland movement of the 1840s. Described by Ruth Barton as “a classic instance of the use of history as a legitimizing discourse,”7 the film provided, as the title suggests, a nationalist and uncontested account of Irish history and identity. While exploring Davis’s legacy and celebrating his political ideals, it prominently featured Eamon de Valera, the then taoiseach, as well as aspects of Irish society and culture, including Gaelic games. In one sequence, narrating over images of Gaelic football and Irish dancing, Dan O’Herlihy reminds us that Davis’s teaching is “the sure basis on which to plan a united nation, free...

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