New Hibernia Review 9.3 (2005) 17-38
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A Look at Irish-Ireland:
Gael Linn's Amharc Éireann Films, 1956–64
B. Mairéad Pratschke
Louis Marcus's 1996 documentary series, The Years of Change, provides a visual account of the changes in Ireland in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Footage for the series was drawn from Gael Linn's Irish-language short documentary and news film series Amharc Éireann (A Look at Ireland, or A View of Ireland), which was produced by Colm Ó Laoghaire from 1956 to 1964. However, as Harvey O'Brien has argued, in the uncriticial use of this footage in The Years of Change, the period "is robbed of its specificity by historical distance, and has been commodified and repackaged in a sanitised form as tamed history."1 O'Brien called attention to the need to engage critically with the history represented in the Amharc Éireann series, and to assess the ideological and historical context in which it was originally filmed and distributed.2 That context is inseparable from the films' sponsoring organization, Gael Linn.
Gael Linn began as a fund-raising project initiated by a small group of university students and graduates that, in effect, wanted to shame the government into paying more attention to the fate of the Irish language.3 The name Gael Linn is a play on words, meaning both "Irish pool," referring to the football pools or private members' lottery which was created to raise the funds, and "Irish with us," or "Our Irish," referring to Gael Linn's purposes of promoting Irish language and culture. After independence, the institutionalization of the Irish language and traditional culture by the conservative state—especially its heavy-handed and compulsion-oriented policy towards language revival—had dampened people's concern for the survival of Irish. In March, 1953, Dónall Ó Móráin, who came to be regarded as the founder of Gael Linn, recommended that an organization be formed under the patronage of Comhdháil Náisiúnta na Gaeilge (Irish National Congress) to raise the funds for Irish film production. [End Page 17]
Until the mid-1950s, the Irish cinema-going public saw almost exclusively foreign productions. Most films about Ireland, or movies filmed there, were produced by foreign companies, usually British or American. The newsreels that preceded the main features were those distributed by the British J. Arthur Rank Organization, which enjoyed a monopoly in Irish cinemas; there had never been an Irish-language documentary or news-film series of any kind made or shown in Irish cinemas. In 1956, Ó Móráin contacted Colm Ó Laoghaire to discuss the prospects for a series of monthly short Irish-language documentary films. Ó Móráin knew Ó Laoghaire from university as a long-time member of the Irish Film Society and as a nephew of Joseph Mary Plunkett, a hero of the 1916 Rising and a member of a well-known nationalist literary family interested in the language. Ó Laoghaire had recently discussed the need to produce films on 35mm for distribution in Irish cinemas with Vincent Corcoran, who had just acquired an Arriflex 35mm camera.
Ó Móráin's original idea was to produce a weekly newsreel that would cover such political topics as party meetings and Dáil debates. Ó Laoghaire argued against this; he felt the resources were not available to generate enough material for a weekly series and the subject matter would be too boring for a cinema audience. He was concerned that Irish had come to be regarded as tiresome, given the association of the Irish language with compulsion. He was, for the same reason, determined to dissociate Irish approaches to making documentaries from those of John Grierson's British Documentary Movement, which he saw as entirely too rational and too British in tone and content for Irish Catholic sensibilities.4 Instead, they decided to produce a monthly series, each focusing on just one subject. These were conceived as "magazine-style...