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  • Robert Flaherty’s Oidhche Sheanchais:The First Film in Irish
  • Tomás Ó h-Íde

The year 2015 will mark eighty years of Irish-language film. Although many in the field of Irish Studies are aware of George Morrison’s Mise Éire (1959), Bob Quinn’s Poitín (1978), and Tom Collins’s Kings (2007), there has been little detailed discussion in English-language scholarly publications of the first Irish-language film, Robert J. Flaherty’s Oidhche Sheanchais (1935)—largely because the film was long thought to have been lost.

When the Irish government announced its intention to commission such a film two years before the premiere, newspapers reported that the title would be “The Seanachie.” Oidhche Sheanchais means “a night of storytelling” and under current orthographic practice would be spelled as “Oíche Sheanchais.” Other English-language versions of the title have included “Storyteller’s Night,” “Night of the Storyteller,” and “The Story Teller.” For many years, the film’s whereabouts were uncertain, at best; those few researchers who have made brief references to it over the years generally refrained from commenting on the film’s availability. After the turn of the present century, Nollaig Mac Congáil (2003), Brian Ó Catháin (2004), and Brian Winston (2010) each clearly indicated what was suspected for decades, that the film was nowhere to be found in any public archive.1 The presumption that the film was lost was dramatically unsettled in 2012, however, when Harvard University library staff created a Library of Congress MARC record for Oidhche Sheanchais that enabled library patrons and researchers to query the holding in the online catalogue. The MARC record was added on December 11, 2012. Once appearing online, the record could also be viewed in the international WorldCat listing of available media.

The fact that Harvard University had a copy did not come as a great surprise, [End Page 68] however; on January 22, 1934, the Irish Press—the strongly republican newspaper founded by Eamon de Valéra—noted that the university had ordered a copy.2 From the online catalog listing, one can see that the library had stored the film, which was on highly flammable nitrate stock, in a locked metal box. The record further contained the restriction that the film could not be shown for profit nor could “ownership be transferred” from Harvard to a third party. This was undoubtedly stipulated at the time of acquisition, as the film was ordered before it was actually released to cinemas.

Once its existence was confirmed, scholars began contacting the library to view Oidhche Sheanchais. Access to the film was restricted during the years 2013 and 2014 as preservation work was underway. The end product of the preservation was a stabilized original, now available in 35mm and digital copies. Viewers can choose between viewing with or without newly added subtitles. The new print was first shown in Bologna, Italy, at the Il Cinema Ritrovato film festival on July 3, 2014, with a Harvard and Dublin screening expected to follow early in 2015. In the future, the film will be available for loan from Harvard. Copies will also be held in the archives of the Irish Film Institute and the Irish National Folklore Collection.

Oidhche Sheanchais is a short film of about ten minutes, and it was largely misunderstood in its own day, chiefly because of traditions and taboos surrounding the Irish language in the twentieth century. Additionally, as a result of the past inaccessibility of the film, scholars have necessarily been vague in discussing the film (if they discussed it at all); later discussions tended to reinforce this vagueness. A number of misunderstandings regarding Flaherty’s film have been repeated over the years.

Appearing at the beginning of the era of sound film, the black-and-white movie was shown in Dublin cinemas for the first time on St. Patrick’s Day in 1935, and played at the Grafton and Carlton Cinemas. The front page of the March 15, 1935, issue of the Irish Press indicated that the film was also to open in Cork on the same day as the Dublin premiere. An advertisement in the Irish Press two months earlier identified B. Cowan, G...


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