Friday 23 August 2019

'It's like those hundred years don't exist' - Stunning rare footage of 1920s to 1940s Ireland restored and released by IFI

The Early Irish Free State Collection is free to view by the public

Irish Hospital Sweepstakes Pigeon Derby, 1937. PIC: IFI from the Early Irish Free State Collection
Irish Hospital Sweepstakes Pigeon Derby, 1937. PIC: IFI from the Early Irish Free State Collection
Aoife Kelly

Aoife Kelly

Fascinating rare footage of Ireland from the early 1920s to late 1940s has been restored and released to view by the public by the IFI.

The Early Irish Free State Collection includes newsreels, documentaries and cinémagazines spanning a turbulent thirty year period and straddling the political and societal aspects of that time.

Footage includes the inauguration of Ireland's first President, Dr Douglas Hyde, in June 1938, celebrations on the streets of Dublin as The Republic of Ireland Act came into effect in April 1949, and footage of Dublin Lord Mayor Alfie Byrne's speech about the prospect of a United Ireland, in 1936.

The collection also provides a fascinating insight into everyday society.

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Julia Clarke was sentenced to a month in jail for kissing her boyfriend on church land. PIC: IFI from The Early Irish Free State Collection

A short video of Glaswegian woman Julia Clarke highlights the societal and gender inequalities of the time as Julia was sentenced to a month in prison by a Dundalk Court for kissing her boyfriend on church property in Blackrock, Co Louth.

In contrast, her unnamed boyfriend, who was ordered to pay a small fine to the St Vincent de Paul society, escaped a custodial sentence.

There are also films about the lives of inhabitants of Aran Mór off the Galway coast in 1924 including a heart-pounding sequence featuring four cliffmen roped together as they scale a rugged cliff face.

The 1937 Irish Hospital Sweepstakes Pigeon Derby, including footage of a steamship carrying crates of pigeons into Dublin, and the Sandycove Gala and Dún Laoghaire Regatta of 1923 complete with crowds of impeccably dressed young women and men are also available to view.

The IFI worked with the British Film Institute and British Pathé to repatriate and safeguard the footage, some of which was nearly 100 years old, and which was then painstakingly digitised from fragile, original nitrate film prints to HD format.

Kasandra O’Connell, Head of the IFI Irish Film Archive, reveals that when the IFI first approached Pathé for the highest possible resolution digital copies they could get of the footage to make it available to the Irish people, it had not been restored or digitised.

"The film was so old and because there hadn't been good copies made and because it was so fragile and there is the fear of it spontaneously combusting we had to implore British Pathé to work with us, without any extra budget, to get the original prints out of storage and go through a very particular digitisation process," she tells

"We wanted to do a preservation project as well as an access project and this was maybe the last time the film was in good enough condition to go through this process."

The IFI has developed pioneering preservation techniques and British Pathe used their tools, techniques and workflows to produce the high quality digital copies.

"We were acutely aware that if we hadn't intervened at that moment and we had waited another five or ten years these could be gone," says Kasandra.

She adds, "It was really important that we have this record for the Irish people and once British Pathé understood how important it was they worked with us."

During that period in Ireland there was very little locally produced film hence the reliance on the footage from British Pathé, and where sound features in the film, it is often the clipped British voiceovers of the time.

To provide Irish context to the people, events, and locations in the footage which may have been missed by the non-Irish cataloguers, Brenda Malone, Curator of Military History at the National Museum of Ireland (NMI) examined the footage and also linked artefacts held at the museum to events in the film.

For those who had seen the footage prior to digitisation there had been questions about people, locations, uniform insignias and more which were then answered when the film was digitised - the detail in the digital copies is remarkable. 

"Because we worked with historians through the project we were also able to feed back a lot of information to [Pathe]," says Kasandra.

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Sandycove Gala and Dún Laoghaire Regatta of 1923. PIC: IFI from The Early Irish Free State Collection

"When you have non-Irish people who are not familiar with Irish history cataloguing this then sometimes things are missed or they get things wrong or they don't understand the context so we were able to provide context and explanations for why this is significant."

Working on such culturally significant material, some of which had not had eyes laid upon it in almost a century, was a hugely rewarding experience for Kasandra and her team.

"We did viewing sessions with a panel of us, historians and academics and the staff here and we'd sit and watch new prints or the new transfers and honestly you could hear a pin drop," she says.  "We were just totally and utterly enthralled by the footage and the level of detail.

"When you do a pan across a crowd or a close up of someone's face and you can see their expression and the whites of their eyes it's like those hundred years don't exist and it could have been filmed yesterday and you make that human connection with history that you just don't make reading about it or seeing still images."

The Early Irish Free State Collection builds on The Irish Independence Film Collection which was released by the IFI in May last year. 

That unseen footage charted events through Ireland's fight for independence from 1900 to 1930 over the period when WWI, the Easter Rising, the War of Independence, and the Irish Civil War affected Ireland.

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The Eucharistic Congress of June 1932, which saw hundreds of thousands of devoted worshippers attend Mass in the Phoenix Park and line the streets of Dublin over the course of the five-day event. PIC: IFI, from the Early Irish Free State Collection

The Early Irish Free State Collection and the other 155 films of the Irish Independence Film Collection can be viewed free of charge worldwide on the IFI’s online platform, the IFI Player at, and via the free IFI Player iOS app

Read more: Fascinating rare footage charting Ireland's fight for independence now available to view online

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