Tuesday 20 August 2019

Tommy Conlon: 'Gaelic games and their promotion in film shaped the national sensibility'


Director John Ford. Photo: Getty
Director John Ford. Photo: Getty

Tommy Conlon

John Ford was one of Hollywood's most powerful film directors when he fetched up in Kilkee to shoot a series of scenes for his next production.

It was 1956 and the man whose real name was John Martin Feeney, and whose parents were from Spiddal and the Aran Islands, was still basking in the box office success of his 1952 tour de force, The Quiet Man.

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Emotionally committed to the land of his forebears, Ford was on a mission to help Ireland establish its own film industry. His latest project was a three-part anthology film that would be released in 1957 as The Rising of the Moon.

"The film included one of the most controversial depictions of hurling players," writes Dr Seán Crosson in his recently-published book, Gaelic Games on Film. Crosson is a lecturer at NUIG and a researcher in film, sport and media.

The shoot in Kilkee hadn't concluded before national newspapers were reporting that the scenes included hurlers being carried home from a game "on stretchers". Croke Park was alarmed. One of the film's producers was Michael Morris, better known as Lord Killanin, a member of the International Olympic Committee who would go on to become its president in 1972. Pádraig Ó Caoimh, general secretary of the GAA, contacted Killanin, who apparently fobbed him off with assurances that the press reports were wholly exaggerated.

In any event, the chairman of the Clare County Board, Fr John Corry, was not assuaged. He led a delegation to Killanin in Kilkee and issued a statement of protest: "The matter of 15 players returning home all suffering injuries would be calculated to give the impression that instead of a national sporting game that they were casualties returning to a clearing station at a battlefield."

The kerfuffle reached the radar of one Flann O'Brien, aka Myles na gCopaleen, the novelist and satirist extraordinaire. In his column in The Irish Times, Myles described this reaction as "farcical drool emitted by the GAA". He noted that the same edition of The Clare Champion which carried Corry's statement also contained a report from a local game between Ruan and St Joseph's . The reporter described it as "probably one of the worst exhibitions of bad sportsmanship ever seen on a Gaelic field". There was "literally a procession to the Co. hospital from the match", while one spectator from Ennis "had survived the war in Korea but he almost met his Waterloo in Cusack Park".

Needless to say, such material was catnip to Myles. "To many people," he wrote, "the possibility of vital injury is part of the attraction of hard games . . . The non-belligerent spectators regard absence of such occurrences as an attempt to defraud them. They have paid their two bobs to see melia murdher. Failure to present it is, they feel, low trickery."

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After filming was completed, Ford and Killanin turned up at the wrap party, according to an actress who was present, "doing a very funny turn in the hurling boys' jerseys".

Gaelic Games on Film manages to combine this sort of rich detail and anecdote with academic reflection on the role that moving images played in the presentation of hurling and Gaelic football, from the silent era through to cinema's golden age and onto RTÉ and now the internet.

As early as 1901, a hurling match played between 'Rovers' and 'Grocers' on Jones's Road was filmed and a clip from it shown at a 'Grand Gaelic Night' at the Rotunda Hospital. Cinema proprietors from the beginning had copped on to the lucrative appeal of filmed sport. An edited package from the 1912 Munster hurling final between Cork and Tipperary was shown in picture houses in Cork and Limerick, leading to "loud and frequent applause" among the audiences, according to a report in the Evening Echo. The earliest surviving footage dates back to the 1914 All-Ireland football final replay between Kerry and Wexford - 109 seconds in total. The two respective captains, Dick Fitzgerald and Seán O'Kennedy, feature prominently.

The concept of the nation state was still young at the end of the 19th century. "National identity as we understand it today," writes Crosson, "is a modern creation for which a pre-modern history has been largely rewritten." Indigenous arts, culture and pastimes contributed substantially to the formation of a country's national identity. "Organised sport and, subsequently, film were both important in consolidating such collectivities, as national identities became increasingly significant." In Ireland, Gaelic games and their promotion through film, as well as newspapers and radio, helped to shape the national sensibility.

In the absence of any sort of domestic film industry, "the representation of Gaelic games in film during the interwar years depended almost entirely on foreign newsreel companies", such as Pathé, Movietone and Gaumont British. While the footage they accumulated remains priceless, the tone and presentation are jarringly patronising to the contemporary viewer. American film and television companies also intermittently made various short films and reports, mainly on hurling.

In 1945 the National Film Institute of Ireland was established (under the patronage of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid). Pádraig Ó Caoimh, by now keenly aware of film's promotional power, sat on the NFI's board. Its producers and cinematographers were soon capturing big GAA games; their archive includes rare footage from the pre-television era of stars such as John Keane (Waterford), Bobby Rackard (Wexford) and Christy Ring in hurling; and from Gaelic football, John Joe O'Reilly (Cavan), Dan O'Keeffe (Kerry) and Seán Purcell (Galway).

In the early 1960s, television took over and RTÉ began building the vault it has amassed today.

Shortly after John Ford turned up at his wrap party wearing a hurler's jersey, he was asked if he'd be "going back to Spiddal" for a visit. He said he wouldn't because he was "afraid of the GAA". The great man was presumably joking - but Fr Corry was probably not amused.

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