It is 2016, and the cultural world of Ireland is awash with pieces and talk concerning 1916, its commemoration, veneration and celebration. The moving picture side of things has been somewhat sparse: aside from Rebellion, which earned such undeserved scorn, and the yet to be fully financed The Rising, there appears to be little on the horizon.
Except for After ’16, a collection of short films about 1916 and the aftermath. Short film is a natural avenue for those filmmakers with big ideas but little budget, and can be used effectively in a wide variety of genres. After ’16 aims to give an outlet for a lot of Irish filmmakers, and shine a light on aspects of 1916 and other things that the world of Irish cinema has otherwise ignored. I caught a screening of the collection at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival.
A young boy joins a growing rebellion in A Terrible Hullabaloo. A son looks back on the life and death of his illustrious father in A Fathers Letter. A farce develops on the road to Dublin in My Life For Ireland. The city’s poor suffer and scramble in The Cherishing. Volunteer informers are discussed in Granite And Chalk. A patriot dies and a wife remembers in Goodbye Darling. Modern Irish people talk about the Rising and tattoos in Baring Arms. How Ireland’s coinage came to be concerns Mr Yeats And The Beastly Coins. And a group of 1970’s youth get together to forget their troubles in The Party. Let’s take them one by one.
A Terrible Hullabaloo, the first offering, is obviously meant to be a little eye-catching right off the bat, a mix of puppetry and animation in telling the story of future “Squad” member Vinny Byrne, and his experience of the Easter Rising, aged 15. There is some great work put into this, most notably the opening pan over a cardboard Dublin, and the puppetry creation is top notch. It’s also a decent representation of what would otherwise be a rather dull story, that showcases the mundanity of military affairs during the Rising with the only proper “action” Byrne see’s being a Volunteer shooting a civilian.
But A Terrible Hullabaloo unfortunately loses something with certain animation choices, like the decision to superimpose real human eyes on the models. I imagine this was an attempt to humanise the creations and get past traditional animation/puppetry difficulties, but I found it very creepy, distracting and off-putting, every time the camera went up close. I found myself in a minority afterwards, so maybe it is just me, but I couldn’t get past that uncanny valley effect.
The first all-out documentary effort, A Fathers Letter, followed, investigating the life of Joseph Mallin, son of executed 1916 leader Michael. His father’s final letter to his family included encouragement for Joseph to become a priest: Joseph duly did, but essentially dismisses his father’s words when asked if they had an effect on his decision to become a priest.
This deflection sort of kills any interest that I had in A Fathers Letter, which evolves into a rather dull look at Joseph’s career as a missionary in poorer parts of the world, especially Hong Kong, with little links to 1916 at all. Even with the limited running time, something like this should try to be a bit more probing, and it strikes me that Joseph, the last surviving child of the executed, was interviewed for that reason alone.
A great improvement was My Life For Ireland, written by comedian Patrick McDonnell. I don’t think I’ve really seen the Rising used as a groundwork for all-out comedy, and certainly not for the kind of over the top slapstick that erupts on the sepia toned screen here, as a hapless young Volunteer attempts to enact his own mini-Rising when he is waylaid on the way to Dublin. It’s full of great humour and fine performances, with Charlie Kelly as the would be rebel and Aoife Duffen as the surprisingly bloodthirsty love interest being especially noteworthy. But my favourite might have been the West Brit postmaster, unashamedly propagating the greatness of the Empire, who he thinks had the thoughtfulness to absorb Ireland.
This is perfect satire: knocking a hole in the sentimentality and pompous declarations of the Rising by presenting a rural village that couldn’t care less about grand notions of inheriting the nation (or female suffrage), but just want a dance hall, good roads and a literal parish pump to be fixed. The release, considering the recent election, was well-timed. My Life For Ireland serves as both an affectionate homage to the comedies of the 1940’s and 50’s, as well as an effective pisstake of material too often considered sacrosanct.
The overall tone of things came crashing down for Dave Tynan’s The Cherishing, a grim look at the lives of Dublin’s poorest at the time, and how those living in tenements reacted to the violence occurring in Dublin’s city centre. Young actor Ben Carolan gives a fine performance as a son eager to go looting, seeing the greatest value in things like sweets, and sent off with his mother’s willing approval.
This is the kind of story that too often gets whitewashed out of the more glorifying narrative. It’s one of civilian casualties, heart-breaking poverty and all too common loss. In the midst of all the pain, the brief moments of humanity stand-out: the landlord acquiescing in an obvious subterfuge as a family avoids paying rent, the closeness between different families and the almost nostalgic feel of its closing moments. The sight of poor children biting into lollipops, not knowing any better, is one that will stick with you.
Animation mixed with documentary next, in Patrick Hodgkin’s Granite And Chalk. A simple art style with simple narration tells the story of Volunteer informers, an occurrence that many were keen to cover up in the aftermath of the Easter Rising, trying to avoid a stigma often associated with events like the 1798 or 1867 rebellions. Codenamed “Granite” and “Chalk”, these individuals gave information to the authorities willingly, but their motivations are something we can only guess at now.
This is a decent, brief look at the civil authorities’ failure in Ireland in the lead-up to 1916, unable or unwilling to accept the reports that a violent uprising was imminent. Members of the DMP, those acting as handlers for informants, were ignored and then later suffered unduly in the aftermath of the Rising, unfairly blamed for their superiors’ mistakes. As for Granite and Chalk themselves, we’ll never know all that much about them: as the narration notes, even their gender is in question.
Elena Doyle’s Goodbye Darling is probably the real heavy-hitter of the nine, a recreation of the final moments of the O’Rahilly, as he led his final charge down Moore Street. Rather than focus largely on that, Goodbye Darling instead devotes most of its running time to the reactions of his wife Nannie, left picking up the pieces at home and remembering her dead husband.
The action scenes are well-done relative to the limited budget that must have been available, and Doyle does not belabour the point with them. It’s with Nannie, nicely portrayed by Aoibhinn McGinnity, that the real drama comes. She had no last meeting with her husband, and her life and memories were invariably tainted by the loss, symbolised by her last playing of the piano, an instrument and tune too close to the times she shared with her husband. A great contrast is found between the softly lit drawing room of Nannie with the grimmer site of the O’Rahilly’s last moments, all smoke and confusion, where he penned his titular farewell. There’s a probably a much lengthier story to be told in these two characters, and Goodbye Darling is as good a backdoor pitch for such a project as can probably be made.
Colm Quinn’s Baring Arms follows, examining the surprisingly large amount of people getting elaborate tattoo’s with 1916 themes in modern times. This is one that I couldn’t really get into at all for two key reasons: Firstly, I am neither interested in, impressed by or understanding of tattoo’s and secondly there’s way too much of a whinging tone about this, as people carp on about how modern Ireland has let down the 1916 Risers and its ethos.
This kind of thing drives me demented, as it’s evidence of Ireland’s unhealthy deference to men and women who never had to deal with economics, banking crises, diplomacy or even representative government, yet get put on a pedestal regardless. And, there’s something undeniably unnerving for me about the kind of person who permanently marks their body with incredibly complicated images of proclamations and portraits as a matter of course, and only seem to have the shallowest kind of knowledge of the actual subject.
The very different Mr Yeats And The Beastly Coins is the penultimate entry, a short and sweet look at WB Yeats’ role in the creation of Ireland’s first coinage as a free nation. This one has precious little to do with 1916 at all – I’m not even sure the Rising is mentioned during the running time – so doesn’t seem to quite fit in with the rest of the entries.
But it is undeniably interesting, a piece of political minutia quickly told with nuance and wit. The narration is perfect, as is the comedic timing, not least when it is revealed that the coin designer, chosen in a blind judging, was English. The documentary succeeds in multiple ways: as a piece admiring the work ethic and quiet patriotism of Yeats, as political theatre, as comedy and as a stirring refutation of the usually loud critical minority in relation to the usually larger but quieter majority. Prominent figures of the time, not least Maud Gonne, denounced the coins as a disgrace, but you’ll find it hard to find someone who didn’t miss them at least a little bit when they were retired in 1999.
The final film is Andrea Harkin’s The Party, which transplants the setting suddenly to Belfast at the height of the Troubles, offering a rather bleak and miserable conclusion to the collection: perhaps a bit too miserable, the audience I was part of left rather stunned and morose at the final conclusion. The story is of a group of young friends, one on the run from the British Army, partying their worries away, but never far from the terrors of the era.
There’s a good effort here to humanise those who might otherwise be dismissed in simple terms: Anthony Boyle’s Mickey, implied to be an P-IRA member, ranges from scolding towards a friend who displays ignorance about Ireland’s revolutionary past, to just being a young man having a drink with his peers, chasing girls and singing songs. The eventual tragedy is as inevitable as it predictable: perhaps less so is the film’s closing point, that things like 1916 are easily used to keep a cycle of violence spinning interminably, a popular war of long ago feeding into one we now despise.
So, as you would expect, there is good and bad in the After ’16 collection. If I was to rank them, it would probably be My Life For Ireland, Goodbye Darling, and Mr Yeats And The Beastly Coins as the best, with The Cherishing, Granite And Chalk and The Party in the mid-pack, and A Terrible Hullabaloo, A Fathers Letter and Baring Arms bringing up the rear. Overall, there was a nice mixture of subjects and styles, and it’s good to see that there are plenty of filmmakers out there not lacking for ambition in the short-film format, even if they might be lacking in execution. Still, there’s something in here for everyone, at least a small bit. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of the Irish Film Board).