Fascinating Irish newsreels prove a real history treasure trove

Fascinating Irish newsreels prove a real history treasure trove

“WHO could ever stop an Irishman gambling?” asks the commentator in a rare piece of film footage, an inquiry that it must be admitted isn’t easy to answer.

This somewhat rhetorical question is raised in a newsreel titled Road Bowling (1957), one of a number of shorts that the British Pathé organisation recently made viewable for free online.

This particular reel reports on the traditional rural game of road bowling (a.k.a. “throwing the bullet”) and shows a group of eager gentlemen enjoying what looks like a primitive form of golf (competitors must propel a small lead ball along a country road from one set point to the next).

The film is fascinating for offering insight into a (mostly) bygone pastime and a (thankfully) bygone British condescension.

In hifalutin English Received Pronunciation, the commentator imparts that the British authorities banned road bowling in the mid-18th century, believing it to be “rebellious”. He adds that, while the law has existed for two centuries, “no-one would ever dream of enforcing it.”

But the British Pathé collection is historically informative and intriguing for many reasons, and on a variety of themes and subjects. For instance, in what Ronan McGreevy of the Irish Times calls the precursor to television news, British Pathé covered events in the Anglo-Irish troubles between 1916-23, including the Easter Rising and the activities of Michael Collins.

One scene shows Dublin women offering tea and cake to British soldiers, foreshadowing the generosity their later counterparts received in Belfast in 1968 — though the welcome would prove short-lived in both historical eras.

There’s also footage concerning other political matters. Film coverage of Nazi air raids on Dublin, in 1941, reports over 100 dead: “Maybe this is the price Eire pays for sitting on the fence,” the narrator ponders.

In Ireland Welcomes Kennedy (1963), there are wry images of de Valera and JFK dealing in some mutually agreeable glad-handing and startling scenes of Kennedy standing in an open-top vehicle driving down O’Connell Street past a quarter-of-a-million onlookers. Our knowledge of events in Dallas just five months later makes this vignette feel loaded with vulnerability and pathos.

No less significant is coverage of a 90,000 crowd in Croke Park in 1961 as the papal legate Cardinal Agagnianian celebrates Mass. This was the climax of the Patrician Congress, an exercise in marking Ireland as an exclusively Catholic country.

Again, de Valera is in keen attendance (naturally) and Archbishop John Charles McQuaid was moved by the high figures of young Irish involved. “Where the youth are interested, the future is secure,” McQuaid stated.

Croagh Patrick Pilgrimage (1964) endorses McQuaid’s confidence, showing the milling throngs clambering (some barefoot) up the rocky slopes to devoutly “pray where St. Patrick prayed”. Other films feature Irish dancing at the crossroads and Dickie Rock’s wedding.

Yet, while the British Pathé reels are engaging, this is not the most impressive film repository available. That mark goes to the Radharc Archive, a collection of 400 films spanning forty years of informative reporting and commentary.

Beginning in 1962 and sponsored by McQuaid, Radharc (pronounced “rye-urk”, meaning “vision”) was originally run by two priests — Fathers Joseph Dunn and Desmond Forristal. On McQuaid’s instruction the Church anticipated the importance of the fledgling medium of television and had Dunn and Forristal trained in its technical methods.

Looking as natural as any professional newsmen, the two priests presented reports on Irish concerns from around the country and across the world. Broadcast on RTÉ, Radharc’s films covered stories of Dickensian poverty in Dublin and problems facing the Irish abroad in the Diaspora.

In Boat Train to Euston (1965), Irish emigrants are interviewed arriving on the station platform before heading for Camden, Cricklewood and Kilburn. Many aren’t sure where they’re going and face an uncertain future.

Most of what’s seen in these archives has been eclipsed by progress — but not everything. Arguably the most controversial of British Pathé’s Irish exhibits is that entitled No One Can Insult Our Flag (1920). It sees two Sinn Fein activists forced to parade through an Irish town draped in a Union Jack. The pair had torn down the flag and the cameraman follows a group of British soldiers as they force the Irish nationalists to reinstate it.

What’s most arresting is that the participants in this mini- melodrama play up for the camera’s attention, posing in exaggerated comportment and parading with great self-importance. Even the two Shinners can’t hide their enjoyment of the situation.

This reel reveals the long history in Irish politics of the symbolic antagonism attached to flags. For example, after the Peace Process began in 1994 Belfast City Council tried to encourage a spirit of reconciliation by ordering the removal of sectarian regalia — both Irish Tricolours and Union Jacks.

Shortly after this decree Belfast’s separated citizens replaced the original flags with the colours of Celtic and Rangers, prompting authorities to order their deposition, too; following which the resolute antagonists hoisted the respective flags of Israel and Palestine.

“No One Can Insult Our Flag” the film’s title declared in 1920, a sentiment that retains its potency in our current day.

British Pathé’s Irish film archive is available to view for free at www.britishpathe.com. Information on the Radharc Archive is at www.radharcfilms.com