Ireland through the newsreel eye
FILM: KEVIN ROCKETTreviews Ireland in the Newsreels By Ciara Chambers Irish Academic Press, 314pp. €60 hardback, €22.95 paperback
NAMING IS ALWAYS fraught with difficulties, and in this instance the name Ireland in the Newsreels is misleading, in terms of both the limited time frame covered and the originating countries of the newsreels. Chambers, a lecturer in film studies at the University of Ulster in Coleraine, makes limited references to newsreels produced by indigenous Irish companies, such as the pioneering Irish Events (1917-20), but she gives a handful of American-produced newsreels, notably March of Time’s Irish editions, more attention. Equally disappointingly, Gael Linn’s hugely important Irish-language cinema newsreel, Amharc Éireann (1956-64), which comprises roughly 1,000 items over 267 episodes, is entirely absent from Chambers’s otherwise impressive 45-page, 2,000-item filmography.
Instead, the study, of interest to academics and general readers alike, and which sets out to demonstrate that newsreels were an important popular cultural force in reinforcing the notion of Irish partition, mostly focuses on the representation of Ireland by British newsreel companies from 1910 to 1945. Primary among these are the long-running British Pathé (1910-70), which issued about 1,600 items relating to Ireland (a collection available free online); and Topical Budget (1911-30), which, despite priding itself on promoting British identity, sometimes treated the Irish people’s struggle for self-determination sympathetically, as explored by Luke McKernan in his 1992 book on the company.
Although, in terms of the immediacy of the delivery of news, cinema was unequal to the print media, it not only had the advantage of being able to produce dramatic moving pictures but also, from its beginnings, had been closely aligned to actuality and the representation or re-presentation and framing of reality. Initially, very often, these images depicted ordinary events, such as Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895), but increasingly they represented local activities, including sport, religious processions and cultural and political events. As cinema moved towards explicitly staged fictional narratives, actuality found its home in newsreels, formalised as a new format in France in 1908 and in Britain two years later.
Planned events were most suited to the medium, as they allowed for advantageous camera positions to be set up. One of the earliest such news events was Queen Victoria’s visit to Ireland in April 1900, when not just Cecil Hepworth came to Dublin, as Chambers states, but also another British pioneer, Robert Paul, as well as the Belfast film-makers J Lazars and “Professor Kineto” (John Walter Hicks), who that same day screened his film at Belfast’s Empire music hall.