Ireland through the newsreel eye
By contrast, not only did images of the Easter Rising barely feature in cinema programmes, and no such nationalist icon appear until the emergence of the charismatic Michael Collins three years later, but footage of the War of Independence was usually restricted to uncontextualised smoky scenes showing the aftermath of devastation and suggesting a people wedded to violence, a trope later recycled within British feature films dealing with partition.
Even if the destruction had been the result of British actions, the context was displaced. “Ireland’s agony” was caused, a newsreel’s intertitle tells us in relation to the reprisal burning of Cork in December 1920 for the Kilmichael ambush, by a “mystery fire”. With the effective imposition of partition by then, Northern Ireland was presented as exclusively unionist with no nationalist perspective offered, even at election time.
Unsurprisingly, the newsreels proved to be pro-Treaty and demonised the “irreconcilable” Éamon de Valera and others opposed to its provisions. This pattern remained in the interwar period, even if newsreels found it difficult to deal with de Valera as a constitutionalist, while during the second World War, unionists most effectively contrasted their (half-hearted) support for the war with the south’s neutrality. It was the time, Chambers and others have argued, when partition was most thoroughly institutionalised.
Although the book would have benefited from more periodic overviews (the detailed accounts of so many films leads to a certain weariness with lists of titles) and a more complete consideration of peacetime censorship (even the pope was cut from a 1937 newsreel by the Irish censor), perhaps its greatest omission is that it does not address the afterlife of the newsreel and how such material is used by film-makers, few of whom have been as considered as George Morrison, whose groundbreaking Mise Éire (1959) and Saoirse? (1961) set a template, not just in Ireland but internationally, for the use of actuality material.
Despite this, Chambers presents a welcome addition to the more than 20 books that have now addressed aspects of Irish film history or contemporary Irish film culture. It is a well-researched work that offers the first book-length study of mainly British-produced newsreels about Ireland.
Kevin Rockett is a professor of film studies at Trinity College Dublin. His most recent books (with Emer Rockett) are Magic Lantern, Panorama and Moving Picture Shows in Ireland, 1786-1909 and Film Exhibition and Distribution in Ireland, 1909-2010, both published by Four Courts Press in 2011