The Looking Glass Anthology: Artistic interpretations of the NI Digital Film Archive

A range of musicians and poets capture what the archives mean to each of them

Northern Ireland Screen’s Digital Film Archive is a repository of more than 100 years of Irish film. A treasure trove of life public and personal. But it is not enough to simply collect and store. Archives are living history. The stories are our stories, the people in them our ancestors, finding their way through a world that we recognise but don’t know. These stories, these people, reach out to us and we must answer.

As part of the remit for Northern Ireland’s recent digitisation project, funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, I and my Digital Film Archive colleague Paul McClintock invited four artists to respond to the films. The Looking Glass Anthology is a collection of beautiful works by a range of musicians and poets who capture what the archives mean to each of them on a personal level.

Matt McGinn is a singer-songwriter from south Down. He selected film of Willie Campbell, a busker who played the saw in Belfast city centre in the 1960s. Matt created a suite based on Willie’s story and engaged Dublin spoken word poet Natayla O’Flaherty, the Arco Strings and uilleann piper Darragh Murphy. The resulting work, filmed in Belfast’s Carlisle Memorial Church, is an emotional exploration of the life of a street musician.

Rachael Boyd creates beautiful post-classical work. A talented multi-instrumentalist, Rachael uses her gift to make music that tells stories, exploring universal themes with sympathy and emotion.


In ‘Wanderers’, Rachael has looked at the difficult relationship between the Travellers and local residents in mid-60s Northern Ireland. It is a painful story of ignorance and fear exposed through bigotry. The footage is both poignant and upsetting and Rachael’s music humanises the much maligned and marginalised Traveller community.

Poet Stephen Sexton was drawn to explore what those being filmed in the past may have imagined the future to be and how we, the viewer looking back, see their lives. These are actual people with actual lives, hence the poem’s name, The Actualities.

Soundtracked by an evocative bespoke composition by Ian Livingstone, Stephen reads his poem alongside the archives he selected. The images inspired the words and the words found their match in the images. The result is a beautiful journey back in time that gives new life to the people we see in the archives.

Eoin O’Callaghan is Elma Orkestra. The Derry-based composer creates beautiful electronic cinematic music that explores Northern Irish culture and emotions. In partnership with Ryan Vail, he released Borders, a magnificent album of atmospheric pieces and winner of the 2019 Northern Ireland Album of the Year Music Prize. Borders challenges geographic and internal borders with some of the music a product of collaboration with other creatives such as poet Stephen James Smith.

Elma Orkestra has created a vision using the Digital Film Archive to reinterpret Arrival, one of the tracks from this album. Looking anew at his own music in the light of the films within the archive, this is an exciting aural and visual treat.

The full collection is available for viewing at