Pat Murphy: ‘It was so volatile. I was in fear all the time’

Made in 1981, Maeve was strikingly political in exploring feminism, history and the North

A scene from Maeve, written and directed by Pat Murphy

A scene from Maeve, written and directed by Pat Murphy


Two years ago, Pat Murphy sat down to rewatch her debut feature as a director. Made in 1981, Maeve was screened by Des Femmes, a collective who were touring feminist classics of the 1970s and 1980s around the UK.   “

What they did was amazing because they reframed the films and talked about their own excitement,” says Murphy. “I had people getting in touch from Yorkshire about the film. And when the tour ended up in London I went over and watched it for the first time in about a million years. What struck me was that it was still raw. It looked like a person’s first film. It has that sense of hurling yourself at the screen.” 

It hasn’t gone away, you know.

Maeve, Murphy’s first and most experimental film, is often characterised as “little seen”. Yet in the 40 years since the film premiered, its reputation has endured.    Speaking to this newspaper in 2019, ahead of the television debut of 50 Years of the Troubles: A Journey Through Film, the Belfast-born film historian Mark Cousins shortlisted Maeve in a collection intended to educate British PM Boris Johnson about conflict in Northern Ireland.

“It is beautiful, modern and feminist,” wrote Cousins. “One of my favourite films about my bailiwick, but watch it when you are on holiday somewhere and feeling open to something new.”

Guy Lodge, writing in the Guardian that same year, echoed that sentiment when he described Maeve as “. . . a gendered spin on Anglo-Irish relations too: it remains spiky and thought-provoking”.  

A scene from Maeve

A more meaningful metric, perhaps, is that Maeve continues to inspire new art. Writer-director Donal Foreman used audio clips from Pat Murphy’s film in The Image You Missed, a film essay on Arthur McCaig, an American chronicler of the Northern Irish conflict, the director of The Patriot Game, and, for Foreman, an absent father.

“I talked to Pat about it over the years, and partly, she was inspired to make that film by seeing The Patriot Game,” said Foreman. “For her, my father’s film didn’t speak to the truth of the North or her experiences. It felt like it was sort of some kind of macho master narrative. And I wanted some kind of counter or corrective to that.”  

‘Corrective histories’

Revisiting Maeve on the eve of a major reissue by the British Film Institute (BFI), one is struck by its formal daring, contemporary relevance and anticipation of the corrective histories that shaped the 1916 centenary celebrations. It’s not coincidental that Murphy, who was born in Dublin in 1951, moved to Belfast in 1966, just after the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising.

“I was half-dreading the 100th anniversary, but in fact, the research and the events that happened were very, very considered,” says Murphy.

“In 1966, it was just an utterly unquestioning, nationalist commemoration. I remember as a schoolgirl buying into that, like a lot of us did, in those days. There was a TV series that went on all week, called Insurrection, a mockumentary of each day of the Rising. I’ve seen it since; it’s kind of fascinating. We were kind of thrilled by that. We felt it was like a totally accurate representation of the way things were, had television cameras been there. So to move from that, directly after that, to Belfast, was quite a shock. We had moved – inadvertently – into a fairly loyalist neighbourhood. And then when the trouble started, we moved into a nationalist neighbourhood. I can remember hearing gunfire and thinking: the Rising must have been like this. That it wasn’t this kind of great, glorious flag-waving thing at all.”  

Murphy studied at the Belfast College of Art and Design before winning a scholarship to the Whitney Museum of American Art, becoming the first European to do so. She subsequently moved to London, where she obtained a BA in fine art at Hornsey College and an MA in film and television at the Royal College of Art. There, she studied under Laura Mulvey, the feminist theorist, and met Maeve collaborators John Davis and Rob Smith. Murphy completed her first short film, Rituals of Memory in 1977, before starting work on Maeve.

“I wrote the script,” she recalls. “I can’t remember how Rob Smith and John Davis and myself agreed that we would make this film. I can’t even remember why we were friends. There was a lot of debate going on at the RCA. Everybody was theoretically pulling films apart. But they were making films. So I kind of aligned myself with them because I also wanted to make films. I sent the script to the BFI not knowing what was going to happen out of this. And then the next thing that was shortlisted, I went and had a meeting with the production board. And they just asked certain questions. How would you do this? How would you do that? We had a day-long discussion. That’s what people did in those days. And then the BFI phoned and said, yes, they would do it. And then RTÉ put in a small amount for Irish TV rights. So in terms of struggling for funding that wasn’t an issue.”

Reckoning with imperialism

Maeve remains a strikingly political project, one that alchemises Mulvey’s ideas about the male gaze into casual full frontal nudity. Equally, the title character’s insistence that  “men’s relationship to women is just like England’s relationship to Ireland’’ frames the film as part of more international reckoning with imperialism, as do Murphy’s influences.

“I was thinking about everything that I was seeing about the North and about Irish history,” recalls Murphy. “And I felt it to be really false. Particularly when I was at college, and art college, in London, where even left-wing perceptions precluded lived realities. At that time, I really thought documentary was incapable of telling the truth about a situation because it hinged on a kind of visceral effect. You know, the film derives in authority from the fact that the camera person is there, and you’re looking at something violent happening or history unfolding. And so the viewer is caught up in that in a kind of an unquestioning way. I think at the time when Maeve came out, I was a lot more political than I am now. And I really saw it as a political document. I was very influenced by Godard, 1968, Chris Marker and the Dziga Vertov group. How film is made. How meaning is constructed. Those filmmakers saw themselves as making work. And I thought, this is how film is meant to be used. And then after a couple of years, it will be useless. But that hasn’t happened. I guess it’s kept alive in universities or whatever, but people keep rediscovering it.”

Maeve’s title character’s insistence “men’s relationship to women is just like England’s relationship to Ireland’’ frames the film as part of international reckoning with imperialism.
Maeve’s title character’s insistence 'men’s relationship to women is just like England’s relationship to Ireland’ frames the film as part of international reckoning with imperialism.

Maeve concerns Maeve Sweeney (Mary Jackson), a 20-year-old returning from London to visit her family home in Belfast. Various conversations with her parents, Martin (Mark Mulholland) and Eileen (Trudy Kelly), and younger sister Roisin (Brid Brennan) touch on the violence that characterises the area and their lives. Changing hair lengths provide a way to negotiate the film’s temporal games as it collapses the present, memory and occasionally the fourth wall. Debates about feminism, mythology and the ongoing Republican struggle dominate the dialogue.

In one scene, Maeve and her ex-boyfriend Liam look down on Belfast from Cave Hill, where Liam recalls the patriots who have “been able to keep that image together through all the madness’’. Maeve disagrees: “You are talking about a false memory . . . the way you want to remember excludes me, I get remembered out of existence.” “But it’s better than living no history at all,” comes Liam’s unconvincing reply.

‘Hated the film’

“I remember the BFI being worried about these political debates,” says Murphy. “The whole film operates as a series of episodes and memories. And then there are these debates. The BFI had the feeling that they would get much wider distribution if those debates were removed. And I’m looking at them and thinking, but if they’re not there, then it becomes like a Wednesday play. They’re actually very important and make the film what it is. I remember when it came out in Ireland, there wasn’t that problem, because I think in the 1980s, like, Irish people were a lot more political. But younger people were thrown by it, which was odd to me. A lot of them had quite a conventional, mainstream view of what cinema was. There were not that many Irish films coming out, so very quickly, this film was used on exam papers. Students would have to do an essay and they would call me up and say: Can I come and talk about the film? And then as we were talking, it suddenly landed me that they actually hated the film but were compelled to watch it.”   

It wasn’t just the aesthetics that were radical. Shooting a film in a politically fraught Belfast was, in 1980, a revolutionary act. As Murphy notes, movies set in Northern Ireland were, at that time, invariably shot in Liverpool or Manchester.   

“When I look back on it, it was a mad thing to do,” says the filmmaker. “I had this whole thing about authenticity. We were going to have as much crew as possible from there. We’d train people if they didn’t have the skills. I felt like the film had to come out of there. But to bring people for the North and make a film like that? It was so volatile. I was in fear all the time. With all that was going on, I mean, if you ever believed in guardian angels, I think we had a few.”  

A still from Maeve

The tension didn’t end when Murphy shouted “cut”. An early screening for cast and crew in London raised concerns for personal safety. The director responded by returning to the city where the film was shot. Feedback screenings were initially scheduled during the week that Bobby Sands died.   

Elements of danger

“Everything was incredibly fraught, just like when we were making the film,” says Murphy. “It was felt that it would be actually dangerous for people to have their names on it. I remember there were three screenings actually, one was for the actors, the second one was for the communities like Ballymurphy and Andersonstown. Their view was that if someone from this community gets an opportunity to make a film, you don’t make a film that’s critical of this community. Leila Doolan was there. And she had worked with different communities around the city before. And she began to talk about the film, and I could just see everybody relax. She mediated the situation. That was amazing for me. And then the next day with the women’s groups, again, it was really tough, because they felt that the film implied that there was no feminist movement in the north of Ireland. They had felt that I had gone off and on this personal thing, whereas the proper thing to do would have been to develop the script so that it emerged from their communal view. But I just didn’t work that way, you know. And, in the end, nobody wanted their name removed from the film.”  

In 1981, Maeve became the first BFI production to be selected for the Venice Film Festival. It later opened the Edinburgh Film Festival.   

“Good things started to happen,” says Murphy. “But when it was shown in Edinburgh it was attacked by the Glasgow Herald and by the BBC for ‘betraying our soldiers’ or something like that. They wrote something very vicious. And I remember Peter Sainsbury from the BFI threatening to take them to the Press Council. I don’t know if he ever actually did.”

Maeve is on Blu-ray, iTunes, and Amazon Prime from May 17th

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