Michael Collins plays a starring role as Irish historic films go free-to-view online

Irish Film Institute brings together 150 films from 1900 to 1930, showing key events of Irish history

Ross Keane, director of the Irish Film Institute (IFI) with members of the Fingal Old IRA Commemorative Society at the launch of the Irish Independence Film Collection, a culturally significant collection of Irish newsreel material from the period 1900 to 1930.  Photograph: Sasko Lazarov

Ross Keane, director of the Irish Film Institute (IFI) with members of the Fingal Old IRA Commemorative Society at the launch of the Irish Independence Film Collection, a culturally significant collection of Irish newsreel material from the period 1900 to 1930. Photograph: Sasko Lazarov

 

It is fortunate for posterity that the Irish revolution occurred at the dawn of the era of newsreels.

So many of the tumultuous events in Ireland during the early decades of the 20th century were captured on film.

A character such as Michael Collins, who seems almost mythical, is revealed as flesh and blood rousing a huge crowd in March 1922 to support the Treaty, and then lying in state just six months later after being shot at Béal na Bláth.

Just 10 days before he died he is filmed at the funeral of Arthur Griffith, looking pensive and old beyond his 32 years.

The Irish Film Institute (IFI) has brought together 150 films, from the period between 1900 and 1930, which have been digitised and are now available online and free of charge to view.

The collection begins with the visit of Queen Victoria in 1900 and ends in November 1930 with President William T Cosgrave directly addressing the cameras.

In the middle of the Great Depression, Cosgrave says Ireland, because of its pastoral nature, can view the unfolding economic disaster with “considerable detachment”.

Changed completely

In the 30-year span between Victoria and Cosgrave, film technology changed completely and so did Ireland, going from a constituent part of the British empire to independence and partition.

The collection was acquired from British Pathé and Topical Budget, which was one of the biggest British showreel companies of the silent era. Their archives were “the most representative and covered the broadest period of time”, said IFI director Ross Keane.

Michael Collins orates in front of a major crowd.
Michael Collins orates in front of a major crowd.

The acquisition of the footage was funded as part of the Decade of Centenaries by the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

These newsreels were usually shown contemporaneously before main presentations in cinemas. They were all filmed from a British perspective, as Ireland had no indigenous film companies at the time.

Many of the newsreels were greeted with boos and hisses when they were first screened in Ireland, as they presented images the British public wanted to see of Ireland.

“The British present the signing of the Treaty as if there was no discontent,” Mr Keane said. “Michael Collins is laughing and joking with his contemporaries. It never alludes to the trouble back home.”

Both British Pathé and the British Film Institute, which houses the Topical Budget collection, were asked to go back to the original nitrate film prints and digitise them to HD quality.

As a consequence, the quality of the footage is exceptional for the period.