Reel hero of Irish history

 

No Irish film-maker has shed more light for less money on Ireland's history than George Morrison, writes Martin Doyle

John Boorman described film-making as "the process of turning money into light and then back into money again". No Irish film-maker has shed more light for less money on Ireland's history than George Morrison. Picture any iconic newsreel image of the Easter Rising or the War of Independence and the likelihood is that it has survived only thanks to this one man's heroic historical salvage operation.

Morrison, a vibrant 85-year-old, released his latest documentary, Dublin Day, a homage to Joyce's Ulysses, last year, but he is best-known for two groundbreaking films which chronicled Ireland's struggle for independence, Mise Éire (1959) and Saoirse? (1961).

Fascinated by film from an early age, Morrison discovered there was a wealth of early 20th-century Irish newsreel footage in collections across Europe, but much of it was perishable and all was at risk of being discarded. He catalogued the material before successfully lobbying the then taoiseach, Eamon de Valera, to fund the National Library to obtain copies of it.

Conscious that the funding was inadequate to preserve all the endangered material, Morrison says: "I was seized with the idea of selling to Gael Linn the idea of making, first of all, 15-minute films. This I managed to escalate to a 30-minute film, then an hour, then an hour and a half. So successful was it that I had no difficulty persuading them to do a sequel."

Having traced 400,000ft of film in 28 collections across Europe, "a literal reclaiming of Ireland's history", Morrison distilled more than 70 hours of footage, painstakingly restored from the original nitrate stock, and created a narrative in a montage format influenced by Eisenstein.

Thus was born Mise Éire, a pioneering work of Irish film, an anti-imperialist polemic whose release in 1960 was a national event, its premiere attended by many of the veterans who featured in the film. Film historian Kevin Rockett described it as "in effect the official history of the struggle for independence". In fact, the Department for External Affairs commissioned Morrison to make another film based on Mise Éire to distribute overseas to mark the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising.

Mise Éire was the first feature-length Irish-language film, the first to stretch silent film footage to slow it down to normal speed, and the first Irish film to be scored for a full orchestra, a remarkable collaboration between Morrison and Seán Ó Riada.

"Sean was splendid," says Morrison. "As soon as I heard Hercules Dux Ferrariae I realised that, of all the Irish composers, Seán Ó Riada was the man. I had to show him the films which I thought of as most important musically: Miss Julie, Alf Sjöberg's film of Strindberg's play, which has marvellous music by Dag Wiren, and Night Mail by John Grierson, with music by Benjamin Britten and verse commentary by WH Auden. Seán Ó Riada was so bright that he instantly latched on."

While Mise Éire was a triumph, its narrative arc of rebellion, retribution and ultimate promise of freedom providing an uplifting ending, Saoirse? was less successful with the public, doubtless because it has a tragic climax with the opening salvoes of the Civil War.

"Saoirse? ends up in civil war, the greatest possible social disaster," says Morrison. "This is reflected in the music. A certain amount of lyricism I allowed for in the music of Mise Éire, but I asked Seán Ó Riada to write for me destructive, disintegrative music for Saoirse? and he fulfilled this absolutely. The harpsichord particularly, which he played so well himself, has got a splintering, disintegrative quality."

Having spent a decade scouring Europe to source the rare and decaying newsreel footage, it is not surprising that Morrison refused when his producer asked him not to include footage of the shelling of the Four Courts in Saoirse?.

The use of British guns by Free State troops to dislodge republicans holed up there is still emotive, not least because the resulting fire destroyed much of the national archive. Back in 1961, when Civil War wounds were much rawer, Morrison says he was summoned by Gael Linn chairman Dónall O Móráin, who sought to put pressure on him to omit this episode.

"You must remember that O Móráin's family background is a Free State one," says Morrison. "My own family on both sides was republican."

Of course, there are two sides to every story. The destruction of archive can also be attributed to an anti-Treaty landmine, and O Móráin would later be sacked as head of the RTÉ Authority for sanctioning an interview with IRA chief of staff Seán Mac Stíofáin, hardly the act of a censor. But there is a striking parallel between Morrison's determination to record the destruction of the national archives and his determination to preserve the film which recorded it. The original film stock, of course, being made of nitrate, was itself combustible.

In the end, the shelling stayed in, but Gael Linn pulled the plug on a planned third film which would have covered the years from the Civil War up to 1940. "Gael Linn took fright when they realised it would come up near to the present day, and they chickened out," says Morrison.

Instead, he would address the Civil War in Rebellion in 1964 for Robert Kee, and in his documentary on de Valera, which he made in the 1960s but was locked away in an RTÉ safe until de Valera died.

"Engraved on my heart," says Morrison, who had to keep re-editing the film the longer de Valera lived, "will be not 'Calais' (as with Mary Stuart) but 'each part must be 18in, 13in' [the running time of each Dev film reel]."

Morrison, naturally, has been accused of bias, but at least it was by both sides. "There are always accusations of imbalance in Ireland," he says. "When Mise Éire and Saoirse? were made, I had to go ex-directory because there were so many accusations of imbalance. Curiously enough, they seemed to occur late at night from 10.30pm onwards, when the pubs shut."

Balance was difficult to achieve, as most of the footage was shot from a Free State perspective. "Desmond FitzGerald, who was an excellent media man, made sure that the coverage from the Free State side was superior. In fact, it is very difficult to assemble material from the republican side, so I had to resort to still photographs," Morrison says.

Contemporary newspaper headlines, which Morrison used as a narrative device so as not to alienate non-Irish-speakers, were also so virulently anti- republican that he had to resort to making up his own. Morrison also used the headline device to create dramatic tension.

"This is a very important point," he says. "I have always crept up on my events from behind. The backward- looking perspective essentially deadens material. I used the material as something taking place at the moment, something alive, not recollected."

Morrison was elected to Aosdána in 2005, along with John T Davis, another distinguished documentary-maker, but one many years his junior. Did the honour feel a bit belated? "Not at all. I'm very glad to say I'm still making films. I was very honoured indeed. It enabled me to be in receipt of a small stipend which has made a lot of difference."

The Irish Film Institute in Dublin is to stage a programme of his work later this year to coincide with the launch of Morrison's photographic collection, to be housed in Filmbase. It will also feature the premiere of George Morrison: Pioneer of Irish Cinema, a documentary on his life by Ciarín Scott, a former pupil.

"Although everyone knows Mise Éire and Saoirse?, George is now almost forgotten," says Scott. "So I want to bring George and his work to the generations who now don't know him or his great body of work and contribution to Irish culture. Despite his being 85, I also want to show his driving creative energy and passion, an example being how he has mastered modern digital film-making working on Dublin Day. His importance is immeasurable. There is no one else of his calibre, for he is acknowledged by his peers as the towering pioneer and innovator of Irish cinema."

Morrison lives modestly in Shankill, south Dublin, not far from Neil Jordan in Killiney and Jim Sheridan in Dalkey but a world away from what a Hollywood career could afford. "That is because, I hate to say it, but I am an artist."

He despairs of an Irish film tradition which he feels is too wordy, bedevilled and overshadowed by the literary tradition. The only Irish film he professes to admire is Margo Harkin's Hush-a-Bye Baby. "Jim Sheridan is very popular, it says it all. I have a very good forgettery; I forget the names of films that don't interest me with remarkable rapidity."

In fact, for a man of 85 who suffered a stroke in 2005, Morrison is remarkably sharp, correcting me on details from his films, constructing sentences of an old-fashioned elegance.

"The stroke left me with an almost total inability to speak, but I could say one word and that was 'yes', and I learned that the affirmative is not an answer to every question that life flings at one," he says. "It nonetheless gave me the deepest sympathy with the condition of the young lady who couldn't say no."

Morrison also remembers with a sense of grievance the financial arrangements behind Mise Éire. "I was paid £375 and I had a verbal agreement with O Móráin to receive 5 per cent of the net profit. Shortly after Mise Éire was made, I received £50 payment against that. A year later I thought it time we had some further move, but they said the £50 was an ex gratia one-off payment."

He consulted counsel in the early 1960s, but they said he didn't have a case. Gael Linn's Antoine O Coileáin says he would be happy to put the matter to bed by offering Morrison 50 per cent of any profit because it never made a penny profit and most likely never will. The £11,500 cost of the film (a fortune at the time) was funded by the not-for-profit organisation's shilling-a-week pools, and while it remains proud of its cultural investment in the story of the birth of the nation told through the Irish language, it was never viewed as a commercial proposition.

Another cause for which Morrison campaigned long and hard was the creation of an Irish national film archive, which was launched at the Irish Film Institute in 1992. He regrets, however, that the footage he preserved for the National Library was later donated to RTÉ, which he feels is not a secure enough setting.

"I can't see why they can't pass it to where it really belongs in the national film archive," he says.

Morrison fell under the spell of film in 1937 when his parents gave him his own silent film projector. A profile from The Irish Times in 1960 describes him "cranking away in lonely fascination at the silent classics of German macabre film".

It was a primitive, hand-wound model, which meant he could rewind it. "That's how I learnt editing, how a film was put together. I was particularly fond of Lang's Metropolis."

He was born in 1922 in Tramore, Co Waterford, within earshot of guns as Free State troops besieged the old coastguard station occupied by republicans. His mother was an actor at the Gate Theatre and his father overcame polio to become a neurological anaesthetist. If he got his artistic temperament from his mother, he got his determination from his father.

His father made him study medicine at Trinity, but after reading every book on film in the library and joining the drama society, he abandoned his studies to make his first film, Dracula, in 1942.

"I starved myself to buy film stock on the black market," he recalls. "I went bald within weeks through malnutrition."

Happily, in later life, he would make up for this by marrying Theodora FitzGibbon, the late Irish Times cookery editor, providing the photographs for 11 of her cookery books, and he and his second wife, Janet, still like to dine well.

He went on to be assistant director on two films directed by Hilton Edwards, From Time to Time, which he also scripted, and Hamlet of Elsinore with Orson Welles.

"He was a thoroughgoing personality, and such people have always appealed to me," Morrison says. "I can't abide wishy-washy personalities." But Edwards was the greater influence. "Hilton's unsurpassable atmospheric lighting influenced me from when I was five years old, when I was allowed to stay up for rehearsals of Peer Gynt because I was deemed to be too young to be a troll. He turned me on to what lighting could do."

Mise Éire, Saoirse? and Dublin Day are available on DVD. The Irish Film Institute will host a George Morrison retrospective later this year