Tally Ho! Mr Harris

 

ANY discussion of the historical veracity of my film, Michael Collins has to be predicated, I suppose, on the fact that it is a film. Film is a medium which in the space of two hours, can enact a drama - or be set within a drama - that took place over the three decades of the individual's life. Film is not history, cannot be history, but every now and then makes use of history for its gown purposes.

So the only real kind of assessment can be a comparative one, one that compares different, filmic versions of the same subject with others. To make an assessment of the veracity of different versions, I have gone back to the archives, so to speak to discover what other treatments there have been of Michael Collins - even what other mentions of Michael Collins - in the archives of cinema.

The first one finds is a Samuel Goldwyn production made in the 1930s called Beloved Enemy. Directed by H.C. Potter, it was photographed by the great Gregg Toland and starred Merle Oberon and Brian Aherne.

Despite a disclaimer at the start, there are some comparisons to be drawn between the parts played by Oberon and Aherne and the figures of Collins and Lady Lavery. Aherne plays the part of Reardon, a Republican leader during the War of Independence who falls in love with Helen, the daughter of Lord Athleigh, a British diplomat attempting to find a way out of the conflict through peace talks. The film follows the trials of their relationship under pressure from Reardon's Republican associates - chief among them one O'Rourke - and from the British forces, understandably anxious to capture Reardon, the most wanted man in the island.

It becomes more interesting when peace negotiations begin, with Helen pivotally placed both to convince her father to convene them in the first place, and to convince Reardon to stick with them and accept a compromise. The resulting treaty leads inevitably to Reardon's death. He is shot by O'Rourke while making a public speech in support of the treaty he has signed.

The film is conventional, perhaps to a fault. Its histrionic portrayal of the Troubles is nowhere offset by any grace in Toland's work. It is most notable for the fact that its ending was changed to a happy one (demonstrating even then inherent problems in the material for Hollywood) and for the fact that O'Rourke's role in Reardon's death could be confused with malicious rumours of the time about Emmet Dalton's supposed role in the death of Michael Collins.

Which brings us to This Other Eden, an Emmet Dalton production based on an Abbey play by Louis D'Alton, directed by Muriel Box, in 1959.

As film historian Kevin Rockett points out in his admirable study of the National Film Studios, Emmet Dalton could have made this film, in part, as an answer to the malicious and unfounded rumours that surrounded him for most of his life, and by implication, to the film Beloved Enemy. It opens during the War Of Independence as Jack Carberry, an IRA leader, drives with his friend Devereux to a meeting with a British officer to negotiate an end to the war.

On his way he is shot by the Black and Tans. This sequence is a prologue to the main plot, which begins 30 years later in the village where the dead hero was born. A statue is being erected to him, which gives rise to mixed feelings among a host of characters. Among them are Devereux, who has long been suspected of complicity in Carberry's death, Brown, an enlightened Englishman, and a group of local gombeen men of varying hues.

A satire of bitterness and disillusion ensues, the pivotal event being the blowing up of the statue by forces unknown, which could be seen to echo the disillusion and embitterment left by the War of Independence and the Civil War.

Both these films are most interesting for their techniques of avoidance - for the oblique fictional context within which the recent historical events are played. And it is precisely this avoidance of precise historical context that allows them raise the issues they are dealing with. So a comparison between actual and fictional events would be fruitless.

THE third reference in the archives of Irish cinema is a film as yet unmade, but much talked about over the past years, in particular by its screenwriter, Eoghan Harris. The screenplay is called Mick, and, unlike the movies mentioned above, it does purport to be an account of Collins's life, deeds, and an assessment, I can only assume, of his significance in the broader events in our island of which he was a part. So a comparative study in this case can be made.

The script opens with the young Collins and his father taking a piglet to the market. On the way they observe soldiers supervising an eviction. (Students of history will note that the last eviction happened in Cork a decade before Collins was born.) After witnessing the eviction, they proceed to the market which is interrupted by a party of fox-hunting gentry careering down the main street. They ride roughly through the peasants, almost trampling a young six-year-old girl called Kitty. Kitty is pulled from the impending hooves of the horses by the young Collins. Among the hunting-party about to trample on Kitty is a 16-year-old Constance Gore-Booth. (Constance Gore-Booth's home was in Lissadell in Sligo. Perhaps she had travelled from Lissadell to fox-hunt in west Cork.) Young Michael sticks out his tongue at her. Constance sticks her tongue out at him.

From the market, Michael and his father proceed to the railway station and watch a train pull in. On the train is Tom Clarke, manacled, in chains, being taken to England by the RIC. Tom Clarke gives the young boy a watch. Michael looks at the watch tick as the train pulls off. (There is no record of this meeting, or of this watch.) The action then cuts to London, 10 years later. Collins, described as thirtyish, serving his employment in a London post office. He travels to a London prison, where Tom Clarke is being strip-searched before being released. Collins meets Tom Clarke, watch in hand, to take him home. (Tom Clarke was released from prison in 1898. Collins would have been seven at the time.) Collins and Clarke travel from London through Ireland to a place described as Valley Of The Mouth Of The Flowers. (Presumably Beal Na Blath.) On the way they pass Constance Gore-Boothe, still on a hunter, shouting tally-ho. They arrive at a nearby town, where Kitty, now a young woman, admits them surreptitiously into a shop. There, Collins gathers recruits for the IRB. After this work is done, Kitty kisses him a fond goodnight, after vainly trying to entice him to stay with the offer of a hot whiskey. (We can now only presume this is Kitty Kiernan, of Granard, Co Longford. Geography, as well as history is getting confused here since The Valley Of the Mouth Of The Flowers, or Beal Na Blath, as everybody knows, is in West Cork.) The action then cuts to Lissadell House. Constance Gore-Booth is at home at last, but still on horseback, with a friend. They ride through a coppice but do not shout "Tally Ho!". Instead, they observe Michael Collins in a game of hurley, which is in turn observed by two policemen. When the police move away, the game changes into a drilling-practice, with hurleys substituting for rifles. Constance makes the observation that this seems like fun.

Later that day, all of the above characters turn up at an election meeting where a member of the Irish Parliamentary Party is soliciting votes. The Irish Parliamentary Party member, described as portly and prosperous, asks the crowd of degraded, cheering drunks to vote for him, as he will beg for Home Rule and a little parliament of our own, but one loyal to the British Empire. Then, he observes, there will be whiskey and a good price for pigs. (This one must presume, represents the point of view of the party of John Redmond, the Irish, non-violent parliamentary tradition which stretches back to the days of Parnell.) Collins interrupts from the crowd and calls for a free Irish Republic. A riot ensues which is silenced by Constance Gore-Booth "with her imperious eye She tells the mob to be quiet or her father will evict them. She orders them then to listen to what Collins has to say. After they have listened, she invites Collins to dinner at the Big House.

Collins cycles on his bicycle towards Lissadell House. On his way he peers through a shrubbery of rhododendrons. There he observes a nude Hazel Lavery, seated on a fallen tree. She looks at him straight in the eye and then Sir John Lavery appears behind her, artist's palette in hand, painting her. Collins backs off and bumps into Constance Gore-Booth who grins mischievously and says "Tally Ho Mr Collins! Come and meet everybody!" (Again, students of history will note that Collins met Lady Lavery for the first time in London during the Treaty negotiations.) Dinner ensues with all parties joined by Henry, Constance s father, and a military friend of hers called Crake. A political discussion ensues, and concludes when Collins invites the Gore-Booths to visit the cabins on their estates where they have never been. They travel down to the cabins where a wild ceili is in session, around an enormous bonfire. Observing the ceilli for some reason is Kitty. She watches unsmiling as Constance draws Collins into the ceili, shouting "Tally Ho!" As Constance loses herself in the abandon of set-dancing, Collins sits with Lady Lavery, who is sketching the scene, and they discuss the relative merits of art and revolution. The ceili concludes with Constance, in a magical political transformation that seems to have banished the phrase "Tally Ho!" from her vocabulary, promising the tenants their freedom. She promises freedom with the following logic - that she is a Gore-Booth: when the Gore-Booths promised them to hang they were hanged; when they promised eviction, they were evicted; when they swore loyalty to the King Of England, they were loyal; they have always kept their word. And now here is her word. They will be free. She Constance Gore-Booth gives them her word. They will be free.

I have now reached page 31 of a 131-page screenplay. It seems fruitless to continue with historical comparisons, since they are few and far between. Perhaps there is some other dialectic at work here.

It seems to be an account of history written with reference to the melodramas of Dion Boucicault, or springing straight from the pages of Ireland's Own. In the manner of these heroic tales, it has Collins at the centre of every historical event. Waiting at Howth Harbour with Constance for the arrival of the Asgard. Persuading Tom Barry (before 1916) to join the British army, fight in France, learn the arts of war and continue a rebellion he already knows will be a failure. Collins is present at the signing of the proclamation. Observes wryly the debacle in the GPO, which he describes as "bullshit". Observes the aftermath, during which a "G" man, Wilson, strips Tom Clarke naked and knees Collins in the groin. The guerilla war proper then begins, with Collins again in all places at once.

The only place Collins does not seem to be is in Westminster, where Churchill and Lloyd George fulminate like characters out of Boucicault at each new success by Collins. Churchill eventually, in desperation, sets up an auxiliary force under the supervision of Constance's old friend Crake, (who said "Tally- Ho!" so readily), recently returned from the trenches in France. Crake and his auxiliaries meet their match in an epic encounter at the Valley Of The Mouth Of The Flowers with Tom Barry who, it seems, was Crake's old sergeant on the fields of France, and his flying column. This encounter seems to be based on the battle of Kilmichael and is described in epic terms, complete with wafting smoke, swirling bag-pipes, bayoneted bodies and, oddly enough, Michael Collins. Barry, needless to say, bayonets Crake, who has a cigarette-holder clenched between his militaristic teeth. Collins closes "his single staring eye" after his death.

This epic encounter brings the British finally to their knees. We observe Lloyd George in desperation asking Churchill what to do with this Collins. Churchill observes that as he is Irish, there is only one thing to do. Buy him a drink. Thus begins the Treaty negotiations.

But not before Churchill is seen in conversation with Lady Lavery. He mentions that Collins will be lonely in London, and that the British government would like to know what is on his mind. He says "harumph!". Lady Lavery enquires as to whether it is her patriotic duty to go to bed with Michael Collins. Churchill turns scarlet and allows her to understand that that indeed is her duty.

Kitty turns up at the Treaty negotiations, as Michael's secretary. It becomes her fate to wait outside the Lavery household with the files recording the negotiations as Collins lies in bed with Hazel discussing conscience and country. She is restrained from storming the house of "that bitch" by Sean, Collins's body-guard, who we are to understand is in love with Collins too.

Eventually the Treaty negotiations are concluded. Collins signs as Churchill, Lloyd George and Birkenhead smile. A quote from history enters the script at this point. Collins observes, "I have just signed my own death-warrant" Events from the signing to the Civil War are sketched in deft, broad strokes. Lady Lavery is present at most of them. She observes the debacle of the treaty debates from among the delegates. She accompanies Collins to the hand over of Dublin Castle. She lies in bed with him in the Shelbourne Hotel as the Civil War guns boom and begs him not to go to Cork. But he goes.

Down in the west Cork market town where as a boy he sold the pig, he meets Kitty, who has some intimation of what's to come and says goodbye to him. Then, in The Valley Of The Mouth Of The Flowers, he is shot by an unseen gunman. But not before bellowing to the valley - "Ireland! Jaysus I love you!".

WHAT is odd about this script is, given the author's well-known anti-Nationalist views, how it seems to have sprung from the pages of a Young Ireland pamphlet, or from the Abbey stage of the 1930s under the "Irish Ireland" influence of Ernest Blythe. Its British characters are presented as crude, violent stereotypes, or as cigar-smoking, mustachioed cartoons. Collins, Griffith, Brugha, Childers, De Valera - all the leaders of the Sinn Fein movement seem wrapped in the halo of unsullied idealism. The Volunteers are good-hearted country lads, Cuchullains of the soil, so to speak. Perhaps then, it is a deconstruction of a deconstruction - which ends up with a perfect replica of the form originally deconstructed. Then again, perhaps the dramaturgical talents of Dion Boucicault and the literary qualities of the Young Ireland pamphlets have been unfairly derided over the years and are deserving of imitation in our current, cynical post-modern era. Either way, its relation to history, under any definition of the term, is non-existent.

So there it ends. Not with a very elevated hunch of models, but a beginning nonetheless. And a basis for discussion. Discussion, after all, has to start somewhere.