Frank Stapleton obituary: Pioneering Irish film maker

Stapleton’s work was ‘distinguished by a delightful air of whimsy tethered to a foundation of deep erudition’

Frank Stapleton is survived by his wife Katharine, daughter Alice Mimosa, his mother Catherine, brothers John and Colum.

Frank Stapleton is survived by his wife Katharine, daughter Alice Mimosa, his mother Catherine, brothers John and Colum.

 

Frank Stapleton
Born: March 18th, 1962
Died: August 18th, 2019

Frank Stapleton, prolific writer and talented film director has died following a long illness. Stapleton was a leading light in Irish filmmaking in the 1980s and 1990s before his career was cut short by the onset of multiple sclerosis.

The Whole World in His Hands, an award winning documentary filmed 10 years after Pope John Paul II’s visit to Ireland in 1979, Dr Brown Also Spoke, a polemic documentary with Dr Noel Browne (Minister for Health from 1948-1951) and Michael D Higgins and The Fifth Province (1997) were his best known films.

The Fifth Province which was about a frustrated writer living the rain-soaked Midlands, won Best First Feature at the Galway Film Fleadh and the Audience Prize at the Fantasporto Film Festival in Porto, Portugal. Stapleton worked with Michael D Higgins on a number of film proposals and his film crew made a documentary with Higgins at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro called, 12 Days to Save the World.

Frank Stapleton grew up in Churchtown, Dublin with one older and one younger brother. He attended Belvedere College, Dublin from the age of eight to eighteen where his friends included Fintan Connolly who also went on to become a filmmaker. Reminiscing about their school days, Connolly said that Frank had a strong interest in photography and social justice and was “fizzing with ideas”.

With fellow Belvedere students, Stapleton and Connolly pushed a bed from Dublin to Cork and later the same year, a telephone box from Knock to Cork to raise money for Concern. They made their first documentary, No School is an Island while still at Belvedere College.

In 1989, he founded Ocean Films with producer, Catherine Tiernan

After school, Stapleton joined the Society of Jesus and lived in Manresa House, Clontarf where he completed his 2 year novitiate. He then moved to a Jesuit residence in Monkstown in 1982 while studying English and Philosophy at University College Dublin. In 1984, he made his first film, A Second of June, a drama documentary inspired by Ulysses about a day in the life of two ordinary Dubliners when Ronald Regan visited Ireland. After graduating from UCD in 1985, Frank lived for a time in one of the Ballymun Towers while working on social projects with Peter McVerry and other members of the Jesuit community.

To broaden his horizons, he moved to London. Around this time, he also left the Jesuits and immersed himself instead in contemporary film and the psychoanalysis of R D Laing. In 1989, he founded Ocean Films with producer, Catherine Tiernan and over the following decade, they made many documentaries and dramas together.

“Frank had an uninhibited imagination, huge energy and motivation to bring his ideas to the screen and to make dreams a reality,” says Tiernan. “In the beginning, we went abroad to seek commissions as RTÉ had not yet opened up to independent production. There was no TV3 or TG4 and the Irish Film Board had yet to be re-activated. The Whole World In His Hands - which was funded by Channel 4 - was among the first Irish independent documentaries to be screened on RTÉ.”

In 1999, Stapleton married Katharine West and the couple bought a Presbyterian manse and church in Hollymount, County Mayo with the intention of restoring it to provide them both with living and working accommodation. However, a year later, Stapleton was diagnosed with hydrocephalus and then in 2001, with multiple sclerosis which quickly limited his ability to write and direct films. Their daughter, Alice Mimosa was born in 2002 and for a number of years, Frank was a wonderful home-based father to her while Katharine, a ceramic artist, lectured at the Galway Mayo Institute of Technology.

"He was a man of endless intellect, kindness, compassion and fun who bore his long illness with great fortitude and dignity.”

In 2004, the family moved to Roscahill, County Galway where they had great support from the local community. With Galway based poet, Mary Dempsey as his scribe, Stapleton completed an MA in Film Studies at the Huston Film School at the National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG) in 2006. In 2008, his condition had deteriorated to the extent that he needed to move to supported accommodation in the Cheshire Home in Galway, returning home at weekends and during the holidays.

In 2012, the Galway Film Fleadh showed five of Stapleton’s films in a retrospective of his work. In the catalogue for the festival, Tony Tracy, from the Huston School of Film at NUIG, wrote that Stapleton was part of a vanguard of Irish film directors who attempted to launch a career in the 1980s. “Like others from that period, his work was defined by daring and determination, balanced between an ambition to create a personal cinema and the need to make a living.”

Tracy said that Stapleton had a commitment to exploring the condition of Irishness that is imaginative, engaged and wide-ranging. His six-part series, Irish Dreamtime (2000) explored concepts of Irish heritage at the turn of the millennium.

In a tribute piece, the Irish Film Institute archivist, Sunniva O’Flynn said that much of Stapleton’s work was “distinguished by a delightful air of whimsy tethered to a foundation of deep erudition. He was a man of endless intellect, kindness, compassion and fun who bore his long illness with great fortitude and dignity.”

Frank Stapleton is survived by his wife Katharine, daughter Alice Mimosa, his mother Catherine, brothers John and Colum.