An Irishman's Diary
IF YOU haven’t already seen it, you should mark a certain anniversary today by Googling a small but extraordinary piece of Irish cinema history, now available on the internet.
It’s a film starring Michael Collins, playing himself. And it’s doubly poignant in these IMF-ridden times because it centres on the launch in 1919 of the “Republican Loan” or “Dáil bonds” scheme, the financial foundations of Irish independence.
The seven-minute epic is a work of propaganda rather than art. But it did have genuine cinematographers involved – producer Jim Sullivan and director John MacDonagh, whose joint credits also included the landmark silent-era film, Willie Reilly and his Colleen Bawn.
In fact, that Irish Romeo-and-Juliet was being shot in the grounds of Pádraig Pearse’s old school, St Enda’s in Rathfarnham, when Sullivan and MacDonagh were asked to lend their camera to the underground government’s cause.
Thus St Enda’s also became the setting for the loan film, in which a who’s who of republican sympathisers publicly entrust their savings to the boyish Collins – still in his 20s – who among his other onerous responsibilities was now underground minister for finance.
The action opens with Collins soundlessly reading a letter from the Bishop of Killaloe who had applied for the maximum-denomination certificate – £100 – and encouraged others to follow.
“We have to build up a new Ireland,” urges the text (on montage). “Every certificate will be a stone in the grand edifice which honourable men all over the world desire to see erected.” Thereafter Collins smiles and jokes with the various luminaries – Pearse’s mother among them – lining up to invest their money. But the solemnity of the occasion is underlined heavily by the film’s only prop.
It may seem a bit grim to modern tastes, even if the as-yet-unrecognised government needed for something dramatic to emphasise its bona fides. In any case, the table used for the transactions was the block on which, 116 years earlier, Robert Emmet had been beheaded.
Emmet’s patriotism was thus the new republic’s gold standard. (Which said, holders of the certificates were also assured that they could redeem them at par with gold prices, plus five per cent, whenever the republic was formally recognised).
The film made, there remained the challenge that faces many art-house productions: how to get it seen. The problem was even more acute in this case since cinema-owners voluntarily showing the film would have been subject to arrest.
But that was an era for drastic solutions. As MacDonagh explained many years later, the loan film’s distributors comprised men with “fast cars”, who visited picture houses unannounced, mid-programme, and ordered the projectionists to play the loan film, at gun-point.
SHORT AS IT WAS, Collins’s life was so crowded that cinematic treatments have had to simplify it, concentrating on the military side and the treaty negotiations, at the expense of his less obviously dramatic activities.
Yet given the fraught conditions in which it was launched, the success of the loan scheme was at least as remarkable as anything else he achieved. As Frank O’Connor would write 20 years afterwards, it was only Collins’s energy and discipline that, in the face of the scheme’s improbability, made it work. And in Tim Pat Coogan’s words, despite the chaotic backdrop, everyone got a receipt.
Of course the optimism behind the venture was misplaced. Within a few years there would be bitterly competing visions of the republic in which supporters had invested, and subsequent legal complications about who owned the money.
But then revolutions are notoriously unpredictable, as the story of the so-called “Russian crown jewels” – itself a backhanded compliment to the success of the Irish loan scheme – indicate.
After events in Petrograd in 1917, the new government there had also found itself in urgent need of finances. And remarkably enough, by 1920, the Irish underground government was in a position to help. Through their representative in the US, the Soviets offered four broaches from the imperial collection as security on an Irish $20,000 loan.
The treasure was handed over in New York to Harry Boland, who was raising funds there and who, returning home, duly surrendered it to Collins. Some time later, however, either because of their political disagreement, or because Collins had enough things to worry about already, Boland resumed stewardship.
He then asked his mother to mind the jewels at her house in Marino, Dublin, where later they would pass to his sister. In the meantime, the Civil War had made enemies of Collins and Boland and cost both men their lives. Thereafter, for a decade, the house in Marino found itself in opposition to the Free State government.
Ten years and Cumann na nGaedheal passed, however, and an administration more to the Bolands’ liking came to power. The jewels were then belatedly handed back to the State, only to be locked in a safe and forgotten for another decade.
By now, it seems, the Soviets didn’t want them back. Which was perhaps understandable, since independent valuations suggested the hoard may have been worth less than the loan. But the Irish had done at least some of their homework in 1920. Legal advice in the late 1940s confirmed that the money advanced had always been repayable on demand. So the Soviets coughed up, reluctantly, and the jewels went back to Russia.