Silent films offer rare glimpses of life in 1920s Ireland

DUBLIN – Mícheál Ó Mainnín always wondered if his grandfather was telling the truth. When Mr Ó Mainnín was growing up on the Dingle Pen...

DUBLIN – Mícheál Ó Mainnín always wondered if his grandfather was telling the truth.

When Mr Ó Mainnín was growing up on the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry, Ireland, there was no radio or television to pass the time, he said, so people told stories. His grandfather had a lot, but he said more than the others.

In the mid-1920s, an American traveled to Dingle to study birds and collect specimens. Sometimes Mr. Ó Mainnín’s grandfather would take the man – his name was Benjamin Gault, although the locals called him “Kaerty” – in his fishing boat to the nearby Blasket Islands. Kaerty always carried a hand-cranked camera with him. One day, while filming Mr. Ó Mainnín’s grandfather and his friends, the grandfather stuck a pipe in his dog’s mouth as a joke.

“It was a very long time ago,” said Mr Ó Mainnín, 55, a farmer and fisherman in Dingle. “You would never think it was true.”

Long after the death of Mr. Ó Mainnín’s grandfather, also named Mícheál Ó Mainnín, in 1981, the family wondered if any of the films made by the visiting American still existed.

Mr Ó Mainnín’s curiosity eventually led to the discovery of a collection of silent film reels depicting life in 1920s Ireland – police officers directing traffic in Cork City, carts pulled by horses filled with wicker lobster pots, people attending horse races and mass – all shot in 1925 and 1926, in the early years of Irish independence from Britain.

Images of Ireland from this time – a time when memories of World War I were still fresh and Ireland was recovering from its own civil war – are incredibly rare. Most of the films that exist are news footage of major events, according to Manus McManus, head of film collections and acquisitions for the Irish Film Institute.

“It stands out as very unique in the sense that it essentially records the ordinary everyday life of people,” said Kevin Rockett, retired professor of film studies at Trinity College Dublin. “There are a lot of images of the war, so that’s what people know best.”

Mr. Ó Mainnín began his research in 2011 with little to do beyond the name of the American, but he soon discovered that Mr. Gault was an ornithologist in the Chicago area. This led him to the Chicago Academy of Sciences, home to the Gault Collection, which includes bird specimens, dried plants and, as he had hoped, old movies.

Mr. Gault’s films aren’t the only reels in the academy’s archives, but they’re some of the oldest. Dawn Roberts, senior director of collections at the academy, was trying to raise funds to digitize the reels when she received an email from Mr Ó Mainnín.

The academy did not have the resources to digitize the Gault coils, but Ms. Roberts shared catalog notes with Mr. Ó Mainnín as well as scanned journal entries and photographs belonging to Mr. Gault. Mr Ó Mainnín brought these documents to the Irish Film Institute to see if it could help fund the digitization process.

Mr. McManus had secured funding from a non-profit organization when Rob Byrne, president of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, caught wind of the story. Mr Byrne, who lives in Ireland, was looking for an Irish project, and Mr Gault’s reels represented a rare opportunity. The Silent Film Festival had a lot of experience in restoring silent films.

“Because the footage was shot by an American in Ireland, it is only fitting that after almost 100 years the US-Irish connection continues,” McManus said.

Mr. Gault shot on 35-millimeter nitrate film, which was rare for an amateur because it was very professional and higher-resolution media, Mr. McManus said. The downside is that the nitrate is also unstable and flammable, which makes the film difficult to keep.

“First of all, these are amateur movies made 100 years ago that luckily no one ever threw away,” Byrne said. “Movies like these are disappearing. This is a huge single copy on a combustible, flammable and deteriorating film base. In fifty years, this film would no longer exist at all.

Mr. Gault’s coils were in exceptional condition. Once the funding was secured for a third-party lab to digitize the reels, it was up to the Silent Film Festival to restore the footage. That job fell to a senior film conservator, Kathy O’Regan, who was also from Gort, County Galway, a rural area in the west of Ireland, much like the places Mr. Gault has filmed in the counties of Cork and Kerry.

“It was magical to see him,” Ms. O’Regan said. “On a personal level, the first time I watched it was so exciting. There’s this photo of two farmers planting potatoes, and I swear to god, one of the men is the absolute spitting image of a neighbor of mine next door. I know it’s impossible, but it’s crazy just to watch.

The 19 film reels will represent approximately 35 minutes of footage once the frame rate is adjusted. Once filed and restored, Mr. McManus wishes to show the images to Dingle. He hopes that if more local people see what Mr. Gault shot, they will be able to identify some of the people featured.

For Mr. Ó Mainnín, the footage from the film offered a chance to see familiar faces in a different light.

“I know all of these people who were in the movie, but they were older,” he said. “But that’s when they were young and strong and full of life, you know?” “

As with the birds he studied, Mr. Gault observed the people of rural Ireland in their natural habitats. Its reels show people dancing in the streets, packing hay, walking arm in arm.

And, yes, a dog smoking a pipe.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Silent films offer rare glimpses of life in 1920s Ireland
Silent films offer rare glimpses of life in 1920s Ireland
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