Home » The silent films offer rare moments of life in 1920s Ireland

The silent films offer rare moments of life in 1920s Ireland

by Stewart Cole

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

When Mr í Mainnín grew up on the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry, Ireland, there was no radio or television to pass the time, he said, so people could tell stories. His grandfather had many, but he told one more than others.

In the mid-1920s, an American visited Dingle to study birds and collect specimens. Mr. í Mainnín’s grandfather sometimes brought the man – his name was Benjamin Gault, although the locals called him “Kaerty” – with his fishing boat to the nearby Blasket Islands. Kaerti always had a camera with him by hand. One day, while filming Mr. í Mainnín’s grandfather and his friends, the grandfather jokingly stuck a pipe in his dog’s mouth.

“It was a very distant story,” said Ó Mainnín, a 55-year-old farmer and fisherman in Dingle. “You would never believe it was true.”

Long after Mr. í Mainnín’s grandfather, also named Mícheál Ó Mainnín, died in 1981, the family wondered if any of the films shot by the visiting American were still available.

Mr. í Mainnín’s curiosity eventually led to the discovery of a collection of silent films depicting life in 1920s Ireland – police in Cork, horse-drawn carriages stacked in wicker pots with lobster, people watching and Operation – all shot in 1925 and 1926, in the early years of Ireland’s independence from Britain.

Shots from Ireland from that time – a time when memories of World War I were still fresh and Ireland recovered from its own civil war – are incredibly rare. Most of the film is news footage of major events, according to Manus McManus, director of film collections and acquisitions at the Irish Film Institute.

“This stands out as quite unique in the sense of actually recording people’s ordinary daily lives,” said Kevin Rockett, a retired professor of film studies at Trinity College Dublin. “There are a lot of shots from the war, so this would be more familiar to people.”

Mr. Ó Mainnín began his search in 2011 with little to go beyond the name of the American, but quickly discovered that Mr. Gault was an ornithologist from the Chicago area. This led him to the Chicago Academy of Sciences, where the Gault collection is located, which includes bird specimens, dried plants and, as he hoped, an old film.

Mr. Goal’s films are not the only wheels in the academy archives, but they are some of the oldest. Dawn Roberts, the academy’s senior collection director, was trying to raise money to digitize the wheels when she received an email from Mr í Mainnín.

The academy did not have the resources to digitize the Gault scrolls, but Ms. Roberts shared catalog notes with Mr. Ó Mainnín along with scanned diary entries and photographs belonging to Mr. Gault. Mr Ó Mainnín brought these materials to the Irish Film Institute to see if he could help fund the digitization process.

Mr. McManus had secured some funding from a nonprofit when Rob Byrne, president of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, made history. Mr Byrne, who lives in Ireland, was looking for an Irish project, and Mr Gault’s wheels presented a rare opportunity. The Silent Film Festival had extensive experience in the restoration of silent films.

“Because the video was taken by an American in Ireland, it fits that, after almost 100 years, the US-Ireland connection lasts,” McManus said.

Mr Gault shot on 35mm nitrate film, which was rare for a hobbyist because it was a very professional and high-resolution medium, Mr McManus said. The downside is that nitrate is also unstable and flammable, which makes the film difficult to maintain.

“First of all, these are amateur films made 100 years ago that, fortunately, no one has ever thrown away,” Byrne said. “Movies like these are disappearing. It’s a huge, unique replica of a flammable, flammable, worn film base. “Fifty years from now, this movie would not exist at all.”

The reels of Mr. Gault was in excellent condition. After funding was arranged for a third-party wheel lab to digitize the wheels, it was up to the Silent Film Festival to restore the material. That job fell to a senior filmmaker, Kathy O’Regan, who also happened to be a native of Gort, in Galway County, a rural area in western Ireland that does not look like Mr. Gault returned to Cork County. and Kerry.

“It was magical to see it,” Ms O’Regan said. “On a personal level, the first time I watched it was so exciting. There is this one shot of two farmers planting potatoes and I swear to God, one of the men is the perfect spitting image of one of my next door neighbors. “I know it’s impossible, but it’s wild to see.”

The 19 wheels of the film will amount to about 35 minutes of shot once the frame rate is adjusted. Once they are graded and restored, Mr. McManus wants to show the material on Dingle. He hopes that if more locals see what Mr. Gault shot, they will be able to identify some of the people who show up.

For Mr. Ó Mainnín, the film’s footage offered the opportunity to see familiar faces from a different perspective.

“I know all those people who participated in the film, but they were older,” he said. “But then 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. His reels show people dancing in the streets, hauling hay, walking in arms.

And, yes, a dog smoking a pipe.

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