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Opinion: Film and Irish History – the fine lines between fact and fiction

Dr Seán Crosson of NUI Galway looks at the treatment of historical Irish figures on film and says history will often suffer at the hands of dramatic effect.

Seán Crosson

FILM AND HISTORY have had an uncertain and at times contested relationship. This is perhaps all the more so in the Irish context, where the depiction of our history and culture on film has been heavily influenced by forces outside of this country.

Perhaps one of the most controversial examples is Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins, the 1996 film that has been the subject of renewed interest given its depiction of the recently commemorated Bloody Sunday in 1920.

Jordan’s biopic of the Irish revolutionary leader was heavily criticised on release, due to its departure from the precise details of the historical events and figures to which it referred.

Ruth Dudley Edwards condemned the film as “grossly irresponsible” while for Eoghan Harris it was “dangerous Provo propaganda”.

Perhaps one of the more colourful reactions to the film was provided at the time by Fr Michael Twohig, the author of The Dark Secret of Béal na Bláth.

The then Cork Examiner reported Fr Twohig’s concern that not only was the film “riddled with historical inaccuracies” but “if there were to be a bedroom scene between (Liam) Neeson and (Julia) Roberts … it is going to look like a giraffe collapsing onto a frightened fawn, sporting a set of teeth like a graveyard”. 

Michael Collins was funded largely by Warner Brothers’ investment of $28 million, which included the elaborate reconstruction of the GPO in Dublin, the republican headquarters during the Easter Rising.

Jordan, perhaps conscious of the need to provide epic cinema for an international audience, foregrounded spectacle in his reenactment of Bloody Sunday, as the poster call for 5,000 male extras indicates it was filmed on September 24th 1995 at the Carlisle Grounds soccer stadium in Bray, Co Wicklow. 

Speaking of the attempt to raise funding from the studio, producer Stephen Woolley also acknowledged:  “The reality is, to make this story you have to make it an epic picture.”

Interestingly, in the original screenplay for Michael Collins, Jordan described hurling, not Gaelic football, as being played in Croke Park with the Tipperary midfielder tragically killed on that day – Michael Hogan – taunting the British armoured car with a hurley before being shot dead.

With the epic film for an international audience in mind, distinctive, unique scenes of hurling would undoubtedly have appealed to a Hollywood production house, as my book Gaelic Games on Film indicates hurling is by far the most depicted Gaelic game in international productions.

Historical accuracy

What is undisputed is that on Bloody Sunday British armoured cars did not invade Croke Park, though this is how Jordan depicts events on that day in his film. Jordan has however defended his use of armoured cars as he wanted this scene “to last more than 30 seconds”.

He has also rightly stressed that people should enjoy Michael Collins as “a piece of art and not assume it is a definitive word on history” and that the film may indeed “bring people to the history books” for more accurate accounts of the events depicted. 

The reality is that, for most audiences outside of Ireland, and perhaps a significant number on these shores, the particularities of Irish history or culture are less important than the entertainment value of the film they are watching; in Hollywood entertainment is everything.

Michael Collins has often been compared to another account of the revolutionary period in Ireland, the 2006 non-Hollywood production The Wind that Shakes the Barley.

Veteran British independent filmmaker Ken Loach eschews Jordan’s epic approach and focuses on prominent nationalist figures to explore the impact of the War of Independence on a small rural community in West Cork.

Loach’s film also features Gaelic games. While the opening credits roll, there is a lengthy hurling sequence, almost two minutes long, in contrast to the less than 20 seconds of Gaelic football in Michael Collins. 

Hurling allows Loach to introduce the community and to emphasise the distinctiveness of their culture, at a time when expressing your Irishness, whether through sport or language, could have serious consequences.

Just like Michael Collins, Loach’s film had its critics. Tim Luckhurst in The Times compared Loach to Hitler’s favourite film maker, Leni Riefenstahl; historian Roy Foster was critical of the film’s abandonment of “characterization for didactics”, describing its history as “badly skewed”, while Ruth Dudley Edwards, weighed in again, and wondered: “Why does Ken Loach loathe his country so much?”

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Commercial necessity

Whatever critics thought, both Michael Collins and The Wind that Shakes the Barley were huge commercial successes in Ireland, each breaking box office records at the time of their release.

Clearly Jordan and Loach struck a chord with Irish audiences, though both films also alerted us to the dangers and challenges associated with depicting significant historical events on film.

For historians, as well as their professional concern in the accurate depiction of events, there is also an important recognition with regard to depictions of historical events on film; they are much more likely to inform popular perceptions and understandings of those events than are history books or education. 

To take the example of Hollywood depictions of the Vietnam War, as Michael Hunt observes in his Vietnam War Reader “Public opinion polls conducted in the early 1990s suggest a popular acceptance of Hollywood’s simple but symbolically loaded version of the war’. 

A further and more broadly focused psychological study undertaken by A.C. Butler and colleagues in 2009 compared student retention and understanding of historical events following their reading of accurate textual accounts, with their recollections following the viewing of fictionalised filmic accounts of the same events.

The researchers found that film was significantly more effective at shaping student understanding, and indeed leading to misunderstandings, given the frequent fictionalisation associated with filmic adaptations of historical events.

Could similar polls or studies in Ireland reveal comparable outcomes with regard to the influence of filmic depictions on the general public’s appreciation of history? 

Dr Seán Crosson is Senior lecturer in Film in the Huston School of Film & Digital Media, NUI Galway. He has published widely on Irish and international cinema including as author, Gaelic Games on Film (Cork University Press, 2019) and as editor, Sport, Film and National Culture (Routledge, 2020).

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