Diphtheria, Tuberculosis and Holy Communions: The IFI Irish Film Archive

Greetings, grandchildren. I’m delighted to be unveiling the inaugural Where’s Grandad? interview – with Ms. Kasandra O’Connell, head of the IFI Irish Film Archive (which “acquires, preserves and makes available Ireland’s moving image heritage”). Kasandra kindly took the time to speak to me about the archive’s work, collections and challenges. Hope you enjoy it.

Fústar: First of all, Kasandra, can you tell us a little bit about what kind of public information films (films from State Sponsored Bodies and Government Departments) the Irish Film Archive holds?

Kasandra O’Connell: I think to understand how the IFI Irish Film Archive came to hold so many of these films it is important to understand a little of our history, as the two are closely linked.

When the National Film Institute of Ireland (now the Irish Film Institute) was founded in 1943 under the patronage of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, it had a clear moral and educational agenda. McQuaid believed that the Church should be actively involved in the production and distribution of film in Ireland to counteract what was seen as the immoral influence of commercially produced films. His main point of reference was Vigilanti Cura (1936), Pope Pius XI’s encyclical on the use and misuse of cinema, which called for the Church’s involvement in all aspects of motion pictures to achieve the “noble end of promoting the highest ideals and the truest standards of life”.

In order to fulfil McQuaid’s objectives the National Film Institute of Ireland (NFI) not only maintained a distributing library of films available to schools, colleges and associations around the country, but also became involved in the production of safety, health and educational films in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. Many of these were commissioned by government departments to offer information on matters of public health and safety, personal finance, and on historical and cultural subjects. The first film, Uachtarán na hÉireann (made in 1945), recorded the inauguration of Sean T. O’Kelly as president of Ireland.

NFI films made for the Department of Health tackled such varied subjects as TB prevention and cure, (Dr Noel Browne’s TB Film in 1946, and Voyage to Recovery in 1953), diphtheria immunisation (Stop Thief, 1953) and food hygiene (Gnó Gach Éinne [Everybody’s Responsibility], 1951). For the Department of Local Government, the Institute produced a series of road-safety films, including Mr Careless Goes to Town (1949), Safe Cycling (1949) and Accident Procedure (1966). The NFI also collaborated with Department of Posts and Telegraphs and An Post to produce films that encouraged people to save in lean economic times: Where Does the Money Go? (1954), Our Money at Work (1957), Love and Money (1961). And A Nation Once Again (1946), and W.B. Yeats: A Tribute (1950) were made for the Department of External Affairs.

When the IFI Irish Film Archive collection came to be created in the mid 1980s, the material from the distributing library was at its core. We also began to gather material from government departments who were in the process of changing from using film to video tape, and so had no need to hold on to their film collections.

Some of the largest collections were those deposited by Bord Fáilte (The Irish Tourist Board), the National Road Safety Association and the National Museum of Ireland’s folk-life collection. Other films come from the Department of External Affairs and subsequently the Dept. of Foreign affairs, the ESB, the Defence forces, Bus Éireann, Irish Dairy Board, and the Departments of Tourism and Transport. We also have films from Fianna Fáil.

Fústar: I believe quite a number of Irish film/TV luminaries were involved in the production of these films (particularly back in the 50s/60s).Can you mention a few names who were closely involved/associated with these productions?

Kasandra: Many of the films of this type are noteworthy for their high production values and for the calibre of those involved in their creation. Luminaries of the Irish acting world such as Micheál MacLiammóir, Cyril Cusack, Maureen Potter, Milo O’Shea, Siobhán McKenna and Niall Tóibín make appearances, and, at a time when the Irish film industry was under-developed and opportunities for technical training were limited, important figures in the Irish filmmaking community such as Liam O’Leary, Robert Monks, Colm Ó’Laoghaire, George Fleischmann, Gerard Healy and Rex Roberts were often involved in making these kinds of films.

Fústar: The title of this blog refers to a well-known 1980s water safety advertisement. I’ve been unable to track down a copy of this, and neither have Irish Water Safety themselves (I’ve been in touch). As I understand it, the archive doesn’t house many such films from the 80s on. Can you explain why this is and the problems associated with acquiring such material?

Kasandra: Unfortunately during the 1980s much of the public information films that were produced were made for television rather than for the cinema, and as such did not find a natural route into our possession, RTÉ may have a copy of campaigns they have run on television as they have a very good archive. In addition many of the films began to be made by advertising agencies rather than production companies and those titles often remained in the collections of those agencies rather than being held by the organisation or Department that commissioned them. We traditionally have little interaction with the advertising industry and I have found it difficult to set up a mechanism through which more recent public information or safety films are deposited with us for cultural and educational purposes.

A search a few years ago in an attempt to locate and acquire copies of recent tourism and road safety campaigns proved fruitless, there was a general uncertainty within the commissioning organisations as to where they might be held and who owned the rights to them. There are often so many different types of organisation involved these days, public private, semi state, commercial etc. and this reduces the likelihood of the end product coming in to us for posterity. The days of a staff member in for example the Dept. of Tourism finding a can of film on a shelf and ringing us to ask if we will look after it are unfortunately over, that film will most likely be in an external agency who will hopefully keep a copy for their own archive. I would love to have the resources to do a proper audit to try and to identify what campaigns or films are out there and to gather them into one collection which was accessible to the public. But unfortunately in the current economic climate and with so many different agencies/departments involved it would be quite a task.

Fústar: So, essentially, there is no formal process for transfer of state films to an archive, and no designated repository for the preservation of this material? Is this situation likely to change do you think? Are other European countries different in this regard?

Kasandra: In many other European countries there is a system of Statutory Deposit for film materials, in the same way that there is in Ireland for books. This ensures that a copy of all moving image material that is produced in that country, that falls within the definition laid out by the state, is automatically added to their national film collection. In Ireland film is not legally assigned to the care of any particular National Cultural Institution, so it is not covered by the rules of statutory deposit. As the IFI Irish Film Archive is not an official National Cultural Institution we have no legal right to insist people or organisations deposit a copy of any moving image material they produce with us.

The existing National Cultural Institutions are already stretched and do not have the specialist facilities to look after moving image, even though they would technically be the legal place of deposit for state records; however there is scope in the current legislation for an organisation such as the National Library or the National Archives to designate another organisation (such as ourselves) to look after film on their behalf. Although this has been previously discussed it has never been done, in the absence of any legal mechanism to collect and preserve Irish film we have put in place our own agreements with the main Irish funders of moving image BAI, IFB and Arts Council. Through these agreements we manage to preserve a large amount of indigenous film production each year, but anything not funded by these organisations does not have to come in to us.

Unfortunately preserving and archiving moving image is an expensive and technically challenging activity and it is difficult to see how the situation is likely to improve given the ongoing economic situation.

Fústar: I believe that the archive also contains numerous amateur films (“home movies” as it were). Can you tell us a little about this type of archived material, and how it usually reaches you?

Kasandra: For the last 20 years The IFI Irish Film Archive has dedicated itself to collecting, preserving and making Ireland’s moving image history accessible to the public. In that time we have amassed a collection of over 27,000 cans of film. In addition to the features, newsreels and documentaries you might expect to find in a national moving image archive, we also have a large and incredibly rich collection of amateur films made by non-professional filmmakers. Regular people who used their cine-cameras to record the world around them and the things that were important in their lives.

Their films are not only a personal record of their friends, family and interests, but are snapshots of the time they were made, often recording an Ireland and way of life that would otherwise be forgotten. Ireland doesn’t have as rich a history of indigenous professional production as other Western countries, which makes these non-professional representations all the more significant. This material gives us an alternative view of Ireland one that reflects the personal interests of members of the population, and these films are often the only record of a specific event, places or a particular aspect of history, culture and society.

Over time these films can often grow in value and meaning. A film of a family or local event may now be a fascinating record of a custom that has died out or of a landscape that has altered beyond recognition, even though this information was incidental to the filmmaker’s intention at the time of filming. Although many of the amateur collections deal with the things we ourselves probably record – family life, holy communions, birthdays, the arrival of a baby into the family, holidays and local activities – there is also variety amongst the non-professional genre with material ranging from lovingly shot records of family life and events of personal interest to amateur attempts at animation, travelogues, documentary and indeed even non-professional takes on Hollywood genres.

The oldest non-professional collection we hold was made by Horgan Brothers’ films (1910-1920), and contains some of the earliest moving images of Ireland in the archive’s collection. The Horgan Brothers were cinema owners in Youghal who screened their newsreel style films to the public in their cinema. Youghal Gazette excerpts include footage of people leaving mass, praying at Declan’s Well and enjoying a trip to the seaside and the first Irish animation from c.1910 featuring a pirouetting town hall clock. A few years ago we held a Home Movie Heritage Day, where we invited a selection of Home Movie makers to choose one of their films from the IFI Irish Film Archive’s collections and to share their celluloid memories with the public explaining what their film meant to them. It was the first Irish event of its kind and was quite a touching event in many ways as it really showed the power of the moving image to connect generations.

Amateur collections are mostly offered to us by the filmmaker or a member of their family. Often they no longer have the equipment to be able to view the footage or may have had it transferred to DVD, but usually they contact to us because they realise the film has some evidentiary or social value and they are eager to see it preserved in an organisation that will make it available for cultural purposes. We work with the depositor to catalogue the footage and to ensure we have all the information we need to ensure the film they have placed in our care is as well documented as possible, and therefore a richer source for future generations.

Fústar: Have many of these films (I’m thinking of the public information films here, particularly) been publicly shown since the time of their original release? Have any been released on DVD?

Kasandra: We screen these films from time to time within the IFI’s exhibition programmes and a number of years ago we made an 8-part TV series for TG4 called Seoda which drew on the collections preserved in the Archive. This included a number of information or State sponsored films which are described below, the DVD is still available for purchase from the IFI’s Filmshop.

Our Country (1948)

  • Our Country was funded by the political party Clann na Poblachta, and was produced by O’Laoghaire in 1947 in advance of the 1948 general election. The film directly confronts the harsh realities of life in Ireland at the time and is interspersed with addresses from Noel Hartnett, Dr Noel Browne and party leader Sean MacBride TD.
  • Portrait of Dublin, made for the Department of External Affairs in 1952, was designed to promote Dublin to its inhabitants and to potential visitors from abroad. The elegant Georgian squares, the bustling markets, the tranquil parks and the sparkling nightlife present a city that is vibrant, cultured and steeped in history.
  • Coisc an Gadaí/Stop Thief is a dramatised film in which a young Dublin girl becomes gravely ill with diphtheria and her parents are filled with remorse for their failure to immunise her.

Turas Tearnamh/Voyage to Recovery (1953)

  • In Turas Tearnamh/Voyage to Recovery a young man (Joe Lynch) contracts tuberculosis to the dismay of his wife (Joan O’Hara) and to the shame of her aunt (Marie Keane). He
    recovers following a long spell convalescing in a TB sanatorium.
  • In Cá nImíonn an tAirgead?/Where Does the Money Go? A housewife wastes food and electricity, a young woman fritters away her earnings on hats and magazines, and a bachelor puts his money on horses, greyhounds and into the barman’s pocket.
  • A Thaisce agus a Stór/For Love and Money is a bizarre, cautionary comedy starring Milo O’Shea and Maureen Toal as young office workers whose engagement is doomed unless they create some financial security. He daydreams about wildly heroic ways to secure his fortune before doing the decent thing and sorting out his Post Office Savings account.

Love and Money (1961)

Fústar: Are there any plans to release packages of such material in the future? I know that the Charley Says… DVDs released in the UK by Network have proven very popular with audiences old enough to remember (and be haunted by) such material from their childhoods…

Kasandra: We may include some more of these films in the next series of Seoda, there certainly is enough material there, in the meantime some films are available on line here: http://www.europafilmtreasures.eu/

(by fústar)

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5 thoughts on “Diphtheria, Tuberculosis and Holy Communions: The IFI Irish Film Archive

  1. nlgbbbblth says:

    Excellent interview. “No formal process” is a salient, if somewhat unfortunate, truth. Must get a copy of that Seoda DVD.

    • fústar says:

      Cheers, Paul. Glad you enjoyed it. For Love and Money, with Milo O’Shea (pictured above), looks pretty glorious for a public information film.

  2. David. says:

    Keep on looking for that “Where’s Grandad” advert.Would love to see it again as would anyone else who remembers it.

  3. Gemma says:

    Ronald was actually my grandad so lovely to read with his name in etc.. Thank you

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