Launched on 18 Dec 2013, this blog is about current affairs of both past and present, and about sharing your stories, photos, videos, and healthy outrage with opinions in the pursuit of positive change. To encourage it, I have posted parts of my journal of hope called Twenty-One Years that inspired this blog, along with articles, photos, and those of others. Bad news laced with poisonous and misleading stories is easily got somewhere else.
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Tuesday, March 7, 2017
Rocky Road To Dublin
Peter Lennon's film about Ireland called The Rocky Road To Dublin was feted at Cannes and adopted by the revolutionaries of 1968. But in his home country, cinemas refused to screen it. Peter Lennon explains why:
In the 1960s, I was a freelance journalist living in Paris and working for the Guardian, which sent me home to Ireland to cover the Dublin theatre festival. Soon after my arrival, my drinking friends began trying to convince me that Ireland had shed all its shackles. "Nobody pays any attention to the clergy," they said. "Censorship is a thing of the past." I didn't really care one way or another, living in Paris, but finally I asked the newspaper to let me stay on in Dublin for a few weeks. The result was a series of articles with headlines like Climate of Repression, Students in Blinkers, and Grey Eminence (about the archbishop of Dublin).
The uproar lasted more than a year.
I then got the idea - outlandish, for someone who had never shot a foot of film in his life - of making a film on these themes. In the result, Rocky Road to Dublin, completed in 1968, Irish society condemns itself out of its own mouth. Brainwashed school kids admit casually that their "their intellect was darkened, their will weakened and their passions inclined them to evil"; patriotic sportsmen confirm that any member of their organisation, the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), who plays or even looks at a "foreign" game such as soccer or cricket will be expelled; university students of the newish republic tell how they are not allowed to discuss politics on campus. We counted up the modern writers who had works banned in Ireland: Truman Capote, André Gide, Hemingway, Orwell, Salinger, Wells. And Irish writers from Beckett to O'Casey to Shaw.
The Archbishop of Dublin, convinced he could outwit this renegade exile, had agreed to give me a "swinging priest" to follow for two days: Father Michael Cleary. Fr Cleary gave a perfect illustration of how Ireland's KGB - the clergy - operated. They were your father, your brother, your non-drinking drinking pal; they would sing the Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy for you if you were dying in hospital. They were there to remind you, in the friendliest way, of your inherent tendency to evil and extol the virtues of celibacy. (Decades later, we discovered that Cleary, who died in 1993, was seducing his 17-year-old "orphan" housekeeper, already a victim of child abuse, at the time we were filming him.)
Could I get this work past the censor? Observing no procedures, I arrived at the censor's office with the film under my arm and insisted on sitting in while he, a journalist I knew, did his job. After the viewing he said, memorably: "Since there is no sex in the film, Peter, there is nothing I can do against you."
But there was something they could do: they could stop it being screened in cinemas or on the television channel RTE. On Saturday, when we screen a new documentary, The Making of Rocky Road, at the Cork film festival, Ireland is going to discover for the first time how it smothered Rocky Road for three decades.
The press got a first glimpse of Rocky Road when I held a screening in Dublin. Sensing scandal, I was invited on to RTE's Late Late Show. The show had a hatchet-man - someone I knew. Two minutes before I was to go on air, he said to me: "Oh, hello, Peter. I just got back from America. I didn't know you'd made a film." Two minutes later he was on air informing the country that the film had been made with communist money. (Rocky Road was, in fact, fully financed by an American businessman friend, Victor Herbert, who notably backed the English production of Endgame in Paris.)
Later on, a tousled hack from the Irish Press appeared, saying: "The news editor just got me out of bed. I didn't get a chance to see your film." It didn't stop him writing: "The Ireland of Peter Lennon - for him all is blackness here, from birth to grave ... he fears he is wandering through a dark, dismal chilling tunnel ... he professes no religion."
In that brainwashed society, anyone who stepped outside the pale was assumed, in the most natural way, to have no rights. When I protested, the response was: "Jaysus, what did you expect?" Apart from the Irish Times, whose critic Fergus Linehan championed Rocky Road over and over, and later Sean Kearney in the old Sunday Independent, the press coverage was mostly atrocious.
I entered what was the first Irish feature-length film of any significance for the Cork film festival in 1967. How could they reject it? By disqualifying it on the grounds that it had had showings in Dublin - one screening for about 18 people. But, to the amazement of the Irish authorities, the film was selected to represent Ireland at the Cannes festival of 1968. The idea that an Irish feature film that was good enough for Cannes could not be screened at Ireland's only film festival was just too much.
So Cork gave us a screening. It was at lunchtime, on the day they had invited all the media out of town to a free oyster-and-Guinness lunch in Kenmore, 70 miles away. So we hired a hall the next day, causing more scandal. With the financial potential a scandal offers, one Dublin cinema took the film and ran it for seven weeks to gleeful audiences.
For the next three decades Rocky Road wasn't shown, except for some late-night screenings at small festivals in the 1990s. No cinema manager in Ireland wanted to offend the parish priest - or indeed himself - by showing it. It was out of the question that RTE, a tool of church and state, would ever transmit it.
The explosive power of this film was provided by Raoul Coutard, Godard's and Truffaut's "new wave" cameraman. Coutard's famous skill and intuition (he spoke almost no English) made it possible to get to the very comical, moving and dreadful soul of my fellow countrymen.
Then came a development that I still look back on with joyful disbelief. Imagine your country obliterates your first film and another country promptly decides to put on a revolution, apparently just for you. So it was that Cannes became a glorious revolutionary cradle for my poor, abused, exiled offspring.
The students and film makers shut down the 1968 festival in mid-flow, but somehow Rocky Road was the one film that spoke directly to the moment. Its explicit theme was: what do you do with your revolution once you've got it? That was exactly the question the students wanted answered. (Unfortunately, as far as Ireland 1916 was concerned, the answer was that you gave it back to the bourgeoisie and the clergy.) The students adopted Rocky Road and screened it in the vast amphitheatres of the Sorbonne, which was still besieged by riot police, and even passed it on to the workers occupying the Renault factory.
After that, we received a very different sort of press coverage: from Le Monde, Cahiers du Cinema, Positif, Paris Match; massive coverage in Life, a feature in the Herald Tribune ("Irish revolt stirs Sorbonne circuit"); and, from the New York Times, this judgment: "Rocky Road to Dublin makes it outrageous, if not impossible, for outsiders to ever again see Ireland only in comforting cliches."
We celebrated; Ireland persisted in sulking for decades. But the Irish Film Archive finally gave it a home. And last year, Rod Stoneman and the Irish Film Board agreed to finance the restoration of the old film and the making of this new documentary.
On Saturday, the mummy comes out of its tomb.
All this revives the crucial question. Did Irish politicians ever succeed in freeing themselves from what we describe in the film as "that terrible and fatal connection between church and state"?
In 2002, the Catholic Church did a deal on the payment of compensation to the victims of slave labour, physical abuse and rape in convents and industrial schools. The Irish government agreed that - unlike in Canada and Australia - the church need only pay one-quarter of the compensation, and the taxpayer the other three-quarters. So today there are victims of rape and slavery, now adults, helping to pay their abusers' fines. In addition, the government has guaranteed the religious orders indemnity from civil prosecution.