Sunday, April 29, 2012

Review of The Rocky Road to Dublin

Film review-- The Rocky Road to Dublin (documentary by Peter Lennon, 1967)

The camera never lies. This truth is borne out by Peter Lennon's storied documentary, The Rocky Road to Dublin, which sets out to be an indictment of late-sixties Ireland, but now seems like a monument to a more innocent and cultured era.

The question Lennon poses at the beginning of the film-- "What do you do with your revolution once you've got it?"-- has now taken on an extra, ironic layer of meaning. Of course, Lennon was referring to the Irish Revolution that began in 1916 and ended in Irish independence in the twenties, or perhaps even in the declaration of an Irish Republic in 1948.

But since The Rocky Road to Dublin was made, there has been a second revolution in Ireland-- a social and cultural revolution-- and it is this revolution that is essentially being urged in every frame of the documentary. So of course the question now applies to that revolution, too. What has it achieved? Is Irish society today an obvious improvement on the Irish society recorded in Lennon's documentary?

Every viewer must answer that question himself, or herself. But for me the answer is an emphatic "no".

Lennon printed the film in black and white, even though it was shot in colour, because he felt it "was more in keeping with the tone of the film", according to Wikipedia. This is consistent with Lennon's whole approach, which is (it must be said) rather manipulative and selective throughout-- although it must also be conceded that he lets his subjects speak for themselves, and these interviews are the most revealing and interesting part of the documentary.

Lennon, who was at the time a journalist for the Guardian (no surprise there), sets out to portray the Irish society of his time as grey, conformist, anti-intellectual, and in thrall to a dictatorial Catholic Church.

The film begins with a heavily-bespectacled boy standing up in a classroom and reciting: "Because of Adam's sin we are born without orig-- we are born without santifying grace, our intellect is darkened, our will is weakened and our passions incline us to evil, and we suffering-- we are subject to suffering and death."

The documentary is setting out its stall straight away. These poor kids being forced to trot out all this nonsense about mythical figures and mumbo-jumbo! But anyone who had a Catholic education in the eighties or nineties will feel a certain envy, I think. My religious education in school, to a great extent, consisted of pop psychology, and of watching "inspiring" feature films in religion class. When I did receive solid catechesis, mostly from an adorable old nun who treated us to Rollo chocolates, I found it fascinating. How is knowledge ever a bad thing? Even for a non-believer, isn't it good to know something about the teaching of the Church, if only for its historical and cultural importance? And it is obvious that catechesis doesn't take away from the rest of education, for all Ruadhri Quinn's claims, since Catholic schools have always tended to outperform non-denominational schools.

The film moves on to its credit sequence, over the titular song, "The Rocky Road to Dublin" by the Dubliners. (The Dubliners, in fact, supply the whole soundtrack.) The camera tracks through scenes of a beach, a country road, two priests on bicycles, and the skyline of Dublin. Everything looks cleaner and prettier than it does now-- no traffic-clogged roads, no fast food joints, no jeans or tracksuits, and next to no litter anywhere.

Peter Lennon narrates: "This is a personal attempt to reconstruct for the camera the plight of an island community which survived more than seven hundred years of English occupation, and then nearly sank under the weight of its own heroes and clergy. More than half a century ago at Easter 1916, the Irish made yet another attempt in a centuries-long history of insurrection to break free of England. A rebellion led by poets and socialists, it was one of the first attemps by a small nation to throw off a colonial power by force. It was also the ambition of these idealists to awaken a lethargic and indifferent Irish population to an ideal of freedom."

This, it has to be said, is the version of Irish history that has been established in the popular mind. But how true is it? It is, of course, true to say that the 1916 Rising was led by "poets and socialists", insofar as the Marxist James Connolly was one of its leading lights, and his Citizen's Army fought alongside the Irish Volunteers. But they were a minority, and it seems fair to say that most of those who fought in 1916-- like Patrick Pearse, his brother Willie, Joseph Plunkett, Con Colbert and Eamonn De Valera-- were committed Catholics. In fact, even James Connolly received the last rites prior to his execution, when such an act could have had no propaganda benefit for him.

It has often been said that the majority of those who fought in 1916 were educated by the Christian Brothers, whose ideals of faith and nation-- "for the glory of God and the honour of Ireland", as their motto ran-- motivated the insurrectionists. In fact, Kevin O'Higgins, who was a member of the first Dáil and a leading figure in the Irish Revolution, famously said: "we were the most conservative-minded revolutionaries who ever put through a successful revolution."

Of course, this itself is a slight distortion, since there were undoubtedly radical elements involved in the struggle for independence, but it seems truer than the history propounded by Peter Lennon in this documentary-- and by Ken Loach in his artistically excellent but historically misleading film, The Wind that Shakes the Barley.

The first interviewee is Sean O'Faolain, the short story writer whose radical journal, The Bell, anticipated the second Irish revolution-- that is, the social revolution. Funnily enough, even he appears in the documentary as a rather quaint, genteel and archaic figure, sitting in a garden smoking a pipe, wearing a grey suit and a sober tie. "The kind of society that actually grew up", he says, "is a society of what I call urbanised peasants-- a society which was without moral courage, which was constantly observing a self-interested silence, never speaking in moments of crisis, and in constant alliance with a completely obscurantist, regressive, repressive and uncultivated Church." (No mincing of words there). "A society of blatant inequalities and in which the whole spirit of '16 has been lost."

O'Faolain, along with other critics of post-revolutionary Ireland, cites republicanism as the ideal of 1916 and the War of Independence. But was it really? Was the political philosophy of republicanism, to those who fought for independence, more important than the actual vision of the Ireland that would emerge-- one that usually concentrated on the Irish language, Irish folklore and traditions, and indeed Christianity? Pearse, the guiding spirit of the Rising, called for an Ireland that was "not free merely, but Gaelic as well; not Gaelic merely, but free as well". Modernists who cite the Proclamation of the Irish Republic usually cite the phrase, "cherishing all the children of the nation equally". But they tend to ignore the fact that the very first phrase of the Proclamation is "in the name of God."

For such a celebrated documentary, I can't help thinking The Rocky Road to Dublin is rather clumsily put together. One sequence features the Royal Dublin Horseshow, for no obvious reason (though Lennon rather implausibly tries to link it to the decline of the British Ascendancy in Ireland). Conor Cruise O'Brien, the intellectual and politician, is interviewed and gives a long account of Ireland's foreign policy-- which seems rather irrelevant to the overall theme of the documentary. Later on, there is a protracted scene of a man "playing the spoons" in an Irish pub. (Where would you see that now?) It's fascinating to watch, but again seems out of place.

There is a short wordless scene in which we see the then-new housing estate of Ballymun, where I grew up and where I am sitting right now, as I type these words. The grey towers and flats that it shows are now mostly pulled down-- one block of flats is actually being slowly demolished at present-- and good riddance to them, I say (with a faint twinge of nostalgia). But the tracts of green space that the camera shows in this documentary is all built over now, and the vandalism and litter that is almost omnipresent in Ballymun is also absent from the footage.

Lennon shoots a long sequence in a pub, which he does his very best to make gloomy and melancholy, with many shots of vacant and pensive faces-- and where couldn't you find such faces? But for all his efforts, I think most pub-goers of today will feel envious of the drinkers in the film, who have communal sing-alongs of Irish ballads rather than big-screen TVs and pop music drowning out conversation.

We move on to a section which shows a hurling match (and which does not neglect to zoom in on two Catholic priests enjoying it from the stands, doubtless in a sinister fashion). Lennon focuses on certain controversial rules of the Gaelic Athletic Association (the governing body of hurling and gaelic football, which are at the moment more spectacularly popular than ever). At the time of the documentary, the organisation had rules against its members playing "foreign" games such as soccer and rugby, and also had a law against members of the British security forces taking part. Both rules have now been removed, the second one in recent years, the first one not long after Lennon's documentary. But of course the rule against foreign games had a very practical motive-- it was a kind of athletic protectionism, to create a space for native games to flourish. And it worked.

The Assistant Secretary of the GAA, who is interviewed but not named, explains: "It is necessary, of course, to understand that this rule is retained democratically; the Association has a democratic system which is even more democratic than the normal parliamentary system. This rule could be changed at any time that a majority of the members of the Association wish to have it changed." We should at least give Lennon credit for including that explanation, which rather weakens the case he is trying to make.

There are some comic aspects to the documentary. The captions are so large, square, declarative and blunt that they remind one of Monty Python's "How to Recognise Different Trees" skit. And during one sequence on industrialisation, a Japanese gentleman in heavily-rimmed glasses (there are lots of heavily-rimmed glasses on display) explains that he is teaching Judo to the workers in the Guinness factory.

Another scene shows a group of Trinity students, gaunt and cigarette-smoking and dressed in polo-necks, overcoats, and shirtsleeves discussing censorship and the failings of the Irish press. Of course they are laying into the Church, the press, and the conservatism of RTE, rather stridently and excitedly. But where will we find such earnest, intellectually serious, publicly-spirited students today? Where are the sort of students we read about in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or even At Swim Two Birds or Anthony Cronin's Dead as Doornails? Do today's university students sit around in pubs arguing about politics and philosophy and emancipation? I've worked in a university library for over ten years now. I find the students to be polite, friendly and entirely endearing. But the conversations that I overhear, and the posters that I see around campus, leave me under no illusions that they are the heirs of Stephen Daedalus and the young Anthony Cronin. Could it be that something in grey, conformist, Catholic Ireland was propitious to that kind of student earnestness?

Lennon does not fail to linger on Ireland's censorship laws, which were indeed a sitting target. A long list of the names of writers banned in Ireland rolls down the screen at one point, to the sound of funeral bells, and though I am not against censorship on principle, it is hard to defend the laws that obtained in the Irish state for so long-- although I have often thought that the Playboy of the Western World riots, censorship of books, and so forth was a sign of a public more culturally alive than otherwise. Who would riot at a play today? Who today would take the power of ideas so seriously as to call for a book to be banned?

Perhaps the most remarkable part of The Rocky Road to Dublin is the extensive footage of Father Michael Cleary, the original "Father Trendy". We see him singing a pop song in a hospital ward, giving a speech at a wedding breakfast, and sharing a cigarette with some grave-diggers. We also hear him eloquently defending the Church's requirement of priestly celibacy, despite his own avowed desire to be married and have a family. "I believe that I get the tremendous power from God-- the power to recreate His body on the altar-- you know, I give him back a gift in return. Now, to someone you love and love deeply and to whom you owe a lot, you don't just give him sixpence-worth or a shilling's worth, you give him something that hurts, something you feel. And if I didn't miss marriage and all that goes with it, it wouldn't be a sacrifice..."

Of course, the irony is that Father Michael did not make such a sacrifice-- after his death, it was revealed that his housekeeper had been his common-law wife for 26 years, and that he had fathered a child by her. This, along with a similar revelation about Bishop Eamon Casey, is often cited (truly or falsely) as one of the catalysts of the Irish Catholic Church's decline in the nineties-- although it seems small beer compared to the horrors of clerical sex abuse that emerged later.

But for all his hypocrisy, Father Cleary seems like a rather amiable character, and nothing he actually says seems objectionable. The scene that shows wedding guests singing Irish patriotic ballads-- all of which they obviously know by heart-- makes me sad that we have lost so much of this folkloric heritage.

But at least Father Cleary and the other "forces of reaction" have the courage to appear on screen. A female voice, which we are informed belongs to a young wife, informs us (over footage of a sea-shore) that priests are always "on the men's side" when it comes to matters of sex and childbirth, and criticizes Church teaching on birth control. I imagine that Lennon could have found many female interviewees who were entirely supportive of Church teaching on sex, and who would have been happy to show their faces. But they do not appear. Just a disembodied voice over footage of the sea.

Perhaps the most poignant and haunting interview in The Rocky Road to Dublin is with Professor Liam O'Brien, a member of the censorship appeal board. Lennon must have seen this guy as a gift from heaven; he is almost a caricature of a hopeless reactionary, with sunken cheeks, wrinkled face, a shock of badly-combed white hair, a sober black suit and tie, and a habit of sucking his teeth for emphasis. He complains of the "horrible noises" of contemporary music and the "strum strum stum" of guitars. He denounces "pop orchestras", complains that the idea of sin has been abolished, and declares that "the Church is preparing for the fight, for the future fight against the future thought of mankind, and I am full of faith that...shall I say...that the gates of Hell shall not prevail."

So Lennon was probably rubbing his hands with glee as he edited this particular footage. But in fact it is actually the bewildered-looking, rather wild-eyed Professor O'Brien who makes the most insightful contribution to the whole documentary.

In the closing moments of the film, after denouncing "pop orchestras" and other aspects of modern culture, he says: "To give it its due, it is a break away from what was, into what is and what will be, and I suppose it will all acquire a character, acquire a tradition, it will acquire a...a mellowness which is not there yet. I think that's what's wrong with it really, that we are at a beginning of a new age, really a wonderful age in the world, but at the beginning of it, and therefore it hasn't any, so to speak, traditional character about it yet. But it's gaining it every moment, every day. And I wish it well, I wish it well. I won't see it. That's about all I can say about it."

The last shot of Professor O'Brien shows him looking rather pensively and sadly into the middle distance, as if he is doubtful of his own generous words. And isn't it clear now that they were, indeed, too generous?

Has popular culture, modern culture, consumer culture, attained the depth and maturity and mellowness that Professor O'Brien hoped for it?

Or has it become more lurid, more shallow, more dumbed-down and illiterate as the decades rolled on? Are the X-Factor and Damien Hirst and Beavis and Butthead the fruits that Sean O'Faolain had in mind when he sought liberation from an obscurantist Church?

Is the Ireland of 2012-- the Ireland in which we are becoming more and more acquainted with drug-addiction, gang warfare, prostitution, sex shops, homelessness, suicide, murder, family breakdown and tidal waves of clinical depression-- really closer to the ideals of the 1916 Rising than was the Ireland of 1967, as recorded in the Rocky Road to Dublin?

Is this the Ireland that Peter Lennon and those earnest Trinity students dreamed of?


  1. One unintentional irony of the documentary's claim that the ethos represented by Professor Liam O Briain represented a betrayal of the radicalism of 1916 is that O Briain was in fact a 1916 veteran!

  2. That's really fascinating! I found Professor O Briain an intriguing figure and I was looking for more information about him but I couldn't find it. So thank you very much!

  3. you are blind to the reality of the times (and perhaps even the present) that this film exposes. you seem to long for a time in which religious teaching was beaten into students and people didn't dress themselves in such things as sinful as jeans. you're missing the point from your disappointingly blinkered viewpoint.

    Reading this reminded me far too much of the time that I read a review of the film Brokeback Mountain in the Irish Catholic.

    I sincerely hope you don't teach any students in UCD

  4. Don't worry, I don't. I'm sorry you didn't like the post.

  5. Thank you for your very eloquent and precise review. Of course, these are YOUR personal views, and i disagree with almost all of them. However, since i have spent much of the last two days reading whatever i can find about this film, i must admit i found YOUR piece singularly contrary to the common train of thought and as such perversely refreshing

  6. Thank you, Bruno. I aim to be perversely refreshing. Seriously, though, many thanks for your kind words.