October 2012        

George Morrison honoured by the Progressive Film Club

On Saturday 30 June the Progressive Film Club made a presentation to George Morrison in recognition of his great contribution to Irish cinema.
     The presentation was made during a question-and-answer session that George Morrison had generously offered to conduct after the screening of his two seminal films, Mise Éire and Saoirse? He was joined by the film-maker Ciarín Scott, whose documentary film on George Morrison, Waiting for the Light, was the last film to be screened in the day’s programme.
     There was a warm and dynamic exchange between the members of the audience and the two directors, and George Morrison was visibly pleased to be asked about the stark differences between the two films made about the historic era of Ireland’s emergence as an independent state following the 1916 Rising. He has always urged that the two films be shown together, in order to appreciate the contrast in atmosphere, which he says he intended to capture because of the very different emotions evoked by the two eras of conflict.
     The era of the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence, 1919–1921, was a time of unity in armed struggle against a mighty imperial army, which inspired similar struggles elsewhere against various colonial powers, and was a time to look back on with pride.
     However, the next era of conflict, the so-called Civil War, produced divisions and enmities that were to last for generations and that is impossible to look back on without shame and regret from all quarters. Possibly it is this era that we need to study and analyse in order to understand the present divisions within our society and to explore the wasted opportunities of establishing a just and equal society in the structuring of the fledgling state.
     Understandably, the popularity of Mise Éire was not replicated with Saoirse?—a much more difficult film to watch. George Morrison related how he had asked Seán Ó Riada to compose music of a dissonant nature for Saoirse? to reflect the themes of rupturing of loyalties and fracturing of friendships in the Civil War. He also confirmed, in answer to a question, that he had insisted on the question mark in the title, for obvious reasons.
     Ciarín Scott’s film on George Morrison’s life is wonderfully put together, with carefully selected pieces of archive footage, as befits a filmmaker who received formative training from Morrison himself. He pioneered filming techniques and methods of preserving film that was in a state of decay and made several other films on very different themes, such as These Stones Remain, also called Rian na gCloch (1971), about the sculptural heritage of Ireland’s Golden Age, Two Thousand Miles of Peril (1992), about the work of lifeboatmen and fishermen, and Dublin Day (2007), which documents the sites in Dublin of Joyce’s Ulysses, as well as his first film, which was Dracula (1942)—never completed, because of the wartime shortage of film.
     George Morrison was elected to Aosdána in 2005 and in 2009 was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award (Volta) at the Dublin International Film Festival. He has also been honoured in France and in 1957 was made vice-president of the inaugural congress of the Bureau International de Recherche Historique Cinématographique.
     The day’s screenings began aptly with a documentary film that made extensive use of actuality film from RTE and other archives. The film is Scéal na Laoch, which tells of the heroism of a group of Dublin parents who campaigned long and hard to have an Irish-medium primary school established in their area. The film was made by a daughter of one of those parents who was herself one of the first pupils to be enrolled in Scoil an tSeachtar Laoch in Ballymun. Deirdre Bhreathnach was present at the screening, as were many of the people instrumental in setting up the school, including Colm Ó Torna, who took photos for the news magazine Saol, and Tommy Gibson, whose children and grandchildren have all attended the school.
     The naming of the school was decided upon because the seven sixteen-storey towers of the Ballymun housing project were named after the seven signatories of the Proclamation of 1916. Members of the audience were amazed to see live film of Patrick Pearse and Thomas Clarke in Mise Éire, giving a sense of immediacy and of the people behind those enormously significant historic events. This is what George Morrison’s work has encapsulated for ever, and the people of Ireland are in his debt.

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