Seven tourists are standing in an upper floor of a derelict tenement building, now preserved as a museum or installation space. A woman, acting as a pregnant mother in period dress, speaks in a Dublin accent about how she lives like the gentry here, not that the gentry are known for buying second-hand bonnets in Capel Street. As she speaks, coughing can be heard from a neighbouring room, and she wishes her children dead, so as to spare them their long, drawn-out illness. One or two of the tourists incline their heads sympathetically. She turns away from them as the wheezing becomes more pronounced.
One could say that Pat Collins is a filmmaker concerned with Irish identity, but this would not be quite right, as he is just as interested in Irish difference. His body of work to date, in its movement between essay, documentary, and biopic manifests the restlessness in idea in motion and thus appear to us remote from convention. His most recent film, Song of Granite represents something of a culmination of his work to date, and, with the recognition that it his is a career still underway, provides us with an opportunity to consider his major works in sequence.
John McGahern: A Private World is the first of Collins’ portraits of artists living in remote parts of the country. Collins’ interest in the landscape is already manifest, with long, reflective shots of ferns, large bodies of water and McGahern walking through narrow laneways with his dog. These shots are imbued with the spaciousness and composition of footage one would expect to find in an installation, over which McGahern recalls his childhood, or reads selections from his prose. Despite the scenery, it is a film more concerned with the world within than the world without. When McGahern does speak of society at large, it is a distant and risible thing; he describes the banning of his novel The Dark as ‘foolish’ and says he did not appeal the decision because he thought the novel was not worth the effort. McGahern’s deliberate manner of speaking, only raising his voice in relaying the words of an embittered Irish emigrant in London, work in tandem with Collins’ tendency to ruminate upon landscape and allows the film to attain the stately atmosphere of McGahern’s fiction, serving just as well as an adaptation of McGahern’s works as it as does as a documentary on the man who wrote them.
Despite the film’s focus on isolated settings, politics begin to seep in, as McGahern mentions Free State failing to live up to the promise of the 1916 proclamation. In McGahern’s description of his adolescence in Leitrim, where guards patrolled ‘roads in which nothing happened…beside a phone that never rang’, we can discern a subterranean Irish history, one in which the functioning of the state was remote from people’s everyday lives. McGahern sees Ireland, not as the arms of government, but composed more of people and families, ‘thousands of little republics’. McGahern theorises that this has determined the shape of our literature, that at times when national identity is strong, the novel predominates, whereas when the individual identity is stronger, poems or short stories are the result. Given what he has said about families composing states in their own right, it is clear that McGahern’s sense of national identity, has little to do with Irishness.
At one point,McGahern reflects that while the Catholic church has faded as a fulcrum of Irish life, he’s too old to predict what might take its place. This is a question which Collins’ next film, What We Leave in our Wake takes as its starting point. The film opens on Croagh Patrick at dawn, to the sound of a crowd of people hiking up the rocks along the mountainside. The film begins to deteriorate, as scratches and other cinematographic artefacts appear at the edges of the frame. The nature of the pilgrimage itself is ambiguous, many of the pilgrims wear hiking gear and almost none of them are barefoot, suggesting the pilgrimage may not be strictly religious as a ritual. The crowd negotiating fragments of rock typifies What We Leave in our Wake, an inquiry into Ireland’s transitional state, awaiting the arrival of a new, potentially post-Catholic dispensation. Unlike A Private World, the discussion is dispersed and wide-ranging, taking in a series of historians, writers, authors and scholars who each discuss Irish life and Irish values, over long, lingering shots of rural landscapes. Collins also begins to make use of the archive. From a snippet of a documentary on punitive rehabilitation, we move to a close-up of Father Peter McVerry who speaks about the failure of the state to provide healthcare or economic security to emigrants, heroin addicts and the poor. McVerry then fades away, leaving only his voice, speaking over footage of distressed people on a dock waving goodbye to their relatives. One might think here, of the approach of British documentarian Adam Curtis who also makes use of suggestive footage in addition to his own, specially shot film. Unlike Curtis, however, Collins’ argument is often implicit and functions by subtle juxtaposition, the movement from one topic to another without the subsumption of everything to a polemic of epochal decline.
What We Leave in Our Wakeis far more attentive to the cultural than the economic,and promotes a modern revivalism whereby Ireland’s rich cultural history might remedy its political problems. Declan Kiberd, one of What We Leave in Our Wake’s foremost voices, cites William Butler Yeats, Seamus Heaney and James Joyce as examples of writers whose works have dug into Irish place and history, shaping the future by re-engaging the past. The crowds climbing Croagh Patrick return, with some people moving up and others moving down, the crowd seeming to form a coherent thread in their collective dialectical movement. Desultory speeches from former Taoiseach Brian Cowen about securing the future through austerity budgeting serve as reminders of the post-2008 regime, a time in which public life conceived the future, in variations on ‘there is no alternative’. What We Leave in Our Wake equivocates here, between these impersonal forces of managerialism and the growth of ‘permissiveness’, or individualism, which culminates in some uncharacteristically easy visuals from Collins, with the Celtic Tiger-era spire looming high over the statue of Jim Larkin, or a group of people waiting at traffic lights to cross onto O’Connell bridge (read: ‘the masses’), while a voiceover informs us how bovine and depoliticised they have become.
There is something quite simplistic, too, in What We Leave in our Wake’s cleaving to the ancient past, or the 1916 Proclamation as sources of transformative change, without acknowledging the contradictions of authentic nationality in an Irish context. Indeed, Kiberd’s assertion that Ireland should embody a ‘mixture of forwardness and backwardness’ by providing the unborn and dead with votes, seems to partake far more of the latter than the former. Fortunately, these notions of Irishness come under pressure in Tim Robinson: Connemara. Tim Robinson, the subject of the film, is a cartographer and visual artist who lived for many years in the west of Ireland, writing psychogeographic accounts of the region and tracing local geographies and histories. Robinson begins the film by critiquing Celtic revivalists such as Yeats or John Millington Synge who came to the west of Ireland in order to mediate it for their Dublin audience. Rather than treating the landscape as an abstract Jungian archetype, to be excavated by poets or politicians, Robinson’s Connemara is abject; the story of a man losing his way on the way home from the workhouse and dying from exposure in a storm is emblematic. Collins’ camera is focused on the uneven and rocky terrain, in which Robinson seems diminished, relative to the scale of the landscape, which ‘no single science, not even all the sciences put together, can read’. Despite Robinson’s decades-long attempt to map the area, he believes the wholeness to be artificial: ‘Sometimes, rarely, a scrap of a voice can be caught from the universal damage, but it may be an artefact of the imagination, a confection of rumours’. Collins’ editing begins to ape Robinson’s theoretical mysticism by rapidly interleaving scenes of rural life; a conversation between two men sitting at a Marian grotto, families watching the television, church-going, rowing contests, youth club discos, graveyards, over an ambient soundbed interspersed with inaudible voices, shouting and calling, until all ascends into a voiceless confusion.
Collins’ first feature, Silence opens with a recording artist named Eoghan, travelling from Berlin to his childhood home, in the Irish north-west. In the first hotel he stays in, a bartender tells him about an island off the coast of Scotland, which has been uninhabited for fifty years. However, the starlings on the island have passed the man-made sounds of the island’s former inhabitants from generation to generation. Eoghan is uninterested, explaining that he is trying to record places as far removed from man-made noise as possible. However, the bartender’s anecdote remains troubling. Eoghan is enacting the inverse of folklore collectors travelling west in the early twentieth century, in trying to get away from people and their stories. But if man-made sounds embed and reproduce themselves in the natural world, is it possible to escape them? The Beckettian monologue which is delivered by Patrick O’Connor about the loudness of ancient places and the palimpsestic nature of the Irish landscape, suggests not.
Eoghan is a reticent figure. His conversation with his partner in Berlin is drowned out by a passing train and he often seems uncomfortable in the frame, wandering out of it, leaving the camera to linger on his ambient microphone. Though he rebuffs the bartender talking about starlings, as he moves closer to Tory Island, where he grew up, he begins to engage more with the people he encounters. A local in Ballycroy provides us with the most dialogue-heavy portion of the film, and most of the film’s thematising happens here. Eoghan avoids questions about his family, suggesting of a past he has yet to deal with. After dinner, the man encourages Eoghan to sing ‘The Rocks of Bawn’, but he does not know it. He can recite the verse of another Gaelic song, telling the story of a man who leaves island life for the mainland, only to return years later, to find his lover dead, and the community he once knew changed. It is in this potential loss of tradition in Silence that Collins’ revivalist melancholia re-asserts itself. However, it is asserted with a crucial difference. One section of the film is given over solely to archival footage, in which eight islanders, seven men, one woman and a dog, travel out on a boat. The boat travels out from shore for a while, while one of the men seems to be doing something with a stone and a rope. The dog is then thrown overboard. We see it struggling in place for a while, before the camera cuts back to the boat, and then back to where the dog was, reduced now, to a patch of disturbed grey water, beginning to smooth itself over. It’s a stark and upsetting sequence of images, but also an injunction against the kind of nostalgia that might otherwise hang over archival recordings, a depoliticised hauntology as in Reeling in the Years when film grain seems already to summon up a soundbed of yesteryear’s pop music. Collins’ refusal to present islander life, or the past, as better, or more pious for its remoteness enacts a break with the straightforward revivalism of What We Leave in Our Wake.
After visiting the Inishbofin heritage museum, and speaking to the woman who works there, about the trauma of moving to the mainland, Eoghan travels out into the woods and builds a fire, recording it and himself singing the fragments of the Irish song he remembers. Eoghan seems to have reconciled himself to a fusion between the natural world and human-led encounters, perceiving that one has the capacity to enhance the other. When Eoghan does return to his home on Tory Island, its status as a community is emphasised. People stepping off the boat are embraced by their families, and he has a warm conversation with an older man who remembers from yers ago. His childhood home resounds with man-made sounds, in the form of childhood remembrances and ghosts of the past, the rattle of cutlery, footsteps from upstairs, his mother calling. One thinks here Virginia Woolf’s ‘broken words, inarticulate words, like the shuffling of feet on pavement’. In Silence, the past is an agonistic multiplicity, and not something straightforward enough to just mourn or to be nostalgic for.
Living in a Coded Land is Collins’ second essay film, and considers, the post-colonial nature of lived experience in Ireland. This theme is introduced by Conor Cruise O’Brien, who addresses the camera directly, on the need to formulate a progressive Irish nationalism which breaks from the tradition of violence. Pádraig Lenihan then describes the sheer scale of the carnage at the Battle of the Aughrim in an idyllic farmland where the battle took place over three hundred years ago, interspersed also with footage of Orangemen marches, long funeral escorts and police trucks circling barricades. Collins’ archival quotes are becoming less allegorical and more recognisably argumentative, Living in a Coded Land also has clearer targets, with a digression on the architecture of the Protestant big house, followed by a shot of former Taoiseach Charlie Haughey exiting his own. After this, we see a well dressed assistant county engineer, Keating, descended from the great Irish historian Geoffrey Keating, former owner of the nearby Moorstown Castle, driving down a road in county Tipperary. Keating inspects the work of a local man named Michael Cleary, dressed in work clothes, while a voice chirpily informs us that ‘Michael’s ancestors might easily have worked for him’. One could go on, there are plenty of vignettes through which Collins sketches the vector of modern Irish history through the history of land ownership and capital accumulation. Thomas McCarthy’s contribution provides the film with its title, explaining how the Irish establishment takes shape: ‘those who wish to be part of the establishment soon learn how to live in a kind of coded life, they know what to criticise, they know what to praise…they know when to remain silent’. From these broad heights of four hundred years of modern history, to the most local perspectives possible, with Paddy Heaney talking about depopulation and successive governments failing to install requisite infrastructure in Ballymacadam, Living in a Coded Land is focused on Ireland’s haves and have-nots and how each sustain themselves.
The film’s political analysis is most indebted to historian Conor McCabe, who with help from Seán Ó Faoláin and Heather Laird, describes the growth of the class which has historically directed state policy in Ireland. McCabe refers to them as the ‘comprador class’, arguing that they are present in every colonial regime as the intermediary between foreign capital and state resources. While initially they were large farmers in the midlands who exported capital, in the seventies, they became an urban class of stockbrokers, accountants and lawyers, replicating the pattern of most advanced capitalist states. Fortunately, Collins does pass over Ireland’s comparatively uneven relationship with other non-white settler states such as India, as can be the norm in discussions of Ireland and post-colonialism. This emphasis on exports and dependence on foreign investment rendered Dublin effectively a warehouse port; with no skilled workers or native industry, unskilled labourers were highly expendable to the production process. This outline of our unique precarity, which endures to this day, is outlined while Tony MacMahon plays traditional reels on the accordion for UCD students in the early seventies. Towards the film’s end, we hear the voice of folklorist Henry Glassie, who, in an interview with Vincent Woods, talks about the contextual and historical nature of art. Glassie speaks on the impossibility of bringing a universal vision of judgement and that everything requires interpretation in its own context.
It is a sentiment that exists in a certain degree of tension with Collins’ Song of Granite, a biopic of the folk singer Joe Heaney, though not a biopic in any straightforward sense. There is no attempt to reflect or to create the drama of Heaney’s life, rather it is a film more invested in feeling than biographical details. In addition to using archival footage of Joe Heaney he is played by three separate actors, one for each particular stage of his life. We begin with Joe’s childhood, which subverts in all respects what we might expect from a representation of Irish childhood, particularly one of such acute material deprivation, in Connemara in the twenties. However, the island community seems particularly close-knit, with houses full of people listening to folk tales, his teacher noticing his singing talent, or being taught to catch lobsters with his father. One finds waiting for the moment in which a drunken relative or abusive teacher might hit Joe, but it never comes.
Rather than, as one might expect from conventional biopics, showing Joe getting his first big break, or having addiction problems, the film takes all of Heaney’s life at once as its subject. At one point, Heaney monologues about his place in a sweep of history, from the pre-Christian Partholón, to Newgrange’s construction, to the Mongol hordes to the USSR. This becomes most visible at a fifteen-minute or so section of the film given over to a session in a pub. At this point, Heaney is living in Glasgow with his family as a labourer point in Heaney’s life in which he worked in Glasgow as a labourer in the fifties. Heaney sings ‘The Rocks of Bawn’ alone and then a number of contemporary Irish musicians such as Radie Peat, Damien Dempsey and Lisa O’Neill, perform. After the session is concluded, and after being interviewed by a journalist on the nature of sean-nós singing, Heaney returns to his home in Glasgow. All the singers appear to be playing themselves, which presents the question, is this session happening in Glasgow, or in Dublin where it was shot? Is this whole scene a metaphor for the kind of timeless milieu that folk culture can engender, in which boundaries such as time and space are suspended? As with all art worth considering in detail, the answers to questions such as these are largely immaterial.
In addition to positing his place within a history that is not just Irish, but also universal, the film points to Heaney’s inscrutability as a subject. As the film continues, we witness not Heaney’s spiritual education or musical apprenticeship but his disintegration. We see him working as a doorman, standing attention outside an apartment building in New York, interspersed with archival footage of him performing at the Newport Folk Festival, or walking along a Connemara beach with the Clancy Brothers. When we return to New York, it is the Connemara waves, rather than the sounds of the urban environment which predominates. Joe does seem to return home to Connemara at the end of the film, specifically to a field in which we witnessed him tie a piece of string around a tuft of grass next to a bird’s nest the film’s first scene. Fifty years later the string has remained, and the eggs have hatched, leaving only their fragments. This is obviously unlikely, so the eggs more likely to serve as symbols of maturity and renewal. Heaney then encounters his younger self and the milieu is transformed once more, as his younger self becomes Finn MacCool, meeting his older self, and re-enacting the salmon of knowledge myth. At Song of Granite’s conclusion, folklore and reality have become wholly intertwined.
Song of Graniteconcludes with a hand, writing in Irish, in reference to a man mentioned earlier in the film who confesses his sins on his deathbed through a poem on his bedroom wall. The words, translated, appear as follows:
Birds don’t sing songs of glory,
wings of ice,
that’s my story.
While recognising that Song of Granite is not be Collins’ last film, there is a certain appositeness to regarding these lines as a summation of his work to date. Collins’ is a filmmaker attentive to loss; failed states, fading traditions, faltering lives, but does not give in, either to despair or pretension. His concerned with lived experiences, even as they pose probing and resonant queries about ourselves and the future of our country. There’s no one else making films like his; they are worth your time.