Visions of Ireland

Gael Linn’s «Amharc Éireann» Film Series, 1956–1964

by B. Mairéad Pratschke (Author)
©2015 Monographs VI, 287 Pages
Series: Reimagining Ireland, Volume 65


The Amharc Éireann film series (literally translated as Views/Visions of Ireland) was a cultural nationalist project sponsored by Gael Linn, an organization whose mandate was the revitalization of the Irish language through the use of modern media and technology. It was produced by Colm Ó Laoghaire, a member of a well-known Irish literary and nationalist family, the Plunketts. As the first and longest-running Irish-language documentary and news-film series, Amharc Éireann represented an attempt on the part of a few committed Irish-language enthusiasts to present Ireland to the Irish in a way that would instil a sense of pride in the country, and to promote the language in a way that the public would accept. Created during a period of rapid social, economic and political change, it reflects and records the dramatic transformation of Ireland from a rural, underdeveloped and relatively isolated nation into a modern member of the international economic and political community.
This book, the first full-length investigation of the Amharc Éireann series as a historical artefact, makes an original and important contribution to our understanding of the complexities of twentieth-century Irish history.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Chapter One: Introduction
  • Part 1: “The Eyes of Ireland” short documentary films
  • Chapter Two: Industrial and rural development
  • Chapter Three: Landscape, heritage tourism and women’s work
  • Part 2: The “Gaelic News” reels
  • Chapter Four: National commemoration and symbolic locations
  • Chapter Five: Decolonization and diaspora
  • Chapter Six: Industry, urbanization and architectural heritage
  • Chapter Seven: Rural life and new technology
  • Chapter Eight: Irish language and culture
  • Conclusion
  • Postscript
  • Bibliography
  • Filmography
  • Index
  • Series Index

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I would like to express my gratitude to Stephen Heathorn at McMaster University and Imre Szeman at the University of Alberta for their generous mentoring throughout my doctoral studies and their unflagging support in the years that followed.

A special note of thanks goes to Jim Rogers, who got this project started by enthusiastically publishing my first work on the series in the New Hibernia Review, and to Terry Byrne at The College of New Jersey, who invited me to share my research with the Irish Studies Seminar at Columbia University.

I am especially grateful to Sunniva O’Flynn, Curator at the Irish Film Archive, who went to great lengths to facilitate my research, and to Máire Harris at Gael Linn, who generously responded to my various requests for information and material.

But most of all, I am grateful to my parents, John and Máire Pratschke, who instilled in me a love of learning and language, of adventure and discovery and of personal and intellectual growth from the earliest days. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for your endless love and support. ← vii | viii →


86-year-old Peter Cloherty and his two sons, Marcin and Joseph, at work. 14 May 1959. Reproduced with permission from the Irish Photo Archive.

← viii | 1 →



This book is about the representation of Ireland in a series of short documentary films and newsreels made in the 1950s and 1960s called Amharc Éireann. The title means Views of Ireland in Irish, and conveys exactly what the producer and sponsors intended – that Irish cinema audiences look at images of Ireland, rather than of Britain or the United States – or worse, at foreign-made representations of Ireland. The Amharc Éireann series was sponsored by Gael Linn, a cultural organization whose purpose was, and continues to be, the promotion and protection of the Irish language and culture through the use of modern media. The films are all in Irish, and the series constituted the first of its kind in Irish history.1 This is Ireland for the Irish, a cultural nationalist project that finally put the native language on the screen.2 Irish-language filmmaking began with the Amharc Éireann series. Indeed, it was the risk taken by Gael Linn in producing it that led to the sponsorship of the other, higher profile Irish-language productions such as George Morrison’s Mise Éire and Saoirse?

The period in which the series was made (1956–64) is generally seen as a watershed in Irish history, during which Ireland began its economic, ← 1 | 2 → political and social transformation into a modern member of the international community. Production began during a deep depression and the series’ lifetime overlapped with the much-applauded recovery and rapid growth of the economy over the following eight years. It also coincided with the post-war revival, which saw an increased awareness of the need to protect traditional Irish culture from destruction. This began with the growth of Irish-language publishing in the 1940s and ended with the political and social movements for language rights in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Ireland’s entry into the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973 marked the end of an era for the Irish language movement. Ireland joined as the only member-state whose first and official language was not recognized as an official language of the EEC. This act – or lack of action – marked the culmination of decades of neglect and poor planning on the part of a state that had failed in its half-hearted and misconceived attempt to save the language from the threat of extinction. It is ironic then that only recently, in the context of European Union measures to protect minority languages, Irish has actually begun to receive the attention it needs in order to survive.3

The Amharc Éireann series records and reflects upon this key period in Irish history, beginning in 1956 with short documentary films and proceeding in 1959 to newsreel format, before concluding in 1964. Louis Marcus used this archival footage to produce the 1996 historical documentary series, The Years of Change, shown on Raidió Teilifís Éireann. However, as Harvey O’Brien has argued, because of the uncritical use of the Amharc Éireann footage, the period “is robbed of its specificity by historical distance, and has been commodified and repackaged in a sanitized form as tamed history.”4 He therefore called attention to the need to critically engage with the history represented in the Amharc Éireann series and to ← 2 | 3 → assess the context in which it was originally filmed.5 This book does just that – using the visual content, Irish-language commentary and historical context of these films, it critically engages with the picture of Ireland presented in the Amharc Éireann series. What emerges is an Irish-Ireland6 perspective of the country, and a rather contradictory one at that: in the short documentary phase, the series presents a progressive picture of the country’s development, but in the newsreel phase there is a tendency – often expressed in the commentary – to resist the implications of modernization as it appears in the visual text. This unresolved tension demonstrates that Irish nationalists were caught in the same Janus-faced predicament as many other nationalist movements in the twentieth century.7

Irish cinema history

Irish film exhibition began on 20 April 1896 – only four months after the Lumière brothers’ first screenings in Paris on 28 December 1895 and exactly two months after the first screenings in London. During the early years, films were shown in village halls, on exterior walls, at village fairs or in any other available indoor or outdoor location. It was not until James Joyce opened the Volta in Dublin in 1909 that Ireland had its first cinema. ← 3 | 4 → Its opening was the catalyst for further development and by 1916 there were 149 cinemas and halls in Ireland. Although viewing conditions were comparable to those in Britain and Europe, with cinemas showing both non-fiction newsreels and fictional narrative films by 1910, the films that were shown in Ireland were almost always foreign-produced. The country’s island status and undeveloped industrial infrastructure made it very susceptible to the uneven development of the world cinema industry and by 1915 Hollywood’s was already the main product in Irish cinemas.

Irish nationalists recognized the propaganda value of newsreels and resented the foreign, particularly British, domination of the newsreel market in Ireland. Foreign companies – the Pathé Gazette, the Gaumont Graphic and the War Office Gazette during World War One – supplied the majority of the newsreel or actuality images shown to Irish audiences. For nationalists, films like the British Army recruitment film screened in late 1913 and early 1914 in Dublin’s Grafton Cinema were seen as British propaganda and provoked resistance by two of the radical nationalist constituent organizations, Inghinidhe na h-Eireann (Daughters of Ireland)8 and Na Fianna (The Fianna).9 Efforts were made to counter the overwhelmingly British influence on the market by showing Irish news films instead. In 1913 the Wolfe Tone commemoration ceremony was filmed and the footage shown sometimes as much as three times nightly.

Ireland’s turbulent political history between 1916 and 1923 made film exhibition difficult. During the War of Independence and the Civil War that followed, cinemas were attacked and even bombed. The Grand Cinema in Sackville Street was burned down in 1916 and threats were made on others, as authorities in Dublin Castle increasingly viewed them as potential meeting places for Sinn Féin suspects. In 1917 English-born Norman ← 4 | 5 → Whitten’s10 General Film Supply began the newsreel, Irish Events, which quickly established itself as a regular feature of Irish cinema programmes by filming events of interest to Irish audiences. It recorded a number of events with nationalist themes, including a Redmond rally in the Phoenix Park and the first footage of Michael Collins giving a speech in Armagh. One of the more controversial items was on the return of the Sinn Féin prisoners in June 1917, but others included the opening of the Irish Convention, the Phoenix Park demonstrations, and the Twelfth of July celebrations in Belfast. Irish Events eventually ran into trouble with the British authorities, however, when in 1919 it created a half-hour compilation newsreel, The Sinn Féin Review, which included a film of de Valera taken in Dublin following his escape from prison two months earlier. Predictably, the authorities prohibited the screening of the film. Once the military struggle began, the filming of such events became too dangerous for newsreel cameramen and the company ceased production in 1920.11

The Irish Free State that emerged from the debris was politically, economically and culturally conservative, shunning the foreign film imports that failed to meet the national moral criteria as outlined by the newly appointed film censor, James Montgomery, under the Censorship of Films Act (1923).12 The Irish government preferred to promote traditional cultural activities associated with rural life, such as storytelling, Irish dancing, music and singing to cinema and jazz, which were characterized as cultural invasions threatening to Irish social and moral life.13 At the same time, the introduction of sound to cinema spelled the decline in popularity of ← 5 | 6 → Continental productions, so that the majority of films seen in local cinemas became either British or American.

The introduction of British and American sound films prompted numerous objections from the Irish political establishment. Before becoming Minister of Finance after Fianna Fáil’s victory in the 1932 general election, Sean MacEntee supported the redirection of film distributors’ policies in the hopes of gaining an alternative supply of films, citing Russian director Pudovkin’s Storm Over Asia (1928), one of his revolutionary triology, as the type of film that should be distributed instead. A rather less cerebral objection was voiced by the President of the Gaelic League over the American and British accents accompanying sound films, complaining that the volume of English being spoken in Irish cinemas gave the English language an unfair advantage over Irish.14

Overall, however, it was the content rather than the sound of the films that formed the basis for objections. The conservative nationalism of the Irish state, which only deepened during the 1930s, created a mood in the 1940s that characterized film as a “celluloid menace.”15 American cinema was perceived as an immoral influence on Catholic Ireland, bringing images of infidelity, the destruction of the traditional nuclear family, and jazz music. Instead, the powers that be called for uniquely Irish values to be the mainstay of Irish cinema and promoted the idea of a Dublin Documentary Film Unit imbued with Irish Christian and Catholic history, rather than the Marxism and materialism of John Grierson’s British documentary movement.

American-made stage-Irish films like Smiling Irish Eyes (1929) prompted the first direct attack by an Irish group against an offending film, which was followed by other intermittent attacks and threats throughout the 1930s and 1940s. In 1934 an attack by republicans on the Savoy Cinema in Dublin and others throughout the country over a newsreel of a royal wedding led to its withdrawal, as well as the George V celebration film, Royal Cavalcade (1935), the following year. When World War II began, ← 6 | 7 → the Emergency Powers Order (1939) blocked the showing of films deemed prejudicial to the national interest and any film showing foreign troops could be withdrawn with as little as a complaint from a Dáil member. Even after the war, protests against the showing of British newsreels took place. Between 1949 and 1953, a series of incidents occurred involving young men identifying themselves as Sinn Féin members, who threatened some Dublin cinemas and instructed the management not to show newsreels on a variety of British topics.

Despite state censorship, between the 1920s and 1950s cinema going was a popular leisure activity. In the mid-1930s there were 190 cinemas in the Irish Free State and over eighteen million tickets sold. A 1953 study found that one third of the national population, one half in urban centres alone, went to the cinema at least once a week and spent 3.5 million pounds.16 The government cashed in on this by exacting a flat rate import tax on each film, as well as receiving money from the processing traffic between Ireland and England. When the British Rank Organization expanded in Ireland after World War Two, it took a major share in Allied Cinemas and Irish Cinema, both of which were owned by Maurice Elliman, and subsequently controlled the Irish distribution and exhibition market. By the 1950s, the peak of cinema’s popularity, exhibition was well established in Ireland, with annual admission in 1954 totaling 54,100,000.17 The introduction of television came later to Ireland than it did Britain and North America, so the cinema continued to prosper until the early 1960s. Once Teilifís Éireann was introduced in 1962, however, cinema attendance declined in Ireland as it did elsewhere.18

The history of Irish filmmaking is overwhelmingly a history of non-fiction film production, mainly thanks to the utter lack of interest on the part of the Irish Free State from its foundation and continuing with the ← 7 | 8 → Irish Republic until the 1980s in fostering a native film production industry. The first native Irish company to exhibit and distribute film was the Irish Animated Picture Company, whose projectionist, Louis de Clerq, made the first Irish documentary, Life on the Great Southern and Western Railway (1904). But in spite of sustained native output during the 1910s, including Walter MacNamara’s Ireland a Nation (1914) focusing on the life of Robert Emmett, independence did not bring a continuation of film production from the nationalists that found themselves in positions of power. For a combination of economic and moral reasons, the newly independent Irish Free State was reluctant to encourage native production. The insularity of the nationalist movement’s perception of culture meant that film production would have been associated with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and radical Sinn Féin, and was thus deemed to have a negative influence on social stability. Meanwhile, the economic and logistical problems faced by the new state left little room for interest in film production – there were other much more pressing areas of development to focus on and the conservative political establishment frowned on the potentially corrosive influence of film on its Catholic population. As a result, the American film industry’s position was expanded and consolidated, while European production was decimated – directly or indirectly – by the First World War.

Despite the state’s antipathy towards native film production, there were some significant developments during the 1930s. While the introduction of sound films effectively destroyed what remained of European cinema for the majority of the cinema-going population, regret over its loss by the intellectuals led to the formation of the Dublin Amateur Film Society in 1930 and the Irish Film Society in 1936. These film societies were an oasis in an otherwise parched cultural landscape for the soon-to-be first generation of Irish filmmakers; the source of inspiration, education and eventually action. It was in the 1930s that Irish productions found their feet, creating films in the tradition of the American Kalem silent films of the 1910s that focused on themes of Irish political history but using Irish resources. Some of the more notable productions included Denis Johnston’s Guests of the Nation (1935) based on the Frank O’Connor story of the IRA and two British prisoners, Tom Cooper’s The Dawn (1937), which drew its characters and background from Irish history and was made entirely with ← 8 | 9 → local resources from Killarney, and Donal O’Cahill’s The Islandman (West of Kerry) (1939) on life in the Blasket Islands.


VI, 287
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (November)
Irish language twentieth-century Ireland documentary film
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. VI, 287 pp., 9 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

B. Mairéad Pratschke (Author)

B. Mairéad Pratschke is a lecturer in the Department of History at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. She was born in Galway and grew up in Malahide, Co. Dublin, before moving to Canada with her family in the late 1980s. She holds an MA in European Studies from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium) and a PhD in History from McMaster University (Canada).


Title: Visions of Ireland