By Roseanna Doughty |
Last Saturday I attended the Scottish premiere of A Terrible Beauty. This was the last instalment in the Secret Histories: Screening Irish History series, which was hosted by the Edinburgh Filmhouse, in conjunction with the University of Edinburgh’s School of History, Classics and Archaeology. Having gotten over the slight disappointment of not being able to glide over a red carpet, and finally finding a seat in what was a packed screen, I settled down to enjoy. Once again I was in for a treat as the Farrells’ story of the 1916 Rebellion proved insightful as well as entertaining; offering a window onto an aspect of the Easter Rising eclipsed by the events that took place at the General Post Office.
The series as a whole has been enlightening; introducing audiences to histories that are often overlooked in national narratives, whether because they are embarrassing or are outshined by more glamorous events. My personal favourite was The Magdalene Sisters, which incidentally should be rated Kleenex. It follows the story of three girls deemed to be fallen women and incarcerated in a church-run laundry to atone for their sins. Whilst the film is fictional, the Magdalene laundries were very much real and existed in Ireland until the last one was closed in 1996. Although the uncovering of the Tuam mass grave recently prompted renewed interest in Church-run orphanages and Industrial schools, little attention has been spared to the fate of these women. Historian Lindsey Earner-Byrne’s Q and A session following the film was particularly informative and she handled a controversial subject with great sensitivity.
By revealing hidden histories such as that of the Magdalene women, and opening up a discourse on why they have been neglected, the series has proved invaluable. What’s more, it demonstrated how effective alternative mediums can be in conveying history to both a public and academic audience. As someone whose knowledge of Irish history was for a long time courtesy of Liam Neeson (maybe I should not admit that!), I believe that film can play an important role in spiking interest. While there may be people wandering around with the misguided impression that Michael Collins also featured in Taken, at least Neil Jordan’s film provides them with a working knowledge of the events that led up to the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the formation of the Free Irish State. Yes, yes I know car bombs weren’t used during the Anglo-Irish War and de Valera was never at the GPO, but the basic narrative is correct. Certainly in Britain where history in schools focuses predominantly on the ever-popular Nazis and little else, films are often our first introduction to important historic events, yet too often they are pooh-poohed by academics.
As I once heard an eminent scholar state, however, historians are just jealous of film-makers as people actually pay to go and see their work! As Laura admirably pointed out last week, if something can inspire people to investigate a subject further it should be celebrated. This series was more than an exercise in popular history though, it brought academics and the public together allowing us to learn from each other. Questions asked by people with backgrounds in law, accounting or who had lived through similar events, brought fresh and interesting perspectives to the proceedings.
Overall, the film series has been a great success, as attested to by the numbers who attended each showing and we will hopefully be able to enjoy a third series in 2016 (maybe next time they’ll even stretch to a red carpet).
 Audrey Hepburn
(Photo 1: http://www.1916film.com/ (© Tile Films 2012) ; Photo 3: www.wikipedi.co.uk; Photo 4: www.wikimedia.co.uk)