Film History: The Cinema of Ireland.
In time for St. Patrick’s Day, we explore a brief history of the vibrant Cinema of Ireland.
The tiny nation of Ireland is a veritable giant when it comes to cinema. Ireland boasts one of the highest per-capita rates of cinema going among its citizens. The allure of the movies spread to Ireland early, with famous author James Joyce opening the first theater at the beginning of the 20th century. Since then, Ireland has become an important producer of film, first serving as a welcoming location to prominent directors from Sidney Olcott, to John Ford, to Stanley Kubrick. When Irish film makers established their own production company in the 1950’s, it ignited a string of critically lauded creations from Academy Award winners like A Lion in Winter to prestigious television shows such as the Golden Globe nominated The Tudors.
This quick tour through some of the highlights of Irish cinematic history will act as touchstone as we explore in depth several interesting Irish films, actors, and directors over the coming month.
Foundations of Irish Cinema.
Ireland adopted movie-going early, with community variety shows at the tail end of the 19th century incorporating silent film into their programs. With the establishment in 1909 of the Volta theater, Ireland established its first dedicated movie screening enterprise. This movie house opened in Dublin under the aegis of famed author James Joyce. Soon, other’s would follow.
Just one year later, the first film to be shot on location in Ireland arrived. Sidney Olcott, who produced, directed and acted in hundreds of films in the early days of cinema, based his film An Old Lad from Ireland in County Kerry. Of Irish descent, Olcott would go on to film a dozen short films in Ireland. If not for the advent of the second World War, Olcott would have established Ireland’s first production company nearly 40 years before Ardmore Studio.
Hollywood in Ireland.
Post-World War 2, Ireland became the favored filming location of several notable Hollywood directors. Robert Flaherty filmed an early, full-sound documentary (Man of Aran) in 1934. John Ford, famous for his westerns, and of Irish ancestry himself, filmed The Quiet Man starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in County Mayo. The film went on to win an Academy Award in 1952 for Ford, and received 7 nominations. Ford filmed several other projects in Ireland from 1935 to 1965.
Other notable movies include Douglas Sirk’s Captain Lightfoot (1955), Peter Collinson’s The Italian Job (1969), and Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975).
In 1958, Ireland saw the founding of its first movie production company – Ardmore Studios. The partnership of film producer Emmet Dalton and goverment minister Séan Lamasse, Ardmore would go through several formulations from the 1950’s through the current day, including a major renovation under director and chairman John Boorman (Excalibur) in the 1970’s, a ruinous withdrawal of federal funds that shuttered the studio in the 1980’s, and joint Hollywood/Irish partnership in the 1990’s.
The first era under Dalton and Lemasse saw a tremendous flourishing of acclaimed films. Shake Hands with the Devil (1959) was the first major production, followed by Oscar nominated The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), and Oscar winner The Lion in Winter (1968). It also produced more…interesting fare…such as one of our favorites here at Deluxe Video Online: Zardoz!
When the studio was reincorporated as MTM Ardmore in the late 80’s, a string of big films sparked a second wave of prestige. Daniel Day Lewis-led films such as My Left Foot (1989) and In the Name of the Father (1993) both were award magnets. Other films such as The Commitments made waves, and films using Ardmore’s facilities such as Braveheart increased the studio’s visibility.
In recent times, Ardmore pivoted to television, producing notable series such as The Tudors, Camelot, and Penny Dreadful.
Irish Film Board.
The Irish Film Board was established in 1981 to kickstart investment in Irish productions. When the board was closed in 1987, many Ardmore productions went abroad for funding. Their critical successes created pressure to reestablish the board, which happened in 1993.
Initial films saw limited international success. This changed with films such as The Wind that Shakes the Barley in 2006 made gains with both international critics and box offices. While the Board continues to focus on smaller, art-house style films, several other films funded by IFB have gone on to international success.
Two large contributions to the animated film industry have come out of Ireland over the decades. The first is Sullivan Bluth Studios, the third incarnation of legendary animator Don Bluth’s film studio. A sweetheart deal from the Irish Development Authority saw Bluth relocated from the US to Dublin, Ireland during the finishing of his hit, An American Tail. He went on to turn out several profitable films such as The Land Before Time series and All Dogs Go to Heaven. This marked the high water mark, as later film such as Rock-a-Doodle (produced partially at Ardmore) saw diminishing returns. Eventually the studio folded in 1995.
Like Ireland’s live action films, a second wave of critical success was in the offing. In 1999 Cartoon Saloon was founded, which quickly went on to capture accolades. Their animated features have become perennial Academy Award nomination magnets. Notable films include The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, The Breadwinner, as well as the Oscar nominated short film Late Afternoon.