Labour past, on land and sea
The Irish Film Institute - National (IFI) is bringing two extraordinary Mayo films home to Castlebar for a very special evening of footage, music and memories at The Linenhall Arts Centre next week. The Mayo Ciné-Concert will feature ‘Waters of Providence’, a film on Foxford Woollen Mills made in 1947, and ‘Whaling Afloat and Ashore’, a film on the whaling station at Inishkea South made in 1908. These cinematic records are extraordinary not just because of the unique window onto the past that they open, but also because they have survived in such a fine state.a
Live musical accompaniment will be provided by acclaimed musicians Colm and Rossa Ó Snodaigh of Kíla and renowned harpist Cormac de Barra. The trio will use instrumental, percussive and vocal elements to score the films, bringing them to life largely through traditional and contemporaneous music and song.
The idea for the ciné-concert was born from the hugely successful 2010 screening with live musical accompaniment of ‘The Seasons’ – a silent film made in Kilkelly in 1935 by local dispensary doctor and amateur filmmaker Dr John Benignus Lyons.
Foxford on film
Speaking to The Mayo News, IFI Curator Sunniva O’Flynn explained that ‘Waters of Providence’ was made by Fr Francis Browne SJ. Many people are familiar with the priest’s photographs, particular his iconic images of the Titanic and its passengers and crew taken during his journey on the ill-fated ship from Southhampton to Cork, where he disembarked. Father Browne also made documentary films, but only scraps of most of his film footage survive. ‘Waters of Providence’, however, survives in its entirety.
“The film was probably commissioned by the Sisters of Charity, who set up the woollen mills in Foxford [at the end of the 19th century],” reveals O’Flynn, adding that it was likely meant to celebrate the work of the woollen mills, particularly in creating employment in the village. The mill served to stave off wholesale emigration and sustain the local community and its vibrancy.
O’Flynn believes the film is extremely valuable, as it provides ‘a very comprehensive document of a particular industry within a small rural village’. “The film shows exterior shots of the village and the people coming to work, and then there’s lengthy and fascinating sequences taken within the mills, documenting all of the processes that take place, from the arrival of the raw wool to the various cleaning and weaving processes to the creation of the Foxford blankets and other textiles for which Foxford then became famous.
“It also presents aspects of labour relations that we don’t see in many other films. It’s especially interesting that the bosses in the mills at that time were nuns, so you see the workforce stopping at midday when the bell rings and they stop to say their prayers. There’s a very perceptible religious ethos running through the workplace. We see people blessing themselves as the approach their work, for example. It’s a really vivid reminder of how the place of the Catholic Church has changed in Ireland.”
O’Flynn is particularly excited to be bringing ‘Waters of Providence’ back to Mayo, and she hopes it will evoke many memories for people with connections to the mill – memories and associations she’d love to hear about. “We’ve made a particular call out to people in Foxford to come and see the film in The Linenhall, and we’ll be very happy to leave a copy of the film in the woollen mills for people to refer to as well.”
‘Whaling Afloat and Ashore’ is a fascinating film made by Robert W Paul, one of Britain’s first recognised documentary filmmakers. He was probably invited by the Arranmore Whaling Company to come to Inishkeas in 1908, soon after the whaling station opened, to document its activities. Sunniva O’Flynn would also be delighted to hear from audience members on the night who may have stories or information about the whaling station and the people captured in RW Paul’s footage.
Like ‘Waters of Providence’, ‘Whaling Afloat and Ashore’ provides a record of the early period of labour activity in Ireland. “The film opens with the sighting and harpooning of a whale, the bringing of the whale back to the whaling station, and its dismemberment,” she explained, admitting that it is a little gruesome. Products from the whaling station included oil, whalebone and cattle food – “You see that all of the parts of the whale are used.”
The footage also includes a more charming side of life at the whaling station, however. “It was a Norwegian-owned station at that stage, and so you see Norwegian whalers, who I understand used to come over seasonally for six months of the year and live on the island and work along side the local workers. We see the Norwegian and Irish whalers at play together. There’s a terrific sequence at the end of the film where you see them singing – it’s a silent film, but you imagine they’re singing sea shanties – there’s a funny little game they play too to keep them entertained at the end of a whaling day.”
The Mayo Ciné-Concert takes place at the Linenhall Arts Centre on February 5 at 8pm. To book tickets (€10 each) contact the Linenhall box office on
094 9023733. The IFI and the Linenhall Arts Centre acknowledge the financial support of the Arts Council.
Sound of silence
On February 6 the IFI is running a workshop on film and music for schoolchildren at the Museum of Country Life at Turlough House.
The three musicians involved in the Mayo Ciné-Concert will help the schoolchildren understand how music is used to amplify emotion and to anticipate action on screen, and to help them to create their very own score to a film.
To find out more, contact Deirdre Power, Education and Outreach Officer, at the museum.