The re-release of Peter Lennon’s 1968 documentary on Ireland’s fraught relationship to change reveals a filmmaker transfixed by the faces of his subjects
‘What do you do with your revolution once you’ve got it?’ The question that animates Peter Lennon’s recently re-released 1968 film Rocky Road to Dublin at first seems anachronistic. The revolution in question – the Easter Rising of 1916 – was half a century old when Lennon made his startling documentary on the cultural and political stagnation of his native country. But Rocky Road to Dublin is a film adrift from its time. It concerns a country frozen in pious regard for its own past; it addresses a future generation, free from repression. Long suppressed in Ireland, the film has had a curious afterlife as a key document of the revolutionary summer of 1968. A sure sign of its unsettling place in history was the nervous laughter that greeted recent screenings in Ireland – as though audiences were unsure whether the history unearthed in front of them was tragedy or farce.
Lennon’s answer to his question regarding revolution is stark: ‘you give it back to the bourgeoisie and the clergy’. In the mid-to-late 1960s Lennon, who was the Paris correspondent of The Guardian, had written a series of articles on the pernicious influence of the Catholic Church in Irish public and private life. After some controversy in the Irish media he managed to recruit Raoul Coutard (renowned cinematographer of the French New Wave) and producer Victor Herbert (who had originally financed Samuel Beckett’s Endgame in 1958) for a documentary about Ireland’s nervous relationship with secular modernity: ‘a personal attempt to reconstruct with a camera the plight of an island community that survived more than 700 years of English occupation, and then nearly sank under the weight of its heroes and clergy’.
Lennon reveals an unhinged society: oscillating between the rigours of tradition and the flux of the future. The film opens on the beach that Stephen Daedalus miserably trudges along, weighed down by nationalist history and religious observance, in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). Schoolchildren recite by rote ‘the effects of original sin’ and ‘the chief obstacles to chastity’; an official of the Gaelic Athletic Association fulminates against ‘foreign games […] English games’; in a sequence of increasingly embarrassing scenes one Father Michael Cleary (then a famously ‘trendy’ priest, later revealed to have been less than chaste) tries to croon and glad-hand his way into his congregation’s affections. And in a sober passage the names of numerous authors banned in Ireland scroll down the screen.
If that were the extent of Lennon’s insight, his film would be merely a dutiful polemic against the usual grim eminences of mid-century Ireland. But Rocky Road to Dublin is also another sort of film: a documentary transfixed by the faces of its subjects. Whether this is a matter of Coutard’s distracted interest in visual texture over political import is impossible to say. What is certain is that the true radicalism of the film is in the way it frames the faces of women. For all its anti-clerical fury Lennon’s script is assuredly of its era in its almost total silencing of Irish women. Certainly some of this is beyond the director’s control: the only woman who speaks more than five words does so necessarily off-screen, recounting (anonymously) the preposterous counsel of a parish priest regarding her sex life.
The central tension in the film is most obvious in a scene in which some politely radicalized students at Trinity College, Dublin, decry the political strictures on the country’s press. Ardent young men hold forth in fury, but Coutard’s camera is intermittently drawn to the face of one woman who looks as though she is about to speak; finally, just as Coutard cuts away, her sole interjection – ‘how can you say that?’ – is abruptly silenced by the monologic ire of another would-be radical. Time and again Coutard discovers these women, who seem to know something about Irish history and about what it means to live in its patriarchal shadow, but whom the ostensible narrative of the film has failed to notice. A young bride looks briefly distraught at the centre of a traditional wedding. A girl with a perfect Jean Seberg haircut – maybe Coutard caught the reference to Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) – looks slyly at the camera rather than at her slow-dancing partner.
On its release Lennon’s film was swiftly denounced by the conservative press in Ireland and effectively doomed to obscurity – it ran for seven weeks at a Dublin cinema and then vanished before being briefly resurrected at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival, where it was the last film to be shown before Godard and others announced that they were shutting down the festival. Rocky Road burnt itself into the retinas of that season’s radical students; before long it was being shown in the basements of the Sorbonne and celebrated as a warning about the easy traducement of revolutionary ideals. But I wonder how many fervent soixante-huitards noticed, at the margins of that lesson, those faces that not even a radical critique of the Ireland of the time could quite admit were part of the picture.
First published in Issue 97