Gael Linn GLDVD02; 132 minutes; 2007
Saiorse? (Irish for ‘freedom’) was the 1961 successor to George Morrison’s highly successful film Mise Éire. Again Seán Ó Riada provided an orchestral score, performed by the Radio Éireann Symphony Orchestra, though the music also includes a brief solo by the Dublin uilleann piper Tommy Reck. Said soundtrack also features on a separate CD contained within the DVD package.
Morrison replicates the techniques espoused by Mise Éire, though this time his editing together of contemporary photographs and newspaper material is embellished by the rapid expansion of newsreel photography during the second decade of the twentieth century. However, whereas Mise Éire, which recounted the development of Irish nationalism from the 1890s until 1918, was an avowedly optimistic work, Saiorse? provides a bitter counterpoint, emphasized by that interrogative in the film’s title.
The film encompasses events in Ireland during 1919 to 1922, unquestionably the most brutal years in Irish history until the onset of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Morrison’s editorial montages recount the drive towards Irish independence and the bloody war against the British which ensued, and concludes with the even more bitter civil war fought between forces for or against the 1921 Treaty of Ireland (which established an Irish Free State in the south and a UK-adherent Northern Irish province in the north).
Though restricted by the range and availability of his documentary sources, Morrison’s film pulls no punches and provides a gripping account of three desperate years. Much of the newsreel cinematography is of astonishingly high quality, not only in capturing key events as they happened, but illustrating just how adjacent camera operators were to often violent action – not least the film’s closing section depicting internecine warfare on Dublin’s O’Connell Street.
Ó Riada’s score is less successful, not least in his use of a discordant harpsichord as a symbol of clashing forces and his main theme does bear an alarming similarity to Gaudeamus Igitur. Overall, however, it’s Morrison’s editorial skills which swing the verdict in the film’s favour while the work itself reveals in hindsight how little the then British government understood about Ireland and how much said incomprehension would carry over into its policies in Northern Ireland for thirty years from the late 1960s.
This review by Geoff Wallis was written for Songlines magazine – www.songlines.co.uk.