Friday, November 4, 2011

The IFI in Washington

The IFI has been working on a number of major projects in the US as part of Imagine Ireland, Culture Ireland’s year of Irish Arts in America 2011.

And so, as the curtain went down on Guests of the Nation; we raised a post-show glass to composers, foley and film-making artistes; snatched a very few hours of sleep and jumped on a train for our next engagement – a Ciné-concert at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.

This Other Eden: Ireland and Film

The concert was to be the climax of This Other Eden: Ireland and Film, a film series which ran in the National Gallery between Aug 27th and Sep 25th.  Curated by IFI International alongside Peggy Parsons – one of the most highly regarded film curators in the US – the film series looked at the relationship between storytelling, literature and real life as refracted in the kaleidoscope of Irish fiction and non-fiction film.

Ross Keane, Sarah Glennie and I arrived somewhat bleary eyed in the nation’s capital but soon rallied as we marvelled at its grandeur, at the spakling white government buildings and the tree-lined mall stretching away as far as the eye could see – a relief after the hustle and bustle of New York

Our first appointment was at the Irish Embassy in Washington where Kevin Conmy, Deputy Chief of Mission hosted a reception (coordinated by Deirdre Bourke and Noreen Hallinan) celebrating the success of the film series.  He welcomed guests of the National Gallery of Art, the marvellous Washington-Irish cultural group - Solas Nua;  of Culture Ireland and of the American Ireland funds. Also in town were a group of Irish Military History Society members – over on an American Civil War research visit. The guests were treated to a foretaste of the full ciné-concert when Aran island fiddler Dr Aine Ni Chonghaile (on a fellowship in Notre Dame, South Bend, Illinois) accompanied by the short film His Mother (1912) to the great delight of all – particularly the military historians who, as a group, were probably least exposed to silent film and music presentations but who responded in the most enthusiastic, untutored fashion with great guffaws of delight at the film’s charming narrative.

Deirdre’s fellow musicians, all from Inis Oírr, arrived into town later that evening. They were gathered to reprise their performance of Aran of the Saints (1932) (premiered on the Aran Islands, Summer 2011) and to present a further three films with music performed as solo, duet and full ensemble pieces. On Saturday morning Deirdre, piper, Micheál Ó hAlmhain, his daughter, champion harpist Caitríona Ní Almhain and vocalist MacDara Ó Chonaola arose bright and early, starbucked themselves, gathered instruments (bodhráns, pipes, a Norwegian fiddle lent by Ms Loretta Kelly and a Harp lent by Washington instrument maker, Eric Kemper) and headed for the breathtaking east wing of the National Gallery of Art. A rigorous day of practise followed  – rehearsals to date had been by skype - and now, after months apart, the team were to meet face to face to fuse their talents and create a traditional Irish soundscape for the films. After  a hard day’s work we headed to nearby Fairfax Virginia where the serendipitously-scheduled Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann / Irish Traditional Music Festival was taking place – a chance for me to distribute fliers for the next day’s event and for the  musicians to meet up with a handful of old friends and see some of North America’s finest musicians strutting their stuff.

We reconvened at the Gallery on Sunday to continue rehearsals and to prepare the auditorium for our concert.  The auditorium is a beautifully appointed  space – intimate yet with a 450 capacity. And then the audience began to arrive – a smattering of familiar faces from the Fairfax Fest; from the Embassy and from Solas Nua; and Kim Tomadjoglu from the American Film Institute. But more interesting perhaps were the hundreds of unfamiliar faces – regular Gallery attendees whose primary interest was in exploring new cinema, and in finding new ways of engaging with old cinema.  It was fascinating to expose this audiences (with probably no previous significant experience of Irish cinema) to an eclectic mix of Irish material – films about a short-lived whaling station on Iniskea, a surreal travelogue from 1922 featuring the ghost of Disraeli and President William Cosgrave’s mother, one about a peasant fiddler and finally the Catholic Film Society’s precursor of Flaherty’s iconic Man of Aran - all this and real live Gaelic-speaking Aran islanders too! 

National Gallery Curator Peggy Parsons summed up the success of the series thusly ….

“For the thousands who came to view the films (the total recorded attendance was 3,600), the series was both a wonderful eye-opener and a very palpable source of pleasure – surprising in terms of its depth, breadth, and novelty – with a coherent structure that afforded a concentrated view of Irish history, mythology and literature unlike anything else that has taken place in Washington in recent years.”

It was an honour to collaborate with this national cultural institution and to further the reach of our cultural exhibition programme through the support of Imagine Ireland – Culture Ireland’s programme of Irish Arts in the US.  A most welcome outcome of the project is a heightened interest in and receptiveness to new Irish cinema in Washington  and we look forward to an on-going programme of new Irish cinema at Solus Nua and at the National Gallery.

Sunniva O'Flynn
IFI Curator

For more information on IFI Irish Film Archive and it's recent IFI Irish Film Archive Preservation Fund campaign, featuring Saoirse Ronan, visit:

Visit Imagine Ireland website for more information on other events featuring Irish arts in America. 

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