Rocky Road to Dublin
1968Director: Peter Lennon
Cast: Irish, English
s Ireland celebrates the 90th anniversary of its historic 1916 Easter Rising on Monday, April 17th (the actual anniversary date is a week later on April 24th), one of cinema’s foremost responses to that short-lived but far-reaching rebellion is now widely available on DVD.
I picked up Peter Lennon’s 1968 documentary, Rocky Road to Dublin, during a recent trip to Dublin at the Irish Film Institute’s bookshop, where it was centrally advertised with a huge hand-lettered sign—a far cry from nearly four decades of effective banning. The DVD includes the 1968 film, restored in 2003 by the Irish Film Board, and an excellent Making of… companion documentary from 2004, directed by Paul Duane.
Sometimes compared with filmmaker Michael Moore, Lennon narrated Rocky Road himself. In the midst of 1960’s cultural and political ferment, he argued that the “weight of heroes and clergy” had nearly sunk Ireland and long since hi-jacked the aims of 1916’s “poets and socialists.” He was explicit that a “republic” required a society to match its politics. Rocky Road’s central question—“What do you do with your revolution once you’ve got it?—becomes the film’s refrain, paralleling the popular pub song by the Dubliners that gives the film both its title and its musical backbone. Lennon has not mellowed; in a Guardian article from last year, reprinted as the liner note, he called the Catholic Church “Ireland’s KGB.”
Although I would prefer brisker editing in some spots, the film has a sure and graceful look. Lennon wanted a “personal” look with hand-held camera and minimal lighting. French New Wave cinematographer Raoul Coutard shot Rocky Road in 1967 during his spare time, between work on Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black and Godard’s Weekend. Such openness to participating with new filmmakers on edgy projects was characteristic of the vibrant French film culture that exhilarated Lennon, an Irish journalist working as a junior correspondent in 1960’s Paris. Lennon had never made a film before, but he grasped that the French used film as writers used the pen—cinema-stylo, they called it. Already, Lennon’s visits home had produced a controversial series of 1964 articles in The Guardian examining Irish censorship, cultural isolationism, and the clergy’s grip on education and family life, which he developed in the film.
Rocky Road establishes its satiric bent at once, opening with footage of Christian Brothers students reciting rote Catechism answers about the human condition with dour certainty: “Because of Adam’s sin we are born without sanctifying grace, our intellect is darkened, our will is weakened and our passions incline us to evil and we are subject to suffering and death.” One feels a peculiar vertigo; it is so easy to imagine these twelve-year-old boys morphing into pinched-faced old men with a whiff of Taliban about them—and just then, the film cuts to The Dubliners’ rollicking title song. Later a list of writers, poets, and playwrights banned in Ireland scrolls down a black screen accompanied by tolling church bells. My Irish grandmother would call such juxtapositions “instigating,” and you can see right away that Lennon had insider knowledge about how to infuriate the earnest.
The film combines commentary, stills and archival footage, juxtapositions of music and segments, cinema verite slices of Irish life—class-based sports competitions (hurling and horse shows), life in pubs, street scenes and landscape, grim-faced couples at courtship dances and wedding receptions, a college discussion of censorship—with a series of telling interviews. These include the writer Sean O’Faolain on Ireland’s “society of peasants,” a Gaelic Athletic Association spokesman explaining why it banned even watching “English games,” an elderly member of the censorship board, film director John Huston, and an extended visit with the “progressive, modern” priest the Church, incredibly, offered to Lennon for the film. (“What was in their mind?” I can hear my grandmother asking)
We first meet Father Michael Cleary performing his own syncopated version of “Chattanooga Shoeshine Boy” for a small hostage audience of patients and nurses in a women’s hospital ward, whose faces register either a creepy transport close to swooning or the singular stiff resignation present when endurance is the only option. The camera lingers drolly on the priest’s thigh jouncing as he keeps time. Father Cleary also orchestrates a wedding reception’s every turn, chats with grave-diggers, and acknowledges to Lennon with apparent energetic candor that, “Sure,” celibacy is hard, “but I had seven years to think about it.”
As revealed in the DVD’s companion Making of …, Cleary was already sleeping with his teenage housekeeper during that interview. University College Dublin film lecturer Harvey O’Brien also wrote in his 2004 history of the Irish documentary, The Real Ireland, that she later published a sensational memoir about their affair and child. But the really arresting Father Cleary scene is that insinuating, self-satisfied hospital performance. I knew I’d seen it somewhere before. There’s a priest singing at a party in the opening scene of Peter Mullan’s film about 1960’s Ireland, The Magdalene Sisters (2002). His seductiveness, the damp-cheeked response of the women, and the arousal of the men watching—all cross the room visually in waves, leading to the back-room rape of a cousin that begins Mullan’s fictionalized account of the Irish Church’s wide-spread practice of simply locking up potentially wayward women for life in their chain of commercial laundries.
It’s tantalizing to wonder if Mullan had seen Lennon’s film and made use of this emblematic scene. Entered independently at Cannes in 1968, Rocky Road to Dublin was the last film to screen before Truffaut, Claude Lelouche, and others closed the festival in solidarity with the student strikes in Paris. Those same students screened Rocky Road at the Sorbonne during the riots, launching the film’s outlaw popularity on the continent and in a few North American film programs. Much of Ireland was furious. Although never officially banned, theater managers simply refused to book it; most Irish critics attacked it. Following an initial Dublin screening, a tumultuous incident at Ireland’s Cork Film Festival, and one packed, seven-week run, the film sank from sight on its home ground, stored in the Irish Film Archive until the Irish Film Board and Loopline Productions agreed to restoration in 2003.
Much of this invaluable context and more is provided by Paul Duane’s 27-minute Making of… I might be tempted to call his the better documentary, if only because it avoids Rocky Road’s several claustrophobia-inducing, lengthy sequences. But perhaps Lennon and Coutard knew what they were doing after all, since those segments manage to convey the lock-down of their subjects’ existence. In the intervening years that Lennon’s film slept, Ireland’s own film culture has blossomed; it boasts the second highest film attendance per capita in Europe: A good scene for a homecoming.
If you’re not in Dublin yourself, you can find the new Rocky Road DVD online at the Irish Film Institute’s bookshop, or you can contact the US distributor, First Run/Icarus Films.