Rocks in the road

Angela Bourke

Angela Bourke

Interviewed at the London Film Festival in October 2003 about The Barbarian Invasions, his sequel to The Decline of the American Empire (1986), Denys Arcand spoke about his Catholic upbringing in francophone Canada:

Québec was like Spain or Ireland: everybody went to church … and one day, everybody stopped going. No idea! At least in Spain, Franco died … People just stopped, and there was no public discussion, no books, nothing: they just stopped, and if you ask them, they refuse to answer …

Arcand’s 2003 film, a hilarious, moving study of friendship, death and history in French-speaking Montréal, pursues this point in a narrative sidetrack. A world-weary grey-haired priest conducts a young art expert through a crypt. Young and sleek, she works in London, perhaps for Sotheby’s, but she is French. In Canada with her fiancé to visit his ill father, a call from her boss has alerted her to a request from the Montréal Archdiocese for advice about a ‘huge array of religious art’ in its possession. As they walk past hundreds of plaster statues, carved crucifixes, candlesticks and chalices, the priest explains:

At one time, everyone here was Catholic, like in Spain or in Ireland. At a very precise moment, in 1966 in fact, the churches suddenly emptied out, in a few months. A very strange phenomenon that has yet to be explained, so now we don’t know what to do with this.

Has this stuff any value, he wants to know. When the young woman hesitantly suggests that it must have cultural value for ‘the people here’, the priest disabuses her brusquely: his question referred to monetary value, on the world market, and when her answer is negative, the conversation ends. Her globalized secular sophistication is no match for the cynicism that presides over these remnants of provincial piety.

In the summer of 1967, when Peter Lennon came home to Dublin, with the leading New Wave cameraman Raoul Coutard in tow, to make a documentary, the churches were still full: young women with thin legs hurried in through their doors every Sunday, hastily covering their heads with scarves and black mantillas. It was just one of many arresting images the film-makers took away with them. In England, Twiggy was seventeen, just beginning to be famous, so those thin legs were not so much a fashion statement as a sign of undernourishment among the young women who lived in double bedsitters in Rathmines and typed for a living. Lennon was in his thirties and had lived for ten years in Paris, where he wrote features for the Guardian newspaper. The previous year, home to cover the Dublin Theatre Festival just months after the fiftieth-anniversary commemoration of the Easter Rising, he had been irked by the breezy assurances of friends that everything in Ireland was different now: censorship was a thing of the past and the clergy were in retreat. Ireland had had its own television station since 1962; John F. Kennedy had toured the country in ’63; Vatican II, finished since ’65, had brought an end to the Latin mass and permitted the playing of guitars in church.

Lennon wrote a series of articles that appeared in the Guardian in January 1967, begging to differ. One of his targets was John Charles McQuaid, Archbishop of Dublin since 1940 and confidant of President Éamon de Valera. Rigid, cerebral, implacably sectarian, McQuaid still wielded huge power. The articles drew an indignant reaction, and Lennon’s decision to make a film had something combative about it from the beginning: he wanted to show what others refused to see. And what we see now, in frame after frame of his Rocky Road to Dublin, is priests. Dressed all in black, they wear Roman collars; they ride bicycles; they walk and stroll; they watch sport; but what is most striking is the confidence of their body language: the way they smoke; the way they take up space. No shadow has fallen across them yet; they behave as though they owned the place, and so does everybody else.

It took another twenty years for Ireland’s churches to begin emptying out and for priests to start blending in, and thirty-seven for Lennon’s Rocky Road to be welcomed by the society it had portrayed. Ignored after one short run in a Dublin cinema, and never shown on RTÉ, it became something of a classic elsewhere. It was the last film shown at Cannes in 1968, before some of the leading directors stopped the festival in solidarity with protesting students. In Paris, according to Lennon, those same students embraced it immediately for the way it addressed their own question: ‘What do you do with your revolution, once you’ve got it?’ The film’s dispiriting answer, he suggests, was that in Ireland at least, ‘You give it back to the bourgeoisie and the clergy.’

Rocky Road to Dublin was screened four times at the Irish Film Institute in October 2005, in a print restored by the Irish Film Archive, and returned a few weeks later for another short run. Its release on DVD coincided with the publication of a report detailing the systematic sexual abuse of over one hundred children by twenty-six priests of the Diocese of Ferns over four decades, and noting the craven failures of those in power to stop them. Like John Berger’s caption, scrawled over a reproduction of Van Gogh’s ‘Crows in a Cornfield’ in his Ways of Seeing, alerting the reader that this was the artist’s last painting before he committed suicide, the testimony of the men and women who were abused as children, and who continued to suffer bitterly at the hands of a church determined at all costs to preserve its own authority and mystique, plays now like a ghostly extra voiceover to Rocky Road. A new documentary by Paul Duane, The Making of ‘Rocky Road to Dublin’, accompanies the 1968 film on DVD, as it did in the IFI screenings. It adds yet another dimension. Peter Lennon, down-to-earth and elegant, wearing his age well, speaks to the camera as though from a time-warp: after almost fifty years outside Ireland, speaking mainly French, one assumes, his accent in English is as though he had never left. It gives his uncompromising assessment of the Ireland he and Coutard filmed in 1967 an almost unbearable intimacy. ‘Why didn’t you tell us?’, we might ask him; ‘I did,’ he might reply, ‘but you couldn’t hear me.’

Raoul Coutard, interviewed in French for Duane’s documentary, recalls the amazement he felt at the grip of the clergy on the Irish society Lennon introduced him to. Coutard was already famous when he came to Ireland. As cinematographer to both Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, he was responsible for much of the characteristic look of the nouvelle vague. Formerly a photojournalist covering the war in French Indo-China for Paris-Match, he knew how to keep his eyes open in crowded places and to shoulder his camera unobtrusively among people as they went about their business. Speaking only minimal English, he went to work with his caméra stylo – the film camera as biro – in pubs, at a hurling match, a wedding, a tennis-club dance, a (very early) disco, at the RDS Horse Show, and on the streets. Informal, unpretentious, inconspicuous, the most threatening thing about this film crew’s approach was their disregard for hierarchy. It was a basic tenet of the nouvelle vague – the dismantling of obstacles and the opening up of access – and in the Duane documentary Peter Lennon tells of his uncanny yet somehow inevitable good fortune, as a young print journalist with no film experience, in signing up the great Coutard.

The cutting edge of French film-making sliced cleanly through the complacent surfaces of middle-class Dublin life, drawing no blood, as the people interviewed and filmed failed utterly to comprehend the medium’s power or the fatal dexterity of its artists. Eleven-year-old boys in Synge Street Christian Brothers’ School stood up from their clattering desks to answer questions about Original Sin and the Chief Dangers to Chastity. An oily and condescending official of the GAA explained patiently why the Association found it necessary to ban its members from playing or attending soccer, cricket or other ‘foreign games’: that ‘foreign’ meant English he freely admitted. Spectators at a hurling match, guests at a wedding, unused to movie cameras and perhaps even to mirrors, made no attempt to rearrange the expressions on their faces. A diminutive hospital matron stood simpering as Father Michael Cleary sang ‘Chattanooga Shoeshine Boy’ to a ward full of sick women, some of whom wore full makeup, including heavy black eyeliner and mascara, and all of whom appeared delighted. Coutard’s camera, lingering on the priest’s jigging thighs as he sang, saw what most of the Irish of that time, rigidly schooled in conformity, could or would not.

But Coutard was from France, and Lennon had been living there for years. France is full of Catholic churches, and many of the religious orders running Irish education traced their antecedents there; speaking French was a prized accomplishment among the genteel Irish Catholic middle class in the sixties. But if there wasn’t any sex in Ireland before television, there certainly was in France. More importantly, France was where modern republicanism had begun: in France, being a citizen meant being equal, with a responsibility robustly to interrogate public institutions; in France, the separation of church and state was a sacred principle, and socialism was not a dirty word. For Coutard, as for the young woman in Arcand’s Barbarian Invasions, the kind of Catholicism practised in Ireland in the 1960s was seriously weird: it seemed to him fifty years out of date. That he documented the weirdness, and that Peter Lennon aided, abetted and applauded him, supplying – in the accent of middle-class Dublin – a bemused and literate voiceover that refused to entertain the prevalent doublethink, did not sit comfortably with the Irish establishment. With the exception of Fergus Linehan in the Irish Times, critics excoriated Rocky Road: ‘Peter Lennon, who believes in nothing at all,’ one wrote, ‘has made a film insulting Ireland’; and Lennon himself recalls that the Late Late Show announced – incorrectly, as it happened – that his film had been made with ‘Communist money’.

In the new documentary, Lennon describes Rocky Road as ‘a very affectionate film about Ireland’, and at the IFI in October audiences seemed to read it that way, emerging at the end with smiles of reminiscence and wry humour. Young adults gazed expectantly at their middle-aged parents, waiting for the waves of memory to pass and conversation to begin. Some of those parents had been among the students who expressed frustration, in front of Coutard’s camera and elsewhere in 1967, at the hypocrisy and self-censorship they saw around them. The so-called Gentle Revolution happened not long after. Up there on the big screen was what it was like when they were young: it was the beginning of now.

Ireland has a film culture now, though. A film is just a film. In 1968, when Rocky Road was shown at the Cork Film Festival and later, briefly, in Dublin, the reaction was different. As Lennon says:

The contrast between what people in Ireland saw, and what they saw in France, demonstrates the huge rift between a country with a film culture and one with none. Ireland was a country where documentary film-making was in thrall to the cosmetic preoccupations of the Tourist Board. Getting a dose of the caméra stylo … was quite a shock. The French saw it as a film, the Irish as an insult.

The affection Lennon brought to the making of his film was heated by exasperation. What struck Coutard, and surprised him, he says, when he saw the edited version, was that it was not in the least tender. After his two-week immersion in Dublin life, however, he found it ‘très irlandais comme … conception’. What can he have meant? Was it the decision to print in black and white rather than the unstable colour of the film stock? Or the wicked subversion of clerical pomp and circumstance in the lively fiddle music that accompanied shots of Archbishop McQuaid, complete with mitre, crozier, and lace? Or the long, loving sequence from a session in O’Donoghue’s on Merrion Row, where one man sang ‘The Rocky Road to Dublin’, and another moulded and caressed the air around a pair of ordinary soup spoons, playing them against his knee in a tour de force of percussion? Was it perhaps the idea that one could say something meaningful about the culture of a whole European city in just over an hour?

In one shot, above the heads of two elderly women in dark clothes who walk with difficulty across the South Circular Road as though their feet are hurting, a billboard carries an advertisement for the News of the World: ‘All Human Life is There’, it reads. It was a heady promise in those shabby streets. People understood that Ireland could not be expected ever to tolerate all of human life. Ireland was a place apart, and pure, and for those too weak to measure up, English newspapers offered clandestine glimpses of all that was forbidden. England had divorce, and contraception. It was where you went if you became pregnant without being married – if nobody signed you into a Magdalen home.

Only one woman speaks in this film – unless we count a brave young student with a cigarette, alone among a group of men from Trinity, who tries, unsuccessfully, to get a word in edgeways. The one who does manage to finish her sentences is described as ‘a young married woman’, but we don’t learn her name, and she never appears. Instead, as she speaks, we see shots of the wooden bridge at the Bull Wall – near where John McGahern lost his teaching job a few years earlier, at the archbishop’s instigation, following the banning of The Dark – and of ships pulling out into Dublin Bay, heading, we suppose, for Britain. She tells of yearly pregnancies since her marriage at twenty-one, followed by a miserable three-year effort at birth control. The words coitus interruptus roll off her tongue more than once, with something like pride in knowing the Latin technical term. ‘I felt all the time guilty,’ she says, ‘and I hated it.’ She sounds like a person with resources; she had access to doctors; but she went to confession, and she told the priest.

And do you know what he told me to do? ‘Go home, like a good child, and move into another room, because as long as you’re … sleeping with him, you’re the occasion of his sin.’

‘Anyway,’ she concludes, with resignation:

they’re always on the men’s side in this country, and so are the doctors. They think women should grin and bear it, and put up with it, because, you know, we’re Catholics, and we shouldn’t be making it harder for the men …

Denys Arcand’s Barbarian Invasions depicted a twenty-first-century priest too cynical even to pretend affection or respect for the trappings of popular Catholicism. Rocky Road to Dublin, back in the sixties, found nothing so straightforward: the feet of clay were starting to show, but the lacy vestments and pious platitudes were still in place. The Ferns report reveals, though, that the cynicism was there. The children we see in Rocky Road may have been safe, but hundreds just like them were being raped and tortured by some of the most revered members of society: the access-all-areas men in black who systematically terrified them into keeping sick secrets. Those men were a minority, but their poison still lives on. Senior clerics, smiling or solemn, knew all about it too, for there were complaints. The first recorded and acted upon in Ferns was in 1966: a priest was removed from his teaching post and sent to England for two years, as a penance. He was later appointed principal of the same school, and continued to abuse the boys in his care. Like the doctors and priests who were ‘always on the men’s side’, taking no account of grown women as striving, suffering adults, the bishops had apparently been so exquisitely trained to see things from a particular, special, Irish angle that they could no longer recognize and react as human beings to what was staring them in the face.

Lennon’s film has a lot in common with Joyce’s Dubliners: an expatriate Irishman impatiently confronts the paralysis of his native city. And yet, not everything was staying the same, and the friends who told Peter Lennon about the new liberation were not entirely wrong. What is fascinating now is to watch that moment of transformation, for, as Lennon says, this is the only filmed record of its kind from that place and time. And the film does recognize changes: the uneasy phenomenon of the trendy priest was one, but the singing pub, where women were welcome, was another, and altogether a more wholesome and liberating one, even if an awful lot of alcohol has been consumed since then because of it. We see women, young and middle-aged, sitting in O’Donoghue’s, shoulder to shoulder with men, but not necessarily in couples, and it is hard to realize, from this distance, what a change that was.

The traditional ballads made popular in the sixties by the Dubliners, the Clancy Brothers, Joe Heaney and others were a dip back into an earthy, humorous, warm-hearted level of Irish culture that had flourished before gentility and the church took over, sometime in the nineteenth century. This kind of singing, about love and sorrow, dispossession, drink and regret, was alive and well in many parts of the country, in both Irish and English – with Sarah Makem in Armagh, for example, or with Joe Heaney’s people in Carna. ‘The Rocky Road to Dublin’, with its speedy, tongue-twisting verses and rollicking chorus, is a song about emigration: a labouring man, walking from Co. Galway to catch the boat for Liverpool, stays in Dublin only long enough to get robbed. The wonderful Frank Harte, who died earlier this year, single-handedly salvaged numerous home-made songs like this from oblivion, singing them back into memory and awareness, making a mark against cultural cringe.

In the late sixties, young middle-class people in the cities were beginning to claim a share in this music, and accents other than the plummy tones of the religious-run schools were starting to be heard on radio and television. The wistful Anglo-American ballad ‘The Butcher Boy’, recorded by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, became immensely popular in a version identified with Dublin’s Moore Street:

I wish, I wish, I wish in vain,

I wish I were a maid again,

But a maid again I’ll never be

Till cherries grow on an ivy tree.

I wish my baby he was born

And sitting on his daddy’s knee,

And I, poor girl, to be dead and gone,

With the long green grass growing over me.

Oh dig my grave both wide and deep!

Put a marble stone at my head and feet,

And in the middle a turtle dove,

That the world may know I died for love.

The young women who sang it may have been saying something about their own sexuality and their society’s draconian attitude to it: the sort of thing that hadn’t been expressed before, and couldn’t be, unless you had talent and courage like Edna O’Brien’s, and could weather the sanctions she was subjected to. Perhaps, too, some people learned to trust their own feelings and take control of their own bodies, without sacrificing their entitlement to be part of Lemass’s economic miracle, as they sat pressed together on the narrow seats in pubs and sang along with ‘The Holy Ground’, belting out the chorus of ‘Fine girl you are!’

Luke Kelly’s voice sings the theme song of Rocky Road again and again in the course of the film, but the roads we see are not rocky. They are smooth, and lined with trees and some parked cars. There are no parking meters, no road markings; barely even traffic lights. There’s a slight shock – a liberating feeling of transgression – in realizing that the camera, shooting from the window of a moving car, is travelling what is now the wrong way on a one-way street. Perspectives in this film are no longer available to those who live in Dublin. We have been trained to travel one way.

And then there are the children. For all the brainwashed answering by rote that we see in the classroom, the children in Rocky Road are allowed out on their own. There is a horror – an echo of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet – in knowing now what was going on behind the scenes, but Coutard’s observations of children are wonderful. Two little girls walk hand in hand along the street, looking in shop windows. Probably sisters, the elder looks about seven, the younger four. Under the trees along the Grand Canal, more children wander: two girls in summer dresses, two smaller boys, all wearing white ankle socks under their Clark’s sandals. Outside a church, as women hurry in, two boys in short trousers carry another between them, staggering along the pavement, holding his arms and legs. At the Bull Wall, at low tide, two more boys paddle a makeshift raft, stabbing for something in the shallows with a full-sized garden fork. These children can run fast: with schoolbags swinging, coats flapping, knee-socks falling down, they gallop behind the camera as it drives away, making faces, laughing uproariously. There is a lot of play-acting: a level of comic anarchy that can’t happen when children go everywhere strapped into cars and adults are always present. The children in Rocky Road look healthy and well fed. None of them are overweight.

We congratulate ourselves these days on having left behind a totalitarian regime, where lines had to be toed and right answers given. Ironically, though, more and more of us work in organizations where the brand is king, every utterance must be ‘on message’ and there’s a sad absence of laughter. Are we allowing history to repeat itself? Rocky Road to Dublin and The Making of ‘Rocky Road to Dublin’ should be required viewing for Leaving Cert students. Maybe, as they prepare themselves for further study and employment in Ireland’s shiny new corporate culture, some of them will ask themselves if all this stuff that we have so effectively put behind us might possibly have some value after all. Maybe by then the pain will be less.

Rocky Road to Dublin, written and directed by Peter Lennon, cinematography by Raoul Coutard. DVD from Soda Pictures.

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