Strangers in a Strange Land
Thousands Are Sailing
Organised by the Wolfe Tone Society
Saturday 9 September, London
`Thousands are Sailing', the event organised by the London-based Wolfe Tone Society, was a resounding success on Saturday last. Around 300 people crammed into Camden Irish Centre for a day of commemoration of post-war Irish emigration. Exhibitions were provided by the University of North London and the London GAA. Traditional music was heard throughout the afternoon and late into the evening by Sean Brady and Six Mile Walk
The day included a rare showing of the late Philip Donellan's 1964 documentary, The Irishman, made for the BBC and then banned by it. The film documents the precarious and nomadic lives of some of the tens of thousands of Irishmen who had made their way to England to find work on building sites and roads in the two decades after the second world war, when the level of emigration almost matched the birth rate in Ireland.
The film broke many of the accepted rules of documentary making of its day, most importantly because it allowed its subjects to speak for themselves, articulating with great clarity and skill the difficulties they faced on arriving in England. The complete absence of an upper-class English narration, mediating, interpreting and ultimately guiding its viewers to specific conclusions was a conscious choice and just one example of the way Donellan - a third generation Irishman but, superficially at least, very much part of the British establishment - broke new ground in film-making.
The Irishman was introduced by academic and author of Screening Ireland, Lance Pettitt, who discussed some of the possible reasons for the banning of the film (the BBC has never offered an explanation). One was that outlined above; that Donellan did not observe the conventions of documentary making, but another important reason could also have been because the film shows very vividly the appalling conditions in which many emigrants - and indeed many members of the English working class - were forced to labour.
Donnellan's daughter Philippa took part in the discussion session which followed the showing, during which emigrants had the opportunity to talk about their experiences of life in England. One observation was that, unusually for the time, The Irishman revealed the massive cultural differences between the Irish and the English, an observation borne out by contributions from the audience. Irish people arriving in Liverpool or London in the 1950s ad 1960s arrived in an entirely foreign and often hostile country. The Irishman dispelled the British colonialist myth that Ireland was merely a British offshore island and that its inhabitants shared not only the language but also the social assumptions and values of their nearest neighbours. Irishmen were often seen as simply `bad' Englishmen.
Timothy O'Grady's performance of his book about exile, I could read the sky, received an enthusiastic and often emotional response. O'Grady read extracts from his work against a backdrop of Steve Pyke's photographs and interspersed with music from Six Mile Walk and Tommy McMenamen of The Popes and song by Ruth Edwards and Sue Cullen. The readings were funny and poignant in turn as they expressed the feelings of exile and loss. One passage in particular elicited a huge sense of recognition amongst many older members of the audience:
``What I could do: I could mend nets. Thatch a roof. Build stairs. Make a basket from reeds. Splint the leg of a cow. Cut turf. Build a wall. Go three rounds with Joe in the ring Da put up in the barn. I could dance sets. Read the sky. Make a barrel for mackerel. Mend roads. Make a boat. Stuff a saddle. Put a wheel on a cart. Strike a deal. Make a field. Work the swarth turner, the float and the thresher. I could read the sea. Shoot straight. Make a shoe. Shear sheep. Remember poems. Set potatoes. Plough and harrow. Read the wind. Tend bees. Bind wyndes. Make a coffin. Take a drink. I could frighten you with stories. I knew the song to sing to the cow when milking. I could play 27 tunes on my accordian.
``What I couldn't do: Eat a meal lacking potatoes. Trust banks. Wear a watch. Ask a woman to go for a walk. Work with drains or with objects smaller than a nail. Drive a motor car. Eat tomatoes. Remember the routes of buses. Wear a collar in comfort. Win at cards. Acknowledge the Queen. Abide loud voices. Perform the manners of greeting and leaving. Save money. Take pleasure in work carried out in a factory. Drink coffee. Look into a wound. Follow cricket. Understand the speech of a man from west Kerry. Wear shoes or boots made from rubber. Best P.J. in an argument. Speak with men wearing collars. Stay afloat in water. Understand their jokes. Face the dentist. Kill a Sunday. Stop remembering.''
BY FERN LANE