The rocky road to modernity

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2006), Reviews, Volume 14

The rocky road to modernity 1The rocky road to modernity
Rocky Road to Dublin (1968)
Directed by Peter Lennon
by Luke Gibbons

Film classics often seem ahead of their time, rather than of it. John Ford’s
The Searchers (1956) was one of the first to suggest that the true savage on the frontier was the white man, but had to await the Vietnam War and the My Lai massacre to come into its own. Likewise, Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952), with its quest for the homeland, acquired a new lease of life as a result of the ‘roots’ phenomenon of the late 1970s and ET’s desire to return home in the 1980s.
Nothing could be further from the Technicolor dream world of The Quiet Man than the grainy black-and-white of Peter Lennon’s Rocky Road to Dublin, shot by Raoul Coutard (Jean Luc Godard’s celebrated cinematographer) in 1967 and released to a storm of controversy in both Ireland and France in 1968. Its re-release on DVD, and the enthusiasm with which it was greeted by packed houses in the Irish Film Institute, Dublin, in October 2005, raises some interesting questions about Ireland’s own rocky road to modernity in the intervening 40 years, not least whether it is even possible to see the film through the eyes of its own era.
Lennon, an Irish émigré, was Paris correspondent for The Guardian during the ferment of the late 1960s, and made the documentary as a follow-up to a critical series of articles on contemporary Ireland in that newspaper. It was, perhaps, this very disengagement from his native country that allowed a full engagement with the pieties of faith and fatherland that had persisted into the late 1960s, notwithstanding the impact of Vatican II, RTÉ and the Beatles’ first LP.
Rocky Road can be seen in many ways as a requiem for a revolution, a scathing rejoinder to the official complacency and self-congratulation that accompanied the Golden Jubilee celebrations of the Easter Rising in 1966. Interestingly—and in this the film is very much of its ‘pre-revisionist’ moment—it is not the hopes and energies of the revolutionaries that are mocked, but the traducing of these ideals through the alliance of church and state in the new independent Ireland.
Revisionism does, in fact, make an early guest appearance in the person of Conor Cruise O’Brien, but his pronouncements only reveal his own economy with the truth. O’Brien claims that the extent of Catholic control of the government can be seen in the capitulation of Frank Aiken, then minister for external affairs, to the interventions of Cardinal Spellman and the Vatican on the admission of ‘Red China’ to the United Nations. In fact, Aiken had no fear of the clergy, having faced threats of excommunication in the 1920s, and was contemptuous of the attempts of both the hierarchy and the American State Department to influence his vote of behalf of China.
Part of the difficulty in grasping how the film first appeared to contemporary audiences in the 1960s arises from its own, often unintended, ironies, some of which are highlighted in the valuable retrospective feature, ‘The Making of Rocky Road to Dublin’, included with the DVD. In an effort to promote an image of a more progressive church, Lennon was introduced to a young ‘with-it’ priest, Fr Michael Cleary. The original ‘Fr Trendy’ is shown entertaining a ladies’ ward in hospital with ‘The Chattanooga Shoeshine Boy’, singing rebel songs at a wedding and paying a visit to gravediggers in a cemetery. Dispensing cigarettes to the gravediggers, he throws the empty packet on the ground, joking ‘Bury that as well’—an eerie premonition of the lung cancer that would indeed bury him. Speaking later to camera, he states:

Young boys watching a hurling match—underneath its abrasive surface, there is a genuine affection for the glimpses of Ireland caught in such moments. (Soda Pictures)

Young boys watching a hurling match—underneath its abrasive surface, there is a genuine affection for the glimpses of Ireland caught in such moments. (Soda Pictures)

‘We’re not against sex … Celibacy is a problem for priests. I personally would like to be married and to have a family… If I didn’t miss these things, then the priesthood wouldn’t be a sacrifice.’

As Lennon himself comments in ‘The Making’, young couples going to Fr Cleary for advice on sexual matters did not realise that he probably knew a little more than they imagined.
Looking at the film today, the question arises: how much of its critique was available to Irish people at the time? Or is it, like the Fr Cleary cameos, a matter of wisdom through hindsight? In ‘The Making’, Lennon claims that it can now be viewed as a genuine record—in fact, one of the few records—‘of how people lived and thought and felt in the 1960s’, but he then goes on to state that it was entirely a subjective, personal vision. Perhaps the film is at its best when the camera catches what people felt but could not express, indicating that the ground was shifting beneath the topsoil of conformity. In one sequence, in a Christian Brothers’ class a young boy barely suppresses a smile when mentioning ‘wearing a mini-skirt’ among the dangers to chastity; in other shots, mini-skirted girls beat a path to Mass, while other mini-skirted girls in a beat-club make out with groovy guys, complete with sunglasses. In a brilliant juxtaposition, the voice of a young married woman off-camera speaks of the sexual loneliness within marriage, and the priest who advised her to sleep in the next room to avoid becoming pregnant, while the camera ranges across the Bull Wall, scene of the Christian Brothers’ outing in Joyce’s Portrait, and Dollymount Strand, the site of Stephen Daedalus’s epiphany of the bird-girl.
The evocative power of Rocky Road derives from the fact that underneath its abrasive surface there is a genuine affection for the glimpses of Ireland caught in such unguarded moments. In one of the most memorable sequences, Professor Liam Ó Briain, veteran of the 1916 Rising and member of the Censorship Appeals Board, expresses his dismay at the cacophony of change taking place all around him, but then stops to admit that change is perhaps not such a bad thing after all, for all revolutions bring upheavals that are difficult to accept at first. Notwithstanding the tendency in Irish cinema to equate realism with disillusionment, home truths point to unrealised futures as well as disenchanted pasts. In the final shots of the film, school kids race along the streets of Ballyfermot behind Raoul Coutard’s rapidly moving car, a telling image of the next generation trying to catch up with the camera.

Film director John Huston on location in Ireland—one of several interviews in the film. (Soda Pictures)

Film director John Huston on location in Ireland—one of several interviews in the film. (Soda Pictures)

Luke Gibbons is Keough Family Professor of Irish Studies, University of Notre Dame.

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