Crisis and comeback: The shenanigans that saved the Cork Film Festival

Theo Dorgan and Mick Hannigan pictured in 2013. Picture: Clare Keogh

In an excerpt from his book on Cork in the 1980s, Michael Moynihan looks behind the scenes at the shenanigans that saved the city’s film festival.

It was the 1984 version of the Cork Film Festival when everything came to a head. “We were sitting up in the balcony for one of the films,” says Theo Dorgan, “Myself, Mick Hannigan and Robbie McDonald, when it was announced that the festival was in trouble.

“We looked at each other and said, ‘we’re not going to let that happen, are we?’

“When you think of it, the cheek of us - ‘we’re not going to let that happen’, when we hadn’t a red cent to our name - but we moved fast. Mick and myself sat down in what’s now Larry Tompkins’ bar and decided we’d take it on. Over three pints of Murphy’s we decided.”

The training with Triskel stood to them: they knew about central funding and local funding, and they had phone numbers to hand. They also had the ideal man to front the operation.

“The week of the Festival the artistic director, Ronnie Saunders, resigned,” remembers Mick Hannigan. “The game was up, really. Robin O’Sullivan had set up a PR company and was doing this voluntarily because nobody else would do it. He’d done his stint, so he resigned.

“I remember on the Friday of the Festival, in the Capitol, Charlie Hennessy gave that cri de coeur from the stage — he could be wonderfully theatrical when the occasion demanded it — and from my seat in the balcony I remember thinking, ‘what’s Charlie on about?’, but clearly he wanted the Festival to survive.”

A couple of days after the three pints of Murphy’s, Hannigan was out and about again.

“In the Festival Club up in the Imperial — very sparsely attended — I was approached by Tiernan McBride, Sean McBride’s son, who was on the Irish Film Board and had had short films at Cannes and so on.

“He bustled over and said, ‘you’re the next director of the Festival,’ and I said, ‘Tiernan that’s very flattering, but let’s be honest — I’ve never screened a film in my life, and-‘ and he barked back, ‘Never put yourself down.’

“He introduced me to everyone that night as the next director, but mwhen things calmed down, after the Festival, Charlie came up to the Triskel to say he wanted it involved with the Festival.

“And Triskel said they’d get involved and could provide an office. Now, Triskel had me, but I didn’t have the self-confidence, or the experience to say I’d do this or do that. I’m not putting myself down, I didn’t have that experience, but myself and Theo had organisational abilities, I knew film and he knew the media . . . there was a bit of kerfuffling but after an interview process Theo and I got the gig.

“The difference was we suddenly had a year-round office, and we were paid intermittently. I was getting the social employment money every week, Theo was being paid by Triskel for PR and their literature programme, and every now and again we’d be paid by the Festival.”

“We talked to the Film Board and they agreed to put in ten grand,” says Dorgan.

“We talked to RTE and they agreed to put in ten grand, and we put it to the festival committee — we said we’d take it on and run it from the building next door to the Triskel, so all the resources of the Triskel would be available, but we’d focus on film.

“We had nothing to lose. They gave us the okay so we went back to Dick Hill, the manager in the Opera House, and negotiated terms with him. “Mick knew film inside out, and by that time I’d learned a lot about the city and funding sources, so we were a good team.

“One of our first announcements was that anybody turning up with a dicky bow would be turned away.”

Hannigan gives a rational assessment of the Festival as it was. “It’s important to remember that the Festival was not the culture flagship of the city, then.

“It was in decline — certainly financially it was all over the shop. The accounts from previous years were mind-boggling, really, while attendances weren’t good, programming wasn’t great, the number of guests had reduced. It was on its uppers, that was the reality.

“The Irish film community had little regard for the Festival as well; one member of that community once said to me that it was as though there were a wire across the county bounds and when a Dublin-based film-maker came across it, a wire went off. There was a feeling they weren’t welcome.

After the glamour of previous decades, Cork Film Festival was in trouble by the 1980s.

“Maybe the Cork bourgeoisie, who ran the Festival and were protective about it, had an attitude of ‘who are you to come down and tell us what to do, we’re an international festival, don’t you know’, that kind of thing.

“They were trading on past successes, though. Looking back at references to past glamour at the Festival, when you looked at it that was a tawdry glamour. Francois Truffaut came with Jean Pierre Lo and The 400 Blows, Vittorio Visconti came, there were some great international figures — but subsequently it seemed to be British TV stars. Very much second division.

“That’s not a criticism, because the Cork Film Festival would be in the second division of the film festival ecology. There are A standard festivals and B standard festivals. Years ago you had to go to an organisation called FIAPF to get accreditation as a film festival, which is what Cork did; it was one of the first such festivals in the world, but it was still a B-list festival, and that’s being descriptive, not disparaging.

“But even allowing for that it had slipped back a good deal. The people running it were enthusiastic amateurs, as they described themselves - there was no full-time office or secretariat, for instance.”

At one stage the Arts Council pulled the plug financially and took whatever assets there were left: the film projector, in this case.

In parallel with that, however, the Irish Film Board was established and Muiris Mac Conghail, who chaired it and took the view that the Cork Film Festival could not be allowed to die — so when the Arts Council pulled funding, the IFB stepped in and provided funding.

“The Council still owned the projector, though,” says Hannigan. “For a lot of good reasons the Festival moved from the Opera House to the Capitol — the projector had originally been bought for the Opera House, back in the seventies. It had only been used for a few years.

“You might think it a waste of money, but the alternative was to hire one every year. They clearly thought of it as an asset at the time, and they bought a screen and a speaker as well, a considerable investment. The Opera House was precluded from screening films by somestatute anyway.”

“It was already dead at that stage,” Dorgan recalls. “It was like a tree that’s dead at the roots but the head’s still above ground.

“It had been a brilliant idea when Der Breen set it up in the Fifties — at that stage it was only the fifth licensed film festival in the world. They were ahead of the posse, and in those days glamour was the antidote to poverty.

“But it had become sclerotic. People were driving into town to the festival club and not even bothering to go to the films themselves. The programming had become leadranach, to say the least.

“We made some interesting discoveries when we took over. We got a message from SovExport Films which read: ‘Greetings Cork Film Festival, the films we will send you this year are . . .’

“And we sent back a telex — a telex! — from RTÉ Union Quay saying: ‘No, under new management, in due course we will inform you of what films we wish to request’. And there was murder, we had to go to London to meet them to sort it out, but we had to do that.

“It was stressful but we had to do it. We wanted to show the most interesting films, to reach out to the Irish film community and to show short films.

“One of Mick’s great successes in the years that followed was to build the festival so deeply into the community of Irish filmmakers and distributors, producers, directors and actors, that they came to think of it as their own.”

- Crisis and Comeback: Cork in the Eighties, by Michael Moynihan, published by the Collins Press.

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