The end of a golden era in the Burren?

Documentary The Silver Branch is a cinematic love letter to two Clare farmers, and their insights into a dying way of life, says Louise Roseingrave

The end of a golden era in the Burren?

“WE have educated ourselves out of our landscape,” Katrina Costello says, as we discuss her new documentary, The Silver Branch.

It depicts the life and insights of the inimitable philosopher, poet, and fifth-generation farmer, Patrick McCormack, owner of ‘Fr Ted’s House’ in Co Clare.

Katrina dedicated five years to the film, capturing scenes of exquisite beauty in the Burren.

“I grew up farming. We were dependent on it, but that’s whittled away now. Our connection with nature is getting smaller and smaller. As Patrick says in the film, there are ‘whole generations of people who have not seen anything grow’,” she says.

A project filming wild goats for a coastal documentary led Katrina to the Burren, where she became captivated by the realisation that generations of people had populated this place before her.

“The remains of their homes and farms are all around. Nature just settles about you. But you need to sit a while and let it settle,” she says.

A first-time documentary maker, Katrina filmed thousands of hours of scenes in nature, then agonised over the editing, ultimately using only 10% of what she filmed.

“I used to go out into the Burren with a camera and a barbecue, leave at four in the morning, and stay there for hours, sometimes even sleep there,” she says.

During this immersion, she captured scenes of intricate intimacy. One depicts a robin, busy feeding a chick three times her size, hatched from an egg deposited in her nest by the wily cuckoo.

Scenes of nature, nurture, and the preservation of species tell this end-of-an era story. Katrina shot, edited, and directed it herself, “with a lot of help from wonderful people.”

Born into a farming family in Co Kildare, she provided software support in trading rooms on Wall St, and around the world, for twenty years. She travelled to remote regions in Asia and South America to photograph indigenous people, searching for societies unaffected by the industrial age. Then, she returned to Ireland. The Silver Branch is an exploration of what Katrina calls our ‘defining line.’ “Nature and landscape is full of wild conflict that defines life. It has so much to teach us, like patience and acceptance. It is the great school,” she says.

It was Patrick’s ability to articulate his insights into living in sync with his surroundings that drew Katrina to him.

“He has these wonderful insights into his thoughts and he is able to articulate them; that’s a rare quality. He is constantly searching for his defining line, measuring himself against this older generation,” she says.

Bachelor farmer, John Joe Conway, in The Silver Branch.
Bachelor farmer, John Joe Conway, in The Silver Branch.

In John Joe Conway, a bachelor farmer in his eighties, born and bred in the Burren, Katrina found the perfect partner for Patrick and the story is framed around them as a pair.

“Since I was young, I was always interested in older people. It’s like they are no longer trying to represent themselves to the world. They are okay with just being. It gives them an honesty that I’m attracted to,” she says.

A daily mass-goer, John Joe displays a tremendous tenderness towards his cattle; talking to them, stroking their heads, ‘minding’ them. They stare back at the camera from within their warm pen, contentedly chewing the cud, inquisitive.

“You don’t see that very often any more. These animals are ‘minded’ by their owners. In order to develop such closeness, it has to be slow and from when they are very young,” Katrina said.

In John Joe, Katrina found a character with an intimate knowledge of traditional farming methods. Katrina believes these methods will die out with his generation. She is visibly moved as she talks about the enormity of what is at stake, culturally, socially, environmentally.

Through lines from Patrick’s poems, deeper themes of love, loss, and spiritual sustenance are explored.

The film covers a divisive 13-year battle by Patrick and a group of locals who opposed plans by the Office of Public Works to build an interpretative centre at Mullaghmore. The Burren Action Group sought to preserve the natural integrity of the landscape over the development of a major tourism amenity.

The tragic irony is that four of Patrick’s five children, with his wife, Cheryl, are currently working abroad. The farm cannot sustain them.

Despite the best efforts of local farmers, who use traditional agricultural methods, and of education groups, who bring visitors to witness these methods, ancient farming in this rugged terrain remains at risk. Yet it is more than just a way of life, or a way to make a living, says Katrina.

“The harsh beauty of the landscape has shaped the people that live here.

“It has taught them a universal wisdom, a philosophy of life, a spirituality that gives them inner strength,” she says.

That is something, perhaps, that has been educated out of us.

Produced by Katrina’s husband, film maker , Ken O’Sullivan, The Silver Branch premiers at the 29th Galway Film Fleadh tomorrow, Friday, July 14. Screenings to follow at various film festivals over the coming months. The team are hoping to secure a cinema release date in 2018.

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