How Louis Marcus blazed a trail in the Irish film world

The grandson of Lithuanian Jewish refugees, Cork-born Louis Marcus was nominated for two Oscars and filmed the likes of Christy Ring and Muhammad Ali, writes Pet O’Connell
How Louis Marcus blazed a trail in the Irish film world

Louis Marcus, second from left, with sound recordist Peter Hunt, boxer Muhammad Ali, and Tom Sheehy of Bord Fáilte. Picture courtesy of Louis Marcus

His tipple was nothing stronger than raspberry cordial, but when Louis Marcus first stepped across the threshold of hostelries in Cork’s MacCurtain St in the 1950s, he imbibed an intoxicating cocktail of intellectual conversation and free-thinking artistic innovation.

The Leaving Certificate student at Seán Donnelly’s Glasheen Secondary School had heard about the Cork branch of the Irish Film Society from his French teacher Mary O’Connor, who regaled her pupils with selected highlights of the French films screened for members.

Thus inspired, Marcus managed to gain membership of the film society two years before reaching its minimum age of 18, and was still at school when invited onto its committee.

When he started speaking at discussions in the Metropole Hotel that were regular sequels to film screenings, the teenager found himself in the company of an “underground cell” of independent thinkers at “the core of the Cork intelligentsia of the time”, he recalls.

“They were unconventional, many anti-establishment, and they centered around Seamus Murphy the sculptor, his wife Maighread, and a wonderful man, Seán Hendrick, who gave me tremendous encouragement.

“It was an intoxicating group of people who used to meet almost every night in a shebeen on MacCurtain St called the New Look,” says Marcus, recalling the gatherings shifting variously to the Palace Bar and the Murphys’ Wellesley Terrace home.

“I used to go to the discussion evenings and as we were leaving, I think it was Seán Hendrick who said ‘would Mr Marcus like to come for a drink?’ and in a way I was horrified because I’d never been in a pub in my life,” he says.

“But I went in and the conversation was scintillating, fascinating. Intellectually, artistically, culturally, humorously, politically, it was wonderful. I’ve never encountered a group anywhere since as stimulating.” In conservative 1950s Ireland, the group of kindred creative spirits that at one time had included Eric Cross, author of the censored The Tailor and Ansty, represented “a kind of underground cell in the terrible atmosphere of the period”, says Marcus.

STUDENT DAYS 

Though in the next few years Marcus gained his formal third-level education at University College Cork, emerging with a degree in English and French, he says “UCC was appalling at the time but that [the group] was where I got my education”. The university, he remembers, was very restrictive intellectually.

“It was just after Alfred O’Rahilly had retired so it was still under his baleful influence. There could be no suggestion of anything that wasn’t strictly according to Catholic doctrine and no event could take place without the specific permission and official stamp of the president’s office.” 

Though O’Rahilly’s term as UCC president ended in 1954, his censorial legacy lingered, and Marcus, from a Lithuanian-Jewish family, crossed swords with O’Rahilly’s successor.

“I wrote a one-act play that the dramatic society was going to put on. It was a fantasy, about religion in a way, but I thought it was totally innocuous,” he says. “Apparently it horrified the president and the Catholic dean of residence and it was banned.

“I had an interview with the president, Harry St John Atkins, as a result of the banning and he said he was worried for me and that I should understand the dangers of liberalism and communism - neither of which I was interested in.

“The secretary of the dramatic society, Jim Cronin, who remains a close friend of mine, was called up before the Catholic dean, who told him that if I had been a Catholic I would have been expelled.” As it happened, illness ensured Marcus’ absence from university in the year before his finals, and, he recalls, “they let me off the year and said I didn’t have to go to lectures, they were so glad to get rid of me”.

With a year free of studies, Marcus indulged his passion for film. His friendship though MacCurtain St circles with Seán Mac Réamoinn, head of Radió Éireann’s new Cork studios and a board member of Gael Linn, provided the connection for Marcus to secure his first paid job in film as assistant editor on Mise Éire, its iconic soundtrack composed by Seán Ó Riada.

In a “mechanical job with no creative input” Marcus was “just the technician who had to edit the bits together according to how the director, George Morrison, had instructed”.

After working in Dublin on Morrison’s film, Marcus returned to Cork to cram for his finals at UCC and make his own film, The Silent Art, on his friend Seamus Murphy, using £200 from his mother and a camera borrowed from Cork film-maker John Cashman.

When Gael Linn’s Riobard Mac Góráin and Dónall Ó Móráin arrived in Cork for the premiere of Mise Éire in the Savoy, Marcus was able to show them his own film. Their approval for The Silent Art paved the way for commissions from the Irish language organisation spanning decades.

RING AND ALI 

Filming Christy Ring, L-R: Cameraman Vincent Corcoran, director Louis Marcus, Gael-Linnorganiser Pádraig Tyers, Christy Ring. 	Picture courtesy of Louis Marcus
Filming Christy Ring, L-R: Cameraman Vincent Corcoran, director Louis Marcus, Gael-Linnorganiser Pádraig Tyers, Christy Ring. Picture courtesy of Louis Marcus

Among Marcus’ first assignments in 1962/63 were two short films demonstrating the skills of Gaelic football and hurling, the latter featuring Cork legend Christy Ring.

Growing up on the Mardyke, overlooking Cork Cricket Club, Marcus had played soccer, cricket, table tennis, but never hurling. He recalls his first meeting with Ring: “He had analysed hurling into about 11 or 12 essential skills which were going to be demonstrated in the film. He said ‘you won’t know where to put the camera until you can do the skills yourself’.

“We used the UCC grounds in the Mardyke for research and filming and he set me to learn the skills of hurling. He said he’d let me off the sideline cut - I’d never be able to do it – but I was astounded. He had analysed it so rationally and intellectually that anybody could do it if they had him to teach them.” The films’ cinema premieres were national events, the Dublin opening of Peil attended by President Éamon de Valera, while among the dignitaries in Cork for the Christy Ring premiere was Ring’s former Cork team-mate, future taoiseach Jack Lynch.

During a career spanning almost 50 years in which he was writer, producer, and director of more than 80 documentaries for cinema and, later, television, Marcus names Ring as one of the three most “extraordinary” characters he worked with.

“You just knew when you met him - the piercing look in the eyes, the composure, the posture. There are these people who they say just ‘fill the room’ and he filled it. There was an air around him.” An equally striking presence, says Marcus, was Ó Riada, “a much more ebullient creature at times, but he also had this tremendous aura around him”.

Having cut his teeth on Morrison’s Mise Éire and sequel Saoirse?, both with Ó Riada scores, Marcus went on to collaborate with the composer as director of Rhapsody of a River, a 1965 Cork portrait featuring Seán Ó Sé singing Ó Riada’s arrangement of ‘The Banks of My Own Lovely Lee’. The following year saw the release of An Tine Bheo, an official half-century commemoration of the Easter Rising, again with Ó Riada’s orchestral score, with Pobal in 1969 featuring Ó Riada’s Ceoltóirí Chualann.

Marcus’ work took on an international perspective with a 1972 short film aired on US cable TV, its subject another “extraordinary” character who “exuded charisma and composure and dignity”.

Muhammad Ali in Ireland was a promotional film for Bord Fáilte Éireann, narrated by the boxer and shown before his Croke Park fight with Kid Blue Lewis.

Having filmed Ali stepping off a plane, shillelagh in hand, Marcus met the heavyweight legend and handed him the script, in which Irish products were plugged to an American viewership.

“When the film was edited I wrote the script of the voiceover in the style I thought he would use,” says Marcus. “We sat down on the sofa and I gave him a copy of the script and he read it pretty quickly. He did it in one take and he changed the script as he went along into his own personality.

“I had said ‘Ireland is famous for its whiskey’, and he says ‘As a Muslim I don’t drink alcohol’. And I had something like ‘and when I am world champion again I’m going to come back to Ireland’ and he says ‘when I whip ugly Joe Frazier…’ He was magnificent…one of the most outstanding people I have ever met and worked with.” 

Marcus found himself crossing the Atlantic over the next few years, twice making it to Hollywood after being nominated for Academy Awards, for 1973 documentary Páistí ag Obair, inspired by his wife Chookie’s insights as a kindergarten teacher, and for Conquest of Light, a 1975 film on the crafting of Waterford Crystal.

A RICH LEGACY 

Though an Oscar was never forthcoming, some 20 awards were bestowed on Marcus, including the Berlin Film Festival’s Silver Bear, the Film Institute of Ireland award for contribution to Irish film, and in 2006, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Cork Film Festival.

His influence can be measured too through his advocacy for State support of Irish film-making.

Articles written by Marcus on the topic in 1967 for The Irish Times attracted the attention of US film-maker John Huston, then living in Ireland. Huston made a public appeal for State action, going on to serve with Marcus on a government-backed committee leading to the publication of the Film Industry Bill.

Marcus, who later became Irish Film Board chairperson and Arts Council and Aosdána members, says: “I wanted people in Ireland to be making films; that the country would be expressing itself in film. We were one of the only countries in the world that was not, and that had no State scheme.” 

In retirement in Dublin, Marcus’ film connections continue, three of his children being involved in the industry - though he denies teaching them their skills of the trade.

Technological advances have transformed the profession since Marcus’ early days of hand-cutting film for Mise Éire. “It is hugely changed,” he says. “When I started, Gael Linn was the Irish film industry. There are thousands of people in the industry now but there were only four or five of us when I went in.” Is the change for the better? “The technology is irrelevant,” he says. “It’s the use you make of it.” 

Louis Marcus outside his childhood home at Mardyke Villas, Cork. 
Louis Marcus outside his childhood home at Mardyke Villas, Cork. 

Family and childhood:

  • Born in 1936, Louis Marcus lived for his first 22 years at Cork’s Mardyke Villas.
  • His four older siblings included poet, novelist, and literary editor David Marcus.
  • His grandparents were Lithuanian Jews who fled tsarist pogroms in the 1880s.
  •  His father Solomon Marcus was a glass-cutter whose business still stands on Adelaide St, Cork, and who began in the 1930s by framing Catholic “holy pictures, sacred hearts, immaculate conception, blessings, St Martin de Porres”.
  • Louis’ uncle, Gerald Goldberg, was a lawyer, arts patron, and Cork’s first Jewish lord mayor.
  •  Louis had a musical background, playing violin in the Cork Symphony Orchestra under Aloys Fleischmann.
  •  His primary education at the Protestant St Mary Shandon NS in Shanakiel was cut short by illness and Louis instead “walked into town every day after lunch and went to the cinema”.
  •  His first film memory was a Deanna Durbin musical and childhood loves were westerns, detectives, gangster movies, and horror, including 1947 film noir The Upturned Glass, starring James Mason. “The city centre was full of cinemas,” he recalls, listing the Savoy, Pavilion, Palace, Ritz, the Lee, Colosseum, and Assembly Rooms.
  • This article was first published on August 13 2020. 

 Film highlights:

  • The Silent Art (1959): Portrait of Cork sculptor Seamus Murphy.
  • Peil (1962) and Christy Ring (1963): Focus on skills of Gaelic games.
  • Rhapsody of a River (1965): Portrait of the Lee valley; orchestral music by Seán Ó Riada.
  • An Tine Bheo (1966): Official commemoration of 1916 Rising, with Ó Riada score, shown in all Irish cinemas.
  • Fleá Cheoil (1967): Cinéma vérité treatment of West Clare Fleadh; won Silver Bear, Berlin Film Festival; Diploma of Honour, Moscow Film Festival.
  • Capallology (1968): Humorous look at the Irish passion for horses, narrated by Niall Tóibín.
  • Pobal (1969): The living folkways of Irish life; music by Ó Riada and Ceoltóirí Chualann.
  • Muhammad Ali in Ireland (1972): Narrated by Ali and shown on US cable TV.
  • Páistí ag Obair (1973): Academy Award nomination; London Film Festival Selection; Best Irish Film, Cork Film Festival.
  • Conquest of Light (1975): The art of making Waterford Crystal. World distribution by Columbia Pictures. Academy Award nomination; Bronze Award, European Industrial Festival, Montreux; Best Irish film, Cork Film Festival.
  • The Heritage of Ireland (1978): Television series, written and presented by Douglas Gageby.
  • Discovering Ireland (1983): Tourist attractions of Ireland film used by Bord Fáilte worldwide.
  • Sunday After Sunday (1985): Centenary history of the GAA on RTÉ and Channel Four.
  • The Irish Experience and The Fleadh Cheoil (2000): On permanent exhibition at Brú Ború, Cashel.
  • No Rootless Colonists – Na Gael-Phrotastúnaigh (2002): Story of Protestant contribution to the the Irish language and revival movement.
  • Cosc ar Ghnéas/A Ban on Sex (2005): TG4 documentary on the banning of Frank O’Connor’s The Midnight Court, and The Tailor and Ansty by Eric Cross.

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