Killarney man Tom Cooper cast veterans of the War of Independence in Ireland’s first feature film. Its restoration means it can be screened again, writes Ellie O’Byrne
“HE JUST disappeared off. He didn’t say anything to anyone, and the first we heard of it, he was on the news.”
The director of Ireland’s first ever feature-length film, Killarney entrepreneur Thomas G Cooper, was a modest man. The award he received in the late 1970s from Cork Film Festival for his contribution to film in Ireland was the only official recognition he ever received for his achievements, but his grand-daughter, Michelle Cooper Galvin, says he shied away from praise.
The day he set off to attend the Cork Film Festival and collect his award, he didn’t even tell his family, she recalls; they learned of it through an RTÉ report on the evening’s news. “You’d talk to him about the film and what he achieved, and he’d smile and puff away on his pipe and say very little,” Michelle says.
Not only was Cooper’s film, The Dawn, Ireland’s first feature-length film, it was also an independent production and, produced between 1933 and 1936, was also a ‘talkie’, at a time when sound was in its infancy even in Hollywood.
With a script charting the tale of one family from the Fenian uprising of 1866 to the War of Independence, and featuring a cast of local amateurs, some of whom were actually veterans of the war, The Dawn was not only distinctively Irish, but an entirely Killarney-based production: a source of great pride for locals.
“A lot of people were very proud of the fact that their husband or wife or son or daughter was in it,” Michelle says. “He went over to England to get all the equipment and then he gathered locals together within a very short radius of Killarney town and then he got the script together and they started shooting.”
The man Galvin fondly remembers was, she says, “always thinking ahead; he was ahead of his time.” Trained as an electrician in the Ford factory in Cork, he was a technological innovator not only in film; as a pet project, he co-owned a small plane with another Killarney man in an era when Irish aviation was in its infancy. “Himself and Maurice O’Connell kept the plane in Fossa, where they built a little runway in Maurice’s place and the two of them used to fly the plane.”
Cooper’s film may be the first Irish-produced feature, but there was a precedent: Between 1911 and 1914, the New York Kalen Film Company produced 28 films with Killarney as a location. Plans to make Killarney the ‘Hollywood of Ireland’, were stymied by the advent of Europe’s two great land wars and the accompanying upheavals in international logistics. Cooper, born in 1900, would certainly have remembered Kalen Film Company’s visits.
Cooper’s film wasn’t only born of a passion for the medium, but also of entrepreneurial spirit; he owned a chain of cinemas, including what was then known as The Killarney Casino, still in the family today under the name of Cinema Killarney.
He was also Ireland’s first tour operator, the owner of the Glebe Hotel, and a pioneering figure in Kerry tourism. “He wanted to showcase all the beautiful scenery in the area,” Michelle says.
The locations Cooper used are still recognisable even today, and the film was something of a marketing device for another of his innovations: Cooper was the first person to arrange and market all-inclusive package tours to Ireland.
“He bought buses and they’d go to Cork and Dublin, collect tourists and take them around to Glengarriff, Dingle and Muckross. He’d go off to England to sell the tours and he did all the marketing himself.”
Cooper died in 1982. Towards the end of his life, although he still screened The Dawn from time to time in his cinema, he’d never watch it himself. He had been hit hard by the untimely death of his son, Michelle’s father, at just 30. She believes it may have been her father’s appearances in the film as a child that were simply too painful for Cooper to watch.
Family lore has it that the great Walt Disney visited with her grandfather, although the details are hazy: Disney certainly did visit Ireland in 1946 to trace his Irish roots, and his stay inspired Darby O’Gill and The Little People, which was filmed more than a decade later in Hollywood movie lots.
Shot on 35mm, prints of The Dawn are held in the British Film Institute (BFI), the Irish Film Institute (IFI) and RTÉ, as well as the family. But four years ago, it became evident that the fragile old film was in danger of deteriorating and being lost.
Michelle, who is a press photographer with The Kerryman newspaper, and her son Diarmuid, who was attending a Broadcast Production Skills course at Kerry Education and Training Board (ETB) in Tralee, set about seeking help to preserve and restore the historic film.
“The film was showing its age,” Michelle says. “It’s 80 years old and we had to make a decision. We went to a lot of people for help and advice.” But plans for the IFI to restore and remaster their copy fell through.
Brian Nolan, the broadcast production skills instructor at Kerry ETB, agreed to take the painstaking restoration on as a class project, working from the loaned BFI print, which was the best-preserved copy.
“We got it scanned in the UK to digitise the print, and converted it to a video file,” Nolan says. “It was a fantastic learning experience for the students.”
Two students, Chris Garrett and Ciaran McCormac, used software to clean up the 133,081 frames that make up the images in the film, while their classmate Seamus Slemmon worked on the audio. The results, Nolan says, are impressive considering the minute budget for what is usually an expensive process.
“When Fritz Lang’s 1929 classic, Metropolis, was restored a few years ago, it took years and a budget of a quarter of a million dollars,” he says. “We did this in three months, with a budget of ham sandwiches and crisps.”
The restored copy is set to be screened in Cinema Killarney. “We’ll also show a little before-and-after to demonstrate how much better it is since it was restored,” Nolan says.
Preserving The Dawn for posterity still poses challenges, though; in an era when software developments move at lightning speed, it may seem contradictory, but 35mm film is considered one of the safest ways to ensure that a film remains accessible.
While digital formats rapidly evolve and compatibility issues arise, with the provision of a projector, film remains immune to these changes.
“I have it in an LTO (Linear Tape Open) format at the moment, and the family have a copy, but we really need to get that put back on to 35mm to preserve it for the next 100 years,” Nolan says. “But that will require a budget, and it’s just not there.”
Making the film accessible to future generations is an important task, Nolan says.
“This is a milestone in Irish Cinema history; it should be much more recognised what a pioneer this guy was. It’s important to honour his achievements.”
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