Reeling in the years

George Morrison is 90.

The Mise Éire director recounts his achievements to Alan O’Riordan

THE film Mise Éire should have been a springboard to greater success for its director George Morrison. The 1959 documentary was ground-breaking in its construction of a narrative from archival footage — now a common technique.

The film is totemic in the Irish canon, but for several reasons was not a passport for Morrison to a sustainable career. The film’s international impact was stymied by the refusal of its backers, Gael Linn, to allow a non-Irish-language version. The follow-up, Saoirse?, was divisive and controversial, winning Morrison few friends. What could one expect of a Civil War film made when the wounds were still fresh?

But Morrison says he has no regrets. “I have struggled all my life,” he says without self-pity. Morrison, 90, is sitting in the old country house he shares with his wife, Janet, in Shankill.

Morrison is surrounded by the stuff of his work: DVDs and videos, and books; he is writing his latest history book on his laptop. The Mac is in the other room, for film-editing. Morrison’s slightly halting speech is the result of a stroke several years ago. He was unable to speak, “but for one word, ‘Yes’,” he says. “But the affirmative does not do for all occasions that life throws at one.” Morrison’s halting delivery matches his elegant manner, so he speaks in crafted, whole sentences, as if reciting. “First of all was the struggle to get into films,” he says. “Then, having got there, to make good films on no money, as one had to do in Ireland.” He had “to take any kind of film work that was going, such as the short films for the department of local government.” We can add this image, of Morrison making films about road safety, to another false start, his one feature film — a version of Dracula, in 1942, that Morrison says was lost in the Blitz in London when he brought it over to show to his father. That famous stay-at-home genius Flann O’Brien’s debut novel, At Swim-two-birds, had its first edition mostly destroyed by a Luftwaffe bomb. O’Brien also toiled for the same department of ‘yokel’ government.

Yet Morrison is proud at having stuck it out in Ireland. “I gritted my teeth and hung on with the greatest of assiduity. I struggled and have been, ultimately, successful, I feel,” he says, though there were “periods when I was near to despair”. But he has a one-word answer for why he remained: “Determination,” he says with a smile, before saying, mischievously, “I wanted to make my own country pre-eminent in some way.” Morrison’s lifelong love affair with cinema began as a young boy in 1928, when his grandmother took him to the Pillar Cinema on O’Connell Street, Dublin (it’s a McDonald’s now). There, Morrison saw Rex Ingram in The Conquering Power. “I was enchanted,” he says. “Almost from that time, I wanted to be a film director.”

Like most boys, Morrison thought in terms of feature films, but by the 1940s he had become alert to the possibilities of “actuality material”.

The problems presented by working with such material had great allure for Morrison, and soon he was embarking on a career as, he humbly says, “something of an archivist. I’ve always had a penchant for taking the difficult option,” he says.

The principal difficulty for any would-be archivist of Irish film material was finding the stuff. After the war, Morrison began a catalogue raisonné, tracking down material in private and public collections across Ireland, Britain, France, Italy, Belgium, Denmark and Holland.

“When I had progressed sufficiently, in 1947 I went to Éamon de Valera and I said to him, ‘You realise that all the films before 1921 are liable to be lost, due to being on inflammable base — celluloid. It is inherently impossible to protect this material. It decays inevitably.’ There was a crisis involved and I asked him to provide some money to solve this. I thus got the first grant. It only consisted of £500 for five years, but it was vital at that stage,” Morrison says.

With funding from Gael Linn, Morrison continued the process of identification, salvage, and restoration of 300,000 feet of newsreel and other footage. This material would form the basis of his greatest works, Mise Éire and Saoirse?. Mise Eire, he says, “was the film that I enjoyed making most of all. It combined all operations of film-making in the one structure, the archival, too. I was very pleased with that.”

Working with the most rudimentary equipment, directing Mise Eire was painstaking, a cut-and-paste job for its editor-director. Morrison was using many silent-film reels that had been shot at the turn of the last century. He describes “stretching” this material, a technique whereby every other frame is doubled, so that the 16-frames-per-second, which gives us that comically sped-up silent-movie action, are increased to 24-frames-per-second. “This was the first feature documentary using that technique,” he says. “I also found that in the surviving Irish material there were no close-ups, so I had to make my own by enlarging, on the optical bench, certain sections of the frame.”

Morrison speaks with relish about this arcane and technical side of his work, and with an old cineaste’s nostalgia for a hands-on art that is now mostly computerised.

But he has a director’s vision to go with those editor’s techniques. “Mise Éire and Saoirse?,” he says, “are like two faces of the same medal. One can’t be seen or studied without the other.

“The style of Mise Éire is hopeful and idealistic and the music is accordingly. I deliberately instructed Seán Ó Riada that the music for Saoirse? had to be different. It was hopeful, at first, then declining rapidly into disintegrative music, which is why the harpsichord is so marvellously used in that film. The splintering sounds of the harpsichord. Wonderful.”

The Morrison-Ó Riada collaboration is probably the most famous in Irish cinema. Morrison describes meeting in the composer “a film fan who hadn’t seen much, but what he had seen he’d enjoyed.” Morrison only needed “five minutes in his company”, however, to be convinced Ó Riada was a kindred spirit. “We worked smoothly, marvellously, like hand-in-glove. The most perfect collaboration,” he says.

Morrison’s most recent film is Dublin Day. Shot in 2007, it features David Norris touring some of Dublin’s Joycean landmarks in Morrison’s homage to the city and its greatest writer. It was Morrison’s first major work since 1972.

Are we back to the subject of Ireland and its lack of opportunities? Not a bit of it. Morrison explains the hiatus: “I’m rather choosy. I didn’t feel any of the projects offered to me came up to scratch.”

In any case, he has always kept busy, in those years producing several notable books of Irish history, and collaborating with his late wife, Theodora Fitzgibbon, on the famous Taste of... series of cook books.

“Films are not a suitable profession for a gentleman.” That was the verdict of Morrison’s father, a doctor, on his son’s ambitions. There are some who would say the same holds true today, but an afternoon in Morrison’s company is sufficient refutation. Irish cinema has had room for at least one gentleman.

* Mise Eire: Lorg na gCos is on

TG4 on Friday, Dec 28 at 8.30pm. It promises the definitive story of the iconic film through the eyes of George Morrison and other figures.

* A celebration of the life and work of George Morrison was hosted by the Progressive Film Club and Gael Linn at the Light House Cinema, Dublin, on Dec 11.


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