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Ciné Gael Montréal – fifteen years of the best in Irish cinema

From NUACHT, May 2007 - Dana Hearne

As we celebrate our fifteenth season of bringing the best in Irish Cinema to our enthusiastic members and supporters in Montreal, it is a good time to look back and recall some of the great moments we have shared and remind you of how it all began. In the Spring of 1992, Anthony Kirby, well-known film buff and member of Montreal’s vibrant Irish community, made a presentation to the St. Patrick’s Society’s cultural committee suggesting that it consider bringing Irish films to Montréal for the benefit of the community. Nothing happened right away, but Lynn Lonergan Doyle, a member of the cultural committee at the time, mulled it over, got a few interested people together and formed an executive committee. With the financial support of the St. Patrick’s Society, the first Ciné Gael Montréal film season was set to roll one year later in January 1993. Lynn had no clue then how complicated it would be to get a film season launched each year.

The first season’s program was a harbinger of what was to become one of the annual highlights of the Irish community’s rich calendar of events. That year we screened such classics as The Commitments, The Luck of Ginger Coffey, December Bride, The Quiet Man (preceded by a lecture presented by Professor James MacKillop entitled “Irish Cinema and the Quiet Man,)” and Hush-A-Bye-Baby. This first season set the tone for future seasons in a number of ways. Irish cinema was wide open to us then as anything we decided to show would be new to us. We could choose the best of the classics and we could keep our eye on the new releases. With the input of the more knowledgeable members of the committee, we all developed a considerable expertise in researching and tracking films.

Now going into our sixteenth year, the choices have narrowed and we have to work harder on making our choices. We developed a pattern then, which we expanded in subsequent seasons. With a season that extended from late January to early May, we had a film evening approximately every two weeks. We developed a tradition of having a guest speaker for every film. These speakers are drawn from the Irish community, from the universities and colleges (film studies and others disciplines), the media (especially John Griffin, Gazette film critic), the film directors themselves and high profile le actors and sometimes members of our own committee. We became interested in mixing genres to include not only full-length features but also documentaries, short films and animation.

From 1993 until 1998 we were lucky to have the support of Le Conservatoire d’art cinématographique de Montréal, which up to that time was housed at Concordia University. Its affiliation with Concordia ended that year and although we continued to show our films at Concordia’s Cinema de Sève, the loss of the Conservatoire’s support made our task of researching and tracking films very much harder. The last year of this alliance was a success for Ciné Gael Montréal. That year a major festival of Irish film was mounted called Le Cinéma Irlandais: La Voix d’une Nation/Celebration of Irish Film: Voices of the Nation. It ran from March 26th to April 19th. In total we had 19 days of screenings and 55 films. The films were mostly highlights in Irish film-making North and South from the 1980s and the 1990s – features, documentaries, short films and animation, including films directed by Neil Jordan (a major focus), Jim Sheridan, John T. Davis, Paddy Breathnach, Margo Harkin, Trish McAdam, Tom Collins, John Huston, Joe Comerford, Brendan Byrne, Damien O'Donnell, Aine O'Connor, Padraig O'Neill and Edith Pierperoff (who turned up in person all the way from Galway)

In the years following this bonanza of Irish film we added two new features to our programme: an evening of shorts, and one weekend in the course of the season devoted to highlighting a celebrated actor (Stephen Rea, Milo O'Shea, Gabriel Byrne et al), director (John Ford, Neil Jordan, Bob Quinn, Cathal Black, Robert Quinn and, most recently Paddy Breathnach), a significant figure in the Irish film world (Rod Stoneman) or emphasizing a different focus on Irish women directors (Pat Murphy, Orla Walsh, Mary McGuckian, Margo Harkin). Our future plans include a weekend devoted to Gay Irish Cinema.

We also try to make sure that Northern Ireland is represented each season. Most of the Northern Ireland films we have shown until recently have focused on the tragic political situation — Omagh (directed by Peter Travis) was the most recent in this genre and one of the most moving and powerful.

In the last couple of years as we have celebrated younger film-makers, there has been a notable change in the kind of subject matter they are choosing to engage with and often these films seem to be less “Irish” than the films of their parents’ generation. As Robert Quinn said of his debut feature, Dead Bodies “One of the things I like best about this film is that there is nothing particularly Irish about it. It could be anywhere.”

Paddy Breathnach expressed a similar point of view when he was asked how he saw his films fitting into an Irish tradition. He said he doesn’t see himself as fitting into any kind of Irish tradition but rather thinks of his films as reflecting the particular space he is inhabiting at the time he embarks on them. Changes in Irish culture, or particular issues in the Irish social/political landscape, can always be expected to be reflected in some way in his films but they are not his guiding inspiration. As Ireland has gone global so too, it seems, have many of Ireland’s younger generation of filmmakers.

We have had some mad moments during these 15 years where films arrived just minutes before the screening because they somehow got stuck at Customs or even worse, the wrong film got on to the reel in the projection booth or the right one never showed up. Perhaps the most hairy example of this type of mishap was during our Stephen Rea weekend. We`re scheduled to show Angel on the Saturday night. but as the projectionist on the Saturday night was checking the film he informed us that we had a print of a French porn film of the same name. One of our committee members raced out to a video store and managed to get a somewhat scratched print of the right Angel and the rest of the evening went without incident.

One of Lynn Doyle's fondest memories is of the night Ciné Gael screened Othello. The guest speaker that night was Susanne Clouthier (who played Desdemona in the film). She was a great friend of Pierre Elliot Trudeau and rumor had it that the great man himself might make an appearance. Kevin Tierney who was producing a film biography of Trudeau at the time, had actually invited him to the screening. “It was all very secretive, hush-hush, tentative, unconfirmable,” Lynn recalled, “but still we whispered repeatedly, Trudeau ‘might’ attend.” They whispered it so many times amongst themselves, that when he actually did show, Lynn burst out in her welcome “we are so delighted to have TRUDEAU with us.” Blushing furiously Lynn looked over only to see “The Right Honorable” wink in her direction. It was another great Ciné Gael evening!

It seemed so fitting that we closed our fifteenth season with The Commitments, the very first film we ever screened at Ciné Gael, and the top choice of our members.

We look forward to the continuing adventure of our Ciné Gael season and this seems to be the right moment to thank everyone who has helped and continues to help to make this film society such a success: the local Irish pubs McKibbin’s and Hurley’s; our sponsors – the Embassy of Ireland; the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism (Ireland); the Cultural Relations committee of Ireland; Concordia`s Canadian Irish Studies, the British Council; BGL Brokerage; Jameson; and especially St. Patrick’s Society, which has so generously supported us throughout these lively 15 years.

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