Tom Hayes writes about the life and work of Ireland's 'master of the lyrical film', Patrick Carey who died last year.
Last year when Patrick Carey died, it brought a double sadness to his many admirers who knew him and his work. For while we lost one of the greatest film artists Ireland has ever produced, it is also very depressing to discover that his name means nothing to our new generation of film-makers and enthusiasts.
Yet through the sixties and early seventies Patrick Carey's short films were among the artistic highlights of Irish life and won international acclaim for this country that remained unmatched in films until very recently. He was Ireland's finest exponent of film as a primary visual art and in his poetically conceived documentaries he pinpointed, for native and foreigner alike, the beauty in the elements that make up the setting for the legendary and ancient history of this ancient island.
Patrick Carey came from a well known theatrical family. His mother was the famous 'Gate' actress Mia Carey and his brother was Denis Carey, founder of the Bristol Old Vic, companion theatre to Lawrence Oliver's London Old Vic. Denis Carey was mentor to many great talents on the English stage such as Peter O'Toole and Anthony Hopkins. The recent RTE series "Memories in Focus" dealt with that great pioneering era which coincided with the setting up of the Irish Film Society. Names to conjure with of that period were Liam O'Leary and Colm O'Laoghaire, Liam Miller, Brendan Stafford, Kevin O' Kelly and Bobby Dawson. A major step by the society was to set up a film school and one of it's first films was Manon's Acre, which was a John B Keane 'The Field' type story, shot in Lough Shinny in North Dublin and which features Patrick Carey's Mother Mia Carey as leading actress. An interesting sidelight to the Irish Film society story, was the fact that Patrick Carey's father then working in the Department of Finance, managed to have inserted in the Finance Act 1939, a clause which permitted the importing of films for artistic and educational purposes, to be shown privately or in a member's club setting. This spared the film society crippling import costs and enabled it to survive to this very day.
Patrick Carey's early days were involved with theatre but he also studied art at the National College of Art under Maurice Mc Gonagle and Sean Keating. He was closely associated with Brendan Stafford and established a photographic studio in Dublin. Business was slow and when Michael Powell the famous film Director took Brendan Stafford over to London where he became a distinguished feature film photographer, Patrick followed him and wound up sweeping the floor in Green Park studios. He was in a good tradition. Such was Hitchcock's debut in the film business. Paddy's move to London was the making of him. There was no prospect of a film career in Ireland in the forties so the move to England enabled him to learn his craft as a cameraman. There he discovered his particular flair for nature photography. After two years working in England, first as an assistant cameraman, he shot his first film, a documentary made in 1947 for the Royal Air Forces which was made by the Film Producers Guild. During the next six years, in the heyday of the British documentary, he worked on films in many places - in India, in what was then known as Persia, in Indonesia and Kathmandu where in 1953 he was with the technical unit which filmed the Ascent of Everest. The following three years, spent working on British films, were crowned by the making of Journey Into Spring, a nature documentary, sponsored by British Transport, directed by Ralph Keane and photographed by Carey.
At this stage in the Patrick Carey story, I must mention the celebrated National Film Board of Canada. The NFBC was set up by the famous John Grierson, a Scotsman and film producer who invented and gave the name to the genre "documentary". He was invited by the Canadians to set up the National Film Board of Canada, which was responsible for an extraordinary body of nature and artistic documentary films, featuring the outback in Canada. Naturally Paddy Carey was very attracted to this scene and in 1957, he moved with his family to Canada for the next four years, making films, several of them for the NFBC. The films shot by him in this period include the exquisite Sky, a poetic study of cloud movements which was completed in 1960 and The Living Stone, filmed in the Arctic. Around 1961 Carey came back to Ireland to develop his art in an Irish context and determined to explore opportunities which might be on offer for work in his chosen medium. This coincided with the start-up of RTE but it was 1964 before he got his first Irish commission. To put bread on the table he worked on industrial documentaries in England and photographed Wild Things, a British documentary which won a Hollywood Oscar in 1967.
And so to his Irish films, the first being Yeats Country made for the department of External Affairs which was festooned with awards. First prize "Golden Bear" in Berlin, ditto Gold medal in Barcelona, first prize "Silver Hugo" in Chicago, first prize "Gold Satellite" in Santa Barbara and finally an academy Award nomination in Hollywood. Sadly in those days, money was minimal for film-making in Ireland and Paddy was to say that, "Even though I lost a little money in making it, I felt it was worth it to make such a film."
Radio Telefis Eireann commissioned his next film, Mists of Time, scripted, photographed and directed by Carey, a work which shows a firm adherence to his expressed purpose "to use the film as a medium of poetic expression in an Irish context. Errigal which he described as "a landscape painting on film" was made for the Department of External Affairs in association with Roinn Na Gaeltachta, Bord Failte and Radio Telefis Eireann. The production was a joint one with his wife Vivian and was first shown in Dublin May 1968. The spoken commentary is minimal and of Errigal Carey wrote "The mountains are the characters in the story, the drama is in the battle of the elements. I have tried to convey the feeling of personality in a landscape, supported only by music and natural sounds." This approach stemmed from his belief in film as a visual art, entirely separated from the verbal tradition, which it may on occasion complement. As Louis Marcus wrote "There was unique chemistry between Patrick Carey's sensibilities and the Irish countryside. Far from the chocolate box theories of tourist photography here was a land of clouds and mist, of threatening woods, of looming mountains and of rugged landscapes caressed by a passing band of sunlight. With the help of Brian Boydell's imaginative music, Carey invested the landscape with an eerie sense of personality, of tensions among the physical masses and conflicts between them and the elements. Indeed his films tended towards the condition of music the way that they moved with an elusive inner logic." Finally in the Irish corpus of work of this period, he made Waves and Ossian for the Department of Lands in which on his soundtrack he dispensed with formal music and relied on the ambience of nature itself, the music of animals, birds, mountain streams and natures own vast repertoire.
During this Irish period he was in demand by feature film-makers elsewhere who wanted his atmospheric sense of the countryside as a counterpoint to their stories. His most distinguished work as a second unity photographer was for David Lean's Ryan's Daughter, Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon and Fred Zinneman's A Man for All Seasons which at the 1967 Hollywood awards gained six Oscars including one for colour photography.
Wagner had the bright idea that opera was a synthesis of all the arts but for Partick Carey this was even more true of film. He said that film contained not merely images as you have in a painting but movement as well - an association with dance and sound itself. According to Carey the countryside in Ireland has a dimension for white people which it does not have in North America - it does have for the Indians but not for white people, whereas here, what with the mythology, the weather and various other aspects, Ireland has a definite feel which is absent in most continental countries. The composer Brian Boydell, Carey's music collaborator on his films, was also inspired by the landscape of Ireland. He too was alive to this pre-Celtic mythology and contributed hugely to the art of Carey's films.
As regards Patrick Carey's working methods, some interesting observations were made by RTE's Liam Millar in 'Memories in Focus', the TV series on the history of Irish Films. Liam described how he worked with him in early days - "You arrived at a location and might spend two hours looking for exactly the right position between two spots, maybe twenty feet apart. Then, waiting for a particular angle of the sun on a particular cloud and light and shadow formation. One example was a sequence in Ossian of the reflections in the Lakes of Killarney - those wonderful almost arrowhead formations in the film. We went to that location quite a number of days - I was puzzled as to what he was at, but knew what could be achieved if the conditions were right and very early in a morning in February, it just suddenly all happened and it's that sort of certainty he had as to what he was looking for and how it could be achieved."
Liam Millar Senior, publisher and founder of the Dolmen Press, wrote a brilliant analysis of Yeats Country which was commissioned by the Department of External Affairs. Liam was in a unique position to write about the film as he was Paddy's literary advisor on the film and was very much in tune with the film-makers methods and intentions. He wrote; "Only the first three minutes or so of Yeats Country has a commentary which is not made up from direct quotations from Yeats' work and so the words which accompany Patrick Carey's film sequences are the poet's own and are his reactions to the landscape of the West of Ireland. The opening sequence in effect, explores the real terrain almost as if it is a displaying of the raw materials which are to be moulded by the film-maker into the experience which follows. The title background suggests the Sligo countryside to which we will return, and the first shots of the film proper move to other western Irish places associated with the poet - Thoor Ballylee, where Yeats made his home after his marriage; Coole Park, home of Lady Gregory, where the literary figures of the period came together and many of them carved their initials on the giant copper beech in the gardens; and Lissadel, its 'great windows open to the South' through which we enter the proper locale of the film, the area around Sligo. The camera swings away across the valley from Knocknarea at one end, past cromlechs, ancient stones, ruins of castles and abbeys, to the other great mountain Ben Bulben. These two mountains acquire a poetic symbolism in Yeats' work and the visual suggestion of tradition, epic and myth has been made before the camera swings once more from mountain to mountain across the valley's cliffs and waterfalls, and ruins and trees and descends into a land of water and mist.
Trees and islands and their reflections in quiet lake water suggest a place of dreams and mysteries, a twilight landscape 'where peace comes dropping slow' in which the swaying reeds at the lake edge inscribe a fantastic calligraphy on the screen. This, the setting of 'The Lake Isle of Inishfree' is a composition of details; of single leaves or of dew drops reflecting the sunlight which breaks, now and again, through the swirling mist. From the calm lapping of the water on the stones at the lakeside, the camera rises through the thinning mist to show Knocknarea sunlit rising above the lake. The pace alters as we see and hear a waterfall on the cliffside over Glencar. This is perhaps Tir na nOg, the faery world of 'The Stony Child', where earlier calm vanishes and the roar of the rushing water carries our vision upwards to the stark edge of Ben Bulben, now covered in a mottled shadow pattern cast by the dark clouds gathering above.
This is the end of youth, of innocence. We have left the element of water for that of air and cloud ---'the cold and rook-delighting heaven'. The wind creates a dramatic and menacing composition as we descend into a very different landscape --- a country of ancient crooked thorn trees leaning against hill slopes ravaged by 'the bitter black wind that blows from the left hand'. We have left the gentle faery land for that of legend and myth where human emotions are informed and directed by the elements. Here are the correspondences that Yeats saw in his work with the No plays of Japan and the thorn trees become symbolic of the survival of the myth. The crows too become symbols and we return to earlier images, tree tops, reeds and the slopes of Ben Bulben and Knocknarea, all seen in a different mood as the reddening evening light reveals the edge of the sea which carries the fated lovers of The Shadowy Waters to their unending doom. The twilight of the Celts has vanished - this is perhaps the twilight of the Gods. Curlews and sea birds lead us, in the sunset to the legendary mountain, Knockrarea, tomb of Queen Maeve, Cuchulainn's enemy, whose cairn we see defiantly poised on the mountain top against the descending vermilion disc of the falling sun.
Finally, reality returns in cold moonlight, the crows settle in the tree tops and we see the poet's last resting place in Drumcliffe churchyard, under the slope of Ben Bulben"
In conclusion I must mention that Paddy Carey was a member of the John Huston Committee that the Irish government established in 1968 to report on the Irish development of a native Irish film industry. Also on the committee were Louis Marcus who gained Ireland's second Hollywood Oscar for his work and Donal O' Morain founder of Gael Linn which made George Morrison's Mise Eire. I was also on this committee and through it, got to know Paddy Carey very well. The committee's recommendations were the basis for the Film Industry Bill (1970) that would have created a positive climate for Irish production, but the Bill lapsed as an indirect result of the northern crisis. Patrick Carey's patronage dried up and without a state board for the industry he could not survive here. The late Seamus Kelly campaigned in his 'Quidnunc' column in the Irish Times for Carey's talent to be kept at home, but it was to no avail and in the early seventies he returned to Canada, where he worked and lived until his death. And so, sadly, from our shores departed one of the two great masters of the lyrical film (the other was Dutchman Bert Hanstraa), which gave the motion picture its principal claim to the status of poetry.
Clearly a posthumous retrospective of Patrick Carey's films is badly needed, not only at the Irish Film Centre in Dublin but at the festivals of Galway and Cork.