THE ROCKY ROAD TO DUBLIN

by Vincent Browne



"You say you want a revolution, well you know we all want to change the world. You tell me that it's evolution, Don't you know it's gonna be alright, alright, alright."

In the late sixties, while the Beatles were advocating a peaceful people-power approach to sudden change, a young Paris-based Irish journalist was becoming pre-occupied with an earlier, altogether different, type of revolution and one which he certainly didn't feel had turned out to be "alright". Peter Lennon, a Guardian correspondent had long been disenchanted with the Irish society that evolved after independence in 1921, believing it to have been a revolution that essentially failed to live up to its idealistic origins as it became hijacked by more reactionary forces . These elements then conspired to build a society that was, he feels, in many ways as restrictive as the one which it replaced. Lennon, who left Ireland in the late '50's, believing it to be "a country with its future in the hands of people who think in terms of the past" wished to debate this question with a wider audience. Thanks to the sponsorship of Victor Herbert, a wealthy American businessman who was swayed by Lennon's silver-tongued enthusiasm, he had enough money to make a documentary around this theme. The resulting film The Rocky Road to Dublin was the most important independent documentary to come out of Ireland in the 1960's and unsurprisingly provoked a storm of controversy from a nation that was not used to such rigorous self-examination. It also achieved huge notoriety in France when it was later shown during the student demonstrations of May 1968. Samuel Beckett, a friend of Lennon's in Paris, heard about the proposal and was far from encouraging about the project, declaring, somewhat grandly, that it would never work because the Irish "were not a serious people".

Shot on location in Dublin by Raul Coutard, who was at the time one of the world's best cinematographers, having worked with Truffaut and on all of Godard's early films, the film's commentary, written by Lennon himself, set the agenda clearly; "This is an attempt to reconstruct in images the plight of an island community which survived nearly 700 years of English occupation and then nearly sank under the weight of its own heroes -and clergy". The central question posed is simply, "What do you do with your revolution once you've got it?" The film, over the next 70 minutes, attempts to answer this dilemma, which is an organic part of the problems that face any revolution, once the initial period of dramatic change has taken place.

It opens with Coutards hand-held camera moving through the streets of Dublin with the Dubliners version of the title-song playing over the soundtrack. This gives it the same kind of rolling energetic feel that made French new wave cinema such a major influence at this time. It moves quickly into a series of interviews with the intellectual and social hierarchy of 60's Ireland who speak with an honesty and a directness that still appears fresh today. All the big guns are wheeled out for this barrage on many of the sacred shibboleths of Irish society, Sean O'Faolain on the Ireland that emerged after independence, our most recent convert to Unionism, the (even then) patrician figure of Conor Cruise O'Brien who criticises conservative Irish Foreign policy as being too willing to kow-tow to the US and claims that "the pope is now distinctly to the left of Frank Aiken and the Department of External Affairs."

A spokesman for the G.A.A. explains the thinking behind the blinkered, repressive policy of the ban on foreign games, putting it in an altogether broader context; "The GAA is something much wider than a sports organisation. It was founded for the purpose of utilising sport to inject manhood and nationalism into Irish manhood at a period when the spirit of Irish people was very low after famine and centuries of persecution."

Douglas Gageby the then editor of 'The Irish Times' proudly claims that his paper openly discusses the pill but believes that change is accelerating at a rate that baffles the older generation of Irish people. Professor Liam O'Briain, a member of the film censorship appeal board bemoans the loss of "the idea of sin in countries like England who appear to have abandoned their traditional values in favour of an indulgent liberalism. "I often do feel that the world is going to blazes". However, it is O"Faolain's embittered, scabrous contribution that gives the film its real critical subtext. Years of battling against the forces of the establishment that he so despised had, by 1968, clearly taken its toll as he disgustedly dissects post-independent Ireland. As an example of the rhetoric of disgust it is worth quoting in full. "It was a society of what I would call urbanised peasants. A society without real moral courage, constantly observing a self-interested silence, never speaking in moments of crisis and in constant alliance with a completely obscurantist, repressive, regressive and uncultivated church. I often feel that if those dead men of 1916, before the bullets crashed into their heads and before the rope tightened around their necks, had seen the kind of reward that would come out of their sacrifice, they would have felt only that their efforts had been betrayed and that their sacrifice had been in vain."

Lennon's next target was the Church and particularly their hold on education, believing that "the strongest weapon they have is not the law but the way you are conditioned in childhood to be ashamed". An eight year old boy is shown obediently discussing the effects of original sin which result in us being made "less brainier which means that doctors have not yet found cures for certain diseases." Also there would have been "no stupid people which would mean that the poor would be very rich." A companion adds that wearing "very mini-skirts" is a chief danger to chastity.

The section dealing with the clergy proper gave Lennon something of a scoop, albeit one that wouldn't become apparent until the nineties featuring as it does a young, smiling Fr. Michael Cleary. He is shown joking and singing with patients in a tuberculosis ward and it can be seen that his charisma is as striking as his good humour is infectious. He, not unlike Eamon Casey, appeared to have had a great gift with people. Later he admits that "Celibacy is a problem for the clergy. I personally would like to be married and to have a family. If I didn't miss these things then the priesthood wouldn't be a sacrifice." At this time Cleary was living with his housekeeper who had already bore him one son that had been given up for adoption thus proving the truth of the old saw that hypocrisy cannot unlike "adultery or gluttony be practised at spare moments. It is a full-time job." The final scene of a young married woman's voice-over retelling her attempts to discuss her marital problems (pregnant every year for five years) with her priest only to be told to "go home and dig the garden and forget about it", further blemishes the clergy's reputation.

The film painted a very unflattering picture of Ireland at a time when people were becoming materially better off than they ever were before. This portrayal of them as being complacent, obsequious down-trodden victims of a censorious, priest-ridden society of self-serving politicians did not sit well in many quarters. Lennon was accused of being a communist on 'The Late Late Show,' of being "anti-everything" by 'The Evening Herald' and Alf McLochhlan, a film society critic opined that he was "one of those sincere guys who make very bad films" and that this one could be "classed as for the blind."

This was exactly the kind of response that Lennon wanted to his private showing of the film in Dublin in early 1968. The more condemnation and comment the better because that made it less likely to be banned. "The idea was to whip up a scandal and get out before the film was seized thus creating a force more powerful than censorship - curiosity," said Lennon, who insisted that the film was made primarily to be seen by the Irish people. There was some positive critical comment, especially from writers such as Fergus Linehan,who repeatedly defended the film, believing that it was a welcome break from the glossy Bord Failte view of Ireland and one that "owed nothing to any establishment ideas about how this country should be projected."

At this point, Lennon returnedto Paris and the story takes an exotic, somewhat bizarre turn. He submitted the film to the Cannes committee and it became one of only eight films selected from around the world for the critics week at that years festival. This was a great achievement for the first-time director but bigger events over which Lennon had no control were about to ensure that his festival experience was not going to be a normal one.

Paris in May of 1968, like many other student cities throughout the world at that time, was in complete political upheaval. What had started out as a peaceful university sit-in to demonstrate against American involvement in Vietnam, escalated into total disorder when the unprecedented decision was taken to call in the riot police to clear the students off the campus at the Sorbonne. The dispute spread to the streets and with the students growing in numbers all the time, more frequent and ferocious pitched battles with the police ensued. Using the Latin Quarter as their base, the students turned the whole area into a sanctuary, building barricades of overturned buses, hi-jacked cars, masonry from building-sites and park benches. Using dug-up paving stones as ammunition, the students and the police fought for sovereignty over this area for more than a month. During the day, the students were attempting the reconstruction of society by talking to the hundreds of baffled middle-class who visited the left bank to try and reason with them. Normal life in the capital had ceased to exist as slowly but gradually the blue-collar workers of the city joined the dispute by engaging in massive strike action that paralysed the city's services. There was no real political agenda at large. The students were in the vanguard of what was apparently a spontaneous, inexplicable outburst of exasperation with the forces of authority. In short, it was a revolutionary situation.

It was against this background that Rocky Road to Dublin was shown in Cannes. Immediately after the film Godard and Truffaud came into the cinema and announced that they were, in sympathy with the students, closing down the festival. The prize giving ceremony was scrapped and many delegates fled the scene while there was still transport. A mammoth debate then ensued between the students and the film-makers about the art and culture of cinema which lasted a continuous three days and two nights. Anyone could get up one the stage and address the gathering if they so wished, all receiving a patient and tolerant response from the couple of thousand spectators. It was decided that the students would set up their own distribution and network system only showing films with a revolutionary significance to as many people across France as possible. 'Rocky Road' was perfect for their needs being, as they saw it, a cautionary tale that would prevent their ideas from being hi-jacked. Thus, it was that Lennon found himself in Nice University and the Sorbonne sitting beside such representatives of world cinema as Milos Foreman and Louis Malle while watching a revolutionary screening of his film which was by now being described by 'Cahiers du Cinema' with such heady hyperbole as "one of three or four of the most beautiful documents that the cinema has given us." At one of these screenings physical fist-fights broke out during 'Rocky Road' between the students and more conservative elements says Lennon. "I could not grasp this, it was all completely unreal. I thought that perhaps in decency I should also join in but they did not seem to have any need of me."

The shrinking work-force who had locked themselves into the enormous Renault factory requested to see the film as a morale booster for the besieged staff. They had already watched The Grapes of Wrath and Battleship Potemkin and they thought 'Rocky Road' to be similarly appropriate. Lennon had to borrow a bed sheet to use as a screen. He found the experience memorable. "Their seriousness was moving. I remember one man sucking on his pipe and attempting to offer a solution for Ireland's woes. With the riot police outside he wasn't in a comfortable position, his own future did not look at all secure. But he nonetheless considered many options to save Ireland from itself."

'The events of 1968', as the revolt of the period came to be known, continued to gather momentum for a period, at one point forcing President de Gaulle to flee the country, a move which shocked the nation profoundly. This encouraged right wing elements to re-surface and by mid-June de Gaulle was back firmly in control. However the Paris revolt was unique in that it completely paralysed an entire country and had the support at one time of more than half of Paris' population. It was also the only one to so constructively use the cinema as a central plank of its propaganda. This helped to break down the barriers, for however briefly, that divide any nation. As Lennon says "To anyone who lived through those weeks the experience was as triumphant as that of any great battle and lies much more comfortably in the memory."

The Rocky Road to Dublin was the only film that Lennon ever made. It had a limited run in Dublin but it never received a provincial release. It has never been broadcast on television. RTE apparently believing it to be too contentious for domestic consumption in the 1960's, '70's or even '80's.

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