Lincoln Center offers a rare opportunity this week to see a seldom-screened classic of early Irish cinema. Denis Johnston’s 1935 drama “Guests of the Nation” will be shown at the Alice Tully Hall as part of the Imagine Ireland festival, the ongoing celebration of Irish culture that spans theatre, film, music, and architecture, in shows and performances nationwide in the U.S. The Thursday screening of the film will feature the RTE Concert Orchestra, direct from Dublin, playing a score by Irish composer Niall Byrne, commissioned especially for the film. The score premiered at a screening in the National Concert hall in Dublin last week, to considerable acclaim, and now, with the support of the Irish Film Institute, New Yorkers can attend the U.S. premiere. The film will be introduced by TV and film actor, and Ireland’s cultural ambassador to New York City, Gabriel Byrne.
“Guests of The Nation,” despite being made some eight years after the introduction of sound in cinema, was shot as a silent film, hence the commission for the orchestral score. Based on the short story of the same name by renowned Irish writer Frank O’Connor, the film is set in 1921 during Ireland’s war of independence, in which O’Connor had fought as a volunteer in the IRA. A vociferous opponent of the Treaty with Britain that sought to end that conflict and grant a compromised independence, O’Connor was interned for a year by the newly-established Irish Free State government, along with twelve thousand other combatants. O’Connor wrote “Guests of The Nation” less than a decade later, when memories of the conflict against the British, and the Civil War that followed, were still raw wounds in Ireland.
Based on his own experiences of those times, O’Connor’s story centers on the relationship between two IRA volunteers and their prisoners, a pair of English soldiers captured in a skirmish with the British army. The soldiers are to be held captive as collateral in a remote cottage in the countryside while negotiations are conducted for the release of two IRA prisoners from Kilmainham Jail in Dublin. O’Connor had the temerity to depict the hapless English soldiers as likeable human beings, decent chaps behaving stoically in the face of impending death if their counterparts, the IRA prisoners, were to hang. This was a controversial position to take at a time when the national narrative preferred the enemy as faceless, malevolant agents of the Empire.
In the screen version, director and playwright Denis Johnston cast a young Barry Fitzgerald as the more exuberant of the two English captives, who, having embraced local culture during his time in Ireland, entertains his captors with folk tunes on a button accordion. Other notable cast members include a young Cyril Cusack, Johnston’s wife (and mother of their daughter, renowned playwright Jennifer Johnston) Shelah Richards, and Frank O’Connor himself as a Flying Column volunteer. Shot in black and white, and influenced visually by developments in the use of montage in European cinema at the time, the film successfully captures O’Connor’s depiction of the human contradictions and ambivalences that become evident when international conflicts are examined at individual level.
“Guests of The Nation” will be screened at 7 p.m. on Thursday, September 22. Tickets are available from the Alice Tully Hall box office, 212.671.4050, and the Lincoln Center website, www.lincolncenter.org.
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