Doolan’s new passion is Galway venue

At the opening night of the Irish Film New York last month, Lelia Doolan was a hard woman to catch. But, eventually she had some time to sit with the Irish Echo in the basement of Glucksman Ireland House where the celebration was taking place, and we talked for 15 minutes before she had to get a taxi uptown to another do.

Doolan was a guest of honor at Irish Film New York, where her documentary “Bernadette: Notes on a Political Journey” was a key attraction. Her visit to the U.S. had a dual purpose, though, since she was also raising funds for an art-house movie theatre in Galway.

Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter

Sign up today to get daily, up-to-date news and views from Irish America.

“We’ve been trying to make this happen for almost 10 years now,” she explained of the project. “We’ve got almost all the funding, we are shy by about a million euros. We think we can make that up and we would love if the public would give us a hand.”

Doolan, now age 78, is a respected public figure in Ireland, and as a young woman was a pioneering element in the nation’s creative scene. Described as “mad, bad and dangerous,” by Dublin’s Catholic archbishop, John Charles McQuaid, she was never afraid to dispute authority.

She won a scholarship to study Brecht at the Free University in Berlin, and worked for almost a decade at Ireland’s national broadcaster, RTE, until she resigned in protest at their political and commercial policies. (She later wrote a book about the experience with two colleagues called “Sit Down and Be Counted.”) Doolan also spent two years as artistic director of the Abbey Theatre, and she holds a PhD in anthropology from Queens University, Belfast.

She spoke about her current passion – the role that indie film could play in the city of Galway. For more than 45 years the city has sustained a film society whose members meet every Sunday night to watch something out of the ordinary. “It’s like having a great meal,” she said. “It’s full of riches, it’s full of nutrition. And it’s provocative, interesting, awkward, something to enable people to be fully human.”

The project (www.picturepalace.ie) – which she hopes will gain support from members of the Irish American community – will include three screens, a café, a bar and a bookshop. Doolan said that artists and creative people have not disappointed the country, unlike some other groups. “Of all the people who have let cultures down and societies down, they are mostly economists and bankers and business people,” she said. “Funnily enough in Ireland at least, the artists have not left the country down. They’ve continued to be vibrant and vivid and interesting and fascinating and intriguing.”

Her own most recent production is a film that achieves just that. “Bernadette: Notes on a Political Journey” explores the provocative and often inspiring activities of Bernadette McAliskey (née Devlin), a young woman who acquired prominence during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. At the time, Devlin was just 22. In an image from the film showing her with long hair wearing a short dress and coat, with buckled shoes, she looks even younger.

Doolan said the film was not meant to be about McAliskey’s experiences but about her ideas. “She is, like all human beings, multifaceted,” Doolan suggested. “But one of the great qualities of her is she has a great mind. She is very direct; she is very eloquent. She’s got a wonderful sense of humor, and madness, in fact. She is intellectually alive and awake all the time and she’s just a remarkable iconic figure.”

The documentary is a testament both to McAliskey’s actions and Doolan’s determination to record them. She described the film as something of a teaching aid – a reminder, for young people, that some ideas are worth fighting for, and a nudge to reject blander versions of life. “One of the reasons for my making the film, I suppose, was to say, ‘Have courage.’ She had a strong courage,” Doolan said of Bernadette. “But it doesn’t take a lot to stand up for something that you actually believe in.”

By now, it was time for the filmmaker to travel to her next appointment, and she was probably running late.

When it comes to film, art, Ireland and history, Doolan doesn’t keep her eye on the clock. “I could keep talking forever,” she said.