Image copyright MGM Films/Faraway Productions
The world of film has come a long way in little more than a century. At the start, viewers were amazed to see scratchy depictions of moving monochrome figures, then talkies led a move towards more realism, and now we watch films in which Computer Generated Imagery makes anything appear possible – on screens from multiplex to phone sized.
Somewhere in the middle of that century of ‘development’, if not ‘progress’, there was a brief period, between the studio factory system and the dumbing down of films to compete with television and computer games, when works which could be considered ‘classical’ were produced – by Directors who had more in common with painters than accountants or computer technologists.
Perhaps one of the most accomplished artists in this field was the late David Lean – who had worked his early twentieth century way up from, literally, the cutting room floor, through editing, to directing classics like “Oliver Twist”, Brief Encounter” and “Great Expectations” and then the mid century mega-hits like “Dr Zhivago”, Lawrence of Arabia” and “Bridge over the River Kwai”.
His forte was the vastness of the background against which the plot was projected – deserts, wars, revolutions – matched by the scale of what was visually presented: crowds of thousands, hordes of camels, endless skies and landscapes.
In 1968, he went to Corca Dhuibhne, the Dingle Peninsula, and, in filming what was probably the last of the Great Epics made under mid century conditions, he very nearly put movie giants MGM out of business.
The spend for the film: “Ryan’s Daughter” was around £60 million overall in today’s prices – largely as a result of Lean’s perfectionism – with hundreds of retakes and delays for ‘the right clouds to come’ and his insistence on building a complete set on Carhoo mountain at Ballynahow Commons, as well as the need to retake some shots in South Africa. Over a year on location was prohibitively expensive but the MGM executives had to trust to Lean’s track record and hope he was producing another blockbuster.
The critics were not initially kind to “Ryan’s Daughter” – indeed their reaction put Lean off film making for over a decade – but the public were more willing to take this old fashioned movie to their hearts and, eventually, it covered its costs and is now reviewed more favourably for what it was – the last of the great 20th century epics.
I’ve written elsewhere about the impact of this production on the life of the Dingle Peninsula – economically and socially – and one of the major effects was the surge in tourism which resulted from the film’s panoramic views of west Kerry, produced by Lean’s Oscar award winning cinematographer, Freddie Young.
When tourists are inspired to come to Corca Dhuibhne by the scenery they have enjoyed in “Ryan’s Daughter” – and they still come in great numbers, as the film receives a regeneration on DVD – they also look for locations and signs of the film left behind. On top of Carhoo, they will find the remains of the village street, but none of the buildings – demolished shortly after filming was completed – and if they know where to look they might spot the ‘carved standing stone’ which marked the bus stop at “Killins Cross”, now standing outside the museum in Ballyferriter, in all its polystyrene glory!
However, the most substantial, physical, reminder of the days when Faraway productions and MGM came to Dingle , is the schoolhouse, built at a place called Cill Gobnait, on the clifftop near Dun Chaoin Harbour, and, which, as anyone who has seen the film knows, possesses one of the finest views of the Blaskets.
Unlike the village set, this was not built on commonage, but on land owned by local farmers, the O Sé’s, and there were no disputes over ownership or control. Faraway Productions who made the film, and had built the set, simply walked away and left the building as it had been in the film.
Image copyright MGM Films/Faraway Productions
It was a perfect reconstruction of a style of national (or primary) school built all over Ireland in the later 19th century – one big schoolroom, separate entrances and playgrounds for boys and girls, and basic accommodation for the teacher attached. It was built in traditional manner by local stonemason, Mikey Donoghue, and has remained more or less intact for over forty years. The one concession was a back wall which was ‘hinged’, so it could be lifted up to allow access to the huge film cameras of the day.
Image copyright MGM Films/Faraway Productions
Initially, its position on private land meant tourists were not encouraged to visit the site. To do so required a walk down a private lane past a couple of houses and then a jump over a gate to join the laneway constructed by MGM. Sadly there was a deal of early vandalism of the building, and it may have suited the farmer to remove the back wall and allow access to his cattle. When I first visited the schoolhouse in 1971 it was almost as it had been in the film, two or three years later and the inside was less recognizable.
Eventually, the Ryan family, of Ryanair fame, bought the building and there are now access gates at appropriate points. The path down to the building, which is still instantly recognisable, passes an old holy site of St Gobnait’s Well.
Through the years there has been much talk of renovating the place and making something of it – it has an obvious lure, even after all this time. Nothing has come of this and there was, I suppose, a delicious irony in the fact that this fabricated building from the 6os slowly fell into a state which was not dissimilar to that of hundreds of identical abandoned schools actually built in the 1890s.
However, after a major storm in January 2015, much of the roof fell in and the building has clearly come to a crossroads. Over the next few years, it is likely it will deteriorate more into a heap of stone and eventually, it will become the former site of a “bit of the film” as is the hillside at Ballyhnahow Commons.
There is an argument for saying: “So what?” This schoolhouse is an anacronysm of an anacronysm, a piece of left over make believe from a film which was made too expensively and too late. Surely the whole point of ‘the movie business’ is that it is ephemeral of its nature and should not be confused with reality?
It’s a fair point, but there is another angle. There always is in the world of film.
This simple schoolhouse is a reminder of an event which played an important part in shaping the 20th century of this part of Ireland and the Gaeltacht – for better or worse. Like the movie set village of Kirrary, once it is gone, it is gone forever – and there were some regrets at the destruction of that village set in 1970 almost as soon as the demolition crews had left the mountain.
However, it is more than that.
It is a final reminder of a phase in film making which we will never come again, a physical remnant of former times. As such it can speak volumes to students of ‘how things used to be done’. It is a visual aid to learning and history and has a role to play in the area still, I believe.
There was an excellent report from locally based Seán Mac an tSíthigh on RTE News at the end of January which highlighted the current state of play; it seems the owners are rather disinterested in the site but that there is local support for some action being taken. In the RTE film, Marcas MacDomhnaill of Comharcumann Dhún Chaoin, the local co-operative, expresses interest in some development of the building.
After years of neglect and inaction, perhaps the recent storm has indicated the need for some decisions to be taken.
The basic building is sound but the roof and back wall should be replaced. The surroundings – the playgrounds, walls and the street outside are also in decent condition. In addition, since the days of filming, this site is now close to the Dingle Way and the Wild Atlantic Way, and, of course, a few hundred yards over the hill from the iconic Ionad an Bhlascaoid – The Blasket Centre, so brilliantly run by Dáithí de Mórdha who has done so much to attract folk to the area and keep alive the traditions of the Blaskets.
The building has much potential. Once wind and water tight, its interior could serve as an exhibition space – with memories of “Ryan’s Daughter” and its production, but also of the area as a whole. It could also be a performance area – in summer, imagine traditional music being played in the playground area with the backdrop of the Blaskets and the Atlantic, or lectures and workshops on the area’s language, culture and traditions. Local craftsmen might want to give demonstrations for visitors too. For passing walkers, perhaps the original idea of a simple tearoom and café would be possible.
I would like to think that there could be some link to Ionad an Bhlascaoid – perhaps a route from the car park to the site of the schoolhouse, perhaps covered by a replica 1916 bus to take visitors. Access would certainly have to be carefully considered and controlled. The link to the Blasket Centre comes from the fact that the film undoubtedly introduced millions worldwide to the existence of the islands, and attracted more to visit the Centre and the islands themselves. For those unable to travel out to the islands, a walking or ‘bus’ route to the schoolhouse would give them an additional spectacular view of the Great Blasket in particular.
In addition, the refurbishment of the site would bring work to the area – to builders, to stonemasons and roofers, maybe even to road building – along the lines of the original cobbled boreens constructed for the film.
Vocational students from Dingle and Tralee, and pupils in their Transition Year, could serve apprenticeships and gain work experience on the project, children from nearby national schools could visit this reminder of old time schooling, local businesses could contribute to the rebuilding.
Assuming there is local support for a refurbishment, that the owners of the building are happy to allow it, and that local landowners can have an involvement, the major problem would be funding.
These are hard times everywhere, and though Corca Dhuibhne remains a hugely popular tourist destination, investment in new initiatives is not easy to find. My answer to that problem would be to look to all the many organisations who could benefit from the project – or who have already flourished, directly or indirectly, from David Lean’s adventure in the neighbourhood.
The following is not an exhaustive list – but, in terms of film history, would it be too much to expect a contribution from Bord Scannán na hÉireann, and maybe work for local filmmakers in making a documentary of the project for RTE? Údarás na Gaeltachta might be approached, as well as Fáilte Ireland and Kerry County Council, Dingle Business Chamber, and Dingle Tourism. Local businesses individually might feel they could be part of it all – Benners and the Dingle Skellig Hotels, Louis Mulcahy Pottery, the Dingle Brewing Co, the Dingle Distillery, some of the pubs of Dingle town who were major beneficiaries of the likes of Robert Mitchum and Trevor Howard and their legendary thirsts. If many organisations contribute, their individual contributions need not be unfeasibly large.
The relationship between Corca Dhuibhne and “Ryan’s Daughter” has always been cautious. While acknowledging the huge boost it gave to the local economy, and the benefits of the tourism it created, many are circumspect about its shadow over the area. Recognition of the film has always been understated in the locality, and the situation of the schoolhouse demands that such a development should be in keeping with this historically calm approach.
It would be a pity if this relic of film and local history was to be lost altogether. Even a commitment to make the building wind and watertight, as a first step, would be welcome.
David Lean referred to the film company who made “Ryan’s Daughter” as “The Last of the great traveling circuses” – surely it deserves some kind of permanent memorial?
Over on Great Blasket, in sight of the schoolhouse, Tomás Ó Criomthain, famously wrote of the islanders: “Ní bheidh mo leithéid arís ann” – There will not be our like again.
The same is true of the old time movie “Travelling Circuses” – and wouldn’t that strangely familiar old building on the cliffs at Cill Gobnait be a great place to commemorate the fact?