A View From The South

Archive footage shows Ulster before the Troubles in new Irish language documentary

From 1959 to 1964 cinema newsreels viewed in the Republic of Ireland and filmed by the Irish language organisation Gael Linn, gave a sanguine, sedate perspective of Ulster life. In an era predating RTE and daily news coverage on home television sets, Amharc Eireann’s footage offered a rare glimpse of Northern culture, from dances to Orange parades and elections to the North West 200.

A surprisingly wide-ranging collection of cheery Ulster news items, they were never broadcast in the six counties; it was correctly assumed bulletins in the Celtic tongue wouldn’t appeal to the Protestant majority.

These old newsreels are now the basis of a new four-part Irish language documentary, Amharc Aneas (View from the South), to be broadcast on BBC NI, which takes viewers through snapshot after snapshot of pre-Troubles Ulster as it was portrayed to audiences south of the border. And it seems, like the past so often does, like a foreign country – a place where people did things differently and smilingly, in pressed, co-ordinated outfits.

Lord Brookeborough grins knowingly into the camera in his Orange sash, after Twelfth of July parades pass without incident; a fancy dress party at the Belfast art college in 1961 seems choreographed demurely and politely. (They did the conga with a reserve rarely seen among student bodies today, though one girl is fractionally caught swigging the devil’s brew from a bottle).

There are scenes at Harland and Wolff as dockers work on the multi-Boarding shipmillion pound Canberra liner in 1960 and glimpses of Ulster’s farmers mingling with the well heeled at the Balmoral Show, which seemed as boring to non-agricultural minds then as it is now.

The popularity of the North West 200 was healthy even then, attracting motor enthusiasts north and south of the border – though the bikers moved a great deal slower; whilst there are shots of an unemployment rally in Newry and polling booths during the Stormont elections (described as the 'quietest elections this side of the Iron Curtain'); All Ireland football games, jazz supremo Louis Armstrong bizarrely arriving in Belfast in 1962; and the opening of the M1 motorway and the runways established at Aldergrove in 1964.

Amharc Aneas is a fascinating (if at times naïve and superficial) catalogue of Northern Irish society in a bygone era. Life in the South, also sporadically documented in the films, was so Catholic it seemed natural to call bishops and priests out to Dublin runways to bless new Aer Lingus planes with sprays of holy water and fervent prayers.

Though Ulster was at peace during these years, there was a brief and ineffective IRA campaign in the 1940s, and there continued to be sporadic outbreaks of sectarian violence in the years that followed. The North certainly wasn’t the uncomplicated jolly ‘stateen’ that Amharc Eireann portrayed it to be.

As many of the academics and commentators featured in this documentary point out, Catholic oppression was the status quo and tensions ran deep. The disconnect between the gleeful archive footage and the more realistic insights of talking heads, including former Irish senator Maurice Hayes, is notable.

People who actually feature in the reels, including John O’Donnell, who organised the unemployment march in Newry in 1963; Belfast man Raymond Spence, who won the Skerries 100 in 1962; and Jim Heyburn, who sang at Finaghy Field on July 12, 1961 are called up to relive their show reel moments.

'It comes across, 50 years on, as a very innocent perspective,' says director and producer Joe Marcus. 'Northern Ireland is seen as a sort of little brother to the Republic, an innocent place before the outbreak of the Troubles.

'There was peace then and what seemed like a stronger community spirit, in rural areas at least. You find Catholics saying that they were happy going to the Orange parades or offering to look after their Protestant neighbours farms so that they could go off and enjoy the Twelfth.

'In Belfast, the picture was slightly different – some Catholics complained about being barricaded in their ghettoes so the day would pass smoothly. But on the whole the newsreels seemed happy to ignore any ideas of political tension. The South simply wasn’t interested in getting to the bottom of the situation across the border.'

Marching bandsAfter partition in 1921, the Republic of Ireland was of course constitutionally justified in distancing itself from the complexities and simmering tensions of Ulster’s political arrangements. It was content to take a fleeting, cursory glance over the border from time to time, but it was not motivated to scratch beneath the surface or to try to involve itself in the North’s affairs.

Ulster was another country, British territory. It was foreign, the South knew little about it, and as many of the commentators in this documentary confirm, they were content with this severance and distance.

'The South basically turned its back on Northern Ireland after partition,' says Marcus. 'In some senses they viewed it as a quaint tourist destination. It’s very much a case of ‘Here we are at the Balmoral Show and the Twelfth parades where everything is lovely'.

'Amongst ordinary people and in the business world, there was a lot of cross-border activity. But there was absolutely no political contact between North and South.'

Although Amharc Aneas is an Irish language production, filmed with help from Northern Ireland Screen’s Irish language fund, its substance has relevance for both sides of the North's historic cultural divide.

For those old enough to remember the events covered, the documentary is a nostalgic trip down memory lane, back to the buttoned-up 50s and the not-so-swinging 60s in Ulster. For those born into Troubled Ulster it’s a view of a simpler time, before semtex and bullets ripped the province apart, a time before mobile phones, DVDs, microwave dinners, mass cynicism and The X-Factor.

Amharc Aneas, produced by OMAS Media with support from Northern Ireland Screen, will be shown on BBC Two on Monday March 8 at 10pm, continuing for four weeks.

Joanne Savage