Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - CONFERENZE, Women and the Silent Screen Conference

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Women and Nationalism in Indigenous Irish Filmmaking of the Silent Period
Donna R. Casella

Last modified: 2010-05-12


Women in Ireland came into focus and onto the political stage during and as a result of nationalist and socialist movements that began in the mid-1700s and continued through the 1920s. Women like Anna Parnell, Constance Markiewitz, and Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington participated in nationalist and suffragist movements. While some could not separate the two movements believing, like Julia Kristeva in Nations without Nationalism (1993), that nationhood need not be incompatible with cultural diversity, others found nationalist concerns antithetical to feminist ones.

Indigenous silent feature filmmaking in Ireland was born out of this critical period of political and social change. From 1916 to 1934, Irish artists produced over 40 silent feature films. Of these, only Knocknagow (1918), In the Days of Saint Patrick (1920), Willy Reilly and His Colleen Bawn (1920), Irish Destiny (1925), and Guests of the Nation (1934) have survived. A close study of these films, fragments of three others, and contemporary film reviews and archival synopses of the non-surviving films reveals how early Irish silent films tackled nationalist issues (role of the Catholic Church, property rights, Catholic/Protestant conflict, and independence), but did little to represent the active participation of women in those issues. Linked to the image of “Mother Ireland”, women in these films are passive sisters, lovers, and mothers, impacted by rather than impacting historical events. This is not surprising. Irish silent cinema was a male-dominated industry with a nationalist agenda that perpetuated gender stereotypes. And, unlike the early film industries in the U.S. and across Europe, women’s participation behind the camera was limited. Mary Manning was the most active, writing for one film and assisting on another; three other women boasted writing credits on one film each. For the most part, however, women were silent behind the camera, while in front they played roles consistent with Ireland’s nationalist ideology.

At first glance, women’s film roles and their lack of participation in industry production seem inconsistent with women’s social and political activity before and during the early days of film. However, memoirs, autobiographies, and biographies, as well as social historical studies (including those of Margaret Ward and Carol Coulter), reveal that women’s revolutionary activities and subsequent political involvement in the Free State were marred by traditional gender perspectives that held back both their political careers and social changes for women.

Culture studies reads cinema as both an effect of and a construction of history. Seen from this perspective, then, Irish indigenous silent films reflected the foundational images of Ireland that many Irish female activists of the time sought to redefine. This paper explores how both the filmic images of women in the silent period and the life stories of female activists reflect the social stagnation women faced despite, or maybe because of, Ireland’s nationalist movement.

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