In 2013, the Irish Film Institute received a call from the Harvard Film Archive about a lost film called Oidhche Sheanchais (Night of Storytelling). What is extraordinary about the find is that this is the first film made in the Irish language. It was filmed by American documentarian Robert J. Flaherty in the 1930s. Flaherty was considered the "father" of documentary and ethnographic films. He is known for the documentary Man of Aran, a fascinating and intimate portrait of everyday life on the Aran Islands, Ireland in the 1930s. In 1934, the film was scored in London with original Irish folk songs.
After the release of Man of Aran, Flaherty was immediately commissioned the first Irish government-sponsored film by the Irish Department of Education. Unfortunately, Oidhche Sheanchais disappeared after the 1935 screenings and considered lost for 78 years. The reappearance in 2013 sparked renewed interest in classic films made in Ireland and in Flaherty's work. It was restored by the Harvard Film Archive and screened this year on the Aran Islands, Galway and Dublin.
Oidhche Sheanchais is truly a beautiful short film that captures a family sitting around a fire telling stories and singing traditional Irish songs. It is haunting to see the faces of people who lived so long ago, their moment in history encapsulated and replayed to a modern audience. It is also a reminder of how important it is to show these rare films to keep the stories alive and pass them down to generations who, otherwise, may not feel connected with the past. It is also out of respect to the Flaherty himself, whose purpose was to preserve the history of people unknown to the masses, but no less important in world history.
I had the opportunity to watch Oidhche Sheanchais at the Galway Film Fleadh, which was screened along with other silent films made on the Aran Islands in the 1940s. The silent films were accompanied by Aran fiddler Deirdre Ní Chonghaile.
IFI curator Sunniva O'Flynn describes in this interview what the discovery means for cinema history and the people who still live on the Aran Islands.
For more information about Oidhche Sheanchais and other Flaherty screenings, visit the IFI website.