Wholesome Catholic fun

An unexpected past lies deep at the heart of one of Ireland’s primary institutes of art and progress

Located in the centre of Temple bar, the Irish Film Institute (IFI) is a centre of art and culture. While it’s central mantra is to preserve, exhibit, and educate, a surprising past lurks in its foundations.  Since its start in 1943 as the National Film Institute its mission has evolved to reflect the changing social climate in Ireland.

Founded under the patronage of  the then Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, the IFI began its course as “the teacher and moral guardian of the cinema-going public”. It objective was to provide a moral education in opposition to Hollywood films which the Roman Catholic Church deem immoral. McQuaid was influenced by Pope Pius XI, who, in 1936, declared Hollywood films the “school of corruption,” to establish the National Film Institute.

The archbishop is an interesting character and is known for his controversial reputation. During his lifetime, he prohibited Roman Catholics in the archdiocese of Dublin from attending Trinity and frequently wrote to Eamon de Valera, then Taoiseach, concerning the new constitution in which he sought to bolster the position of the Roman Catholic Church. In addition, while many knew of his personal charity to the poor, he later faced accusations of child abuse.

The founding patron of the IFI is a complex character that has been a topic of controversy during his time and still today. What cannot be debated however was that the patronage of McQuaid illustrates the role the church played in the early establishment and mission of the National Film Institute.  McQuaid and the Roman Catholic Church saw that cinema and film had the ability to influence the public and that under their control it could be used to the church’s benefit.

The archbishop and the Roman Church were not the only parties interested in the IFI. The board members reflected not only the IFI’s mission as not only  a religious moral compass, but also its role preserving of Irish culture in opposition to culture being portrayed in Hollywood films. The initial board included representatives from the Roman church, the Gaelic Athletic Association and the government. The IFI premiered the first moving picture of the GAA, even before RTE. The IFI and the GAA’s early collaboration illustrates the IFI’s dedication to Irish culture even before established itself as separate from the Roman church.

In addition, with the end of the Second World War, the government also became involved in the IFI. Working with the government, the IFI produced its own films on public awareness, public health, finance, and health and safety in the late 1940s.

Up until the 1970s the IFI functioned primarily as an educational organisation, managing a film library from which  films could be taken out on loan. There were even summer film schools where both priests and teachers took part in classes on how to project films, church-approved films only.

It wasn’t until 1982 with the decline of the Roman Catholic Church’s influence on the National Film Institute that it was renamed the Irish Film Institute (IFI). Departing from the Roman church’s agenda the IFI began dedicating itself to the promotion of cinematic art in Ireland and so began its mission to preserve, exhibit, and educate.

An integral part in the expansion of the work of the IFI was its move from Harcourt Street to its current building, an 18th century Quaker meeting house, in Temple Bar in September 1992. This move signaled the end of the Roman church’s influence over the IFI.

Until this point the primary role of the IFI was to show films to the public. Without the church-mandated agenda, the  IFI was able to pursue other goals. Soon, in the mid-1980s, the IFI assumed the role of developing a national film archive for Ireland. With the archive officially established in 1992, the IFI put out a call for any Irish films that could be included in this new national film archive.

The IFI’s film archive has continued to expand its collection of Irish film and made it more readily available to the public. In September of 2016 the IFI launched an online platform, called the IFI Player. The player is free to the public and seeks to allow more people the ability to access the IFI’s educational materials worldwide. On the day it became available there was so much interest that the servers crashed due to the large numbers of people trying to access its materials.

One of the most popular collections on the IFI Player since it was launched was its collection of restoration of television ads from the 1960s-1980s. The IFI’s next project concerning Player will be uploading newsreels from 1914-1930 on historical events in Irish history that were captured by foreign news companies.

Many of the original film donations, some of which are included in the IFI Player platform, made to the National Film Institute came from members of the Roman clergy. The clergy not only had an invested interest in the support of the National Film Institute, but  they were also of sufficient economic standing where they were able to afford the film and equipment needed to create motion pictures.

There are many films in the IFI Player donated by Father Delaney. One of his donations included footage of a Magdalene Laundry. Delaney’s footage on the IFI Player is the only known film recording of the inside of one of these institutions and is another example of the church’s involvement in the early decades of the IFI.

Today the IFI is dedicated to the preservation, exhibition, and education about the art of Irish and international cinema. While the archive remains an all-Irish collection the institution promotes international films to the public. The IFI has become an important figure in Irish cultural and cinematic heritage that is continuing to evolve. There is no doubt that the Archbishop could have never seen the dramatic shift of the IFI from under the control of the Roman Catholic Church to the modern establishment that celebrates the art of cinema without censors.