Rocky Road to Dublin

About the author
Peter Lennon was born in Dublin and reported from Paris for the Guardian throughout the sixties. During the seventies he worked in London on the Sunday Times and the Listener before rejoining the Guardian in 1989. He has had short stories published in the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly. His film Rocky Road to Dublin, which he wrote and directed, was selected for the Cannes Film Festival of 1968. He is married with two grown children.

By 1967 my Irish Republican aspiration for freedom from the English had transmogrified into a realisation that what my country really needed was freedom from the Irish, who had by then ruled (three quarters of) the country for 45 years. A junior correspondent for the Guardian in Paris, I decided to go back home and make a feature length documentary to reveal what had gone wrong with our new republic.

With the renowned French nouvelle vague cameraman, Raoul Coutard, as a kind of Exocet missile, we got child, priest and patriot to reveal themselves on camera (years before Michael Moore). The result was Rocky Road to Dublin.

At this point, Ireland, along with the Soviet Union, had probably the most repressive ideological apparatus of book and film censorship in the world. Clerical remote controlled censorship filleted foreign influence mercilessly – even dementedly. There was virtually no film or publishing industry.

We listed, against a tolling bell, some of those authors who had had a publication banned in Ireland: William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, JD Salinger, Jean-Paul Sartre, John Steinbeck, HG Wells, Samuel Beckett, Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh, Sean 0’Casey, John McGahern, George Bernard Shaw, and as a spice, Jomo Kenyatta.

The Irish establishment took one, brief look at Rocky Road, and suffocated it for 37 years. No Irish cinema would screen it and there was never any question that RTE (Irish public service television) would either. RTE was totally submissive to the church (as were most Irish politicians). Indeed, at the point where only about 18 people had seen it at a private screening, RTE, on its Late Late Show, dealt the hammer blow by warning the nation that this unseen film was backed by “communist money.” In fact, it was entirely funded by an American businessman friend of mine.

One has to be wary of being “fair” to regimes whose apparatus for being unfair permanently exceeds one’s own by 10,000 times. But in fairness – or out of sympathy with my repressed countrymen – I have to say that Rocky Road was a pretty indigestible item. Instead of the model of freedom and decency the republic took itself to be, it is described in one scene by Irish writer Sean O’Faolain as:

“A society without moral courage, constantly observing a self-interested silence, never speaking in moments of crisis and in constant alliance with an obscurantist, repressive, regressive and uncultivated church.”

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Reinforcing the claim that the church was “uncultivated”, the Archbishop of Dublin, never realising that the camera could be used as a weapon, lent me an idiotic singing and dancing priest who warbles the Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy to women in a tuberculosis hospital. Long after the same priest delivered a homily to camera on the desirability of celibacy, we discovered he was sleeping with his young house keeper, an orphan who had herself been a victim of earlier sexual abuse. Venal as well as idiotic.

Rocky Road’s revival

Though there was little chance Rocky Road would be distributed in Ireland, in 1968 I entered it for that year’s Cannes Film Festival, and it was selected to represent the country that had rejected it – much to the bewilderment of the Irish establishment.

The May student revolt closed down the festival after a few days, but Rocky Road, with its theme of “what do you do with your revolution once you’ve got it?” was adopted by the French students, brought to Paris and shown in the Sorbonne amphitheatres, under siege by riot police.

Even though Ireland had practically no film industry, it did have an international film festival, to be held in Cork that October. There seemed no way it could wriggle out of accepting an Irish film which had been selected for Cannes and had picked up excellent reviews from Cahiers du Cinéma, Positif, Paris MATCH, the New York Times, and the International Herald Tribune.

Well almost no way. It was rejected as an official entry on the farcical grounds that it had already been screened in Dublin – to a grand total of 18 people.

But Cork still had a problem and the film censor could not help them. I had been careful not to have any sex in the film and the censor himself delivered his verdict to me in an endearing phrase: “Since there is no sex in the film Peter, there is nothing I can do against you”.

After tight negotiations, Cork gave us a lunchtime slot, but on a day when all the critics and journalists were invited to free oysters and Guinness in Kenmare, 30 miles away. Virtually no one turned up. We hired a hotel conference room the next day and screened it again. The scandal encouraged a cinema manager to run it in Dublin for a few weeks, then it was buried again.

Then, in 2004, with a Dublin production company, Loopline Films, I got financial assistance from the Irish Film Board to restore Rocky Road and to tell its story in a new documentary, The Making of Rocky Road. The great Raoul Coutard came out of retirement to share his experience of working on an “evolutionary” film, a category no film dictionary records. This time we had no trouble getting it into the Cork Film Festival.

The successful suffocation of Rocky Road for nearly four decades is an illustration of the fact that in a brainwashed community you don’t need formal censorship laws to smother a film. With no experience of film being used in this way, the press wrote as if it wasn’t a proper film at all. “Why should any film manager be expected to show this insulting stuff in a proper cinema?” they asked.

Rocky Road and The Making of was launched at the Cambridge International Film Festival, and then, following a screening at the ICA in September, will go on general UK release. Ireland will come later. Since October 2004 Rocky Road has been at festivals in Belfast, Amiens, Chicago, Memphis and Moscow and soon, the Korean International Film Festival.

It would be nice to be able to say that we eventually liberated ourselves from clerical oppression. In fact it was the church itself which eroded its own powerbase when it was revealed in the 1990s as an accomplice to decades of sexual and bizarre physical abuse by priests, nuns and Christian brothers in orphanages and industrial schools – and, indeed, ordinary local parishes.

Even then, the thoroughness of the church’s crushing authority was confirmed when it was able, even in such a small country, simply to transfer paedophiles and rapists from one parish to another without legal consequences. There was confirmation, too, of the depth of its psychological hold when no other institutions would confront the church or entertain the notion of “clerical crime”.

The growth of television and its direct access to communities outside Ireland, where respectable people were seen to assume that divorce, contraception and abortion were normal civil rights, made the censorship of discussion of these issues in international films increasingly absurd. The arrival of video gradually ensured that controls were bypassed.

Sean O’Faolain was given the task of reforming the procedures for book censorship. The permitted reform was timid: instead of books being banned forever they were only banned for 12 years. Still, he helped unleash on the country a tide of classics which had already achieved a sell-by date.

But when the church was finally forced to compensate its victims, the old subservient alliance between the people and the church revealed its weasel roots again. In 2002, using a shameless legalistic ploy, the church claimed that, as controllers of the school system, the state shared the church’s culpability. They negotiated a deal by which only a quarter of the financial penalties fell to them. The other three-quarters would be met by “the state” – in other words, the taxpayer.

The government also slipped in another sweetener: religious orders were granted indemnity from civil prosecution.

Jaysus, what did you expect?