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Reflections on the project, its foundations, its adventures and its feature film “Playing Irish”
by Zachary McCune
where ideas come from
t was still snowing in Providence, Rhode Island when Colleen and I first had the idea for Heritage at Play. It was a Saturday evening and with a group of friends we were showing YouTube clips of this and that. It was too cold to go anywhere, so we entertained ourselves by traveling in the free, networked media of our global age.
After watching a number of mishap-filled videos, one friend insisted on showing us a clip of something called “Road Bowling.” It was an Irish pastime, he said, and it featured Irishmen of all ages pitching what appeared to be cannonballs down narrow country lanes. He was struck by how wonderfully strange the games were, and how happy the players looked. As were we all really. Watching the video, I was reminded of something I had long forgotten; having once worked with a number of Irish sailors at a community boating center in Newport, Rhode Island, I had been exposed to an odd Irish game myself. It featured a long wooden paddle and a small leather ball. But what was it called? I couldn’t remember. So I tried a few queries about Irish games and wooden paddles before returning a short video highlight from a game of hurling. Hurling. That was the game. Look at this, I said to my road bowling friend, you want an incredible game? Look at this! Later that evening, with our friends away, Colleen and I went back over the videos. The hurling had re-opened a long forgotten passion: the powerful excitement of seeing a completely new game and trying to puzzle out its rules, participants, and passion. But no matter how many videos I loaded, I simply could not make sense of the game. And no matter how many videos I watched I found myself driven to watch more. This game was beautiful and remarkable. It seemed completely novel and notably un-globalized. For even while many of my friends including Colleen were Irish-American, the game was a complete enigma. Unlike shamrocks, Guinness, and St. Patrick, this game simply had not made the voyage across the Atlantic into the popular consciousness of Irish-America.
Why? As any American knows, sports are more than just entertainments and exercise. They represent an arena of pride and competition. Whether it’s Texas county football rivals or Cold War hockey show-downs, sports provide a stage for measuring communities against one another. As such, the ultimate goal of any sport is to grow. To extend beyond its point of invention or development. For the British, colonization meant replacing native games in India, South Africa and Australia with cricket and rugby. With the Olympic games, the entire world learns the same games in order that they may compete on a series of consistent playing fields. So what were these Irish men doing playing hurling? From the look of their stadiums, these were not small-time events. They seemed popular. But why then weren’t they popular anywhere else? Why didn’t Irish-Americans know about these games? What did they mean to the Irish people? What allowed them to perpetuate year after year in the very face of globalization? And how, of course, were they actually played?
how ideas become more
A series of fortunate events allowed these midnight questions to become more than lost points of inquiry. Indeed, a strange arc of destiny actually allowed Colleen and I to ask Irish citizens and dedicated Gaelic games players these questions less than six months after we first thought them up. The intercession, it would turn out, was the extension of a Brown University campus deadline for a “New Media Fellowship.” Reading about the $2,500 grant in a campus email, Colleen and I decided to apply for the Fellowships, but realized we would both need to win the awards in order to make the funding sufficient.
In a long evening a few days later, we drafted a complete proposal for exploring Gaelic games with a film documentary. In an effort to buttress our application, I would take an Irish history class, and Colleen would take a film making class. As a group, we knew nothing about Ireland or filmmaking. I mean we had some instincts, but nothing to really go on. We also crafted a rough budget. We would need to be in Ireland for between two and four weeks. We would need to two cameras, and they would have to be very light HD cameras, because it seemed foolish to travel heavy and without high quality equipment. And we needed a name for our project. Something catchy. We did some preliminary research to contextualize our proposal. There was a consistent theme in the work on Gaelic games; in the face of British sports, Irish nationalists had revitalized Gaelic games as part of their broader efforts at establishing Irish cultural autonomy. So the games were about heritage. Heritage… that was being played. Heritage at Play. That was catchy. Due in the morning, we sent the application in. It was a long shot, but as Wayne Gretsky was known to say, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. So we took a shot at Ireland despite never having been there, and knowing nothing about the things we were going to study. We can say that now. For a long time, we didn’t hear anything about our proposal. Not that we were really listening hard. We were both busy with school work and trying to find jobs for after our coming May graduation. In a dramatic week in February, Colleen went to the UK for an arts Con-
ference, and I went to interview for a job as a high school teacher in northern New Jersey. And it was then that we received the unlike word that we had actually won the Fellowships to go to Ireland. And so, thousands of milesly apart, in strange surroundings, we celebrated.
luck & the irish
By the time we actually arrived in Ireland, several things had transpired which were in their own ways to shape the outcome of our project. The first was that I had completed a great deal of research (and yet I recognized there was so much more) on the origins of the modern Gaelic Games movement. I didn’t know much of anything about the GAA after the War of Independence, but through the separation with Britain, I was fairly well-versed. I also managed to practice shooting with the HD cameras and high-quality microphones that we would be using. Finding five minute films both easy to make and fun to watch, I conceived of the idea for “Broadcasts” from Ireland which would succinctly document our progress with short, web-ready video clips. Colleen, on the other hand, managed to make a number of friendships that would serve us incredibly well in Ireland. A visiting Professor in Brown’s Public Humanities program turned out to be a Dublin resident and was enlisted to help us find housing. With our budget tight, we hoped to ascertain safe but highly affordable housing for a three week stay that would be more secure and personal than a hostel room. With a great deal of luck, we negotiated through Ian Russell to “let” (the preferred Irish verb for renting) a small home in Rathmines just outside City Centre Dublin. The house was small, and the hot water was sparse, but it was all our own, and the price of 150 euro a week was simply impossible to beat. We booked a flight and crossed the Atlantic on a Wednesday evening in late June. When we arrived, we effortlessly made our way onto O’Connell Street passing Croke Park on our way into town and offering me the first chance to interview an Irishman (our bus-driver) about
Gaelic games. It was 7 am when we crossed the Liffey and made our way towards Trinity College and Grafton Street. Dublin, it would turn out, was quite small and very walkable. It was even more walkable on that early morning because Aer Lingus had lost my luggage on our direct flight from Boston. Which was a remarkable feat of ineptitude and absurdity. At 9 am, when the shops opened, we bought a pre-paid mobile phone. It turned out to be one of our absolute best purchases, as it not only gave us a 24-hour contact point, but also enabled us to twitter without an internet connection via text message (which we used frequently). We also would come up with a very clever way of posting blog content drafted in advance via the cell phone (it had a limited internet browser) which allowed us to keep the blog active even while we were far from internet access. Rathmines proved a perfect base of operations for us. Though there was no GAA club in area, there were three supermarkets, two internet cafes, and a liquor store (in the Irish an “Off-License”). Our home was also within walking distance of anywhere in downtown Dublin (about a 50-minute walk from the Liffey) though it was far easier to catch one of the MANY Dublin Bus services.
colleagues & co-ordinates
We had co-ordinated to work closely with Boston College Ireland’s GAA Oral History Project because their work seemed closely linked to our idea: use media to interrogate the meaning of Gaelic games in Irish culture. But though we began our project by meeting with them in their beautiful St. Stephen’s Green townhouse, it soon became clear that our timing was poor (a number of the vital staff were about to go to a conference in Europe) and the conceptual overlap was not incredibly strong. Where they took the importance of the GAA
for granted, and wished to push deep into its meaning among the Irish, we were hoping to produce a comprehensive introduction that would serve people outside of Ireland. So we followed up with a mutual friend from the Cogut Center for the Humanities at Brown Unversity. Having grown up playing gaelic games in Texas, Kevin Patton represented a unique Irish-American connection to the GAA, and he emailed introduced us to relative Ciaran Goan north of Dublin in Malahide. With a friendly email and a phone number, Ciaran invited us up to see a match in suburban Malahide, and we quickly followed up. Ciaran proved to be our first formal interview and the beginning of a wonderful trip across Ireland. For when we finished interviewing Ciaran, he insisted on linking us in to Tom Potts, an old friend, who we could meet with in County Cork. And he advised us to contact his brother, head of the Irish broadcasting service RTE. Which unfortunately did not turn into an interview or studio tour because Cathal Goan soon announced his surprising retirement.
the daily irish grind
Our days would go something like this: wake up at 10:30, make breakfast, pack lunch, and be on the road to somewhere by 11:30. We might go to a game at Croke Park (as we did that first Sunday to see the Dubs play and lose to Meath) or to a club somewhere in Dublin (as we did when we traveled to Kilmacud to interview Ross O’Carroll). Or we might be in a travel mode: packing our bags and crossing Dublin for Hueston Station where we could catch trains to Tullamore (as we did to visit Cloghan, St. Rynagh’s and Ray Bell) or Cork City (as we did to visit Tom Potts). On other days, we took in Ireland more broadly, visiting pubs to watch GAA games with barstool fans, or just exploring Dublin’s theatres, parks, bookshops, and attractions. Dublin became our home very quickly, and the Liffey’s ebb and flow (it’s a tidal river but no one tells you that) became familiar.
offaly: the heart of ireland
I don’t we ever could have expected how central our Offaly trip would prove. Once again, a connection from a friend put us in touch with a remarkably receptive GAA club chairman named Ray Bell and we took an invitation to get out of the city. It would be a three day to trip to the center of Ireland, County Offaly, a place I described well to friends as the Kansas of Ireland. Ray picked us up at the Tullamore rail station and drove us 50 minutes to Cloghan near the Galway border. Here, we found Irish life as we’d long expected it. In a small, quiet village, the church was the centerpiece of town, and the next most important thing was the pub. We stayed in a wonderful bed & breakfast that was more (wonderfully) akin to a country inn. Everyone in town knew everyone and quickly found out we were the Americans with cameras making a film (pronounced in Irish “fil-um”). After a special unveiling of a new walkway around the town’s GAA pitch, Ray took us through the players and coaches of St. Rynagh’s GAA Football Club to conduct five minute interviews. With the shots well cropped, the audio recording working extra well, and the answers to our questions vividly responded to, the Cloghan recordings became the center of our documentary “Playing Irish.” With full Irish breakfasts in the morning and evenings winding down in the pub at night, Cloghan was surely somewhere near the heart of that imagined Ireland that has been so romanced. And we were smitten by it.
day to day in dublin
We came back to Dublin and took a few days to wrangle the clips we had collected. It became traditional for us to produce our five minute “broadcasts” every three days or so with four hour editing binges after dinner. We also became attracted to the small television we had, for as media students, we were fascinated by the cultural nuance we (attempted to) perceive in the programming of Ireland and nearby Britain.
We spent one wonderful evening out with an old friend of mine who had been a sailing instructor with me in Newport when I first inspired by Gaelic games. In the bathroom, I made friends with a international boxing champion. Ireland was like that. It was small in size and in pretense. In Dublin, there was no real upper crust. Everyone walked the same streets, drank in the same pubs, watched the same games, complained about the same news. My friend was from Cork and she insisted we go visit the Rebel County. We did. We already had Tom Potts lined up as an interview through Ciaran Goan. Plus, Potts was going to show us the Nemo Rangers club, which had more players than Cloghan had people. It was so big and famous, I found it in the color photos of a book on the GAA in a Dublin bookstore. We had to go.
further adventures afield
Cork, I must confess, disappointed us considerably. Where Dublin had the city feel, and Cloghan felt rural, Cork felt second-best and in-between, like seeing Pittsburgh after New York or Chicago. Something about the city failed to inspire, and the fact that it poured while we were there and that we found the citizens less friendly than all the other Irish solidified our griping. Nemo, however, proved beautiful and massive. Tom was a wonderful tour guide and interlocutor. But we weren’t much for Cork. A final trip across the border into Northern Ireland remained on our to-do list when political tensions flared in Ulster amidst the protest marches known as the “Twelfth” celebrations. We had hoped to actually examine how Gaelic games endured in the UK-part of the island of Ireland, but would never make the trip after rail prices sky-rocketed and a bomb-threat was called in to our train route into Belfast.
Instead, we stayed in our adopted home and decided to travel a little outside of the city to Phoenix Park and actually try playing some Gaelic games ourselves. At our earlier Kilmacud Crokes interview, Ross O’Carroll had showed our basic way around the game of hurling. We bought hurls from a Dublin sporting goods store, and a from a hurleymaker’s demonstration at Croke Park. On our way out to the fields that afternoon, we purchased a gaelic fooball for 18 euro. The ball was heavier than a soccer ball and more grippy than a volleyball. We also bought a children’s book on gaelic football that provided illustrations of the game’s techniques. This was to substitute for an experience we simply couldn’t schedule we anyone in Ireland: an playing introduction to Gaelic games. While we had an enchanting afternoon at Phoenix Park playing hurling by ourselves and kicking the gaelic football, I was very disappointed that despite our youth, athleticism and efforts, no one actually let us into a game of hurling or football. I had imagined this would be very easy, as I imagined that like kids playing pick-up basketball, soccer, or football in America, all I would need would be some confidence or a friendly request to step in. It would never come to be. Even months after I became quite attached to the feel of the wooden hurl and the crack of the ball flying down field, I fear I may never actually play a game of hurling and that seems regrettable indeed.
We ran out of time and money. Fortunately, they were at about the same time. We certainly ended up shelling out $500 + of our money for the project, but every dollar was worth it, as were our adventures and times in Dublin. We bid adieu to the city from the same bus terminal we entered it, driving past Croke Park on our way out to the airport. Colleen had work to do when we returned, and I had a conference in Washington D.C. for a week at the end of the July. So we postponed editing the film for nearly three weeks before
re-visiting our adventures and becoming overwhelmed by the task of organizing twelve plus hours into a single cohesive object.
making the film
The good news was that we had a wonderful set-up to work on the film. Colleen got an apartment in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts and we installed a powerful air-conditioning unit to cool it down. We edited the film on my Macbook Pro, using the standard-issue iMovie to the fullest of its capabilities, preferring the lightness of the program to the bulk of Final Cut Pro. Our greatest challenge in making the feature film was finding a way to introduce the meaning and details of gaelic games within a narrative structure. Having shot by event and theme, rather than through a narrative arc, we couldn’t configure a film story for our film idea. We didn’t want to focus on us, though that seemed one option, but instead wanted to emphasize the Irish people and the games themselves. We also wanted to avoid a travelogue, as it seemed distracting and inappropriate. The point wasn’t that the games were here and there in Ireland, it was that they were everywhere. Eventually we decided to break the film into two acts, each with three brief movements. The first act would be about gaelic football, and the second about hurling, although each act would really consider Gaelic games overall. And we came up with a clever phrase, split into fragments to narrate the thesis of the film into its constituent parts: A COMMUNITY – AT PLAY – BELIEVES IN ITSELF / AN ANCIENT SPORT – TAUGHT AGAIN – CELEBRATES HERITAGE. We decided to repeat this at the end of the film in sequence to show this connected message, and drive home our thesis. After three weeks of editing in August, we had a 32-minute film. And we were proud of it.
from screen to screen
In the third week of September, nine months after first having the idea, we showed the film to an audience of ten at a public premiere in Newport, Rhode Island. We followed the screening with a half hour question and answer period. The response was remarkably positive, with one woman in the audience, admitting she was from Ireland and came to see what Americans made of Gaelic games. “You captured the whole ethos” she said, “it’s remarkable.” For the American watchers, the response was also positive. Like us, they were enchanted by the games and wanted to know more about how they were played. But perhaps most importantly, they spoke about the idea of heritage being something that could be played. “I think you could do a whole series like this,” one local man said, “ a whole global investigation of heritage at play in different communities.” Colleen and I smiled when he said that. We’d been thinking the same thing for sometime.
So then this idea, culled from a midnight in the winter, grown full in the summer, and harvested in the fall, comes at last towards a gentle conclusion. It’s hard to let go of something you’ve been so involved in, but the time has returned for new ideas to be considered and sown for future projects and all that. As for its players, Colleen Brogan was hired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City to be an assistant in the department of Digital Learning. She actually was interviewed by MOMA while we were in the magical environs of Cloghan, and the heritage at play project would prove a considerable influence on the hiring committee who found the project “exciting” and “powerful.” Zachary McCune was accepted by a one year master’s program to study Modern Society ang Global Transformation at the University of Cambridge in the UK. He has been awarded a Craig Cambridge Fellowship and is a member of Selwyn College where has been invited to join the College athletics teams in rowing, football (soccer), and rugby. He also noticed their is a GAA club in Cambridge. Maybe he’ll be a hurler yet.
Heritage at Play
is now the documentary “Playing Irish” and the intermedia website heritageatplay.org by Colleen Brogan & Zachary McCune photo on cover shows the two filmmakers document design by Zachary McCune creative commons 3.0 - September 2010
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