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Race against time to salvage historic footage of forgotten Northern Ireland internment camp

Rare newsreels of Ireland 100 years ago, including rioting in Belfast, were in danger of being lost forever... that’s until Saintfield-born lecturer Ciara Chambers and a team from the Irish Film Institute decided to save them. Ivan Little reports


Ballykinler Camp 1921

Ballykinler Camp 1921

Loyalist demonstration, Omagh 1924

Loyalist demonstration, Omagh 1924

Sinn Fein rebels

Sinn Fein rebels

Northern border

Northern border

Film lecturer Ciara Chambers from Saintfield

Film lecturer Ciara Chambers from Saintfield


Ballykinler Camp 1921

Remarkable newsreel footage of hundreds of republicans caged behind huge fences in a Co Down internment camp has been unearthed among a veritable treasure trove of forgotten glimpses into the troubled world of Ireland nearly 100 years ago.

The images of the internees at Ballykinler in 1920, along with film of Belfast riots, Dublin guerrilla warfare and royal visits to the south of Ireland by the likes of Queen Victoria have gone online today as part of an ambitious initiative by the Irish Film Institute (IFI), boosted by an academic from Saintfield in the Mourne County.

The IFI launched its history-steeped Irish Independence Film Collection, a newly-digitised gathering together of rarely-seen film clips from 1914 to 1930, which also include coverage of prominent figures in the War of Independence and the subsequent Irish Civil War - people like Michael Collins, Eamon de Valera and Countess Markievicz.

The hidden gems of Irish history were recorded for cinema audiences by non-Irish news companies and lay undisturbed for decades in the vaults of British Pathe and the British Film Institute amid archives which were undigitised and unavailable to the Irish public. Until now.

The IFI has revealed it was engaged in a race against time to save the precious but fragile reels before they decayed completely.

Kasandra O'Connell, head of the IFI project, says: "Once we began to research the holdings of the BFI and Pathe, we realised that much of the original material had degenerated to the point where there was very little time left to capture its content before the film stock disintegrated.

"As such, we persuaded our partners in the UK to digitise the original nitrate footage at the highest possible preservation format."

No fewer than 155 newsreels have been released by the IFI, and Kasandra says one of the most disturbing clips for her was of a woman who'd had her head shaved for talking to the Black and Tans.

Kasandra was also intrigued by the footage of the Ballykinler internment camp in Co Down.

She says: "I'd never seen it before and what made it very personal for me was that my grand uncle was interned."

Upwards of 2,000 members of Sinn Fein are seen behind the wire of the camp, where they were held for up to a year amid reports of brutal treatment and poor food.

It was said that the harsh conditions were an attempt to break the men physically and mentally and reports said the prisoners, who were from all over Ireland, were arrested by the British authorities on little more than a suspicion that they were involved with the IRA. Several men were shot dead.

Ballykinler, which was later to become a British Army base, was the first internment camp to be established in Ireland during the War of Independence.

A Pathe News caption on the footage proclaims: "Martial Law in Ireland: Scenes in the first great Concentration Camp of captured Sinn Feiners who are treated as prisoners-of-war."

In the film the men, most wearing caps and suits, are seen drilling in front of their huts, but in one section they appear to have draped towels or sheets over their heads in a bid to disguise their identities.

A caption reads: "Some 'Shinners are camera shy."

Others were happy to be seen daubing slogans on the door of the camp church, which ranged from support for the IRA to demands for more food and a tongue-in-cheek declaration that "our priest is on the run".

The men are also seen playing football and cleaning up the area in front of their huts beside little rockeries in what was said to have been an attempt to stave off boredom.

Inside the huts, other internees were said to have shared knowledge and learnt Irish and other skills just as latter-day republican prisoners would do in Long Kesh/Maze in years to come during the Troubles.

Other footage released by the IFI shows the aftermath of riots, which were common in Belfast during the War of Independence from the summer of 1920 right through to the autumn of 1922. This newsreel perfectly captures the devastation caused by the rioting.

But, in true Belfast spirit, children are filmed making the most of their lot, playing in the ruins and debris.

There's contention over footage which apparently shows what's labelled "guerrilla warfare in Ireland" in August 1922, when anti-Treaty IRA members were trying to bring down the newly established government in Dublin and overturn the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

The "war" footage purports to show rebels holding people at gunpoint on a mucky country road. Hostages in the back of a truck are seen taking drinks, while others are blindfolded and roughly treated by their captors.

Many commentators, however, have said the footage is fake news, to use the parlance of today, and that it was part of a propaganda film made by the British.

There's no doubting the authenticity, however, of the film of the so-called Battle of Dublin, a week of street skirmishes from June 28 to July 5, 1922, that marked the start of the Irish Civil War between the forces of the new provisional government and a section of the IRA who opposed the peace deal that had ended the War of Independence.

The Four Courts in Dublin were, at the time, occupied by republicans like Rory O'Connor, who is described in captions as the "last of the rebels".

And the archive film shows the destructive power of the artillery against the Four Courts and the battles which raged around O'Connell Street, Abbey Street and Portobello Bridge.

The newly released footage also shows some of the most prominent figures in Ireland at the time - or their funerals.

Collins is seen extolling the virtues of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in a speech at College Green in March 1922.

Another clip shows massive crowds thronging the streets of Dublin to welcome Countess Constance Markievicz back after her release from prison.

The Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail politician, a revolutionary nationalist, suffragette and socialist, was the first female elected to the House of Commons.

There's footage, too, of the return to Ireland of the coffin of Lord Mayor of Cork Terence MacSwiney, who died on hunger strike in October 1920 in Brixton, where he'd been imprisoned for sedition.

The archive material shows de Valera on a visit to America from June 1919 to December 1920, raising funds for Sinn Fein.

In the clip the future President of Ireland is seen addressing a crowd of 50,000 people in Boston's Fenway Park stadium.

In complete contrast, earlier footage shows royal visitors to Dublin, including Queen Victoria and King George V.

The IFI archive film tries to portray a calmer side to Ireland, too.

One newsreel excerpt shows a more relaxed Belfast in the 1920s, complete with bustling markets and beautiful countryside.

Some of the film is clearly of Bangor and of a journey alongside an east Belfast road overlooking the gantries of the Harland & Wolff shipyard.

Not all the footage in the vaults was accurately identified, and some of it was wrongly catalogued.

That was another problem for the IFI - trying to establish times and places where the film had been shot.

University College Cork lecturer in film and media Ciara Chambers, who's from Saintfield and who's written a book and produced a TG4 TV series about Irish newsreels, was recruited to help with the cataloguing of what she called a "crucially important" project.

She says: "Cinema newsreels were the only form of moving imagery available to the public before the advent of television. And, to a large extent, the film had sat forgotten in the vaults, but now they've been given a new life through the digitisation programme, which has transferred them to the highest possible quality and clarity.

"The newsreels are also culturally significant in this decade of centenaries. We can look back at some of these representations and reassess them, because they were often recorded by external news agencies, who didn't always have the best information, or give the full context of what was happening.

"Another factor was that the cinema owners didn't particularly want to have newsreels that would offend or upset their patrons, so they didn't like overly controversial or political material. And anything that was difficult to deal with was often left out."

Ciara's job was to outline the background to the clips that the IFI was planning to release.

She addds: "The footage is spectacular. It brings history alive and makes it more interesting and accessible and the moving images are so striking, so evocative and fascinating."

The Irish Independence Film Collection is free-to-view worldwide on the IFI Player

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