Maurice Fitzpatrick, 2020 Heimbold Chair
Irish filmmaker and writer Maurice Fitzpatrick holds the Charles Heimbold Chair of Irish Studies for Spring 2020 at Villanova University. Born and raised in the countryside just outside Belturbet, a beautiful town south of the Irish border, Fitzpatrick’s works draw upon his affection for this landscape. “I remain very attached to that countryside and to the riverscape,” he says. “The River Erne flows through Belturbet, and indeed the river features considerably in the landscape footage I shot for my last film, John Hume in America. The Irish border at certain points lies exactly on that river. So, historically, it is a contested place, a site of sorrow as well as beauty.” This two-fold attention to landscape as a physical place and historical space is at the heart of his films. Setting is paramount for Fitzpatrick because from within it grows beauty and conflict, and the possibility of the exploration of complexities.
These strands run through Fitzpatrick’s latest work, In the Name of Peace: John Hume in America (2017). The documentary traces the political journey of one of Northern Ireland’s most influential politicians, John Hume, whose multiple talks with the American and Irish-American leaders from the mid-1970s onwards helped forged peace during the Irish Troubles. Hailed as “the Irish conflict’s Martin Luther King” by President Bill Clinton, and “a dedicated and visionary peacemaker” by President Michael D. Higgins, Hume was convinced that peaceful dialogue was key to resolving the Northern Irish conflict. Narrated by Liam Neeson, the documentary features a blend of never-before-seen archival footage, and interviews with an array of American, British and Irish politicians, including Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Tony Blair, John Major, and Bertie Ahern.
Praise for John Hume in America has been lavish and well-deserving. Nancy Pelosi said that the film is “a wonderful reminder of the strength in diplomacy and the close relationship between the United States and Northern Ireland’. Fitzpatrick reinstates Hume’s role and tenacity in encouraging America to applying pressure on England and Ireland, ultimately leading to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, and the abating of the tension in Northern Ireland. In doing so, he has created, according to Micheál Martin, Leader of Fianna Fáil and Leader of the Opposition, a “documentary should be shown in every school in Ireland.” Indeed, the need for Ireland to recognize Hume’s contributions to her history was one of Fitzpatrick’s goals. He says in an interview that there is “the tendency to airbrush John Hume out of the narrative of recent historical analysis of the conflict…there is a faction within Northern Ireland that, in particular, wants to de-emphasise the role that John Hume played, and I think a lot of people, audiences and critics alike, homed in on the way in which the film tries to set the record straight.” Donald Clarke of The Irish Times wrote a glowing review of the film: “John Hume [has been] restored to his rightful place in Irish history: Maurice Fitzpatrick’s documentary lines up luminaries eager to set the record straight.” Fitzpatrick’s talent has partly been to engage the luminaries in this project and partly been to tell the story so compellingly.
His interest in Northern Ireland, a site of much political conflict, started during his years studying at Trinity College, Dublin. Fitzpatrick says, “I think the North is in a process of radical transformation. Both the Irish and the UK governments have undertaken to act as co-guarantors of Northern Ireland’s governing institutions. Yet one wonders how long that arrangement can last, particularly given the fallout from Brexit.” This fascination for the cultural and political landscape is skillfully evoked in his three films Translations Revisited, The Boys of St. Columb’s, and In the Name of Peace: John Hume in America, and the books that accompany the last two. Set in Derry city in Northern Ireland, Fitzpatrick explores through all his works “the paradoxes and contradictions” of this space, a “confluence of many traditions” that has been contested for centuries.
Fitzpatrick’s films seem to emphasize mood and atmosphere as much as narrative and history. He relies “heavily on instinct as well as thought. A film may take years to make. Throughout the process one must keep faith with the work. I have written many scripts that have not been made into films, but the scripts that I did manage to make into films started with a surety: here is a story that should be, and even must be, told.” His determination and follow-through are notable. Not only has he produced and found funding for his films, they have garnered praise from academics, critics, and viewers for the production of values and for telling untold stories.
It is easy to see that the stories Fitzpatrick chose to tell needed to be told. The Boys of St. Columb’s (2009), his first film, chronicles the effects of the landmark Northern Ireland Education Act of 1947 which allowed free secondary education for all children who passed the auxiliary test known as Eleven Plus. The documentary focuses on the boys’ diocesan school, St. Columb’s College in Derry, weaving between interviews of eight of its alumni—including the two Nobel Laureates Seamus Heaney and John Hume. “It is beautifully produced,” writes Kelly Matthews in The Irish Literary Supplement, “lending visual weight to…the changes that occurred in Derry and in Northern Ireland between 1947 and the late 1960's.“ Not only did Fitzpatrick write and co-produce this film with BBC and RTE, he also released a companion book to accompany it. The Boys of St. Columb’s “is full of telling detail,” writes Edward Larrissy from The Irish Times. “Full of energetic and concise formulations, the interviews make this an indispensable document.” Markedly unique in tone and content, the interviews show that for some, the school experience was relatively positive; others found themselves caught in a fear-based system that imposed violence and conformity.
Fitzpatrick’s second work was the BBC documentary Translations Revisited (2013) based on Brian Friel’s play Translations on the beauty and enigma of languages. The play was first performed in Derry, Northern Ireland in 1980—a tumultuous time in its history—and then again in 2013, at a time of relative peace. Of Friel, Fitzpatrick says, “He managed to convey the enormous complexity of the divided identities in Ireland in Translations. He avoided taking sides, or simply showing one side railing against another one. Friel understood that Ireland’s political and cultural inheritance is more complex than that.” The film documents the process and performance of the 2013 play as a kind of comparative work to its original, examining how it has shifted in resonance given the change in times and political environment.
When Fitzpatrick is at Villanova, he will be teaching a course on Irish and British Films in Political Contexts which will concentrate on Anglo-British relationships through documentaries and drama films, and a course on Constructing the Irish Nation Through Film.