Come back to Erin
A screenshot from 'Come back to Erin' Photo: IFI Irish Film Archive

Come back to Erin

In March 1914, 'Come back to Erin' was released in the United States. The film was produced by the O’Kalem Film Company of New York - known affectionately as the O'Kalems - which produced almost thirty films dealing with Ireland and Irish subjects between 1910 and 1915. The members of the company, primarily Gene Gauntier and Sidney Olcott, made history by producing not only the earliest series of fiction films made in Ireland, but also the first films to be shot on both sides of the Atlantic. The majority of these were filmed in and around Killarney Co. Kerry, making extensive use of the dramatic landscape and using locals as extras.The film is reproduced here courtesy of the IFI Irish Film Archive

'Come Back to Erin' (1914) (Gene Gauntier Feature Players)
Director: Sidney Olcott / Scenario: Gene Gauntier

Sadly, only one reel of this three-reel film survives; recently discovered at Museum of Modern Art and restored for this disc. According to a contemporary synopsis, the story was another trans-Atlantic emigrant tale, centring on a female character named Peggy O’Malley (Gene Gauntier), who leaves rural Ireland in search of a better life in America. Like those earlier films, it is a cautionary tale that follows her progress as an immigrant in New York where she gets into trouble with the law (accused of stealing a necklace) before being ‘saved’ by her Irish fiancé (Jack J Clarke). They marry and return to her father (Sidney Olcott) in Ireland.

'Come Back to Erin' is an interesting gender-reversal of the first Kalem film 'The Lad from Old Ireland', with the men now left at home waiting, but shares with it an anxiety about leaving the homeland for the corrupting forces of modernity and America that clearly spoke to audiences of the period. More than in the earlier films, the characters are contextualized in the real, everyday life of rural Ireland. Particularly striking in this regard are the scenes set in the Killarney cattle market and the blacksmith’s forge and the scenes of emigrant ships in Queenstown (now Cobh).

 

Another screenshot from 'Come back to Erin' (IFI Irish Film Archive)

 

About the O'Kalem Collection

'Come Back to Erin' is one of a series of films featured in a DVD collection of O'Kalem's Irish films, all of which are preserved in the IFI Irish Film Archive. These film copies have been gathered from public and private collections around the world over a forty- year period, writes Sunniva O'Flynn, Curator, IFI.

The wide international reach of sources is testament to the popularity of the films world-wide.  It is also evidence of the greater permeability of international borders by silent films than by later sound films - where it was relatively easy to substitute inter-titles in new languages in each new territory. The collection here includes films with English, Dutch and German inter-titles. While the survival of some O’Kalem titles in non-English versions has delayed their identification by scholars over the years, it may also mean that other titles may still survive, as yet unidentified, and will be revealed in the fullness of time.

The O'Kalem Collection is available for purchase on DVD through the IFI here. The O'Kalem Collection (1910-1915) brings together for the first time on DVD the surviving 8 films of the series. They have been gathered by the IFI Irish Film Archive from archives in Ireland, the US and Europe and are presented here with new musical scores. The accompanying feature-length documentary 'Blazing The Trail: The O'Kalems in Ireland' by Peter Flynn and Tony Tracy offers an in-depth and authoritative exploration of the making of the films and their place in American and Irish film history.

The stories of the provenance of the surviving O’Kalem films are rich and varied. A print of 'The Lad From Old Ireland' with German inter-titles was bequeathed to the Irish Film Archive by film archivist and historian Liam O’Leary. We understand that this print had been struck from a copy within the collection (now held at the British Film Institute) of Swiss Jesuit, Abbé Josef Joie Jesuit, who gathered material for educational purposes between 1900 and 1919. Other O’Kalem titles in Liam’s bequest were 'For Ireland’s Sake' and 'You Remember Ellen'. 'His Mother' (Zijn Moeder) was recently identified by Dr Denis Condon (NUIM) and acquired by the Irish Film Archive from the Dutch Filmmuseum. 'Bold Emmet Ireland’s Martyr' was identified within the collections of the Library of Congress and acquired in 1998 for an Irish Film Archive programme marking the 200th anniversary of the 1798 rebellion. Prints of 'Rory O’More' were acquired by the IFI (then National Film Institute) from the British Film Institute in the 1970s for distribution to Irish secondary school students for film study purposes. 'The Colleen Bawn' was another acquisition from the BFI. In 2010, a 16mm negative of one reel of 'Come Back to Erin' was found within the collections at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Its provenance and the whereabouts of the other two thirds of the film remains unknown.

'The History Show' on RTÉ Radio 1, 23 March 2014: Myles Dungan talks to Sunniva O'Flynn and Tony Tracey about the relationship between The Kalem Film Company and Ireland.

While it is a tragedy that less than a third of the O'Kalem films are known to now exist, their survival rate, relative to that of the full silent cinema canon is high. The films were all originally produced on 35mm nitro-cellulose based stock. Many of the films have disappeared due to the instability of the stock and its inevitable deterioration over time. The eight films that have survived have done so thanks to the intervention of FIAF (International Federation of Film Archives) members, which acquired, preserved and duplicated the films - thus rendering them permanently accessible for audiences of today and tomorrow.

The films for this DVD project were meticulously telecined to digital format at Screen Scene in Dublin. Their transfer was supervised by Manus McManus, Senior Collections Officer at the archive. The transfer was carried out at a variety of speeds (corresponding to irregularities in original camera speeds) to achieve smooth and natural motion. The films are presented here in original silent full-frame aspect ratio. Our aim is to present the films in a manner which bears evidence of the original film formats. We have avoided the possibility of eliminating all signs of wear and tear - along with the grain and texture of the original film - and present the material with some patina of age. We present 'The Lad From Old Ireland' and 'His Mother' in their original language versions - but also in versions which carry newly translated English titles. Some explanatory titles have been introduced to explain gaps in the narrative where parts of the original films are missing. 

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