Documentary pioneer Robert Flaherty directed the first film made in the Irish language, Oidhche Sheanchais (“A Night of Storytelling”) in 1935 during the production of his now classic film Man of Aran.
Cited in nearly every history of Irish cinema, this short (11 minute) film has been missing, believed lost, since a fire destroyed the only known copies in 1943. A nitrate print of the film, purchased by the Harvard College Library in 1935 at the request of Harvard’s Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures, was rediscovered by Houghton Library curators during a cataloging update in 2012.
Oidhche Sheanchais, a fascinating distillation of Flaherty’s belief in cinema as a kind of folkloric art, depicts a typical Irish hearth, where the main cast members of Man of Aran sit, listening to an ancient tale told by famed Seanchaí (storyteller) Seáinín Tom Ó Dioráin. Oidhche Sheanchais is Flaherty’s first work in direct sound and the first “talkie” in Irish Gaelic. It was filmed in the same London studio where the Man of Aran cast had already gathered for the recording of post-synch sound.
The Harvard Film Archive, in collaboration with Houghton Library, the Celtic department and Harvard’s Office of the Provost, has preserved Oidhche Sheanchais on 35mm film and digital formats. The film had a short run in Ireland and was never subtitled in English. Harvard has had the film translated and both subtitled and non-subtitled versions will be available.
Today (July 3), the new 35mm subtitled print has its premiere at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna—one of the most prestigious showcases for rediscovered and restored films—with introductions by Harvard Film Archive Director Haden Guest and Irish Film Institute Head of Irish Film Programming Sunniva O’Flynn.
We are grateful for everyone who helped make this exciting project possible, and hope you come see the film when we screen it on the big screen! The film will be available for loan as 35mm or DCP once it has had its Harvard premiere. Stay tuned!