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Background to the project

This research project grew organically from the earlier AHRC-funded project ‘Documentary film and the public communication of historical knowledge in Northern Ireland’. That 2012 knowledge transfer project involved an interdisciplinary collaboration between a historian and a documentary film-team, resulting in the production and exhibition of a feature-length documentary film on the life of Irish republican Frank Ryan (1902-1944). Historian Fearghal McGarry and film-maker Desmond Bell used the collaborative process to explore a range of issues around the relationship between academic history, film-making and the public communication of historical knowledge in a divided society.  {a link here back to the original project description} This ‘follow-on’ project builds on the success of that original endeavour in order to further explore the potential of documentary film to enhance historical understanding and post-conflict reconciliation. It strengthens existing partnerships and develops new ones to exploit fresh possibilities for knowledge transfer and to engage with new audiences.

One of the major challenges facing Northern Ireland is how to remove the barriers to engagement with a shared history that has too often divided its communities. Documentary film-making can play a key role in this process, but also raises further questions about the effective and ethical representation of historical events. Evaluating the success of the Frank Ryan project, it was clear that there was both the need and the opportunity for further meaningful public engagement about these issues.

‘Documentary film, public history and education in Northern Ireland’ responds to the new opportunities for partnership that arose through our dialogues with educators, filmmakers, academics and members of the community. 2012 commenced a ‘decade of anniversaries’ (1912-1923) in Ireland, foregrounding and giving urgency to questions around the memorialization of historic events in a divided society. Derry/Londonderry has been designated UK City of Culture for 2013, creating new prospects and a forum for community engagement. Our partnership with the City of Culture 2013 team and its educational and community programme focuses on public history in a post-conflict society. Another new partnership sees us collaborating with a major EU-funded curriculum development project, ‘Teaching Divided Histories’, based in the Nerve Centre in Derry, one of the UK’s leading community arts and media centres. We will produce a module on 1916 to form part of TDH’s innovative post-primary initiative, which exploits digital media to educate young people about historical conflict and peace-building.

The project also continues to address the issues of creative practice. The model of collaborative, interdisciplinary practice explored on The Enigma of Frank Ryan will be further developed through a second ‘live project’ case study: the origination, scripting and preproduction of a film project about the Abbey Theatre and its connection to the Easter Rising revolutionaries. Based on the original academic research of Dr Fearghal McGarry and on a wealth of primary sources, Lost Revolution: the Abbey Theatre and 1916 will model an alternative approach to the drama-documentary mode employed in The Enigma of Frank Ryan. Through this process, we hope to further elucidate our model of good practice for historians and film-makers.