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Film and the Communication of Historical Knowledge

Documentary film and the public communication of historical knowledge in Northern Ireland

Principal Investigator: Dr Fearghal McGarry (School of History and Anthropology)

Research Assistant: Professor Des Bell 

External collaborators: TG4, Belfast Film Festival and Belfast Exposed

This project involves an interdisciplinary collaboration between a historian and a documentary film-team around the making and exhibition of a feature-length documentary film on the life of Irish republican Frank Ryan (1902-1944). The academic team (historian Fearghal McGarry and film-maker Desmond Bell have collaborated with an independent film and television company (Glass Machine Productions), Irish broadcaster (TG4) and a regional film festival (Belfast Film Festival) and  photographic gallery (Belfast Exposed) to produce and exhibit a feature-length documentary film on Ryan. The film is based on the published research of Dr McGarry, whose biography of Frank Ryan was published by University College Dublin Press in 2010, and explores Ryan’s life as a republican activist, International Brigade volunteer and alleged Nazi collaborator. 

This project also explores a wider set of issues concerned with the relationship between academic history, factual film-making and the public communication of historical knowledge in a divided society:

The evidence is that the general public increasingly get their historical information from broadcast and film sources but in what ways does the approach of film-makers differ from more conventional scholarly historical writing? 

What are the specific responsibilities arising from knowledge transfer of historical research in a divided society such as Northern Ireland? 

We seek to add research value to the documentary film being produced and to reach a popular audience for this research through television broadcast, webcast and cinema exhibition.

Our project proceeds from the assumption that to maximise the effectiveness of documentary film as a mode of knowledge transfer of historical understanding that we need to forge more effective partnerships between academic researchers, broadcasters  and their audience.

The project involves a series of festival screenings (premiering at the  Jameson Dublin International  Film Festival on 18th February 2012) and workshop discussions, with website support.  The completed film will be broadcast in its Irish-language version by  TG4. Through this multimedia strategy we aim to maximise the knowledge transfer impact of McGarry's research in the specific context of post-conflict Northern Ireland.

While our film seeks to be attentive to the latest historical research on Ryan and Ireland during the Second World War, it draws upon the imaginative resources of the creative documentary to encourage an interrogation of history in a society where historical narrative is often divisive. It explores a human story of tragic proportions with a mass audience for whom the story has a continuing resonance in the context of the current political dispensation in Northern Ireland.

The project also seeks to elaborate a model of good interdisciplinary practice to guide future collaborations between historians, film makers, broadcasters and their audience.


Project partners:


Belfast Film Festival

Belfast Exposed