Having completed the creative documentary film Child of the Dead End for TG4 dealing with the life of Donegal navvy poet and novelist Patrick Mac Gill, I was looking for another project to get my teeth into. In Child of the Dead End (2009) and earlier projects (Rebel Frontier (2005), Hard Road To Klondike (1999), I had consulted with a range of historians and used their interview contributions in my films.
At a critical level I was also writing about the relationships between historians and film. Accordingly it made sense to me to seek to work more closely with an academic historian in the gestation and development of a ‘live project’ which might in turn serve as a laboratory within which we might explore a range of critical issues about historiography and film through practice.
The Frank Ryan story which I had been interested in for years provided this opportunity. In the course of researching the film I had read Fearghal McGarry’s book on Ryan. Now it made perfect sense to team up with a fellow colleague from Queen's University who in addition to his extensive knowledge about Frank Ryan, the history of Irish republicanism and the Spanish Civil War, had practical experience of working as a historical consultant on television history projects. Fearghal also shared my interest in ‘public history’ and in the contribution of television and film as a medium to this. He reviewed the evolving film script in which live action and archive material were combined, drawing my attention to questions of historical accuracy and interpretation and making available to me a range of sources which I had been unaware of. He also accepted with some generosity my creative decision to adopt a drama-documentary approach where dramatic performance rather than scholarly comment via an academic ‘talking head’ would be the preferred mode of dialogue with our audience. We were lucky enough to attract support from the Arts and Humanities Research Council under their Knowledge Transfer funding scheme. This, together with a commission from TG4 and financial support from a number of other funding bodies (NI Screen and the Broadcast Authority of Ireland), facilitated a dual approach where a research project ran alongside a ‘live’ professional film production enabling a range of synergies to be exploited between the two. As far as we are aware this is the only example of this sort of knowledge transfer partnership existing at present. (For further details on the collaboration between Desmond Bell and Fearghal McGarry see Filming Major Ryan article)