Speech at the Presentation of Aosdána’s Golden Torc to George Morrison
Arts Council, Merrion Square, Dublin, 9 March 2017
Is mór an pléisiúir dom a bheith in bhur dteannta inniu chun ómós a thabhairt d'ealaíontóir atá, thar saol oibre mór le rá agus céimiúil, tar éis an t-uafás a dhéanamh ar son sochaí na hÉireann. Is é an Saoi an onóir is mó a bhfuil ann don Aosdána, gradam lena dtéann aitheantas den ardmheas a bhfuil ag a gcomhghleacaithe ar bhfaighteoir. Tugann sé aitheantas do shaothar mór suntasach George Morrison atá tar éis tionchar mór a dhéanamh ar tírdhreach chultúrtha na hÉireann.
[It is always a great pleasure to meet the members of Aosdána, a grouping which provides, in an institutional sense and in its choices, valuable recognition and support to Irish artists. Aosdána and its membership have become firmly established at the centre of the creative life of our nation.]
Today I have the special pleasure of being invited to join with you in honouring an artist who, across a renowned and distinguished career, has made a profound and indeed generous contribution to Irish society.
The title of Saoi is Aosdána’s highest honour, an accolade that makes a significant statement of the high esteem in which a recipient is held by their peers and fellow artists. It recognises in George Morrison’s award an outstanding body of work that has made a deep and lasting impact on the cultural landscape of Ireland and elsewhere.
Edna O’Brien, Imogen Stuart, Seoirse Bodley and Camille Souter, our current Saoi, have all achieved an excellence that recommended itself to their peers for its outstanding quality. In doing so they have enhanced Ireland’s reputation internationally in the area of culture.
Within the last eighteen months we have, sadly, lost three renowned artists on whom the honour of Saoi had been conferred – Brian Friel, William Trevor and Anthony Cronin. Their contributions to the world of literature were seminal, and their impressive legacies will live on through their significant and uniquely gifted work.
Today, it is an honour to bestow the Golden Torc on another such distinguished artist, whose influence has reached far beyond Irish shores and who, amongst his many achievements, is the creator of a film which has become an icon in Ireland’s cultural history.
As a filmmaker of superb craft and skill, an archivist, a writer, a photographer and, above all, a great pioneer and innovator, George Morrison’s contribution to Irish art and cinema has been immeasurable. He has made over twenty films, produced some of Ireland's most innovative and historically important documentaries. In a lifetime of dedication to the arts, he and his work have impacted enormously on how we, and future generations, will remember and by doing so ethically and inclusively come to understand our history and how that history has shaped the Ireland we inhabit today.
George’s work has always been greatly inclusive, thus not only allowing us the opportunity to engage with the past, but enabling us to witness its unfolding. That is a great privilege, gifted to us by George’s creative passion, his constant will to push beyond the boundaries as he strives to envisage what might be possible.
George, who has sought to ‘re-member’ events, once said that he has:
" …always crept up on my events from behind. The backward-looking perspective essentially deadens material. I used the material as something taking place at the moment, something alive, not recollected."
This succinct summary of his work in his own words reveals, not only the immediate and engaging power of so much of George’s work, but the respect in which he holds his audience; his great ability to ensure those audiences are never reduced to being passive viewers of his work, but rather they become active participants in it.
As a nation, we will be forever grateful to George Morrison whose vision and determination have enabled us to reclaim some of the most important moments in our national history, and in particular our difficult struggle for independence.
Last year, as we came together as a nation to mark the centenary of 1916, we were fortunate to have access to footage and newsreel of some of the pivotal, moving and inspiring events of that determining moment in the foundation of our Free State – Easter week 1916. This material enabled us to engage, in a personal, enriching and immediate way, with that most critical chapter of our past – and much of the texture of that event has only survived because of George Morrison. George’s painstaking work in tracking down long lost or forgotten photographs and newsreel of that time, took him into archives across Europe, eventually leading to the preservation of 300,000 feet of early 20th-century Irish newsreel footage. Today, it is worthy of consideration that this irreplaceable wealth of historical treasure might have been destroyed or discarded, lost to Ireland forever, without George’s commitment and foresight.
Having persuaded Eamon de Valera to provide him with a grant in order to identify, salvage and restore this important material, George then began the meticulous task of editing it, leading to the making of that great cinematic masterpiece, Mise Éire and he forged a partnership with the unforgettable genius of Seán Ó Riada.
George’s great sense of innovation has also led to the development of many techniques that have become universal, indeed vital, in the film making industry. Many of those techniques were born out of necessity, such as stretching silent film footage to slow it down to normal speed and devising a method of introducing close ups into the rescued newsreel which was to become, in George’s hands, that great work, Mise Éire.
Such dedication and indeed perseverance, as both a filmmaker and archivist, define the career of George Morrison, who created some of his greatest work during a time when the Irish film industry was struggling for existence. George, like all true pioneers, has never been afraid to venture into unknown territory, forge new pathways, or endure hardship in order to create and innovate. Indeed, his dedication was such that, during the making of his first film Dracula, he starved himself to the point of malnutrition in order to buy black market film stock, losing his hair in the process, near martyrdom for Irish film.
Nine years ago, journalist and editor Martin Doyle wrote that: “No Irish film-maker has shed more light for less money on Ireland's history than George Morrison.”
It is sadly true that, like too many purveyors of artistic brilliance, George’s financial recompense for work which has made such a sustained contribution to modern Irish life and to how we, as a people, comprehend the contemporary moment, fell far short of the appreciation and solidarity which a democratic state should extend to its great artists. George, like so many artists - and in his own words - has been obliged to: “struggle all my life”.
He has uttered those words with no rancour, but they are a reminder of the reality of life for many of those in Ireland who strive to make a living while producing artistic work of great merit.
In any discussion on cultural access and citizenship it is critical that we remember the right to dignity of our great artists; our duty as a society to acknowledge that artists must be supported and enabled to experience the freedom from want so that they may be allowed to produce the works which contribute so much to both our society, and to our international reputation.
Today Ireland enjoys a growing international reputation for film making. That is, in no small way, due to the work of George Morrison who first brought Irish cinema to international attention with his seminal and ground breaking work. As a nation we owe George an enormous debt of gratitude.
With an outstanding generosity and commitment to the future he has safeguarded and restored to us critical records of our complex history, gifted us with films, documentaries and writings which bring us deep into the narrative of our shared history and, amongst many other impressive achievements, has been instrumental in the creation of an Irish National Film Archive, ensuring that our rich and varied film history, both amateur and professional, will be protected and accessible for the benefit of current and future generations.
Mar Uachtarán na hÉireann, tá áthas orm an Torc Órga seo a bhronnadh ar George Morrison, mar aitheantas ar saol atá caite i gcúrsaí cruthaitheach agus mar aitheantas ar an ardmheas ar bhfuil air i measc a chomhghleacaithe. Is mian liom comhghairdeas a dhéanamh leis as an gradam seo a bhaint agus mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis as an méid atá tugtha aige d'ár sochaí.
[As President of Ireland I am delighted to present, to George Morrison the Golden Torc, reflecting a lifetime of outstanding creative work and the esteem and admiration in which he is held by his artistic peers. I congratulate him on being chosen for this well-deserved honour and thank him for all he has given, continues to give and will give to many dimensions of our society.]
Go raibh míle maith agaibh.