The Trials of producing Irish Australian Documentary in Australia

By Enda Murray

Enda Murray and crew interview Áine Tyrrell at Woodford Folk Festival, 2019. L-R, Camera Operator Tim Dennis, Boom swinger Bindimu, Director Enda Murray, Áine Tyrrell.

In this article I want to look at my experiences of producing Irish-Australian documentary content in Australia. By this I mean producing documentary in Australia which has Ireland as its subject. As case studies, I want to use two documentaries which I produced in the last 18 months – The first is The Songs of the Last Convict Ship – which is a 35 minute radio documentary produced for the ABC on its history strand, ‘History Listens’ on Radio National. The second example is Áine Tyrrell – Irish Troubadour which is a self-funded, 70 minute television documentary which was produced for the festival circuit. 

I wanted to talk about the challenges in making and presenting the work and why I think it’s important to investigate Irish-Australian topics. 

The article strays into subject areas of identity and film theory, so bear with me. 

The Hougoumont.

The Songs of the Last Convict Ship

The Songs of the Last Convict Ship looked at the experiences of those who were arrested and transported for taking part in the Fenian Rebellion in Ireland in 1865. In particular, the documentary looked at the voyage to Australia and the Fenians’ experiences onboard their convict transport ship, The Hougoumont. The documentary uses extracts from the Fenian prisoners’ diaries alongside the music they performed during 5 concerts which they staged while onboard ship. The Hougoumont was the last convict ship ever to sail to Australia in 1867. 

The documentary can be heard at this link.

John Boyle O’Reilly, the most famous of the Fenian prisoners on The Hougoumont.

My aim in producing this piece was to get to know the characters of the Fenians through their writings and their choice of music. By exploring the songs that they performed I wanted to explore their emotional journey to Australia.  I hoped to gain an understanding of their outlook and state of mind from their musical choices in a way that words alone cannot portray. I thus hoped to understand the men (and they were all men) better through their choices of songs. The documentary is thus an ethno-musicology of sorts. 

I was able to look at the origin of the songs that they performed and catagorise them in a basic way, so for example, one category was the tone of the songs and the feelings that they encourage. There are songs, such as ‘The Minstrel Boy’, a patriotic song by Thomas Moore, which exhorts comrades to battle but there are also gentle songs of love such as ‘Goodbye Sweetheart Goodbye’ which show their sorrow at leaving family and friends. 

Another category which I used to analyse the material was by looking at the origin of the songs. Thus there are parlour favourites such as ‘Last Rose of Summer’ by Thomas Moore but also the more militant ‘A Rally for Ireland’ written by Thomas Davis in order to celebrate the glorious deeds of Ireland’s past and instil revolutionary zeal into the minds of those who read these words in Davis’ own newspaper, The Nation

A final method of analysis was to look at the geographical origin of the songs. ‘Young Bob Ridley O’, for example is a corn-shucking song traditionally sung by African slaves in the deep south of the US when they performed the agricultural task of separating the corn from the husk. It is interesting to speculate on the journey of a song like this to end up being performed by Irish political prisoners on the Hougoumont in 1867 (just two years after the end of the American Civil War). Was it sung in solidarity with the African slaves or was it simply a part of the repertoire of the ‘Black-face’ Minstrel shows which were popular in the English music halls of that era and also on the goldfields of Victoria in the 1850s?

The idea for the program came from my interest in music and in particular the music of Irish Australia. I pitched the idea to Michelle Rayner, the commissioning editor at ABC Radio National, and she agreed to commission the program. I also managed to get a small grant from the Emigrant Support Program of the Irish government which paid for the fees of the Irish musicians who re-recorded the original songs in Sydney. The total budget for the project was $6,000.

Áine Tyrrell – Irish Troubadour

Moving onto my second case studyÁine Tyrrell – Irish Troubadour is a 70 minute documentary which accompanies Irish-born, Australian-based singer songwriter Áine Tyrrell as she takes her new band to Australia’s biggest folk festival – the Woodford Festival over the New Year of 2020 (just prior to Covid!). The documentary explores Áine’s music but also explores her journey with domestic violence and her dream to be both a working artist and a mother. In pursuit of her dream, Áine buys a 1966 Bedford bus and goes on the road in Australia with her 3 young children. 

You can see the full documentary at the link below:

I shot this film over a period of five years and finally it premiered at the Galway Film Fleadh in 2021. Since then it has screened at film festivals in Australia, Luxembourg, Canada and the UK. 

I came to this film through an interest in documenting the Irish migrant experience. It follows on a number of documentaries that I’ve made over the years which looked at the Irish migrant experience in England and Australia. 

I was interested in Áine’s situation as an Irish artist living and working in Australia playing to audiences within the Irish community but also to new audiences within the mainstream Australian population. I felt that Áine was able to articulate with both words and music what it felt like to live as a migrant and bring up her family between two cultures. 

In 2018, Áine shared with me for the first time, the story of her journey with domestic violence and I felt this was also a story that was important to tell. 

The biggest challenge for this project was raising the finance. The last documentary I made for SBS had a budget of $85,000 and even this was considered a small budget -so this gives some idea of the costs involved in producing broadcast quality documentary. 

I pitched the program to both RTE and TG4 but neither was interested. Both Screen Ireland and the Irish Arts Council require applicants for arts funding to be living in Ireland so this ruled me out, for these sources of funding. 

I actually shot the bulk of the material before approaching Australian funders but even the delivery of a rough cut of the film was not enough to convince SBS, ABC, Screen Australia or CreateNSW to get on board. I finally raised $4,000 through a crowd-funding campaign to pay for an editor. The final cash budget for the documentary was about $8,000.

What are the challenges of making Irish content in Australia?

I bring up the issue of funding not because I want to whinge about failing to get funding for my work but because it is symptomatic of an issue that confronts Irish artists trying to create work in Australia – is the work Irish or Australian? In practical terms this presents a problem which is – where should the producer go for financial support – Ireland or Australia? However inhabiting this space between two cultures is also a well-documented experience for migrants and for their second generation families. This nether world of living between two cultures is not unique to the Irish and is an issue that affects migrants no matter what their origin or destination.  

In Australia, the Irish have a further complication in that they are not recognised as an ethnic minority. The Irish have such a long history in Australia that they are regarded by many as a part of the ‘dominant’ Anglo majority and not an ethnic minority at all. After all, on cursory analysis, the Irish are mostly white and speak English. 

Current definitions of an ethnic minority in Australia (for example as defined in the SBS charter) cite ethnic minorities as being ‘culturally and linguistically diverse’.  So are the Irish an ethnic minority in Australia or a part of a dominant Anglo-Celtic majority? 

The origins of the term Anglo-Celtic

Even the labels are contested. Labour Federal MP Peter Kalil, who is of Lebanese descent, was quoted recently  in the Sydney Morning Herald, talking about an essay he had written for the NSW Law Society. In his essay he pointed to the dominance of ‘Anglo-Celtic’ MPs in the Australian Parliament to the exclusion of others. It is not clear whether Peter Kalil was intentionally using the term ‘Anglo-Celtic’ in place of the more commonly used ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and whether he recognises any distinction between the two. But for the Irish population of Australia the term ‘Anglo-Celtic’ is both new and highly contested. According to historian Siobhán McHugh the term ‘Anglo-Celtic’ was first used in popular literature in Australia in 1947 and was not used in official Australian literature until demographer Charles Price used it in 1989.  Historian Patrick O’Farrell famously described the term as a ‘grossly misleading, false and patronising contemporary convenience’.     

So why is this label important?

In November 2021, I attended a meeting of the Irish Consulate community forum, Le Chéile, and listened to psychologist Róisín Traynor from the Irish Support Agency talk about the huge rise in Irish people seeking support with mental health over the last 18 months. The Irish Support Agency have just set up a new service called Solas which is linking those seeking support with Irish born psychologists. On their website the Irish Support Agency described this need, and I quote.  ‘Our overwhelming experience to date is that many who are struggling, particularly during this very difficult time, prefer to speak to someone who is culturally sensitive to the challenges of the Irish ex-pat community here in Australia, the ‘’tyranny of distance”, compounded by the border restrictions.’

My point here is that being recognised as an ethnic minority is not an abstract or nebulous issue for members of the Irish community. I lived in England from 1985 to 1995 and it was during this period that the Irish community in England was finally recognised as a separate ethnic minority and the data on the health of the Irish community was finally collected and considered separately from the majority white population.

Race Equality in England

The following quote from the Race Equality Foundation shows the importance of recognising the Irish as an ethnic minority. ‘Despite legislation since the 1960s, there is still evidence that people from Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups continue to experience  health inequalities and dissatisfaction with health services (Salway et al 2016, Evandrou et al 2016). However when policy makers, professionals and members of the public think ‘ethnic minority’ they rarely consider the Irish as a BAME community.  Ethnicity in the UK tends to be seen in a restricted skin colour paradigm which renders the (largely) white Irish ethnic group invisible.’

Commenting on the results, sociologist Dr Mary Tilki observed: ‘Although the Department of Health, clearly recommended a separate ethnic monitoring category for the Irish, Irish data continues to be aggregated into the overall ‘White’ category making the community invisible’.

When the data was examined separately, it became immediately obvious that the health of the Irish community in Britain was significantly worse than the rest of the white population, particularly in areas such as dementia and cancer. It was only then – when the problem had been named – that the health issues could be addressed. 

Diasporic Cinema

My second point is that making work which revolves around my country of origin while based in a host country is important because it continues a tradition of diasporic Irish filmmaking outside of Ireland. 

Irish diasporic filmmaking has a long pedigree. Irish film historian, Kevin Rockett, commenting in 2009 on the importance of Irish audiences on early US filmmaking, wrote ‘During the almost thirty-five years of the silent period before 1929 as many as 500 American films were made which had identifiable Irish themes or prominent Irish characters’. 

The importance of these diasporic filmmakers cannot be underestimated in terms of creating ideas about Irishness. Australian academic John O’Carroll noted in 2000 that the concept of modern Irishness owes more to the memories of the approximately seventy million people around the world who claim Irish descent, than to the activities of the five million who live on the island of Ireland. 

Diasporic filmmaking is also recognised in a wider international sense as important in documenting and advocating for migrant populations from whatever background they might come. In the 1970s Argentinian filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino together created a manifesto, Toward a Third Cinema, which sought to demarcate a space for cinema within developing countries that could support the articulation of issues of gender, identity, and politics. This area of film was dubbed ‘Third Cinema’ to distinguish it from Hollywood (‘First Cinema’) and European art cinema (‘Second Cinema’).

The Iranian filmmaker and writer Hamid Naficy went a step further in 2001 when he coined the term ‘accented cinema’. Naficy made a distinction between dominant cinema (which he considered to be universal and without accent) and accented cinema, where the ‘accent’ emanates not so much by the speech of the characters as from the displacement of the filmmakers and their ‘artisanal production modes’. The ‘artisanal production modes’ here refer to the underground and non-funded nature of the creation process. 

Hence to summarise, I think it is important to continue to recognise the cultural differences relating to Irish migrants and to acknowledge them as an ethnic minority despite the use (or misuse) of the term ‘Anglo-Celtic’.  And I believe that support for diasporic media production is essential if we are to give a voice to future members of our Irish diaspora. 

Originally from Drogheda in Ireland, Dr Enda Murray is an award-winning filmmaker and educator.
His creative and academic work spans his interest in culture, education and social change. Enda has written, produced and directed TV and radio content for RTE, BBC, ABC, SBS, NITV and Maori TV. His work has been screened at international film festivals including  Mumbai, Dublin, Rotterdam, Galway, Cork and Berlin Ethnofest. He currently teaches cultural studies on a casual basis at Macquarie University, Sydney.   Enda Murray is the founder and director of the Irish Australian Film Festival which screens annually across Australia.