Introductory text by Rebecca O’Dwyer
Frank Sweeney’s film, All I believe happened there was vision, starts in 1922, with the image of a fire. A fierce battle and explosion in the first days of the Irish Civil War sees the Public Records Office of Ireland at Dublin’s Four Courts go up in flames, resulting in the loss of nearly all records from pre-Famine Ireland. Title deeds, wills and chancery records are lost. Like the country’s new independence that caused the fire, though, the event might be framed as a tabula rasa: an unprecedented glimmer of possibility in the wake of colonial oppression, and a chance to unfix what previously seemed fixed (all that is solid melts into air).
“Close your eyes,” says a woman, our unseen guide, and in a flash, we are spirited away from the fire and out of the city. Moving quickly along a river, we approach Ardnacrusha, the locus of the Shannon Hydroelectric Scheme. Completed seven short years after independence, the plant was the most forceful symbol of the young county’s desire to modernise. Twisting its most powerful river into submission, it would break with its colonial past. From the water, Sweeney’s camera tracks slowly through the plant’s murky arteries, casting a long look up its vaulted, cathedral-like walls before slipping out onto the tempered Shannon beyond. We then shift to a purpose-built estate created to house Bord na Móna workers somewhere in the midlands––once the epitome of newfound industrialisation, but now distinctly unpeopled and forlorn.
Irish folklore is a key reference point throughout Sweeney’s film, with much of its narration and imagery––both archival and newly-filmed––alluding to myths of lost innocence, sacred zones, and kingdoms of unearthly beauty, with heroes led astray. At one striking juncture, Sweeney cuts from a modern motorway underpass to a railway tunnel, before finding brief stasis with a group of dancers careening around in the darkness in pairs; their clothes suggest fifties rural Ireland. Only their faces are illuminated, but it’s enough to sense their excitement. “We saw the light,” in the words of the film’s female narrator, “and made towards it.”
Addressing the nation in 1943, Taoiseach Éamon de Valera described his dream for the country as, “the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living.” However, at least since the establishment of the Shannon Free Zone in 1959, a courtship of economic liberalism can be seen as the country’s defining, creative force. This is a sturdy school-of-thought. It endures even in the wake of the 2008 banking crisis and punishing austerity; we can wager it will also endure following the question-mark-writ-large of the coming weeks and months. In Ireland, as with most of the Western world, capitalism mesmerizes, despite being shown to be unfit for purpose numerous times.
Throughout the film, however, Sweeney is at pains to contrast the dizzy evangelism of the language surrounding innovation and entrepreneurialism with the sheer banality of its actual existence. At one point, the narrator describes “another country…more transfixing than you could ever imagine.” The camera then cuts to the Shannon Free Zone, which could hardly be described in these terms. The same applies to later footage from Dublin’s docklands IFSC, which could be anywhere at all.
But there’s the rub: The magical creativity of capitalism lies in its banality, its anodyne, shape-shifting reproducibility, its ability to mean almost nothing at all. Case in point: “We are here because we have been created. But we are also creators.” What does this mean? Financial capitalism, similarly, is founded on paper entrepreneurism, described by the British Marxist theorist David Harvey as the ability to ‘gain paper profits without troubling with actual production.’(1) This doesn’t look like much, either, but has shown the power to determine almost every aspect of daily life. Just think of the irrefutable creativity at the heart of the recent housing bubble, and the aftereffects that continue to be felt.
Sweeney’s film feels particularly resonant now, with the Irish government recently unveiling a paltry Covid-19 relief package for artists featuring one particularly galling scheme in co-operation with Facebook, one of the chief benefactors of Ireland’s supernaturally low corporation tax rate. In keeping with the arts policy of successive Irish governments, the gesture appears undergirded by an idea of creativity mangled through the lens of capitalism, meaning it should signify almost nothing and live on air. What Sweeney’s film brilliantly shows is the inseparability of this warped understanding from the success of the modern Irish state.
Indeed, as a portrait of a country defining its place in the world, it is difficult not to understand All I believe happened there was vision as anything but a cautionary tale. It is also deeply seductive to understand it in this light. And yet, there is hope here too. In one central scene, we see a religious procession of priests, nuns, schoolchildren and uniformed men with guns. From the forties or fifties, I think, but might be later, too. Sun-bleached, crowds stream steadily across the camera, clutching holy pictures and tricolours battling against the strong wind. I think about these schoolgirls veiled in white muslin, or all those, faithful or not, that lined their path on this summer’s day. Probably they couldn’t have ever imagined the demise of that church. But things, they end, and somehow that gives me hope.
- (1)Harvey, David, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Inquiry into the Conditions of Cultural Change, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989) p. 163