IT WAS a fitting reward for years of tireless campaigning that Liam O'Leary lived to preside on his 82nd birthday at the opening in September of the gleaming new Irish Film Centre in Dublin.
More than anyone else, O'Leary nurtured excitement and curiosity about a history of cinema and film-making among new generations in Ireland. Through numerous interviews in print, on radio and on screen (notably in the biographical documentary At the Cinema Palace - Liam O'Leary) he dispelled the illusion among younger audiences that cinema was primarily a foreign import; it in fact had long-established roots at home.
Primarily by talking about it to anyone willing to learn, he revived interest in a wealth of forgotten work from social documentary to silent thrillers from the War of Independence era. His recollections tended towards genial humorous narratives rather than scholastic lectures. The awareness he created by the Eighties made possible events such as the Green on the Screen festivals in Dublin, attracting popular audiences.
Son of an academic, the poet, writer and musician Denis O'Leary, Liam grew up in the small town of Wexford in the south-east of Ireland. He became enthralled during childhood with silent movies when cinema in rural Ireland - travelling shows shown on makeshift screens in village halls - carried with them an aura of magic.
While studying at University College Dublin he developed a parallel interest in acting and helped set up the Dublin Little Theatre. After graduation, a job in an employment exchange supported him while he became absorbed in less secure work as a magazine film critic.
Travels abroad brought him into direct contact with dynamic figures involved in the European cinema. Back home in 1936 he helped set up the Irish Film Society, long the sole means by which off-beat and less obviously commercial overseas output reached the screen in Ireland. In the Forties he worked as a producer in the Abbey, the national theatre. A characteristically scattered career followed, spanning film acting, writing and broadcasting.
His documentary film work included an early adventure in party-political propaganda. His production Our Country (1948) exposed miserable social conditions for the successful campaign of Sean McBride's Clann na Poblachta party. That put a radical coalition into power which included the controversial Noel Browne as health minister, tackling widespread tuberculosis but falling foul of Catholic bishops angry at encroachment into their traditional territory.
The break-up of that coalition and the return to power of Eamon de Valera's Fianna Fail in May 1951 scuttled the release of O'Leary's next work, Portrait of Dublin, intended as the first in a series of campaigning social documentaries.
Moving to London he took up work with the National Film Archive, where he became a sort of cinematic beachcomber, ferreting out old forgotten footage from anywhere it was to be found. He returned to Dublin in 1967 to the films section of the then recently formed television network within Radio Telefis Eireann, the state broadcasting company, a job he held until his retirement six years ago.
Author of works including The Silent Screen (1965) and Invitation to the Film (1945) along with a biography of the Irish- born Hollywood silent director Rex Ingram, O'Leary will be best remembered on home turf for relentlessly campaigning for a national film archive, practising what he preached by turning his flat into its first unofficial home. Latterly, help from the National Library and the arrival of the Irish Film Centre, now presenting public screenings of archive works, have happily brought this work to fruition.
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