Veteran of the struggle sees Collins come alive at last

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The Independent Online
Neil Jordan's film about the Irish republican leader Michael Collins, released at the end of this week, has been dogged by controversy. It is not the first.

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, the actor-director Kenneth Griffith made a television documentary on Collins which stirred equal passions. It was banned for 21 years.

Griffith saw one Prime Minister - Harold Wilson - and three Northern Ireland ministers as the Establishment tried to fathom why a Welsh-born Protestant cared so passionately about the mastermind whose guerrilla tactics brought the British government to the negotiating table and who signed the treaty in December 1921 which split the Irish nation. Ireland is Griffith's passion. He has a plastic bullet and a rubber bullet in his living room, pictures of himself and republican friends in Londonderry and a picture of Michael Collins jostles for place alongside posters proclaiming the Irish Republic. He even named his home Michael Collins House as a defiant gesture after his film was banned.

Kenneth Griffith, now 75, did not want to see Neil Jordan's film. Although he can remember discussing Collins with the then unknown Jordan some 20 years ago, Griffith feared the movie would succumb to Hollywoodisation and exaggerate the love interest (Kitty Kiernan played by Julia Roberts to Liam Neeson's Collins). "If the film isn't suppressed for 21 years, there's something wrong with it," he said. He was also slightly irked that the now-famous director had not consulted him. "There's no one who knows all this like I do," he said.

But as the criticism mounted that Jordan was providing succour to the IRA and encouraging support for Sinn Fein, The Independent persuaded him to change his mind and watch the film at a screening in Soho, London.

He said he cared nothing for the creative merit of Jordan's work. "The only thing that matters is the final emancipation of Ireland," he said. "I'm not concerned whether this is a good film or a bad film but whether it helps Ireland."

He emerged from the screening shaking - but satisfied that the film could not harm his beloved adopted homeland because it explains a part of Irish history he believes few British people understand.

"It was the most agonising morning of my life. I found it unbearable," he said. On screen were characters he knows like old friends such as Tom Barry, who was one of Collins' hit squad, and Dave Neligan, who was a friend of Broy's, the detective played by Stephen Rea.

Griffith's worries were dispelled. He had feared that the historical inaccuracies - born of dramatisation into a two-hour film - would allow the critics to pour scorn. "But they are short-cuts to the truth," he said.

"I thought the truth would be compromised, by his [Jordan's] employers, by the money people, by America. But he took no liberties. I'm very glad it's going to give the Establishment, particularly the Tories, a bad time. If there's one thing the English cannot stand, it's the truth."

To Griffith, Collins was a hero who tried to free the Irish people through revolution because he could see no other way. Griffith sees nothing wrong with this. But neither does he regard such a position as anti-British. He regards himself as a patriot, "the last true patriot", because he believes the British are a decent people who ought to acknowledge their "filthy behaviour in Ireland".

Griffith's perspective differs somewhat from the majority British view, of course. He is a supporter of Sinn Fein and its military wing. "I am no pacifist," he declares, a stance which has prompted death threats.

But all underdogs and revolutionaries win his attention. Though perhaps best known as the librarian in the Peter Sellers film Only Two Can Play and in a string of British movies including Four Weddings and a Funeral, he is also an accomplished documentary maker. He recently finished a programme about the Untouchables of India.

When Gerry Adams looked likely to be refused a visa to travel to the United States, he asked Griffith whether he would consider going in his place. "It would be the culmination of my career," he replied, and was disappointed not to have got the opportunity.