Keepers of the Flame, directed by Nuala O’Connor, charts through the labyrinth of Irish history from the 1916 Rising, through the War of Independence and the Civil War. It catalogues stories from ordinary Irish men and women whose tales were rediscovered in applications to the Irish Military Services Pensions. These pensions were meant to provide financial support to families who gave their lives in the national struggle.
What’s uncovered in the movie is a great neglect on the part of the Irish government through this period. Applicants were offered paltry sums for the sacrifice of their loved ones – £100 in one case. Many were denied outright. Only 18,000 were granted some form of financial compensation out of more than 80,000 applications.
The movie’s greatest triumph is perhaps its greatest weakness, it simply covers too much material. It’s structured as a collection of vignettes from relatives whose ancestors were connected to the events of 1916-1922 and the many hardships they faced after that period had come to an end. As a result, the movie is fragmented through its very structure.
Then there’s the problem of historical context. Being a history graduate, and an Irish person, much of the history dealt with I had extensive knowledge of. Yet, one wonders how well this would play to people unfamiliar with the historical backdrop. Names are thrown around continuously as if they’ve been discussed before, which is fine. However, some brief explanation would have been nice at times.
I even found myself struggling to remember the history, particularly the Forgotten Ten, a focus of one of the stories. This case is either one I had forgot completely, or never knew in the first place. It’s noteworthy that during the Q&A after the movie, the director said that the project was originally conceived of as a television show. One wonders whether this story would have been better served as a six or ten-part documentary series instead of a 100-minute feature, where the history could be broken up into more digestible segments, instead of flipping back and forth between different time periods.
The film is strangely topical, particularly in the way it talks about memory, the past, and the importance of forgiveness. For many of the families in the movie, the hugely destructive civil war tore communities apart into Pro-Treaty and Anti-Treaty sides, where no side was willing to compromise on their position. We can see now through the lens of history that embittered resentment and toxic tribalism is no bridge to peace. Dialogue, compassion, and understanding, are the greatest tools we have at our disposal to change the minds of those we don’t agree with.
In conclusion, Keepers of the Flame is a fascinating, but flawed, look at the forgotten stories of the most seminal period of Irish history. Families who gave everything for the national struggle and received very little in return. As the centenaries surrounding these key events in Irish history continue to approach with the 100th anniversary of the 1st Dáil Éireann in 2019, this movie is a must see for anyone with a vested interest and knowledge in Irish history.
Finally, huge props to Colm Mac Con Iomaire, whose sombre score is haunting throughout, as tales of woe and heartache are relayed through the letters of lost loved ones.