Duncan Campbell: The Welfare of Tomás Ó Hallissy
by Maeve Hanna
Hands rubbed in ash
Ash Wednesday, thumb to the sky
“We wed before Ash Wednesday, and I still didn’t know him.”
This is what Maggie said, as she rolled the soda bread dough out on her table.
Potato bug. And hands. Chant “Mary, Mary Magdalene”, and the boy lives behind
the door; no wife, no future.
This was the reality for Irish men as much as women at one time in rural Ireland. I remember my Great Aunt Maggie asking my 22-year-old self the same thing, and my thinking, “I’m a modern woman I don’t need to be wed.” It was still her reality. She was from the old country, spent her life there. Her name, the legacy of our family, it is etched on the land that bore them. All Irish inherit a distinct need to mark their name on the land. It was what they had, but even that could be taken away.
The boy, he was soft, not quite right. Touched.
That’s the gentle way to discuss mental illness. Don’t talk about it directly, it’s embarrassing, shameful. This is also the historical legacy of Ireland. This is a context explored, among others, in the 2016 film The Welfare of Tomás Ó Hallissy by Irish-born artist Duncan Campbell. The film is an ethnographic and anthropological study of rural life in Kerry, using three existing documentaries as source material, in particular the film The Village, created in 1958 by the UCLA anthropology department and newly shot footage on-site from the same location. Campbell positions the film between fiction and truth, creating a bridge between the documentary format and that of the imagination. In so doing, he questions the factual validity of documentary filmmaking.
The film centres on a young boy by the name of Tomás, who is suggested obtusely to have a possible mental illness. The narrators tell his story by asking how he might be “saved.” Campbell weaves together shots and archival footage, creating the story of the residents of the village of Dún Chaoin by integrating the newly shot and scripted material. This approach forms an echo within the film—placing imagery from the past and present side-by-side and thus blurring the distinction between the two.
The differences between The Village and Campbell’s footage are nearly imperceptible, creating an ambiguity in both reading the film as well as understanding contemporary life in rural Ireland. This calls into question the validity of documentaries as historical references and as accurate representations of the past.
Campbell goes as far as to recreate some of the original scenes from The Village and inserting new characters, the most noticeable of whom are two American anthropologists and documentary film-makers, who act as narrators. These narrators perform the role of the invisible storytellers and their presence is crucial to the film, as it troubles the documentary form and emphasizes Campbell’s intent to advance two perspectives: that of the two American anthropologists, and that of the residents of Dún Chaoin. The anthropologists, seen from an activist position, investigate the difficulties of rural Irish life as seen by the individuals interviewed and the silent footage of Tomás, the small boy, sitting in the hearth of “Maggie’s” home, playing with a potato bug and hiding behind the door. This contrasts with the Catholic perspective of the residents.
Certainly, it can be thought that in traditional Ireland, being a country of deep religious roots in the Roman Catholic faith, a boy such as Tomás and his afflictions would not be good for a family. He would not be likely, as characters in the film have stated of him and others, to wed or inherit land. At a certain time, and as emphasized by the Catholic church, marrying and having children (or heirs) was considered to be very important. It ensured that family names were carried on, that land in the family was inherited, and given that Ireland had seen great hardship, it ensured many hands for work in the fields.
In the film, Maggie speaks softly with concern in her voice about the difficulties of life. The camera turns to Tomás sitting by the fireplace. He looks to be distant, in another world, lost.
My maternal grandfather grew up in rural Ireland, on the west coast in county Sligo in the early 20th century. His brother Peter had schizophrenia. My grandfather didn’t speak about him much, just enough that we know he lived in an institution and that their mother, Bridget, walked for miles and miles to visit him. Peter never married and was institutionalized as a young man. In my research I found the asylum he was likely living in would have been St. Columba’s hospital—an overbearing, stone Gothic building set back from the road in the town of Sligo. Derelict, it shut down in 1991. Peter died at age 84 in 1994. There is no other information available about Peter, but the fact that no one spoke of him demonstrates the level of shame associated with the mentally ill.
The sea, rolling.
And fields. A sea of fields.
Their eyes, those of the Irish, have a certain look to them, deep pools, pits of sand.
Haunted and sorrowful. Hardened. Another legacy they carry. The young boys
explore fields. Stories. Open the eyes within. Humming, and finding the decay of
animals lost, souls lost, stories lost.
“The world is dying. You don’t have to see it, you can feel it.”
The narrators are speaking to each other, the camera focused on an empty sky. “Folktales are the subconscious of this society. It’s hard to get in. The state of perplexity they live in.” It’s true; the Irish live in a state of perplexity. Rich history burdened by sorrow and hardship that has lasted centuries.
“Ireland has the highest rate of hospitalization for mental illness in the world.”
According to medical research this is true, but also misleading. Campbell purposefully creates a situational dynamic for his narrators, as anthropologists and activists. They act as invisible storytellers guiding the narrative of the film along from behind the camera, while also directing to some extent the viewer’s understanding of their purpose in making the film. They don’t dance around what their focus is. They nonchalantly open the discussion on mental illness, schizophrenia in particular, in their brief discussions with the villagers.
When researching mental illness in Ireland, it becomes apparent that there are many misconceptions surrounding the reasoning behind the high percentage of hospitalizations there. As Dr. Brendan Kelly notes, while it is true that Irish asylums expanded much faster in the 1800s than elsewhere, this was not due to a uniquely high percentage of the Irish population suffering from mental illnesses. It was in fact due to extreme poverty, inadequate and unacceptable laws and a vested interest on the part of the government, all of which was compounded by a major reduction in the population following the Famine.[i]
The Welfare of Tomás Ó Hallissy speaks to the issue of mental illness in Ireland through the subtlety of the storyline, the inference by different characters through speech and action, as well as the skillful construction of the film. The framework it builds is both an aesthetically pleasing and haunting one in which to contemplate rural life in Ireland: why and how it has been carved into the imaginary of contemporary Irish life, the conceptual divides between truth, fiction, and reality, and the reliability of the archive, of memory and the documentary format to provide the contemporary viewer with a perspective into the past.[ii]
Duncan Campbell’s film, The Welfare of Tomás Ó Hallissy screens at Western Front Society, Vancouver, British Columbia, May 12 to June 17, 2017.
Maeve Hanna is a writer and curator based in Northern BC. She writes from her home, a log cabin in the woods outside Prince George. Her writing has appeared in national and international periodicals and academic journals including Canadian Art, C Magazine, esse art + opinions, Frieze, Sculpture Magazine and The Senses and Society (Routeledge,UK).
[i] Browne, Ivor. “Hearing Voices: The History of Psychiatry in Ireland Brendan Kelly Review.” The Irish Times. 26 Nov. 2016. Web. Accessed 6 June 2017. <http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/hearing-voices-the-history-of-psychiatry-in-Ireland-brendan-kelly-review-1.2868780>.
[ii] Glennie, Sarah and Karen Sweeney. “Duncan Campbell: The Welfare of Tomás Ó Hallissy.” Exhibitions guide. nd. (Dublin, Ireland: Irish Museum of Modern Art).