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Robert Flaherty Film Re-Discovered at Harvard Film Archive/Houghton Library

Nitrate print of Oidhche Sheanchais is only copy known to exist. 

Oidhche Sheanchais

July 22, 2014—A film by pioneering director Robert J. Flaherty—which film historians believed to have been lost—was rediscovered at Harvard's Houghton Library. The short film Oidhche Sheanchais (A Night of Storytelling) was created by Flaherty in 1935 during the production of his now-classic film Man of Aran. The nitrate print of Oidhche Sheanchais was identified by Houghton curators during a cataloging update, and is the only copy known to exist. 

Oidhche Sheanchais captures Seáinín Tom Ó Dioráin, a famed seanchaí (storyteller), telling an ancient tale as the cast of Man of Aran looks on. The film was commissioned by the Irish Free State, which offered a modest budget to Flaherty for the production of an Irish language “talkie” which would enshrine a vital element of the national heritage on film. Oidhche Sheanchais is Flaherty’s first work in direct sound and the first "talkie" in the Irish language. It was filmed in the same London studio where the Man of Aran cast had already gathered for the recording of post-synch sound.

Robert J. Flaherty (1884-1951), considered by many to be the “father of documentary film,” produced the first commercially successful feature-length documentary film Nanook of the North (1922) after spending more than two years in Canada’s Hudson Bay region, where he lived and filmed its indigenous people. He contributed to the development of docufiction—a technique he deployed by casting local Aran Islands occupants to portray fictionalized roles and dramatic recreations in Man of Aran.

Oidhche Sheanchais was purchased by Harvard College Library in 1935 at the request of Fred Norris Robinson, the founder of Celtic Studies at Harvard, following a suggestion of his friend James Delargy, a folklorist devoted to collecting and preserving the extensive heritage of Irish folklore and popular traditions. Delargy had persuaded the Irish Department of Education to commission Flaherty to document the performance of Aran Island tale on film and add a visual dimension to audio recordings and transcriptions.

“That we have this important monument of Irish language and tradition, as well as of Irish cinema, is largely thanks to the work of Delargy and Robinson, and to the sharp eye of Celtic Department Associate Barbara Hillers, who realized the tremendous significance of the entry that appeared just over a year ago in the Houghton Library catalog. Now that it has been restored, with subtitles provided by Natasha Sumner of the Celtic Department, Oidhche Sheanchais will once again be an important part of the department’s courses in Irish language and folklore,” commented Catherine McKenna, Margaret Brooks Robinson Professor of Celtic Languages and Literatures at Harvard.

Oidhche Sheanchais was preserved on 35mm and Digital Cinema Package by the Harvard Film Archive (HFA) in collaboration with Houghton Library, the Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures and the Harvard Office of the Provost.

"This print came to the film conservation center in a wooden shipping crate that housed the original film can. It was like opening a time capsule—nothing had been moved or changed since the 1930s," observed Liz Coffey, film conservator for the Harvard Library.

Oidhche Sheanchais was presented, in a new preservation 35mm print, on July 3 at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna—one of the most prestigious showcases for rediscovered and restored films—with introductions by Harvard Film Archive Director Haden Guest, director of the HFA, and Sunniva O’Flynn, head of Irish film programming at the Irish Film Institute.

“An absolutely thrilling discovery, Oidhche Sheanchais deepens our understanding of Flaherty's abiding fascination with the folkloric imagination, while giving new human dimension to the now legendary family mythologized in Man of Aran,” said Guest.