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Stonington Borough filmmakers explore Irish connections

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Growing up in Stonington Borough, Christopher Kepple was certainly aware of the literary and artistic history contained in those narrow streets. Full- and part-time residents have included James Merrill, Rollie McKenna, Sandy McClatchy, Peter Benchley, Mary McCarthy, Stephen Vincent Benet, and on and on.

All these luminaries resonated with Kepple in his teens, but he was most fascinated by the stories his good pal and fellow borough resident Bergin O'Malley told about her grandfather, Ernie O'Malley. A hero in both the War for Irish Independence and the Irish Civil War, O'Malley became a renowned photographer whose memoir "On Another Man's Wounds" is a classic of Irish literature. He also wrote "No Surrender Here!: The Civil War Papers of Ernie O'Malley 1922–1924" and "The Singing Flame."

"Bergin would tell me these amazing things about her grandfather, and it all just seemed so much larger than life," Kepple says.

Many years later, in his position as director of development at the Stonington Historical Society, Kepple was working on a project about Irish immigrants and their roots in the borough, and a main source of information for material was Cormac O'Malley — an attorney who also happened to be Ernie's youngest son and Bergin's dad.

"I kept asking Cormac about his father's life, and I was also doing some work for him on his own family archives, which is something he's been involved in for years," Kepple says. "That's when I learned his mother, Helen Hooker — who was an American and grew up in Greenwich — was a highly regarded sculptor and photographer as well."

The early history

Ernie O'Malley joined the Irish Republican Army after fighting in the Easter Uprising in Dublin in 1916. He became a committed activist, was on the run as a revolutionary for eight years, and nearly died of gunshot wounds fighting in the Irish Civil War. After a lengthy imprisonment, he was released and ended up in America raising funds for the IRA.

In the U.S., he met Helen Hooker and, upon getting married in the early 1930s, the couple moved to Ireland. They traveled the country taking photographs of archaeological sites, landscapes, ancient religious and burial sites, and the people.

O'Malley's book "On Another Man's Wounds" was published to significant acclaim, and Hooker's sculptures were also gaining attention. And the photographs each took were also remarkable. They had three children — Cormac, his older brother Cathal and his older sister Étain O'Malley-Michels  — but the marriage started to fail. In 1944, Hooker kidnapped Étain and Cathal and returned to the states, settling in Colorado; Ernie traveled Ireland with Cormac and enrolled the boy in a private school to lessen the chance Hooker could come for him.

Separately, each parent's career flourished but, though their time together was relatively short, the passion with which they worked for the maturation of Ireland through the celebration of its arts and artists was hugely important. Ernie never completely recovered from his war wounds and died at 59 in 1957.

Hooker remained a great patron to Irish arts and, after a brief period of inactivity after a second husband died, she entered a period of late-stage creativity and activity. Cormac O'Malley says she did more than half her career sculptures after 1971, and she also painted voraciously. Splitting her time between the U.S. and Ireland, Hooker made art and donated collections of her and her husband's photographs as well as her own paintings and sculptures. She remained active untll her death in 1993. Among the many museums and galleries that feature her work, the University of Limerick has held a permanent exhibition of the O'Malley Collection since 2004.

Maybe we should make a movie?

As they talked about these extraoridanary lives, Cormac O'Malley and Kepple began "kicking around" the idea of utilizing the archive material and subsequent discoveries as the foundations for a documentary film about Ernie and Helen. The hook would go beyond just the artists' respective talents and extend to Ireland itself.

In addition to creating Irish-themed art, Hooker and Ernie O'Malley did so with a larger purpose: To help Ireland establish a vibrant artistic connection that helped the country forge an identity, soul and a sense of pride. Those were things Ernie had fought for. 

Indeed, Kepple and Cormac O'Malley persevered, and their feature length documentary, titled "A Call to Arts — An Artistic Journey in Ireland 1935-1975," is complete. Though as yet unreleased, "A Call to Arts" has been accepted to the Irish Film Institute's Documentary Film Festival in September and will be broadcast on CPTV at undetermined dates in November.

"I'd been looking for the opportunity to do a feature film," says Kepple, who, while studying for an MFA at Naropa University in Colorado, made a couple of half-hour cooking shows called "Back Country Gourmet" set in the Rocky Mountains and using travel and environmental themes. "And Cormac and his remarkable family presented an ideal subject."

The project took two years to complete. It was produced by Cormac O'Malley's Irish Visions production company, and with funding from the American Friends of the Arts in Ireland and the Irish American Cultural Institute. Kepple says they spent about $70,000 making the documentary, which was filmed in Ireland and the United States. While Cormac O'Malley and Kepple were largely a two-man band in terms of labor, they called on documentary director/producer Bronte Stahl and recent Connecticut College graduate Jesse Edwards to edit the film. Popular local roots musician/historian Craig Edwards narrated the effort.

"A Call to Arts" is a mesmerizing and smoothly sophisticated effort — irresistible for anyone interested in Ireland; the roots and processes and legacies of creativity; and learning about two remarkable and perhaps underappreciated artists and human beings.

There are numerous images of Hooker's extraordinary and expansive collection of busts of famous and regular folks; part of her magic as a sculptor was an innate ability to recognize at first glance and then capture a person's singularity. And both artists' photos distinctly captured everyday life in Dublin and western Ireland. They separately and together exctracted the profound and even mystical qualities of landscapes, architecture and ruins, and ancient religious sites.

Too, the film's interview footage — with a wealth of experts from across the tapestry of the Irish arts scene, academia and government — are profound and moving in their explanations of the efforts the two made on behalf of establishing a national artistic identity. The film is particularly remarkable considering the relative inexperience Kepple and Cormac O'Malley had.

Kepple settled into the role of cameraman, and O'Malley was the interviewer. In preparation, they came up with an outline and locations. They also confirmed a list of interview subjects with both general questions as well as some specific to the individiual on-camera.

All or nothing

Paramount in the process was the one trip they took to Ireland — a sort of all-or-nothing expedition in which Cormac O'Malley interviewed a wealth of contacts he'd made over the years and Kepple captured it all with the occasionally intimidating realization that they'd only get one chance. The pair was doing two or three interviews a day, often traveling considerable distance from one shoot to the next. The experience, Kepple says, "was exhilarating, pressurized and fascinating all at the same time. To watch Cormac speak with these people was amazing. It was clear they hold him and Ernie and Helen in incredibly high regard."

For his part, Cormac O'Malley believes there would be no documentary without Kepple. "What Chris did in directing this film is a wonderful job of making my parents human," Cormac O'Malley says. "He understood that both of them got a calling from very different circumstances and theirs was a story that went in many directions."

Mom and Dad

Ultimately, to get to the heart of the story, Cormac O'Malley had to explore his parents' lives in ways that were revelatory to himself.

Having grown up with his father, Cormac O'Malley understandably wasn't as aware of his mother's life and work. But over the course of research and organizing multiple exhibitions of his mother's work in recent years, he says, "I feel I really got to know her. I could see and understand the joy and pain and also the fun she experienced. For mom, marrying my father and going to Ireland meant she was able to get away from society and the tennis group and expectations of an unmarried American woman in Connecticut.

"In Ireland, you go into a pub and you are who you are. Male or female. And mom more than held her own as an equal and an artist whose photos and sculpting and sense of the arts were highly respected."

As for his father, there was also a degree to which Cormac was unaware. "He didn't talke about it, but my dad was a man who'd been on the run for eight years — peregrinations as a revolutionary, not knowing whether he'd sleep or be killed. These were his maturing years as a man and had a great effect on his development as a man and an artist. 

"And his writing and his photographs were ways of dealing with that." He pauses. "You know, I didn't read 'On Another Man's Wounds' until after dad died," Cormac O'Malley says. "As I got a bit older, I'd hear things like, 'What was it like to have your father a national treasure?'"

More than one level

Ultimately, "A Call to Arts" does a superb job of telling the story of a passionate but failed marriage of two artists who, despite their separation, continued a shared mission for the rest of their respective lives.

But on another level, perhaps unintended by the filmmakers, the documentary is a poignant story of a son discovering the scope and breadth of his parents' lives and contributions. Also, through extensive interviews with the siblings from whom he'd been largely separated for decades, Cormac O'Malley has been able to reunite with his family.

"My job over the years and with this film has been to uncover these nuggets about my parents through letters and newspaper clippings and visiting libraries and galleries," says Cormac O'Malley, who continues to work on behalf of his parents' individual and collective legacies through coordinating exhibitions as well as writing his own books about their careers and experiences. 

He laughs. "I had no clue about a lot of things we've discovered, and Chris and I have had great thrills and experiences."

Kepple adds, "Over the course of making the film, I realized this is much bigger than just the O'Malley family legacy. It became a celebration of Ireland and the power of art and Irish-Americans. I hope the film conveys some of our excitement."

 

Helen Hooker, left, and Ernie O'Malley. (Submitted)
Helen Hooker, left, and Ernie O'Malley. (Submitted)

Ireland calling

Who: Stonington borough filmmakers Cormacy O'Malley and Christopher Kepple

What: They're debut documentary, "A Call to Arts," about artists Ernie O'Malley and Helen Hooker, their work on behalf of art in Ireland, and connections to American and Stonington

Where: Though not yet released to the public, "A Call to Arts" will air on Connecticut Public Television at a date to be determined in Novemeber

For more information: See the trailer for "A Call to Arts" at https://vimeo.com/436207753 or visit  ww.acalltoarts.com

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