Dublin – Michel Menin always wondered if his grandfather was telling the truth.
When Mr. O’Minin was growing up on the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry, Ireland, there was no radio or television to pass the time, he said, so people were telling stories. His grandfather had many, but he told one more than others.
In the mid-1920s, an American visited Dingle to study birds and collect specimens. Sometimes Mr. O’menen’s grandfather would bring the man – his name is Benjamin Gault, though the locals call him “Kirti” – in his fishing boat to the nearby Blasket Islands. Kirti has always had a hand-held camera. One day, while he was filming Mr. O’Minen’s grandfather and his friends, the grandfather put a tube in his dog’s mouth as a joke.
“It was a very far-fetched story,” said Mr. Minin, 55, a farmer and fisherman in Dingle. “You would never believe that was true.”
Long after Mr. Minin’s grandfather, also named Mícheál Ó Mainnín, died in 1981, the family wondered if any of the films the American visitor had portrayed still existed.
Mr. O’menen’s curiosity eventually led to the discovery of a set of silent film reels depicting life in Ireland in the 1920s – police officers directing Cork city traffic, horse-drawn carriages piled high with lobster wicker pots, people attending horse races And mass mass – all filmed in 1925 and 1926, in the early years of Ireland’s independence from Britain.
Snapshots of Ireland from that time – a period when memories of World War I were still fresh, and Ireland recovering from the Civil War – are extremely rare. According to Manos McManus, director of film collections and collectibles at the Irish Film Institute, most of the film in existence is newsreel footage of major events.
“This stands out as quite unique in that it is essentially a recording of people’s normal daily lives,” said Kevin Rockett, Emeritus Professor of Film Studies at Trinity College Dublin. “There is a lot of footage of the war, so this was what people are most familiar with.”
Mr. Ó Mainnín began his research in 2011 with little beyond the name of the American, but soon discovered Mr. Gault was an ornithologist from the Chicago area. This led him to the Chicago Academy of Sciences, home of the Gault’s collection, which includes samples of birds, dried plants, and, as he hoped, an old movie.
Gault’s films aren’t the only reels in the Academy’s archives, but they are among the oldest. Dawn Roberts, director of collections at the academy, was trying to raise funds to digitize the reels when she received an email from Mr. Menin.
The Academy did not have the resources to digitize the Gault’s reels, but Mrs. Roberts shared catalog notes with Mr. Menin along with the scanned journal entries and photographs of Mr. Gault. Mr. O’Minen brought this material to the Irish Film Institute to see if it could help fund the digitization process.
McManus got some funding from a nonprofit when Rob Byrne, president of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, raised the story. Mr. Byrne, who lives in Ireland, was looking for an Irish venture, and Mr. Gault’s reels were a rare opportunity. The Silent Film Festival has had a lot of experience restoring silent films.
“Because the footage was filmed by an American in Ireland, it is appropriate that, after nearly 100 years, contact continues between the United States and Ireland,” Mr. McManus said.
Mr. McManus said Mr. Gul shot 35mm nitrate film, which was a rarity for amateurs because it was a very professional, high-resolution medium. The downside is that nitrate is unstable and flammable, which makes it difficult to save the film.
“First of all, these are amateur films that were shot 100 years ago and, fortunately, no one rejected them,” said Mr. Byrne. Movies like this are disappearing. It’s a huge, one-of-a-kind replica on a flammable and perishable film base. Fifty years from now, this movie will never exist.”
Mr. Gault’s reels were in exceptional condition. After arranging funding for a third-party lab to digitize the reels, it was up to the silent film festival to recover the footage. This job fell to a great film restorer, Cathy Oregan, who happens to be a native of Gort, County Galway, a rural area in western Ireland not unlike the places Mr. Gault portrayed in Counties Cork and Kerry.
“It was great to see her,” Ms. O’Regan said. “On a personal level, the first time I saw it was very exciting. One shot of two farmers planting potatoes and, I swear to God, one of the guys is an absolute spitting image of one of my next-door neighbors. I know it’s impossible, but watching it is just wild.”
The 19 film reels are approximately 35 minutes of footage once the frame rate is adjusted. After they are sorted and recovered, Mr. McManus wants to examine the footage at Dingle. He hopes that if more locals see what Mr. Gault has launched, they will be able to identify some special people.
For Mr. Ou Menen, the footage from the film provided the opportunity to see familiar faces in a different light.
“I know all those people in the movie,” he said, “but they were much older.” “But that’s when they were young and strong and full of life, you know?”
As with the birds he studied, Mr. Gault observed rural Irish people in their natural habitats. His reels show people dancing in the streets, straw dancing, walking arm in arm.
And yes, a dog smokes a pipe.