The documentary is a loose film essay, not unlike some of Jean-Luc Godard’s work of the same period, though without the taste for obfuscation. With a few interviews and musical interludes and a lot of observational style camerawork, the film paints a portrait of 1960’s Ireland, one that, as the film posits, shows a country caught by its own revolutionary heroes and clergy. The film looks at and often criticizes the control of the clergy in government, in the classroom and in the bedroom, the depoliticised universities and the misplaced nationalistic fervour of the GAA. At one moment, a list is shown, naming all the writers that have had work banned in Ireland, which looks instead like a list of some of the world’s best known writers such as Hemingway, Gide, Salinger, Capote, Orwell, Wells and Irish writers such as Beckett, Shaw, O’Connor and Behan. The stagnancy of post-revolution Ireland is addressed, with Irish politician and academic Conor Cruise O'Brien critical of Ireland’s following American foreign policy instead of carving a place for themselves on the world stage like Sweden. Similarly, film director John Huston reflects on the fact that an Irish film made by the Irsh would be more effective than a foreign film using Irish locations in establishing a true Irish cinema, then practically non-existant.
Despite being a tough critical essay on where Ireland has gone since the revolution, the film is rather affectionate. Lennon commentates frequently, positioning the film within his own political pre-occupations, but the film is also remarkably balanced. Towards the film’s end, we return to Professor Liam Ó Briain, a member of the censorship board, following a previous interview in which Ó Briain’s religious beliefs are revealed and addressed critically. He holds himself up as maintaining the sanctity of Ireland and the church in the face of philosophical and scientific developments. In this second interview at the film’s conclusion, however, Lennon reveals Ó Briain’s awareness that a new Ireland is coming and that there is nothing he can do about it. He wishes it well, blithely aware that he will never see it (he died in 1974) and Lennon follows this with a Herzogian moment in which Ó Briain sits quietly and the camera watches him in close up with respect, if not affection. The film also follows a day in the life of Father Michael Cleary, a modern priest, who sings secular songs and emphasises the more helpful side of the Catholic Church. A scene in which Cleary converses with three gravediggers is very funny and resembles the earthy and often hilarious barroom banter scenes of Ken Loach.
The film is a fascinating insight into Ireland in the 1960s, but it is also of interest of a piece of political film. Lennon’s commentary is informed by the question of what do you do with a revolution once you have got it. His answer may not be very comforting as the film points to the continued domination of the bourgeoisie and the clergy, while writer Seán Ó Faoláin wonders what those that died during and after the 1916 Easter Rising would think of the Ireland of the 1960s. The film focusses on the activities of the Irish landed gentry and looks at the story of the Abbey Theatre and of the Catholic Church’s campaign against a socialist Ireland. As the film progresses, it offers many telling examples of a revolution betrayed.
Rocky Road To Dublin is a rather convincing political cinematic essay and a fascinating portrait of an Ireland that barely exists today, one that is searching for its own place in the world. Far from the existentialist and hate-mongering diatribe that it was characterized as during its stalled release, the film is deeply affectionate and lyrical, though it is hardly a typical tourist’s idea of Ireland. It also stands as one of the earliest and most important contributions to Irish cinema.