Two films with the same title were released in 2016. Martin Scorcese’s Silence (which I have not seen) received all the attention, but there was another Silence, directed by the Irish documentary film-maker, Pat Collins. An undemonstrative film, it will not be to everyone’s taste, being slow, meditative and melancholy, and having little in the way of a story. But I loved it and, thanks to MUBI streaming, I have watched it twice.
Silence is a film that defies straightforward categorisation, teetering between documentary and fictional narrative. The mood is set by the words taken from John Burnside’s ‘Insomnia in Southern Illinois’ which appear as an opening title:
The cuckoo calls from the well of my mind,
more echo than thought, as it fades through the wind
and flickers away to the silence beyond
like the voice, in myself, of another.
Silence is as much about sound as silence. It is a meditation on exile and rootedness in landscape, and how the noise of the past echoes around us in the present.
The narrative is skeletal: Eoghan is a sound recordist who returns to the remote, Gaelic-speaking island off the coast of Donegal where he grew up for the first time in 15 years. The reason for this home-coming is a commission: to find and record places free from man-made sound.
The film moves from the jarring noise of Berlin where Eoghan is living with his partner to the not-complete silence of wild landscapes in the west of Ireland where the sound recordist captures the sound of the wind blowing through moorland grass, rippling the surface of the water, or the distant call of corncrakes. Eoghan takes leave of his partner on a railway bridge in Berlin, their parting words drowned out by the trains passing below. But we do catch the words she quotes to Eoghan as he departs: a line from Hölderlin’s ode ‘The Course of Life’: ‘So I follow the arc of life and return to my starting place.’
Eoghan’s search for natural sound leads him far from cities and into the remote landscapes of Ireland’s far west. One of the joys of the film is the beautiful widescreen cinematography, often consisting of moments when the camera is still or making a slow pan across the landscape. As he travels, Eoghan (played by Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde who, like director Pat Collins, left Ireland in the 1980s) is drawn into a series of encounters and conversations with individuals who add their thoughts on silence, history, memory and exile. With each encounter, the quiet intensity and poetry of Silence deepens, and its themes slowly emerge.
Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde was co-writer on Silence, and told the Irish Times:
The themes that are explored are subtle things like loss, our attraction to landscape, reconciling with the past, and language. Too much drama would have pushed those out to the edges. It’s like a meditation. Walk into the film and you have space. The dialogue is sparse. You’re not bombarded with what Hollywood might throw at you. Pat was very courageous in what he did.
Like thousands of his contemporaries, Pat Collins emigrated during Ireland’s bleak 1980s, but in 1989 he returned and went to Galway for the first time. Interviewed by Sight and Sound he spoke of the impact this hade made on him:
At that time it was like nowhere else in Ireland. I moved there a month later, and over the years discovered the Aran Islands, Connemara, the Burren. The books I read at the time, hearing Irish spoken as a living language… all that had a huge impact on me. I always had a strong attachment to the place I was from, but my experience of Galway reinforced it.
Collins had made more than twenty documentaries before embarking on the fictionalised Silence. According to the BFI, common themes link these earlier films and Silence itself: ‘an insatiable curiosity, a deep respect for archive material and a poetic sensibility’ and ‘an enduring fascination with the interrelationship between lived lives, language, landscape, music, myth and the past.’ His films have included portraits of Irish literary luminaries such as Frank O’Connor and John McGahern; lyrical studies of remote places (including Tory Island which figures in Silence); aspects of Ireland’s history; and, recently, a visual interpretation of the work of Yorkshireman Tim Robinson, map-maker and writer of three acclaimed books exploring the landscape, history and mythology of Connemara which I would love to see. Robinson crops up again, the only English voice, on the soundtrack of Silence.
In one scene, Eoghan is recording the sounds in a tract of wildwood, a green and mossy place of ancient oak trees where he plunges a hand into the deep and velvety layer of lichen and moss that coats the branches. This is Derryclare Wood, a stretch of the Inagh Valley that Tim Robinson writes about in the volume of his Connemara trilogy, Listening to the Wind. Not that far from Galway city, it is a place out of time. In his book, Tim Robinson bewails the fate of the valley, despoiled by conifer plantations, but where Derryclare Wood survives as a place ‘five thousand years in the distillation’:
Each tree has room to face in all directions (which is what distinguishes the presence of a tree from that of an animal). The limbs of the first oaks that we stepped between flowed up and out through the air with slight bends like those of a slow river. The upper surfaces of their branches were deeply furred with moss, out of which the foot-long fronds of hundreds of polypody ferns stood up … there were deep drifts of crisp brown oak leaves around the tree roots … the ground sloped down banks of moss-wrapped boulders.
The themes in Tim Robinson’s writing are woven into the texture of Silence with Robinson’s voice on the soundtrack as Eoghan’s journey is tracked cartographically on screen on maps furnished by Robinson. In Connemara: Listening to the Wind, Robinson wrote of the dying breath of a local man being ‘dispersed into the air to be degraded by the hiss of rain or eroded molecule by molecule.’ Robinson’s central theme, echoed in words he speaks here, is the notion of place, and his concern that modernity has stripped from us a sense of rootedness, of knowing the ground beneath us.
Pertinently, the preface to Listening to the Wind – entitled ‘The sound of the past’ – he writes about sound and landscape in words that inform Collins’ Silence: the sough of the woods, the clatter of mountain streamlets, the roar of the waves against the shore.’
These indefinite but enormous noises are part of Connemara. Sometimes from my doorstep on a still night I become aware that the silence is set in a velvet background like a jewel in a display case, a hushing that when attended to, becomes ineluctable. It is compounded of the crash of breakers along distant strands, variously delayed, attenuated, echoed and re-echoed. […]
Similar too is the sound of the past, the wreck of time’s grand flow in tortuous passages. It includes and sometimes drowns the sound of history. History has rhythms, tunes and even harmonies; but the sound of the past is an agonistic multiplicity. Sometimes, rarely, a scrap of a voice can be caught from the universal damage, but it may only be an artefact of the imagination, a confection of rumours. Chance decides what is obliterated and what survives if only to be distorted and misheard.
In Silence, Pat Collins uses archive video footage of communities abandoning centuries-old habitations on Ireland’s westernmost coast and islands, along with snippets of conversation, the sound of waves crashing on rocks and the wind rushing in moorland grasses, footage of communal work and leisure in past times, and snatches of Gaelic folk song to evoke the sense of Robinson’s words.
Early in the film, Eoghan is reading in an otherwise silent and deserted bar. The loquacious barman disturbs him with a story of how starlings on a Scottish island abandoned by its inhabitants in the 1950s still imitate the sound of mowing-machines from that time. ‘Is that the kind of story you’re looking for?’ he asks. Eoghan responds: ‘It’s not really stories I’m after. It’s more quiet I’m looking for.’ The barman observes that ‘too much silence can send a man mad.’
In a later sequence filmed on the Burren, the (unidentified) Irish academic Pat O’Connor suggests that the past forms in stratified layers on the landscape and in the imagination. Staring up at the astonishing karst rock formations of Mullach Mor, he says:
The mind turns upon silence. Such an old humanised country we have you know. Two-way transmission between people and places. Legends heaped upon legends, lore heaped on lore, names heaped on names.
An significant aspect of Eoghan’s journey is that, as it unfolds and he draws ever closer to his Gaeltacht home, he increasingly speaks in his native language in encounters with those he meets, until by the film’s end his conversations are almost entirely in Gaelic. It is as if some unconscious force is at work as he circles ever closer to his ancestral home.
In one of the most significant of these encounters, as Eoghan sits almost hidden in tall moorland grasses, the microphones standing off to his side, he is hailed by a man striding towards him who remains unidentified in the film. He is, apparently, the Irish novelist Michael Harding. The man inquires what Eoghan is doing, and is told, ‘recording areas that are away from human sound.’ ‘Sure, you’re here,’ the stranger replies.
In the next scene the pair are conversing in Eoghan’s car, and it becomes evident that Eoghan has been invited to stay overnight at Harding’s home. Their conversation hinges on the nature of pure silence – and the various Gaelic words that might express it. They discuss two Irish words for silence – thost and ciúnas, and the weight of meaning carried by each. While thost suggests the silence after a noise has subsided, ciúnas suggests a velvety stillness, a hushing that evokes the sounds of the past, like ghostly voices carried on the wind.
Their conversation continues over dinner at Harding’s house. Eoghan then agrees to sing, and talks about the value of song in rooting people in place. (Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde is, in fact, the son of writer and sean-nós (old style) singer Nellie Nic Giolla Bhríde and the brother of sean-nós champion singer, Dominic Mac Giolla Bhríde.)
After listening to Eoghan sing, Harding compares human existence to the first and last notes of a song: ‘When you push yourself into existence, it’s like the first note of a song. It comes out of silence. And your last breath will be followed by silence,’ he says. ‘But in that time you can only be where you’re rooted, where you belong. And to where you go home.’ When Eoghan asks him if staying in one place doesn’t imply that the world will pass you by, Harding answers: ‘No, I don’t think so. I think if you stand in one place long enough, you realise that all the movement is a kind of noise.’ He describes stillness and a deeply felt attachment to place as a source of wisdom as well as happiness.
This conversation is echoed towards the end of the film when Eoghan travels to the island of Inishbofin off the Connemara coast. There, Eoghan speaks to Marie Coyne in the museum she has established in an old boatshed. Coyne, who grew up on the island, has assembled a collection of photographs and artefacts (including her father’s old donkey cart) that document the vanished way of life of her childhood.
Later, Eoghan talks to a fisherman about the social cohesion and strong sense of community lost during the mass exodus for the mainland in the 1960s. The fisherman recalls: ‘They scattered from each other . . . They were all one unit on the island, they helped each other . . . everyone went their own. They didn’t need each other anymore as such you know.’
Immediately after this conversation, Collins inserts a heart-wrenching piece of archive footage from a documentary depicting the depopulation of Gola Island off the coast of Co Donegal in which several of the island’s old folk clamber aboard a boat to leave their home for the last time. A dog that follows them is thrown overboard and drowns.
The film has an elegiac commentary that seems to resonate in Silence. The narrator says:
All the heartbreak of so many lives. The generations clinging to their dreams. Unity and community. Oh dead years, could you foresee that everything would end like this, in silence? Could you predict this last sad emptiness of silence speaking to silence? Present desolation crowding out the past. Silence and the echoes of silence. And memories, and weary ghosts, and the fast dissolving remnants of yourself. Time, and love, and life, and dreams discharged into oblivion. The full stop that speaks the end of three hundred years.
Pat Collins spoke about this sequence in an interview:
The archive was always going to be part of the film. We wanted layers, of different generations and also to work against nostalgia. Hence the scene with the drowning of the dog. But as a film maker you must be aware of others who recorded before you and in some ways using archive is honouring them. It’s partly that I’ve seen the footage on TV and they have burned into my mind and I feel I must integrate them into my own work. As if they were my own memories.
Later, Eoghan falls into conversation with a young man, both of them speaking in Irish. Their talk is about leaving home, with the boy – whose only venture outside of Ireland has been a week spent in Blackpool – intrigued by the fact that Eoghan has travelled in Central and South America and now lives in Berlin, pondering whether to leave home to attend university in Dublin.
In the film’s final sequence, Eoghan boards the ferry to Tory Island where he grew up. Memories flood in, evoked by archive images of a fisherman winding in a net and waves crashing upon the shore as a voice on the soundtrack recalls listening to CB radio at night and hearing the songs sung by fishermen from one boat to the next, as they cast their nets in the darkness.
Eoghan roams Tory Island before finally arriving at the house he lived in as a child, now ruined and empty. He explores the decaying rooms, opening cupboards, touching paint curling on the walls, and staring at the worn tiles on the kitchen floor. In the final shot Eoghan stands at a window as the room gradually darkens, staring at the ruin of a building across a field. Sandy Denny’s ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’ plays as the screen begins to blacken.
Across the evening sky, all the birds are leaving
But how can they know it’s time for them to go?
Before the winter fire, I will still be dreaming
I have no thought of time
Sad, deserted shore, your fickle friends are leaving
Ah, but then you know it’s time for them to go
But I will still be here, I have no thought of leaving
I do not count the time
For who knows where the time goes?
Silence was, Pat Collins explained, a film that was ‘found’, rather than made.
We were interested in subjects like memory, exile, a sense of place. Like our central character, our film is evolving as it’s going along depending on what we encounter. We’re allowing space for things to develop in ways we mightn’t have expected.
The song that Eoghan sings in Gaelic at Harding’s dinner table is ‘A Pháidí a Grá’, a Donegal lament, he explains after he has finished, about a woman urging her lover leaving for America to stay. Years later, he returns to find that she has drowned herself. The first note always comes out of silence, says Harding. And Silence is like a song, a melody composed out of old photographs, archive video, traditional song, and the sound of wind, water, and bird song to conjure the spirit of place. From being drowned out by urban noise, Eoghan’s journey into silence, through Ireland’s western reaches is a return to roots, Hölderlin’s ‘starting place.’ His old family home, ruined by time, now harbours a cacophony of memories: the rasping call of corncrakes, human voices, footsteps, singing and the sea. I was reminded of the very beginning of Werner Herzog’s film, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, which is prefaced by a quotation from Georg Bucher: ‘Don’t you hear the terrible screaming all around us, the screaming that men usually call silence?’
Writing in the independent film review magazine Dog and Wolf, Mark Wilshin observed:
Summoned up through sound, image and song as well as maps and the curves and lines of landscape, Pat Collins’ Silence is a very Irish film. And Eoghan’s journey, moving from English into Irish, is linguistic as much as it is personal – moving into the Irish landscape and singing in Gaelic at a campfire ‘Is Trua nach Bhfuil Mé in Éirinn’ – a song about the vastness of Ireland and the emotional importance of home. It’s thought-provoking and challenging – as any ruminative anti-dramatic film on the spiritual texture of silence is likely to be. But in its evocation of an abandoned country and the rooted nature of peace, Pat Collins’ Silence is deafening in its defence of the quiet life.
Meanwhile, I read that Pat Collins’ next film, Living in a Coded Land, will be entirely set in the Irish midlands, and will ‘explore our sense of places and stories attached to place’ with similar themes to Silence.