“‘The Tear and the Smile’: Elizabeth Bowen on Television” by Dr. Eibhear Walshe (20 October 2010)


Figure 1: The Tear and the Smile, Part 1 Poster. Internet Movie Database.

Dr. Éibhear Walshe a senior lecturer in the School of Modern English University College Cork, presented a paper today on Ireland: The Tear and the Smile for the second seminar of the research seminar series. Although I had not heard of this documentary series before and I am only vaguely familiar with Elizabeth Bowen’s work, this was not a matter of concern because Walshe’s lecturing technique never fails to accommodate the needs of his audience.

Walshe commenced the presentation of his paper by providing essential background information about the documentary. Ireland: The Tear and the Smile is the title of a documentary series on Ireland.  It was produced by CBS and it aired on 29 January 1961. The documentary was directed by Willard Van Dyke; written by Elizabeth Bowen; and starred Brendan Behan and Walter Cronkite.

Figure 2: Elizabeth Bowen with students at Bryn Mawr, 1956. New York Times.com.

Walshe, however, challenges this information by arguing that Elizabeth Bowen “couldn’t write this documentary. She couldn’t write America”.  This is because of the way in which Bowen dealt with Ireland in her work which conflicts with the depiction of Ireland in the documentary. Walshe states, “Ireland was a preoccupation for her […] she offered herself as a translator and interpreter of Ireland”.  Walshe accompanies the initiation of his argument with a clip from the documentary, which mentions the U.N. forces in the Congo and Ireland pursuing an individual course.

Elizabeth is “credited with the narration”, Walshe notes. Bowen was commissioned to write this script but Walshe contends she did not write it. Bowen always perceived herself as “in the role of interpreter” because of her crucial relationship between Eire and Britain. Julia Moynihan maintains that Bowen is “living on the hyphen” (qtd. in Walshe) because she lived between the two countries.

Walshe then enlightened his audience with a brief biographical account of Bowen’s life, which was not only insightful but also crucial in order for one to grasp the premise of his argument. Bowen’s fictive themes centre around England, which is based on her time there. She and her husband retired to live in Bowen’s Court partly because of the years of neutrality in Ireland. Walshe points out that John McGahern concentrates on the Irish in England while Bowen focuses on the opposite.

After the death of her husband in 1952, Bowen struggled to maintain her home, to survive on a writer’s wage and was forced to ask Spencer Curtis Brown, her literary executer, to pay her income tax out of her royalties. Her working life led her to North America. However, in 1959 Bowen returns to Ireland and unloads the responsibility of her house. Walshe asserts this dismantling of the family house is part of the documentary script but its not used in the footage.

Walshe also informs his audience about the socio-political context of the documentary, which is essential in understanding Willard Van Dyke’s motives. Ireland in the 1950s was experiencing the failure of the small farm.  I found from my own research that in The Slow Failure, Daly contends that “[b]y 1945 there were 9,000 fewer men than in 1939, despite the strong demand for rural workers during World War II when a program of compulsory tillage was introduced ( 33). There was a dichotomous disagreement concerning Irish agriculture between grassland enterprises or promoting tillage. The former would effectuate depopulation while the latter would increase rural employment and thus protect smaller farms from extinction.

At the same time, Shannon was becoming a place of industrious development, which in the documentary “it is being partly sold as a new commercial town” (Walshe).  It is apparent from the footage Walshe showed us that there is a bid to show Ireland as an industrious place, which is probably connected to the motives of the Prudential Insurance Company of America who funded the documentary. There motto as can be seen from their website  is “We Invest Where It Counts”.

Having said that, there is an opposing force struggling with this depiction of Ireland in the documentary. There is also a conflicting need to represent Ireland as picturesque, pastoral, peasant like and “bordering on the primitive” (Walshe). Daly contends the reason for this is because  “the myth of a stable prelapsarian rural society exercised a strong influence on people’s minds” (51).  As can be seen from the documentary, “a lot of what had been written about rural Ireland presupposed that its normal status was a timeless place” (51).  Willard Van Dyke attempts to convey this romanticised notion of rural Ireland as an idyllic pasture with the inclusion of images from the Irish country homestead, which Walshe contends Bowen couldn’t write about.

Dr. Walshe concluded another one of his excellently presented seminars by summing up and reinforcing the points of his argument.  Bowen’s relationship with Ireland was interpreted by the relationship with Ireland and England. Her connection with this documentary is a way of reading the gradual erosion of Angl0-Ireland. Therefore, the ghosts of her Anglo-Irish identity interfered with her writing of this documentary.

When the seminar was finished the floor was opened to the audience to ask questions or comment upon the topic discussed. Dr. Jenkins asked Walshe had President John F. Kennedy visited Ireland before the making of the documentary and if so how might it affect the notion of Ireland in America? Walshe responded by saying President Kennedy visited Ireland two years after the making of the documentary, and that the imagined audience for the documentary was unfamiliar with Ireland.

The Quiet Man Film Poster

Jenkin’s question got me thinking about how Ireland is portrayed to America in film and television. One such film that springs to mind is John Ford’s The Quiet Man, which is set in 1930s Ireland. The film involves an Irish-American, Sean Thorton (John Wayne) who returns to his home in Innisfree from Pittsburg to reclaim it.  It is not long before he falls in love with Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara) whose beauty is accentuated by the use of Technicolor filming. Technicolor also adds to the idyllic, picturesque beauty of the film’s setting that was filmed on the grounds of Ashford Castle in County Mayo. The effect of Ford’s depiction of Ireland as a pastoral utopia on its American audience is evident from the fact that the place is a popular tourist attraction today. Therefore, films like The Quiet Man project an image of Ireland through a rose-tinted lens that has a great enough effect on it American audience to entice them to experience it for them selves.

Figure 4: Screen Shot of Film Setting. The Quiet Man.

Works Cited

Daly, Mary E. The Slow Failure: Population Decline and Independent Ireland, 1922-1973. Wisconsin: Uni. of Wisconsin P, 2006. Print.

Walshe, Éibhear. “The Tear and the Smile”: Elizabeth Bowen on Television. Natl. Uni. of  Ire., Cork.  20 Oct. 2010. Lecture.


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