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From tales of nostalgic remembrance to descriptions of enduring rituals, documentarians Jeremiah Cullinane and Bartolomeo Dibendetto have travelled the Emerald Isle collecting narratives for their upcoming film See You at the Pictures!.

The project, which is expected to be completed by the end of this year, paints a picture of Ireland’s surprisingly avid cinema-going culture.

Already known for fuelling the country’s rich literary tradition, James Joyce, one of the country’s most influential writers, set up Ireland’s first official venue for showing films, Dublin’s Volta cinema, in 1909. While the Volta has since closed, today the Irish have the highest per-capita cinema attendance in the world, according to the most current international data, compiled by The Economist. Thirty-eight percent of residents aged 15 to 35 reported going to the movies at least once a month in 2010, and the year prior saw a total of 28.8 million visits to the movies, impressive for a population of just 4.5 million.

Cinema appreciation in Ireland can be traced back to the final years of the 19th Century, when eager Dubliners would gather in the city centre to watch silent films incorporated into variety shows. Around that time, the earliest known film footage shot in Ireland, of Dublin’s O’Connell Street in 1897, was recorded by a cameraman for the French inventors the Lumière brothers (who invented the device he was using just two years prior). He was the first of many foreign filmmakers to fall in love with the country.

In 1910, silent filmmaker Sidney Olcott, a Canadian-American of Irish descent, became the first Hollywood director to shoot an on-location movie when he travelled to County Kerry to make A Lad from Old Ireland. John Ford, the Irish-American filmmaker who holds the record for the most Academy Awards for directing (four), also made several movies about Ireland, starting with a 1935 adaptation of the Liam O’Flaherty novel The Informer. His best known Irish movie to date, though, is The Quiet Man, a 1952 Oscar-winning film shot in County Mayo about a retired Irish-American boxer, played by John Wayne, who returns to the Irish town he was born in.

Later films by foreigners, including Ryan’s Daughter (1970) by English director David Lean and Barry Lyndon (1975) by American director Stanley Kubrick, pulled in local talent, exposing international audiences to Irish actors who were already famous at home. Although these films did very well abroad, local critics worried that internationally directed projects drew on stereotypes of Ireland being primitive yet idyllic and the Irish being short-tempered drunkards.

After Ireland became free from the British in 1922 (when the War of Independence resulted in the declaration of the Irish Free State), the government, with the support of the Catholic Church, passed the Censorship of Film Act. The law restricted native Irish filmmakers who wanted to wholly portray everyday life in Ireland on an international stage, wrote Roderick Flynn and Patrick Brereton in the Historical Dictionary of Irish Cinema. Over the next 50 years, official film censors banned 3,000 Irish-produced movies and cut 10,000 more, according to Kevin Rockett’s book Irish Film Censorship. Yet Irish writer Isaac Eppel still managed to get his influential 1926 narrative film about the War of Independence, Irish Destiny, made.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that Irish-born filmmakers truly found their voice. The “first wave” of Irish cinema included directors, like Bob Quinn, Pat Murphy and Cathal Black, exploring socially conscious themes and avant-garde techniques. Quinn fought Irish stereotypes, Murphy told women’s stories from a female perspective and Black experimented with unusual plotlines and characters.

Eventually, in 1981, the Irish Film Board was founded by the government to both promote both the national film industry and Ireland as a destination for on-location shooting. Though the agency disbanded for a period between 1987 and 1993, the government was beginning to understand just how economically significant moviemaking in Ireland could be. New, industry-friendly tax laws helped contribute to the growth of the “second wave” of filmmaking, and more movies were made in the 1990s in Ireland than ever before, setting the stage for the country’s illustrious filmmaking future.

In 1989, Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot was an Academy Award winning film set in and around Dublin based on the autobiography of Christy Brown, an Irish writer and painter with cerebral palsy who used only his left foot to type and paint. In 1991, director Alan Parker used a cast of unknown actors in The Commitments, adapting Roddy Doyle’s popular novel about a group of out-of-work young Dubliners who pool their musical talents and start a soul band. In 1992, Neil Jordan’s dramatic thriller The Crying Game told the story of IRA members who take a British hostage. Following these successes, In the Name of the Father starring Daniel Day-Lewis came out in 1994, Michael Collins starring Liam Neeson in 1996, and Angela’s Ashes staring Emily Watson in 1999.

There is no better way to understand how Irish cinema has evolved over the decades than to experience it today. The Savoy, which primarily shows commercial movies, is Dublin’s oldest cinema, dating back to 1929. Classic Irish films and well-reviewed independent pictures, both local and international, can be seen at Dublin’s Irish Film Institute, which has been very successful in preserving national film culture – compiling archives of Irish films and providing public opportunities for arts education. Currently, the IFI is showing a documentary about John Ford’s The Quiet Man, 60 years later.

Screen Cinema, which has been operating since the 1970s, also shows classic movies, as well as Irish and foreign independents. Upcoming films include a documentary about the Metropolitan Opera in New York and a live viewing via satellite of the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow.   

And no matter what time of year it is, there is bound to be a film festival going on in some part of the country. This summer, there is the Galway Film Fleadh; in autumn, there’s the Underground Cinema Film Festival in Dublin and the Kerry Film Festival; winter brings the largest feature film fest in Ireland, the Dublin International Film Festival; and, in the spring, the Belfast Film Festival is one of Northern Ireland’s main events.

Wherever you go to explore the cinematic landscape, know that you are continuing a great Irish tradition, simply by sitting back, relaxing and enjoying the show.

Travelwise is a BBC Travel column that goes behind the travel stories to answer common questions, satisfy uncommon curiosities and uncover some of the mystery surrounding travel. If you have a burning travel question, contact Travelwise.

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