Monday, January 28, 2013

Éamon de Buitléar - RIP

Éamon de Buitléar filming gannets on Sceillig Bheag c. 1978
Photo: from The Irish Wildlife Book, 1979.

The death has taken place in Wicklow of  Éamon de Buitléar, filmmaker, naturalist, musician, and eminent custodian of our heritage.

The expression 'independent filmmaker' has become a devalued brand these days, a sort of catch-all flag of convenience. When it first came into use it was as a declaration of intent by filmmakers to originate and create their own work. In Ireland, in the 1960s and 1970s, independent filmmakers were rarer than hens' teeth.

It's fair to say that most Irish filmmakers working independently in drama and documentary over those two decades have been given their due recognition. But some others - perhaps Paddy Carey, Gerrit van Gelderen, David Shaw Smith and Éamon de Buitléar among them - are still due greater acknowledgement.

They, and often their families alongside them, worked for pennies on very hard-got commissions from RTÉ and other semi-state organisations. They became expert in forms of filmmaking that no-one else was attempting in Ireland at the time. They were their own producers, directors, scriptwriters, cameramen, editors and narrators. They may even have processed their own footage from time to time. They were very often frustrated by funding issues, they were frugal by necessity, and they were unbelievably patient.

If it is a filmmaker's job to convey something to audiences through their work then Éamon de Buitléar did something enormously important - he conveyed his own love for and curiosity about the Irish natural world to at least three generations of Irish television viewers, this writer included.

A couple of years ago I came across a dead pine marten at the side of the road near the house here and was reminded immediately of Éamon de Buitléar's work. I had heard him many years previously talking about the difficulty of capturing footage of pine martens in the wild. At the time they were one of our rarest mammals and there were very few left in the country.

Back then one of the few places they might be filmed was in the Burren in County Clare. De Buitléar had spent weeks hunkered down in hazel scrub in order to film the elusive creatures, almost to the point of despair it seemed, before eventually getting some usable material.

I heard subsequently from relatives in the area that a wildlife film crew had been looking for pine martens but that they hadn't told them that a family of the animals were living in their old cottage, because they intended to do it up!

The anecdote illustrates the inevitable tensions between conservation and development, and the greater historical context of human interaction with the natural world in Ireland which Éamon de Buitléar did so much to bring to public consciousness.

The valediction from 'An tOileánach' is rarely as deserved as it is for Éamon de Buitléar, truly ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann.

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