The Ghosts of Baggotonia – Film Review
by Frank L
Directed by Alan Gilsenan
Baggotonia is an area in Dublin around Baggot Street Bridge which was, during the forties, fifties and sixties, the home for various writers, artists and people with unconventional attitudes to life. They lived in rooms and so-called flats in the fine, forbidding terraced houses which constitute the architectural essence of the area. Alan Gilsenan is a filmmaker with a substantial list of films to his credit including The Meeting (2018). He was brought up in Baggotonia whose former essence he seeks to reveal in this observant, meticulously constructed, black-and-white homage to the area and its then creative inhabitants.
Neville Johnson was a British artist who came to Dublin in the early fifties and could see how the city was starting to change and its incomparable Georgian architecture was under threat from many causes. With a camera, he recorded the simple daily doings of Dubliners in the austere but often crumbling aloofness of the city. Gilsenan uses this treasure trove of photographs to re-imagine the essence of Baggotonia in its heyday. It was an inspired editorial choice.
“The ghosts of the past are always with us” is a refrain Gilsenan uses as his camera moves along the Grand Canal, before settling on an architectural or a natural detail, as this is an area which has many visual urban charms. He overlays the images with quotations from Joyce and Beckett and of course Patrick Kavanagh whose poem “On Raglan Road” rightly holds a prominent place amongst the ghosts Gilsenan seeks to conjure up. Work by writers such as Eithne McCarthy are given the respect which they deserve and also Eavan Boland whose career overlapped with the tail-end of what Gilsenan evokes.
All of this is interlaced with contemporaneous photographs of the creative inhabitants together with interviews with people who remember Baggotonia as it was. Its inhabitants were not conventional. Gilsenan can also be unconventional. He begins this documentary very far from Baggotonia with contemporary film footage from 1945. It is of a plane flying over Japan and the dropping of the bomb. That action changed the world. To the artists of Baggotonia on the other side of the world, it added as it did to all artists everywhere a further challenge in the struggle to create a work of art. It is a haunting and unsettling beginning to the film but it provides a thoughtful backdrop as to the ambience in which these creatives were living.
Gilsenan is intimately connected with the area he portrays. He knows its nooks and crannies. He has extensive knowledge of the twentieth-century Irish literary canon. He has an artist’s eye as a filmmaker. He brings all these talents together to conjure up a new work of art. The Ghosts of Baggotonia is the result.