“All of the conversations I had about the film were about the politics. I don’t remember anyone asking me about what I was trying to do as a director”
have been. I was just about making them. I made films in an impermanent way. You make them. You leave them. I realise now that I have to do better housekeeping.”
Murphy cringes slightly. “And I really don’t have the outgoing, promotional personality that helps when you're a director. It’s amazing that I managed those three films.”
In 1980, Murphy, lately returned from her New York sabbatical, received funding from the British Film Institute for Maeve. A Godardian thriller set against the Ulster conflict, it was Ireland's first bona-fide feminist film, a landmark that has kept thesis students coming to her doorstep ever since.
“It has tailed off a bit in recent years,” she says. “But I did used to get it. Maeve was useful for people who were film-makers or who were interested in Ireland or women or politics or conflict. When I made it, I was coming from a very raw and radical place. And then I’d meet these students and I’d realise they hated Maeve. They hated writing their thesis on this subject. But because there weren’t many Irish films around, they were stuck with it.”
It’s no wonder that Murphy’s films are like catnip for graduate students. In the early years, her writing inevitably came from big, complex ideas and contemporaneous debates about politics, gender and hegemony.
“I’ve learned so much from teaching students at NYU over the years,” she says. “The students I have there produce very subtle character-driven stories, and I realise that this is very different to the way I used to think. I didn’t think about story. I’d think something like: representations of Northern Ireland are unsatisfactory: I’m going to make Maeve and sort it all out.”
Despite those early theoretical underpinnings, it would be foolish to see Maeve or Anne Devlin in purely conceptual terms. “Both of those films come out of a particular radical time and a particular radical environment,” says Murphy. “They try and engage with those issues that were big at the time. Maeve was asking how does a woman position herself against the background of what was going on in the North and within the history of republicanism and memory and landscape. At the time, people were pushing competing narratives. But my experience was that there was no clear narrative, only a fractured one. I was influenced by Godard and Brecht. But, more than that, with Maeve, anytime I sat down and tried to create a straightforward film with a beginning, middle and end, it just wouldn’t work. When I was at college, all the talk was about the shape of a film or the shape of political cinema. Maeve comes out of that vortex, but it’s equally organic.”
Anne Devlin, by contrast, is rather more straightforward. “Yes. But that’s because I was working from her prison diary. I was amazed by how cinematic it was. Scenes were described in enough detail to construct shots for the movie. I think after making Maeve I became more interested in story. And with Anne Devlin’s journal I wanted to tell a story that was like a ballad.”
A history of the 1798 rebellion from the perspective of someone who has frequently been marginalised or dismissed as Robert Emmet’s housekeeper or Michael Dwyer’s cousin, Murphy’s 1984 drama sought to reclaim rather than revise history.
“Revisionism usually involves an agenda or an ideology,” says Murphy. “But I wasn’t attempted to undermine the existing