A universal Irish story of small places lost to the swirl of history, which is strikingly photographed and quietly thought-provoking.
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“However it must be admitted that this Irish fascination with placenames is too often purely nominal and does not extend to caring for the places themselves; nostalgia stands in for conservation and convenience trumps all.”
The late Tim Robinson, himself perhaps the greatest chronicler of Irish placenames, wrote those words in lament of the townlands torn through by a new dual carriageway built from 2005 to 2009. That this is not the same road through Gort and Crusheen whose recession-stalled construction frames When All Is Ruin Once Again seems hardly to matter; it’s almost a universal Irish story of small places lost to the swirl of history, like the eddying river currents in which this film opens. “Our name will be forgotten in time” goes the quote from the Book of Wisdom that appears over this first image, as though presaging this forlorn fate for these towns as for those that came before.
The best documentaries constitute a cocktail of good fortune and shrewd judgement, both of which appear amply resident in director Keith Walsh’s approach. Himself a Crusheen native, he has captured here a most emblematic portrait of Ireland’s lost decade from the comfort of home: from the excited sense of modernity the M18’s construction brings to the crushing setback of evaporated funding in the recession’s wake leaving its course to lie incomplete, the film’s seven-year sweep tells a stop-start story of progress and stasis appropriately allegorical of the nation at large. It’s not only in a cheekily literal sense it might be termed a classic road movie; with this narrative of a journey embarked upon and curtailed, Walsh weaves a rich story of character and community.
If that’s a point belaboured by the overzealous inclusion of a radio segment suggesting Gort “might be a microcosm of what’s happening nationally”, that’s a transgression fast forgotten in the lyrical spell of associative editing Walsh casts. As the film rises from the river in that opening sequence, cross-cutting the movement with images of burial grounds, mudslides, and modern technologies, its technical acuity is as clear as the capacious ambition to which it’s turned. There’s no surprise in seeing Pat Collins thanked in the closing credits: When All Is Ruin Once Again clearly adheres to the contemporary school of Irish documentary of which Collins is perhaps the foremost proponent, and it’s to the great credit of Walsh that his film emerges a worthy new entrant.
At its best deploying these editorial juxtapositions to the tune of Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh’s plaintive traditional score, this is a film strikingly photographed, its monochrome sights of Galway and Clare often gasp-inducingly gorgeous in their greyscale compositions. Though eschewing most typical trappings of the documentary format, Walsh isn’t opposed to an old-fashioned talking head, but his accomplished framing’s visual contextualisation of these characters stands in stark contrast to the flat fallback approach all too often adopted in recent Irish and international non-fiction film. There’s even an intrinsic humour to many shots here, an understated American Gothic re-staging in the film’s final stretch an exemplary injection of visual wit into an often difficult and dark narrative.
Such balance is key to the eventual effect of When All Is Ruin Once Again, which risks overloading itself as it turns its message of evolution and transience to yet broader environmental themes. But Walsh is a dab hand at balancing what might easily have become competing economic and ecological strands of his story, and the ability to entwine the two—if not without the occasional wobble—gestures to a grander scheme of meaning that sees these places as inextricable from the overarching narrative of us all. The title is taken from Yeats:
And may these characters remain When all is ruin once again.
Again that striking juxtaposition: against the fatalism of the Book of Wisdom lines on which we opened, a note of hope? This quietly thought-provoking documentary doesn’t hide the prognosis for these places and their way of life. But in capturing it here, we have a sort of sad celebration: in a recognition of impermanence, a pitch for immortality.