The Bolex Boys


Michael Mulcahy and John Lynch

Anyone interested in indie film and photography will have noticed an extraordinary revival of interest in analogue systems for reproducing sound and vision. The handheld Bolex 16mm film camera with its spools of film, wind up mechanism, characteristic shutter clicks, and carousel of lenses embodies all that is analogue for a new generation of young film makers. There couldn’t be a better time to consider the work of an earlier generation of indie film makers who exploited the accessibility and portability of handheld cameras to create an extraordinarily cinematic record of the changing social and cultural landscape of North Kerry from the 1970s onwards. This article introduces the work of John Lynch, Michael Mulcahy and Paul Kennelly, the Bolex Boys of North Kerry.

John Lynch bought his first cine camera in 1971, a second-hand Bolex. He worked as a creamery manager in a rural district north of Listowel in County Kerry. The people of Ireland had not yet ratified membership of the European Economic Union, but change was in the air and nowhere more apparent than in the farming community who delivered their milk to the creamery every morning. The tractor was replacing the donkey cart and Lynch imagined a film in which the creamery became the pivot in the telling of a story of the end of a way of life

Lynch’s cinematic imagination had been awakened as a young boy when a travelling theatre company opened its show with a screening of short films. He became fascinated with the mechanics of projection and learned his trade in the Astra cinema in Listowel. He left home to study dairy science in University College Cork but spent his spare time learning all he could about film making. After graduation, he went to work in creamery in County Clare and ran a cinema in the town of Kilkee. He married Noreen Horgan in 1961 and they returned to Kerry in 1967 after Lynch got a job as manager of the Cooraclarig Creamery.

Lynch began filming traditional farming practices in 1971 and assembled the footage into a silent film called The way I remember it. The Bolex was a mechanical camera and the sound of a spring unwinding as it drove film through a mechanical shutter made sound recording impossible in a one-person operation. The problem was solved when Lynch met Michael Mulcahy at a screening of the film. Mulcahy trained as a marine radio operator but never went to sea and built up a business as a sound engineer servicing an accelerating folk revival movement. He had built a recording studio in his garage and arranged with Lynch to record a soundtrack for The way I remember it.

Lynch asked storyteller and broadcaster Eamon Keane to write a script. Keane devised an original, long-form poem over repeated screenings and Mulcahy recorded him performing it in his studio. It was the beginning of a film making partnership – Mulcahy bought a Bolex and Lynch began recording sound – that continues to this day and that original soundtrack remains one of the most underrated pieces of spoken art ever recorded in Ireland.

They joined forces with Paul Kennelly, a linesman with the ESB who took note of the changes taking place in rural Ireland when he worked on the rural electrification programme. He had an interest in photography and switched to cinematography when his wife Hanna gave him a present of a Super 8mm cine camera. A natural and talented storyteller, he recorded life in the small village of Finuge, a crossroads situated at the geographic centre of County Kerry.

Pat Ahern recording an interview with John Lynch

Kennelly and Lynch filmed opening of the Teach Siamsa in Finuge in 1974, which became the foundation of a National Folk Theatre established by Fr Pat Ahern in Tralee in 1991. Kennelly’s film captured Dermod McCarthy of Radharc Films recording the event for RTÉ and the footage, alongside Lynch’s footage of the first of the modern Fleadh Cheoil festivals, represents a remarkable record of a rapidly changing cultural landscape, which anthropologist Helena Wulff has described in Dancing at the Crossroads.

Many people bought Super 8 cine cameras in the 1970s and 1980s and there is a rich archive of home movies that incidentally record social change as it happened on a local level.  Lynch’s project was different because it was grounded in cinema and this is most obvious in his filming of the killing of a pig in Kissane’s farmyard in 1978, the last time a pig was butchered in the traditional way in Kerry.

The influence of Ermanno Olmi is immediately apparent in the way Lynch set up and filmed the event. A centre piece of Olmi’s acclaimed film Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978) is the killing of a pig and Lynch’s short film, edited in camera, became a homage to a form of cinema that focussed on the lives of ordinary people in a rural setting. Olmi’s project was essentially ideological but his realism – the immediacy and honesty of the cinematic representation – is what captured Lynch’s imagination.

This is the most striking feature of The way I remember it, but equally impressive is the quality of visual poetry in motion. This seems to have inspired Keane to create an original work of immense artistic ambition and the combination of Mulcahy’s sound and Lynch’s vision is a remarkable cinematic achievement that underpins the popular film making movement that followed in its wake.

The documentaries Lynch, Mulcahy and Kennelly filmed over the next 5 decades constitute a remarkable and little known chapter in the history of cinema in Ireland. Furthermore, Lynch and Mulcahy have kept their studios in working order and these spaces bring us back to the future in terms  of the current analogue revival. Projecting the work of the Bolex Boys in this space becomes a celebration of analogue filmmaking and cinematic storytelling that is as thrilling as it is timeless.

Ciarán Walsh

July 2022


Posted on

June 10, 2024