I, Dolours – an unsettling cinematic memoir about an IRA activist whose deadly idealism turned out to be hollow

As the title I, Dolours makes clear, this is a cinematic memoir rather than a critical analysis and is thus prone to the criticism that can be levelled against any autobiographical account. The storyteller – or perhaps storytellers plural in this case with interviewer and producer Ed Moloney deserving equal billing with his now-deceased subject – can be selective, revisionist, revengeful and view events through rose-tinted or very foggy glasses as well as having the opportunity to be brutally honest.

Archive footage is intercut with Ed Moloney’s single-camera interview with Dolours Price in 2010 as well as reconstructed scenes in which Lorna Larkin plays the younger woman. A couple of crackly snippets from an audio-only interview are also edited into the narrative.

In the distributor’s production notes, Ed Moloney explains that his video interview was recorded in the aftermath of Dolours speaking publicly about her role in the IRA ‘disappeared’ to the Irish News. He made a deal to record her story and only publish it after she died if she promised not to speak further to newspapers and exacerbate her poor health. It feels like yet another flawed aspect of the governance that has blighted the well-meaning Belfast Project (‘Boston Tapes’) oral history archive.

Having established the Price sisters’ republican family pedigree, the film explores the lead up to the civil rights movement (Dolours and Marian joined The People’s Democracy group) and the outbreak of the Troubles. Captions explain some key moments in the timeline, emphasising the difference between meek nationalists and fervent republicans, and explaining that republicans were initially unarmed and unable to defend themselves against attacks from state forces and loyalists.

Dolours’ idealism leads her not only to join the IRA, but to trust it with her loyalty, even when asked to perform demeaning or unpalatable tasks, from polishing up rusty bullets, to being ‘promoted’ to ‘the unknowns’ and ferrying touts across the border to be killed and disappear. She appears unflinching rather than unquestioning.

“I just knew I had to bring them across the border and leave them there” in the hands of the local unit who would ultimately kill them and bury them.

Dolours gives some background to the disappearance of Kevin McKee and Seamus Wright in 1972, as well as Joe Lynskey . She describes Jean McConville as “arrogant” and “an informer” who had an army transmitter in her home and was identified by her slippers being smuggled into a police station. Those statements are strongly contested by the McConville family and the Police Ombudsman report.

Having admitted to being one of the three volunteers who drove the mother of ten across the border, watch out for the verbal dexterity when Dolours slips into the third person to describe how the volunteers had to return when the local IRA unit refused to kill a woman, and each of “the three volunteers” (rather than ‘we’ or ‘I’) shot her in the head.

There’s nothing terribly new in the film. She smuggling explosives across the border and robbed banks dressed as a nun, putting it down to the “recklessness of youth”. She describes Gerry Adams as the “officer commanding in Belfast” to whom people “reported”. She says he was there when they discussed “a serious matter … a hanging job” to escalate and extend the campaign of terror to England.

Dolours tells Moloney about her role as OC in the operation to explode multiple car bombs in London. “I was only too willing and happy to undertake.” In a rare moment of humour in the 82-minute film, she shares an anecdote about Gerry Kelly breaking cover and leapfrogging over bollards that rings true and underlines his penchant for jumping onto objects.

Arrested and charged for their role in the Old Bailey bombing – in which 200 people were injured and one man died of a heart attack in the immediate aftermath – Dolours and her sister Marian became the third generation of women in their family to serve time in Armagh Gaol. Dolours describes it as an “honour”, saying that her Aunt Bridie’s suffering in the aftermath of lifting an arms dump that subsequently exploded, blinding her and destroying her hands, “obliged me in some way to continue the struggle”.

Initially imprisoned in England, reconstructed scenes depict the hunger strike action taken in protest at their location. Dolours discusses how after 20 days of refusing food, prison authorities force-fed her once or twice a day for the rest of their 208 day protest. She links the force-feeding with suffering from anorexia, which along with a reconstructed scene that includes a panic attack, are the only real hints of the much larger psychiatric and substance abuse problems with which she suffered.

Some aspects of the film’s storytelling techniques let it down, making it feel at best rushed, and at worst, truncated or unfinished. While the reconstruction could only have been avoided by bringing other voices and commentators into the documentary, director Maurice Sweeney’s decision to allow the way ‘young’ Dolores narrate some scenes lacks the authenticity of the filmed interview.

I, Dolours is a deeply unsettling film. In her interview, Dolours is lucid and articulate. But the idealism and dogma used to justify her membership and activity in the IRA is gradually replaced with a (quite poorly-described) disillusionment about the direction mainstream republicanism took after the ceasefires.

“My life’s purpose had been to fight the fight [as my family had done] over the generations … and to [ultimately] realise it had all been for nothing.”

Certainty about the cause was replaced with questioning and disenchantment about the hollow political process . Yet people – in the case of Joe Lynskey, a close friend – had been ferried to their death. Bombs had been planted.

Three years after the interview, Dolours Price was found dead in her County Dublin home having taken an overdose of medication.

I, Dolours will be screened on Monday 13 August as part of Belfast Film Festival’s Pull Focus season of documentaries before going on general release across Northern Ireland on Friday 31 August.

Cross-posted from a blog post on Alan in Belfast.

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.