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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Will the real Ireland please stand up?

Last time I made reference to the fact that a lot of Irish people aren’t particularly happy about the way the Irish have typically been portrayed in popular feature films. This is at least partly due to the fact that until relatively recently Ireland did not have an major indigenous film industry. Films about Ireland and the Irish were mainly made by people from outside Ireland, in most cases by Britons and Americans.

Interestingly, one (classic) film that is often cited by the Irish as being the most stereotypical is one that is extremely beloved by Irish-Americans: 1952’s The Quiet Man. Indeed, this film was a labor of love by a whole bunch of Irish-Americans. It was directed by American-born John Ford, whose birth name was Sean Aloysius O’Fearna. Its Hollywood stars were John Wayne (born in America as Marion Michael Morrison) and Maureen O’Hara (born in Ireland as Maureen FitzSimmons). These children of the Irish Diaspora made a sentimental journey to the west of Ireland to film the movie, mainly in and around the village of Cong, County Mayo, which to this day draws in American tourists by celebrating is role in cinematic history. It is strangely appropriate that this movie should divide the feelings of people who never left Ireland and those that emigrated. The story it tells is of an emigrant (Wayne) who returns to Ireland and the conflicts that ensue. (A personal note: Wayne’s character in the film is called Sean Thornton. The Missus was born and grew up just a few miles from Cong. And the first Irish wedding celebration I attended was for her cousin, whose name is—guess what—Sean Thornton!)

The Quiet Man points up nicely the tensions between the Irish and “the Yanks” as they are wont to call their American cousins. Irish-Americans tend to feel very sentimental about Ireland, and they feel a strong connection to the place, even if they have never actually been there of if they have been there only for a few brief visits. The “real” Irish have a tendency to mock the Yanks’ sentimentalism. But they are no less hospitable or friendly because of this and, as the shops in Cong demonstrate, many are not above cashing in on the phenomenon. But there is always the lightly suppressed resentment at being seen as quaint by the visitors. In his public interview at the recent Galway Film Fleadh, actor Colm Meaney, himself an emigrant, first to Britain and then to America, echoed this complaint. He allowed, however, that at least the Americans “celebrate your Irishness” while the Brits “sneer at it.”

Okay, so now that the Irish are making more films about themselves, what are their portrayals like?

If the new feature films screened at the Galway Film Fleadh are any indication, one thing hasn’t changed. Many of the lead roles in movies about Ireland are still played by people who are not Irish. Why? Ireland certainly doesn’t have a lack of acting talent. The reason is that Ireland is a relatively small box office market, and financiers like to see movies have one or more familiar names at the top of the cast so that it will have appeal in large markets like North America and the United Kingdom, as well as around the world. And, while there are internationally known Irish actors like Liam Neeson and Gabriel Byrne, a lot of financiers and producers for one reason or another like to see well-known Hollywood names, which usually means American (or sometimes British) actors.

So the Dublin-set On the Nose stars Dan Aykroyd, Robbie Coltrane and Brenda Blethyn. Strangely, the similarly named On the Edge, which is also set in the Dublin area, stars a Cork actor as well as one from Belfast and two from the United States. Director John Carney said he was under pressure to cast Americans but knew from the beginning that he wanted Cillian Murphy in the lead and, after going through the motions of auditioning some Yanks, he succeeded in casting his true choice. Ironically, the Belfast actor (Stephen Rea, star of The Crying Game) is probably better known to most audiences than the two young American actors, Tricia Vessey and Jonathon Jackson. And then, sometimes the best person for an Irish role just doesn’t happen to be Irish. At least that’s the explanation Dudi Appleton gave for casting Englishman Kris Marshall in the title role of The Most Fertile Man in Ireland. (Don’t want to touch that one politically.)

Another new feature, The Crooked Mile points up another irony. Movie companies have often filmed in Ireland, even if their film wasn’t set in Ireland, because of incentives provided by the Irish government. In the past few years, we have actually seen Irish movies, set in Ireland, filmed elsewhere to save money, e.g. Waking Ned Devine, filmed on the Isle of Man. The Crooked Mile follows this trend. It was filmed on Jersey.

Interestingly, the other new Irish features seen at the fleadh, which do boast Irish talent in the main roles and which were filmed on Irish soil (H3 and Silent Grace) both happened to be on the exact same subject: the IRA hunger strike of 1980-81. So, is this what it comes down to then? When the Irish are left completely to their own cinematic devices, this is the story they keep wanting to tell over and over and over? No offense to the memory of Bobby Sands and his comrades, but given the prospect of reliving Northern Ireland’s Troubles ad infinitum, seeing the The Quiet Man a few more times doesn’t seem so bad.

-S.L., 26 July 2001

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