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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Ireland through its own lens

The ending of the film Veronica Guerin isn’t exactly what you would call funny. In fact, it is sad, moving and poignant. Still the Missus, her brother Joseph and I all had a similar wry chuckle out of it anyway.

The film points out accurately that Guerin’s reporting and subsequent death had a galvanizing effect on Irish society, unleashing a will that was previously lacking, to tackle the problems of drugs and organized crime that had blighted many lives. But the film less accurately gives the impression that these problems have largely been solved. Such a notion has caused many a sad, wry smile on the faces of people living in Ireland today. Hardly a week goes by without a report on one or more gang-related murder in Dublin or casualties among feuding crime families in Limerick. Fairly or not, many people in Ireland regard Dublin as a dangerous city and fear to walk its streets.

The fact that Veronica Guerin painted a more optimistic picture than reality would seem to warrant has to do with the fact that it is essentially a Hollywood movie, directed by Joel Schumacher and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. As such, it was merely following the Hollywood convention of the uplifting ending. Despite this, however, the film has struck a resounding chord with Irish viewers. People have been flocking to screens to see it, and many can be heard, as they walk out of the auditorium, telling a companion where they were or what they were doing when Guerin was gunned down in 1996. Indeed, this movie has touched the Irish consciousness like no film since Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins, which coincidentally was released around the time of Guerin’s murder.

As it happens, Veronica Guerin and Michael Collins share a number of similarities. Both are about real-life Irish people who took on violent forces and who wound up in the end being gunned down. (A major difference is that Guerin was a writer, while Collins was a soldier.) It’s probably not a coincidence that both films should have had a major emotional effect on the Irish people. Martyrdom is a powerful force in virtually all nations, and Catholic Ireland is certainly no exception. Guerin’s story, however, is very familiar to modern Irish audiences because practically everyone can remember following it in the news. Collins’s story lies farther back in history and it is not as black and white for everyone as Guerin’s. Collins was part of a civil war that still divides some hearts and minds on the Emerald Isle. But Jordan’s film had a resounding effect in that it more or less resurrected a story that had been de-emphasized in, if not completely eliminated from, the official history of 20th century Ireland.

Some Irish friends told me that seeing Michael Collins made them “proud to be Irish.” I wasn’t quite sure why this should be so, since to this foreigner’s eyes anyway, it seemed to show the Irish to be better at fighting each other than negotiating with the occupying force that they had humbled with their guerilla war. But so be it. The film did show Collins, portrayed nobly by Liam Neeson, to be a national hero with remembering and honoring. Schumacher’s film does the same for Guerin.

If Veronica Guerin, which was previewed at the recent Galway Film Fleadh, updated us on how the cinema is viewing Ireland these days, what do other Irish films seen at the flead tell us? Well, the biggest generalization we can make from this admittedly small selection of movies is that Irish film has definitely moved from the country to the city. It seems as though in the old days, Irish movies took place in the quaint countryside. John Wayne married Maureen O’Hara in the remotest reaches of the west in The Quiet Man and Rosy Ryan had an affair with an English soldier in the extreme southwest in Ryan’s Daughter. But at some point, which I pin on The Commitments, filmgoers found themselves taken by Dubliners. The quaint rural and small-town Irish can still be seen from time to time in films like Waking Ned Devine (which was actually filmed on the Isle of Man), but most Irish filmmakers seem to be setting their stories in the capital city. To some extent, this seems to be because they want to tell urban stories, as many of their filmmaking idols in America and other places do. Also, I think this is due to the fact that Dubliners provide some very compelling characters, just as New Yorkers do for American audiences.

The most extreme example of this was the antic comedy Spin the Bottle, which was so Dublin-oriented that many beyond-the-Pale Irish people might not get all the references, let alone viewers in other countries. The films Goldfish Memory and Intermission each told interweaving stories about a variety of Dubliners, many of them in love with one another. Goldfish Memory took a lighthearted approach, making its Dublin of trendy restaurants and cafés seem light years away from the dangerous city seen in Veronica Guerin. Intermission, while also a comedy, was darker and not as far removed from Schumacher’s film. In fact Colin Farrell, who appeared in both movies, could easily have been playing the same lowlife character in each. The Honeymooners started out in Dublin but spent most of its screen time in Donegal. But the film maintained a definite Dublin point of view. Seen through the eyes of its two main protagonists, the provincials were a strange and sometimes menacing lot indeed. This minor movie may well represent the definitive shift of Irish cinema from a rural sensibility to an urban one.

The other new Irish feature I caught was Conspiracy of Silence. It was not set in Dublin but inevitably wound up there anyway. Its story of nefarious doings among the hierarchy of Ireland’s Catholic Church definitely echoed discussions going on in the media everywhere, not the least in Ireland. The film’s plot winds up being tied neatly together during a TV chat show hosted by real-life former TV chat show host Gay Byrne, who in Irish media history has a position roughly akin to that of Johnny Carson crossed with Ed Sullivan and Arthur Godfrey in America.

That is another trend in Irish movies. More and more TV personalities seem willing to play themselves, as Gaybo did in Conspiracy of Silence. RTÉ personalities have shown up in such comedies as When Brendan Met Trudy and The Actors. In particular, radio and TV host Gerry Ryan and journalist Miriam O’Callahan played themselves to hilarious effect in Spin the Bottle. This shows them to be good sports, but it looks a little shallow compared to the story of journalist Veronica Guerin who, as her biopic showed so well, eschewed the elitist and clubby world of other Dublin journalists, thereby incurring their snobbish disdain.

The trend of Irish journalists playing themselves in movies, along with the creation of Ireland’s own reality TV show (Cabin Fever, where viewers vote on which member of boat’s crew gets to walk the plank each week), shows that the Irish are rapidly catching up to the Americans and the Brits in terms of blurring not only the line between news and entertainment but also between entertainment and pointless voyeurism.

-S.L., 24 July 2003

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