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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

All quiet on the western fleadh

We are more than a couple of days into this year’s Galway Film Fleadh. As of this writing, I have managed to see six films in the course of a 26-hour period. At some point, I will even post my reviews of all of these movies plus the ones I will see over the next few days.

The first six movies were a good representation of what one goes to a film festival for. I got to see an arty French flick (Pascal Alex-Vicent’s Give Me Your Hand), a Hollywood classic (Howard Hawks’s To Have and Have Not), a more recent archival offering (István Szabó’s Being Julia), a twisty Hungarian thriller (Krisztina Goda’s Chameleon), a creepy, horrifying Irish-language tale that seems to be a Gaelic Twin Peaks (Robert Quinn’s Na Cloigne) and a primo documentary concert film (Murray Lerner’s Leonard Cohen: Live at the Isle of Wight 1970). You can’t start off any stronger than that.

Being Julia did double duty as part of a tribute to screenwriter Ronald Harwood (The Pianist, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) and to American actor Annette Bening. Bening was meant to be the subject of the traditional Sunday afternoon public interview, but for the proverbial unforeseeable personal reasons, she won’t be there. Instead, Brendan Gleeson will get the grilling, and I for one will be pleased to see one of Ireland’s greatest actors get a chance to explain himself.

Since the vast majority of my readers appear to be outside of Ireland, the question may occur, what exactly is a fleadh anyway? And how do you pronounce it?

The obvious inference is the right one. Fleadh is an Irish (Gaelic) word for festival. Almost always one sees it wedded to the word for music (Fleadh Cheoil) to denote a music festival, usually referring specifically to a series of traditional music competitions organized by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. The use of the word fleadh instead of festival in the name of the annual Galway film event clearly indicates the emphasis on homegrown Irish works as well as County Galway being home to a prominent section of the Gaeltacht, i.e. parts of Ireland where Irish is considered the predominant language.

As for how the word is pronounced, well, I am a bit hesitant to get into that after my experience in having a bit of fun with the pronunciation of the name of the French city Cannes. Not only has that topic continued to be one that has drawn the most email but the words “pronounce” and “Cannes” are consistently at the top of the key words that cause search engines to find this web site. Being a non-speaker of the Irish language and, to all intents and purposes, a non-student of it, I can only offer what the word sounds like to my inadequate ears. And that sound, to me, is like a Boston native saying the word “flaw.” There, now let linguists and Irish speakers descend on me en masse. Anyway, there is something about the word fleadh that always compels me to twist it into the most egregious of puns in titles, and for that I apologize to the entire Celtic world.

My ignorance of Irish is a bit embarrassing because I am the kind of person who relishes the chance to learn a new language. Not only did I have a double major in French and Spanish at university, taking linguistics courses along the way, but I spent one full year of my life in France and another in Chile. And to this day, I find I have retained a surprising degree of comfort in understanding and speaking both French and Spanish. But any kind of working knowledge of Irish has eluded me, despite the fact that I have enjoyed one the key assets—according to the older woman who gave me my first French lesson when I was a teenager—necessary to learn any foreign language. Over a glass of wine, that woman told me that the absolute best way to learn French (and presumably by extension any other language) was to take a lover who is a native speaker of that language. Well, I have been sleeping with an Irish woman for more than 15 years now, and it hasn’t helped. Of course, that might be because, as she would be the first to concede, she is much more of an English speaker than an Irish speaker.

Most Irish people know a fair few words and phrases in Irish for the same reason that most Californians know a fair few words in Spanish. They are required to take it in school and they see it on sign and in notices everywhere they go. But the reason I personally know Spanish and not Irish is that I knew there is a whole world out of there of people who can only be talked to in Spanish. Not only were there friends and neighbors in California who spoke only Spanish, there were many countries in the western hemisphere plus Spain, where Castilian Spanish was the main way to communicate. With Irish, on the other hand, the prospect of me ever meeting someone who speaks Irish but not English seems extremely remote. Still, I have hopes that someday I will make time to delve into the language past understanding merely the most common phrases on the front of pubs or the official titles in public use (Taoiseach for prime minister, Tánaiste for vice prime minister) or saying “Sláinte!” when quaffing a Guinness or knowing that I’ve been insulted when someone says, “Póg mo thóin!” (Kiss it yourself, smart guy.)

Anyway, all this musing about Irish and, in particular, the word fleadh comes to mind because I think I should be forgiven if, after all these years, I had come to the conclusion that fleadh should actually translate as “front,” as in weather front. Without fail, it seems as though a major front comes roiling off the Atlantic every July to coincide with the Galway Film Fleadh. No matter how warm, sunny or pleasant (or more likely not) the Irish summer has been up to that point, rain seems to descend just as the film festival is getting underway. In one way, this is good because it makes people like me feel less guilty about spending nearly a week indoors instead of outside soaking up all-too-rare nice weather. In another way, however, this is bad because I tend to get soaking wet trying to get from one venue to another. In the end, it is all part of the experience. And this year has been no different. For days leading up to the opening night, I watched as the crack Met Éireann weather team displayed their charts each evening tracking a big blue swirl making its way from the mid-Atlantic toward this island.

In the end, the rain hasn’t been as bad as some previous years. I’ve managed to avoid most of the really heavy downpours, although I did worry at one point, as I watched the Connemara-set Na Cloigne, that the Cinemobile might get washed down the road in a flash flood.

As we used to say about summer back in Seattle, well, at least the rain’s warmer.

-S.L., 8 July 2010

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