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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Comhghairdeas le Michael D.

In case you hadn’t noticed, Ireland will be getting a new president next week. Personally for me, this means that, in all the years I have been visiting or living in Ireland (since 1992), this will be the first time that not only will the president not be someone who is female but will be someone who is not named Mary.

If people who follow American politics are finding the candidates running for the Republican presidential nomination a strange assortment, well, the group that was running for the Irish presidency may have been even odder. There was even someone in the race named Mary, and at first I naively assumed she was a shoo-in, based strictly on recent history. (I was wrong.) There was also a former Eurovision Song Contest winner, an entrepreneur/reality TV star, a flamboyant scholar/civil rights and gay activist, a former leader of the Irish Republican Army, and the dourest of conventional politicians, representing the current governing party. Happily, in the end, the best man for the job won.

He is Michael D. Higgins, the only one of the lot who can seriously point to accomplishments under his belt that have had positive implications for the country. (In fairness Martin McGuinness, the Sinn Féin candidate can, as one of the architects of the Northern Ireland peace process, also point to major accomplishments for the nation. But his days in the IRA and the blood he, directly or indirectly, has on his hands was always going to make his candidacy problematic.)

Michael D. (as he is universally and affectionately called) started out as an academic and a teacher, having earned a graduate degree in sociology. He lectured at University College Galway and was a visiting professor at Southern Illinois University. Then he went into politics as a member of the Labour Party. He is best known for having served about four years as the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht. He was the only candidate in the recent election who was actually fluent in the Irish language and is also a published author and poet.

Much of Michael D.’s appeal is his genuine warmth and kindly nature. His diminutive stature and elfin voice tend to make him the object of some good-natured ribbing. The brilliant parodists on Irish radio’s Nob Nation portrayed him as a Hobbit during the election campaign. An image of him, looking particularly elf-like, taken from his own campaign poster made the rounds on Twitter on top of the caption “Dobby love Harry Potter!”

Like a lot of people, I feel I nearly know the man because he is so approachable and sincerely friendly. He is a constant fixture at the annual Galway Film Fleadh, whether opening the festivities in an official capacity or just attending for the pure love of film. There have been times when I thought he was stalking me because, at every film I settled into, he seemed to be there too, just a few seats away. The first time I brought the Missus to the Fleadh and she spotted Michael D., she had to run up to him like a school girl and shake his hand, as if he was a rock star.

In the final, and ultimately decisive, television debate among the presidential candidates, Michael D. made a compelling argument about how he had helped the Irish economy in the past and could help it as president. At that point, the polls showed public opinion slipping away from Michael D. as the frontrunner to Seán Gallagher (the entrepreneur), who made the argument that, as someone who understood business, he could help draw investment into Ireland. But Michael D. was able to point out that he had already brought “thousands” of jobs into the county as culture minister. During that time he re-established the Irish Film Board and actively lobbied foreign studios to film in Ireland. One of his most memorable coups was getting actor/director Mel Gibson (whose great-grandfather emigrated from County Mayo) to switch location filming of the seminal Scottish story Braveheart from Scotland to Ireland.

To be honest, I don’t know how good Michael D.’s leftist philosophy would actually be for the country if he were running the government instead of serving in the largely ceremonial post of president. And I’m not sure he has ever been interested in being charge of the whole government and the economy. He seems to have been content to be the country’s conscience rather than its boss. But as his stint as culture minister showed, he had no problem creating favorable conditions for private industry so that people could be put to work.

Congratulations and God speed, Michael D. There is absolutely nothing wrong with women named Mary (certainly not in Ireland), but it’s grand to have someone in Áras an Uachtaráin who is both a man of the West and a film buff.

A Fairy Tale

One of the pleasures of having a movie web site is that occasionally filmmakers go out of their way to make their films available to me and I get to see something I otherwise wouldn’t have. The latest such example is this 10-minute short written and directed by and starring Steven Tylor O’Connor.

Aimed at a gay audience (it’s been making the rounds at numerous gay-themed festivals around the U.S. and even in Brazil), the film focuses on what is clearly a traumatic night in the life of many teens and often poses particular feelings of alienation for gay teens: prom night. The conceit is that these particular teens are characters we know from fairy tales—or at least have the same names and similar histories. It’s a one-joke premise that just about fills the brief running time.

The star turn goes to the fairy godmother, played one fabulous Sherry Vine, the alter ego of Keith Levy. In the Cinderella role, the director is a likeable, sympathetic presence. He gets off one particularly good line when he is sent into a closet.

Mostly what first films from young directors tell us is whether there is promise of bigger and better things down the road. There is promise here all right, but we will need to see something even more ambitious (and probably costing a bit more money) to judge exactly how much. Hopefully, we will get the chance.

-S.L., 3 November 2011

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