The best that can be said of Irish cinema today is that it certainly exists. Even with its
strata of ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ films, its commercial entertainments and its dark
dramas, Irish film at least now produces enough films for there to be such divisions in the first place.
– The identity of an Irish cinema by Dr. Harvey O’Brien
Brooklyn, John Crowley’s internationally celebrated Irish film from 2015, features a recognizable and common distinctive among Irish film- the relationship between a longing for a distinctive Irish culture and presence and the reality of it’s prolonged Diaspora. The tension between these two sometimes complimentary and often opposing cultural forces still exists today even as Ireland’s modern cinematic landscape has managed to grow a stronger sense of identity, with some animosity existing between the Irish and Irish-Americans/Canadians (for example) who like to claim they are Irish. As one writer put it, as this conflict grew, more and more it became an obvious struggle between empire on one side and capitalism on the other.
FAMINE AND THE DIASPORA
Ireland’s rocky cinematic history begins in the way most nations do, with the first Lumiere images making their way to the Country in the 1890’s. What is interesting about these images is that they reflected a brief period of optimism for a people people who had lived through the tragedy of the Potato Famine. These images would soon give way to violence and more despair.
And yet, these picturesque depictions of the early emergence of the moving image would become an important symbol for Irish cinema, the product of a small island and a modest population. Given how the Potato Famine had displaced its people to foreign territory, the struggle of early Irish cinema would set the tone for years to come, forcing Irish film to depict Ireland from a distance. As these stories evolved, they came to depict the immigrants story somewhere between a love and longing for the homeland and the promise of more prosperous conditions elsewhere. And while the Country continued to struggle on a socio-political level, what is clear today is how important Irish cinema would become to protecting and developing a true Irish heritage. As the Country went so did its cinematic presence, and it becomes clear looking back, and even looking at Ireland today, that where Ireland was able to establish a localized industry and film community, Country and people were also at their strongest.
WAR, CIVIL WAR, CULTURAL IDENTITY AND FURTHER DIASPORA
With World War 1 and the fight for independence just around the corner, Irish cinema would suffer the same fate as so many Countries around the world. As the war wreaked havoc on Countries and cultures and economies, the loss of cultural and national identity became a byproduct. As the war ended, cinema would go on to play a massive role in the reconstruction of this identity, and thus the Country, around the world, including in Ireland.
What makes Ireland’s story unique from places like Italy and France is that they would find themselves once again a decimated community being thrust into yet another war, this time the civil war for Independence. With the Country already struggling to reclaim its people, something that had plagued even the optimism of James Joyce opening Ireland’s first cinema in Dublin in the early 1900’s, those films coming largely from abroad and/or attracting foreign filmmakers to film in Ireland rather than developing Irish films and Directors. Even one of Ireland’s earliest and most popular films of the early silent era, The Lad From Old Ireland made by the newly established Kalem Film Company, was an example of a film that had more connection to abroad. And time would reveal that even though the Kalem Film Company was based in Ireland it had very little to do with Ireland or growing Irish identity itself (closing up shop in 1914).
THE FILM COMPANY OF IRELAND AND THE CONTINUED FIGHT FOR IDENTITY
The Film Company of Ireland (http://filmireland.net/2017/06/14/early-irish-cinema-a-new-industry-the-film-company-of-irelands-first-season/) attempted to change the narrative that had been set by the Diaspora and Ireland’s international sprawl, opening in 1915 and developing in the early post war era before facing immense struggle in the face of the civil war. The film Knocknagow, which released in 1918, is notable for its attempt to reestablish the Irish story and an Irish mythology. One note said that film was intentional in competing against the American film Birth of a Nation, apparently even outgrossing it. And while the company would not survive the civil war (their most successful film, Willy Reilly and His Colleen Bawn, coming right before its demise), it would pave the way for important policies and movements following their Independence.
Another one of the most recognizable aspects of Irish film is its relationship to Ireland’s Protestant-Catholic past and its relationship to National politics with the ongoing division of North and South. Of note is something called the “Censorship of Films Act” (https://www.tcd.ie/irishfilm/censor/), a policy which basically came to determine the character of truly Irish film according to “Catholicism and republicicicisim.” On the flip side, this would establish the means by which film could also push back on these things on an artistic, and therefore cultural level.
This policy was established in 1923, and it would connect later to the National Film Institute (https://ifi.ie/about/history/), an institution created by the marriage of Church and State to uphold Irish Catholic vision and values in film as part of their National identity. This comes in the face of the still ongoing struggle to separate Irish Identity from the dominating pressure of foreign and international presence, such as The Film Society of Ireland, an independent film company concerned with bringing international film to Ireland. What was clear in Ireland was that while Irish filmmakers abroad and international film efforts coming to Ireland to take advantage of their landscape did exist, in order to establish a National identity and culture they needed a way to define that story and that identity according to their own voice. Theater and literature had a strong presence in Irish culture, but the reach of cinema in the modern age proved most necessary to develop now, something that kept evading them even as Countries like Italy had seen a resurgence in cinema and the strengthening of their people and Nation. So while censorship is never a great thing, the one positive that did (and does) come out of it is the ability to develop a unifying ethos. The National Film Institute strengthened the relationship between the Irish people, the Government and the Film Industry, thus giving them a tangible place on which to begin defining what it means to be Irish.
It is out of this that Ardmore film studios would emerge, which as one article put it, “was the Irish Government’s first serious attempt to encourage the development of an Irish Film Industry, a modern studio facility in Co. Wicklow suitable for both national and international production. Ardmore was intended as a signal to the world that Irish cinema had a place on the international stage…”
FROM STRUGGLE TO IDENTITY- IRISH CINEMA EMERGES
As I continue to travel the world through cinema in 2020 I am continually shocked by just how big of an impact the emergence of television had on the global film industry. It is easy to assume that television was simply the latest incarnation of a constantly evolving industry (similar to how we view streaming), but that misses the context of how television impacted these Countries. What is often missed is the many shadows that so many of these Countries had to emerge from, particularly when it comes to wars both global and internal, and how vital the film industry was to rebuilding these Countries in times of great uncertainty. The truth about television is that it has never and does not play a similar role. In fact, in so many of these Countries it is had the opposite and adverse affect. Because of the nature of how television works it tends to decentralize rather than unify, blurring lines between art and its relationship to national identity. It simply does not contain the same impact and definable cultural force that film is able to have on the development and health of a Country.
At the same time, television has consistently placed immense pressure on the film industries around the world which have been so integral to protecting and building a Countries ethos and identity, and there is ample evidence to show that as the film industry goes, so does the Country in the modern age. This is at least in (no small) part due to the fact that one of the great shifts of the modern age is away from the kind of cultural touchpoints that used to bring people together (such as live theater). Cinema plays the role it does precisely because it has the ability to bring people together around these collective stories of identity and form in the way other artforms cannot. Films can hold national identity in one hand and establish that on international soil with the other.
So it was of no surprise to me then to discover that Ireland faced a similar narrative. As John Ford would release one of Ireland’s most defining films (A Quiet Man) in 1952, the rise of television would, as one writer put it, have “a disastrous affect on Irish Identity, combining with the decline of cinema.” And yet, the inspiration of the Irish cinematic story is one that makes my own Irish-Canadian heritage jealous. As we enter the 1970’s, we see a reinvigorating and hard nosed movement to not let cinema die and to breathe into it a new commitment to using it to shed light on the Irish people and identity. And while Irish Cinema today is a shadow of what, say, American Cinema represents in content and numbers, their conviction to the artform in the face of consistent outside pressures (like streaming) actually stands taller in its relevance. With the pride of cinema comes a pride of Irish heritage and a stronger and more unified Country, something doubly important in a land still divided. The Film Act of 1970 allowed Irish Film to expand and to grow (http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20120621-travelwise-the-evolution-of-irish-cinema), while the Irish government was one of the first and early adapters of a film tax initiative. The films that emerged from this became what is known as the Irish First Wave, demonstrating a fresh vision for art and Country.
“What all of these New Wave films have in common is their desire to challenge what had gone before them in cinematic terms. These films aggressively debunked stereotypical images of Ireland and Irish people on film and sought to challenge audiences to see Ireland in a different light.”
The future continued (and continues) to have its challenges of course, particularly in the eventual demise of The Irish Film Board in 1987 and the loss of that unifying voice. But the persistence of the Irish people resulted in films like My Left Foot (Jim Sheridan), The Crying Game (Neil Jordan), The Commitments (Alan Parker), all independent Irish products, paving the way for the rebirth of The Irish Film Board in 1993. Fast forward to today and you have an industry that, not unlike the earlier days of Italian cinema, has found a way to grow in genres, proving to leave quite a footprint in animation (Cartoon Saloon) and even in the likes of horror. But the most important undercurrent appears to be this-
“While big-budget international productions keep crews working and are enormously valuable to the country, it is the indigenous industry that is at the heart of creating opportunity and giving skills and experience to Irish producers, directors, writers and crew, telling the stories that emerge from Irish-based talent.”
As cinema goes, so does Irish identity. And like modern Ukraine, the stronger their identity the stronger Irish Cinema is becoming. It is proving that it doesn’t need to be America in order to succeed, boasting the highest rate of cinema admissions in Europe. It can, simply, be Ireland.
*For my Film Travels, here is the full list of Irish Films I have seen. It is a working and ranked list available on Letterboxd:
Barton, Ruth, Irish National Cinema (Routledge, 2004)
McIlroy, Brian, Shooting to Kill: Filmmaking and the Troubles in Northern Ireland
McLoone, Martin, Irish Film: The Emergence of a Contemporary Cinema (BFI, 2000)
The identity of an Irish cinema by Dr. Harvey O’Brien