Happy St. Patricks Day: A Reflection on Irish Film History and My Favorite Irish Films

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 often lay claim to the idea of Irish heritage. 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.

From famine to war, to civil war to division, from the never ending diaspora and political unrest, we can follow Irelands cinematic story from the arrival of the first Lumiere images, which captured in their way a rare and brief glimpse of optimism and peace, to the present day struggles for national identity, preservation of history and culture and the undying spirit of romanticism and song, Irelands cinematic history holds in its hands the story of a unique people, an influential and important history, and a universal spiritual longing. These early 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.

As John Ford would release one of Ireland’s most defining films (The 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 leaves my own Irish-Canadian heritage jealous. As we enter the 1970’s we see a reinvigorated and hard nosed commitment to not let cinema die, and a desire to breathe into it a fresh 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 art form in the face of consistent outside pressures, streaming, and international imports 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, 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.”

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. 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.

My top 10 Favorite Irish films:

Honorable Mentions: The Secret Scripture (the story of a woman caught in a world dominated by the men and held hostage by both power and institution. It is a period piece and part mystery, and something of a slow burn with beautiful cinematography and memorable characters); Here Before (another slow burn mystery about the mother-daughter bond, this time with notes of horror); Sing Street (an addictive and entertaining coming of age musical and love story from the writers of Once and Begin Again); The Commitments (soul music, the slums of Dublin, this gets into the nitty gritty of what makes the place, once upon a time, tick)

(Ranked in decending order)

The Secret of Roan Irish
The films folktale nature captures the spirit of Irish storytelling with its mix of history, myth and the relationship between humanity and creation. It’s rare to encounter family films such as this, which is told in the old ways of lore and esteemed in mystery meant to illuminate the hopeful light. This is where the unexpected can break into our reality.

The Breadwinner
Honest, raw and deeply revealing, this is the kind of animated film that can draw together young and old with its mix of memorable characters, its emphasis on real world history and conflict, and its willingness to find beauty in the dark places without glossing over the tough stuff of life, particularly a story like this that sheds light on particular cultural hardship.

Song of the Sea
A powerful exploration of the spaces in which grief and sorrow form necessary parts of our lives and how we often work to cover up these necessary emotions. Even more so about how these things play into the life of a child and a childlike perspective. Here Irish Tradition meets experience as a modern reflection on timeless Irish symbolism and culture given a universal application.

Wild Mountain Thyme
One of a handful of films here that immerse you not just in the folklore but in the countryside itself. Culture and spirit shine here in this charming and emotional Irish love tale, bringing together a rich art of storytelling, romanticism, metaphor, song, and poetry.

The Secret of Kells
As the film suggests, “everything in this life is mist.” The mist is a metaphor for what clouds the truth of ourselves and this world, and it is this darkness that allows the light to illuminate the necessary knowledge. I have often considered this first and foremost a Christmas film with its reigning image of the coming light that brings hope to the world and the promise of God with us, and it fleshes this out in such an amazing way through the relationship between adult and child.

There is a pivotal scene in this film where a simple conversation affords us a break in the brutality of it all. It is a scene that offers us a chance to ponder all that has happened up to this point, and to be sure it is one of the greatest cinematic moments in history. Dealing with questions of freedom, faith, oppression it ponders where the line between dying and living, suicide or willful survival, gets drawn and how these things create opposition within ourselves. It uses this to draw out, in the larger context of the film, the two polarizing sides within Irish history. It’s a tough watch but oh so rewarding.

“Forgiveness is underrated”. Whether one chooses to qualify this as a faith based film, it is simply undeniable that it is one of the most powerful “films” ever made. As the film suggests, the only darkness greater than our refusal or inability to forgive one another is our inability to receive forgiveness and to forgive ourselves.

Up for an Academy Award this year Belfast is one of the most vibrant and expressive (and lovely and humorous) explorations of Irish history, culture and people put to film. It is not only visually creative with its mix of black and white and color, panning shots, and intimate captures, it is deeply personal. This is, much like Brooklyn, a film that faces the conflict of the Diaspora head on, and in doing so becomes a genuine love letter to Ireland itself.

One of my all time favorite animated films Wolfwalkers walks us through the history of colonization while recovering an ancient, Irish spirituality that still exists and persists underneath the christianization. It’s easy to see how the two can come together as a uniquely Irish identity and language, and the film attempts to imagine this ancient character coming alive in the present day in a revitalized Irish landscape. Stunning, rich, and beautiful.

This film continues to hold a special place for me. It’s a coming of age drama that explores the nature of change and transition. As it follows a young woman moving from Ireland to Brooklyn it also becomes about how it is that we are shaped by the idea of home. Home is something she both leaves behind and also remakes, which becomes an allegory for both her life and the love story that frames the journey of longing for that which we have romanticized either in our imagining of the new or the cherishing of the old. No matter where we find ourselves within this push and pull though the truth remains that home is the places and people that we invest in and build together.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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