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More Than a Touch of the Blarney in Irish Films

HARTFORD COURANT

The English should give Ireland home rule--and reserve the motion picture rights.

--Will Rogers

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With the arrival of “Angela’s Ashes” at the cineplex, America’s obsession with all things Irish continues unabated. (The film adaptation of Frank McCourt’s best-selling memoir opened in Los Angeles and New York in time to qualify for Oscars; it opens nationwide in January.)

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But if Yanks can’t get enough of Celtic culture--stories, music, films, literature and Guinness--Americans’ appreciation of the Irish experience remains governed by stereotypes as persistent as the Limerick rain.

Nowhere are these images more prevailing or indelible than in the medium of film. Think Ireland on the screen and you inevitably see the familiar stock types: the drunk; the priest; the political martyr; the long-suffering wife, mother or sister; and the mystic in whose eyes the past and the present are inexorably entwined.

If Irish stereotypes have evolved in cinema, the gradations are subtle, and the depictions emerging are not necessarily more flattering than what has gone before. Although other ethnic groups have protested their treatment at the hands of Hollywood, the Irish have been silent, and in many instances, Irish filmmakers and writers do as much as anyone to perpetuate the stereotypes.

Numerous films containing versions of the classic Celtic types have been written or directed by Irishmen from McCourt to playwright Brian Friel (“Dancing at Lughnasa”), and Irish Americans such as Ed Burns, whose films about Irish American families (including “The Brothers McMullen”) proudly boast his heritage between swigs of stout.

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The Drunk

We all know that God invented liquor to keep the Irish from ruling the world.

--John Patterson, “The Ghost

and the Darkness” (1996)

A spate of Irish-centric films has produced images of the agreeably tipsy, Guinness-guzzling Irishman. From last year’s sleeper “Waking Ned Devine” to Burns’ 1995 comedy, “The Brothers McMullen,” and David Lean’s 1970 romantic drama, “Ryan’s Daughter,” the drunk is a most familiar type.

In “Angela’s Ashes,” McCourt and director Alan Parker risk a greater degree of honesty, giving viewers one of the most vivid and unsparing portraits yet of the Irish alcoholic. Robert Carlyle’s Dad is a man so desperate for “the drink” that he spends money sent by relatives intended for his new baby.

Parker deserves credit for refusing to romanticize alcoholism and the poverty and squalor endured by the McCourt family, and this faithful treatment of Frank McCourt’s text is the film’s most remarkable aspect.

The Mater Dolorosa

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Don’t look for a happy ending. It’s not an American story. It’s an Irish one.

--Rory in “The Devil’s Own” (1997)

Ireland’s sad mother, etched in countless films, comes to full and heartbreaking expression in Parker’s film. Emily Watson’s Angela is the weary mam to seven children, only four of whom survive.

She is the hollowed out, grief-stricken martyr at the center of McCourt’s memoir: a woman who plainly loves her husband in spite of his failings and who manages the best she can for the sake of her children. Angela refuses sex to prevent another pregnancy, shrugging off her husband’s threats of what waits her in the hereafter.

She wishes she could take a factory job to support her family but is constrained by circumstances that keep her home with her brood. To put food on the table and keep coal in the fireplace, Angela does the begging and scavenging to which her proud husband refuses to stoop.

The Political Martyr

He and his father, they’re all alike with their Irish temper. They lose control and next thing you know you have a murder.

--TV’s “Law & Order” (1990)

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Ireland’s dangerous men are most often its political rebels and heroes, and if their image has changed over time, it has not always been for the better.

James Cagney’s brutal IRA man in 1959’s “Shake Hands With the Devil” and Barry Foster’s coldblooded but pragmatic Tim O’Leary in “Ryan’s Daughter” have been slightly outmoded by contemporary versions of activists who sport unconvincing politically correct nobility and better wardrobes.

In Neil Jordan’s 1996 drama, “Michael Collins,” the filmmakers chose to correct and canonize the snappily dressed rebel leader.

But as Joseph Roquemore notes in the new book “History Goes to the Movies,” “All of Jordan’s English and pro-union Irish are genocidal totalitarians [the prevailing fashion in today’s Hollywood]. And [Liam] Neeson’s sanitized Collins is an idealistic, politically naive, reluctant killer manipulated by [Eamon] de Valera. . . . In fact, Collins was politically shrewd, had few qualms about murdering his enemies and suffered no manipulation. . . .”

The Mystic

The powers of the Irish mystic are part and parcel of Ireland’s literary heritage, and the film medium is most aptly suited to conveying the Joycean stream-of-consciousness thought that merges past and present.

In films like John Huston’s “The Dead,” adapted from James Joyce’s classic short story, and John Sayles’ “The Secrets of Roan Inish,” and “This Is My Father,” the secrets of the past compel and catalyze the actions of the present.

The Land

Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow.

--James Joyce, “A Portrait

of the Artist as a Young Man.”

There are two Irelands represented in film. The idealized version is the rugged beauty captured so magnificently in David Lean’s “Ryan’s Daughter” (for which cinematographer Freddie Young won an Oscar), Stanley Kubrick’s sumptuous “Barry Lyndon” and Sayles’ more simply pastoral “Roan Inish.”

This is the natural heaven, the dramatic seacoast setting suitable for, as the priest in “Ryan’s Daughter” mumbles, the Almighty to make an entrance between the clouds.

Then there is the hardscrabble or industrial Ireland unforgettably evidenced in the rock-strewn land in “The Field,” the streets of Limerick row houses in “Angela’s Ashes” (where sewage is dumped into the streets) and the meager existence subtly set out in Pat O’Connor’s 1998 screen adaptation of Friel’s play “Dancing at Lughnasa.”

Ironically, it may be the stereotypical images of Ireland that partly inspire Americans’ prevailing fascination. In our spiritually challenged, over-commercialized lives, films about Ireland evoke a bygone simplicity, spirituality and connectedness.

Irish films almost consistently demonstrate the primacy and value of rural and family life, of community and cause, and of remembering the past because of the way it informs the present and the future.

And that, ultimately, may be what draws us. We insist on a vision of Ireland that is comforting and familiar. The Ireland on our theater screens calls to mind a set of values that many Americans feel we have lost.


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