by Harlan Kennedy



Ireland for the Irish!" The cry has echoed across the land for 800 years, and for most of this century it has reechoed on the cinema screen. But just whom, in the country's ceaseless struggle for political and spir­itual selfhood, does Ireland belong to? And which Ireland are we talking about? North/South? Present/past? Real/mythical?

Ask the average moviegoer to free­-associate about Ireland and the tape of memory/archetype would yield a semi­-coherent printout: leprechauns, terrorists, Maureen O'Hara, mackerel skies, shamrocks, Darby O'Gill, John Ford, Black and Tans, curly-smoked thatched cottages. This Ireland is not so much a country as some auctioneer's dream from the Great Iconographic Unconscious – a pixillated, trouble-wracked land not only politically and culturally but also in its artistic identity. It remains so, despite the fact that honest-to-God Irish filmmakers have begun to be heard from in recent times, and the schematic has been enlarged to encompass Stephen Rea, Gabriel Byrne, Brenda Fricker, the Commitments and the Snapper, and various tortured/exultant faces of Daniel Day-Lewis.

Is Ireland a land at all, in the sense of a self-determining country and culture, or is it a product of everyone else's per­ceptions? And if "Ireland" is misty, what can we make out when we attempt to sight Irish cinema? Neil (The Crying Game) Jordan, Jim (My Left Foot, The Field, In the Name of the Father) Sheridan, Pat (Cal, Fools of Fortune) O'Con­nor ...and who else? Hollywood has embraced the foregoing artists, even waved an Oscar or six at their most suc­cessful, breakout films. But on the whole Irish cinema remains, with heart­breaking economic inevitability, a cot­tage industry, its heroes and heroines unsung.

Yet movies about Ireland – wherever and by whomever made – are one of cin­ema's richest seams. It secretes the emerald-green romanticism of The Quiet Man and Ryan's Daughter, the agitprop expressionism of The Informer and Odd Man Out, the dying-fall beauties of John Huston's The Dead. "Irish cinema" accommodates the almost Irish (Sean O'Feeney that was), the distantly Irish (Ron Howard), the fancifully Irish (Hus­ton), the propagandistically Irish (Ken Loach), and all those filmmakers who have wrestled from outside Ireland with the dozen different Irelands of movie tradition.

The wildly capricious resonance of "Ireland for the Irish" has its roots in political history. Centuries of resented British occupation ended notionally in 1921 with a partition treaty dividing Eire from Ulster. Ireland's Protestant-domi­nated North-Eastern corner then bowed alone to the British Parliament while largely Catholic Eire (four-fifths of the landmass) sat back to enjoy self-govern­ment and renounce further territorial claims. Or so went the theory. In point of fact, Eire's less enchanted citizens, the Irish Republic Army, continued and continue to hack at Britain's remaining handhold on the island; Britain main­tains 20,000 troops in Ulster; that prov­ince's own heavies, the Ulster Defence Regiment (legal) and Ulster Freedom Fighters (illegal), try to match the IRA in violence; bombings, shootings, torchings make the international news.

Is this a political feud or a religious one? A fight about territory and tempo­ral advantage, or a playoff between the ancestral sanctity of Catholicism – ah! the keening music of eternity in the voices of Monsignor Cecil Kellaway and Father Barry Fitzgerald – and the ances­tral opportunism of British Protestant­ism, born out of Henry VIII's short marital attention span?

No one can be surprised, then, if each subgenre of cinema about Ireland has its own built-in weather system of paradoxes. Romantic movies from The Quiet Man to Far and Away hint at a never-never Golden Age, a time of sim­ple pastoral integrity, Church-blessed community spirit, heroic faith in the Irish Struggle. Yet these films' views of "Irishness" – in the picturebook villages and faery folklore, in the gnarled quaint­ness of characters played by Fitzgerald/John Mills/Cyril Cusack – can seem no less patronizing and oppressive than the collar-and-lead colonialism long exercised by Britain. Stepan O'Fetchit, step forth.

At the other extreme, modern-dress movies like Tony Luraschi's The Out­sider, Mike Hodges' A Prayer for the Dying, and Ken Loach's Hidden Agenda purport to present a real, contemporary Ireland while effectively reducing it to a traffic snarl-up of faceless ideologues wielding guns, balaclavas, and gritty one-liners.

Colonialism is not just a matter of alien army-boots stomping across the natives' frontyards. There is annexation by art and thought, foreign rule by the presumption of other people's fiction and faction. The best Irish film of mod­ern times, Neil Jordan's The Crying Game, found something to say about the country by leaving it in the second reel. Jordan took his Irish hero (Stephen Rea) to London, where both the crudely magnified "certainties" of the Irish Struggle and the garishly incongruous romanticism of the Irish landscape (IRA hideout as Celtic Sherwood Forest) dis­solved and re-formed in a caustic city of nondenominational discontent and psy­chosexual quest.

Jordan's film suggests that Ireland became a two-headed myth so strong – a land twinning picturebook atavism with newsreel shockwaves – that only by flee­ing both can one survive to look back anew. Even then, success isn't assured, or disengaged objectivity guaranteed. The two-headed beast – seductive anima Miranda Richardson, brute ani­mus Adrian Dunbar – pursues the hero all the way to Spitalfields for a grisly showdown. In the same way, the Irish struggle spills over from Belfast into mainland British lives, putting a bomb under all our comfortable prejudices and arm’s-length perspectives.

Yet however adversarial they seem, the Ireland of the Gibraltar killings, of the Enniskillen massacre, of Hidden Agenda is profoundly, if perversely, symbiotic with the Ireland of John Ford and Ron Howard. If idyll and ideology are opposites, they are magnetic, coexistent ones. Ford himself knew this intuitively. The Quiet Man and The Informer are flipsides of the same record. The Informer ('35) has an antihero, Victor McLaglen's Gypo Nolan, whose dismissal from the IRA leads, through a combination of socio-economic desperation and dimwittedness, to his informing on a best friend wanted for political murder. Set in 1921 before partition, the movie creates a metaphor for political turmoil out of the fog rolling through Ford's studio-wrought Dublin; the clear-aired rural Ireland of The Quiet Man is present by its absence. The Informer's tortured neg­atives – no color, no sky, no love story, no pastoral images, no family life – could be used to print all the positives found in the later film.

The Quiet Man ('52), in turn, is an idyll defined and made piquant by the opposites that threaten it. The "Troubles" crowd sardonically round the film's edges. We're told that the odd chap in jodhpurs, beret, and Hitler Youth-style getup belongs to the IRA; John Wayne's elfin pal Barry Fitzgerald serenades a "nice soft night" by saying, "I think I'll go and join me friends and talk a little treason"; and Victor McLaglen's land-hungry squire clearly suggests a member of the Anglo-Irish "Ascendancy" (McLaglen himself was English-born) eternally at odds with the natives.

Though The Quiet Man also has the standard stage-Irish trimmings – thatched cottages, tippling locals, feisty red-haired heroine (Maureen O'Hara) – Ford is not uncritical of them. Part of his film's argument is that this "Oirish" vision derives from an outsider American's viewpoint – not just the title character's but, by implication, Ford's own as director. "Only an American would have thought of emerald green!" coos the Protestant vicar's wife sarcastically on sighting Wayne's newly painted woodwork. And when O'Hara comes upon Wayne planting flowers, she spoofs his impractical romanticism: "Roses? Fine farmer you are. Not a cabbage or a potato .... "

A darker, more confrontational tradi­tion in outlanders' Irish cinema spun off from Ford's selfconsciously Expressionist The Informer: Carol Reed's Odd Man Out ('47), Basil Dearden's The Gentle Gunman ('52, with John Mills as a tor­mented IRA defector), and Tay Garnett's A Terrible Beauty, aka The Night Fighters ('60, with Robert Mitchum as ditto). This subgenre pays lip service to the angular verismo of newsreel "truth" while creating a cinema arguably more artificial than the slow-rolling pastoralism of Quiet Man or Ryan's Daughter, or even of remoter costume pieces like Barry Lyndon and Far and Away.

Odd Man Out, which in cinema about Ireland has become a classic almost as impregnable as The Informer, focuses still further the conundrums of myth vs. reality. We could ask what is the difference between an American (Ford in The Quiet Man) coming to rural Ireland to turn the country into a bucolic pipe-dream, and an Englishman (Carol Reed in Odd Man Out) coming to Belfast to turn it into a Doomsday film noir? Both impose predesigned visions on a country. The difference is that Reed presents his vision as reality – with an Expressionist skew for extra emo­tional "truth" – while Ford has an alter ego hero through whom he admits that foreigners bring their own colored lenses, their own sentimental lies, to the unfamiliar land.

David Lean's Ryan's Daughter ('70) may be the cinema's richest summation of this confused traffic. The project began with a politically programmatic screenplay by Robert Bolt, a story about an English army officer (Christopher Jones) romancing an Irish girl (Sarah Miles, Mrs. Bolt) married to a gentle schoolmaster (Robert Mitchum). In this Hibernian Romeo and Juliet, the Capu­lets and Montagues become the Brits and the Irish, and the romance is over­shadowed by a thunderous plot about arms shipments and pre-Easter Rising discontent. At the same time, Bolt's vil­lage priest (Trevor Howard) is a battered spiritual referee, God's aging whistle­blower in a Catholic community where every human action can have an equal and unpredictable divine reaction.

But the perverse élan of the Lean-Bolt partnership lies in the extent to which the parties pull in different direc­tions. Once behind the camera, Lean swamps both politics and religion with epic pastoralism. Who now remem­bers anything about Anglo-Irish historical tensions or church-and-people ruminations? In memory's eye the film is three hours of fervent Celtic skies, foaming seascapes, lyric ribbons of sand, Brueghelesque villages, and vernal woodlands burgeoning with sperm and spring.

Ryan's Daughter also marks a turning point in the history of movies about Ireland. Before it, a sort of frontier existed between the Political Movie (The Informer, Odd Man Out, et al.) and the Bucolic Movie (The Quiet Man, Darby O'Gill and the Little People, Young Cassidy, Finian's Rainbow...). After it, as if prompted by its loony enact­ment of every operatic excess Irish film fiction could aspire to, the best "Irish" movies were those in which pastoral and political motifs were sophisticatedly intertwined, and Ireland became a place in which the ominous is at one with the idyllic. "Terrible beauty" now describes Ireland's uniqueness as a battle zone. Hills and hedgerows, dunes and sea­shores, sun-lanced forests are the cam­ouflage of everyday terror. And in Barry Lyndon ('75), Stanley Kubrick's seemingly Toubles-free Thackeray epic, an allegory of modern political anguish is embedded in an early 19th century road movie.

The best modern movies about Ireland all approach their subject obliquely, emblematically. In Jordan's Angel (U.S.: Danny Boy, '82), the tale of a nightclub musi­cian (Stephen Rea) hunting the killer of the band's manager zigzags across an Ireland alive with nondenominational menace as well as with the labelled agi­tators of the Conflict. In the same direc­tor's The Miracle ('91), two youngsters act out a divided love story that plays riffs on motherland/motherhood (beguiling "older woman" Beverly D'Angelo eventually revealed as the boy's long-lost ma) and on Ireland as a place of muscu­lar vagabond folklore (the girl takes up with a circus strongman). And Gillies MacKinnon's The Playboys ('92) is a Hardyesque comedy-romance in which Irish village girl Robin Wright must choose between the lithe, imaginative values of a folkloric Ould Ireland (travel­ing player Aidan Quinn) and the bull­necked authority of the oppressive Anglo-Irish status quo (Albert Finney, Irish-accented but trailing clouds of orotund theatric Britishness).

While fable edges out lecture in today's best movies about Ireland, the worst are unmasked by their determined clinging to the old adversarial pattern: dark-toned docu(melo)drama steeped in political Sturm and Drang vs. escapist essays in timeless pastoralism. Into the first basket we can drop Loach's Hidden Agenda ('90), whose agitprop crudities reduce Ireland to a standoff between tweedy Brits plotting in smoke-filled rooms and virile Micks singing treason in smoke-filled pubs. Into the other bas­ket goes Peter Chelsom's Hear My Song ('91), wherein Ireland is a land of un-Troubled comic opera quaintness chock­ablock with funny old castles, funny old cows, and funny old tenor singers.

Even Neil Jordan did his bit for Funny Old Ireland with High Spirits ('88). A busload of Americans descend on Lord Peter O'Toole and his open-for-visitors haunted castle, bringing stereo­typed Yankee crassness to Irish bibulous guile. The movie reeks of let's-find-an-international-market-for-this-Celtic-twaddle, not least in the wholesale importing of U. S. stars Beverly D'Angelo, Daryl Hannah, and the ineffa­ble Steve Guttenberg. But then this casting trend has become epidemic. See Forest Whitaker in The Crying Game, Wright and Quinn in The Playboys, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in Fools of Fortune (at least she's Mrs. Pat O'Connor), Tom Berenger in The Field, Mickey Rourke and his Method Irish accent in A Prayer for the Dying, Brad Dourif and Frances McDormand in Hidden Agenda. It's partly a bid to turn "Ireland for the Irish" into "Ireland for the world" to amplify the land's boxoffice charisma.

The corraling of American stars hints at something else, too: that "Irish-Amer­ican" is a more natural kinship than 'Anglo-American'; and that Ireland is a cultural-spiritual halfway house between the U.K. and the U.S. The American seeking his roots in the Emerald Isle has become a leitmotif going on a cliché, both in real life (R. Reagan revisiting the soil that had nurtured a future star, presi­dent, and blarney expert) and in the movies. Irish American "homecomings" provide the narrative kernel of a dozen Irish films. That same kernel, trans­planted to Hollywood, grew into the most famous pop epic in history.

Gone With the Wind is about an Irish family in the American South, one whose daughters may have caught the Southern accent but whose father (Thomas Mitchell) preserves a peisick Hibernian brogue. This family enacts a four-hour Irish mystery play incorporating every ancestral trope of Irish fiction, from the possession and dispossession of land, to the sentimental power of homecoming, to the terror of famine, to the melodramatic passion of Scarlett's relationship to the earth and what it brings forth. If "Irish cinema" ever had to select its own logo, it would surely be the image of Scarlett clutch­ing that turnip as the roiling Celtic sun­set rhymes with the roiling furrows of the earth.

Besides the O'Haras of Tara, "Irish-American" has other lustrous points of intersec­tion with Hollywood cin­ema: Orson Welles' Wandering Irishman ("Me name's Moichael O'Hara") in The Lady from Shanghai; Clark Gable failing to be Irish – or box-office – in Parnell; Spencer Tracy failing not to be Irish in every film he ever made; James Cagney showing a touch of the blarney is helpful when you take over organized, or disorganized, crime in America cinema; and John Huston crowning his late career with the only movie ever to do fit honor to James Joyce, The Dead.

The common "Irishness" in these far­flung ex-Pats, real or fanciful, is a kind of expansive or explosive primitivism. It can be an old man seeing through wist­ful veils of elegy into the primal energy of creation and disintegration (Huston/ Joyce). It can be a family fighting for sur­vival with fists and native wit (GWTW, Raoul Walsh's Gentleman Jim). Or it can be the pugnacity of men like Cagney and Tracy, wearing the rolled-up sleeves and rolled-down frowns of a race born on the wrong side of the Irish Sea.

Indeed, "Irish" as a movie flavor could be defined as anything that is not English. The classic Englishman in world cinema is a product of (over)­breeding: a paradigm of repressed virtue (from Ronald Colman to Dirk Bogarde), or of suave, perfidious vice (from Basil Rathbone to Alan Rickman). The Irish­man is broader in voice and gesture, more tousled and spontaneous in thought and manners, deeper in his tap roots to precivilization, closer in touch with the mystical-poetic-atavistic. Even Catholicism, with its 2,000-year-old Bible-blessed pedigree, speaks loud for ancestral integrity, far louder than a Church of England born 1,500 years later in a blaze of secular expediency.

These might seem clichés of national description if Irish filmmakers them­selves – at least, those who have won exposure abroad – did not endorse them. Jim Sheridan's My Left Foot ('89) and The Field ('91) present their Irish heroes virtually as elemental forces. Daniel Day-Lewis' Christy Brown is an artist at once cursed and blessed by liv­ing in a primitive, pre-articulate state. The sign language of painting or the body language of gesture and tantrums substitute for the (debased?) vocabulary of literate speech. And Richard Harris' Lear-like village elder in The Field is a force of nature growling out runic proph­ecies under a cloud of white hair.

These national differences are not merely cosmetic. They underwrite the very conflict between Ireland and Eng­land. This is not just a feud between Catholics and Protestants or colonials and colonizers. It's a faceoff between a land priding itself on a tradition of large and passionate communion with man and nature – Ireland as the world's Bard, its emblem the harp, its artists such cos­mic minstrels of the gab as Shaw, Yeats, and Joyce – and a land that nurtures the narrower, more opportunist "virtues" of political expediency, imperial control, cultural satrapy.

England and Ireland, one could argue, even "lie" differ­ently. The first Irish film to enter history's hall of fame was Robert Flaherty's Man of Aran ('34). For years this epic documentary about fisherfolk, its images hewn from rock and wave, was presumed to be the Real Thing. Later we learned that the Irish-extracted but Michigan-born Flaherty, to perfect his essay in primitiv­ism, had coaxed the islanders back into long-forgotten practices, or into prac­tices they had never practiced in the first place.

It was a lie – but what a lie! It was a lie for romantic hyperbole: "If it was never like this, it should have been." Irish lies are smiling. English lies are pondered, poker-faced, strategic. For Man of Aran, or "Life on the Rock," read Death on the Rock, or "Men of Gibraltar: " Here screen culture, if it did not create the lie, famously arbitrated over it. Death on the Rock ('88) was a Granada TV documentary exploring the killing by British soldiers of three sup­posedly armed IRA terrorist suspects in Gibraltar in March 1988. The Irish vic­tims, severally shot at point-blank range in broad daylight, were suspected of having planted a car bomb planned to explode during a military parade. That they carried no weapons and that no bomb was actually found (other than miles away and days later in a garage in Malaga, Spain) left British politicians flanneling to excuse what looked like an outright act of state terrorism. (It also looked like confirmation that Britain had a shoot-to-kill policy, as rumored, vis-à-vis Northern Ireland.) Death on the Rock was promptly banned, then – in the face of outcry – unbanned. The British government, wrongfooted, tried to regain balance by ordering an inquiry into the show's dodgy methods and faulty conclusions (so alleged). But the published inquiry vindicated the pro­gram and, by doing so, effectively damned the Gibraltar action.

Before and after Death on the Rock, other TV programs on Ireland – fiction and nonfiction – have caused the British government to rush for the OFF switch on telly screens. The policy of secrecy tells us not just about the English way of lying but about the whole drift of Anglo-Irish politics and the way it is directed from Parliament at Westminster. And not just in regard to Anglo-Irish politics, but Anglo-Irish cinema. Secrecy creates, by craft or convenient chance, a climate in which movies attempting to confront the "troubles head-on, like Loach's Hid­den Agenda, butt into a brick wall of unyielding silence. And that collision can make the movie, not the govern­ment, look ridiculous.

Hidden Agenda is an irresistible force outwitted by an immovable object. Loach's portrait of a labyrinthine Ireland in which every British coverup covers up another coverup ended up as an exercise in investigative hysteria. The movie, had its running time been hours or days, might have bored a convincing hole through the layers of conspiracy. Instead it spent 90 minutes and ended with a broken drill and a pile of paranoid excla­mation marks.

Even at the more populist, pin-brained end of modern cinema – Patriot Games ('92) – the gag on effective debate ripples across the world to encourage the growth of batty stereo­types as representing the truth about a nation's struggles and ideals. Sean Bean's IRA villain is a psycho from Shamrockland; clapped-out British Royalty, the last best hope for Western democracy (!); and the hero, an Americanized Irishman – Harrison Ford's Jack Ryan – for whom the Atlantic is 3,000 miles sepa­rating civilization (U.S.A.) from anarchy (IRA).

Perhaps the picture – this picture, every picture, the "whole' picture – will be put right by Kevin Costner's mooted movie about IRA founder Michael Collins. Then again, perhaps the picture will just be modishly reversed. Collins was an advocate of violent resistance who, like the Gibraltar victims 70 years later, ended with a British bullet in the back of his head. But if Costner's track record is anything to go by (who else could turn Jim Garrison into Gary Cooper?), Michael Collins may end up as a plain man's warrior-saint munching on a Reader's Digest version of Anglo-Irish politics.

The obliquity of fable still seems the most telling and penetrating mode of discourse in modern Irish cinema. This is "Tying" as poetry, and poetry is art's best, guerrilla answer to the prose majeure of last-ditch colonial politics being played out by Britain in Ireland. The Crying Game – we begin and end with it – proposes a cinema about Ire­land that rhymes a nation's Troubles with the troubles of all of us; that dif­fuses state politics into sexual and emo­tional politics; that explores identity and frontier not just in the map of nations but in the human psyche; that plants metaphors like landmines; and that discovers that Everything is Not What It Seems.

The only modern cinema that can do justice to Ireland is one that acknowl­edges the tragedies of its past and the agonies of its present while insisting that humanity can coexist with history, myth with reality, poetry with prose. And that the fluidity of personal destiny can be both example and weapon against the obdurate imperatives of political destiny.






©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.