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The Essence of the Emerald Isle – An Insight into Irish film

Irish-born director Martin McDonagh’s latest film, The Banshees of Inisherin and Colm Bairéad’s The Quiet Girl are finally in Hungarian cinemas. In the following article I have picked out what makes Irish cinema so special and how it reflects our unique cultural heritage.

The specificity and visual heritage of Irish film may be traced back to before the invention of the moving image. The emerald colours of the island of Ireland, the green grass, the beautiful natural images, and the historical heritage are often recalled in their visual art. The Irish copyists, the craftsmen of Celtic weavings, or the carvers of the distinctive Celtic crosses in cemeteries, all contributed to the visual sensibility of the Irish people. When film and the cinematographic arts began their conquest of the British Isles, this fantastic heritage found a new platform and gave the films of the nation its unique character that could not be mistaken for anything else. And thanks to Irish-born Hollywood filmmakers, Irish culture and history have reached a very wide international audience. Below is a non-exhaustive look at what makes the Celtic nation’s film palette so unique.

Chronicles brought to life

Tomm Moore is the true ambassador of the visual culture, who portrays his country’s heritage in wonderfully atmospheric animated films. The Book of Kells, co-directed by Nora Twomey and released in 2009, tells the story of the “Book of Kells”, a true Irish historical relic, which takes the viewer back to the 9th century when fear gripped the island of Ireland in the wake of Viking raids. Through its protagonist, the film is a declaration of love for culture and books, and a universal message about what historical legacy really means in terms of identity. Traditional Celtic symbols and ornamental motifs play an extremely important role in the creation and visual solutions of the animation. In addition, some of the animation was created in Hungary, at the Kecskemét Animation Film Studio. In 2010, The Secret of Kells was nominated for an Academy Award but did not take home the prize.

The Secret o Kells (2009)

Perhaps Tomm Moore’s finest directorial effort is the 2014 film, Song of the Sea, which focuses on Irish mythology rather than history. Here we are given an insight into the world of the extraordinary seal fairies, the so-called selkies. It is in this film that Moore’s captivating talent for imbuing a seemingly children’s story with mature ideas and often truly haunting questions is most evident. Alongside the tale of the Selkies, the idea of death is also present in a story that might otherwise be considered for children; however, the film does not classify as a Disney film. Song of the Sea offers something that mainstream animated films lack. It has an unearthly atmosphere that cannot be found anywhere else. Moore’s film was nominated for an Oscar again in 2015.

Song of the Sea (2014)

In 2020, Moore returned to historical themes with co-director Ross Stewart in the film, The Wolfwalkers, while still retaining elements of Celtic lore. The film explores the tragedy of Oliver Cromwell’s conquest and the conflict between the Irish and the English, a common theme in the art of the island nation. In addition to Irish and Celtic imagery, music and songs are of great importance in Moore’s films. The music in his direction draws on Irish folk music and the tradition lives on not only in the frames but also in the soundtrack. Wolfwalkers was Moore’s third Oscar nomination, but he missed out on this prize, too. Tomm Moore was recently involved as producer in My Father’s Dragon, directed by Nora Twomey.

Wolfwalkers (2020)

Historical traumas

The renowned Irish poet, William Butler Yeats called the Irish, the “Hungarians of the West”, because the Emerald Isle has a history of similar turbulence and adversity. The tragedies of the 20th century left their mark on Irish filmmaking. In 1916, the Easter Rising saw the Irish revolt against British rule, which lead to a bloody national uprising. In 1921, Ireland became independent, but the six northern counties – known as Northern Ireland – remained under British rule. In 1922-23 a fierce civil war erupted, but unification was not achieved. The conflict between the British and the Irish in Northern Ireland resurfaced in the 1960s and for three decades made the streets of Northern Ireland the scene of daily assassinations and bombings. These were carried out by the Irish Catholic terrorist organisation, the Irish Republican Army, IRA while the other major players in the conflict were the British army, Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), and Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR; from 1992 called the Royal Irish Regiment).Daniel Day-Lewis and Pete Postlethwaite in the film, In the Name of My Father
Daniel Day-Lewis and Pete Postlethwaite in the film, In the Name of My Father

The treatment of this historical trauma can be seen in much of Irish cinema. Jim Sheridan’s Oscar-nominated film, In the Name of the Father tells the harrowing true story of an Irish father and son who are innocently accused of carrying out a bombing. A little-known but equally harrowing story is explored by Terry George in Some Mother’s Son, scripted by Sheridan. The film is based on the tragedy of the 1981 hunger strike, in which ten imprisoned IRA members took it upon themselves to deny food and starve themselves to death. The theme was later explored by Steve McQueen, the director of 12 Years a Slave in Hunger, starring Michael Fassbender.

Helen Mirren in Some Mother's Son

Helen Mirren in Some Mother’s Son (1996)

With the reconciliation and balanced approach, some works are certainly rather biased in their treatment of the Irish freedom issue. The most striking example of this is the drama, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, which takes the viewer behind the scenes of the guerrilla war that took place during the Civil War of 1922-23. However, the film is one-sided in its brutal portrayal of the British and fails to show the excesses the Irish committed against their enemies. Nevertheless, it can be said that the Irish film is capable of being very self-critical and the aim of the filmmakers is to end the hostility between the two sides and achieve reconciliation. Omagh, Five Minutes of Heaven or Kenneth Brannagh’s recent Belfast, all portray the nonsensical and incomprehensible nature of people to attack each other based on political and religious beliefs.

Belfast (2021)

Irish Dark humour and the McDonagh brothers

The concept of English absurd humour is widely known through the figures of Mr Bean, You Rang, M’Lord? or the Monty Python troupe. However, humour in Irish film is also worthy of note, because it is a lot more acerbic and darker.

An emblematic example of Irish comedy is the farce Waking Ned Devine. This story set in a remote Irish village, where Ned Divine dies from the extreme joy of winning the lottery, but his two good friends refuse to let the fabulous sum go to waste.

But Irish humour is present not only in the comedies, but also in the more dramatic works, which add a delicious flavour to the final result. The McDonagh brothers, Martin and John Michael, have mastered the genre and created a unique cinematic language that is distinct in contemporary cinema. This is of course enhanced by the pair’s favourite actor, Brendan Gleeson, who is perfect in any role. In The Guard, John Michael McDonagh seems at first glance to have made an Irish version of the Torrente films, but the result is more sophisticated and intelligent. Gleeson’s character plays a drunkard, racist and extreme conservative protagonist, who manages to draw the attention of the viewer. He gives us an insight into the world of the Irish police, while the underworld and the IRA are not left out of the good stuff. The film ignores PC perfectly, and John Michael sticks out his middle finger towards the fashionable sanctimonious Hollywood comedies.

The Guard (2011)

The film, Calvary, is a more serious but dazzling production in which Gleeson plays a Catholic priest, who is told in confession by a mysterious stranger that he is going to murder him. Calvary is a tale of suffering, which has a rather morbid sense of humour, but is more sombre and theological than the director’s other works.

The real success, however, has been achieved by Martin McDonagh, who, as well as directing films, has also been a successful stage director, with several of his plays (such as The Pillowman) being performed in Hungary. The director won an Oscar in 2005 for his short film Six Shooter, which portrays a poignant encounter on a train and the tragedy that ensues.

Martin McDonagh’s real success came in 2008 with the film, In Bruges, a gangster story (whose Hungarian title has been a disgrace to domestic film distribution ever since). The two stars of the film are Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson. The setting of the film is Belgium rather than Ireland, but it is a thoroughly Irish film. The symbolism and premise of the film draws heavily on Catholicism, which is still an important marker of identity for the Irish today. In Bruges portrays a world of purgatory, where the hero must atone and be punished for a fatal mistake made in the past. Martin McDonagh later found his way to Hollywood, winning a Golden Globe for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and an Academy Award for his actors Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell.

In Bruges (2008)

Admittedly, Irish cinema, from animation to McDonagh’s gangster productions, has an unmistakable character, imbued with culture, history, bitter humour, religion and mythology drawn from the historical past. It is an excellent example of how, despite the influence of globalism, a nation’s filmmaking and cinematography can retain its character while carrying a universal message.