“The old sow that eats her farrow”: 22 sobering depictions of Irish life
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1. Angela’s Ashes
All of the (alcohol-enhanced) merriment and tacky apparel/tchotchkes that accompany St. Patrick’s Day helpfully obscure a fundamental truth about life in Ireland: It can be pretty miserable. St. Patrick himself fled the place, only to return later to spread Christianity. (True, he was only there the first time because he was kidnapped and forced into slavery, but still...) But even God seemed to forsake the Emerald Isle—or at least Limerick, where Frank McCourt grew up in crushing poverty. His Pulitzer-winning memoir Angela’s Ashes (and its 1999 film adaptation) portrays a life that’s practically cartoonish in its bleakness. McCourt’s family lived in a shambling house—next to the street’s only toilet—that constantly flooded. As a child, he contracted typhoid and later developed conjunctivitis. His mother lost a daughter eight weeks after her birth, and his father was a shifty alcoholic who blew all of his wages on booze (then abandoned the family altogether). The church offered judgment instead of refuge, class divisions were implacable, and the weather made everything damp six months of the year. McCourt writes, “When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood... Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.” Angela’s Ashes spends more than 350 pages powerfully making his case.
Bruce Beresford’s super-sappy Evelyn isn’t necessarily “sobering,” in that it’s such a cloying, irritating, over-the-top film that it’s best approached with a few drops of the creature in hand. Or alternately, by playing a drinking game where viewers sip whiskey every time sad-bastard protagonist Pierce Brosnan enacts a bad Irish stereotype (like getting drunk to express emotion, starting a fight, mawkishly singing Irish ballads in a pub, or exclaiming “Jaysus!” when angry), and chug whenever Sophie Vavasseur, as his treacle-sweet daughter Evelyn, references her belief that sunbeams are “angel rays.” But buried under all the aggressive heartstring-yanking is an authentically grim reality: The film fictionalizes the story of Desmond Doyle, who won a precedent-setting legal battle overturning the Irish Children’s Act. The law, established in 1941, prevented a father from keeping custody of his children without a woman’s presence in the house, unless the mother agreed to the situation in writing; in Doyle’s case, when his wife abandoned the family, the state seized his children and held them in state-run Catholic schools. Evelyn pours on the sentiment, as martinet nuns abuse the saintly Vavasseur and her fellow wards of the state while Brosnan suffers in their absence. Still, it adequately addresses the inequities of a creepy, oppressive system that assumed a cold, mechanical bureaucracy was naturally a better parent than any single father could possibly be.
There’s sobering, and then there’s Hunger, one of the most brutal films on any topic released in recent memory. Viewers might check it out expecting a dramatization of the 1981 Irish hunger strike that took the lives of Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and nine others who were protesting their unrecognized status as political prisoners. But the film’s brutality starts early and never lets up, from the horrifying “no wash protest,” in which prisoners refused to leave their cells or empty their chamber pots for months, to the unflinchingly realistic portrayal of Sands’ hunger strike. It’s made all the more terrible by the fact that it all happened, and that the political tension between Ireland and Britain was so volatile that such inhumane prison conditions persisted as recently as 30 years ago.
4-5. Bloody Sunday/U2, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”
One of the most infamous incidents of the Troubles—an era with no shortage of horrors—“Bloody Sunday” occurred on Jan. 30, 1972, when British Army paratroopers opened fire on a Northern Ireland civil rights protest in Derry, Ireland, killing 14 unarmed marchers. Increasingly violent outbursts between Catholics seeking a unified, independent Irish state and Protestant unionists loyal to England led to the British Army interning, without trials, hundreds of civilians suspected of aiding the IRA paramilitaries. When that caused riots that left 20 civilians dead, the army banned all parades and marches—yet the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association still organized a march to protest the internment policy. Paul Greengrass brought his meticulous, documentary style to the incident in 2002’s Bloody Sunday, which he wrote and directed. The film captures the escalating tensions from multiple personal perspectives, compiling as complete a vision of the day’s events as possible. But it’s U2 who truly immortalized it in “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” from 1983’s aptly titled War. Bono describes The Troubles in almost apocalyptic terms: “Broken bottles under children’s feet / bodies strewn across the dead-end street,” he sings over Larry Mullen’s martial beat and Edge’s slashing guitar. When the band performed the song during its famous concert at Colorado’s Red Rocks in 1983, Bono waved a white flag while leading the audience to chant “No more!” at the song’s midpoint.
6. My Left Foot
The life Christy Brown describes in his 1954 autobiography, My Left Foot, is depressing enough—he’s dismissed as mentally retarded for much of his childhood but really has cerebral palsy, a physical handicap that doesn’t impair his brain functionality. This misdiagnosis relegates him to the bottom of the social heap, the butt of cruel remarks he understands fully. Lay this against the backdrop of the working poor in Ireland of the 1930s, and the scene becomes downright dismal: the Irish Catholic guilt of knowing every transgression will lock you in hell, the bleak economic circumstances that leave his overcrowded family of 15 desperate for coal, eating porridge multiple meals a day. Brown’s mind is trapped not only in his disabled body but also in a society where social mobility is all but impossible. Brown’s autobiography and Jim Sheridan’s 1989 film starring Daniel Day Lewis ultimately end on uplifting, inspirational notes as Brown rises to become a well-known painter and writer who ultimately finds love. Of course, a later biography charges that his eventual wife turned out to be an abusive alcoholic, contributing to his early death at 49.
7. In The Name Of The Father
The Provisional Irish Republican Army agreed to a ceasefire in 1997, but was still quite active in the time depicted in the biographical film In The Name Of The Father, another Jim Sheridan film starring Daniel Day-Lewis. It’s the true story of the Guildford Four, falsely convicted for a series of pub bombings in October 1974. Under immense pressure to make arrests following the explosion, the Metropolitan Police arrested Gerry Conlon (Day-Lewis), in Belfast during the explosion but actually robbing a prostitute’s flat at the time. The British police eventually make Conlon and his friend confess after intense interrogation and torture, then arrested more members of Conlon’s family, including his father (the late Pete Postlethwaite) who died during incarceration. Conlon grows from an immature thug into a morally conscious man while in prison, and eventually helps uncover the true perpetrators of the blast thanks to the help of a defense attorney (Emma Thompson) who uncovers files hidden during the trial. But the film’s “happy” ending comes at the end of a long, tragic road that has its roots in a century of Anglo-Irish warfare, corruption, and violence. Conlon might achieve some measure of peace by the end, but it comes at a terrible cost all the same.
8. The Magdalene Sisters
So-called “Magdalene asylums” (also known as Magdalene laundries) could be found throughout the world, but they were founded in Ireland, and the country is still most strongly associated with them, perhaps because of the influence of this 2002 film directed by Peter Mullan. The asylums were a Catholic home for “fallen” women, and the film’s four protagonists—Anne-Marie Duff, Nora-Jane Noone, Dorothy Duffy, and Eileen Walsh—have either been sexually active or are presumed to be, so they’re sent to an asylum run by Sister Bridget, who keeps up appearances but terrorizes the girls when she feels they deserve it. (As Bridget, Geraldine McEwan attracted a fair share of awards attention.) The women have been thrown into a hell of both physical and sexual abuse, simply because they live in a culture that doesn’t tolerate sexually active single women—even if they’re raped, as is the case for Duff. Magdalene closes with most of the women overcoming their adversity (save for one who spends the rest of her days in a mental institution), but the film paints an unforgiving portrait of a culture so sexually repressed that it would rather hide its problems in a hellhole than address them.
9. Michael Collins
A leading force in the conflicts that led to Irish independence from Great Britain, Michael Collins served as both a political and military leader, taking part in the first Irish Parliament, pioneering the guerilla warfare tactics of the IRA, signing the Anglo-Irish Treaty that established the Irish Republic, and then dying at the age of 31 in an ambush during the civil war that broke out following that treaty. Neil Jordan’s 1996 biopic Michael Collins, starring Liam Neeson, portrays Collins as a principled man in an impossible situation, making tough decisions about violence, eschewing violence when it was time to make a deal, and then paying for peace with his own blood. As for Collins, the film suggests, so with Irish politics as they relate to The Troubles, when every choice seemed to present only “damned if you do”/“damned if you don’t” options.
10. The Wind That Shakes The Barley
While Michael Collins depicts the Irish revolutionary leaders during key events in Dublin—the only truly urban area in Ireland at the time—it doesn’t give a good idea of what the struggle looked like to the majority of Irish people. The Wind That Shakes The Barley is the story of a rural, insular community struggling to do its part for Irish independence, showing the high cost of freedom from a brutally callous British Empire. Cillian Murphy delivers the best performance of his career as a doctor who forgoes opportunities in England to stay and fight with the IRA. He and his fellow townspeople must first face the Black and Tans, a ramshackle security force made up of mostly British WWI veterans, who commit horrible atrocities against the Irish with little provocation. But as the IRA turns the tide against the Royal Irish Constabulary, and the Anglo-Irish Treaty is ratified in 1921—establishing a self-governing Irish state still under England’s dominion—friends and families are divided over whether to accept the terms or continue fighting for full independence. It’s a harrowing and intensely focused portrait of just how much was sacrificed for true freedom.
11. The Cranberries, “Zombie”
Propelled by the steady bass line, overdriven guitars, and vocalist Dolores O’Riordan’s wailing vocals, “Zombie” diverged considerably from the Irish band’s previously airy alterna-pop. But the deaths of children have a way of inspiring rage, as was the case when an IRA bombs killed two children (and injured more than 50 others) in Warrington, England, in 1993. The Cranberries were on tour in England at the time, and the song reflected the band members’ exhaustion and disillusionment with a war that had raged for nearly 80 years by that point. (“It’s the same old theme since 1916,” O’Riordan sings.) Despite its defiantly political nature, the song—propelled by a bold video directed by Samuel Bayer (who also shot “Smells Like Teen Spirit”)—would go on to be a worldwide hit and outlive The Troubles, which faded by the close of the decade.
12. The Crying Game
The Crying Game is so renowned for its much talked-about twist—spoiler alert: She’s actually a transsexual!—that people tend to forget what it’s even about. Set against The Troubles, Neil Jordan’s 1992 thriller/romance stars Stephen Rea as an IRA operative who bonds with a British soldier (Forest Whitaker) kidnapped by the IRA. When the kidnapping goes awry, Rea escapes to London, where he reinvents himself as “Jimmy” and takes up with Whitaker’s (transsexual) ex-girlfriend, Jaye Davidson. Unfolding largely in London, The Crying Game explores how the tug of war between duty and politics during the Troubles affected both the Irish and British.
13. The Commitments
In what may be the most memorable scene from Alan Parker’s 1991 film The Commitments—adapted from the first novel in Roddy Doyle’s acclaimed Barrytown Trilogy, which included The Snapper and The Van—aspiring music manager Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins) explains to his skeptical mates why they have the makings of a great soul band. “The Irish are the blacks of Europe,” he says. “And Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. And the Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin. So say it once, say it loud: I’m black and I’m proud.” In other words, despite their pallid complexions, these North Dubliners have experienced the requisite pain and deprivations to make them great musicians. Whether or not you believe Arkins’ argument, the suffering is certainly there. The Commitments paints a vivid portrait of gritty, pre-“Celtic Tiger” Dublin: the city is a crumbling mess where unemployment, addiction, and domestic dysfunction run rampant. Although Parker’s spin on the material is decidedly upbeat, his decision to cast unknown, mostly unprofessional actors—including a young Glen Hansard as guitarist Outspan Foster—lends The Commitments a powerful dose of verisimilitude.
14. The Snapper
It’s obviously no great shock when a motion picture set in Dublin—specifically, the fictional north side area called Barrytown—features a fair amount of alcohol consumption, but it is rather disconcerting to see just how many pints are tossed back by Sharon Curley (Tina Kellegher), given that she’s pregnant throughout the course of The Snapper. Based on the novel by Roddy Doyle, albeit with a change in the surname of Sharon and her family (it’s the same family as in The Commitments, but 20th Century Fox owned the rights to the last name “Rabbitte”), much of the drama of The Snapper is derived from the nasty, gossipy nature of the residents of Barrytown as they become aware of Sharon’s illegitimate pregnancy and theorize about the identity of the father. With the help of her father (Colm Meaney), who does his best to be understanding even after learning that one of his friends is likely the father, Sharon gives birth to a beautiful baby, but the verbal and emotional abuse she’s forced to endure from her neighbors would seem to make Barrytown a less than optimal environment in which to raise a child.
15. The Van
Only a perpetual optimist or a person who’s spent life in dire financial straits could look at a dirty, dilapidated, and effectively immobile fish ’n’ chips van and envision a financially prosperous future. Welcome back to Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown, where Jimmy Rabbitte Sr. (Colm Meaney)—who, due to The Van having been made by a different studio than either The Commitments or The Snapper, is now being referred to as “Larry”—teams with his out-of-work baker buddy Bimbo (Donal O’Kelly) to capitalize on hungry soccer fans thrilling to Ireland’s World Cup success. Things pan out well at first, but tensions soon rise between Larry and Bimbo as their friendship adapts poorly to a business environment, and their lack of camaraderie in the workplace soon leads to an unfortunate incident with a deep-fried dirty diaper that gets the van shut down by the health inspector. Ultimately, Bimbo decides the promise of a brighter tomorrow and a bigger bank account isn’t worth the price of his friendship with Larry and sends the van plummeting into the sea. Poverty: It’s not so bad when you share the (lack of) wealth.
16. Playboy Of The Western World
When it debuted at Dublin’s famed Abbey Theatre in 1907. J.M Synge’s The Playboy Of The Western World sparked riots, and its premiere in New York four years later was also met by heckles and a shower of rotten vegetables. So what was all the fuss about? The play tells the story of Pegeen Flaherty, a young barmaid living in a village in rural County Mayo. She awaits a dispensation from the Catholic bishop so that she can marry her cousin, Shawn Keogh, a devout farmer. Her plans are interrupted when Christy Mahon, a mysterious stranger, rolls into town boasting about having killed his father. Rather than reacting in horror, the women of the village—most notably Pegeen—swoon at his tale of patricide, and soon enough she’s tossed Shawn aside for the dangerous newcomer. When Christy is revealed to be a liar, Pegeen and the rest of the villagers are left looking like gullible fools and, later, accessories to violence. Synge’s play is a brutal satire of Irish mores and the national propensity for myth-making, but what really got audiences riled up in 1907 was Synge’s perceived attack on the honor of country’s lady folk via reference to women “standing in their shifts” (as in undergarments). And who wouldn’t riot over that?
17. “A Modest Proposal”
Jonathan Swift’s Ireland in the 1720s sounds vaguely familiar to today’s American reality: poor economy, complex political and social issues bubbling over beneath the facade of a polite society, cries of the rich getting richer and the poor, poorer. Throw in England’s iron hand and a more hungry children begging in the streets, and you will begin to appreciate Swift’s satirical solution: cannibalizing children. In “A Modest Proposal,” the Irish writer makes a shockingly logical and thoroughly thought-out argument to take one of the only surpluses the country has, hungry children, and use it to benefit everyone: “I have already computed the charge of nursing a beggar’s child (in which list I reckon all cottagers, labourers, and four-fifths of the farmers) to be about two shillings per annum, rags included; and I believe no gentleman would repine to give 10 shillings for the carcass of a good fat child, which, as I have said, will make four dishes of excellent nutritive meat, when he hath only some particular friend, or his own family to dine with him. Thus the squire will learn to be a good landlord, and grow popular among his tenants, the mother will have eight shillings neat profit, and be fit for work till she produces another child.” You see? Everyone wins—unless, of course, you’re an infant.
18. Circle Of Friends
Based on the novel of the same name by Maeve Binchy, the 1995 film Circle Of Friends wooed viewers with a simple premise: Chris O’Donnell and Minnie Driver fall in love against all odds, all while having funny Irish accents. In actuality, it was a sad depiction of life in 1950s Ireland, particularly for young women. Driver’s Benny is betrayed by her best friend, Nan (Saffron Burrows), who is knocked up, abandoned, and looking for someone to marry rather than have a child out of wedlock. She steals O’Donnell’s Jack away after a drunken hook-up, breaking Benny’s heart. Meanwhile, following the death of her father, Benny’s forced to leave college and take over the family business, nearly getting raped by a lecherous store employee who’s been embezzling from her family for years. Jack and Benny end up together in the end and all is right in the world, but not before reminding viewers—particularly young, female ones—that sex comes with consequences and that, in Ireland, there is no choice, only child-rearing.
19. Veronica Guerin
Joel Schumacher, as ever, didn’t take the most tasteful approach to his portrayal of the life and violent death of Dublin crime reporter Veronica Guerin. Although she’s well played by Cate Blanchett, the film makes her a saint surrounded by helpless drug addicts and the leering baddies who exploit them for profit (and just because, you know, they’re bad). It’s not the most nuanced portrayal of drug addiction and institutional corruption in contemporary Ireland, playing a bit like a brain-dead Irish version of The Wire, but it does make Dublin’s poorer neighborhoods look like hell on Earth. The pushers need only horns and pitchforks to complete the picture.
20. The Butcher Boy
Neil Jordan’s bleak, bloody adaptation of Patrick McCabe’s novel offers a gleefully warped portrait of small-town Irish life. The son of a drunken jazz musician and a mentally unhinged mother, Francie Brady (Eamonn Owens) passes through the veil of adolescent abuse and winds up in a slaughterhouse, learning the gory skills he eventually turns on a less porcine target. There’s no question of redemption, no way out, just the grinning acceptance of his foreordained fate, an embrace of the inevitable that mirrors the fate of a country where, as the Irish writer Tim Pat Coogan noted, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as tragedy.”
21. Stiff Little Fingers, “Alternative Ulster”
Given that drummer Brian Faloon, bassist Ali McMordie, guitarist Henry Cluney, and vocalist/guitarist Jake Burns came together during the Troubles and the rise of punk, it’s not surprising that Stiff Little Fingers’ songs sound so angry. Almost the majority of the songs on the band’s 1979 debut, Inflammable Material, revolve around how awful life in Belfast was during the late ’70s, but one track in particular served as the definitive call to arms. “Alternative Ulster,” its title a reference to the province of Ireland in which Belfast resides, asked listeners, “Is this the kind of place you wanna live? / Is this where you wanna be? / Is this the only life we’re gonna have?” Based on the description of Ulster within the lyrics—“You got the army on the street / and the RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary] dog of repression / is barking at your feet”—it’s a wonder every Stiff Little Fingers fan didn’t heed Burns’ instructions to “ignore the bores” and their laws and “alter your native land.”
22. Pretty much all of James Joyce
“Do you know what Ireland is? Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow,” a young Stephen Dedalus says during a particularly heated passage of A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man, bitterly summing up an entire nation that James Joyce sees as its own unwitting oppressor. Joyce spent his entire career arguing through alter egos like Dedalus—and through his own Modernist, increasingly iconoclastic work—that the only way Ireland could become truly independent was to free itself completely from dwelling on its past. And as an illustration of his argument, he specialized in characters that were being devoured by some despair of their own devising. This is true from the very beginning, as the thoroughly miserable citizens of Joyce’s debut, Dubliners, can attest. In grand Joyce tradition, they’re all trapped—in childlike delusions just waiting to be shattered (“The Sisters,” “Araby”), in pointless class struggles (“After The Race,” “A Mother”), in their own insecurities and self-destructive tendencies (“A Little Cloud,” “Counterparts”), in the throe of painful memories (“A Painful Case”), or, as in centerpiece story “The Dead,” in some combination of all the above. Most of them end in literal tears. Joyce’s follow-up, the autobiographical Portrait, parallels his own efforts to break free, both in his use of experimental language and his self-imposed exile, painting Irish tradition—and particularly Catholic dogma—as a prison that needs escaping. Joyce did exactly that in real life by fleeing to Zurich and Paris, then shredding literary conventions—first with the stream-of-consciousness Ulysses, which winds dizzyingly through familiar themes of remorse and loneliness, and finally Finnegans Wake, in which Joyce’s dream-like narrative becomes an inscrutable nightmare of invented gibberish that mirrors his characters’ psyches as they come to terms with their secret sins. There are glimmers of hope to be found in love or artistic liberation, but Joyce’s work mostly suggests these as the sole salvation to be found in Irish life, which is otherwise a never-ending cycle of pointless class struggle, Catholic guilt, and the inevitable disappointment of living, all of which is only temporarily alleviated by drinking yourself to sleep. Is it any wonder a people so in love with their own sadness would celebrate him?