St. Patrick’s Day is this weekend and the ‘Kiss Me I’m Irish’ lapel pins are blossoming like so many shamrocks. Green beer will flow like so much blarney. The racist icons of Ireland will festoon every shop window, and yet very few will realize these images of Ireland are out of date. This is especially true in film. A quick look at the Irish in films reveals how we went from making fun of them to honoring the films being made today.
As with most immigrants, the early Irish portrayal in film was xenophobic, rife with caricature and two dimensional. They were beguiling drunks, saucy maids or troublesome agitators. Barry Fitzgerald’s performance in the classic Bringing Up Baby is an example. As the grounds keeper for Katharine Hepburn’s wealthy aunt, he talks to himself, sneaks drinks, is easily provoked into fighting and is fearful of everything. It is as stereotypical a depiction as you can find in the movies.
Other portrayals of the Irish focused in on the ‘troubles’. John Ford’s The Informer won acclaim at the Oscars as did Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out. Both dealt with the IRA. Taking the fight for independence and rebellion to the movie house, Hollywood found romance and tragedy. A one-two punch for ticket selling. This same combination re-emerged with The Crying Game, In the Name of the Father and all the other film that came out of Ireland near the end of 20th century.
A more enduring depiction is the ‘auld’ country. This is a wistful look at the emerald Ireland through rose, perhaps green, colored glasses. A place where rural tranquility and the simple life is at once quaint and unrealistic. These are fantasies. John Ford’s The Quiet Man is exactly that. An American looking for peace from his violent past returns to his parent’s Ireland. There he finds a red-haired wife, a titanic fight and the peace he sought. It was a popular film when it came out in 1952, and it will be all over the TVs this month. Heck, I’ll watch it again even if it is nonsense and politically incorrect. I like that fantasy as much as anyone.
Waking Ned Devine is the same sort of fantasy. Colorful characters in a rural community putting one over on the sophisticated urban dwellers. We can take some good natured solace in their good natured swindling.
This blog is too short to really explore Irish films, but they can be compartmentalized into easily digestible genres. Until recently it was either the fantasy of a rural country full of quaint likable characters or the drama of “the troubles’ where politics is a constant civil war. Recently there have been a newer breed of film. These take the modern Irish sensibility and place them in other kinds of stories. So when someone asks me, is there a good Irish film to watch on St. Patrick’s Day, I won’t give them the ones that are on most experts top ten list. I’ll mention ‘The Secret of Kells’ or ‘In Bruges’ or ‘The Guard’
And if someone asks me what will I be doing on St.Patrick’s Day because (kiss me) I’m Irish . I will tell them. I am not Irish. I am America-Irish. I won’t be going to anyplace with green beer, plastic green derbies and way too many drunks. I may go out looking for a red haired woman. I have a weakness for them. Must be my Irish blood.