This Saint Patricks Day, we celebrate Irish cinema. From Poitín to Sing Street, drama to musical, you can read about our enthusiasm for a number of Irish films that celebrate historical figures and Irish culture. You’ll also find here an appreciation for Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon and its growing impact in the animation genre. Enjoy!
The first feature film entirely in the Irish language, Poitín tells a simple but striking tale of crime and revenge. The nameless farmer (Cyril Cusack) makes his living brewing poitín, home-brewed contraband alcohol. Two criminals (Niall Toibin and Donal McCann) terrorize him and his adult daughter (Mairead Niconghaile) for his stash of poitín, and it is through a combination of the farmer’s quick wits and the criminals’ stupidity that they are able to escape real, lasting harm.
On the surface, Poitín seems to trade on stereotypes of the Irish as impoverished criminals. In one scene, the two criminals literally throw half-cooked potatoes at each other. Yet while the more dramatic action of this short feature could be seen that way, Poitín also takes time to show the Irish-speaking community, which is valuable in and of itself. Director Bob Quinn has a keen eye for storytelling and is able to tell a coherent, fascinating story about a community from a viewpoint stemming from what seems to be an intimate familiarity with this community. He also manages to make a very low-key movie quite thrilling especially towards the end, as story elements start to fall into place. Bob Quinn didn’t have the most illustrious of film careers, but with Poitín, he managed to make a rich slice of life of a community whose identity remains strong even as many Irish people rarely use the Irish language regularly in conversation anymore. – Eugene Kang
The Dead (1987)
Director John Huston was ailing and could barely see as he was directing his last film The Dead, but you couldn’t tell from looking at its rich compositions and masterful blocking. The Dead takes place mostly at a dinner party during the Epiphany in which we get a very specific yet wide-ranging portrait of the concerns of the time. There are characters who insist on the cosmopolitan nature of Dublin and Ireland as they talk about how the greatest artists of Europe would regularly visit Dublin. There is another character who is a fervent Irish nationalist chiding a man for writing for an English newspaper. There are also evocative, stirring uses of Irish culture such as the recital of a traditional Irish poem in English (not in the original story) and, of course, the singing of ‘The Lass of Aughrim’, which catalyzes the last, and most famous, part of the story involving Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann) and Gretta Conroy (Anjelica Huston).
One could say The Dead is mostly buildup to a very brief story of young love and longing remembered, but Huston doesn’t treat it that way. He gives each actor just enough time in a fairly compact movie to have their moment and be a distinct character so that they are all memorable even though there are so many of them. It feels very much we are at dinner with them, or we are also listening attentively to song and poetry. The poignancy of the last part of the story hits all the harder as the life and vibrancy of the party contrasts with Gretta’s devastating story about the young man who died for her. Huston wanted his last film to be a love letter to Ireland, and he managed to create possibly the greatest love letter to any country ever. – Eugene Kang
Michael Collins (1996)
The struggle of the Irish in their fight for independence from Britain is the topic of Neil Jordan’s film Michael Collins, Jordan focusing on the life of revolutionary politician Michael Collins (Liam Neeson) who met an untimely death at the age of 31. Jordan’s film received immediate acclaim as it premiered at the Venice Film Festival, winning the Golden Lion, though today the film is noted for its historical inaccuracy when depicting those in Collins’ life, particularly Éamon de Valera (Alan Rickman).
As a film, however, Michael Collins can be appreciated for its period production design as well as its use of blueish tints and noir influenced cinematography. It just feels throughout the entire duration of the film that Collins is in danger, and this feeling ultimately becomes justified. Neeson is also a highlight here, Collins just one of his many impactful performances in the 90s. As far as the film’s impact today, it might live in the shadows of biopics of other revolutionaries such as Malcolm X, but nonetheless Michael Collins is able to convey a reverence for Collins’ beliefs and efforts in supporting Irish independence as well as provide audiences with insight into the politics behind the Irish and the British conflicts in the early 20th century. – Alex Sitaras
The Secret of Kells (2009)
Cartoon Saloon is an Irish animation studio founded by aspiring animators Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey and Paul Young. They were inspired by The Thief and the Cobbler, Mulan and the works of Hayao Miyazaki to incorporate traditional cultural elements into their own works. Their Irish folklore trilogy, which included Kells, Song of the Sea and Wolfwalkers, have elevated Cartoon Saloon to among the finest animation studios in the world.
The Secret of Kells follows a young monk named Brendan who is seeking the necessary equipment to help illuminate the Book of Kells, one of Ireland’s great cultural artifacts. The movie seems a little rough in comparison to later works. The animation is not as smooth and sophisticated. Characters stick very closely to recognizable geometric shapes such as circles, semicircles and triangles. Especially in terms of the fluid character movement, it is definitely more indebted to some of the aforementioned works. But The Secret of Kells also manages to take inspiration from The Book of Kells, and bring its color palette and particular art style to vibrant life. Instead of musty history, Kells feels like it is steeped in Ireland’s deep lore. Sequences such as a fight with a giant serpent using what seems to be a piece of chalk show are showcases of wild creativity that straddle the line between the literal and metaphorical, as often seen in the best animation. Cartoon Saloon’s works have only gotten better since The Secret of Kells, but Kells would lay the blueprint of ambitious artworks grounded in a deep appreciation of the culture of Ireland. – Eugene Kang
Sing Street (2016)
Set in 1980s Dublin, Sing Street depicts the life of teenage Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) as he is forced to change schools after his parents find themselves in hard financial times. He is enrolled in the Christian Brothers school Synge Street CBS, and the discipline of the school, trouble at home, and meeting a girl sets Conor on a trajectory to self-discovery. He decides to start a band as a means to impress her, and in the process makes friends, explores musical talent, and finds a direction for his future. Though that ultimately leads him away from Ireland, many audiences will see pieces of themselves within Conor and I wouldn’t be surprised if he found a way back to the place that made him the man he is. We owe something to our upbringing – in Conor’s case, Dublin – and nostalgia can be just as powerful as music or love.
John Carney’s film hits all the right notes with an original story, original songs, and a reverence for the rock’n’roll of the 80s. Conor’s songwriting process as he explores different genres pays homage to a number of hit songs while creating lyrics that are personal to his experiences and love for the mysterious Raphina (Lucy Boynton). He recruits her to act in the band’s music videos where the two’s romance blossoms despite Raphina’s crush on another man and her pending departure to London. Sing Street doesn’t stray much from genre convention, but it doesn’t have to – it’s a sheer joy to watch this story of boy-meets-girl and Conor’s self-discovery despite his oppressive school. – Alex Sitaras
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