Long before I ever stepped foot in Ireland, I’ve loved Irish literature. When I was a kid, I had an audiobook on cassette tape with a number of classic ghost stories, including Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Canterville Ghost’, which I listened to incessantly. In college, I found a love for Irish plays as well, reading several (including Translations by Brian Friel, which became an all-time favourite) in a historically-focused theatre course. Naturally, this played into my motivations for applying to an MA in Literature & Publishing in Galway, and once I moved over I discovered so many wonderful contemporary Irish authors from Donal Ryan to, of course, Sally Rooney.
Ireland has an outsized cultural influence, with an incredible amount of internationally-acclaimed art in every medium considering the relatively small size of the country. Some of the world’s best poets, musicians, and more hail from the Emerald Isle. And as I’ve lived here I’ve gotten to know a lot of work by artists of different types.
But one medium that I feel has passed me personally by a bit for the most part is Irish cinema. I’ve seen a few of the most well-known Irish films across a number of genres — The Commitments, Once, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, The Quiet Man — but there are far more iconic Irish films that have passed me by. On this list, for example, I’ve only seen six.
And even since moving here, I haven’t gone out of my way to see many: I went to see Cavalry with a friend in Galway, I watched A Date with Mad Mary on a plane journey, I checked out The Hole in the Ground on Netflix a while back. I feel like I’m missing out, which is particularly funny because obviously Steve is a huge film buff and also worked in the industry for some time (one of the reasons I watched the extremely charming Mad Mary is because he was a camera assistant on it). There are so many classic Irish films that he tells me I absolutely need to see: Intermission, Michael Collins, Garage…
Basically, this is my long-winded plea for you to tell me which Irish films I need to add to my to-watch list. But also to share a few new films that you should add to yours. Last weekend I volunteered at the Kerry International Film Festival, which gave me the opportunity to watch a number of excellent Irish-made films. Two shorts and one feature particularly stood out for me:
Bring Out the Fear directed by Richard Waters and starring Ciara Bailey and Tad Morari, is a Wicklow-shot horror film that follows a couple on an ordinary day hike in the words that turns sour after they have an argument about the state of their relationship which is followed by the realisation that they are lost. Imbued with folk-horror elements and making excellent use of the setting, the film is focused on the crumbling relationship above all, but offers plenty of creepy moments and unsettling vibes.
Sit Down and Shut Up was a delightful documentary short directed by Cian O Connor about the ultimate underdog story, when in 1980 the now-defunct, even-then-miniscule Limerick FC played Real Madrid in the European Cup. Unsurprisingly, Real Madrid came out the victors, but it was Limerick that opened the scoring! A funny and extremely well-produced short featuring several former players and fans recalling the momentous but largely-forgotten (outside of the local parish) events of the match.
Ship of Souls, written and directed by Jean Pasley, was the final short in the “Kerry Connections” segment of KIFF that I volunteered at, and what a closer it was. I don’t think anyone left the theatre with dry eyes. The Japanese widow of a young Irish man comes to visit his parents in rural Kerry with the intent of performing a ceremonial dance by his grave for Oban, the Buddhist festival for the dead. His father is having none of it, but comes to reckon with his own grief and find a new connection to his daughter-in-law. A stunning, 15-minute film that made me feel all the emotions.
Then, because I apparently didn’t see enough films over the KIFF weekend (3 feature films and 7 shorts), and because it was finally released in Irish cinemas after a pandemic delay, Steve and I went to see the absolutely incredible Irish-language drama Arracht. Wow, what a film. Directed by Tom Sullivan and starring Dónall Ó Héalai, this is an instant Irish classic for sure.
Colman Sharkey goes to the local landlord’s estate in an effort to reason with him about his plan to raise the rents even as the potato crops begin to fail. A violent encounter sees Sharkey on the run, ending up in a cliffside cave two years later when he takes in a young, sick, and starving orphan.
It’s remarkable, and not just because there are very, very few feature films as gaeilge, although it’s importance cannot be separated from its use of the language (especially in the scenes between Sharkey and the landlord that feature a deliberate and necessary shift into English). With my year+ of Duolingo study, I would still say I only caught about 1 word in 20 without needing to make use of the subtitles, but the more quality cinema there is in Irish, the more reason audiences will have to want to understand the language.
A quietly intense film with gorgeous cinematography that captures the ruggedness of the Connemara coast and acting that captures the desperation and resilience of those living (and dying) through an Gorta Mór, as well as a beautiful and plaintive musical score. If you are more familiar with Irish cinema, Arracht has probably already long been on your radar, but if not it is definitely one worth keeping an eye out for.
Now that I’m aware of my Irish cinema blindspot, I’m definitely going to make an effort to seek out more Irish films (again, recommendations please), and hopefully even some more in Irish. And hopefully if you see any of the films reviewed above at your local cinema (or more likely at your local film festival or streaming service), you’ll give them a watch!