Each year on 17 March, there is an explosion of green as people don any foliage-coloured clothing they own and consume copious amounts of alcohol to celebrate St Patrick’s Day, a veritable free-for-all of booze, music and parades; some cities even dye their rivers green (here’s looking at you Chicago). Yet this is only one aspect of Irish culture, the hallmark that belies a wealth of weird, funny, profound and always wonderful traits to be discovered. Irish film gives us a glimpse of this deep reservoir and has been the font from which incredible pieces of cinema have sprung.
For decades, Ireland, with its incredible scenery and (more bluntly) huge tax-breaks, has been a popular location for shooting motion pictures. Early on, the Irish government was one of the first in Europe to see the potential benefit to the exchequer of a competitive tax incentive for investment in film and television. The Irish film industry was called by Martin Cullen, former Minister for Arts, Sports and Tourism, the “cornerstone of a smart and creative digital economy”.
Perhaps more important however, is the fact that the indigenous industry has allowed the free expression of Irish culture by Irish producers, directors, writers and crew, fostering their talents far more effectively than a big-budget international production. It is from this pool of talent that some of the most acclaimed films of the modern age have emerged; Michael Collins, The Wind That Shakes the Barley and, most recently, Frank are but a few. In just this sample it is possible to see the great variety of which Irish cinema is capable. Frank has consistently been called, “funny, clever and endearingly unusual”, with Kyle Smith of the New York Post describing the story of a band’s pursuit of “pure music” as a “whimsical delight”. Conversely, The Wind That Shakes the Barley was hailed as being “breathtakingly authentic” in its portrayal of the Irish War of Independence. Moreover, 1989’s My Left Foot is widely regarded as one of the greatest Irish films ever, largely due to the Oscar-winning performance of Daniel Day-Lewis, his first of three Best Actor nods.
Yet it is to another actor that we must look as a representative of Irish cinema: Brendan Gleeson. An advocate of his home country’s culture and a fluent Gaelic speaker, he has appeared in more high-profile Irish films than any other actor. Having been a supporting character in Michael Collins, Gleeson has gone on to star in the most successful Irish film of all time in terms of box office receipts, 2011’s comedy caper The Guard, and the critically acclaimed drama Calvary, in which he plays a good priest confronted by victims of institutional abuse by members of the Catholic church. Such a thematic dichotomy certainly demonstrates the range of both Gleeson and John Michael McDonagh, writer and director for both films; however the quality of execution remains consistently high. More importantly, The Guard and Calvary epitomise the style of Irish cinema; the best national films capture the complexity of Ireland’s culture, often a combination of inimitable humour, tragedy, intelligence and sensitivity. It shows Ireland as what it is: a country defined by its religious and cultural heritage, wondrously diverse and far more important than one day’s celebration makes it out to be.
While the Emerald Isle’s most famous exports might indeed be Guinness (other stouts and porters are available) and the colour green, there is a valued place for Irish film in the world’s consciousness, something which can only ever be a good thing. Frank, which stars another Gleeson family member, Domhnall, is a prime example of Irish success on the international stage, and an ideal complement to this week’s festivities.
So if you’re not into the whole going-out-and-getting-drunk-in-the -cold-thing, how about getting your fill of Irish culture from a film? Invite a few friends over, stock up on booze and have good time in your oh-so-warm Edinburgh flat, or failing that, treat it as the prelude to your inevitable Wednesday morning hangover. Just remember, drink responsibly and you can’t go wrong with a bit of Gleeson. Sláinte!