It is common for teachers to decorate their classrooms with leprechauns and shamrocks for St. Patrick’s Day, but how many North American students are taught about the realities of life in Ireland? Broaden your students’ horizons with an exploration of 20th century Irish history in film.
Michael Collins (1996)
Critic Michael Dwyer called this biopic “the most important film made in or about Ireland in the first century of cinema.” This film is to Ireland what Braveheart was to Scotland. It provides an overview of major events of the Irish fight for independence: the Easter Rising; the revolutionary Assembly of Ireland; Bloody Sunday; the negotiation of the Anglo-Irish Treaty; the partition of Northern Ireland.
Rather than glorify the violence of the Irish revolution, the film demonstrates that Collins (Liam Neeson) valued human life. It is fast paced, but at the same time the movie shows that Collins was a thinking man who appreciated the strategies of the English and of Irish president Éamon de Valera (Alan Rickman.)
The Irish film censors chose a rating that allows even young children to view this movie under adult supervision. A lesson plan for Michael Collins is available from Ireland in Schools, and another is featured on an ESL web site for upper secondary grades. Compare and contrast with other struggles for national autonomy (e.g. Indian Home Rule, American Revolution, Quebec’s Quiet Revolution and sovereignty movement.)
Rating Guide for Michael Collins: Canada: 14A (13+ in Quebec); Ireland: 12; UK: 15; USA: R
The Wind That Shakes The Barley (2006)
This film revolves around the life story of two fictitious brothers, Damien (Cillian Murphy) and Teddy O’Donovan (Padraic Delaney), but its plot follows the events of the Irish War of Independence and Irish Civil War.
Young Damien is preparing to practise medicine at a hospital in London. After a squad of Black and Tans murders his friend he abandons his plans, and decides to fight for Irish Home Rule. Set in County Cork, The Wind That Shakes The Barley explores public reaction to the Anglo-Irish Treaty, and like Michael Collins it shows how friendships and even families were split apart during the civil war that followed.
The movie is named for a ballad about earlier strife in Ireland, a song that recently recorded by Loreena McKennett. Both it and the 17th century Oró Sé do Bheatha ‘Bhaile are performed during the movie. Music teachers will find this movie lends itself well to a discussion of the relationship between music and social conditions.
Rating Guide for The Wind That Shakes The Barley: Quebec: 13+; Ireland: 15A ; UK: 15
Set in the 1950s, this movie is loosely based on the story of Desmond Doyle and his daughter Evelyn. Doyle (Pierce Brosnan) has been abandoned by his wife. When he turns to his mother-in-law for help she reports him to the authorities, who force him to surrender his children to Church-run orphanages. A kindly judge leads Doyle to believe he can bring the children home once he has reliable work, but after doing everything the courts ask of him he is told he needs his wife’s consent to reclaim the children.
Doyle must do what has never been done before: his lawyer (Aidan Quinn) must challenge a statute of Irish law for being unconstitutional. Evelyn is a truly inspirational story about the bonds of family, and an exploration of how the Catholic religion helped to shape the legal definition of family in Ireland. It is suitable for social studies, literature or humanities classes. The true story is told in the book Tea and Green Ribbons, by Evelyn Doyle.
Rating Guide for Evelyn: Canada: PG (G in Quebec); UK: PG; USA: PG
Irish Films in Your Classroom
As can be seen above, film ratings may vary significantly from one place to another. Content of the movies discussed can be compared to Braveheart, Schindler’s List, or Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Educators are strongly encouraged to preview these and all movies before deciding to show them to students.
The language in some of the films is quite strong. If you are among those who support scouring classics like Huck Finn to remove every instance of the “n-word,” you probably won’t be comfortable using these films in your classroom. If you believe an open minded exploration requires us to examine Irish history – warts and all – you will no doubt find these films enrich your curriculum.
British Board of Film Classification
Classification & Ratings Administration (CARA)
Internet Movie Database
Irish Film Classification Office
Raita Merivirta-Chakrabarti, “Between Irish national cinema and Hollywood: Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins.” Journal of Irish Studies
Régie du cinéma (Quebec)