When most of us think of Ireland images of leprechauns, shamrocks, and whiskey probably come to mind. The true aspects of Ireland however are much more sobering than the average St. Patrick’s Day party would indicate. The history of Ireland is one of conflict and struggle, so it’s only appropriate that many of the best films from Ireland focus on those very aspects. With St. Patrick’s Day baring down on us, and green being worn in abundance this is perhaps the best time to soak in some of the cinematic gems that Ireland has to offer when telling its own stories.
When talking about conflict in Ireland the elephant in the room is of course continuing struggle between the Ireland and England. The most prominent group in this conflict has been the Irish Republican Army, which has been openly and violently attempting to drive British rule out of Ireland for almost a century. The 1996 film “Michael Collins” detailed one of the most prominent figures in the events that would lead to the formation of the IRA. In the film Liam Neeson stars as the titular Collins, a man largely responsible for Irish freedom fighter’s transition from more traditional warfare to guerrilla and terrorist tactics against Britain. Neeson plays the character as clever and ruthless when necessary, but also extremely charming. The character has a wit and charm to him that feel uniquely Irish and help make an already good film into a great one. Despite some minor alterations for the sake of dramatic structure the film is largely accurate in its depiction of events.
Another film set during the same period and dealing with some of the same events is 2007’s “The Wind that Shakes the Barley.” While “Michael Collins” focused on the leaders of the conflicts, this film chooses to focus on the more common soldiers. The film is a fictionalized account of actual struggles and battles and at the center of it all are two brothers played by Cillian Murphy and Padriac Delaney. The pair fight together for Irish freedom until the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922 that set up Ireland as a free state. Since it didn’t give Ireland true independence this caused a civil war between those who supported the treaty and those who opposed it. This puts the brothers on opposite sides of the conflict when only a few years before they had fought side by side. It’s a powerful examination of civil war and how loved ones are made to make war with each other over their beliefs.
Not all movies that feature the IRA or any of it’s various off-shoots focus on the conflict between Ireland and England. Instead some use the that conflict as a backdrop to tell more intimate stories. Such was the case with 1992’s “The Crying Game,” which starred Stephen Rea as a somewhat weak willed member of the IRA. When the group takes a hostage Rea finds himself making a promise to look after the hostage’s girlfriend should he did. The film has become more famous for the twist involving said girlfriend, but it is far more than that. Even those who already know the twist should take the time to enjoy this emotionally intense film.
Of course not all struggles in Irish films have to involve the IRA or the Civil War or the conflict with England in any way. The 1989 film My Left Foot told the true story of Irish writer and artist Christy Brown who overcame great personal obstacles. Daniel Day Lewis (in an Oscar winning performance) plays Brown, who was born with cerebral palsy. As a result the only part of his body that he has full control of is his left foot. Born into a working class family Brown struggles against his condition and his roots in a story that is heartbreaking and uplifting. As with many great Irish films it shows a continuing struggle but focuses on the perseverance of the Irish in a way that is enduring on the screen.