- Irish Cinema under Erasure
No more stories about Irish mothers, priests, sexual repression, and the miseries of rural life.the fifth province
In the summer of 2019, Professors Roddy Flynn and Tony Tracy published what might seem at first glance to be yet another conventional film reference guide.1 In fact, the Historical Dictionary of Irish Cinema is much more than a repository of received wisdom. It is filled with a wide range of entries—on films, filmmakers, film institutions, and related topics—characterized by scrupulous neutrality yet with meticulous attention to detail. Consequently, this work offers readers the means and opportunity to reconsider many of the common critical conceptions that have for the last three decades shaped discussions about "Irishthemed films."2 Any revaluation of popular assumptions is a useful exercise, and the Flynn/Tracy book comes at a particularly appropriate point in the ongoing conversation on Irish cinema, with or without the quotation marks.3
As a number of the Historical Dictionary's entries on contemporary filmmakers attest—for example, those on Lenny Abrahamson, Colin Downey, and Ivan Kavanagh—Irish cinema is going through a marked change, though the [End Page 30] inherent conservatism of the film industry (a disposition by no means unique to Ireland) has made the transition uneven and sometimes sporadic. Nonetheless, increasingly filmmakers have shown a willingness to follow the exhortation of a fictional scriptwriter in the 1997 film The Fifth Province, quoted as an epigraph to this article, to produce a form of cinema based on a sense of the Irish milieu strikingly different from that held by their predecessors. Evidence from a series of releases over the past few decades indicates that the traditional sense of an Irish film is being displaced in favor of a transnational or even anational perspective that no longer relies upon familiar Irish institutions, beliefs, and attitudes to contextualize their narratives.4
Over the course of this article, I will develop an argument that I believe supports my sense of the postmodern evolution of that certain tendency of the Irish cinema as I discuss key features of the Historical Dictionary. And at its close I will examine three motion pictures—Tin Can Man (2007), Garage (2007), and Eamon (2009)—that move from narratives of conventional Irish-themed films into a post-national ambiance. First, however, I wish to confront the problematic elements of any discussion of films related to Ireland.
Although there is not a hard and fast definition of the phrase national cinema, certain common assumptions tend to shape any discussion of its application to particular examples: They employ indigenous casts and crew.5 They take up issues relating to the particular country of origin under discussion. And they adopt perspectives shaped by the national character of that country. (This to me is a crucial distinction that I will explore further later in the essay. Beginning in 2000 with Vinny Murphy's Accelerator and Gerard Stembridge's About Adam, a number of putatively Irish films began to appear with generic, anational cultural contexts that, were the street names changed, would have allowed them to be placed in any Western urban area.) Further, national cinemas usually presume the existence of indigenous technical and logistical infrastructure—like qualified local professionals and easy access to equipment, soundstages, and processing labs. There is also usually direct or indirect financial support from their governments. Not every film or indeed every country will possess all of these traits, and so commentaries on individual motion pictures necessarily [End Page 31] reflect a range of accommodations that have to be made regarding a national cinema.6 Nonetheless, the term remains a mainstay of film studies.
Of course, its application is extremely problematic in the eyes of many scholars. Social scientists have been debating the usefulness of terms like nation, country, and state for decades.7 In addition to the general issues arising in any discussion that uses the term nation as an essentializing category, certain local elements make an understanding of filmmaking associated with Ireland even more complicated. Specifically, the ongoing mixture of indigenous and non-indigenous filmmakers; the sporadic, even quixotic, support of film projects by the Irish government...