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Le cinéma européen et les langues

The liminal position of Irish cinema: Is using the English language a key to success?

Le cas particulier du cinéma irlandais : la langue anglaise, clé de la réussite ?
Isabelle Le Corff


L’Irlande a un statut particulier au sein de l’Europe. Colonisée par la Grande Bretagne jusqu’en 1921, elle fut l’unique pays européen à être une colonie au vingtième siècle. La langue des irlandais, le gaélique, est progressivement devenue une langue mineure tandis que la langue du colonisateur devenait le moyen d’expression le plus parlé dans l’île. L’état de pauvreté du pays donna également lieu à une émigration très importante, en particulier vers les Etats-Unis. Le cinéma irlandais a été fortement marqué par l’évolution socio-économique du pays, mais ce qui fut longtemps effet de domination s’est cependant transformé en formidable atout. Parler anglais constitue aujourd’hui une aubaine pour les acteurs de tous les pays. C’est aussi un marqueur culturel important. L’objet de cet article sera de montrer comment l’Irlande a su conquérir sa place dans la production cinématographique anglophone en Europe et aux Etats-Unis, tout en insufflant ses particularités identitaires dans les films, notamment par le biais des accents. Ce qui a pu être vécu comme impérialisme américain est aussi à regarder dans l’autre sens, la culture irlandaise ayant imprégné la culture américaine de multiples façons. Il en ressort que l’Irlande négocie mieux que tout autre pays européen ses rapports privilégiés avec Hollywood tout en cultivant son appartenance européenne.

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Defining national cinema versus the cinemas of the continent

1The object of this paper is to question the specificity of Ireland in terms of cinema and languages within the sphere of European cinema. With a population of less than 5 million inhabitants and two official languages, does Irish cinema have specificities worth considering on the European stage ? We will explore the role of languages and accents in the construction of representations and analyse how such markers function in Europe and on the global market. Looking closely at the impact of such markers, we will appreciate how nationhood and international success have been articulated.

2Discussing “European cinema” requires that we share a common definition of the concept. We agree with Thomas Elsaesser that it

  • 1 ImpersoNations:National Cinema, Historical Imaginaries and New Cinema Europe, Thomas Elsaesser. Mis (...)

cannot merely be either the historically conventionalized accumulation of national cinemas (most of which have been in commercial decline since the early 1980s) or the equally conventionalized enumeration of outstanding directors (however crucial filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard, Wim Wenders, Pedro Almodovar, Lars von Trier, Peter Greenaway or Krzysztof Kieslowski are in connoting “Europe,” above and beyond their national identity).1

3However, this notion remains unstable and somewhat inconsistent. The impossibility of an acceptable definition has even become something of a fixed trope of discourse among critics and scholars, as one has to face the fact that films made in different European countries cannot epitomize so many different identities.

  • 2 The database Lumiere provides a compilation of available data on admissions of the films released i (...)

4Moreover, it is not easier to define “National cinema”, and the Lumiere database2 is faced with similar difficulties in trying to do so. Their description of the “country of origin” of the films classified on their database demonstrates the difficulty of clarifying this concept :

Defining the nationality of a film is a complex task. There are no widely accepted international or even European definitions of the criteria to be used to determine the country of origin of a film. This is both a legal and a statistical problem. It is enlightening to compare the lists provided by the different national sources that we use: countries involved in a joint production are not always indicated (even when the main co-producer is from another country). Different national records - and the statistics on which they are based - can show the same film as having a whole range of nationalities. In a general pan-European database such as LUMIERE, we have had to adopt a pragmatic approach. We try to list all coproducing countries in the database in a standard way, and we attempt to classify them in order of importance (whether known or assumed), with the country having provided the majority of financial investment in the production in first place.

  • 3 Alan Williams, Introduction to Film and Nationalism, New Jersey, Rutgers University Press, 2002. Qu (...)

5As Alan Williams sums it up: “Cinema and nation have always had shifting, problematic functions with regard to one another and to the larger arena of world culture.”3 The financial backing is certainly useful in terms of classification but it rarely touches upon the main issue.

6The multiplicity of languages is a major characteristic of the European continent. In cinema, one’s mother tongue may just as well be a benefit as a barrier, and some stars have been able to succeed within the European sphere, when others have failed. Ginette Vincendeau studied the history of French stars and claimed that the French industry shaped a particular kind of star whose success was based on local rather than international appeal.4 On the contrary, a British actress like Emily Watson has evidenced her European status, working with English (Alan Parker, Angela’s Ashes, 1999), Irish (Jim Sheridan, The Boxer, 1997) and Danish (Lars Von Trier, Breaking the Waves, 1996) directors. She received the European award for best actress in 1994 and was nominated for best actress at the European Film Awards in 2001. But awarding procedures do not meet any criteria other than the following : “Feature films participating in the European Film Awards must be European feature-length fiction films intended for normal theatrical release which must have had their first official screening (be it at a festival or at a regular cinema) after 1 July of the year before.”5 Indeed, there is no such thing as defining the “European” dimension of an actor/actress using standards like “being able to perform in several European languages.” Emily Watson turned down the role of Amélie (Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, 2001) that Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet had written for her, due to difficulties speaking French.6 Being fluent in English obviously stands as a major linguistic asset for French actors and actresses (Juliette Binoche, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Lambert Wilson, Mélanie Laurent…) because it facilitates taking part in international projects, whatever the performing language of the film may then be.

  • 7 Europa Cinemas is a network of 1,036 cinemas in 588 cities and 60 countries. It was founded in 1992 (...)

7If the casting of actors from different European countries, with a plot requiring that several European languages were spoken, was the standard applied to the “European” film category, some films made by American directors like Woody Allen or Quentin Tarantino would certainly qualify. Inglorious Basterds, produced by German and American companies, is one of the major fictional historical reconstructions ever made on the Second World War in Europe. Starring Christoph Waltz (Austrian), Michael Fassbender (Irish), Til Schweiger (German), Mélanie Laurent (French), Daniel Brühl (Spanish-German), Diane Kruger (German), the film includes dialogues in English, French, German and Italian. It is a fact that European cinema functions as a network between nations in which nations remain at the core of the scheme.7 Discussing the impact of languages on the part played by a specific national cinema within the European structure is therefore crucial in terms of its impact on culture and expression.

Ireland, the unwilling English-speaking country

8Ireland was in the paradoxical position of being a colony within Europe in the twentieth century. Luke Gibbons (1996, 3) has defined Ireland as “a First World country with a Third World memory,” in consequence of the country’s centuries of forcible British occupation. Ireland’s colonisation by the British Kingdom only ended in 1921, that is to say less than a century ago. A partition treaty then divided Eire from Ulster, and these events were followed by a civil war between the nationalists who supported the Anglo-Irish treaty (The Irish Free State being part of the British Commonwealth) and those in favour of a fully independent Republic. Irish Gaelic was the language historically spoken by the people in Ireland, but it began to decline under English rule in the seventeenth century, and it decreased dramatically during the Great Famine (1845-1852). Irish speakers have become a minority in Ireland since then, in spite of the Gaelic Revival movement’s efforts to encourage the learning and use of Irish in Ireland. Irish Gaelic nevertheless enjoys constitutional status as the national and first official language of the Republic of Ireland. It is considered one of the national languages of the European union, with only 100,000 Irish people being fluent and less than one million having significant knowledge of Irish. Ireland was made an English-speaking country by force, and English has thus become the second official language. Marked by this struggle against British rule, Ireland more than any other European nation has strongly felt the need to define its cultural identity. A strong and clear sense of “Irishness” emerged in the post-colonial years. Nationalism did not take an imperious shape but was rather expressed as anti-colonial, with a strong need to re-shape the country’s identity. The need to revitalize the cultural energies, which had accumulated over centuries, was accompanied by the primacy of rural values, fervent Catholicism, the idolization of the landscape and the repression of sexuality. The idealization of the West of Ireland implied that rural life was the only truly Irish life. Anthony D. Smith (1992, vii) reminds us that we must understand nationalism as “closely related to national identity, a multidimensional concept, and extended to include a specific language, sentiments and symbolism.” Such a model was not an easy one to deal with after the country’s independence and many historians have asserted that the de Valera era (from the twenties to the seventies), with the enforcement of self-sufficiency and protectionist policies, was one of tradition and nostalgia. There was little room for individual expression and talent. The uniqueness of some Irish writers was even revealed from abroad, Ireland being too conservative in those post-colonial years to acknowledge the value of its own writers. Joyce and Beckett’s lively connections with mainland European culture proved productive precisely because ‘they were carrying with them the nightmare of their country’s history’ (Gibbons, 1996, 6), and expressing it abroad (Beckett even wrote some of his best pieces in French). The concept of nationality has been at the heart of Irish debates, academic publications and reflections for years, and one possible way to look at this period of nostalgia for rural and traditional values may be to consider it as the first phase in the assertion of one’s culture rather than as a refusal of modernization.

Ireland versus America in cinema

  • 8 The Lad from Old Ireland, Rory O’More, The Colleen Bawn…
  • 9 Charles Foster, Stardust and Shadows, Canadians in early Hollywood, Toronto, Dundurn Press, 2000, p (...)
  • 10 Kevin Rockett, Luke Gibbons & John Hill, Cinema and Ireland, 1987.

9Not surprisingly in this political context, the history of Irish cinema was equally chaotic. It is true that films had begun to be produced in Ireland as early as the end of the nineteenth century, and that Ireland’s first permanent cinema opened in 1909. Indigenous historical dramas and comedies were produced on the island in the twenties, some of them based on Irish novels, others on original scripts. There was also a close relationship between the films produced and the evolving nationalist movement of the times. However, being under British authority, the country had difficulty in developing a film culture of its own. The emigration rates to the United States had certainly been among the highest in Europe in the nineteenth century, and as a result, the island’s sons and daughters had spread out in diaspora, giving the country a clear awareness of its emigrants. In 1920 one in four of all Irish-born people were living in America, and Irish culture thus imbued American society. When American fiction film companies started filming outside the US, Sydney Olcott, one of Kalem’s top directors, chose Ireland to shoot on location. One of his reasons for choosing Ireland was that, born of Irish parents, he was attracted to the place and its original culture. Another reason was the advantage of the local people speaking English, since it made the work a lot easier. Sydney Olcott made a substantial number of films which showed a great interest in Irish subjects,8 and his historical melodramas in rural settings proved very successful in the States : “It seemed everyone with Irish ancestry wanted to see the old country again”.9 Some films even put emphasis on America as a refuge for Irish political and military activists. According to Ruth Barton, however, Olcott’s purpose was to meet the expectations of emigrant and other overseas audiences. He consequently insisted on Irish authenticity through titles and specific references, to the point that he reduced Irish history to high melodrama and displayed the communality of Irish life and the bravery of certain individuals within it. Barton (2004, 22) adds, “His portrayal of an inherently conservative, rural society was unlikely to cause offence either at home or abroad.” The first studies of cinema and Ireland by Irish scholars put to the foresuch key representations of the Irish on the screen.10 The researchers deplored that the first representations of Ireland on the screen were predominantly left to the commercial designs of American companies and that such non-indigenous markers became a point of departure for the films later produced.

When the first indigenous Irish film company, The Film Company of Ireland (FCOI) was launched in March of 1916, just before the Easter Rising, its work was deeply indebted to the tradition established by Olcott of alternating comedies and historical melodramas. Its founder, James Mark Sullivan, a successful lawyer, journalist and diplomat, had emigrated to the United States as a boy and was now determined to establish an Irish film industry. (Barton, 2004, 23)

Ireland A Nation was, similarly, a historical drama directed by Walter MacNamara, an Irishman who had emigrated to the United States. He spent five months in Britain and Ireland in 1914 in order to make his film. Dealing with the importance of America to Irish nationalism, the film ends on shots of the Statue of Liberty and the American flag in homage to ‘the Land of the Free’. Parts of the film were censored in Ireland during what was called the Rising period. Other films by the Film Company of Ireland were destroyed during the Easter Rising. Such events proved the close interconnections not only between politics and cinema but also between Ireland and America (Barton, 2004, 18).

10Irish scholars have extensively discussed these “outsider images” that Ireland has inspired (McLoone, 2000, 4). Later films like Man of Aran (Robert Flaherty, 1934), The Quiet Man (John Ford, 1952) were also begrudged the classification of “Irish film” on the grounds that they were not “about the Irish themselves” and did not belong to “Irish cinema”. Martin McLoone, Ruth Barton, certainly gave useful insights into these films and prompted essential debates that challenged the definition of Irish cinema. I have also examined these films extensively elsewhere11 and observed that the definition of what constitutes Irish cinema has been a shifting one, allowing different interpretations. Taking ‘Irishness’ into consideration demands accepting a range of diverse representations of the term and calls for an acknowledgment that it is indeed a fluctuating notion. Filmmakers from different backgrounds have presented diverse contributions to Irish cinema, and it is impossible not to take them into account, as they influence the very making of the Irish films to come. Irish scholars have done essential work in the recognition of Ireland in film studies. One must acknowledge that a scholar’s mode of perception depends on his/her cultural background and that inevitable subjectivity needs to be discussed with other scholars from different cultural backgrounds. Indeed, one could argue that making films and discussing them is part of the same transformative capacity of culture in society. As Mikhail Bakhtin has observed, “cultural and literary traditions are preserved and continue to live, not in the subjective memory of the individual nor in some collective “psyche” but in the objective forms of culture itself”. Culture has indeed a transformative capacity. It does not only reflect a way of living, a way of thinking, a way of behaving, it also alters and shapes these attitudes. Language fits into these forms of culture. There is no possibility of undoing history, of parting with the English language in Ireland. Irish Gaelic was suppressed as the official language under colonialism and even though it was reinstated after Ireland’s independence it has retained its marginalised status in contemporary Ireland. All in all, a relatively small percentage of Irish films have been made in the Irish language.12

11Sweet Inniscara, by Emmett Moore, was the first all-Irish talking film made in Ireland. It was released in 1934 and probably had a limited audience. The first production funded by the National Film Institute, with significant financing by the Irish government (£ 3,000) was the documentary film A Nation Once Again (1946). The film commemorated the one hundredth anniversary of the death of Thomas Davis, a revolutionary Irish poet, chief organizer of the Young Ireland movement. According to Ruth Barton (2004), the film ‘is a classic instance of the use of history as a legitimating discourse’. It presents Davis’s ideas in the context of contemporary Ireland, represented through its youthful population. Ironically, an English-speaking voice-over celebrates modern Ireland through issues such as the call for the revival of the Irish language !

12In the first part of the twentieth century, Irish-themed films were made in Ireland, in England and in the States with a common sense of nostalgia for an idealised Irish rural life and a sense of rootedness that addressed the working-class Irish communities abroad, although most of these films were in English. In the early seventies, Bob Quinn became the most pioneering Irish filmmaker in the Irish language. He determined that cultural identity was closely connected to language and thus created his own company, Cinegael, in Connemara in 1969. There he engaged in making films in Gaelic. One must acknowledge that Irish is still being used as the daily language in some Irish regions called Gaeltachtaí. There are also Irish speakers in Great Britain and in the United States. Bob Quinn believes that refusing the oppressor’s language is a way to allow the freeing of a people. It is a question of personal commitment. He has made a significant number of films in Irish that are of the greatest importance, but it is a fact that a majority of Irish people need subtitles to understand them. The traditional language now co-exists with English on the island. However making films for 100,000 people is costly, and few directors have followed Quinn’s path. Irish is more often used in films through short dialogues, as a means to signify the essence of the place. H3, Les Blair (2001), was written by two former prisoners involved in the Republican Movement, as an accurate reflection of the experiences of the prisoners in the H Blocks in 1980-1981. In the film, the members of the Irish Republican Army imprisoned at The Maze Prison in Belfast communicate in Irish from one cell to another, in order to not be understood by their guards. However many prisoners need a translation because they do not understand Gaelic Irish. The Guard, a black comedy written and directed by John Michael McDonagh (2011), best epitomizes the Irish people’s sense of humour and mockery concerning Gaelic Irish. In a very witty scene, the local people of an Irish West country village welcome an FBI agent in Irish and have him believe he will not understand the local language. It reminds the viewer that Irish was often used as an oppositional tool, at the same time as it gives a precise idea of the Irish propensity to use derision.

Irishness permeates the English language

  • 13 In Into The West (Mike Newell, 1992), the children confuse the west of Ireland with the American we (...)
  • 14 Quoted from the film.
  • 15 “Even though the narrative essentials and boisterous humor come through loud and clear, Yank audien (...)

13The overwhelmingly positive reviews of The Guard from both critics and cinemagoers, in Ireland and abroad, exemplify the way the Irish have succeeded not only in making English a language of their own but also in reviving their identifiable culture. Cinema here proves to be an excellent tool for re-branding the nation through what appears to be “minor elements of culture”. The Irish and the Americans for example share the myth of the west, a myth that was revived in Ireland during the sixties through television in the context of American cultural imperialism.13 Luke Gibbons (1996, 24) states that there is more to that than just fantasy. “The myth of the west in Irish and American culture lies not in their aversion to progress as such but in their pronounced hostility to law and order, and the forces of centralization.” Gleeson in The Guard incarnates such hostility to order. Playing a quirky Irish cop from the Connemara region, he has a dark ironic sense of law. He gives his dying mother a flask of whisky, hires prostitutes on his days off and consumes the drugs that he finds in the pockets of crash corpses. The film’s origins in the western genre are confirmed by the director’s choice of a Mexican-flavoured trumpet-and-guitar score by Calexico that conveys a Leone-Morricone atmosphere. The absence of Irish fiddles and pipes helps build a mock-heroic style. Other intimations which point to Irish people’s ways of making fun of their own flaws may be found in the casual criticisms of Dublin or in Boyle’s racial insults being part of his culture : “I thought that Black people couldn’t ski- or is that swimming ?” “Aren’t all drug dealers black ?” “I’m Irish. Racism is part of my culture.”14 The film may well be in English ; any English speaker will recognize the Irish accents, and, as one critic declared, some viewers outside Ireland may even need subtitles.15 Issues of accent are indeed decisive in determining how local Irish audiences read character through accent appreciation. There is a sense of retaliation in this question of accents. While it is undeniable that Irish society was a victim of British colonisation and that it was made an English-speaking country by force, one can only be elated at the fact that the English language has thus been permeated by Irishness. Irish accents have acquired legitimacy to address the Other and have even become the basis for a commercial identity. It is a major change in the perception of Irish cultural markers. Not that long ago, Irish actors had to conceal their Irish accent and conform, unless they wanted to be laughed at. The Irish actor Stephen Rea speaks of his experience of working in England in the seventies :

I had the notion imposed upon me that you had to speak in a particular way if you were working in English theatre. Particularly if you were doing translations of foreign classics… It seemed totally stupid to me that I should pretend to be English, to pretend I was Russian or German. I resented it very much, and it robbed me of all the colour and emotion of my own accent. Because the standard English accent is part of a culture which is designed to conceal emotion; and Irish way of speech is more emotional, more poetic, more colourful: they express emotion in their language. (Zucker 2008, p. 22)

  • 16 G. Nowell-Smith, ‘The beautiful and the bad : notes on some actorial stereotypes’, in G. Nowell-Smi (...)

14If accents were praised, it was for the wrong reasons, like emphasizing national categorising: “In American films (except a handful set in Britain and France which call for a wide range of social representation), British and French characters – or characters in some way coded as ‘British’ or ‘French’- are almost always aristocratic or quasi, and often cross-coded to dandyism, effeminacy. Irish, German or Italian characters, by contrast, can be coded to a kind of proletarian earthiness. In real life there are plenty of French proletarians (and in cinema too, since Jean Gabin’s career was almost entirely structured around a proletarian image). There are also a number of Irish dandies, beginning with Oscar Wilde. But in Hollywood movies there is a strong tendency to relate national stereotype to the stereotype of the immigrant. Since the English and French are not identified as belonging to the poor, the huddled masses, the stereotype of the English or French man or woman follows suit.”16

15In a noteworthy historical and analytical study entitled Acting Irish in Hollywood, from Fitzgerald to Farrell, Ruth Barton (2006) reminds the reader how Irish acting has extensively served Hollywood. She retraces the professional lives and successes of leading stars, whom the world may have forgotten were Irish-born : Barry Fitzgerald, George Brent, Maureen O’Sullivan, Maureen O’Hara, Constance Smith, Richard Harris, Stephen Rea, Gabriel Byrne, Pierce Brosnan and Colin Farrell. Not only does Barton assess that the stereotypes in Hollywood cinema have greatly evolved, but she also demonstrates how performers like Gabriel Byrne or Colin Farrell have re-inflected Hollywood dramas with their ethnic accents and wordiness. Of course these actors can scrub their Irish accent and be cast as American actors with no Irish connection more easily than they would pick Italian or German to satisfy ultimate European criteria.

A genuine Irish accent

  • 17 For more details, see Isabelle Le Corff, « Green against Green, Jordan against Loach », in Costa de (...)
  • 18 "Every time a colony wants independence, the questions on the agenda are: a) how do you get the imp (...)
  • 19 The Palme D'Or in Cannes (The Wind That Shakes The Barley), the Golden Bear in Berlin (Bloody Sunda (...)

16Accents have also been at the core of the debates on Irish films in Ireland since the renewal of the Irish cinema in the nineties, as Irish cinema undertook a radical shift. This happened thanks to the recovery of the Irish economy and to the international acclaim of two Irish filmmakers, Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan. Irish cinema emerged internationally with Oscar success for My Left Foot (1989) and The Crying Game (1992), as it was able to provide another, much needed cultural expression in the changing context of the country. Accent became a major worry in terms of genuineness, especially in historical and political films. When English actress Miranda Richardson was cast as the IRA volunteer Jude in The Crying Game (Neil Jordan, 1992), the commissioning editors were concerned that she would be a threat to the film’s authenticity. But the actress proved that she could even cough with a Belfast accent. Giles (1997, 31) highlighted the fact that the casting of a British actress as an IRA member also worked ironically and subtextually, suggesting to the audience that she was not a person to be trusted. Neil Jordan proved less fortunate in casting Julia Roberts as Kitty Kiernan in Michael Collins (1996), as many critics in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe disapproved of her variable Irish accent. Ken Loach, directing The Wind that shakes the Barley ten years later (2006), was equally anxious about the rural West Cork accents of Orla Fitzgerald and Laurence Barry, who respectively played the roles of Sinéad Ní Shúilleabháin and Micheál Ó Súilleabháin. These fictional names in Irish undoubtedly reinforce the feeling of authenticity of the Irish family persecuted by the Black and Tans, all the more so because within the narrative the family functions as a metaphor of beleaguered Ireland. The film was “inspired” by the events of the civil war, not based on actual facts, contrary to Jordan’s biopic, which contains some alterations and fictionalizations but is based precisely on historical events.17 Loach has always been involved in world politics. The Irish family and the division between the two brothers in The Wind that Shakes the Barley function as metaphors of all the oppressed peoples.18 McLoone (2008, 5) has argued that “ Global Irishness (…) may indeed remember the tragedies of the past but it trades on these tragedies (in a very literal sense) as much as it does on myths, sentimentality and kitsch.” In any case, the film draws on an international tradition of representing Ireland as a rural and violent place. Loach won the palme d’or and the European Film Award for best cinematographer in 2006, as well as the Irish and Television Film Award for Best Irish film. Ironically, no Irish-born director has ever won the Cannes palme d’or.19

17The Celtic Tiger years, generally related to the period 1995-2007, saw a reconfiguration of the cinema in Ireland. The changing face of the country, economically and culturally, was accompanied by a growing concern for luxury urban spaces. Films such as When Brendan met Trudy (Kieran J. Walsh, 2001), About Adam (Gerry Stembridge, 2000), Goldfish Memory (Liz Gill, 2003) are all set in nice city locations, valorising eye-catching consumption and wealth. Dublin is populated by young urbanites who have lost all signs of Irish identity and have no traceable accent. They are young, successful people in a wealthy environment that resembles any other well-off setting, and the films reflect their wish to belong to the global era and to erase any Irish characteristics. Ireland evolved from a country of emigration to a country of immigration in the same period, and a few films consequently explore these new themes, mostly depicting the issue of racial otherness as one of integration, as in The Nephew (Eugene Brady, 1998) or Once (John Carney, 2006). In Once, Markéta Irglová, a Czech songwriter, musician and actress, plays the part of a young Czech girl who has recently immigrated to Ireland. She sings with a very pleasant musical Czech accent, and the two lovers do not need to speak, as they relate to each other through music. It gives a clear message of hope for communication between Europeans through other means than language. The film also works as a model for the peripheral European cinema. However, the most compelling cinema of the period, a cinema that engages with the intense social changes brought about by the economic outburst, has emerged from the collaboration between director Lenny Abrahamson and screenwriter and actor Mark O’Halloran. Abrahamson’s films concentrate on what has been called “the Tiger’s underbelly” in Ireland, that is to say the themes of impoverishment, drug abuse, delinquency, racism and crime. Adam and Paul (2004) relates one day in the life of two junkies trying to get a heroin fix in the suburbs of Dublin. The approach to dialogue and local Dublin accent is particularly insightful and in complete opposition to the wave of Celtic Tiger films. In a similar vein, Josie, the main character of Garage (Lenny Abrahamson, 2007), lives in a small rural Irish village called Rathcabbin in County Tipperary. Because he is isolated, Josie speaks to a horse he often visits in the country, or to himself. His being marginalised is very subtly depicted through short sentences he utters to himself, again in a very rural Irish accent “Will we go out ?... we will. C’mon Josie…switch off…do we have keys…we’re all set.” In a way, Josie typifies all the excluded people who are not on a social agenda and do not fit into global culture.

The English language as a key to Irish success

18In a speech he gave at the Cannes film festival on May 16, 2005,20 John O’Donoghue, Irish Minister for Arts, Sports and Tourism, praised Ireland as an English-speaking country: “Ireland has a lot to offer incoming film producers, quite apart from our tax incentives. Our locations are excellent. Our country is safe and welcoming to visitors. We speak English …” Tax incentives have unquestionably been attractive in the European sphere in the past years, and the conditions to benefit from them are promoted on the Irish Film Board site :

You require an Irish co-producer in order to access the Irish tax incentive for film and television, Section 481. In addition to handling the tax deal, your Irish co-producer can advise you on other sources of finance. They can manage all stages of the production process including budgeting, scouting, scheduling, casting, crewing and postproduction.21

  • 22 idem

19Also on the same site, is a list of very successful international productions that Ireland has played host to: “ Braveheart (Mel Gibson, 1995), Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998), Michael Collins (Neil Jordan, 1996) and more recently Harry Potter (JF Rowling, 1997), PS I Love You (Richard LaGravenese, 2007), Becoming Jane and Leap Year (Julian Jarrold, 2007).22

  • 23 Gabriel Byrne : « I think anybody who leaves Ireland and who goes abroad…a strange thing happens yo (...)
  • 24 Unfortunately, the same thing cannot be said of Irish actresses.

20While Thomas Elsaesser is surely right in his analysis concerning continental European countries when he writes : “Without unraveling the long and complex history of the relations between cinema and the State (i.e. governments) in European countries, one can see that what used to be nationally specific protectionism has now become European protectionism, still mostly directed against Hollywood”, it is a different story for Ireland. The small post-colonial country has, quite successfully, struggled for an indigenous cinema within the international arena. The influence of American popular culture has been undeniable in the evolution of Irish culture, and if for decades, Irish talent had to migrate to the States to make movies, things have now changed for the best. There has been a repositioning of talent in Ireland since the nineties; migrations from one country to another and back are now commonplace. Gillepsie (2008, 235) points at filmmaker Neil Jordan as being “a prime example of one struggling to sustain the schizophrenic identity of an American and an Irish director.” Recent actors like Gabriel Byrne, Pierce Brosnan, Liam Neeson move easily between Hollywood and Ireland, using their star status to collect funding for Irish projects.23 Local Irish filmmaking has undoubtedly profited from the international fame enjoyed by these Irish-born actors. Colin Farrell has appeared in a number of low-budget Irish films, playing in each case young, working-class Dubliners. The special relationship that Ireland and the USA enjoy as a consequence of the large-scale emigration we described does not only weaken the notion of American cultural imperialism. It also combines aesthetically an international outline with national constituents. In addition it gives Ireland unique prestige in the world. Not even British actors can compete with Ireland in terms of access to Hollywood.24 Films made in Ireland may also find admission in big cinemas in the United States, or even Australia, when most European films will only be screened in art houses. Irish film has evolved within an English-language cinematic space, at the centre of the Anglo-American sphere. Thanks to the English language and to its cultural and political history, Ireland may well have become this liminal country outside continental Europe, at the heart of the exchanges between local and global, between Europe and the United States.

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Lumiere database :

Barton 2004 : Ruth Barton, Irish National Cinema, London & New York, Routledge, 2004.

Barton 2006 : Ruth Barton, Acting Irish in Hollywood, from Fitzgerald to Farrell, Dublin, Irish Academic Press, 2006.

Costa de Beauregard 2009 : Raphaëlle Costa de Beauregard (ed.), Cinéma et Couleur, Paris, Michel Houdiard Editeur, 2009.

Gibbons & Smith 1992 : Luke Gibbons and Anthony D. Smith, National Identity, London, Penguin, 1992.

Gibbons 1996 : Luke Gibbons, Transformations in Irish Culture, Cork, Cork University Press, 1996.

Giles 1997 : Jane Giles, The Crying Game, London, British Film Institute, 1997.

Gillespie 2008 : Michael Patrick Gillespie, The Myth of an Irish Cinema, New York, Syracuse University Press, 2008.

McLoone 2000 : Martin McLoone, Irish Film : The Emergence of a Contemporary Cinema, London, British Film Institute, 2000.

McLoone 2008 : Martin McLoone, Film Media and Popular Culture in Ireland : Cityscapes, Landscapes, Soundscapes, Dublin, Irish Academic Press, 2008.

Rockett, Gibbons & Hill 1987 : Kevin Rockett, Luke Gibbons & John Hill, Cinema and Ireland, London & New York, Routledge, 1987.

Vincendeau 2000 : Ginette Vincendeau, Stars and Stardom in French cinema, London & New York, Continuum, 2000.

Zucker 1999 : Carole Zucker, The cinema of Neil Jordan, dark carnival, London, Wallflower Press, 1999.

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1 ImpersoNations:National Cinema, Historical Imaginaries and New Cinema Europe, Thomas Elsaesser. Mise Au Point n°5.

2 The database Lumiere provides a compilation of available data on admissions of the films released in European cinemas since 1996.

3 Alan Williams, Introduction to Film and Nationalism, New Jersey, Rutgers University Press, 2002. Quoted by M. P Gillepsie, The Myth of an Irish Cinema, New York, Syracuse University Press , 2008, p. xii.

4 Ginette Vincendeau, Stars and Stardom in French cinema, London & New York, Continuum, 2000.



7 Europa Cinemas is a network of 1,036 cinemas in 588 cities and 60 countries. It was founded in 1992 and is part funded by the European Union MEDIA Programme and Euromed Audiovisual, the Council of Europe Eurimages fund as well as support from France's Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs and National Center of Cinematography and the moving image. The network provides operational and financial support to cinemas who commit to the screening of European films, increasing the circulation of European cinema and facilitating international projects and co-operation between cinemas.

8 The Lad from Old Ireland, Rory O’More, The Colleen Bawn…

9 Charles Foster, Stardust and Shadows, Canadians in early Hollywood, Toronto, Dundurn Press, 2000, p. 997. Quoted by Barton. (2004, p. 19)

10 Kevin Rockett, Luke Gibbons & John Hill, Cinema and Ireland, 1987.

11 Ireland and the Documentary Film : The Controversies Surrounding Man of Aran ; LISA e-journal, ISSN 1762-6153, to be published in 2014.


13 In Into The West (Mike Newell, 1992), the children confuse the west of Ireland with the American west.

14 Quoted from the film.

15 “Even though the narrative essentials and boisterous humor come through loud and clear, Yank audiences will have some trouble with the regional accents, making the addition of a few subtitles possibly advisable”.

16 G. Nowell-Smith, ‘The beautiful and the bad : notes on some actorial stereotypes’, in G. Nowell-Smith and S. Ricci (eds), Hollywood and Europe London, British Film Institute, 1998, p.139.

17 For more details, see Isabelle Le Corff, « Green against Green, Jordan against Loach », in Costa de Beaureagrd (ed.) 2009.

18 "Every time a colony wants independence, the questions on the agenda are: a) how do you get the imperialists out, and b) what kind of society do you build? There are usually the bourgeois nationalists who say, 'Let's just change the flag and keep everything as it was.' Then there are the revolutionaries who say, 'Let's change the property laws.' It's always a critical moment." Quoted at
According to Rebecca O'Brien, producer of the film and a longtime Loach collaborator, "It's about the civil war in microcosm […] It's not a story like Michael Collins. It's not seeking that sort of biographical accuracy, but rather will express the themes of the period. This is the core of the later Troubles, which is why it's so fascinating to make." The Wind That Shakes The Barley' set visit, Jul 18 2005, TimeOut.

19 The Palme D'Or in Cannes (The Wind That Shakes The Barley), the Golden Bear in Berlin (Bloody Sunday) and the Golden Lion in Venice (The Magdalene Sisters), quoted as Irish successes on the site of the Irish Film Board, were all directed by British directors.



22 idem

23 Gabriel Byrne : « I think anybody who leaves Ireland and who goes abroad…a strange thing happens you because in a weird way you never really belong again in the place that you’ve left and you never really belong in the place that you go to so that you live in a kind of limbo world in between. It has tremendous advantages and it has also certain drawbacks. Liam (Neeson) and I often talk about that, could you ever go back to live in Irleand, and there are so many reasons why I would love to come back here but I would miss America an awful lot too. Quoted in Barton (2006, p. 1). 

24 Unfortunately, the same thing cannot be said of Irish actresses.

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Isabelle Le Corff, « The liminal position of Irish cinema: Is using the English language a key to success? »Mise au point [En ligne], 5 | 2013, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2013, consulté le 03 décembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Isabelle Le Corff

Maître de Conférences à l’Université de Bretagne Occidentale. Membre de l’équipe de recherche HCTI, ses travaux portent sur une approche culturelle du cinéma. Auteure de nombreux articles sur le cinéma irlandais, sur la réception des films, elle a publié notamment Cinemas of Ireland, 2009, Cambridge Scholars Publishing et a co-dirigé l’ouvrage Les images en question. Cinéma, télévision, nouvelles images : les voies de la recherche, 2011 aux Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux. Elle est également co-directrice de publication et rédactrice en chef de la revue Mise Au Point.

Isabelle Le Corff is Senior Lecturer in English and Film Studies at the university UBO (Université de Bretagne Occidentale), France. Her research interests include Irish and Irish-American cinema as well as Film in education. She is the author of various articles in French and in English and is co-editor of Cinemas of Ireland, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009, and of Les Images en Question. Cinéma, Télévision, Nouvelles Images : les voies de la recherche, Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux, 2011. She created and is now Chief editor of the peer-reviewed e-journal Mise Au Point, Cahiers de l’Association Française des Enseignants et Chercheurs en Cinéma et Audiovisuel.

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