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Ruth Barton MRIA: Film Scholar

02 July 2021

Professor Barton believes that we need a stronger critical culture and that in creating such a culture it is the role of academicians to bridge the gap between the university and wider society.

Ruth Barton MRIA, School of Creative Arts, Trinity College Dublin

I have been immersed in the study of Irish cinema since undertaking the Masters’ degree that started my journey through research. It has been extraordinarily rewarding, not least because my critical approach—considering the relationship between Irish cinema and Irish society—has made me ask questions about our culture that go far beyond the stories that we see on the screen.

If we ask ourselves who is represented in Irish cinema, how they are represented, and why, then we must delve into issues of identity that traverse time and place. Watching The quiet man, John Ford’s love letter to Ireland of 1952, reminds us that the diaspora, and the dream of owning a ‘wee humble cottage’ in Connemara, are intrinsic to how the Irish have been imagined in cinema. If those were the days of the bucolic Irish village, and the feisty Irish colleen, then we have come a long way to films like Rosie, written by Roddy Doyle and directed by Paddy Breathnach in 2018, which charted the experiences of an ordinary Dublin family, who could no longer afford to live in a home, let alone own one.

When I started studying Irish cinema, Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan were just entering their long ascendance in the filmmaking scene; Sheridan with films like My left foot (1989) and In the name of the father (1993), Jordan with The crying game (1992) and Michael Collins (1996). It was they who propelled Irish cinema into the wider consciousness, winning Academy Awards and creating stars of their leading actors. Now we have Lenny Abrahamson, who like Sheridan and Jordan, has moved between small, intimate stories of Irish life (Adam & Paul, 2004) and films that seem at first to have little to say about Irishness (Room, 2015). Abrahamson’s later work is part of a new Irish film culture, epitomised by the output of Element Pictures, that circulates within a global production environment of transnational funding. It was Element who produced 2020’s television adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal people, part-directed by Lenny Abrahamson, and it is they who are working on Conversations with friends, another Rooney adaptation.

Lest it seem that my vocation is to celebrate Irish filmmaking uncritically, however, let’s go back to those names and ask where are the leading Irish female filmmakers, or how many of our filmmakers tell stories about our new immigrant population? How many creative voices from the Traveller community are presenting their stories on film? Yes, Screen Ireland, the body responsible for supporting Irish filmmaking, has introduced measures to support women directors and writers, and these efforts are slowly making a difference. But, as Denis Murphy and I demonstrated in our report for the Creative Ireland Programme, Ecologies of Cultural Production, access to cultural production, whether in film, theatre or TV drama, needs to start in early life or at university, and through education. It’s here that the networks are formed that determine how later careers are made.

As well as writing about and teaching cinema, I also review films on RTÉ Radio’s weekday arts programme, Arena. I do it because I enjoy it, but also because it forces me to articulate my response to cinematic productions in a less formal way than I might when I’m writing a journal article or monograph. I’m still analysing the films as I would have in the classroom or on the page but, I hope, in a way that encourages listeners to think critically. We need a stronger critical culture, and it is, I believe, our role as academicians, to bridge that gap between the university and wider society.

What I hope I have achieved in my career to this point is to encourage wider debate about Irish cinema and to share my own pleasure in studying it.

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