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Film in Ireland

24 January 2017

Read about twentieth century film in Ireland, an extract from the eBook Art and Architecture of Ireland.

Irish film at the Academy Awards

The Film Board (Amendment) Act of 1993 increased the limit of funds available to the Board from its earlier limit of £4.1m to £15m. In the years from 1993 to 2004, the Board produced 110 films, an average of nine per annum. Many of these have enjoyed significant success; Academy Award recognition for [Jim] Sheridan and [Neil] Jordan came quickly with My Left Foot (1989) gaining two Oscars, and The Crying Game (1992) gaining one; both received numerous other nominations and awards. Since then, Once (John Carney, 2006) won an Academy Award in 2008 for Best Original Song and the animated short film Give Up Yer Aul Sins (Cathal Gaffney, 2002) received an Academy Award nomination in the year of its release.

Indeed, Irish animation has continued to receive international recognition with the feature-length release The Secret of Kells (Tomm Moore, 2009) nominated for an Academy Award in 2010, alongside another short animated film Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty (Nicky Phelan, 2008). In 2006 the film Six Shooter (Martin McDonagh, 2005) won an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film and The Door (Juanita Wilson, 2008) was nominated in the same category. Although awards are not the only measure of an industry, such recognition has been a fillip for Irish film-making and is usually seen as vindication for state support for the sector. , working out of and financed by Hollywood or other non-Irish production bases. The situation has thus radically changed from the early days of film-making, where images of Ireland were principally created by film-makers from abroad

Outside viewer

If the history of Irish cinema up to the 1990s was one that responded to an imagined ‘outside’ viewer, either by reproducing a certain set of images of Ireland or, in the case of the avant-garde films of the1970s and early 1980s, by subverting that set of images, where does that leave Ireland now, when it has a commercial industry of its own? Has Ireland’s change in circumstances – the opportunity to take control of its image-making and to project those images back onto the screens of the world – inspired filmmakers to make films that are, in some way or another, identifiably local and Irish? 

It was this hope that fuelled the work of the first wave of independent Irish film-makers. However, their output was always bracketed as experimental and arthouse and, while many of the films of Pat Murphy, Bob Quinn and that generation
of film-makers were highly regarded critically, few found an audience beyond the kind of intellectual circles that consume that model of film-making. Indeed, the best-known ‘Irish’ film of the 1970s is probably the British director David Lean’s Ryan’s
Daughter (1970), a film that is steeped in the romantic legacy of colonialism.

Film making in 1990s

With higher budgets, and decreasing film-making costs (particularly with the introduction of digital technology), the film-makers of the 1990s onwards have had opportunities like no others. The flaw in this argument is that Ireland in the intervening
years has embraced globalization with enthusiasm, so that attempting to identify any film as Irish is now open to charges of naivety. Made with international co-production funding, directed by an Englishman and filmed on location on
the Isle of Man, is Waking Ned (aka Waking Ned Devine, Kirk Jones, 1998) an Irish film because it tells an Irish story and its cast is mainly Irish? Or was its relish in foregrounding Irish stereotypes and its unashamed paddywhackery a consequence of
the low level of Irish creative input into the production? Many of the key Irish films of this period have been made by British directors – The Commitments (1991) and Angela’s Ashes (1999) are the work of Alan Parker, The Magdalene Sisters (2002) of Peter Mullan and The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006) of Ken Loach. All tell Irish stories, most feature Irish actors in the lead roles, and their success has been celebrated as reflecting well on the national industry. Conversely, Neil Jordan is often discussed as a British director and he, Pat O’Connor, Thaddeus O’Sullivan and Jim Sheridan have made a number of films that are clearly Hollywood or British products – Interview with a Vampire (Neil
Jordan, 1994), Sweet November (Pat O’Connor, 2001), The Heart of Me (Thaddeus O’Sullivan, 2002) and Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (Jim Sheridan, 2005). We now create our own images of Ireland and export them globally, rather than having those images formed for us by film-makers from outside industries.

This post was written by Ruth Barton has been extracted from Art and Architecture of Ireland: Volume V Twentieth Century. 

These fully comprehensive volumes are currently available online to all schools and libraries on the island of Ireland as part of the Royal Irish Academy’s commitment to providing legacy material for the people of Ireland in 2016.


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