This is a talk I gave during the year at the 'Dialogues Through Literature' event in Ballinamore, Co. Leitrim. If you can stick with it you'll get to the film bit eventually. The talk is intended to question of the drift in our policy assumptions, and the loss of audiences, rather than as a call for some sort of prescriptive, chauvinistic approach.
Local / Place
When I was contacted about taking part in this event I had no idea that it had been initiated by and was being held at the local GAA club here in Ballinamore. I’m not really a GAA man, being originally from Limerick – heartland of Munster rugby – and having spent most of my formative years and working life in Dublin. I wondered, thinking about ‘the local’ and ‘place’, if there might be a bigger divide to cross than the Shannon at Drumsna when I made my way here from home amongst ‘the Rossies’ in north Roscommon.
I may have had this anxiety because we live at a time in Ireland – in the realm of what passes for public discourse, at any rate – when what separates us is amplified to such an extent that it suppresses what unites us. Divisions are fomented between urban and rural, between old and young, between ‘up there’ and ‘down here’, and, most of all - between ‘them’ and ‘us’, however and by whom ‘them’ and ‘us’ may be defined.
Perhaps this is part of a national preoccupation with ‘who’ we are and ‘where’ we come from. But if this is how we ground our sense of ourselves then the danger is that it all too easily may become a barrier between us.
I live now in the townland of Cuilmore. Our nearest neighbours live in the townland of Creta, on the other side of a hedge and ditch that almost certainly predate our house, itself around 200 years old. So, although our neighbours live less than 150 metres away they have a different address. They are from a different place.
That said, we have more in common with our neighbours than the boundary between us. Just as my having been raised and schooled at the heart of Dublin 4 might be, as they say, ‘a long way from here’, I can at least tell you that I grew up on the same road and went to the same national school as the captain of the 1994 Leitrim Connacht Championship-winning football team. He grew up in number 22, I grew up in number 46, albeit fifteen years ahead of him.
It is, I think we can all agree, a small country. Once while on holiday in my teens, slouching along on my own into the centre of Limerick city, I was stopped by a complete stranger on O’Connell Avenue. “You must be one of the Sheehys,” he said. “Which are you?” Although I saw myself as a Dubliner on holiday it seems I was in fact in my native place.
But others knew that better than I did myself. Or had they the right to claim me? As a callow teenager I felt I’d been ‘placed’ in the sense of being identified or labeled – a feeling that at my age was more than semantically close to feeling being ‘put in my place’, or to the social convention of ‘knowing one’s place’.
If we do have at once both a simple and a complicated relationship with place in real life, then our relationship with our own place as it is imagined is arguably even more complex.
The first film I saw as a child that showed me the place I was living was a film called Rooney which I saw on black and white television sometime towards the end of the 1960s. It’s a story about the love life and travails of a Dublin bin-man, filmed in 1957. It even includes footage of the 1957 All-Ireland Hurling Final between Kilkenny and Waterford because the lead character wins an all-Ireland medal during the course of the film.
Not only was Rooney filmed on roads like the one I lived on, but the bin truck in the film was the same as the one that collected our rubbish every Monday. And, to top it all, one of the bin crew hefting the bins was played by the actor Noel Purcell – you might have seen him in the 1962 Mutiny on the Bounty with Marlon Brando – who lived just up the road from our house. It amazed me then that a film could be made about people and places that were so familiar to me in real life.
Two decades later, and now writing about film, I tracked down Rooney again and made an unexpected discovery. It wasn’t really a Dublin, or even an Irish story at all. It was based on a book with the same title by Catherine Cookson, published in 1956, and set in the writer’s birthplace, South Shields, Newcastle-on-Tyne in north east England. Needless to say, Catherine Cookson’s protagonist didn’t go anywhere near Croke Park, let alone win an all-Ireland hurling medal.
So where did this leave me? I felt somehow that I had been duped – that this Irish film wasn’t in fact an Irish film at all. But then isn’t it the function of every fiction film to dupe its audience, to have them believe that something that is not true, might be true? To make a place – be it our own place, or a foreign place, or a futuristic place, or an alien place – believable? To construct a fiction so powerful that the screen, or the page, cannot contain it?
The answers here are undoubtedly Yes, Yes and Yes, but there remains a compelling, if recessive anxiety involving the soul and the captured image when the story being told, the pictures that represent us, is close to the place we know as home. The functional reasons for Rooney being filmed in Ireland and adapted as an Irish story are fairly simple – there was a financial inducement for British film producers to come to Ireland to make films in the late 1950s and early 1960s, just as there is today. But the result then as now was a number of Irish films that were Irish in every respect except for their authorship.
There is a memorable line at the bottom of the first page of the first chapter of Dermot Healy’s memoir, ‘The Bend for Home’. He writes, “It’s in a neighbour’s house fiction begins.” It is a great line, and all the better for being open to various interpretations. One interpretation being perhaps that our neighbours make up stories about us. However, if it is our lives that give rise to our neighbours’ fictions, whether they are 150 metres away, or several thousand miles away, might we begin to think they were bad neighbours? Might we begin to assert our right to tell our own stories? Might we in turn make up stories about them, or might we begin to tell stories for them rather than for ourselves?
This year a film, ‘Jimmy’s Hall’, is being made about one of Leitrim’s historical figures, the politically radical James Gralton. He built a dance hall at Effernagh, not far from Carrick-on-Shannon, in the 1920s, and challenged the religious and political authorities of the day. The hall was shot at and later firebombed and razed to the ground and, although an Irish citizen, Gralton was deported in 1932. He died a doorman in Manhattan in 1945.
The film is directed by Ken Loach – who made ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’ in County Cork some years back – and it will be produced by the same companies responsible for that film. Like as not this will be identified as an Irish film, a film very much of Leitrim and dramatising a historically important story. However, and without doubting the bona fides of all involved, I can’t help but feel again that recessive anxiety involving the soul and the captured image.
Is this a form of cultural sleight of hand or are all our stories fair game for whoever wants to discover them or make them up? Will Ken Loach’s version of historical Leitrim be any different, any less accurate or any less sensitive to local nuance than that created by an Irish director?
If an Irish story is essentially a product that may be told by anyone, then is it any wonder that films like ‘Leap Year’ get made, or the earlier ‘Waking Ned’ which didn’t even film in Ireland, they went the whole hog and faked it on the Isle of Man.
More seriously, one has to wonder why historical Irish stories like the Gralton project are not being brought to production by Irish writers and directors. Why is it that they seem mostly to be engaged in telling stories that have much of the particularity of their origins reduced so that they become ersatz Anglo-American films. And do I sense also that many Irish writers of genre fiction are now writing stories ‘for the international market’ that are set outside Ireland?
If this is a trend, then should we be worried that our collective imagination is losing the spark it found in the traditional geographical space we think of as ‘local’? That it has exchanged the universality of what is local and slipped or shifted into a globalised cultural ‘place’ where the reference points are those places to which we have for so long escaped in our imaginations that they now seem as much or more like home than home itself?
This might explain how it is that Irish films are pretty much foreign to Irish cinema audiences. New York and LA are more familiar than, say, Galway on an Irish cinema screen. It is as if the metaphorical mirror that we hold up to life twists uncontrollably in our hands, allowing us to see in it only the oblique reflection of others, and less and less often ourselves.
We are left then with Wilde’s dictum, that "Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life". Unfortunately the art we imitate in our lives in this age seems increasingly less likely to be our own art.
It has to be said, too, that the creative process does not take place in a vacuum, it takes place in a context that has a bearing not just on the author’s subject material but that also influences the commercial decision-making of intermediary businesses between authors in all mediums and their audiences. This is a world in which consolidation, contraction and new economies of scale make it harder and harder for niche films and niche books to find audiences. Or, even when those audiences can be discovered, there may be insufficient financial return to the writers and film makers to enable them to continue writing and making films.
Right now it is difficult now to see how things will work out. We have to hope that new and distinctive voices and willing audiences will be able to find each other, even as this dramatic change is underway. Better still that we find new, active and participatory ways in which authors and audiences can encounter and relate to each other ‘in the moment’, ‘live’, at local events such as this, and in places such as this.