In the August 1996 issue of Movieline magazine, Irish-American columnist Joe Queenan examined the way the Irish have been depicted in movies. He ranks movies based on the number of cliches they can lay claim to and crowns a then-recent indie movie as the King of Blarney.
Nobody goes to Ireland to make a Western, a sci-fi fantasy, an Adam Sandler movie or a film about teetotalers. In the entire history of motion pictures, an average of fewer than one film per year has been made about the Emerald Isle, and judging by the results, that seems to be more than enough.
In recent years, though, there has been an explosion of films set in Ireland or involving the Irish, including such big-budget affairs as Far and Away and such well-received smaller films as The Commitments. Even for a proud Irish-American such as myself, whose grandparents hail from County Cork, this is a development that must be viewed with a certain amount of apprehension.
Let me explain.
Almost without exception, motion pictures about Ireland–whether they are set in the North, the South, the 20th century or the 19th century–fall into one of two categories. Either they are searing portrayals of the struggles of the Irish Republican Army against the brutal heirs of Oliver Cromwell, or they are charming films filled with mirth and wit about wee, lovable, canny Irishfolk.
The first group of films, which includes everything from Odd Man Out, Cal and In the Name of the Father to Patriot Games, The Crying Game and A Prayer for the Dying, are all cut from the same mold: we’re a pretty nasty lot, but it’s the Brits’ fault. The films in the second group, which includes everything from Ryan’s Daughter, The Quiet Man and The Secret of Roan Inish to Circle of Friends, The Field and Far and Away, are, like I said, wee and canny and full of wit and wisdom. They are charming and knowing and wise and innocent. They are both sweet and bittersweet. Collectively and individually, they constitute one of the biggest loads of horseshit that ever came down the pike. They are twaddle. They are balderdash. They are malarkey.
They are blarney.
Personally, it would be all right with me if people went on making IRA-versus-the Brits films until the cows came home. Even though every movie about the IRA basically has the same plot–serious revolutionaries eventually become as remorseless as the people they are revolting against–I’ve found that most films of this sort are up to a pretty high standard. With two notable exceptions–The Informer and A Prayer for the Dying–these films try to steer clear of the maudlin, cry-in-your-beer, who’ll save the Old Sod? tradition that is such a cornerstone of Celtic culture.
But the wee, canny, charming films about the lovable Irish are another matter entirely.
In the following pages, I would like to discuss a number of Irish-themed films in an effort to determine which Mick movie constitutes the biggest load of blarney available at the video store today. In doing so, I am trying to register my own horror as an Irish-American at the proliferation of motion pictures that attempt in some way to advance the notion that Irish people are secretly leprechauns. I am aware that I am also inadvertently performing a public service for many of my Irish-American friends by making it that much easier for them to pick out films most suited to their mawkish needs come March 17. Not all Irish-Americans are philosophically opposed to blarney. The sad truth is, a lot of my Irish-American friends secretly think they are leprechauns.
First, some history. Cinematic blarney of a high order first rose in the 1935 classic The Informer, which is basically an IRA-versus-the-Brits film, but instead of being gritty like other movies of the same genre, is a ghastly encyclopedia of Irish sentimentality. This is the film in which Victor McLaglen won an Academy Award by playing a cash-strapped idiot who sells his best friend– an IRA gunman–down the river for 20 pounds, then attracts the attention of the entire Irish Republican Army by throwing a party for everyone in Dublin– pulling a sort of GoodFellas Goes to Galway. Based on a very fine novel by Liam O’Flaherty, the film is practically impossible to sit through today, largely because Victor McLaglen is all too convincing as a complete idiot. With its weeping mothers, lugubrious wakes, flailing shillelaghs, boisterous pubs, drunken layabouts, ubiquitous crucifixes, gentle clerics, duplicitous Englishmen, angelic choirs, contrite stool pigeons, faithful sisters, lovable tarts, implacable inoperative and piping pipes, The Informer is a masterpiece of celluloid blarney, a film that has towered over its competitors for more than half a century.
It concludes with a scene so replete with blarney that it has set the standard by which all subsequent Irish films must be judged. The mortally wounded McLaglen staggers into the church to beg his best friend’s mother to forgive him. Being Catholic, she does. Overjoyed that he has been absolved of his heinous crime, McLaglen bellows: “Frankie, your mother forgives me!” Then he tumbles to the ground, slain by the IRA, in the shadow of a crucifix from which a bleary-eyed Christ looks on. You get the idea from looking at the expression on Christ’s face that this is not the first time he’s seen one of these over-the-top performances.
For many, many years, The Informer reigned as the undisputed King of Blarney. In the ’50s and ’60s, the only serious challenger for sheer acreage of malarkey was The Quiet Man, which has more than its share of clerics, pubs, pipes and canny locals, but is basically about John Wayne, an American who is playing an American, so the potential for blarney is curtailed. I don’t mean to suggest that The Quiet Man is not a huge load of blarney. It was, after all, made by the same guy who made The Informer, John Ford. I am only saying that if The Informer registers a solid 9.9 on the Shamrock Scale, The Quiet Man is but a respectable 8.5.
For the next 30 years or so, movies made about the Irish were either overtly silly or merely strange. Disney honored the Emerald Isle twice–in The Fighting Prince of Donegal, a 1966 lightweight swashbuckler, and Darby O’Gill and the Little People, a piece of leprechaun-ridden fluff that was produced back in 1959. Both were aggressively charming films filled with wee, canny folk, but because of their essentially frivolous nature–they were Disney flicks–neither picture could seriously contend for the title of King of Blarney.
In 1970, David Lean made his own valentine to the land of his forebears. This epic tale (originally 206 minutes, but later cut to 176 minutes after an appeal by the Vatican for mercy) of a schoolteacher’s wife who enters into a doomed relationship with a British soldier is one of the flattest, least affecting movies ever made. Clearly designed to be a “big film,” Ryan’s Daughter is hamstrung by a meandering plot and a spectacularly miscast Robert Mitchum, who plays the cuckolded schoolteacher. Though it comes with the full complement of wise old clerics, lovable village idiots and canny locals, Ryan’s Daughter never seriously emerged as a threat to The Informer’s position as the biggest load of blarney ever made. It didn’t have nearly enough pipes.
After Ryan’s Daughter came and went, it looked like The Informer would reign as the Sultan of Celtic schmaltz until the end of the millennium. But in the past 10 years, The informer’s stranglehold on the scepter of blarney has been seriously challenged again and again. First came A Prayer for the Dying, the Mickey Rourke vehicle about a penitent IRA gunman who decides on a career change after he sees a bomb intended for the hated Brits blow up a bunch of Irish schoolkids. Sporting a brogue as thick as the mists wafting in from the Irish Sea, Mickey is the only actor in history who has ever given the oversized McLaglen a serious run for his money as the Bey of Blarney.
People familiar with this magazine will note that this is not the first time I have written about A Prayer for the Dying. First, I wrote about it in a story about ridiculous accents. Then I wrote about it in a story about impersonating Mickey Rourke for a day. Then I wrote about it in a story about blind people. Then I wrote about it in a story about lovable psychopaths. And now I am writing about it here. Cynical readers might be tempted to say that I am merely recycling my old material, that I have become a lazy old hack. This is terribly shortsighted. The reason I have written about A Prayer for the Dying so much is that, from the dyspeptic critic’s point of view, it is the most useful film ever made. No matter what you’re writing about, this is the movie you can always fall back on to get you out of a tight spot. It has bad accents, blind teenagers, lovable terrorists, overwrought crucifixion imagery, blustery priests, lovable whores and Mickey Rourke. It is the one-size-fits-all bad movie. I love this movie more than life itself.
The next load of pure malarkey to challenge The Informer was the 1990 film The Field. A genuine curse-of-the-Chieftains affair, this film starts with the pipes, the pipes, then quickly gets worse. Richard Harris plays an ornery fanner who is determined to buy a field he has been renting for many years from a local widow. Because the rented field was nothing but rock when he started working it, Harris feels that in a certain Paddy O’ mythical sense it belongs to him now. Alas, this is not the way the Irish real estate market works. The widow decides to put the field up for sale, whereupon Tom Berenger appears, an ugly American who wants to buy the field, pave it over and develop it. Talk about ethnic stereotyping.
Harris handles this situation in the traditional way, by killing Berenger, but when a wise local priest points the finger at him for the unsolved murder, he decides to throw a huge temper tantrum and drive all his cattle off a cliff, killing his son in the process. With its knowing clerics, love of the land, canny locals, village idiot, the pipes, the pipes that are constantly calling from glen to glen and down the mountainside, and lines such as, “You could do worse than lie with the tinker’s daughter under the stars.” The Field is a major work of blarney, and deserves to be honored as such. In fact, in Ireland itself the film is known as Sean de Florette. And yes, it is true that you could do worse than lie with the tinker’s daughter. You could lie with the tinker’s daughter and have to watch this film at the same time.
Despite its many charms, The Field cannot really hold a candle to the 1994 Film A Man of No Importance. In this wee, small, charming affair, Albert Finney plays a lovable ticket taker on a Dublin bus who recites poetry to his passengers every morning. Surprisingly, they do not tear him limb from limb. The ticket taker wants to stage Oscar Wilde’s heathen play Salome at the local church–and hence the film is notable for being the first major Hibernian coming-out picture. Towards the end of the movie, Finney, who has never actually been intimate with another man, gets dressed up like Oscar Wilde and visits a gay bar, where he is beaten and robbed by a bunch of gay, young Irish hustlers, which is what usually happens to senior citizens who get dressed up like Oscar Wilde, and not just in Dublin.
What is this odd little film trying to tell us? It is telling us that Finney is a rebel, a maverick, a man who goes his own way, a will-o’-the-wisp, and in a very real sense, a complete asshole. Indeed, the only thing that prevents the film from being one of the biggest loads of blarney of all time is that it has no pipes. For the life of me I can’t figure out how they forgot that.
The Secret of Roan Inish does have pipes. And it’s got flutes. It’s got drums. It’s got superstition. It’s got wee, canny little people running all over the place. And yes, like most of its predecessors, it has a village idiot. A charming tale of a wee tyke who makes a deal with a pack of seals to restore her kidnapped brother to his real family, The Secret of Roan Inish rates very high on the Blarney-o-meter.
Blarney of a very high quality has also been evident in Circle of Friends (Catholic girls, abortion, the pipes, the pipes), Into the West, The Snapper, My Left Foot and The Commitments, but in recent years, the biggest challengers to The Informer have emerged from an unexpected place. Not as unexpected as Iraq, but still surprising: the U.S.A.
Full-blown blarney explodes into the mean streets of New York in the 1990 film State of Grace. With lots of good material about saloons, religion, angels, mom, brothers in arms, cops, the old neighborhood, brawls, and what an incredible prick Dad was, not to mention a shootout that takes place on St. Patty’s Day, State of Grace pulsates with blarney of a truly spectacular nature. And doesn’t Sean Penn speak for an awful lot of Irish-American criminals when he explains his lifestyle by saying: “We drink. We shoot people”?
Yup, that about covers it.
Blarney goes to Beantown in the 1994 film Blown Away, where Jeff Bridges plays a Boston bomb expert who, we discover, innocently got involved with the IRA as a youth, something that is not that easy to do. Now, back home in Boston many years later, he has to match wits with his mad bomber mentor of long ago, a sadistic lunatic played with demonic glee by the ubiquitous Tommy Lee Jones. With its daunting brogues, Gaelic subtitles, Beantown bars, characters named Liam and the pipes, the pipes, Blown Away has an amazingly high quotient of blatherful blarney. A tip of the old tam-o’-shanter to all those involved.
Students of blarney who have borne with me this far must naturally be assuming that I plan to wrap up this article by anointing either Finian’s Rainbow or Far and Away as the biggest crock of blarney ever. Sadly, I must disappoint them. Finian’s Rainbow is a 1968 motion picture about a leprechaun in the rural South. I don’t want to talk about it anymore. As for Ron Howard’s 1992 miscue, yes, Far and Away is a hypnotically bad movie, covering all the bases with the Chieftains, the pipes, duplicitous brothers, canny locals, a redheaded vixen named Shannon, brawling boxers, craven landlords and courageous immigrants. Alternately cocky and stupid, a mix that doesn’t quite work, Tom Cruise turns what could have been A Few Good Irishmen into a 19th-century Top Gun, and does not even come close to matching the epic blarnifulness of Victor McLaglen.
But Ed Burns does. Yes, the surprise winner of the Golden Blarney Award is Ed Burn’s small, charming, canny film The Brothers McMullen, a movie laden with blarney of such a bathetically radiant quality that St. Patrick must be turning in his grave. In what we must assume was a calculated attempt to surpass The Informer for pure tonnage of blarney, Burns seems to have made an exhaustive checklist of every cliché about people of Irish descent and then jammed everything on the list into his film.
The film opens with a funeral scene (classic blarney), then features a conversation where the main character’s mother says she is going back to Ireland to marry the man she should have married 35 years earlier, having spent the past three-and-a-half decades living with a drunken bum who beat his sons. In other words, in the very first minute of the film, Burns assaults his audience with blarney blasts of truly thermonuclear dimensions. And it just keeps getting better. You want pipes? You got pipes. You want long-winded conversations about the Church’s stand on abortion? You got long-winded conversations about the Church’s stand on abortion. You want seductive, hot-blooded ethnics trying to seduce good Irish boys? Use of Catholicism as an excuse for every adult personality dysfunction? A soundtrack by a guy named Seamus? A loving mother? Guilt, guilt, guilt? You got ’em all. Not a single character in The Brothers McMullen can toast a piece of bread, turn on a light switch or go to the bathroom without putting on a Notre Dame Fighting Irish sweatshirt and grabbing another bottle of Guinness. Watching this movie for almost two hours is like having the entire St. Patrick’s Day Parade rumble through your medulla oblongata.
And so, when all is said and done, there can be no doubt that the biggest load of blarney of all time is Ed Burns’s tale of mopey, self-pitying Irish-American losers out in some dump on Long Island. The one-stop shopping center for every bit of crap ever written or said about the Irish, The Brothers McMullen beats The Informer hands down.
In a way, it is sad that the biggest load of blarney should have been made by an American rather than by someone from the Old Sod, but in a sense this is what every Irish immigrant to America came here to achieve. Ireland is a wonderful country, a lovely country, a country filled with wee canny folks with a touch of the poet in their hearts. But if you really want to be in the horseshit business, you have to go to Hollywood.
Joe Queenan reviewed Va Va Voom!: Bombshells, Pin-ups, Sexpots and Glamour Girls in the July ’96 issue of Movieline.