In the past century, depictions of the Irish in cinema have gone through many transformations. The earliest depictions of the Irish in silent films in the late nineteenth century are a stark difference to the representations of the Irish on screen today who are only silent in their heritage. A new wave of crime films have popped up over the past thirty years that have vaguely “Irish” lead characters. In only a little over a century, Irishness has become mainstream. In Hollywood at least, the Irish are the go-to stock white characters that are still ambiguously ethnic. They are for all intents and purposes American first and foremost but the use of Irish last names adds an air of mystique to the viewer.
We as viewers have to understand that writing Irish American characters is extremely difficult given the multitude of paradoxes the community holds. The American public conscious often believes people who consider themselves Irish are descendants of twentieth century migrations from Ireland to big cities like New York, Chicago and Boston while we know historically most Irish came to America in the nineteenth century and ended up in the American south.
We view the Irish as brawling “Fighting Irish” but Irish American men are more likely than almost any other ethnic group to go to church on Sunday. Not that fighting and church are mutually exclusive, but the images we have of people who go to church and those who do not can be compared to those who do not fight and those who do.They are hard to categorize for the simple reason that there are just so many Irish in America. No two families have the same experience. We also have to consider where people came from in Ireland, most assume the Irish and Catholics are the same but as we have learned, there were a plethora of religions who migrated from Ireland and even some who later converted when they got to America. For example, one of the most popular films of all time “Gone With The Wind” has Irish and Irish American lead characters but is a very American story.
It would seem the Irish – American experience in this case is so intertwined with the American experience that we as a collective nation of viewers forget that it is Irish at all.
Scarlett O’Hara’s father Gerald is a native of Ireland and is depicted as reckless, riding his horse at an old age.
Scarlett is unlike other notable Irish American young women in film in this era because she is a southerner. The Irish women in America are most often living in a large city with her parents, not in the deep south on a plantation. Scarlett does have some things in common with her contemporary Northern counterparts, she is often rebellious and independent, which is attributed to her Irish blood.
Scarlett’s beau Rhett Butler is of Irish descent but he, like a lot of Irish Americans is not Catholic.
He is a descendant of the Anglo-Normans and his family most likely immigrated in the eighteenth century. The Irish American experience isn’t a singular one, but that is no excuse for the oversimplification of such a large group of people.
The box office has proven time and time again in the past few decades that American crime films do well. I would propose they are so well liked by audiences because they are very American. Because there is such a large population of people who claim Irish heritage in the United States and a great majority are in the middle class the American audiences for any movies are full of Irish American descendants. Given the fact that many Irish were expelled from their homeland there is a romanticization of the “homeland” even if the viewers descendants immigrated hundreds of years ago and haven’t returned.
In the years following The Famine the countryside was heavily depopulated which made for beautiful pastoral images. This is directly opposed to the images of Irish in American cinema, who were nearly always depicted living in urban environments. It was common practice to set scenes of the Irish in backgrounds that showed multi-level dwellings because that was where the Irish lived. Windows that open to meet laundry lines are an easy indicator that the scene is in an apartment or tenement building.
Why wouldn’t people want to see themselves or someone who might be a bit like themselves on screen? The characters in these crime dramas are stock anti-hero’s. Years before Tony Soprano, brothers Detective Tom Spellacy and Father Des Spellacy (True Confessions, 1981) were not only anti heroes but foils for one another– adding a level of sophistication to the script. Perhaps that is why these crime-drama films do so well, they are easily digested by modern audiences.
In Clint Eastwood’s 2003 “Mystic River ” three young boys who experience great trauma grow up and lead very different lives until one of the men’s daughters is killed and the boys are brought together again. In Ulu Grosbard’s 1981 “True Confessions” two brothers, one a disgruntled LA detective and another a corrupt priest come together after the murder of a young girl. It seems family (the “neighborhood” is often considered a familial unit in film depictions of the Irish in America) reunions only happen when a crime has been committed.
This point goes directly against one of the greatest and most recorded aspects of the Irish community, loyalty. The depictions of the Irish in American film have gone bottom up since the 1980s, while we once had Irish of all ages on screen we now have more than enough angry young men to make up for the loss of our Colleen’s, our Brigies and our whiskered old men with pipes.
In the beginning of the twentieth century the Irish were depicted in a range of film genres usually centering on familial relationships. From Buster Keaton’s 1922 “My Wife’s Relations” to Leo McCarey’s 1944 “Going My Way” and beyond we have seen fully developed Irish characters interacting with one another. The Irish Colleen that was left behind in the old country was perceived as weeping while the Irish Colleen that crossed the Atlantic was in a way baptized by the cold ocean mist and became a strong independent woman when she landed in America.
The other Irish female stock-character, Bridgie was strong and “bossy”, meaning she acted more like a man than her counterpart Colleen. Although these characters were based on stereotypes the Colleen and the Bridgie were at least being represented. They have all but disappeared in the past few decades; while their grandsons have become the stars of countless films their granddaughters are nowhere to be found.
The stock-disenfranchised masculine young man in an urban setting who does not trust authorities and must live by his own moral code has become synonymous with Irish Americanness. As we see in “Mystic River”, “The Departed”, and “Good Will Hunting” young men from lower middle class neighborhoods feel dispossessed and act out violently.
The mothers and daughters in films such as “Irene” and “Smiling Irish Eyes” are the leaders of their family and take great responsibility for keeping their family together. Lack of female representation on the silver screen is not restricted to Irish American depictions but for a sub-genre that began with such great leading female characters that have been all but forgotten it is very upsetting.
Here’s hoping we see a wave of diverse Irish-American women in film in the future.
Going My Way. Dir. Frank Butler. By Leo McCarey. Perf. Bing Crosby, Barry Fitzgerald, Frank McHugh. N.d. DVD.
Gone With The Wind. By Margaret Mitchell. Dir. Victor Fleming. Perf. Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Thomas Mitchell. 1939.
Good Will Hunting. By Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Dir. Gus Van Sant. Perf. Robin Williams, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck. 1997.
Irene. Dir. Herbert Wilcox. Perf. Anna Neagle, Ray Milland, Roland Young. 1940.
Lee, Joseph, and Marion R. Casey. Making the Irish American: History and Heritage of the Irish in the United States. New York: New York UP, 2006. Print.
My Wife’s Relations. Dir. Buster Keaton. Perf. Buster Keaton, Wallace Beery, Monte Collins. 1922.
Mystic River. By Dennis Lehane. Dir. Clint Eastwood. Screenplay by Brian Helgeland. Perf. Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon. 2003. DVD.
True Confessions. By John Gregory Dunne. Perf. Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Charles Durning. 1981.
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