Location Nation: A Regional Irish Cinema, Part 2: : The Midlands

by Elaine Lennon Volume 27 Issue 11-12/Volume 28 Issue 1 / January 2024 41 minutes (10230 words)

Extra Ordinary (photo source Cranked Up Films)


The Town of Granard

The Irish Midlands have long been trailed as fly-over country. The unprepossessing small market town of Granard to the North of the region seems an unlikely epicentre for the modern Irish rural film industry. Nonetheless it was the story of two local men building a Wall of Death in the late 1970s that led to the first indigenous feature film, Eat the Peach (1986); and the new documentary The Artist & the Wall of Death (2022) that hymns and repurposes the story.  It is also the location and setting for the recent  minor masterpiece Lakelands (Higgins & McGivney, 2022) as well as the nominal setting for Ann (Ciaran Creagh, 2023) about a tragic and infamous incident in the town which entered the national culture: in January 1981 a fourteen-year old pregnant schoolgirl gave birth alone and died by a statue of the Virgin Mary. That tragic story inspired Derry filmmaker Margo Harkin to make the film Hush- A- Bye- Baby (1990) which featured the late Sinéad O’Connor in the ensemble. Presumably due to local sensitivities the new film was actually shot around Boyle in County Roscommon. Public screenings of  Ann in the town reportedly attracted a minuscule audience.

Eat the Peach (1986)

Sit back. Enjoy yourselves. It's going to be a long night. County Kildare: the 1980s. When a Japanese company pulls out of Ireland, leaving several local men redundant, two brothers in law Vinnie (Stephen Brennan) and out of work Arthur (Eamon Morrissey) take inspiration from the Elvis Presley movie Roustabout on a VCR left with Arthur by Japanese boss Bunzo (Takashi Kawahara) which Arthur watches at The Frontier bar. Vinnie watches the VHS at home and decides to build a Wall of Death and Arthur gleefully joins him. Vinnie's pregnant wife Nora (Catherine Byrne) is none too impressed and takes off to her mother's with little daughter Vicky (Victoria Armstrong) when the garden of their modest bog bungalow is flattened. The men need money to pay for timber and equipment so begin smuggling goods across the Irish border for Boss Murtagh (Joe Lynch) the brother of local member of parliament Sean (Tony Doyle) a newly minted Junior Minister for Justice in Government and try to receive television coverage and public support via the Murtaghs' American-accented wannabe huckster footman Boots (Niall Toibin) who decides it's time to move into personal management. When the lads run out of diesel for their tractor at a border pub and encounter the IRA the local terrorists are impressed that the British Army regard their contraband as worthy of a controlled explosion. Murtagh fires them and now they're out on their own ...

Great to see somebody in this crazy goddamn country get off their ass and show a bit of enterprise. Irish country guys inspired by Elvis in Roustabout (John Rich, 1964)? That's the surprisingly unsentimental premise for this shrewd story of cultural identity about an unprepossessing pair in the uninspiring setting of grim Eighties Ireland. The first Irish-made feature film, financed with the assistance of Britain's Channel Four when it was producing under the Film on Four rubric, with backing from the Irish Film Board, producer John Kelleher cowrote this with director Peter Ormrod. It's inspired by the real-life project of two Granard, County Longford brothers-in-law in the late 1970s and relocated to somewhere both geographically distant and further from the border with Northern Ireland than the story would suggest, presumably for logistical reason. Shot around the Bog of Allen in Kildare and at various locations in Counties Dublin, Meath and Wicklow, roughly within one hour of Dublin, but suspension of disbelief and endless optimism is what this is about.

Luke Gibbons comments:

Here the landscape seeks to question Seamus Heaney’s claim that Irish bogland cannot hope to emulate the vast American prairies which ‘slice a big sun at evening’. For Heaney, Irish bogs are compressed layers of history, forcing the eye inwards rather than drawing it towards the horizon. In Eat the Peach the bleak industrial bogs of the Irish midlands … stretch towards an endless skyline, offering no relief or let-up to the observer. The landscape is stripped of all its cultural striations, and for those trapped within its prairie-like vistas, there is a corresponding absence of cultural identity. (Rockett, Gibbons and Hill, 1987: 241-2)

Foreigners. Will they ever understand us at all? +That's what sleveen politico Sean (who could be any one of Ireland's crummy political representatives, to be fair, turning up at Mass on Sunday to trawl for votes) declares while his campaign car blares The Wolfe Tones' The Road to God Knows Where as it speeds along the bog road. The Japanese close their firm due to a downturn in the international microcomputer market and 'local difficulties in communication,' an ironic circumstance in consideration of today’s Ireland with a large resident foreign population and a GDP almost entirely attributable to non-tax paying international corporations (with a Government presently engaged in fighting the EU for the right not to force Apple to pay their enormous tax debt to the country).

You're some cowboy. It'll be a while before you ride again. Refreshingly open about the cute hoorism that might be expected in a country where corruption is endemic, with Boots (Niall Toibin) riffing in an American twang J.R. Ewing-style, calling everyone Amigo and the politician living in a house for all the world like Southfork in Dallas, the sheer quirkiness and eccentricity on display in this American-inflected rural community might suggest Ealing-ish tones but the narrative's punctuation by three conflagrations puts that to bed, making even the T.S. Eliot-derived title rather redundant, rendering this exploration of representation resonant and instructive. The American influence is everywhere in this story of adaptation and assimilation.

That takes the form of imitation:

Not surprisingly, this fly-by-night cosmopolitanism lends itself to the ersatz culture of country and western music, Irish style.

Hence the character of Nuala (Bernadette O’Neill), the blonde barmaid at The Frontier whom Boots promises a singing career but who winds up taking her chances hitching a lift to Dublin with TV presenter Pat Kenny.

In the character of Vinnie, the traditional association  of the Celt with ‘the triumph of failure’ is reduced, like the landscape itself, to a flat, one-dimensional level, a pastiche of the original myth. In the final scene, he farcically re-enacts a more powerful myth when his makeshift do-it-yourself helicopter is uncovered by the astonished Boots.                             (Gibbons in Rockett, Gibbons and Hill, 1987: 242, 243)

The film is about entrapment but it takes Bunzo to declare to Arthur, I love this place You’re free here!  The irony that someone tries to escape their limited situation by riding around in enclosed circles is everywhere evident yet there is human warmth and hope, emphasised by Vinnie's guitar strumming at twilight in the garden like a cowboy in a Ford movie. Those flat peat landscapes are enlivened by overhead shots of the yellow bog trains and red motorcycles, with the Wall rising out of the depths as though an entirely natural phenomenon in impressive cinematography by Arthur Wooster. It is an homage to western iconography and frontier spirit, an Ur-narrative of modern Ireland complete with a priest blessing the Wall as a monument to something quite different, a reminder that Christianity incorporated tenets of paganism in the mission to convert the natives. The Frontier Bar is rhymed with an actual frontier bar when Arthur and Vinnie walk into an IRA haunt on the border – meanwhile their tractor is blown up and they are briefly anointed Republican heroes by the terrorists who flee in their own car, away from the British Army. When a badly beaten Boots confesses from his hospital bed to Arthur that he's never been to the US he's astounded that Arthur responds, Everybody knows.

As one commentator notes of the film’s initiating moment and transatlantic elements, echoing New German Cinema and its response to what Wim Wenders calls ‘political amnaesia’, … the influence of Hollywood is global and in this regard its impact on Ireland is consistent with other cultures.     (McLoone, 2000:  185)

This surprising scenario with its carny turn in the middle of Ireland and troublesome and even violent expression of bromance tells us a lot about the national condition. These men cannot directly articulate their circumstances or their feelings but they find expression in explosions and fires. The soundtrack by Donal Lunny is built around the title song by himself and Paul Brady from Brady's solo album Primitive Dance. Twith the stunts performed by the Messhams Wall of Death riders. TV presenter Pat Kenny appears as himself.

That the random dream of a pair of Granard Fitzcarraldos would become the engine for Irish cinema forty years later is perhaps the greatest payoff imaginable. There you have it, two enterprising and ambitious young men who've used a Wall of Death to bring life and colour to this area

The Artist and the Wall of Death (2022)

The strange collision of pragmatic but idealistic Irish country dwellers and a Glaswegian visual artist is told in this enchanting documentary which is connected with the first fully Irish feature film, Eat the Peach (Peter Ormrod, 1986). Stephen Skrynka (of Ukrainian origin) says he doesn't make money from his work and we are treated to a delightful montage of his projects over the past three decades, combinations of 'happenings' and installations, recorded on film.  The Wall of Death seemed to be one of those things that just will not go away.  It was clear to me this is an art form. We watch as he becomes obsessed with building a Wall of Death as a beautiful piece of art and the National Theatre of Scotland becomes involved in it. He describes it as a personal quest for me to do something seemingly impossible. However his lessons with experienced rider Ken Fox leave him humiliated and injured. He works alone in his studio and says his marriage broke down and that money was unpredictable - that was the deal. He resorts to making centrifugal objects in lieu of a Wall.

I've tried to exorcise the demon but it keeps coming back. Then he finds the Irish farmers who inspired Eat the Peach, a film which has thrilled him for years, and goes to Ireland to meet them in Granard, County Longford. Connie Kiernan and Michael Donoghue are bemused to meet Skrynka so many years after their own obsession took shape in rural Ireland building something on Connie's farm that took about a year and they call ugly on the outside. Danger didn't come into it. The story has come full circle and the men take some persuading to build a new Wall of Death. Skrynka says, That's what interests me - how different worlds collide and what comes of that. Failure is much better than success sometimes.

For Connie and Michael memories of the 1986 feature film have left a sour taste because nothing came out of it. This time they are promised a success will be made of it. For Skrynka, this place is  kind of feeling like home. Then - while training on the Wall back in Glasgow he is knocked out in a crash. There is no money for the project and things go dead. Connie and Michael make the Wall - on their own money. Skrynka says that when it opens they will get their returns in ticket money. It's not theatre, it's not circus, it's not visual art, it's not conceptual, it's not motorcycle art - it's all of those things. Connie and Michael travel to Twente in the Netherlands to see a motorcycle stunt show where they're introduced as the men behind Eat the Peach to a clearly informed audience.

Skrynka explains the project to the men as he envisages it: The idea is using the Wall of Death as a theatre in the round ... a stage. There is a writer (Chris Dolan), a hoop dancer and theatre consultants Jeanny and Henny Kroeze. It's good, it's nice, but it isn't a Wall of Death, it's a theatre, says Jeanny. They sit around a table with a bemused Connie and Michael . Skrynka calls it an artwork. Connie talks to camera: I think it's two different worlds. They spent the week here drinking tea and arsing around. Them artists never worked in their lives. The Longford men have a tough meeting in a local hotel with Skrynka where Connie reports he told his son about him being an artist and his son said, He's an artist alright. A con artist. The men have put all their own money into the Wall and Skrynka has taken advantage of them, as they see it.

Back in Glasgow. Skrynka muses, I do feel responsible. The ticket money never came. Maybe it all should have been left where it was forty years ago.

Eighteen months later, Skrynka says his mother died just after he had spent a week in Granard. He parked  the project but he says, it gets under your skin. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hits and the world goes into lockdown.  He holes up in his studio cutting 'ribs' for the Wall, wondering if people will ever get together again. I thought perhaps if I start this, people will join. A friend, P.K. joins him. Then Skrynka looks for a location in Glasgow and he finds it in a former Clydeside shipbuilding yard. In the same magical manner that Kevin Costner followed his inner voice, If you build it he will come, in Field of Dreams (Phil Alden Robinson, 1989) Skrynka attracts people from all walks of life in his endeavour including an emergency room doctor on furlough. One says, He has a plan, I'm pretty sure. He not letting us know. His daughter and son make a full house for lockdown. She comments, There's a lot of boring shit in the world and he's the opposite of that. It takes a year. Now everyone's part of the story - trying and failing, trying and failing.

Returning to Granard, Skrynka pays a visit to Connie and Michael and looks at the collection of bikes on the farm. Connie isn't riding any more. Now he's glad he did the Wall of Death, even the second time around. Does he wish he'd never met Skrynka? Maybe, he says cautiously. Skrynka shows him photos of his Wall of Death on his phone.  I'd love to see it, says Connie. It's happening all over again, says Skrynka. His project is called The Revelator 2020-2022. It's part of an exhibition of his work called Curle. The thing that really excites me, he says, is all the other stuff that's going to happen there. And the people come to see it. I want to get back on that Wall because once it's in your bloodstream it's in your bloodstream. And there he is, the artist, finally riding the Wall of Death.

This tale of obsession and dreams is written and directed by Maurice O'Brien, who took over from the original director, Ross Whitaker and is co-produced by John Kelleher, the producer and co-writer of Eat the Peach. The film is particularly beautiful in its earlier stages when the dreams of three men are still alive and footage of Skrynka’s previous art is excerpted: the second half, post-accident, post-lockdown, settles into a rather grimmer depiction of striving against the odds, pitching pure economics and hard graft against the original generative dream. This tale attains an almost mystical quality thanks to the triumph of effort against logic and operates as a beautiful coda to the Eat the Peach and the smalltown Longford men who inspired it.

Lakelands (2022)

Some young fellas they think they can handle these things themselves. It never ends well. Granard, County Longford. Cian O'Reilly (Éanna Hardwicke), a promising young Gaelic footballer, works at home on the family dairy farm with his widowed father Diarmuid (Lorcan Cranitch). He indulges himself with his football teammates Sparky (Dafhyd Flynn) and Doc (Oisin Robbins) but on a night out in Cavan he sustains what transpires to be a life-changing injury when he's beaten up by men in an alley after he picked a fight with them in a club. He has headaches and dizzy spells that he keeps to himself. When old teenage almost-flame Grace Hourican (Danielle Galligan) returns from London to nurse her ailing father who's suffering from liver failure she proves a good support to Cian and someone he can call. He introduces her to a special lakeside location where his late mother found solace. Grace’s nursing expertise makes her suspect he could have a concussion. A doctor (Lesley Conroy) confirms that suspicion and tells Cian he needs to stay away from football until he's back to himself. He's evasive about the effects he's already experiencing and ignores the advice.  His behaviour starts to alter and his father is agitated and hires someone to help out in his place on the farm and Cian gets angry when he sees him (Naoise Dunbar) being cruel to a cow with a bad foot.  When Cian's football suffers and he goes on the hunt for his assailants he finally realises his sporting days might be over ...

Masculinity in Ireland is, like everywhere else, in a wobbly state – according to this heart-on-sleeve debut feature about a Gaelic footballer too fond of the old craic. Writer-directors Robert Higgins and Patrick McGivney give their increasingly introspective character study an easy swing at first. But this is a film prone to melancholy resignation when it lapses into silently observing the more grizzled drinkers around these young bucks, suggesting this could be the way of things.          (Hoad, 2023: unpaginated)

The only think you're milking is that headache of yours. The first film from Granard-born filmmaking duo Robert Higgins and Patrick McGivney, this story of Ireland's national(ist) game ploughs a now-familiar furrow of toxic masculinity and emotional estrangement but with extraordinary subtlety and clarity. Peer pressure comes in the form of Cian's friendships as well as the testing football team which creates a spectrum of complex homosocial bonding and yet ultimately this is about men of feeling as Cian resolves his problem with his father and one of his friends –even if it takes that head injury to establish a kind of parity of esteem between father and son. Cian is regularly positioned at the centre of a low-angled frame imbuing every scene with tension, his broad shoulders carrying the weight of his world, almost filling the shot in Christ-like fashion as he considers his surroundings – a yard or field filled with cattle, a lake in the background, that secret place revealed by his mother that he shares with Grace– or he is shot over the shoulder (as are many characters) as if bearing witness to a life he cannot control, constantly feeling external forces exerting pressure.

You shouldn't think about football for a long time. His whole life revolves around his farm, his football team and he is revered as a leader locally because of that position. He's gentle with the cows and their calves. But he also hangs around with chancers and takes drugs and drinks despite the training regime. The reckless life he has established is falling away from him. When coach Bernie (Gary Lydon) approaches him to take a role as a mentor to new players he is offended at first. The platonic relationship with Grace soon assumes a significance for her too – as she ultimately reveals a similarly fraught issue with her father, something that clearly tore her family apart.  One critic analyses the text:

 … it’s about male pride and vulnerability. It’s the job of directors Patrick McGivney and Robert Higgins to tease it out of him in their quietly observant drama. We watch Cian carefully, looking for ripples, as he goes about his daily routine:  looking after a lame cow, delivering a calf, lifting weights at the gym, getting stones, asking Grace out for a drink. She’s got a boyfriend in London, which puts romance off the table, but the dance they perform - her pushing him towards an acknowledgement of his injury, him resisting, feels true to the way that people’s lives intersect without us knowing why. It’s really a film about self-knowledge. Told he can’t resume playing football by a  doctor, Cian looks utterly lost: where is he without football? Hardwicke’s soft, watchful performance suggest a man in search of himself.   (Shone, 2023:  11)

The mobile cinematography by Simon Crowe simply sings as the textures of this North Midlands area are illuminated from dusk till dawn, with football training under lights, the sun straining to waken the morning as Cian tramps outside to work in the yard, the flash of the pubs and clubs softened by evening drawing down on the lake. The performances are nuanced and precise in a narrative where every element speaks to a volume of meaning.  Shot around Granard with several pubs and outlets familiar to the locals (The Bay Horse, Mackens, Valentines), the mention of nearby village Ballinalee, nights out in Cavan Town in the neighbouring county, while the use of Mick Flavin's My Native Town Drumlish in a soundtrack by Daithí strikes a chord. A film of extraordinary lyricism, comparable in many ways to Claude Chabrol's Le beau Serge (1958) as a portrait of rural life, this is an audacious, affecting debut. You can't always choose how long these things last. All you can do is make the most of them while they're there.

Coupled with the drudgery of farmwork and expectations of ‘manning up,’ this spectrum of masculinity is delineated with care and perhaps softened when it transpires that prodigal daughter Grace has a somewhat similar situation revolving around her father who is dying from alcoholism, a future that Cian might be unwittingly barrelling towards. It is this unseen character – the ghost at the feast– and what becomes of him that haunts this rural Hamlet. Fathers are all the same, perhaps, whether to sons or daughters. Sparky’s concern is signalled early; Bernie admits that football saved him when times were tough; and Cian’s father Diarmuid ultimately proves capable of empathy, suggesting that the veneer of social masculinity can be pierced and regulated to a more female and caring sensibility. With the film’s visual aesthetic constantly reminding us of the community pressing in on Cian – for instance mic’ing the actors inside the Garda squad car yet shooting the conversation from the bonnet – we feel that pressure. When Cian is shot at a low angle, against the sky and the lake and the rolling fields, he is part of Nature itself, elemental, of the earth. They are inseparable. He will always be part of this land. It is his anchor. And perhaps his trap. In a sense this narrative is offering him up as that Christ figure, making a sacrifice in the name of his father. The potential for star-making in Hardwicke’s performance has been amplified by his role as a serial killer in BBC TV’s 2023 true crime drama series The Sixth Commandment with his quietly persuasive psychopath eliciting wonderful reviews.

The significance of putting Gaelic football front and centre of a cinematic narrative is manifold. As a sporting code it evolved under the auspices of the Gaelic Athletic Association founded in 1884 to organise native Irish sports (including hurling and camogie) in opposition and as a rebuke to the traditions of the English occupiers. It was a determined move by Irish Catholics against  English codes like rugby.  It put parish-based clubs at the heart of their communities, leading to intra- and inter-county championships which culminate in inter-provincial competition and annual All-Ireland finals at Croke Park in Dublin. The perception of amateur players is of a kind of boys’ club with certain professional advantages (literally, jobs for the boys). In Lakelands there is a ready admiration for these amateur sportsmen mixed with an acknowledging of players’ flaws – the mocking and jeering, drinking and drugging, the dangers of head injuries, the ready assumption of superiority in the locale while simultaneously subscribing to a hardscrabble training regime that amounts to little more than bullying. This homosocial world is demanding and unforgiving.

Speaking on the Off the Ball  podcast (episode: ‘Examining masculinity in rural GAA/Calving a calf live on set/Lakelands film’), directors Higgins and McGivney explain the impetus for the project:

We were always keen to make a sports film. We grew up playing football and thought it was a rich area to make a film about and explore the culture around it.

The project developed from a short the duo previously made, Drifting ,which featured Paul Mescal:

It was the first time we were out on a GAA pitch with a camera and it gave us confidence, that we were able to capture that world with authenticity. It turned out to be a proof concept for this. We kind of jump back in with the characters when they’re a little bit older and for us that’s a bit more interesting – when you’ve had your potential and you’re a bit of a fading star and it’s an interesting point to jump back into the story.

Asked why a plot concerning a crisis in masculinity centres on a concussion injury and what that meant for the writing process they respond:

For us it was a very interesting jumping off point to explore other issues and I think the fact  that it’s an injury that’s not visible – you can’t see it – I think that was interesting to us and once we started doing a deep dive into it we started having conversations with GAA players who had suffered …. Once you actually begin to realise the type of symptoms they suffer and how under-represented it is to an extent we just felt that it was an interesting issue that deserved showcasing.

We started just wanting to explore the culture. We grew up in it and felt it was strange that it hadn’t been represented more in the Irish cinema – Gaelic football in particular – considering how big a part it is of Irish identity so it started from there. We used a lot of our own personal experiences growing up and filtered that in. And I suppose a big interest or part for us was how much identity can get wrapped up in playing the sport, especially in a small town. We started looking at a character who has to deal with that being taken away, delving into that and coming at it from that angle then using that as a jumping off point to examine the niches, the smaller points of the culture.

Asked if it’s really a coming of age story:

Our main character is probably suffering from delayed adolescence so it probably is a coming of age [story] even though [he] is touching his late 20s.

Cian has a shell. He’s a good football player and he’s well known around town with the lads. We started looking at what’s it’s like when you chip away at that opening up a little bit more as the film goes on.

He’s got different versions of himself. He’s the version he is with his teammates; and then with his dad of course. His dad is there for him and does care for him but just doesn’t necessarily have the language to verbalise it. He’s still doing everything he can and we wanted to portray that relationship in a way that felt real to us – not just have the stereotypical Irish auld fella who’s very cold and doesn’t care. He does care. He just can’t say it.

This is the traumatized protagonist’s problem too:

It’s a cycle that’s ongoing and it’s his journey to breaking that cycle.

And then we’ve got the character of Grace. She comes back from England and she’s the first one to chip away at that shell and make him realise that there’s a big world out there, outside of club football and the midlands – and Granard! And the farm!


The film is also about the difficulties in establishing relationships between and among the sexes in social situations: Cian and Grace are more comfortable speaking one-on-one and it is to Grace that Cian reveals not just his vulnerability but the lakeside location where his late mother sought solace.  They are however separated by class, if their respective homes are an indication, with Cian’s home a basic Seventies bungalow farmhouse, distinctively masculine in appearance; while Grace’s much larger and ornate home is  what is in the parlance a ‘Muck Mansion,’ a local marker of economic privilege, a phenomenon born of the boom (RIP). This physical manifestation of the tension between them indicates Grace’s choice of boyfriend – a doctor she has met at work in London and who will attend her father’s funeral, triggering her departure.

It’s very much a Granard production for childhood friends Higgins and McGivney:

We wouldn’t have been able to make it without the help of the local club. We definitely called in a lot of favours. I’ve been playing senior football for twelve years so I’d a lot of favours to call in! The boys came out to support.

It’s the lifeblood of so many communities and it gives people that sense of pride. Sometimes that does boil over into unwanted rivalries. We were just really keen to capture that world with a bit of authenticity and for us the acid test is and will be GAA players watching it and saying, Yeah, that’s what a dressing down from the coach sounds like, That’s what a training session feels like. We saw it as an opportunity to capture the world for the first time on film.

We wanted to show it in all its glory and not shy away from the more challenging aspects of it. GAA – there’s an obsessive element to it by its very nature, having to train four or five times a week, drinking bans, giving up your Summers. It comes with a lot of sacrifice. You have to give a lot of yourself to it. It affects people around you – girlfriends, boyfriends, they have to give up access to you for periods of time during the season. We’re very passionate about it too – we love it.

For us the biggest goal was to achieve that slice of life where it just feels authentic. And there haven’t been too many films shot down our way in Longford either so it’s to show that little corner and how life looks down there.

The podcast host reminds the filmmakers that Granard is famous in Irish culture for the Ann Lovett case:

We wanted to shine a positive light on Granard and the midlands but we’re not shying away from the issues it currently faces – to depict it in an authentic way but also a way that’s positive. Because we see it through a very positive lens. We’re very proud to be from Granard. We love Longford. We don’t feel we get a fair shake all the time but I suppose we just wanted to make something that Longford people and people from the midlands could watch and be proud of.


It may have its dramatic roots in real-life medical issues but this film is composed with an artistry that is on another level to the customary cinematic expression of social realist motifs. If Lakelands has an antecedent it is probably This Sporting Life (Lindsay Anderson, 1963) but this concludes on a note of bittersweet hope, acceptance and perhaps forgiveness, reveling in the beautiful surroundings that elevate experience with an uncommon sense of place, both personal and geographical, while the unfinished building where Cian meets people to smoke dope suggests an incomplete personality in a conservative rural community constructed around them. A man who likely settles for less, stuck, with nowhere else to go. Making the best of his father’s lot.


Extra Ordinary (2020)

I'm really sorry for murdering you, Daddy. The Irish Midlands. Driving instructor Rose Dooley (Maeve Higgins) lives alone in a bungalow on the edge of town, next to the football pitch. She possesses powerful paranormal talents, including the ability to send wayward spirits into the afterlife but she hasn't used them since a paranormal accident killed her father, paranormal expert Vincent Dooley (Risteard Cooper), when she was a child. Rose ignores obvious minor hauntings around her –dustbins, branches, ghostly figures on the pedestrian Xing– and continually fends off phone calls to her driving service asking for help with paranormal problems. One of these calls comes from Martin Martin (Barry Ward), who calls under the guise of wanting a lesson but he really wants Rose to help him deal with the spirit of his nagging wife Bonnie, who haunts his house and controls everything he does from what he eats to the shirts he wears (he has a black eye from being punched at the wardrobe door - again). She even sends messages on the bread when it pops up in the toaster. Rose orders him out of her car but not before Martin tells her he finds she has a warm presence.

Meanwhile, imported one-hit wonder rock musician Christian Winter (Will Forte) attempts to sacrifice a virgin to regain his popularity but his wife Claudia (Claudia O'Doherty) interrupts the ritual and inadvertently kills the woman in question, forcing Christian to find another virgin before the Blood Moon the following night. Rose falls for Martin and follows him to the pound shop where his teenage daughter Sarah (Emma Coleman) works after school, where she overhears him talking to Sarah about her. Christian's divining tools lead him to the same shop, where he thinks he has been led to the perfect virgin - Sarah - and he gets hold of some of her hair. That night, he uses the hair in an incantation that renders Sarah motionless and floating in midair, causing Martin to panic and call Rose for help again. Rose decides against her better judgment to help Martin, informing him that waking someone who has been put under a Satanic spell will cause them to explode - she refers him to a famous spell her late father conducted on a possessed goat in Cork: instead, she puts a holding spell on Sarah, keeping the spell from drawing her to the site of a sacrificial ritual. She realises Martin himself has the ability to talk to ghosts, rendering him 'talented' as well and tells him that they will need the ectoplasm of several different spirits to break the spell on Sarah. Rose and Martin answer one of Rose's phone messages and exorcise a spirit from a bin by using Martin as a host for the spirit; when Rose commands the spirit to move on from this world, Martin spits up ectoplasm.

Christian and Claudia, infuriated by the holding spell, witness this and Christian phones Rose for a driving lesson, despite his ultimate fear - driving. During the lesson, Christian fails to overcome his fear and bloodies his face on the steering wheel but contrives to get some of Rose's hair when he steals her scrunchie. Rose re-watches a videotape from her father's TV show An Introduction to the Talents. She remembers how her failure to control her abilities may have killed him. She visits Martin and explains the accident. As a child, she helped her father in helping a dog drowned in a haunted pothole to move on to the afterlife but forgot part of the incantation: it resulted in her father being possessed by both the dog and pothole - and being hit by a bus. But Martin persuades Rose to continue using her abilities to help Sarah, despite her concern that she might kill him by mistake. Rose and Martin collect the ectoplasm of several different ghosts but wind up one short of the total, forcing them to attempt to exorcise Bonnie from Martin's house. As they do, with the help of Rose's unmarried pregnant sister Sailor (Terri Chandler) and her date Brian Welsh (Jamie Beamish), Christian performs an incantation that breaks the holding spell on Sarah and weakens Rose's talents, leaving Martin still half-possessed by a furious Bonnie after expelling her ectoplasm. When they try to apply the ectoplasm to Sarah, they figure out that she is being drawn to the site of the ritual, and follow a magpie that has followed Rose for years -ever since her father's accident …

 These are stuck people. Lonely people. This horror comedy slipped from the wider movie distribution radar despite endless months of trails at local cinemas because it was snapped up by Netflix at the tail end of 2019. It’s hideously funny, gleefully using, trashing and subverting horror tropes and climaxing in giddy sexual intercourse – take that, Final Girl, it seems to declare as it sends up reproductive horrors by having an unmarried woman give birth at the same time. And, like all horror films, it has something to say beyond the elements of the plot. We might say that the unwanted immigrant 'Christian Winter' who arrived to dodge tax embodies in his Dracula-ish persona Christianity itself and as any fule kno, Ireland was called Hibernia ie 'Land of Winter' by the Romans, who couldn't take all that cold and damp: his bloodsucking tendencies and virgin-robbing might - amid the side-splitting scenes - say something metaphorically of the experiences the country has endured from the Catholic Church, a colonising institution which upset a happily pagan native populace for a prolonged period.

We're in the world of knowingness from the first sequence outside the graveyard when a rubbish lorry simply mows through the title undoing the message of the preceding sequence. The extended scene-sequence paying homage to The Exorcist is simply defused when Rose tells Martin Martin, I haven't met him. Ditto Ghostbusters: I haven't read that. The filmmakers clearly have. Vincent Dooley's TV show is interwoven as clips and voiceover make neat comments and prompts on the action which seems determinedly rooted in the early Nineties despite contemporary gadgets. Christian sings Ole (Ireland's Italia 90 campaign anthem) which his kettle echoes; while songs from the ubiquitous 1990  A Woman's Heart album (on cassette and CD) make several appearances.

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. One of this film’s most sheerly pleasurable elements other than its gleeful skewering of The Exorcist (while it’s cheerfully borrowing the plot) is the use of idiom.  Linguistically speaking, it’s the authentic use of a Midlands idiom in Extra Ordinary that sets it apart from many  other Irish films.  Together with its pitch perfect homage to and affectionate skewering of both The Exorcist and Ghostbusters this combines to actually make it unique, a globally legible genre film. This isn’t the dialogue of screenwriting manuals creating the effect of how people might sound, it’s the speech of the Irish midlands itself, in all its crude glory.  This is a rarity in a world where screenwriters learn to ape real language but to affect its impact rather than revel in its true expressivity. Here we get it all: Don't be silly ya spa/I wouldn't get cocky, but/Brutal/I knew it, ya dirty hoor!/Ya eejit!. Higgins pinpoints the attractiveness of Irish expressiveness to an Irish person, that witty combination of  self-deprecation and devastating put-down.  She explains how foreigners perceive the Irish in her essay How Funny:

Now, a great many flattering crowns are bestowed upon the Irish. Best storytellers, best accents, even best terrorists (they always phoned ahead). Visitors to the Emerald Isle, so-called because the people are so pale they are almost green, sing ecstatically in praise of the literature, the banter, and the butter. All of those things are truly worthy of that praise, and difficult to choose between. If you put a gun to my head, or to my knees, as the great gentlemen of the IRA were prone to do, I suppose I would choose banter. I truly do find a great proportion of Irish people extremely funny. I’m not interested in Irish jokes; in any case I rarely hear them, on account of me being Irish. It’s certainly a blow to my ego when non-Irish people tell me everything I say in my accent is funny, but I concede there is something about Irishness that lends itself to being funny. It’s surely too simple to say that in Ireland we are emotionally constipated and humour is a laxative. But don’t jokes help our compacted feelings come flooding out of our bodies, in this case our mouths, often in a big rush of relief? I believe they do. Irish people have a particular sense of humour, one that is easy and fun for me to slip back into when I’m there. Slagging off and messing with and cutting down, I love it! Despite its obvious post-colonization, chip-on-the-shoulder, little-guy meanness, I love it and I’m good at it. (Higgins, 2018: 153-154)

That idiom is also true to character. And what characters these are: Cork-born New York-based comic Higgins plays Rose, the easygoing supernaturally gifted driving instructor in denial of her 'talents' but who knows a good thing when she meets it. This is a girl who comes home from work, kicks off her skirt, opens the fridge and sits in her Spanx eating yogurt on a birthing ball meant for her pregnant unmarried sister. She's overweight and she likes her food. That's a running joke - her students bring sandwiches for their lessons. Getting a Chinese meal delivered proves part of the incredibly well managed concluding sequence - including a blood sacrifice, giving birth and having sex for the first time. That’s quite the feat in a horror film, blending the tropes of vampirism, a deflowering and motherhood in one giant subversive spurt. It’s a terrific and rare foregrounding of a woman in a leading role in Irish cinema. Higgins made her name on the TV show Naked Camera (TX RTE, 2005- ) and now makes her home in New York. Ward is an endearing quasi-romantic interest and he's a hoot when his dead wife possesses him, punching him out when he chooses the wrong shirt in the morning, popping up a slice of burned toast for breakfast. Now I can tell everyone that my first time was a threesome, gloats a post-coital Rose. That actual climax is a rebuke to all those tropes of both Gothic and global horror. The flashback to the traumatic incident in which Rose believed she killed her father is breathtaking in its plain stupid audacity: He became half-pothole, half dog! Forte (who previously played an interloper in Steph Green’s 2013 film Run and Jump ) is simply a gift unto himself, aware of the Count-ishness of his persona and playing up the ridiculousness of the scenario for all its worth: perhaps someone was thinking of  late author J.P. Donleavy, that adopted Irish gentleman with auburn-tressed lovelies at his side in that vast country Mullingar manse (previously owned by Julie Andrews) in which he was regularly photographed. Local comic Alison Spittle has a small role; while Siobhán MacSweeney (latterly famous as Sister Michael in TV's Derry Girls - Martin Scorsese’s a fan) appears in a hairdressers as Boring Noreen; and Irish comedy legend Eamon Morrissey is Mr Daly, one of Rose's clients who thinks he's being haunted - but it's just a sly old fox. Shot around Tullamore and Edenderry in County Offaly, there isn't a single duff note in the film.

Written and directed by Mike Ahern & Enda Loughman, this unmistakably Irish film is an instant genre classic. An Ireland-Belgium co-production with the effects provided by U Media in Belgium, it is visually clever in its depiction of rural suburbia,  riddled with nostalgia for a time when the country really was filled with native Irish people and wonderfully female-centric. This was the second 2019 Irish horror film (after The Hole in The Ground) to make the national cinema come of age, acknowledging its true literary antecedents in Stoker, Le Fanu and maybe a certain interloping William Peter Blatty whose oeuvre infected the global consciousness: together these two antithetical approaches make a whole, mature genre.

Among the bodies (!) thanked in the credits is Offaly Film Office, one of the many funding and advice sources attached to local authorities throughout the Republic. You can never wake a floating goat.


Wild Mountain Thyme (2021)

Once upon a time in Ireland there were two farms.  Rural Ireland: the present day.  Two introverted misfits in their late thirties have lived on neighbouring farms their whole lives. Rosemary Muldoon (Emily Blunt) is in love with Anthony Reilly (Jamie Dornan) but he has never reciprocated her interest. In a flashback to their childhood, young Anthony (Darragh O'Kane) smells a flower and gets pollen on his nose. A girl laughs at him and Rosemary (Abigail Coburn) pushes her in anger. Anthony, in turn, pushes Rosemary down. Then Erin beats the head off of Anthony. Seeing that she is upset, Rosemary's father plays the score to the ballet Swan Lake  and tells her she is the white swan. In the present, Anthony's father Tony (Christopher Walken) claims his son is not sane. Anthony hears a voice in the fields that tells him Go though he does not reveal where. Tony plans to disinherit Anthony because he is afraid that his misanthropic son will not marry and have children, leading to the end of the Reilly legacy. He considers selling the farm to his nephew Adam (Jon Hamm) a New York City banker. Determined to inherit the farm, Anthony plans to propose to Rosemary with his late mother's wedding ring but contrives to lose it somewhere outside on his way to her house. He uses a metal detector to search for it in his free time, watched with bemusement by Rosemary. At Tony's 75th birthday party, Adam arrives from New York City and flirts with Rosemary. She likes that he is direct and extroverted:  he asks her to visit him in New York. Rosemary's mother Aoife (Dearbhla Molloy) falls ill and dies. Tony decides to not sell his land to Adam, as it would ruin any chance of Anthony and Rosemary getting together. Not long after, Tony is on his death bed too. He apologises to Anthony for almost selling the farm  from under him and they reconcile. Tony dies later that night. Rosemary and Anthony now live alone, both without their parents. She tries to get closer to him but he pushes her away and suggests that she leave Ireland altogether. Rosemary flies to New City  to visit Adam. They attend a performance of Swan Lake and have dinner. Adam suggests Rosemary's longing for Anthony is making her miserable. She is optimistic that something good will come of her life at home. When she returns to Ireland from her transatlantic trip Rosemary finds Anthony on her property with his metal detector. She invites him to her house, where they fight about his difficulty accepting love. Anthony confesses a secret that ruined past relationships: he believes he is a honeybee. Rosemary reveals that she found Anthony's ring and he finally proposes ...

They say if an Irishman dies when he's telling a story he'll be back. Before this was released in Ireland word got out about the trailer and local media were all over the accents of the leading players: atrocious and embarrassing, was the collective conclusion. That was a preview of coming review attractions. A romantic comedy drama adapted and directed by acclaimed Irish American  playwright, screenwriter and director John Patrick Shanley (Five Corners, Doubt, Moonstruck) from his play Outside Mullingar, this was originally staged on Broadway January through March 2014 where it starred Debra Messing, from television's Will & Grace, as Rosemary; while Molloy reprises her role of Aoife here. The play was written by Shanley on commission and he said that he had decided to write about his family's farm in County Westmeath. It was well reviewed for its limited engagement Stateside although the damning theatre review in The Irish Times called it ‘mystifyingly awful:’

Outside Mullingar is set, well, outside Mullingar. The time is given in the programme as "recently": we know this because there are references to Irish boxers winning medals at the Olympics. As the old farmer Tony Reilly (played by Peter Maloney) puts it, in a line that is all too typical, "Sure, we're good with our fists, no surprise there." But theatrically, it is set in a different time and place: the Abbey, some time between 1930 and 1959.

If you were to do a random cut-up of the rural social comedies that were the staple diet of that period, you would more than likely end up with most of the following elements: a funeral, cups of tea, a dispute about land, a dying parent, a will, a returned Yank, an ageing virgin son and the headstrong woman he is secretly in love with but has never got around to informing of his feelings. If you shuffled those cards a few times, you'd come up with the bones of  Outside Mullingar . To complete the job, you'd have to have mistaken McDonagh's dark surrealism for Oirish quirkiness and added enough of that to tip the whole thing from mere dullness into embarrassment.                                                         (O’Toole, 2014: unpaginated).

That tallied with the reception of the eventual screen adaptation but some perspective is necessary in what is a kind of reworking of the Ur-Irish film, Ford’s The Quiet Man: taken on its own terms, it's a nutty fairytale replete with animal imagery (those crows! Bees! The dog! The horse! Swan Lake!) and a determinedly odd approach to the notion of home with an unusual take on gender roles: That's the world now. Men are useless. Rosemary (Blunt with dyed red hair) smokes a pipe and stalks the land with purpose, wanting to get the man she has loved since childhood; Anthony seems like a half wit and his identifying with a bee speaks to the sheer oddity of the fearful millennial generation, laying claim to difference and mental disturbance. He tells Rosemary to leave the country: It's a terrible place for a decent person. She goes to New York City for 24 hours to see Swan Lake, long her talisman. That this mismatched couple's future might be overdetermined by a gate at a strip of dirt deeded to Rosemary when she was ten years old seems like a trope too far in a country where land ownership is everything.

Anthony's difficult relationship with his father is emblemised in Tony's declaration, I
don't see a clear path from me to you. You don't stand on the land and take strength from it as I did. Their critical exchange is emphasised in his son's plea in response: Don't criticise me, Daddy ... Is a man who does what he must but feels no pleasure less of a man than one who's happy? This is generational trauma writ large with Tony telling Anthony he's not a Reilly at all but a Kelly ie his mother's side and hence not worthy. Troubled masculinity is the bread and butter of Irish stories and this statement of place, home and belonging is complicated by the arrival of worldly New Yorker Adam who suddenly sees himself as an Irish landowner yet has reservations: I don't understand you people. You seem to accept these crazy things. Keeping the American out is one dramatic device that will ultimately unite Rosemary and Anthony for whom two farms joined together will be better than one each. (We remember The Field (Jim Sheridan, 1990) and the effect of the interloping American, successful away, back to grab what he can.) The parental figures don't survive the narrative which is told by a dead man and the future must be secured with communal survival figured in the singing of the titular song at a local talent competition, a real comeallye (with its ironic origins in Scotland).

Most men's fantasies aren't about farms, says the woman sitting beside Adam on the plane bound for Ireland. It's odd given the personal significance of this story to Shanley but perhaps due to funding (WRAP did part of the honours) the landlocked county of Westmeath is replaced by coastal Mayo: perhaps for the opportunity to film the craggy cliffs in that opening sequence of breathtaking drone shots, the raging seas below suggesting the teeming emotions that lie ahead in this curiously nostalgic pastorale. It’s surprising given that this represented something of a passion project for Shanley. Have you ever had a dream since you were a child and you couldn't let it go?

A trailer is all that Ireland has seen of Hollywood’s latest romantic comedy, but that has

been enough to declare an Irish accent emergency … Gobsmacked reaction on Wednesday speculated that the film, to be released next month, would outdo Tom Cruise’s 1992 drama Far and Away for paddywhackery cliches and dodgy accents.

“Even we think this is a bit much,” tweeted the National Leprechaun Museum of Ireland, as a social media pile-on gathered steam.

“There’s fashion police, grammar police, we even have airport police. Is there such a thing as accent police?” tweeted Dublin airport. “If so somebody better call ‘em. On the upside Ireland looks nice.”   (Carroll, 2020: unpaginated)

The Dublin-born Times  film critic described the film’s representational fascism:

The setting is a bizarrely cartoonish Eire of the imagination. It is strictly rural (there are no cities) with computer-enhanced green fields rolling in every direction, and pubs filled with semi-alcoholic, cloth cap-wearing, God-fearing, cow-rearing dolts who frequently display subhuman levels of intelligence. “Where do we go when we doie? Da skoi?” asks Dornan’s near catatonically stupid Anthony. “No, da ground!” Rosemary replies. Anthony scratches his head and shoots back: “Den what’s da skoi for?” Jayzus!

Yet the writer-director Shanley has pushed back against the criticism and defended his depiction of the Emerald Oisle. “I told Emily when we first talked about this project, ‘I’m not making this movie for the Irish,’ ” he said in a recent interview. “ ‘I’m making this movie for everybody else and all the people who want to go to Ireland.’ ”  (Maher, 2021: unpaginated)

And with its location shooting, this is indeed another instance of the integrated needs of the tourism industry, film funding and the exploitation of landscape overcoming any intention towards realism, albeit the flat lands of Middle Ireland are efficiently replicated throughout.

Maher continues:

That is, obviously, a highly problematic statement. It makes no sense. What is going to happen to the people who want to go to Ireland when they get there and find out that it is not a farming-themed funfair for drunken, superstitious gobshites, but an overeducated, materialistic and tax-friendly tech hub for Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter. And what about the Irish themselves? Is it OK now to openly offend 4.9 million people in the name of good-natured cultural clichés?

[There is] a recent boom in Irish cultural stereotyping (last year’s road movie Pixie was another corker) that seems wildly out of step with the vogue for representational fascism. How do you get away with stereotyping an entire nation, in other words, at a time when the authenticity of screen characters, their nationhood, their gender and racial identities are policed with belligerent enthusiasm by a global army of online pedants? How does Shanley get away with a dramatis personae of essentially brain-damaged Paddies at a time when the allegedly offensive French cartoon cliché Pepé Le Pew has been excised from the forthcoming Space Jam sequel, and when the streaming service Disney+ has been forced to warn sensitive viewers about the “negative depictions” of other cultures in archive episodes of The Muppet Show? These include Peter Sellers appearing as a singing gypsy in a black headscarf, and Johnny Cash standing in front of a Confederate flag (often associated with white supremacy).

Could it be that naked anti-Irish prejudice, albeit wrapped up in porter-splattered humour, is the last acceptable form of racism? And does that make it strangely illicit and intoxicating, like secretly mainlining all three series of Mind Your Language or revelling in the complete works of Bernard Manning (“Irish fella goes into a bar . . .”)? Whatever the reason, there is certainly an argument for inserting a “content advisory” card before Wild Mountain Thyme, warning sensitive viewers that what they are about to witness is racial stereotyping of the highest order. (Maher, 2021: unpaginated)

Maher’s anger is both palpable and justifiable. And the paddywackery can be straightforwardly attributed to its homage to The Quiet Man (John Ford, 1953). But despite the intervening decades,

… the bog-trotting spud-munchers continually reappear, and with impunity, clearly and consistently condoned by the mainstream. Or perhaps it is something less sinister than that.

When asked about the possible offence caused by the depictions and the accents in Wild Mountain Thyme, Blunt said recently: “The good news is that I don’t know if this movie is about accents. It’s about so much more than that. It really is a celebration of Ireland and the Irish and how extraordinary they are.” And then she added: “We made the film with so much good intention.” (Maher, 2021: unpaginated)

Yet, daft and ostensibly offensive as the film appears, it plays to a significant trope of Irish rural life – namely, who’ll get the farm? And, the family upon whom the play and film is based, Shanley’s own, came to its defence when the trailer surfaced in November 2020 because it derives from incidents that caused Shanley’s father to leave Westmeath for America when he was twenty-four years old and a trip back in the 1990s with his father inspired him to write the story:

            Brendan Shanley, a cousin of the director, who grew up on the Killucan farm, and still lives

in the area, said he was shocked by the amount of attention the trailer had received. “Donald Trump didn’t get as good coverage,” he said. “How can you make a judgement on someone’s tone in a trailer?” he said. “It’s taken out of context. On a film trailer, you will get different accents, because that’s the mood of [a particular] line. But if you listen for the entire film it will settle, and be different. It was the same in the play. “There’s a huge amount talked about the accents. I make furniture, I don’t do films, but you’re not making a film of that magnitude with those actors for an Irish market. “People in Ireland forget this. It’s made for a global [audience]. “Wouldn’t it be brilliant if 20,000 extra people came to Ireland on holidays, when the country opens up again, and brought 100 Euros a head?” he said. “Would they be giving out then? Not a word.”    (Shortall, 2020: 3)

They may not have quite twigged it in New York where the original play had that limited run in 2014, but recent legislation regarding inheritance of property in Ireland should, say, the son of a farming patriarch co-habit with a woman outside marriage for three years and then the woman scarpered, decreed that her entitlement to half the property could have devastating repercussions for keeping a farm intact. That situation obtains today, as one commentator notes:

A lot of Irish farmers are secretly harbouring regrets that they didn’t sign a prenuptial agreement, a new poll from The Irish Farmers Journal suggests. Those agreements are not currently binding under Irish law, but they might have some persuasive heft if it was proven that they were entered into with the benefit of legal advice and where there was adequate provision available for both spouses without selling a farm that might have been in one partner’s family for generations…  According to Alice Doyle, who chairs the Irish Farmers’ Association farm family committee, protecting the family farm, both as a financial and intergenerational asset, is a significant concern: “You can never ignore John B. Keane’s The Field,” she said.  “Irish people have an unusually strong affiliation to the land.” Ironically, while a prenup would not be binding on a married farmer, an identical arrangement between non-married  partners could be enforced. So maybe the advice that rural farmers should be giving their single pals is not to marry at all.       (Brenda Power, 2023: 14)

This particular legal quagmire however does not apply in Shanley’s drama where it’s basically a tussle between mismatched neighbours and a freakishly good looking American relative. The feisty pipe-smoking woman relates to Swan Lake and the male protagonist talks to donkeys and manages to trip into a lake. In a Tarantinoesque take on the classic screwball scenario, Don Ameche is played by the handsomest man in television (Hamm) while Cary Grant is played by erotic S&M hero Christian Gray as prime doofus. This is truly an example of magical thinking in a film that is both mad and bad.

(See end of Part 3 for Citations)

Location Nation: A Regional Irish Cinema, Part 2: : The Midlands

Elaine Lennon is a film historian and the author of ChinaTowne and Pathways of Desire: Emotional Architecture in the Films of Nancy Meyers. Elaine Lennon obtained a PhD in Film Studies at the School of Media, Dublin Institute of Technology where she lectured in film and screenwriting for a decade.

Volume 27 Issue 11-12/Volume 28 Issue 1 / January 2024 Film Reviews   geography   irish cinema   regionalism