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A Short History of Irish Cinema

Volta presents a short history of Irish cinema: the essence of who we are and what we have to say for ourselves.

For a small island nation, Ireland has an impressive history of filmmaking. Our internationally celebrated filmmakers, such as Neil Jordan, Lenny Abrahamson and Jim Sheridan, have established themselves amongst the leading international film directors and there is a new generation of talent emerging, including Kirsten Sheridan, John Carney and Lance Daly who are bringing their films to audiences at home and abroad. Although the Irish film industry is still largely dependent on changing economic circumstances, we are making films that audiences everywhere want to see. Last year, John Michael McDonagh’s acid black comedy The Guard took more than €4 million at the Irish box office and was released in almost every major international territory.

Despite recent successes, the history of Irish cinema is one of dizzying highs and desperate lows. We have always been a committed cinema audience, ever since James Joyce opened the cinema on Mary Street, Dublin in the early 1900s from where this website takes its name. To this day, Irish cinema attendance is amongst the highest per-capita in the world. Our native industry has produced far more internationally celebrated actors, directors, cinematographers, art directors and costume designers than a country of our size could expect.

One of the most important film producers in Ireland in the early years of silent film was Sidney Olcott and his Kalem film company. Their first film, the emigrant story The Lad From Old Ireland was completed in 1910. Among the most important Irish-made films from the silent period was Irish Destiny, a story of the Irish War of Independence which married stirring action with a melodramatic love story, released on the 10th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1926. The introduction of sound brought with it an influx of foreign producers who were attracted by the beautiful landscapes and the presence of a burgeoning community of English-speaking actors, centred on the Abbey Theatre Players.

One of the first films shot in Ireland in the new era of sound was documentarian Robert Flaherty’s still-stunning 1934 docudrama Man of Aran, which combined observations on the difficult life of Aran Island fisherman Colman “Tiger” King with a story of family and survival. Twenty years later, Irish American director John Ford returned to the land of his forefathers to make the film that would come to define the image of Ireland and its people for decades to come; The Quiet Man. Released in 1952, the colourful comedy drama was another story of emigration, with the return of John Wayne’s prizefighter Sean Thornton to a rural village where he falls in love with Maureen O’Sullivan’s Mary Kate Danaher.

Fast forward another twenty years and in the late 1960s, David Lean descends on the Co Kerry town of Dingle to film his Irish-set epic Ryan’s Daughter, starring Robert Mitchum and John Mills alongside a host of well known Irish talent. Lean had intended to shoot in five months but eighteen months and $10 million later, he was still there, waiting for the right weather conditions to film a storm. The war of independence provided the backdrop for Lean’s story of romance and betrayal which was not favourably reviewed by the critics but was an international success, playing in London cinemas for more than two years and winning two Academy Awards. This era was to prove the high-point of Irish cinema as a location for international productions, with films such as Douglas Sirk’s 1955 adventure Captain Lightfoot, Michael Anderson’s 1959 thriller Shake Hands with the Devil and Stanley Kubrick’s sumptuous 1975 period drama Barry Lyndon all using the country as a base for production, spending multi-million budgets, employing local talent and helping to train a new generation of cinema artisans.

But there was far more to Ireland than green fields, impressive mountain backdrops and colourful locals. In the early 1970s, a number of Irish writers and directors began to make films about the society they were living in, in what would become known as the First Wave of Irish Cinema. The leading talents, Bob Quinn, Pat Murphy, Joe Comerford and Cathal Black among others, were interested in indigenous stories with a political consciousness rather than attempting to remake Hollywood films with Irish accents. Bob Quinn’s 1978 debut Poitín, starring Donal McCann, Cyril Cusack and Niall Tobin, was a deliberate attempt to invert the Hollywood Irish stereotypes established in films like The Quiet Man. Pat O’Connor’s The Ballroom of Romance, released in 1982 and scripted by novelist William Trevor, analysed the relationships between men and women in Ireland at the time of the showbands while Cathal Black’s 1984 drama Pigs showed realistically unconventional characters that simply hadn’t been seen on screen before. Pat Murphy’s 1982 experimental drama Maeve and 1984s historical mini-epic Anne Devlin were stories about Irish women told, for the first time, by an Irish woman director.

The Second Wave of Irish cinema arrived after the re-forming of the Irish Film Board in 1993, spurred on by the phenomenal success of Alan Parker’s Dublin musical The Commitments. Spearheaded by the board, and a reorganisation of the Irish tax laws, more films were produced in Ireland in the 1990s than in the previous nine decades put together. Parker’s musical was adapted from a bestselling novel by Roddy Doyle and many of the films that followed would find their inspiration in Ireland’s rich literary tradition. Cathal Black adapted John McGahern’s short story Korea for his 1995 drama of the same title while Jim Sheridan based his multi-Oscar winning 1989 biopic My Left Foot on Dublin writer Christy Brown’s autobiography. In 1998, director Pat O’Connor adapted Brian Friel’s Tony award-winning play Dancing At Lughnasa, which starred Meryl Streep and Michael Gambon. From his debut feature Angel in 1982, Neil Jordan has been the film director with the closest ties to Ireland’s rich literary culture. His two collaborations with Monaghan novelist Patrick McCabe, 1997s The Butcher Boy and 2005s Breakfast on Pluto, underline his obsession with marginal characters who struggle to find their place in a deeply conservative, backward thinking society.

Following in the wake of Sheridan and Jordan, a new generation of Irish filmmakers has emerged, making complex and interesting films for an international audience. Paddy Breathnach’s moody debut feature Ailsa was completed in 1994, with the director going on the find critical and commercial acclaim with a series of genre films, including the buddy comedy I Went Down in 2000 and the caper Man About Dog in 2004. Writer and director Gerard Stembridge’s 1994 debut Guiltrip told a story of marital breakdown and domestic violence at a time when such issues were only beginning to be openly discussed.

In recent years, Irish cinema has evolved to the state where a new film from an indigenous filmmaker is no longer a thing of wonder and our films can stand proudly on the global cinema stage. In collaboration with writer Mark O’Halloran, director Lenny Abrahamson made his debut with 2004s socially-conscious comedy Adam & Paul, which trailed a pair of heroin addicts on a quest across Dublin and followed it with 2007s Garage, featuring an indelible performance from comedian Pat Shortt as a harmless innocent living a lonely life in a small town. The film won the CICAE Art and Essai Cinema Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. In 2007, John Carney collaborated with his former bandmate Glen Hansard for the charming low-budget musical Once, which went on to win an Oscar for Best Song and take more than $20 million at the international box office.

A considerable number of films have used Irish history and our ongoing revision of the past as source material. Les Blair’s 2002 drama H3 brought us inside the Maze prison during the 1980s hunger strikes, as did Steve McQueen’s Hunger, which marked the introduction of actor Michael Fassbender to the world stage. Paul Greengrass directed the story of one of the darkest days in Irish history, Bloody Sunday in 2004, and produced another docudrama about The Troubles, Omagh in the same year. Peter Mullan’s searing drama The Magdalene Sisters revealed the scandal behind a long-secret Irish social institution in 2002 while British director Ken Loach won the Palme d’Or in 2006 for his incendiary story of the impact of the War of Independence on a divided family, The Wind that Shakes the Barley. In 2009, German director Oliver Hirschbiegel made one of the first films to directly address peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland with Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt starring in Five Minutes of Heaven.

The recent economic downturn and its impact on society has seen a number of films that deal directly with the aftermath of the Celtic Tiger boom years. Operating as a prolific one-man mini-studio, Dublin director Ivan Kavanagh released his story of a dysfunctional family The Fading Light in 2010, while Brian Lally’s 8.5 Hours took us inside a failing software company and its out-of-control staff. Darragh Byrne’s beautifully acted Parked told a story of a returning emigrant who is forced into homelessness by an uncaring state system while Brendan Muldowney’s Savage addressed the increasingly violent nature of society. Produced as part of the IFBs Catalyst Project initiative for low-budget filmmaking in 2009, Margaret Corkery’s Eamon is a comedy of modern manners, focused on a young family with a mischievous child as they face potential separation on a seaside holiday. Corkery is one of a new wave of Irish women filmmakers, whose ranks include 32A director Marian Quinn, Oscar-winner Juanita Wilson (whose As If I Am Not There won the IFTA for Best Film and Best Director in 2011) and animation director Nora Twomey, who co-directed (alongside Tomm Moore) Cartoon Saloon’s Academy Award nominated feature film The Secret of Kells in 2009.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Recently, Ireland has produced a long line of high-quality genre films, including Ian Fitzgibbon’s black comedy A Film With Me In It, Alicia Duffy’s creepy-kid thriller All Good Children and Ian Power’s charming children’s adventure The Runway while John Carney enlisted his brother Kieran to co-direct their madcap farce Zonad, about an extra-terrestrial drunk running riot in a small Irish town.

Times might be tough, and they might stay tough for a while, but we are still making movies, short films, animations and documentaries to be proud of.