A crash course in Anglo/Irish politics and America/Hollywood’s transformation of “the Troubles” for its own dubious purposes
The last decade has witnessed the emergence in Ireland of what to most accounts appears an embryonic commercial film industry. The significance of this cannot be overestimated. Historically, foreign filmmakers such as John Ford, Robert Flaherty, and Carol Reed held the sole remit of representing Ireland and the Irish to the world outside. Their visions suited the agendas of outside agents who stood to gain politically or commercially from either the romantic vision of The Quiet Man (1952) or the Hobbesian nightmare of Odd Man Out (1947). In the late 1970s, the first wave of indigenous Irish filmmakers emerged supported primarily by state and semi-state bodies. Cathal Black, Bob Quinn, Joe Comerford, and others sought ownership of Ireland’s cinematic representation from inside the culture. Yet while their films did indeed create entirely different, more complex and authentic paradigms of Irishness, they failed to reach mainstream audiences. Compromised by a lack of commercial success, the energy of the New Wave was largely spent by the late 1980s. Finally, it seems, contemporary Irish filmmakers – arriving on the scene some 90 years after the Lumiere Brothers first turned their Cinematograph on Ireland – have acquired the means to combat outside representations and create a new tradition of cinematic Irishness – one that is more complex, multidimensional, and authentic.
Operating on the level of low- and medium-budget production, the new infrastructure cannot, however, be readily termed indigenous. Much of its output (mainly within the medium-budget range) results from coproduction deals with European and American financiers, the latter being the most eagerly sought. While films such as Jim Sheridan’sMy Left Foot (1989) and Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game (1992) were largely produced with financing from Britain, the increasing tendency is to turn to Hollywood, as both Sheridan and Jordan have in subsequent productions – Sheridan signing a deal with Universal to make In the Name of the Father (1993) and The Boxer (1997) and Jordan with Warner Bros. for Michael Collins (1996) and The Butcher Boy (1998). Compromising the industry’s financial and cultural autonomy even further is the fact that many lower-budget, internally financed productions must anticipate the whims of American and European markets to guarantee the necessary returns that domestic audiences have traditionally never secured. Consider I Went Down (1997), for instance, a film that only slightly modifies the gangster and road movie conventions to fit the boglands and backroads of Ireland’s west, or The General (1998), which also realigns gangster genre motifs to the native context, here inner-city Dublin. (Both films consequently did relatively fine business stateside.)
The reasons for the late emergence of a consistent commercial cinematic movement in Irish arts may be attributed to the various exigencies, economic torpors, and protectionist state policies that mark Ireland’s as-yet incomplete transition from Imperial outpost to postcolonial nation. Naturally enough, the factors that for so long mitigated against the construction of this industry now prove the most fertile materials for the emergent cinema. Indeed, one of the most natural inclinations of the new cinema – and one that it has adapted to with remarkable zeal – has been to reflect and shape the growing consciousness of what may be termed a postcolonial, postnational Irish ontology. Central to this cinema is a recurring tendency to revisit (and in many cases rebuke) the long-standing myths of cultural nationalism and its twin vanguards, Mother Church and Mother Ireland. As a modern medium built increasingly on economies of scale – namely, international scale – cinema seems the perfect agent in the dismantling of outdated nationalist myths and practices. Consequently, the medium occupies a unique position in Irish cultural production. As a commercial artform with staggering financial overheads, film must transcend the limiting borders of the local to achieve widespread appeal with culturally diverse (often opposing) communities. Negotiating the demands of achieving popular cross-border appeal, Irish cinema has, by necessity, emphasized unity over disparity, pluralism over parochialism, liberal coalition over bitter separatism.
Consequently, Northern Ireland – a zone of immutable tensions in which conflicting boundaries, identities, affiliations, and histories contend with the legacies of 800 years of colonial history to effectively establish a stable postcolonial hegemony – proves Irish cinema’s most natural and unavoidable subject. In screening Ulster, the raw materials of sectarianism are purified into elemental drama and alchemized into postmodern, liberal democratic power-sharing. Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father is an interesting case in point. Based on Gerry Conlon’s book Proved Innocent, the film recounts the events surrounding the IRA bombing of a Guildford pub in 1974 in which Conlon, three others, and his father, Guiseppe, were arrested and sentenced under the Prevention of Terrorist Act. By distorting and rearranging specific details (such as the fact that Conlon and his father were never imprisoned together), the film manages to condense the immense political and social ramifications of the wrongful internment of the “Guildford Four” into a neat, Oedipally focused dramatic format. Indeed, by foregrounding the Conlon relationship, and relegating the political backdrop to little more than scenery, In the Name of the Father elicits a story of triumph from what in reality seems a never-ending cycle of political stasis and sectarian violence. The triumph in question – the little man over the system – is, simply put, the triumph of Western Liberal Democracy over the absurdities of what the Pentagon terms ENS (ethnic, nationalist, separatist) conflicts. Universal’s backing of the film helps in discerning the film’s ideological nature: thinly disguised propaganda for Clintonian foreign policy, or “democratic enlargement” – the avowed aim of every White House incumbent since FDR.
Thus, while personal and indigenous agency can be discerned in the new Irish cinema, the degree to which this has been tempered by the expansionist ideologies of the United States cannot be underestimated. Having reached and conquered its western horizons in the early part of this century, the American Leviathan now moves outward toward Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. In confronting the ENS conflicts of Bosnia, Rwanda, Palestine, and the Baltic republics, etc., U.S. foreign policy ensures national security and economic development while simultaneously establishing outposts of democratic coalition governments, overseas manufacturing plants, and distribution deals for Oprah Winfrey and Jerry Springer. The Clinton administration’s interest in Northern Ireland has been but one exercise in American neocolonialism, but it has had a tremendous impact on Anglo-Irish relations and the growing Americanization of Irish culture, north and south of the border.
What follows is an attempt to gauge this impact by reference to Some Mother’s Son (1995). Produced by Castle Rock following the success of the Jim Sheridan-Terry George scripted In the Name of the Father, the film was again written by Sheridan and George, this time with George directing. Terry George, who originates from Ulster – and was imprisoned there for IRA activities – emigrated to the U.S. in the early 1980s and began a journalistic career in New York. His film can indeed be read as a personal meditation on the Northern situation – but it is significantly more. Emerging from the center of the triangular composite of British, Irish, and American interests, the film captures much of the complex cultural re-visioning (and reordering) that is taking place, not only in Ulster but throughout the Irish Republic, the British Isles, and the postmodern world in general.
Some Mother’s Son opens with news footage of an interview with the recently inaugurated British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Amid the jeers and boos of an offscreen crowd, Thatcher quotes St. Francis of Assisi: “Where there is discord may we bring harmony. Where there is error may we bring peace. Where there is doubt may we bring faith. Where there is despair may we bring hope.” With the distance of nearly two decades and the steady pileup of newspaper headlines attesting to its emptiness, Thatcher’s conservative rhetoric – and hardline policy of Isolation, Criminalization, and Demoralization – is undermined here not only by the offscreen discontent, but by the irony generated in the scene’s recasting in the liberal-minded context of the 1990s. Thus, before even the opening credits have started rolling, Some Mother’s Son locates a Right/Left, Conservative/Liberal dichotomy in approaches to Northern Ireland – and (significantly) aligns its sympathies with the latter.
Parallel to this is the film’s construction of gendered spaces within the conflict. On the one side rests the masculine sphere of fanatical sectarianism (both Loyalist and Republican) and Anglo-Irish bureaucracy, on the other the feminine sphere composed largely of the conflict’s pawns and victims. In an early sequence, the IRA detonate a bomb that explodes near a Catholic all-girls school while dance practice is in progress. Building suspense via classical editing techniques, the sequence crosscuts the attack with shots of young, preteen girls dancing (significantly, traditional Irish dancing: historically a marginalized – and feminized – aspect of cultural expression in Ireland) as their teacher Kathleen Quigley looks on. When the bomb explodes, the windows of the gymnasium erupt into shards of glass, abruptly turning dance practice into chaos. The true victims of sectarianism, it would seem, are the children and their female protectors – carriers of the culture’s nonviolent traditions – and not the perpetrators of separatist terrorism. Like all such projects designed for mass consumption, the political landscape in Some Mother’s Son is subsumed within the narrower and more personal dimensions of melodrama – the weak and innocent brutalized by the strong and powerful, if you will.
Framed by the 1981 hunger-strikes led by Bobby Sands, Some Mother’s Son tells the story of two mothers – Kathleen Quigley and Annie Higgins – who are forced to watch their sons steadily deteriorate from self-inflicted, nationalist-sanctioned starvation. Significantly, this premise realigns the traditional dramatic axis away from the usual dimensions of male resistance (from brute force to cunning intelligence) and along what is generally perceived as female resistance, i.e., passive, resilient, silent suffering. Yet the film deviates from this melodramatic model in its recasting of the suffering-mother archetype. What has traditionally been a symbolic, non-active figure of silent anguish is here transformed into an active agent of sociopolitical change. Indeed, it is arguably the male characters – and the hunger-strikers in particular – who perform the symbolic (non-active) function of representing the nation.
Kathleen and Annie are essentially two sides of the same coin. Kathleen, educated and liberal-minded, with no strong political or religious affiliations, is a widowed teacher. Annie, also widowed, and seen initially herding cows, continues a long lineage of rural, Catholic republicanism. Openly defiant of the British project in Northern Ireland, she is the dispossessed mother who raises sons as soldiers to win back the homeland. Yet both these woman are united in their common role as mother. Regardless of their political leanings, both share a biological bond to Irish republicanism – and in their efforts to end the hunger strike possess the ability to either change or perpetuate the nature and structures of Anglo-Irish sectarianism.
“A man was shot – he was somebody’s son like you’re mine” says Kathleen to her son Gerard, following his arrest in which a British soldier was shot and killed. Her depoliticized logic thus runs counterpoint to the underlying conflict of the hunger strike: whether Gerard and the 21 other hunger-strikers, including Bobby Sands, can effectively be termed prisoners of war, and not the criminals the British legal system has labeled them. Predicated on 800 years of colonial struggle, her son’s involvement with the IRA perpetuates Joyce’s nightmare of history, the cauterizing effects of tradition and memory on the present. The struggle over “political status” operates on the level of symbolic representation – “prisoner of war” vs. “criminal” – and diminishes, or ignores, the more pertinent issues of willful self-destruction and preconditioned violence. The language in which, and through which, the conflict operates is the same unevolved system of colonialism/countercolonialism that stretches back through the seven-plus centuries of Anglo-Irish conflict. Kathleen, as a woman and mother, is marginalized from this ostensibly male history. She operates not within the codified system of patriarchal nationalism but within an alternative system – encoding a feminine practice of language, a practice which to Helene Cixous constitutes the “[t]wo within one . . . [the] non-exclusion of difference” (Easthope and McGowan 148). Kathleen’s empowering decision to remove her comatose son from the hunger strike cuts through the political red tape and ineffectual rhetoric of the Anglo/Irish negotiations and circumvents the creation of yet another Republican martyr/symbol. Moreover, her actions ensure what Julia Kristeva would term her “insertion into history” (195) – the insertion of her own language into the Anglo-Irish symbolic.
Annie, on the other hand, negates this practice. She is contained by what Franz Fanon terms “retroactive reparations” (231), a political consciousness based on the past tense of colonialism (past atrocities, old glories, etc.), and a retrospective gaze ignores the real and present ramifications of the conflict. In Fanon’s terminology, Annie is “rigidified in predetermined forms, forbidding all evolution, all gains, all progress, all discovery” (224). This rigidity finds its locus in the Nationalist symbolic (the Irish tricolor, “civilian style” clothes, the secret codes and signals of the IRA, the symbolic acts of self-inflicted starvation, etc.), which fails to recognize the nonpoliticized reality of deep-rooted violence and endless bloodshed. To Annie the only means is to fight – and perpetuate the conflict even further. Unlike Kathleen, motherhood for Annie is most likely secondary, or at worst inconsequential, within the signifying system of armed nationalism. Ultimately, however, it is a system that leaves her no choice but to stand by silently and allow her son to die.
In Black Skin, White Masks, Franz Fanon (rather optimistically) declares that “it is by going beyond the historical, instrumental hypothesis that I will initiate the cycle of my freedom” (231). It is a sentiment shared by the filmmakers: Kathleen successfully escapes the “historical, instrumental hypothesis” of “the Troubles” by presenting a posthistorical, postpolitical alternative. Yet underlying this contention are deeper implications that need to be addressed. First, while Some Mother’s Son offers a feminist recasting of nationalist female stereotypes, it is also a film in which the primary artistic contributors are male. Second, in shaking off the yoke of retroactive colonialism (Britain’s imposition on Ireland), the film ironically assumes another. The “non-exclusion of difference” that the film purportedly serves to promote is erased by the more fundamental (market-driven) urge to exclude or eradicate difference and appeal to a homogenized and undifferentiated global audience. The “Hollywoodization” inherent in this tendency functions to replace the colonial strictures of British identity on the Irish body politic with those of American (neocolonial) globalism. These areas – and the concomitant territories of nationalist and postnationalist constructions of gender – will now be addressed in greater detail.
Historically, throughout the western world, the colonial project has been gendered metaphorically into the attempts of the male colonizer to subdue and penetrate thefemale territory of the colonized people. From the position of the colonizer, the lands of Africa and India, for example, were constructed as exotic women, mysteriously veiled and enticing. To possess the land was to assert the masculinity of the colonizers. For the colonized people, the land was a mother forced into penury by foreign invaders. To fight for this mother – to restore her house and lands – was to assert the masculinity of the colonized. Thus, the history of Western phallocentricism becomes the history of one culture’s assertion of its masculinity over another’s, repeated over and over be it in a colonial or countercolonial context.
Not surprising, then, is the tendency to feminize the oppressed and victimized territory in nationalist Irish art. Yeats’s “Cathleen Ni Houlihan” epitomizes this tradition. Written in 1902, the play presents us with the mythical figure of the Sean Van Vocht (or poor old woman) who urges the nation to vanquish its invaders. Once a willing army has been gathered and is prepared to rise in opposition to the foreign invaders, Cathleen Ni Houlihan reverts to the stately beauty she was in precolonial time. Essential to the transformation is the masculine act of resistance. The female figure essentially remains inactive, defined not by action but by mere presence. While essentially a colonial by-product, the use of this construction has carried over into the postcolonial artistic imagination heralded, in great part, by O’Casey’s tenement plays in the 1920s – where again this image resurfaces. In Juno and the Paycock, the archetypal suffering woman (or Sean Van Vocht) is echoed in Juno (significantly, O’Casey’s lynchpin in his criticism of Irish nationalism) who, while dying from a British soldier’s bullet, evokes the mutually reinforcing images of Mother Church and Mother Ireland: “Take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh.”
The paradoxical position of woman as both central to the colonial moment (representing the contested territory in its abstract) and yet marginalized from it (as passive victim or silent nonparticipant) is endemic to the patriarchal system in which colonialism and countercolonialism operate. Such representations of women, defined and utilized by men for the ideological naturalization of their colonial/countercolonial agendas, also function to contain and neuter female agency. While ostensibly offering a critique of this application of power (the masculine urge to possess both land and women), Some Mother’s Son offers yet another construction of femininity invested in yet another paradigm of colonialism. Kathleen Quigley may not take the form of the Sean Van Vocht (that role to all intents and purposes is assumed by Annie Higgins), but she operates instead within another constructed paradigm of femininity, America’s Lady Liberty, which, like the Sean Van Vocht, is also a justificatory symbol of cultural expansion.
Kathleen’s support of Bobby Sands’s election to the British Parliament is significant here. While opposing the very cornerstones of IRA republicanism she does not deny a terrorist’s right to constitutional agency. (One might discern a similar philosophy behind Clinton’s approval of Gerry Adams’s visa in 1994.) Indeed, Kathleen’s stance here is not at all dissimilar from the power-sharing strategies proposed by Clinton’s administration in the early 1990s, carried through to the establishment of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998 and the current debate on arms decommissioning. The application of liberal democratic nostrums to Northern Irish politics, supported by Kathleen in Some Mother’s Son, and implemented in great part by the interventionist policies of the United States, conceals the double-pronged urgency of American neocolonialism. (Indeed, as an emissary of liberal democracy, Kathleen embodies its feminine-plaited traits of reconciliation and peace – the “non-exclusion of difference” – which conceal the true purposes of the masculine colonial project.)
The obliteration of civil and ethnic unrest across the globe helps naturalize America’s mechanistic self-conception as the final stage in human development, the “melting-pot” myth wherein all forms of human enmity dissolve into a stable state of religious and racial conformity. In patching up the fragmentation of foreign states – while in no way resolving their divisions: the Good Friday Agreement was reached at a point when racial-religious division in Northern Ireland had seldom been so high – American foreign policy conceals the ever-increasing fragmentation of its own great experiment. What is at stake in Northern Ireland is not simply a possible respite from 30 years of open violent hostilities, but the very foundations of American (and Western) liberal democracy. (Foundations, one might add, built precariously upon 300 years of genocidal wars against the Native-American Indians.)
But national security is not solely a question of cultural hegemony – economic gain plays an important and vital role in America’s “democratic enlargement.” U.S. involvement in the ongoing peace process has been instrumental in establishing trade and investment opportunities for such U.S. companies as Unicomp and Du Pont. More importantly, however, access to Northern Ireland provides entry to the $7.3 trillion European market – which offers a 370-million, well-educated, English-speaking workforce; a high-tech telecommunications network; fast-developing electronics, environmental, information, and health technologies; and a high degree of familiarity with American products and services. Thus, the needs of the state and private sector are united and satisfied in the expansionist project – the ultimate aim of any colonial takeover. But what separates the neocolonialism of America from the forms that preceded it is its emphasis and dependency on cultural, as opposed to violent imperialism. And it is here that we locate Some Mother’s Son. Financed by the American film industry, the film is an ambassador for Clintonian foreign policy, an advertisement for the graces of U.S. pluralist democracy. Its vision of Northern Ireland is essentially that of revamped, preindustrial American South: a locus of bitter enmity and racial intolerance awaiting the final stage in social evolution – liberal democracy, American style.
In concluding, however, we must be careful not to overly essentialize contemporary trends in Irish cinema. Admittedly, distinctive qualities can be discerned between films of low- and medium-budget ranges, between European and American coproductions, and between films produced in the North of Ireland and those in the South. Yet there remain certain universal trends – the emergence of the global village, the internationalization of markets, the homogenization of culture, and what Francis Fukuyama sees as the only political alternative to the postindustrial malaise: liberal democracy. These developments, defined in aggregate as postmodernism, have had a marked impact on the culture and polity of all modern communities, not excluding Ireland. Indeed, one could make similar arguments as those above about certain films from France, or Denmark, or Hong Kong. To varying degrees, all national cinemas must negotiate the often contradictory pulls of the local and universal, the national and the international, the center and periphery. In the case of Ireland, where local audiences cannot (or often will not) support indigenous production, the need to find outside audiences is absolute. And so a new mode of analysis must be called upon: we must approach these films as products of an unsettling asymmetry between peripheral nations and the powerful financial centers of New York and Los Angeles; as signifiers of a new age of deterritorialization or postterritorial spaces. This is intended as an overture to such approaches, a prologue to a deeper study of what we might term a neocolonial or transnational cinema.
Cixous, Hélène. From “Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways Out/Forays.” 1975. A Critical and Cultural Reader. Ed. Anthony Easthope and Kate McGowan. Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1992. 146-157.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove Press, 1967.