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It was uncomfortable, in 2016, to watch the contortions that Sky News reporter Richard Suchet put himself through to justify calling Saoirse Ronan British. The journalist called her “one of our own” after her performance in John Crowley’s Brooklyn (2015) earned a BAFTA nomination, and after facing an onslaught of criticism from the Irish twitter community, he opted for the now favoured approach of establishment journalists: the double down. On Twitter, Suchet shot back “She’s from the British Isles & whether you like it or not, Brits will be willing her to win.” This is not a one off mistake. Colin Farrell, Michael Fassbender, Ruth Negga, even Seamus Heaney: when an Irish artist gains international attention, it is only a matter of time before Britannia claims them for herself. So why is it that Irish identity is so often brushed aside in this way?
Suchet hadn’t mistaken Ronan’s nationality; in his mind, Ireland was not a separate entity to the UK, not really. While some might be outraged by Suchet’s self-serving interpretations of geography, the structure of the British arts establishment encourages this sort of thinking. BAFTAs’ system of nominating films, which often includes those that are not considered British by the general public, serves as a case study for this predicament: the nationality of talent. It’s one thing to nominate Nick Hornby, a British writer, for his work on the screenplay of Brooklyn, but to nominate the film itself for Outstanding British Picture seems like a stretch.
In Brooklyn, Ronan plays Eilis Lacey, a classic smalltown heroine. Faced by poor employment opportunities in Enniscorthy, stifling busy bodies, and uninspiring local men, Eilis is pushed to leave Ireland for America. While Brooklyn is ultimately a romantic movie, as Eilis chooses between suitors on either side of the Atlantic, the road to a happy ending is paved with loss. There are many tragedies in the story, as adapted by Hornby from Colm Tóibín’s novel: the separation of family, the death of Eilis’ sister, the realisation at the films’ end that Eilis, now married, will likely never see home soil again. But for all of the film’s melodramatic sweep, the most powerful scene is a small one. At a Christmas lunch for destitute Irishmen at which Eilis volunteers, a merry celebration is broken when a man stands up to sing in Irish. The song, ‘Casadh an tSúgáin’ (The Twisting of the Rope), tells the story of a man rejected by the woman he loves, who represents Ireland from the emigrant viewpoint, and pushes him away to foreign shores: “what drove me to this land / In red cloaks, far from my Gaelic friends?” As he sings, the camera focuses first on Eilis, staring hard in an attempt to hold back tears, and then gives us close up shots of the patrons, all old, tired men. In their flat caps and Aran jumpers and with heads dipped in sorrow at the sound of the familiar song, Crowley emphasises just how far from home they are, and what grief they must face in order to survive.
This isn’t just Eilis’ story. Since the Middle Ages, emigration has been a strong element of the Irish experience, and from 1765 records show Irish people departing the country en masse to find employment and opportunity. Such has been the case for their film projects too. Brooklyn was a co-production between the Irish Film Board, Telefilm Canada and BBC Films, among other international producers. Financially, it may be the result of international effort, but there is little evidence as to why the UK should claim primary authorship of the film. For all that Crowley captures of the Irish emigrant experience, there is a certain irony in that the film had to leave its own shores in order to thrive. For Brooklyn, like Ronan, gaining worldwide critical acclaim means relying on UK support.
This paints a dim picture of Ireland’s film industry. But today, Ireland has a flourishing cinema culture, and an audience for it, with the highest movie-going population in Europe. The country nurtures this, with thriving festivals (local and national), plans to build film studios, and even a tax break for artists. The animation studio Cartoon Saloon shows the country embracing both talent and heritage. Across a number of local and international hits, they have utilised folklore tradition and celtic-influenced 2D animation (although even they are not fiscally autonomous: their latest, Wolfwalkers , was part funded by Apple TV+). Like Wolfwalkers’ depiction of Oliver Cromwell, the British film industry exercises cultural sovereignty over foreign films that rely on its resources, while inadvertently exposing its own lack of a definitive film culture. Sight and Sound’s report on the films of 2020 contained a piece about “British and Irish talent”, featuring exactly one Northern Irish film, so the title, we could safely assume, was to avoid any messiness of understanding how to refer to Northern Ireland. There is an argument for celebrating the breadth of British talent and the significance of international cooperation in film production, but platitudes in the form of listmaking and national awards bodies seem to negate this.
Is there some particular transnational element to contemporary Irish actors that makes them so Brit-able? Ronan got her break in Joe Wright’s period drama Atonement (2007) as prepubescent telltale Briony, and her roles since see her more often play British or American than Irish, lending her a “Citizen of the world” appeal. Her ability to slip between roles while maintaining a star presence has led to Ronan being crowned the “new Meryl Streep”, but has kept her at a distance from Irish cinema. The career of her Brooklyn co-star Domhnall Gleeson follows a similar trajectory: first coming to international attention as Bill Weasley in the Harry Potter franchise, gaining traction as the Hugh Grant-esque lead in Richard Curtis’ About Time (2013), and cementing his celebrity as Queen’s English-accented General Hux in the Disney Star Wars films (2015 – 2019). Meanwhile, his brother Brian, less polished and possessing a thicker accent closer to their father’s, has stayed close to home, becoming one of Ireland’s most celebrated stage actors, and a breakout star of the canonised RTÉ crime drama Love/Hate (2010 – 2014). Perhaps the Gleeson brothers’ side-by-side performances as Cain and Abel surrogates in Darren Aranofsky’s Mother! (2017), shows a mutual jealousy.
It is probably not these factors that lay the groundwork for actors falling foul of the Brit trap. Rather, without the ingrained cultural understanding of loss that comes part and parcel with Irishness, and which Brooklyn articulates so well, external cultural commentators cannot be expected to understand the weight of their words when they belittle hard-fought-for Irish identity. Donald Clarke put it best: “Once again, [the journalist] knows these people are Irish. He knows Ireland isn’t British. But he thinks this is sort-of kind-of accurate, just as a zebra is sort-of kind-of a horse.” Suchet’s inability to gauge the significance of his words is a symptom of Britain’s colonial hangover. Through the failure to acknowledge the oppression which defined a great majority of these countries’ shared history, Britain performs a kind of gaslighting on Ireland, just as Suchet does when he responds to criticism with his defensive “deal with it” rhetoric.
Being a world-leader in cinema means that your talent has to be nurtured at home, and not just in period dramas or the latest Richard Curtis flick. It means not dismantling your studios, or maintaining them only as a holding place for Marvel and Disney. It is hard to find spaces where British talent is really nurtured at home. Even the original Harry Potter films, a great case of heritage film nurturing British and European talent, have now been Americanised though the New York-set Fantastic Beasts prequels. The studio tour, which at first glance provides a genuinely exciting look into real British cinema, becomes a kind of cinematic graveyard when you realise that the franchise has moved on to greener pastures, that the detailed exhibit is not a celebration of but rather a memorial to the British film industry. How will British journalists react when the passing of time means Harry Potter is remembered as an American project?