Sure, isn't it only a harmless bit of fun the way Irish people are almost always drunk, feckless, twee or thick in Hollywood movies? No it isn't writes DONALD CLARKE
NEXT WEEK, a romantic comedy entitled Leap Yearopens across the country. Such is the debased nature of that once-proud genre, you won’t be surprised to hear that the viewing experience is somewhat less delightful than shoving your face in a Sumo wrestler’s armpit. Leap Yearis, however, something quite special. The picture stars Amy Adams as an uptight New Yorker who, after hearing about an “ancient Irish custom”, travels to Dublin with the intention of proposing to her partner on February 29th. (Yeah, I know 2010 isn’t a leap year, but let’s just tackle one absurdity at a time.) Following a storm, she gets diverted to “Cardiff, Wales”, hops a boat to Dingle and attempts to make her way up country.
Does she encounter top software engineers, talented travel writers, acclaimed architects and celebrated electronic composers? She does not. Is she diverted by the increasingly multicultural nature of the new Ireland? Not a bit of it. She gets stuck behind cows. She listens to endless superstitious gibberings from elderly cretins leaning on dry stone walls. She hooks up with a bizarrely accented publican – Matthew Goode appears to have prepared for the part by alternating viewings of How Green is My Valleywith glimpses at Slumdog Millionaire– and allows him to work through all the most pungent clichés concerning the loveable Irish rogue. The film is offensive, reactionary, patronising filth.
“Ah, sure. What are ye getting your Arran jumper in a twisteen about?” I hear the average Irish Timesreader say, before taking another bite from a raw potato. “Isn’t it only a bit of aul craic [sic]? Sure wouldn’t we be the eejits to take offense at such gas.” (Take note, this dialogue is considerably more authentic than that in Leap Year.)
Imagine if African-Americans were still caricatured in such a lazy and simplistic fashion. Sure, Hollywood still has some way to go in its dealings with black America – interracial couples are, for example, still rare in the mainstream – but we do see the odd film in which African-Americans are allowed to be something other than minstrels or slaves.
It, however, involves only a mild exaggeration to suggest that Hollywood is incapable of seeing the Irish as anything but IRA men or twinkly rural imbeciles. There was a brief period in the late 1990s and early 2000s when, thanks to the activities of Veronica Guerin and Martin Cahill, we were allowed to be urban villains or crusading reporters, but the normal rules of play quickly reasserted themselves.
There is a fascinating irony at the heart of this phenomenon. The academic LP Curtis has argued that the archetypal notion of the “paddy” was devised in 19th-century Britain as a malign complement to the patriotic figure of John Bull. Whereas the personification of Great Britain was resolute, respectable, well-scrubbed, good-natured and hard-working, the embodiment of Ireland was drunken, untrustworthy, child-like, lazy, filthy, violent and irrational. True enough, this version of the emblematic Irishman, particularly common in notorious cartoons for Punchmagazine, remained a staple of British anti-Home Rule propaganda right up until the establishment of the State. That said, at least you knew where you stood with these attacks. The Tory bilge-peddlers hated and resented the uppity Irish and felt no shame in parading their prejudices.
Now, consider, say, Victor McLaglen’s character in The Quiet Man(1952). How many of the pejorative adjectives listed above could be comfortably attached to John Wayne’s sworn enemy in John Ford’s (admittedly rather gorgeous) romantic fantasy? Drunken? No question. Violent? Well, duh! Filthy? Pretty much. Irrational? No viewer is likely to confuse Will Danaher with Immanuel Kant.
When Hollywood downplayed the characters’ violent instincts, they tended to heighten their childlike tendencies. That startlingly clever actor Barry Fitzgerald was happy to become a geriatric infant for his Oscar-winning turn in the now barely watchable Going My Way(1944). More recently, Gerard Butler twinkled through the largely appalling PS I Love Youand Pierce Brosnan tortured his vowels in the stomach-churning Evelyn. All these characters look like variations on the anti-John Bull theme.
Bizarrely, the Hollywood Paddy who is most certain to have no time for violence is the IRA volunteer. Think of Richard Gere in the useless The Jackal. Ponder Mickey Rourke in A Prayer for the Dying. If Republicans had been so keen to retire, the Troubles would have ended decades sooner.
The oddity, of course, is that the cosy, uncomplicated image of a backwards Ireland populated by burping, thieving morons has been largely propagated by the Irish-American community. Christened John Feeney, Ford often claimed that his parents, both first-generation immigrants, originally named him Sean Aloysius. The scripts for the most awful Oirish catastrophes feature a depressing number of O’Rourkes, Ryans and Murphys. In reducing the old country to a shamrock-strewn theme park, the children and grandchildren of the genuinely Irish presumably feel they are doing us a favour.
While investigating Leap Year, this writer became involved in an unseemly argument on the comments board at the Internet Movie Database. Encountering an Irish-American tolerant of the film, I courteously compared him to Hitler and wondered, in concerned sincerity, how he could sleep at night. (That’s what you do on the internet.) He replied that he couldn’t understand why the Irish would object to its portrayal in Leap Yearas it made the nation seem like a “quaint little country”. Well, precisely.
In decades past, a certain cultural cringe still infected Ireland’s attitude to the United States. While such a vast economic and technological gulf existed between the nations, it seemed discourteous to object strongly to the rampaging distortions in depictions of Irish society. We might have been tempted to point out that when James Joyce, an actual Irishman, set out to create a Dublin everyman in Ulysses, he imagined a civilised, peaceable, partly Jewish advertising canvasser. Nearly a century later, Hollywood seems unable to get beyond a wiseacre in a cloth cap or an incongruously gun-shy terrorist.
Now that the lifestyle of the average Irishman seems so much closer to that of the average Californian, it appears all the more indecent that the US continues to peddle this garbage. We should now speak up.
A St Patrick’s Day viewing of the famously dreadful Darby O’Gill and the Little Peopleremains an amusingly camp experience. After all, even Spike Lee managed to laugh at worse archaic African-American stereotypes in Bamboozled. But the fact that, 50 years after Darby O’Gill, Hollywood studios are still belittling the nation in trash such as Leap Yearis genuinely depressing. Might I humbly suggest that every reader buys a DVD of Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hoodand flings it at the head of any punter seen entering a screening of this upcoming atrocity. Actually, come to think of it, that would be an appalling waste. That spoof horror film is, unlike PS I Love You, funny on purpose.
Leap Yearopens next week