Ireland has the weather, the landscape and the spotty extras that medieval movies need

Donald Clarke: The country easily delivers the desired sense of mildewed desolation

Matt Damon in The Last Duel: ‘Inconvenienced by our era’s variation on plague while shooting the film, Damon spent much of 2020 charming Dalkey’

Matt Damon in The Last Duel: ‘Inconvenienced by our era’s variation on plague while shooting the film, Damon spent much of 2020 charming Dalkey’

 

There are many reasons to catch Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel when it opens next week. Matt Damon and Adam Driver hammer each other with gnarly battleaxes. Jodie Comer emerges as an officially certified superstar. There is (surprisingly for a film set in 1386) some thoughtful commentary on the #MeToo rearrangements.

Go and see it, also, for further confirmation that, despite all our buzzing digital innovations, Ireland remains the most medieval country in the world. Others have competed. Scotland has an occasional crack. Romania challenged for the title two decades ago. But, since the fifth century or so, Ireland has been the most suitable place to die of plague in a rat-infested dungeon. Put that on your banner and hoist it high above the besieged ramparts.

Looking for somewhere the Renaissance forgot? We have many varieties of Dark Age on this island

Unless you spent last summer creating illuminated manuscripts in an island hermitage, you will be aware that, inconvenienced by our era’s variation on plague while shooting the film, Damon spent much of 2020 charming Dalkey with his unpretentious convenience shopping.

Where else but Ireland would you go to shoot such a film? The Last Duel arrives just a few weeks after The Green Knight, a borderline psychedelic take on a classic 14th-century poem, showed off some of the same locations. Cahir Castle, which has loomed over the Suir since 1142, has also appeared in Excalibur and The Tudors. Dev Patel, star of The Green Knight, made his way from that pile to Charleville Castle in Tullamore. The sodden midlands were as convincing in the role of England as they were playing France for The Last Duel. Looking for somewhere the Renaissance forgot? We have many varieties of Dark Age on this island.

The nation has been offering directors medieval locations for close to a century. In 1944, when the UK was distracted by concerns to the east, Laurence Olivier brought his classic adaptation of Henry V to Co Wicklow. A few decades later, for Excalibur, John Boorman reimagined Camelot in that county as well as in Tipperary and Kerry. The Princess Bride made famous use of the Cliffs of Moher. Braveheart turned Ireland into Scotland.

On television, Game of Thrones – set in a fantastical variation of medieval Britain – made creative use of Northern Ireland. We’ve hosted several series of Vikings and its successor, Valhalla. The list could go on as long as the Third Crusade.

So, how have we cornered the market in medieval locations? Our high rating on the International Castle Index is certainly a factor. Several stupid websites I’ve just looked up put the number of such buildings – combining shattered ruins with functioning resorts – at around 30,000. Our neighbours in Wales score the world’s highest number of castles per capita, but Ireland’s rate of about 170 people per pile is still impressive. If every building were in mint condition, we could just about fit the entire nation in medieval accommodation.

It matters that we now have a significant number of highly experienced cinema professionals to light the castles, shoot the castles [and] dress the castles...

There is more to it than that. A less facetious column would talk about the important work of various governmental and quasi-governmental agencies down through the years. In recent decades Screen Ireland (formerly the Irish Film Board) and Northern Ireland Screen (formerly Northern Ireland Film Council) have strived to attract overseas film-makers into their respective territories. It matters that we now have a significant number of highly experienced cinema professionals to light the castles, shoot the castles, dress the castles, record sounds within the castles, and cut the resulting footage together into a coherent narrative about castles.

Yet, unlike, say, Vancouver, nowhere in Ireland has developed a career as a reliable stand-in for New York City. We have neither the skyscrapers nor the right sort of seedy alleyway. Nor does the nation offer much to those in search of sci-fi futurism. Star Wars Island, our most recent and notable contribution to franchise cinema, could hardly be more in the medieval line. The sometime Skellig Michael provides Luke Skywalker with the same sort of rough shelter once enjoyed by the Augustinian monks.

Steven Spielberg can stage the Normandy landings in Wexford for Saving Private Ryan. Martin Ritt can turn Smithfield into cold war Berlin for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. But our temporal speciality is still fashioned from maggots, buboes, siege towers, flaming witches and, to quote Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “strange women lying in ponds distributing swords”. (Alas, the Scottish got in before us when the Pythons were shopping for castles.)

Much of this is to do with our negative perception of the era that historians no longer call the Dark Ages. Those boffins are forever on the telly trying to dispel simplistic notions about that sprawling period – a whole millennium, remember – but filmmakers stubbornly prefer the grey skies, the religious persecutions, the brutishly short lives.

The relics of balmy Spain or sunny Italy can’t give you the same sense of mildewed desolation. We have the weather for that. We have the landscape for that. We have the pale, spotty extras for that.

It’s not just about the castles. 

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