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Una Mullally: Shame and derision that strangled Irish language seems to have evaporated

The shame and derision that once strangled the language appears to have evaporated

Last weekend audiences got an opportunity to see how Irish cinema was changing, perhaps forever. An Cailín Ciúin is a team effort. Funded in part through a TG4 scheme, it is a remarkable film and an instant classic.

An Cailín Ciúin is part of a golden era of Irish film, a medium that is maturing in spectacular ways. But it is also part of a cultural revival that has been ongoing for some time. It’s no coincidence that this involves the Irish language emerging, authentically, in so many facets of culture.

Consider the latest Fontaines DC album, Skinty Fia, which reached number one in Ireland and in the UK. It begins with a mantra, “In ár gcríotha go deo”, a reference to the Irish woman Margaret Keane whose family fought a three-year battle to have that inscribed on her gravestone in an English graveyard.

Or consider the explosion in Irish rap and hiphop, led by young Black artists here. Consider Denise Chaila’s breakout single, Anseo, or rapper Fay’d’s interpretation of An Spailpín Fánach. Consider the track, Oggy, by Sello featuring Offica, the latter a rising star from Louth, in which both throw in Irish lyrics, “An bfhuil tú réidh? Rugadh mé réidh,” Sello raps. When Offica enters, he announces the literal attractiveness of speaking Irish, “Conas atá tú? Yeah, she like how I speak.” The melodic sample used in Oggy is in fact the Traveller singer Mary Kate McDonagh singing The Tri-Coloured House, a tune also recorded by Lankum on their groundbreaking debut album, Cold Old Fire.

Or consider what the Belfast rap group Kneecap is doing, rapping through Irish, playing to thousands of people in Glasgow and Belfast, touring England and Ireland, and travelling to Los Angeles this month to play a show in Hollywood. Consider forms that go beyond language but feel profoundly rooted in an Irish aesthetic dug from the earth and pulled from the heavens, such as Michael Keegan-Dolan’s MÁM, and the ensuing documentary on that creative process, The Dance.

What a joy to have this film in our lives and how fascinating and exciting to see the Irish language evolve, once more

So what’s happening? The Irish language is becoming increasingly centred in Irish popular culture. This movement, a coalescence, an emergence, is now impossible to ignore. The massive popularity of Manchán Magan’s book, Thirty-Two Words for Field, is a good barometer of people’s desire to connect with the language.

When Magan writes about the word “scim” which can mean a thin coating of particles like dust on a shelf, or limewash on a building, or a fairy film that covers the land, he could equally be writing about the layer of language that feels increasingly close to the surface here. Derided, oppressed, colonised, condemned, our language just won’t go away. As Magan frames it, it is a portal through which we can understand the land, spirituality, nature, connection and, indeed, ourselves. What is coming to the fore now is how it is also a tool and a vessel for great aesthetic pleasures.

The shame and derision that strangled the language appears to have evaporated. There is a generational shift happening where people express regret about not having Irish, and where people are gravitating towards the various arenas that hold it explicitly or implicitly. It feels that somewhere along the line this century, the language was liberated. Perhaps people in Ireland are getting out of their own way. Naturally, this change will have large social and political consequences. Culture moves politics, and the political entity most in tune with the culture of the day will be the one that garners support.

It is 44 years since Bob Quinn’s Poitín was released, the first feature film entirely in the Irish language. Quinn was also one of the driving forces behind the establishment of TG4, and one of the founders of the Galway Film Fleadh. Irish-language cinema is now not some kind of outlier in our cultural landscape, but an emerging genre manifesting from the desires of those who held the fort for so long.

An Cailín Ciúin was written by Colm Bairéad and adapted from a Claire Keegan story. Bairéad also directed the film. It was produced by Cleona Ní Chrualaoí. The casting is impeccable, introducing young Catherine Clinch to the world, and also providing an arena for the magnetic Carrie Crowley to soar. Stephen Rennicks, who has scored films including Adam & Paul, What Richard Did, Room, and Viva, crafted a subtle and beautiful score. John Murphy, who recently edited the documentary North Circular, edited the film. The production design by Emma Lowney is flawless, close to breathtaking. Kate McCullough was the cinematographer. McCullough is a monumental talent. In Arracht (also an Irish-language film) her work imbued the texture and palate of rocks and sea with a sense of deep foreboding. But in An Cailín Ciúin, something else happens. There’s a tone and temperature that is so perfectly judged, so achingly nostalgic, so gorgeously paced, so stunning in the richness of the every day, that the film moves beyond its medium, and closer to poetry.

What a joy to have this film in our lives and how fascinating and exciting to see the Irish language evolve, once more. Everyone should go to the cinema to witness this work of art, which is not just fluent in linguistic terms, but fluent in the language of beauty.