Northern Ireland in movies, Part 2: IRA blockbusters

IRA blockbusters

In contrast to Northern Protestants, there is a wealth of films centring on the experience of Northern Catholics. This isn’t to say that the Catholics get the best deal. Films of all origins since the inception of the Troubles have almost entirely subordinated the identity of Northern Catholics to the exploits of the IRA. There are some sensitive, nuanced and intelligent films (and some stinkers too) from British and Irish filmmakers. However, the most widely watched films on the topic are American blockbusters.

The position of the IRA in Hollywood is as a bizarre and fictionalised trope that bears little relation to reality. Often IRA members are removed from Northern Ireland and placed in some foreign land where they seek to cause havoc of a non-specific kind. If they are permitted a backstory, then they will have a dead daddy, killed by the Brits. Aside from that, they have no political opinions whatsoever. Very often, they are not the mainstream IRA, but some splinter group of psychotic calibre. This serves the dual function of allowing the characters to charge around like drooling, apolitical cartoon monsters and relieving the filmmaker of conducting even the most basic research. This is the IRA of The Patriot Games and The Devil’s Own. So often these films are accused of glorifying the IRA which is absurd. Divorcing the IRA from political context and reducing them to cut out gangsters does not amount to glorification.

Removing the IRA from their political context also allows filmmakers to skirt around the complex, shaded relationship the Catholic community in Northern Ireland has towards them. They are protectors, heroes, a source of shame and a perpetual menace. For some people who lived in the areas where they were most active, they are all four simultaneously. It is worth remembering that the IRA were responsible for more Catholic deaths than any other single party in the conflict. This does not bear much scrutiny in cinema where the IRA are presented as the international representatives of the entire Catholic community.

The most recent incarnation of the IRA as a pop-up baddy is in the television show Sons of Anarchy. They are a splinter group, obviously, the True IRA. They don’t have any political opinions. They don’t even have dead daddies what were killed by the Brits. They are empty vessels devoid of all purpose other than causing mayhem. They blow up targets in America, kill anything with a pulse at the slightest provocation and stand about it fields waving bazooka guns and shouting things like; “I could hit a Protestant from three blocks away with this!” in accents that sometimes sound Limerick, sometimes Cork, mainly American.

Irish accents in American films and television shows are a well-known joke. It is said that the Belfast accent is the most difficult in the world to impersonate effectively. This is a fair point. I struggle with it sometimes and I was born there. Particularly in West Belfast, the accent is thick, fast, unwieldy and things are done with vowels that God neither designed nor intended. Do you know who can pull off a West Belfast accent? Actors from West Belfast. They do not appear in these films. This is because people from West Belfast are irrelevant to films about their community.

Fifty Dead Men Walking is an embarrassment of riches of arrogant dismissal of real people and fantastically terrible Irish accents. (Special awards need to be given to Rose McGowan who delivers all her lines like a woman trying to gargle peanut brittle with her tongue nailed to the roof of her mouth.) Fifty Dead Men Walking is rare from transatlantic takes on the Troubles in that it actually places the IRA in their community and takes real life events as its source – the experiences of Special Branch agent, Martin McGartland. McGartland’s biography is imperfect but it is interesting, novel and often darkly comic and captures the ambivalent and conflicted relationship a young Catholic man from Ballymurphy had with the IRA. It has all the material needed to make a great film and maybe someone will make it one day.

Whatever aspects of McGartland’s story are revelatory and specific to the Northern Irish conflict, director Skogland replaces with well-worn Hollywood clichés. Real life figures Davy Adams and Rosena Brown are replaced with Mickey and Grace – a man who spends his time hanging around in cemeteries making sixth form political statements and crying and a bland, wriggly sex-pot. The rest of the IRA are slobbering vampires whose entire existence is dominated by a craving for the sight of spilled blood. McGartland’s real life girlfriend – a staunch Republican with a complicated personal experience of the IRA, is replaced with a wispy idiot who exists to announce she’s pregnant in a Galway accent at inappropriate moments. The real life happenings documented in McGartland’s biography are all but completely removed in favour of creating yet another gangster farce.

What is most problematic in Fifty Dead Men Walking is not merely the insulting spit in the face it delivers to Martin McGartland (who Skogland sees fit to call a coward in her mawkish self-penned song that plays over the end credits) and his family, but the constant use of dead young Catholic men from West Belfast, whose bodies litter the narrative and who have no significance other than plot devices in what is essentially a generic action film. They are given no names, their faces are only briefly glimpsed, they are barely mourned. Their lives and deaths are fodder for cheap cinematic thrills and nothing more.

Imperialism takes many forms. The co-opting of the political conflict in Northern Ireland and the subordination of the Catholic community to the pyrotechnic potential of a fantasy IRA figure is one of its manifestations. If Hollywood executives find the plight of the Catholic community and the organisation of the IRA so compelling then they must begin to treat it with more responsibility and respect rather than as thoroughfare for endless, crude blockbusters.