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Cinema of the Celtic Tiger

Visiting scholar examines Irish filmmaking during the boom years
November 7, 2012
By Tom Peacock

Ruth Barton, the Peter O'Brien Visiting Scholar in Canadian Irish Studies, likes to compare the Irish filmmaking industry to Canada's. "You have an English-language cinema that feels it can compete in Hollywood, but doesn't always tick the boxes,” she says.

“Or it doesn't always want to tick the boxes that Hollywood requires you tick, in order to be mainstream. So it's caught between the potential to be a mainstream cinema and its desire to have a distinct identity," she adds.

Ruth Barton is the head of the Department of Film Studies at Trinity College Dublin. | Photo by Concordia University
Ruth Barton is the head of the Department of Film Studies at Trinity College Dublin. | Photo by Concordia University

That distinct identity is great fodder for film scholars, since the filmmaking industry becomes a reflection of greater forces at work in the country itself. During a free, public lecture on Friday, November 16, titled, Revisiting Old History? Representations of the Past in Irish Cinema of the Celtic Tiger, Barton will reflect on a specific time in Ireland’s filmmaking history, influenced by the country’s booming economy.

“My idea is to fill in the cultural, historical background, and then relate the shift in filmmaking to the shift in the cultural and historical background,” Barton says.

Barton is the head of the Department of Film Studies at Trinity College Dublin. She has written numerous books and articles on Irish Cinema. As the O’Brien Scholar, she will spend one semester at Concordia teaching classes and working on her own research project, examining the work of Irish director Rex Ingram during the silent film era.

Barton says that prior to the arrival of the economic boom in the 1990s, the so-called Celtic Tiger, Irish films tended to dwell on the relationship between the country’s past and its present. "You've got a country that's defined by being post-colonial, so the films tended to be framed by issues of post-coloniality," she says.

During the lecture, Barton will try to decode some of the changes that happened in Irish cinema as a result of the country’s newfound prosperity. “Films are always a way into seeing how a culture is talking about itself,” she says. “It speaks to the culture in the language of that culture at that time.

At the same time as Ireland was wrestling with its new prosperity, a peace process brought an end to the prolonged conflict between Protestant unionists and Catholic nationalists in Northern Ireland. As well, revelations of sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests begin to make headlines in a society where the Church has always played an extremely important role. Ireland’s filmmaking industry suddenly found itself with a lot of new subject matter.

Some Irish filmmakers during the Celtic Tiger continued to mine the country’s rich and troubled past, but in different ways, Barton says. “Interest in the past changed from being to do with questions of nationalism to where people become more interested in exploring the relationship between Catholicism and Irish identity, particularly the institutional Catholicism.”

Other filmmakers began looking at more current subjects, such as immigration, clearly making a break with the past and looking to the country’s uncertain future.

“Films like Adam and Paul (directed by Lenny Abrahamson) are very clear on that. This is a film that is a play on immigration. It has a new immigrant in it, and that's one of the big changes,” she says. “Ireland went from being really monolithically white, to being multicultural, like that. So what you take for granted in Montreal happened very, very quickly in Ireland.”

Another important change that occurred during the Celtic Tiger period was the adoption of digital filmmaking. “It was a really rich period, in part because with digital filmmaking, the cost of making films dropped,” Barton explains. “So, far more people had access to filmmaking than used to have.”

Barton gives the example of the wildly popular Irish film Once, which was made for less than 200,000 Euros (the equivalent of $254,500 Canadian dollars) and became an international box office hit. “(Irish filmmaking) has a low-budget culture,” Barton says. “Because you can't compete with Hollywood budgets, so there's no point in trying to. That's why films like Once… that's what they hope for.”

When: Friday, November 16 at 7 p.m.
Where: Room H-1070, 10th floor of the Henry F. Hall Building (1455 De Maisonneuve Blvd. W.), Sir George Williams Campus

Related Links:
•    School of Canadian Irish Studies
•    Department of Film Studies, Trinity College Dublin
•    Rex Ingram Research Project


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