School of Communications, Dublin City University, Ireland
(Colm Bairéad, 2021)
There has long been a degree of hand-wringing within Irish film studies about whether specific texts “qualify” as examples of national cinema. With my frequent co-author Tony Tracy, I have actively contributed to this debate in these pages about what national cinema has come to mean in the particular context of post-1993 Irish screen policy. We have increasingly leaned towards characterising contemporary Irish cinema as “transnational” by dint of referencing the formal and textual characteristics of those films, even if somewhat ruefully acknowledging that these characteristics have rarely led such films to find transnational success with audiences.
The gist of that academic narrative might be summarised by the tendency to point to “first wave” Irish cinema (roughly speaking that output produced from the mid -1970s until 1987 under the auspices of Arts Council and the first incarnation of the Irish Film Board) as exemplifying a purist version of national cinema: culturally specific texts, primarily conceived with a local audience in mind, written and produced and acted by indigenous crew and cast. By contrast, the narrative continues, the output of the post-1993 indigenous sector (what we have elsewhere dubbed ‘second wave’) was much more “outward looking”, a polite way of characterising texts apparently consciously constructed with international audiences in mind, which represent Ireland in a manner comprehensible to external conceptions and often populated with cast familiar to international audiences drawn from the US and UK film industries.
There is a judgement implied in that narrative. The rhetoric underwriting the re-establishment of the film board in 1993 (and the host of other measures designed to encourage screen production that followed) stressed the need to tell our own stories to build a cultural bulwark against the constant inward flow of screen images and, in particular, to counter the (false or skewed) representations of Ireland constructed by producers from beyond these shores. (The Quiet Man casts a long shadow in this regard but it is far from alone. The Oscar success of John Carney’s Once (Global box office: €23m) in 2007 may have felt like a breakthrough for Irish cinema but it was eclipsed in the same year by the soft romanticism of PS, I Love You (global box office €156m) based on Cecilia Ahern’s best-selling novel.) However, went the judgement, the pragmatic prioritisation of commercial imperatives over cultural ones deemed necessary to legitimate ongoing state support for tax breaks and institutions like the Irish Film Board/ Screen Ireland, meant that the international and transnational address of second (c. 1993-2004) and third wave (c. 2004-present) Irish screen output had failed to sufficiently counter the ongoing flows of narratives and representations of Ireland from outside. Ironically, of course precisely those tax breaks and institutions were not only supporting indigenous productions which “diluted” the local in order to make them more internationally palatable but they were also underwriting the production of “problematic” external representations.
An Cailín Ciúin offers a new – indeed unprecedented – case for re-formulating these all too familiar discussions. The narrative of the film’s genesis is, doubtless, already familiar to most readers: how in 2018 the Irish-language documentary maker Colm Bairéad read an article in the Irish Times about the best writing by Irish women and encountered Claire Keegan’s 2010 long short-story “Foster”, a simple but heart-wrenching account of a young girl sent to temporarily live with relatives by her dysfunctional parents. Finding that the screen rights to the story were still available, Bairéad set about expanding the story to meet the demands of a feature length film while also deciding – for both practical as well as aesthetic reasons – to translate the text into Irish. Funding was secured from the Cine4, the TG4/BAI/Irish Screen scheme supporting projects up to €1.2m and topped up with Section 481. In February 2022, the film had its international debut at the Berlinale in Germany where the local audience offered rapturous applause. The film then went on general release in Ireland and the UK on May 13 2022. While critically well-received but it was, nonetheless, an Irish-language text in an Anglophone, largely monoglot nation, with a sparse narrative and set before the average Irish cinema-goer (15-35 years old) was born. Surely it was destined to be seen by a handful of people before being consigned as an interesting addition to Irish screen studies and then disappearing?
But it didn’t. The most successful film in the UK and Ireland in 2022 was “Top Gun: Maverick”. Released on May 27th 2022 and enjoying an – by contemporary standards – extended cinema run, the Tom Cruise vehicle had nonetheless long departed theatres by Christmas that year. Before May 2022 was even out An Cailín Ciúin was already the most successful Irish-language theatrical release ever, taking more than €400,000 across 90 screens in the UK/Ireland theatrical market. And it kept going. By Autumn 2022, even the “Irish language” qualification of its success was becoming less and less relevant. It surpassed €1 million at the UK/Ireland box office by October, the first indigenous film to do so since “The Young Offenders” in 2016. In December 2022 it went on (very) limited release in the US, screening in two theatres. In January 2023 it became one of five films to make the final shortlist 2023 leading to a much wider North American release strategy: by St Patrick’s Day 2023 it will be screening in 60 screens across the United States.
However, it is not merely that an Irish film enjoyed box office success in its own market and international critical. It is that the production in question is entirely funded by a variety of state or state-owned institutions, exclusively crewed by Irish Heads of Department, and filmed entirely in Dublin and Meath with an Irish cast. And, though English is heard, the screenplay’s primary language is Irish. Has there ever been an Irish film that has so comprehensively ticked the boxes of national cinema? (The answer, incidentally, is “yes”: think of most of Bob Quinn’s output from Poitín onwards but the domestic and international acclaim accorded to An Cailín Ciúin could scarcely have been dreamed of by Irish filmmakers in the 1970s and 1980s.) As such, it constitutes a powerful riposte to those (the current author amongst them) who have critiqued aspects of Irish screen policy since the 1990s.
What is going on here? The role that the film’s status as an Irish language may play in its international reception (and especially in other Anglophone territories) is considered below. But, how do we account for the film’s remarkable success in its domestic market and the manner in which it has touched a national nerve?
On paper, the answer is not clear. The English translation of the title, “The Quiet Girl” might invoke “The Quiet Man” but though writer/director Bairéad can hardly have been unaware of the connotations of his title, the two films could hardly be more different. John Ford’s fantasy melodrama, populated with Irish stereotypes and punctuated by sequences of high drama (the horse race, the 11-minute fistfight) bears no relation to the later film. Built around the introspective, initially near-silent character of Cáit [Catherine Clinch)], An Cailín Ciúin adopts a measured, observational approach short on narrative incident which nonetheless draws the viewer into a profoundly affecting emotional space. Stephen Rennicks’ score eschews prominent themes and opts instead for delicate piano over muted strings, complementing Steve Fanagan’s beautiful, naturalistic sound design. Kate McCullough’s cinematography, shot in Academy ratio (recalling an era of pre-widescreen television) opts for a muted palette, invoking the faded tones of 1970s family snapshots.
These aesthetic qualities may account for part of the film’s appeal, evoking as they do an Ireland which comfortably existed within living memory but which would be almost unrecognisable for an audience born after 1990. It depicts a simpler, prelapsarian Ireland, before the pre-Celtic Tiger, before the complications of identity politics, of multiculturalism, of divorce, abortion, marriage equality etc. Its pleasures are simple (notably expressed through food – Jacob’s Kimberly biscuits, Hughes Brothers’ Choc Ices, home-made jams etc.) The farm to which Cáit is fostered seems permanently bathed in golden sunshine.
But, that the farm appears in stark contrast to the grey tones predominating in the representation of Cáit’s parents’ house undercuts any suggestion that is a nostalgia piece. This is an Ireland of grinding poverty for many (though not all), of small-minded, petty one upmanship, where class and gender exercise a determining influence over life’s roles.
And how do the characters respond to these circumstances? In many cases, with silence. A silence which pervades the film not just in the character of Cáit but in the strategic silences which characterise the wider society.
Cáit is not mute but, when the film opens, has already retreated into a fortress of her own self. Surrounded by a gaggle of chattering older siblings, it’s hardly surprising she can’t get a word in. But to speak we need someone to talk to. And there is ample reason to think that Cáit, through acts of omission or commission, is often simply ignored. At home she is scarcely spoken to, in school coded as “weird” by her sisters and their friends and excluded from their circle. Forced to bring her to the pub, Dan her father deposits her alone in a dark corner. When he is finished drinking, he gets up and leaves, apparently indifferent to whether Cáit follows. She has internalised the idea that, in this family she is just a burden. “She’ll eat you out of house and home” her father warns Seán (Andrew Bennett) and Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley), her foster parents. She is a – very possibly unintended – consequence of an unhappy union in a society where conjugal rights are taken for granted and control of fertility largely limited to abstinence. That indifference extends to the wider society which, in the decade in which the film is set, relied on emigration as a means of dealing with the burden of supporting an emerging generation.
Beville and Dybris McQuaid note that in Irish culture, silence is more than just “the absence of sound”.When one individual forces another not to speak or when a society decrees that an entire discourse is unauthorised then silencing is the exercise of power. Certainly, Cáit herself is the object of such discursive power: she is expected to look on without comment as her father drives home the woman he is having some kind of extra-marital relationship with. Neither speak to Cáit: her silence (and complicity) is taken for granted. When her father openly lies to Eibhlín about gathering the harvest he is fully confident that Cáit will not gainsay this.
Cáit, by contrast, has internalised the silence that is fundamentally constitutive of Irish society in this period, a silence essential to keep a lid on the multitude of tensions bubbling under the surface. On the rare occasions such tensions boiled over they struggled to find sustained expression in face of elite pressure to suppress dissent regarding the religious, economic and sexual status quo. Other films exploring the condition of Irish society before the 1990s have mined these tensions for overt, dramatic conflict. Though those who protest the state of things are inevitably punished (as occurs in Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters  or Aisling Walsh’s Song for A Raggy Boy ) there is at least a gesture of resistance. But An Cailín Ciúin arguably offers a more honest assessment of the period: those who constructed prevailing social norms simply denied or ignored their more deleterious consequences while those who experienced such norms as oppressive had little choice but to go along with them. As someone for whom the threat of being “sent away” (i.e. institutionalised) lurks in the background, Cáit knows better than to complain about the casual psychological brutality and the cruelty of the poverty she experiences. (Compared to others, Cáit may even consider herself fortunate.)
Seán and Eibhlín understand the oppressive logic of silence. When Eibhlín invites Cáit to come to their well with her, Cáit asks: “Is it a secret?” Eibhlín gently responds: “There are no secrets in this house.” Secrets are associated with shame and “We don’t want any shame here”. As it emerges, there ARE secrets, even in her foster home, albeit the impetus towards silence is not shame but rather a defence against a society which callously disregards Seán and Eibhlín’s pain at the tragedy which has befallen them.
But An Cailín Ciúin is not a film which accepts a simple post-structuralist binary associating silence with weakness and speech with strength. It is true that for some characters the significance of speech is not what is said but that they can speak at all. When Cáit’s sisters debate how conception occurs they loudly describe how «the bull pushes the calf into the cow». That they are wrong is not important: what matters is the act of speaking as, in itself, an assertion of their power. We see this too in the character of Seán and Eibhlín’s neighbour Una, a bottomless pit of narrow-minded, spiteful begrudgery who sustains herself through loudly judging others.
But silence may also be purposeful. It may even be an act of resistance, a refusal to accept the premises implied in an interrogative question. The development of Seán’s relationship with Cáit (around which the emotional arc of the film is built) develops less through conversation and more through the sharing of space and activity: a biscuit left without comment on the table for Cáit, Cáit picking up a yardbrush in a cowshed and paralleling Seán’s brushstrokes, Seán timing Cáit as she runs to collect the post. (Previously identified as one who runs away (“the wanderer”), Cáit consistently runs back to Seán, notionally to find out how fast she is.) And Seán actively defends (and even celebrates) Cáit’s silence. In the wake of Cáit’s encounter with the mean-spirited Una, who notes of Cáit “she’s a quiet one”, Seán quietly but firmly avers: “She says as much as she needs to say. May there be many like her.” (Unbeknownst to Seán, said neighbour has already casually dropped a bombshell about an earlier tragedy in his and Eibhlín’s family.) For Seán, talk for the sake of talk is worse than silence, especially if the words used express contempt. For Cáit too, silence arguably allows her to retain a kind of freedom. By declining to speak, to state her views and her positions, she remains free to interpret new situations as she encounters them. She stands in stark contrast to those characters who simply parrot received wisdom, unthinkingly amplifying and reinforcing it as they do so.)
Language plays a role in all this. Whatever about Bairéad’s own linguistic preference and the pull of financial incentives, An Cailín Ciúin deploys English and Irish in a conscious fashion. The binaries around which the film is structured – home and foster home, school and holidays, silence and conversation, casual neglect and love – map onto English and Irish, with Irish firmly located on the positive side of the equation. While not conferring angelic status on everyone (witness Una), Irish is nonetheless the language of emotional connection within the film: it is through Irish that Cáit finds her voice. Tellingly, Cáit’s boorish father Dan appears not to be able to speak Irish at all and, while Seán’s displays of affection are mainly mediated through spatial proximity, Eibhlín is far more direct in her language (literally her language) (“If you were mine, I would never leave you in a house with strangers”). Eibhlín and Seán generally speak in English in Dan’s presence but when they come to say farewell to Cáit, they discreetly switch to Irish: the language creates a safe haven within which expressions of tenderness may be articulated without arousing the wrath of Dan.
It’s interesting to reflect on how the prominence of Irish in the screenplay conditions how audiences respond to the film. Ironically [perhaps] the film’s linguistic status may enhance its prospects internationally precisely because it is far more distinct from US and UK productions than most of the Irish screen sector’s Anglophone output. This may consign the film to arthouse status in the US for example, but as the example of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite demonstrates, arthouse no longer automatically constrains a film’s prospects for success.
Even in Ireland, the film’s use of Irish sets it apart. This is hardly surprising given that optimistic self-classifications of linguistic ability for census purposes apart, fewer than 100,000 people (and probably closer to 50,000) living in Ireland use the first official language on a daily basis. Thus, the shifts back and forth between English and Irish across and within the scenes of An Cailín Ciúin are not trivial. Cáit’s own lack of fluency in Irish is established early on and legitimates the use of relatively straightforward Irish in her early encounters with Eibhlín and Seán. Yet, for most Irish audiences, subtitles are likely to have been essential to their understanding of the narrative even in these early scenes. So, for Irish audiences too, the use of language codes An Cailín Ciúin as something apart from the mainstream of Irish film production.
But, linguistic distinction cannot in and of itself account for An Cailín Ciúin’s domestic success. Although other films coming out of the Cine4 project have performed better than might otherwise have been expected (most notably Arracht which earned a reported €164,000 in the UK and Ireland in 2021 and more recently Róise & Frank in 2022), most have made a muted impact.
What we are left with then, is an apparently straightforward text which nonetheless already has a serious claim for the best Irish film ever made. Isolating a single element or even a set of characteristics from within a collaborative art and ascribing the success of the whole to these is not merely a fool’s errand but almost constitutes a category error. A sparse script, unshowy direction, deceptively simple cinematography, discreet sound design and scoring, art, costume and production design that effortlessly conjures 1981 and a cast not merely well-chosen but led by a young performer already apparently absolutely at home with the subtleties demanded of screen acting: all of these things are true. And in aggregate they constitute a text which Irish audiences clearly recognise.
But what is being recognised?
An Cailín Ciúin quietly exposes the nature of pre-Celtic Tiger Irish society in a manner that, for those who lived through that period, was hard to name, precisely because it constituted, to paraphrase Raymond Williams, the “cultural air” of the moment. The assumptions and presumptions of Irish society in the 1970s and 1980s (the film is officially set in 1981 but, really, could be any time from 1975 to 1985) were so omnipresent as to be invisible. And thus the brutality of Irish society hid in plain sight. This is not to argue that the Celtic Tiger and its associated and subsequent social and cultural changes should be unproblematically embraced wholesale. If anything An Cailín Ciúin indirectly encourages us to consider our own moment and to scrutinize the unexamined (because taken for granted) values that inform the disposition of our society.
But An Cailín Ciúin is moving precisely because, through Cáit, it exemplifies how the patriarchal nature (manifested through church, state and capital) of Irish society over decades hurt those who lived within it, even if they evaded abuse within religious and state institutions. Despite his feckless nature the status of Cáit’s father within society is largely unchallenged, underwritten by a state which uncritically accepted the church’s social teachings and and a labour structure which still largely confined women to unpaid domestic labour. An Cailín Ciúin highlights this but it also celebrates the potential of more progressive masculinity. Cáit has seen happiness, has seen an alternative and runs towards it. “Daddy” is the villain of the piece and “Daddy” is the hero. An Cailín Ciúin at once comments upon its temporal setting while contemplating a more emancipated future, offering a both a critique and a salve.
Beville, M. & Dybris McQuaid, S. (2012). “Speaking of Silence: Comments from an Irish Studies Perspective.” Nordic Irish Studies, Special Issue: The Rest is Silence, Vol.11(2), pp. 1-20.