NUI Galway, Ireland
With the explosion of production for domestic/small screen consumption – a shift that was already underway but greatly accelerated by the Covid pandemic – the Irish screen sector has moved with increasing speed and deliberation (by both producers and policy makers) towards “content creation” aimed at the global TV and streaming sectors. Quantifying the shift to new markets – in either financial or quantitate terms – is difficult but it is nonetheless evident that this burgeoning and highly capitalized sector brings with it an inevitable impact on Irish productions both at the level of format [feature films], subject matter and content [homogenized for international audiences]. While this represents a major – and still developing – success at an industrial development level [comparable to the impact of global Pharma and Tech on Ireland’s GDP and employment], the scale of such activity, as well as the parallel challenges experienced by theatrical feature film distribution/exhibition, places increasing pressure on the scope and viability of what was once understood as “national cinema”.
It is thus both heartening and instructive that one of the most artistically and commercially successful productions over the past year not only fulfilled traditional expectations of lrish cinema in terms of its setting [Connemara] and themes [the Great Famine] but told its story entirely through the medium of the Irish language. That it achieved mainstream theatrical success within the limits of a modest made-for-TV budget signalled that, in the right hands, powerful and well executed local stories retain not only resonance for Irish audiences, but perhaps assume greater cultural importance than ever in an ever-splintering, globalized landscape of streamers, box-sets and franchises. In responding to the film, I want to frame its achievements and importance within two, intersecting contexts. On the one hand the film can be understood as part an upsurge of interest in narrating the Great Famine in recent years in individualized and usually male terms, while it might also be argued that the appeal of the film’s treatment of tragic events is enhanced in its foregrounding of a historical Irish masculinity that has contemporary appeal as a favoured embodiment of non-hegemonic white manhood.
While the Great Famine has been understood as a central and defining event in the narrative of modern Irish history (central to the formation of the Irish diaspora) it has also been something of a ghostly presence which, in spite of common knowledge of general facts and occasional efforts to evoke the tragedy in epic terms (beginning with Liam O’Flaherty’s Famine ), remains vague and often elusive for many. The reasons for this are complex but are generally attributed to three main factors: the silence surrounding the event itself in the British controlled political and journalistic discourse of the era; the silence of millions of victims who died or emigrated; and the trauma and shame of those who survived. In the aftermath of the famine Ireland was emptied of half its population and with it went witness and memory. We find this sense of a collective [“our] trauma and narrative (as well as a hoped-for revenge), in poems such as “The Famine Year” by Lady Jane Wilde:
But our whitening bones against ye will rise as witnesses, From the cabins and the ditches, in their charred, uncoffin’d masses, For the Angel of the Trumpet will know them as he passes. A ghastly, spectral army, before the great God we’ll stand. And arraign ye as our murderers, the spoilers of our land.
While notable, if sporadic, interventions have been made among historians, writers and artists to narrate the Great Famine, this sense of a story whose details are not fully told or commonly understood has persisted down to the present day.
Recent years have however seen an upsurge in efforts to remedy this from a range of perspectives and artforms. In 2018, Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, an initiative of Quinnipiac University, Connecticut (USA) brought a selection of its collection to Ireland. Entitled Coming Home: Art & the Great Hunger, the year-long exhibition proved immensely popular, attracting over 11,000 visitors and widespread media attention during exhibitions at Dublin Castle, Skibbereen and Derry. Clearly aware that the artworks often approached their subject from oblique angles and distances, its curator Niamh O’Sullivan wrote that “An aesthetics of atrocity is difficult to conceive and represent. Nevertheless, the inexpressibility of the atrocity created interpretative opportunities that many contemporary Irish artists uniquely addressed.” Notwithstanding its careful hanging, a detailed and extensive catalogue and an eclectic mixture of historical and contemporary art works the exhibition nonetheless seemed to perpetuate some of this inexpressibility; respectfully relating facts and “interpreting” the history while often keeping us at a narrative distance from its stories.
Around the same time as the Coming Home exhibition was attracting large audiences and media attention, singer/songwriter Declan O’Rourke released a collection of story-driven songs Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine (2017). O’Rourke was inspired to work on the theme after encountering John O’Connor’s classic text The Workhouses of Ireland (1995). One story in it which particularly resonated, that of a man whose children died in the workhouse and who carried his wife home only to be discovered dead the next morning, “his wife’s feet held to his chest as if trying to warm them.” Shocked by the account O’Rourke says he asked himself “Why don’t we, as a nation, all know this story.” Indeed, he felt, “the subject seemed to have been grossly neglected, in relative terms, in the realms of the arts and culture,” inspiring in him a desire “to chronicle a collection of untold or neglected stories … to re-humanise [the Famine] using the language of our own time, appealing to the listener’s own imagination and empathy.” (O’Rourke, 2021.) “Poor Boy’s Shoes”, was the first of thirteen songs that attempted to achieve these aims. O’Rourke returned to the story of the story during the Covid 19 lockdown when he wrote his first novel – The Pawnbroker’s Reward (2020) – seeking to imaginatively inhabit the lives and hardship of Pádraig and Cáit ua Buachalla and through their tragic tale give form to the lives of 19th century famine Irish who lived and perished in appalling circumstances.
O’Rourke was not alone in such ambitions: 2018 saw the release of Black ’47; the first Irish feature film set during the famine and largely shot in the wilds of Connemara. Lance Daly’s film (developed from a 2008 short film An Ranger) was structured as a revenge western centring on Martin Feeney (James Frecheville) who absconds from his Connaught Rangers unit in colonial Afghanistan and returns to Ireland to take revenge on those who evicted and killed his family. A huge hit with Irish audiences who made it the biggest grossing Irish film of the year [local box office of almost €1 million], the film seemed to address a national narrative need that recalled Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins (1996). Again, the theme of how to represent atrocity was central to discussions around the film. In this case the (fictional) story of Martin Feeney was overlaid by norms of Hollywood genre cinema: “The famine is one of those essential Irish stories that we haven’t figured out a way to bring to the screen,” Lance Daly, told the Guardian. “Doing it as a revenge thriller was a really smart way to smuggle the story of the Great Hunger to a wide audience.” (Carroll 2021.) (That, despite the film’s enormous popularity locally, it took just $50,000 at the US box office suggests that this ambition was not entirely realised.)
The latest entry in this recently revived interest in the Great Famine is Arracht [first screened in 2019 but not released in Irish cinemas until 2021]. Like “Poor Man’s Shoes” it centres on the father of a family decimated by the tragedy. It eschews the generic tropes that structure Black ’47 in favour of a relatively small scale and intimately captured sense of place and community. The restrictions of its budget become a force and gives Arracht a unique imagination and strength; it is largely mono-lingual and makes vivid, though low-key use of its Connemara/coastal settings which, through the lens of talented cinematographer Kate McCullagh, offer not merely a photogenic backdrop but convey the harshness and beauty of the terrain. Such qualities clearly develop from writer/director Tom Sullivan’s vision of the story as well as its relatively modest budget (€1.2m). Developed as the first film produced under the “Cine4” initiative, TG4’s partnership with Screen Ireland and the BAI to develop original feature films in the Irish language, O’Sullivan has said that his original screenplay would probably have cost in the region of €15m and that the budget restraints meant that the screenplay was cut from 90 to 75 pages. (Creagh 2021.) Such limitations seem to intensify rather than exclude: the finished 85 min running time feels both economic and complete; each scene a plausible development within its narrative of fall and redemption.
Where Declan O’Rourke sought to capture history through song with “Poor Man’s Shoes”, Arracht is based on the conceit of a fictional murder ballad about a folk hero named Colmán Sharkey [Dónall ÓHéalaí], a fisherman and maker of poteen. Described by writer/director O’Sullivan as ‘very able and capable, a bit of an entrepreneur who has ideas about himself’, Colman is thus conceived in quasi-contemporary terms and this characterisation, blending the abject and ambition, is at the very entre of the film’s narrative and structure. Where the Famine Irish might once have been imagined as forelock-tugging peasants or simian-featured primitives, Sullivan/Ó Héalaí give us an Irishman with strong sense of himself and his place in the world. Like O’Rourke’s drive to “chronicle untold or neglected stories … to re-humanise [the Famine] using the language of our own time”, Arracht seeks to represent the Famine through the experience of an individual, a kind and loving father who combines wisdom and resourcefulness in a manner which suggests that, in other circumstances, he might have socially and economically thrived.
While the cruel and venal Anglo landlord played by Michael McElhatton maintains the stereotype of such figures, he exits after a rapidly dispatched first act and the film shifts to focus upon Colman as a man on the run; deprived of dignity, freedom and family. This narrative emphasis on a single determined character offers a fresh and engaging perspective on the famine and while it cannot be said to be neatly generic in the way of say Black ‘47, it nonetheless brings Arracht into a tradition of male survival stretching from Robinson Crusoe to The Revenant and contemporary TV shows such as the Walking Dead, often discussed in terms of “apocalyptic masculinity”. Central to such narratives is the self-sufficient [white] male and after a period of physical and spiritual crises [during which Colman contemplates taking his own life] we see the Colman recommit to a life that is primal yet resourceful: finding shelter in a cave, catching fish and smoking them for future consumption, making a curative tincture from seaweed. In each of these endeavours Colman not only demonstrates “entrepreneurial” instincts but distinguishes himself from the [historical] coastal Irish who died in their hundreds of thousands despite access to the sea. His renewed life-force is given further impetus through the arrival of a child called Kitty who Colman discovers at his abandoned home. However, he is also attacked by starving neighbours who have tracked him to his cottage, one of whom stabs him in the hope of securing some means of nourishment. Here the filmmakers further adumbrate the apocalyptic masculinity trope with visual references to the crucified Christ: his long hair, beard, emaciated torso and a bloody stab wound near his heart. Underlining this association further we get a period of isolation in the “tomb” of the cave (replete with an image of a cross which Kitty visits while he is unconscious) before Colman emerges into the bright morning light of resurrection before the final act of the story. While all this sounds somewhat schematic, it is handled with care and beauty and the result is a bridging between mere survival and a renewed hope, embodied by the child who represents a changed future for Colman. The final third of the film takes place in light of this sense of purpose that brings with it an avenging violence as Colman defends Kitty – symbol of innocence and the future – from his returned tormentors.
The filmmakers of Arracht find the solution to the oft-proclaimed “difficulty” of putting the Famine on film by focusing on the story and point of view a single male character imagined in terms of a classic three-act structure: (familial) contentment, giving way to unjust suffering and self-abnegation and the recovery of hope achieved through a combination of fate and will power. In foregrounding this point of view and perspective we can see similarities to other recent tellings in song and cinema. However, it might be argued that even as the filmmakers are deeply sensitive to the specifics of Irish Famine history and place, and deploy stylistic means to emphasize the local (costumes, cinematography and notably the Kila soundtrack), they also draw on more general patterns of contemporary cinematic storytelling, in particular the positioning of white masculinity in terms of abjection, what Claire Sisco King calls “Abject Hegemony”, a kind of noble suffering or empowered marginality. (Sisco King 2009.) In Arracht this position stems from colonial history and its attendant suffering (through famine, dispossession and injustice), from which develop tropes of phallocentric survivalism, messianic suffering and, eventually, righteous anger/retribution. The contemporary currency of Irish masculinity is central to this imagining of history. Resourceful and entrepreneurial while also socially and economically marginalised, Irish whiteness facilitates – as it so often does – a portrait of male victimhood that is both blameless and finally triumphant (both within the narrative and also in the act of narrating this history some century and a half later). It is little wonder then that Hollywood quickly showed interest in re-making this film, though tellingly, according to Sullivan, only in the film’s story beats and themes, rather than its historical details. (Creagh 2021).
Shot in late 2018 and originally slated for a cinema release in late spring 2019. Arracht became a victim of Covid 19 and didn’t receive a theatrical release until October 2021. The extended delay may however have benefitted the film’s commercial success and cultural standing. Emerging from their own isolation, post-lockdown Irish audiences kept it in cinemas for several months and it garnered strong word-of-mouth during a relatively quiet period of cinema releases to make it one of the most visible, highly regarded and perhaps even most important films of recent years.
Carroll, Rory (2018). “Irish Famine film Black 47 wins over the critics.” The Guardian (September 17). https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/sep/17/irish-famine-film-black-47-wins-over-the-critics.
Creagh, Gemma (2021). “Interview with Tom Sullivan, Writer/Director of Arracht.” Film Ireland Podcast. https://soundcloud.com/film-ireland/interview-with-tom-osullivan-writerdirector-of-arracht?utm_source=clipboard&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=social_sharing.
O’Rourke, Declan (2021). “‘Her Silken Brown Hair’” chronicling the Famine in Song.” RTE.ie. (March 23) https://www.rte.ie/history/post-famine/2021/0316/1204313-her-silken-brown-hair-chronicling-the-famine-in-song/.
Sisco King, Claire (2009). “It Cuts Both Ways: Fight Club, Masculinity, and Abject Hegemony.” Communication & Critical/Cultural Studies 6 (4): 366-85.