Nessa Johnston
University of Liverpool

Creative Commons 4.0 by Nessa Johnston. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

Anthony McIntyre

Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2023, xii + 258 pages.

ISBN: 978-3-030-94257-1

In Contemporary Irish Popular Culture, Anthony P. McIntyre makes a very welcome attempt to seriously explore the types of popular cultural texts that are often overlooked, both in academia and in wider criticism, despite their phenomenal reach and recognition. Despite widespread acknowledgement of the redundancy of traditional categories of “high” and “low” culture, and the regular problematisation of such taste hierarchies (particularly by scholars and critics from marginalised backgrounds), the sense that certain kinds of cultural texts are somehow more “worthy” of research than others remains stubbornly persistent. Refreshingly, McIntyre is pluralistic and inclusive in his choice of objects of inquiry, avoiding attachment to specific genres or even specific forms of media, acknowledging the environment of media convergence as a crucial context in which Irish popular culture functions “as a site wherein transnationalism, regionality and diaspora are points of deliberation and contention” (19).

Similarly, the book engages with academic literature from an impressive variety of disciplines, ranging from the work of Irish film and screen academics such as John Hill, Ruth Barton and Diane Negra, sociologists and geographers including John Urry, Ulrich Beck and Jason Dittmer, and key theorists of celebrity studies including Richard Dyer, Anne Jerslev and P. David Marshall. While engaging in wide ranging discussion that provides political and historical context and deftly touches upon numerous examples of cultural texts, McIntyre focusses his analysis through the use of case studies of specific celebrities of Irish popular culture, arguing that celebrity figures can be considered “as a form of embodied social knowledge that helps us to understand wider social and cultural dynamics” (193). By emphasising comedy, “low” and popular culture, McIntyre acknowledges the influence of Stuart Hall and British cultural studies more generally, taking an intertextual methodological approach that collapses the distinction between texts and paratexts by incorporating social media, memes, streaming platforms, advertising and print media side by side with film, television and broadcasting. In addition, he embraces the transnational dimensions of Irish culture in the 21st century, and while providing incisive analysis of local, regional and national cultural specificity, he avoids falling into any traps of Irish exceptionalism. Contextual discussion of the more familiar Anglosphere “triangulation of movement (and influence) between Ireland, the US and the UK” (155) is complemented by some fresh global insights, for example, McIntyre notes the huge success of the Irish children’s animation Puffin Rock (2015-2016) on Chinese streaming VOD services, leading to Chinese co-production of a Puffin Rock movie (54).

In the introductory first chapter, McIntyre sets out his stall by identifying some key shifts that have affected both Ireland and the wider world in the 21st century, as exemplified in popular television ad campaigns for Three Business and EuroMillions, in which the spectre of migration long associated with the colonial and 20th century post-colonial period has returned to the Irish psyche. The Ireland of the 21st century is increasingly depicted as heavily technologized, with images of “digital hubs” and communications infrastructure nevertheless juxtaposed with stubbornly enduring images of rugged rural coastal landscapes. In addition, Ireland remains enamoured with a global neoliberal culture of “hustle” despite the social and economic ravages of the 2008 economic crash that followed the boom years of the so-called “Celtic Tiger”. Irish pop cultural texts grapple with the push-pull of these global-local tensions and contradictions, manifested throughout as a sense of “fractured movement” (4). Though celebratory of popular culture, McIntyre is not enthralled by it, arguing that the idealized Irish contemporary national culture “seemingly thrives at a global level despite its humble stature, all while its citizens maintain a calm and laid-back demeanour” (2) which acts as “a consoling fantasy […] that Ireland has an outsized impact beyond its own borders in relation to its modest size” (3). This caustic assessment is echoed throughout the other five chapters of the book and its coda.

Chapter 2 examines the unlikely transnational stardom of Chris O’Dowd. Having carved out a career initially in the UK before moving to the US, McIntyre suggests that O’Dowd’s celebrity embodies “success, international recognition, and a connection to home”, which he argues is “an idealised mode of subjectivity for contemporary Ireland” (57). He explores O’Dowd’s roles in Bridesmaids (2011), Moone Boy (2012-2015), Get Shorty (2017–), and his voice acting in Puffin Rock, as well as press commentary and media appearances, engaging with Dyer’s notion of the “star text” as a form of “structured polysemy” (Dyer 1979: 3). While there is some discussion of O’Dowd’s physicality, Irish accent, “performative Irishness” and “everyman” star persona, this would have been further enhanced by analysis of his screen performances to include some unpacking of his technique or craft. The slippage between discussion of O’Dowd the actor and star versus the types of characters he plays falls short of interrogating what he actually does on screen, such that the discussion becomes trapped in the very discourses of authenticity which it seeks to foreground. In a stronger third chapter, Derry Girls (2018-2022) and The Young Offenders (2018- ) are presented side by side as “second city” texts. The relationality of the cities of Derry and Cork to the dominant cities of Belfast and Dublin respectively bolsters an exploration of both programmes’ identity politics given that the central characters in both programmes uncomfortably navigate their subjugated statuses as young, working class, and in the case of Derry Girls, female and Catholic. McIntyre argues that despite the regional cultural specificity of both texts, the “second city” identity is “transnationally legible […] as peripheral urban locations” (100); furthermore such texts through their global success have complicated and undermined monolithic conceptions of Irishness.

The fourth chapter on Irish sport’s transnational mediation and cultural impact is particularly original and needed, given how sport is perhaps the most hyper-globalized, neoliberal and masculinised cultural sphere. While it focuses on two particularly controversial figures, MMA fighter Conor McGregor and footballer James McClean, it is comprehensive in its acknowledgement of the influence of many other Irish sporting celebrities including Roy Keane, Neil Lennon and Katie Taylor (other fascinating figures who could easily have provided rich studies in themselves). McGregor and McClean provide fascinating counterpoints, with McGregor’s globally strong UFC following waning sharply with Irish audiences at home amid allegations of racism, and McClean’s vilification in the UK due to his “unruly nationalism” contrasting with his more sympathetic following in Ireland. McIntyre’s choices also exemplify his all-Ireland, inclusive definition of Irishness. Indeed, McClean’s Derry background and his own sporting allegiances, playing for Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland soccer teams, as well as his career in England’s Premier League and Championship League, allow McIntyre to tackle the sometimes uncomfortable dynamics of all-Ireland Irishness quite explicitly.

This exploration of Irish men and masculinities is followed by a chapter on women, specifically Irish female comedic figures, using Sharon Horgan, Aisling Bea and Maeve Higgins as case studies. Horgan’s status as producer and showrunner as well as performer and writer, and her career trajectory within the British and US screen industries, while maintaining a distinct Irish identity and semi-autobiographical leanings throughout her work, is emblematic of the “fractured movement” McIntyre charts throughout the book. In this context, such movement can be further understood as a more affluent aspect of Irish mobility in the 21st century, contrasting with the traditional equation of migration with hardship. Bea’s collaborations with Horgan and her own UK-centred career, along with Higgins’s career trajectory in the US, provide useful counterpoints and resonances for this discussion. Nevertheless, McIntyre highlights the persistence of melancholy and affect in the relationship of Irish migrants with Ireland in their work, exemplified in the 2018 “Be Our Yes” campaign video urging Irish citizens resident in Ireland to vote yes in the referendum to legalise abortion, that starred Horgan, Bea and other Irish comedians living overseas. An interesting aspect of this chapter is its use of production studies alongside sociological and cultural studies to demonstrate the specific dynamics and role of creative industries networks (especially in the shaping of Horgan’s career), which maps effectively onto discussion of the more representational aspects of the three women’s works and commentary.

The book’s final full-length chapter explores the most enduring of “consoling fantasy” figures, the “Irish mammy”, tracing her roots in 19th century stage entertainment and 20th century filmic representations. McIntyre explores her pop culture rejuvenation post-2008 in TV shows such as Mrs Brown’s Boys (2011- ) and 50 Ways to Kill Your Mammy (2015-2018). The chapter also touches upon the recent meme-ification of Brenda Fricker’s mother character in My Left Foot (1989), and finishes with a study of Steve Coogan and Judi Dench in Philomena (2013), in which the liminality of Coogan’s Irishness as a child of Irish parents is of particular interest given his impact on British popular culture. This chapter is particularly eloquent in dealing with class and taste hierarchies, cultural entanglements across Ireland and “Brexit” Britain, as well as the “Irish Mammy’s” wider transnational legibility. There follows a brief coda exploring the cultural impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Irish screen texts and society. While the book’s particular focus on comedy is pertinent, what is perhaps missing is concerted attention to the purely comedic aspects of comedy (the craft, the technique, indeed, the funniness), suggesting that the urge to argue the significance of “low” culture remains overly reliant on uncovering an underlying seriousness as an indicator of its depth of meaning. Nevertheless, this book is a stimulating and refreshingly internationalist intervention, incorporating an impressive breadth and depth of research, that should be of interest to a wide range of academics and students of 21st century Irish screen cultures.

Works Cited

Dyer, Richard (1979). Stars. London: British Film Institute.