University College Cork, Ireland
by Abigail Keating. 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.
Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018. 176 pp.
Irish Queer Cinema is a most timely addition to the field of Irish cinema studies in this current, rather reflective, post-Celtic Tiger period. Twenty-two years after the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the Irish same-sex marriage referendum of 2015 established Ireland as the first country in the world to pass this legislation by popular vote. Its significance is more intricate than that of a global milestone in the arena of LGBTQ rights, commendable and celebratory as that is, and is reflective of the tireless work of activists and grassroots campaigns across the nation, and of a rapidly changing Ireland – socioeconomically and socioculturally – most predominantly over the three decades previous. With this, the “queer” in past Irish cinema merits being viewed through a new lens, most especially within a comparative context alongside a trajectory of queer representation symbolic of a changing sociopolitical milieu. As such, Allison Macleod explores feature films and short films released between 1984 and 2016, with a predominant focus on the former, mapping and placing case studies under the rubrics of three periods of indigenous filmmaking: the First Wave; Celtic Tiger; and post-Celtic Tiger.
The productive and social contexts of these periods are summarised in Chapter 2 “Mapping Ireland’s Queer Films”. But before this, in Chapter 1 “Queerly National and Nationally Queer: Paradoxes of an Irish Queer Cinema”, Macleod states two reasons for the book and elaborates on the key focuses that are to follow within its three temporal categories. Most urgently, this is the first extensive, book-length study on the topic of Irish queer cinema. Much great work has been done on related topics of representation, of identity, of national cinema, of space and landscape, of gender, and of queer performance. Macleod highlights these crucial works here and continues to engage with them pertinently throughout. Second, as argued by the author, Irish Queer Cinema “offers a new approach to the study of Irish cinema via theories of space” (3). With this, Macleod lays the foundations for the book’s framework, and somewhat definitionally addresses its three key paradigms: “Queer”, “Irish”, and “Space”. It is upon this that one begins to see how past discussions are going to be drawn from and built upon. Here, the nation and its construct are established as a fundamental focus, through the author’s reiteration of the queer (predominantly male) subject’s standing through the trajectory of twentieth and twenty-first century history – from symbol of deviated, colonial identity or national treason, to a marker of modernisation – and through an investigation of “how sexual norms are deployed within dominant culture to participate in the ideological construction of the Irish ‘nation’” (9).
The paradigm of “Irish” is outlined concisely in the first chapter. Macleod states that the focus will be on films from the Republic of Ireland, and will not feature films from Northern Ireland, as a result of developments that are specific to the Republic, along with the complexity of conflicts in the North that merit more attention beyond the scope of the current study (4-5). Subsequently, the paradigm “Irish” is tracked historically through the tensions between the queer subject (as pre- and post-Independence threat to a dominant order, to Catholic Irishness, to the family) and the nation, before noting the incredible strides made through the 1960s to the 1980s in terms of activism, and legislatively from the 1990s. Here, the book places itself within a particularly significant category of Irish film scholarship, in terms of its interest in the Celtic Tiger, the globalisation, urbanisation, and modernisation of the nation, and thus the redefinitions of Irishness attempted or established – queer or otherwise. Similar to previous contributions with focuses on Celtic Tiger cinema, spatiality continues to be central, but here it goes notably beyond that of physical or geographical place, with the author’s approach to “space” presented through the importance of questions of the private and public spheres in relation to queer representation. As such, Macleod outlines the spatial interests for Chapters 3-9, respectively: “the family, the pub, the city, the rural, the journey, diaspora and the short film” (17). Chapters 3-8 each begin with an introductory section that provides thematic contextualisation, before analysing a selection of case studies, often comparatively, and concluding by way of highlighting the narrative and spatial threads across the selection. Chapter 9 “The Irish Queer Short Film” looks at “the short film as an arena where LGBTQ struggles have been documented” (146), building on previous work that reflects on the potential and (often conducive) limitations of the short film, before investigating a range of case studies under thematic frameworks of public and private spheres/spaces. Chapter 9 also reflects briefly on “The Spatiality of Lesbian Desire”, arguing for the potential of the Irish short film in “showcasing non-normative female sexuality” and in challenging “the representational containment queer women have been subject to as symbols of national morality, narrative devices or objects for male viewing pleasure” (155). Again, this is illustrated through a number of important case studies. Presumably for reasons of timing, this section favours an encyclopaedic rather than a textually analytical approach.
In Irish Queer Cinema, “Queer” is approached in two broad and often overlapping ways: as an umbrella term for LGBTQ identities, and as a discursive tool to interrogate established social norms and power structures and the identities and practices that challenge or reject them. This approach has proven to be particularly fruitful in contemporary studies on questions of space in European national cinemas, wherein representations of social “outsiders” are analysed against the backdrop of both the dominant ideology (and the tangible, everyday institutional workings of such) and the privileged physical space of the nation within which they are displaced (for instance, in an Italian context, see Derek Duncan ; along with Fintan Walsh’s excellent reading of Adam and Paul , as an Irish example). This is an especially useful framework under which to explore a film like Lenny Abrahamson’s Garage (2007); as the author does alongside a reading of Suri Krishnamma’s A Man of No Importance (1994) in Chapter 4 “The Contested Space of the Irish Pub”, with a thoughtful reflection on the importance of the pub “to the construction, performance and regulation of Irish ethnicity and masculinity” (48). Indeed throughout, “Space” is approached by the author through close readings of systems of power and their reliance on the “coherent and ordered mapping of space, and those bodies within it, to construct a dominant social order” (14) and thus, historically central to Irish cinema, a homogenous national space.
There has been no space more embedded in the national construct than that of the rural idyll. In Chapter 6 “The Queerly Productive Constraints of Rural Space”, the “metaphorical function” of the Irish landscape is confronted (91), through concise historical (colonial) reflection, before considering the recent rural turn in Queer Studies – “exploring the social and spatial processes that emerge at the intersection of queer place-making practices and rural sensibilities” (93). Here, Macleod elaborates ideas that have been touched on in Chapter 3 “Re-imagined Kinship and Failed Communities” and Chapter 4 on the Irish pub, wherein Joe Comerford’s Reefer and the Model (1988) is read through its reimagination of the traditional family, and the queerness of Fergus Tighe’s Clash of the Ash (1987) is argued through the complexities surrounding the protagonist’s confinement under the pressures of family and community. Finally, John Butler’s The Stag (2013) is viewed as a subversion of homosocial conventions “by showing male bonding across a spectrum of masculinities”, all within a rural terrain (108).
Films that focus explicitly on LGBTQ identities are afforded some of the most compelling textual analyses in the book. Quite often, these considerations solidify the transnational importance of the book’s topic, by drawing on questions of space within a local milieu, of mobility and displacement, and of the universality of queer experiences under the constraints of normative orders. While the diasporic experience is taken up in Chapter 8 “Contested Belongings within Diasporic Space”, through the themes of crisis, identity and the relationship to home, Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto (2005), as analysed in Chapter 7 “Queer Mobilities and Disassociated Masculinities”, is an especially significant case study, through its representation of a trans woman’s reconfigurations of space as produced under national paradigms (126). Another notably universal feature of cinema from the same period has been an interest in the urban spaces of “new”, Celtic Tiger Ireland: its cosmopolitan lifestyles, fluid sexualities, rejections of traditional Irish identity markers, and embracing of global consumer culture. Macleod’s intricate reading of David Gleeson’s Cowboys and Angels (2003) in Chapter 5, “Compartmentalised Cosmopolitans and Rigid Fluidity”, is particularly engaging in this context. Here, the author explores the different ways in which the queer and heterosexual male protagonists occupy space, and how the former has expanded his body and thus his identity onto his surroundings – quite literally within the men’s shared apartment, through products and fashion, and most significantly within spaces of sociality. While this initially subverts the notion of the queer “outsider”, such a binary representation is problematic (69-76). A similar reinforcement of “heteronormative structures and binary understandings of sexuality” is argued (80) in the section on Liz Gill’s Goldfish Memory (2003), before the author concludes that the latter film “offers a more radical potential in allowing its queer characters to find a sense of placehood and belonging in Ireland” (80) – unlike that of Cowboys and Angels, wherein the queer character ultimately emigrates.
Along with careful considerations of some of the most powerful moments of queer representation on an Irish screen, Irish Queer Cinema also highlights, sometimes directly but often implicitly, that which is severely lacking. Like much of the significant scholarly work gone before it, this book focuses predominantly on cisgender male representation, white Irish masculinity, and male crises – as a result of what Irish cinema has been producing, especially in the thematic arenas of identity, gender and sexuality. On queer female representation, Macleod argues that “[t]he relative absence of Irish queer women on-screen is indicative of the more general invisibility of lesbians in Irish society and culture” (80-81). While this is an important point in the context of repressive patriarchal and religious views on female sexuality, alongside perhaps male-centric notions of what the queer community is, it would have been interesting to link this point to what has been lacking in the Irish film industry, particularly in relation to the correlation between the gender of a filmmaker and the content of the film. In this regard there is hope, however, particularly in light of Screen Ireland’s “Six Point Plan on Gender Equality”, which was unveiled in December 2015, and of the potential for a more diverse body of representation to become more explicitly tangible in the next few years. With that said, one section of Chapter 5 is devoted to “Situating Irish Lesbianism within Urban Space”, wherein feature-length films like Trish McAdam’s Snakes and Ladders (1996) and Paul Tickell’s Crush Proof (1998) are explored in their demonstration of “how the queer woman operates as national allegory… reducing women to emblems” (90). Ending the chapter on a more positive note, however, Macleod argues that Darren Thornton’s A Date for Mad Mary (2016) provides “a more fluid representation of queer female identity… [and] can be seen as allegory for a contemporary Ireland trying to break out of preconceived notions about what it means to be Irish” (90).
Irish Queer Cinema provides an important catalogue of sociohistorical contexts and textual analyses of a broad range of films; some of which coupled together for the first time. Thematic and narrative threads from different temporal and sociocultural periods are woven together neatly, breathing fresh life into discourses on past or neglected films alongside explorations of contemporary productions whose storylines reflect (or imagine) a changed nation. As the first of its kind within Irish film scholarship, Irish Queer Cinema is a very necessary addition. In particular, this book will interest scholars who work on topics of Irish film, and on queer cinema more generally. Undergraduate students of, and those with an interest in, Irish film, Irish LGBTQ culture and Irish history are likely to find it engaging not only because of its thematic focuses but also its accessibility, its handling of social contextualisation, and its wide-ranging bibliography. For this reader, Irish Queer Cinema is a book that will be revisited and, commendably, will remain important as – hopefully – queer cinematic representation in Ireland continues to expand and diversify beyond that which is white, cisgender and male.
Duncan, Derek. “Loving Geographies: Queering Straight Migration to Italy”. New Cinemas 6:3 (2008): 167-82.
“FÉ/SI Gender & Diversity Policy”. 7 January 2019. Screen Ireland. https://www.screenireland.ie/about/gender.
Walsh, Fintan. “Mourning Sex: The Aesthetics of Queer Relationality in Contemporary Irish Film”. Viewpoints: Theoretical Perspectives on Irish Visual Texts. Eds. Claire Bracken and Emma Radley. Cork: Cork U.P., 2013. 215-228.