Eithne O’Connell
Dublin City University

Creative Commons 4.0 by Eithne O’Connell. 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.

Kings (2007)

Directed by Tom Collins

Written by Tom Collins (screenplay) Jimmy Murphy (play)

Principal Cast: Colm Meaney, Donal O’Kelly, Donncha Crowley, Brendan Conroy, Barry Barnes, Seán Ó Tarpaigh, Peadar O’Treasaigh

Produced by Tom Collins, Jackie Larkin

Kings, the Newgrange Picture/Greenpark Films co-production adapted from Jimmy Murphy’s play, The Kings of the Kilburn Highroad (2000), scripted and directed by Tom Collins enjoyed many nominations, international showings and awards in the months following its release in September 2007.1 Based closely on Jimmy Murphy’s acclaimed playThe Kings of the Kilburn High Road (2000), the film is a searingly realistic portrayal of a boozy reunion of five Connemara men in Kilburn, London for the funeral of their friend, who has been killed on the tracks of the London Underground. The six of them had left Ireland together in the 1970s to work ‘on the buildings’ in London, but over the course of the subsequent thirty years they went their separate ways. The tragic end met by Jackie (Seán Ó Tárpaigh), brings them together again at his wake and forces them to face their respective demons, however briefly and inconclusively.

Joe Mullan (Colm Meaney), the most successful of them, has done well for himself and is now running his own building company. But he has a cocaine problem and a certain sense of having let Jackie down at a critically important time. Git O’Donnell (Brendan Conroy) and Jap Kavanagh (Donal O’Kelly) are more or less hopeless, unemployed alcoholics, who would be failures if they were to return home and are almost destitute in London. Máirtín Rodgers (Barry Barnes) has a wife and home but will have used up his last chance to save his marriage if he hits the bottle one more time with his mates. The only one in a stable enough position to actually organise the funeral and take care of Jackie’s father when he comes over from Ireland to bring the coffin home, is Shay Ó Meallaigh (Donncha Crowley), a married man with family and a successful London greengrocery business. Decent and steady though he is, he also knows that his decision years ago to fire Jackie may have set his once-time friend on his ultimately fatal downward spiral. All the issues raised and hinted at are played out, one way or another, during the wake which is held in the snug of the pub they used to frequent together as young lads, recently arrived from Ireland, with all their lives ahead of them.

Kings is the story of a closely knit bunch of Irish emigrants, people who grew up together and are possibly all even from the same parish, if not townland or village. They know each other and each other’s seed, breed and generation intimately. Before they set out on their great adventure to England, they knew exactly who they were: local lads and sporting heroes. Now in England, the early identity they shaped for themselves in Ireland means little or nothing. They are marked out in London by their minority status: unskilled immigrants — Paddies — and Irish-speaking Paddies, at that. The story of dashed hopes and human failure which the film tells, rings true and is deeply, depressingly, moving. It is a story Ireland has been in no great hurry to tell. Like all good art, the film is both local and universal in its appeal and succeeds in conveying many of the challenges central to the experience of migrants the world over. For this reason, although it is ostensibly a film about Ireland’s past, Kings is also very much a film about our present and our future.

It is in this context that the decision to film mainly in Irish, and to use the issue of language as a particular marker of identity, a marker of both inclusion and exclusion, needs to be examined. Clearly, since the film was funded by Northern Ireland Screen, Bord Scannán na hÉireann/The Irish Film Board, the Broadcast Commission of Ireland and TG4, there was some linguistic novelty value in using Irish rather than English for the main dialogue. And having the main players speak Irish, a minority language even in its own country, was a useful way to emphasise the marginalised status of the characters in the great metropolis of London.

The main characters are all presented as having come to England from south Connemara. This is never stated explicitly by anyone but rather is signalled visually by means of grainy flashbacks featuring Galway Hooker races along the western seaboard, and aurally by means of the crowds cheering the boatmen along in distinctive Connemara Irish. Given this cultural background, the premise that this bunch of lads would use Irish amongst themselves and when attending a wake for one of their own in London is entirely credible and in no way contrived. Thus there is nothing gimmicky about the decision to tell this story through Irish and this move towards linguistic authenticity in Irish cinema is novel and refreshing. The linguistic enactment of this decision, however, is more problematic.

Of course, the fact that this story is told in the first instance through Irish will to an extent be lost on huge sections of its potential audience. The majority of people who will see this film, whether in Ireland or abroad, and whether they know no Irish or very little, will probably only register the Irish language used in most of the dialogue as a kind of background linguistic wallpaper. For many of them, Irish will be experienced in much the same way as the original language of a French, German or Spanish film. Such viewers will rely heavily on the English subtitles provided and the film will more or less become either a ‘foreign’ subtitled film or an English-language film for them. Cinema goers with school Irish will probably be pleasantly surprised to note that they actually recognise and can understand the odd phrase here and there but are also likely, like those with no Irish, to lean heavily on the prop provided by the English subtitles.

It is interesting to note that even officially, there seems to be a little confusion as to the linguistic character of the film. It has been described in many reviews as an Irish-language film and occasionally, and more accurately as bi-lingual. But it is listed on the UCI website as English-language and in the accompanying IFCO Consumer Advice the use of Irish is not even mentioned although punters are alerted to ‘strong language and infrequent moderate/mild sexual references’.

Irish in Kings, where it functions as ‘foreign language’ wallpaper for those audiences who do not understand it, is a bit like the Bengali in Mira Nair’s film The Namesake, i.e. less a mode of communication and more a linguistic marker of difference/otherness. This marker works well for its Anglophone audiences who do not know their (eastern Indian) Bengali from their (western Indian) Gujarati or Punjabi. However, for those who can tell the difference, it has been quite unsettling to have to listen to Indian actors with poor Bengali trying to pass themselves off as native speakers from Calcutta when their intonation and delivery show that they are clearly from a different part of the subcontinent. It also sends the clear message that the film was not made with them in mind.

Similarly, in Kings, while the premise that these characters really are Irish speakers from Connemara is important to their identity and marginalisation, it is hard for any Irish speaker to suspend disbelief on the basis of language. It seems as if the filmmakers wanted to make the film in Irish but did not pay much attention to what sort of Irish was used and did not attach much importance to linguistic authenticity and regional variations. The varieties of the language as spoken today by native speakers are identified as broadly belonging to either the Ulster, Connacht or Munster dialects. Each dialect has certain distinctive features and there are various further regional variations within each of the main dialects. The only credible Irish for the lads in the film to speak are versions of Connacht Irish broadly covered by the term Connemara Irish (Gaeilge Chonamara). This is the dialect most commonly heard on TG4 and is the anchor dialect on that station’s leading soap opera Ros na Rún. But some of the supposed Gaeilge Chonamara spoken in Kings is a travesty of that dialect and its lack of authenticity is disconcerting for an (admittedly small) section of the potential audience that knows Irish well and is going to the cinema to see a film which tells a story convincingly through that medium.

Three of the actors Crowley, Ó Tarpaigh and Ó Treasaigh, who play Shay, Jackie and Jackie’s elderly father respectively, are fluent, convincing exponents of Connemara Irish. They are ‘the real McCoy’, and Diarmuid de Faoite, who plays the Scottish (English-speaking) on-site foreman would also have been well able to deliver the linguistic goods, had he been called upon. It seems strange not to draw on an actor of his calibre, experience and linguistic competence in a film where the linguistic medium is part of the message — at least for a small but important section of the potential audience. O’Kelly tries in a patchy, though informed way to reproduced Gaeilge Chonamara, but it sounds more like mimicry than imitation. Perhaps he tries too hard but, to be fair, he really tries. Meaney’s Irish in no way hints convincingly at Connemara origins but Meaney is a star of the screen in real life and therefore indispensable to the filmmakers and could plausibly be cast as a ‘blow-in’ to Connemara for the purposes of the film. Barnes speaks clear, fairly neutral school Irish and Conroy offers ‘whatever you’re having yourself’, i.e. mainly the Irish of a Dub — ‘Gaeilge Bhaile Átha Cliath’, with some specific Connemara and Munster features thrown in to confuse the issue. The result is that those characters destroy any illusion that they are really part of a gang from Connemara every time they open their mouths. Lest this criticism be read as some ungenerous gripe from a disgruntled Gaelgeoir, readers should try to imagine watching a version of The Snapper set in Dublin but starring the likes of Sean Connery, Michael Caine and Billy Connolly — speaking their own distinctive idiolects, with their heavy regional influences — alongside two real Dubliners like Colm Meaney and Brush Shields. Would it be reasonable to expect the audience (or that section of the audience that knows what Dublin English actually sounds like) to believe for a moment that all the characters are really equally true blue Northside Dubs?

Those who know little or no Irish may deem this criticism unimportant just as most audiences viewing The Passion of Christ care little about the variety and standard of the Aramaic spoken by the actors in that film. They place their trust in the standard and quality of the subtitles provided, which is fair and reasonable. But having decided to translate the script of Kings into Irish and shoot the film in Irish, it would have been nice to address the problem of authenticity by trying to serve all potential audiences, both major and minor, with equal professionalism. By all means, go ahead and provide English subtitles for the majority audience who need them to translate the dialogue. But let that dialogue on which the subtitles are based be what it purports to be, namely a convincing rendition of Connemara Irish delivered by actors fluent in that dialect. After all, there’s no shortage of good, proven actors with Connemara Irish after 10 years of TG4.

  1. Kings premiered at the Galway Film Fleadh July 13th 2007 before going on to screen at Copenhagen Film Festival, Toronto Film Festival and Taormina Film Festival in Sicily. It won Best Cinematography — Hamptons Film Festival 2007 and 2007 Directors Guild of America/ Directors Guild of Ireland New Finders Award. In 2008 it was selected as Ireland’s Official Entry for the Oscars in the category of Best Foreign Film. It also received 14 IFTA nominations for 2008.  []