Normal People and Contemporary Irish Film

The success of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People and now it’s serialization on Irish television directed by Lenny Abrahamson captures the changing social mores and attitudes in contemporary Ireland. It reminded me of a feature I was commissioned to write for The Vienna Review by its talented editor Dardis McNamee on an Irish Film Festival that was organized by the late Professor of Irish Studies, Walter Huber of the University of Vienna. I spent my evenings during that week in the balmy summer of 2013 in Vienna attending the screenings.

Sadly the newspaper folded around that time (resurrected later as Metropole) and the feature was never published. So I am publishing it here. It was the last feuilleton feature I was commissioned to write as I began my career as a freelance journalist with The Connacht Tribune and The Irish Times twenty years ago before I went to University. The views expressed in the feature are even more pertinent now than they were seven years ago.

Top-Kino in Vienna’s Sixth District

The charming art-house cinema, Top Kino, played host to an Irish Film Festival during the sweltering heat that gripped Vienna between 15 and 19 June 2013. The festival was devised by the Irish Studies Centre at the University of Vienna in cooperation with the Irish Embassy, the Irish Film Institute, and Culture Ireland. The festival formed part of a larger programme called “The Irish Itinerary”; a concerted effort by centres of Irish Studies throughout Europe to facilitate cultural exchanges.

The six feature films were chosen for their penetrating insights into contemporary Irish society. The festival opened with Garage, a touching portrait of Josie, a socially awkward bachelor who runs a gas station in small-town rural Ireland. The slow-moving film captures the inertia and boredom of life in rural Ireland and the profound loneliness of men like Josie.

When Josie innocently shows clips from a pornographic film to his teenage assistant David, and which Josie watches with a child-like simplicity, word gets around and he is taken in for questioning. In an earlier harrowing scene Josie watches a local man throw a bag full of puppies into the river to drown them. This prefigures Josie’s later decision to drown himself – neatly folding his clothes by the bank of the river before easing himself into the water. In a candid interview after with the screenwriter, Mark O’Halloran, he revealed that the film was based on a true story from his childhood and that the film was written to honour that man.

The theme of male loneliness, which turned out to be the leitmotif running through the Festival, continued with Ulysees, Joseph Strick’s 1967 rendition of James Joyce’s eponymous masterpiece which was shown on 16 June, Bloomsday, the day on which the novel is set.

The film follows the steps of Leopold Bloom, the Jewish protagonist, as he wanders the streets of Dublin, pondering on his dead son, his adulterous wife Molly, and his own impotence.

Based on Homer’s The Odyssey, Bloom is the anti-hero of Ulysses whose travels take him back not to his faithful Penelope but to his adulterous wife who recalls her present and past loves and the possibility of a new affair. As Joyce’s novel – written in self-imposed exile in Europe – broke down the boundaries of language and challenged the social and sexual mores of his day, his modernist novel and Strick’s faithful interpretation, is also a searing study in male loneliness, loss, and disconnection.

Ulysses was followed by Adam and Paul, a stylized Laurel and Hardy on heroin that follows two drug addicts around Dublin in their search for their next hit. The film addresses a peculiarly modern form of disconnection and a sad reality of modern Ireland where drug abuse and drug related crime has escalated in recent years.

It was back to the country with Pilgrim Hill, the debut and critically acclaimed film of Gerard Barrett, which follows the lonely existence of a bachelor farmer and his attempts to come to terms with his fate and the discrepancy between the man he is and the man he could be. The use of monologue addressed to the audience powerfully conveys the character’s loneliness and inner struggle. This documentary style realism is enhanced by Barrett’s decision to have a farmer play the leading role.

The festival concluded on a lighter note with Sensation, an entertaining love story that opens with Donal masturbating in a field surrounded by sheep. He returns to find his elderly father dead and himself the owner of a small farm. He invests his new found freedom (and wealth) by hiring the services of Kim, a New Zealand prostitute, whom he falls in love with and with whom he sets up a brothel for lonely farmers. Their plans flounder when the police find out about their illicit enterprise. Donal takes the rap instead of taking the advice of his lawyers to portray his lover as the mastermind who manipulated him to get his money. A more profound relationship begins with Kim visiting Donal in prison as the film ends with the promise of a kiss.

It would have been so easy for the organizers of this festival to present the tourist and twee version of Ireland, but this was a serious and mature engagement by the film makers and the organizers to tackle the underbelly of modern Ireland – suicide, loneliness and disconnection, teenage violence, drug abuse, prostitution, and changing sexual attitudes.

The cultural roots of the disconnection that this film festival so eloquently explore probably lie in the particular social circumstances of post-independent Ireland where the Church had such a dominant hold on the minds of people. The films capture the current willingness in Ireland to reassess identities and to take a critical look at previously sacrosanct pillars of authority. While the traditional pillars of Church and State have to a large extent been discredited in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the litany of sex abuse scandals in Ireland that shredded the authority of the Church as a moral voice, there is a gap and a sense of the need to find new compasses by which to navigate the flux of time – much like Leopold Bloom tried to do on that sunny day in Dublin.