This time of the year, the bars will be needing more Guinness and corned beef, and the color green will be decorating many buildings.
As for me, I like to watch movies at the end of all the St. Patrick's Day celebrations. Particularly, I'll be watching movies that feature Irish characters and stories. Whether they're American-produced, or directly from Ireland, movies of the latter’s culture and folklore contain worlds unto themselves.
These Irish-themed movies contain a variety of universal themes. Often, they feature historical events in Ireland's rich past, from the Viking Era to The Troubles. Sometimes, they are about the working class in Dublin and other major cities, trying to gather up the scraps for at least one cheap meal for the evening. Or, these movies address controversial issues, such as the complete independence of the country from the United Kingdom.
More importantly, if we look deep at each of them, we discover a message that is indicative of the holiday and what this time of the year stands for. Therefore, they are not just great flicks to watch, they are movies to get us into the St. Patrick's Day spirit.
Here's a couple of good ones...
The Field (1990)
There are many great tales of men who will fight with everything to protect their homeland. There are also great tales of the same men who are yet doomed by fate, despite their uncompromising resilience. That makes this movie all the more tragic.
The Field comes off the platform director Jim Sheridan made from My Left Foot. Typically, the critics didn't give the same acclaim as the preceding film, but this doesn't mean The Field is a bad film. The performance of Richard Harris is enough to drive the power of this underrated film. Harris plays Bull McCabe, a simple farmer who has been cultivating a plot of land for decades, turning it from barren rock to fertile land as green as a shamrock. But when the official land owner puts it up for public auction, The Bull is determined to gouge anything and anyone who tries to take the field, which he feels is his by bright right and dedicated labor.
By modern standards, St. Patrick's Day is seen as a holiday simply about Irish culture and an excuse for hard drinking. By more devoted standards, it is a time to remember our bonds with God and family. At one point, The Field is a complicated story of people who desire something from the eponymous parcel. But by seeing the good and bad side of every complex character, you don’t know who was truly right or who to root for. But of course, there is a deep devotion within every individual, who are willing to die for what they believe, especially if the people they care about are also attached to the issue.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006)
Named after a folk song that says barley fields mark the graves of Irish freedom fighters, this flick takes a real humanist approach to the centuries-old fight between Ireland and Great Britain. Unlike Michael Collins, which is more based in facts, Wind uses fictional characters and shows a more realistic portrayal of what happens when freedom is gain, and the new problems that follow it.
Always championing the underdog, director Ken Loach follows two brothers Teddy and Damien O’Donovan who join the IRA and fight the Black and Tans in the Irish War of Independence. Uncompromising in its raw portrayal of good people changing from war violence, Wind gets more bleak, when civil war breaks, and the brothers find themselves on different sides.
Wind has a “you-are-there” intensity through the cinematography of Barry Ackroyd, who has collaborated frequently with Loach, and made many realistic depiction of real-life events (Captain Philips and The Hurt Locker). Within each frame, we not get point-of-view shots of the action, but the depth of field is filled with authentic Irish scenery and period-detail buildings.
Thought-provoking and tense, Wind will divide audiences on who was right in the civil conflict and break hearts as fighting leads to tragic results. Perhaps this St. Patrick’s Day, it will make you want to go outside (once the snow’s gone) and try a game of hurling. This was the game that the Irishmen were playing before the Black and Tans came and broke the peaceful atmosphere. And tragically, this is the very beginning of the movie, giving you an idea how dark the movie already gets as it progress.
But despite this dark foreshadow, you may still find yourselves watching this flick, and rooting for the same underdogs, just like if they were your favorite sports team.
Boondock Saints (1999)
Panned by critics and hailed by audiences who love a vigilante action flick, The Boondock Saints is another choice for the green holiday, especially if we’re talking about great thriller with a lot of style. Opening up in bar on St. Patrick’s Day, when Russian mobsters come in to close the building, and after the twin brothers Connor and Murphy MacManus give insults in Gaelic and bust into a fight, this movie screams Irish pride.
In the brothers’ crusade against the Russian Mafia, and during the investigations of FBI agent Paul Smecker, we are often give an array of blood-splattered shootout with slow-motion action. This can be kind of cheesy by today’s action standards, but you can’t deny it’s still cool to watch. And the fact that it takes place in Boston is just another comment to the Irish diaspora.
I can’t say the sequel (The Boondock Saints: All Saints Day) continues the same fun, but no one likes to see a story unfinished. And one-hit wonder director Troy Duffy is said to be completing the intended trilogy. Like any Irish patriot or enthusiast, The Boondock Saints do not wish to go gently into the good night. As with any Irish character in this list, they will always rage against the dying of the light. And St. Patrick’s Day is definitely no exception.
Made by one of the best known Irish-born filmmakers Neil Jordan (Interview with the Vampire), this is like if Splash took place in Ireland, and instead of a mermaid, we have a selkie.
According to ancient Celtic mythology, a selkie is a seal that can transform into a human on land after shedding its fur coat. For Irish fisherman Syracuse (Colin Farrell), they’re just folklore to tell his wheelchair-bound daughter Annie about as she is getting her dialysis.
But then one day, he catches a woman in her nets and suspicious things happen around her. She refuses to go to a hospital or be seen by anyone but her rescuer. When she sings on his boat in an unknown language, he catches bountifuls of lobsters and salmon in his nets. Is she a real selkie? Well, if there’s one thing apparent, it’s the love growing between the couple, and imagination of Annie, the latter which is growing into full belief.
Audiences themselves are put into this same position. Jordan fills this romantic drama with a magical realism that Ireland can call its own. We see beautiful scenery of the ocean and the rustic fishing villages. The pace has a dreamlike quality, and line between reality and fantasy is quite blurry, while its realistic characters make us half-guess the truth.
Truly, Ondine is a contemporary fairy tale that will not only put you in the Irish spirit, but make you believe in magic and miracles in a world where neither seem to exist.
The Secret of Roan Inish (1994)
This is another tale involving the legend of selkies. But whereas the previous film is a more serious romantic drama, The Secret of Roan Inish is a more family-friendly tale. This movie is a dose of magical realism Irish-style.
Following the death of her mother, during the aftermath of World War II, little Fiona is sent to live with her grandparents to the west coast. There, she lives from relatives and locals about the rich history of the fishing community, involving ancestors who were both human and selkie. She also learns the story of her baby brother, who was said to be swept away by the ocean and now being raised by selkies on the island of Roan Inish.
This movie is just full of colorful characters, alluring cinematography of the Irish coastal landscape, coupled with dream-like imagery, a Gaelic music score, and rich subplots (told near a warm living room fireplace). Critics have said Roan Inish is a modern fable in itself, occupying its own time and place; blending reality and fantasy to a point that it really seems what occurs in this modern fable can actually happen in real life.
Bloody Sunday (2002)
St. Patrick’s Day is essentially a celebration of Irish culture, which includes the country’s rich history. Cinema is just one of many mediums used to preserve historical events. Paul Greengrass is one such director who is known for depicting real-life events (United 93 and 22 July). With his signature use of the hand-held camera, you definitely feels you are there as history itself unfolds.
Bloody Sunday refers to the 1972 shooting incident, in the Bogside area of Derry, Northern Ireland, when British soldiers fired upon unarmed civilians during a protest march against internment. The massacre claimed 14 lives, wounded another 14, and caused a surge of recruitment into the Provisional IRA. It was one of the most significant events of The Troubles, and just the beginning of countless shootings, bombings and riots, caused by hatred and terrorism. It even inspired a U2 song.
Watching the graphic depiction of this infamous event, one may be reminded of the number of times our own country experienced terrorism, from 9/11 to the Boston Marathon Bombings. We are also reminded of the ordinary people who were submerged in the chaos, terrified, but still decide to act even if was the simple act of providing aid to causalities and getting them to safety. In Bloody Sunday, one iconic moment features Irish Catholic priest Edward Daly waving a blood-stained handkerchief as he escorts a group carrying a mortally-wounded boy during the shooting.
Watching this movie, we then look at St. Patrick’s Day as time to reflect on events that put our country in terror and learn blessed we are to still be here, enjoying holidays like this.
For those who like a nice love story or a musical, Once is a great choice. It is also a great Irish film overall.
Director John Carney is known for his musical dramas (Sing Street), which he is able to do with shoestring budgets and skeleton crews. Here, he has real-life folk rock duo The Swell Season (Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová) as two aspiring musicians just scrapping by in the city of Dublin when it seems nobody but themselves will remember their names or their music. But we the viewers will.
Once is notable for being filmed authentically in Dublin's streets; with natural light and background extras being actually city residents who didn't know they were being filmed (the crew used long lens). Praise was given to such authentic locations as well as the chemistry between the two leads.
The movie's music is also very notable. The soundtrack was nominated for a Grammy, while "Falling Slowly," performed by Hansard and Irglová, won the 2008 Academy Award for Best Original Song. No pun indeed, but from their very first collaboration to every solo performance, you will fall slowly in love with this couple, hoping they get a great record and a happy ending.
Amidst the Dublin streets, we see two individual living by what needs they have and finding hope in each other despite restrictions still being in their way. We almost want to jump in and join in the music and fun. And we indeed wish to do that when we hear some Irish folklore and Cetlic tunes this month. Irish or not, we all feel connected; whether it's through having a good time at the pub or a music concert.
Song of the Sea (2014)
Here again, we have another movie involving selkies. And here again, we have children protagonists discovering the mythic history within their own backyards. Only this time, it's animated.
In an age of CGI, Song of the Sea is one of the independent, hand-drawn tour-de-force that uses Irish folklore and magic to drive its story. This story involving stubborn brother Ben and mute sister Saoirse traveling from the city back to their lighthouse home in the country, discovering the truth of their family, involving selkies, fairies, witches, gods, and loyal family dogs.
Largely unseen when released, Song of the Sea still garnered an Academy nomination as Best Animated Feature. It was compared to the greatest animation of all time (like that from Hayao Miyazaki, Spirited Away). But what makes it timeless is its raw emotion. In fact, you can see it when Ben and Saoirse are confronting the witch Macha, who suppresses emotions in people and herself in an effort to spare people of human suffering. But the siblings argue with the truth: feeling emotions is natural and by suppressing them, we cut ourselves off from learning from them. We also cut ourselves off from living life.
When bad times happen in our lives, we try to retreat and hide away. We even try to act tough and not learn from how these events made us feel. And during this month, should we not allow ourselves to feel emotion and have fun during St. Patrick's celebrations? Especially when the liquor takes effect!
The Quiet Man (1952)
Of course, this John Ford classic had to be on the list.
John Wayne stars as former boxer Sean Thornton trying to escape a bad past by moving to Ireland, land of his ancestor. Once he arrives, he immediately encounters and falls in love fiercely independent Mary Kate (Maureen O'Hara). He also butts heads finds his promising married life with her troubling when he butts heads with her brother Will Danaher, a major landowner and the town bully.
The Quiet Man features many of Ford signature, such as extreme long shots of landscapes, featuring authentic Irish settings. This beautiful scenery echoes Ford’s use of the Monument Valley in his westerns, adding a poetic realist feel to the picture. The movie is also known for its climatic fistfight, which is just as spectacular as any famous western shootout.
People have noted that The Quiet Man shows Ford’s vision of an ideal Irish society, where there are no divisions based on social status or creeds. Even the Catholic priest, Father Lonergan, and the Protestant Reverend Playfair enjoy a friendly relationship throughout the movie. But of course, there’s still friction between American Thornton and Irish Danaher that gets worse and worse.
Perhaps, this touches upon another concept of St. Patrick’s: everyone is one culture for one day. We all pretend to be Irish, from the same country and therefore treat everybody like family. Heck, there’s only one color that fills up in the water fountain in the lawn of the White House.
Already, as we make a time for movie night, we are stocking up for St. Patrick’s Day. The Guinness business will be making a profit, while farmer’s markets will be ordering more corned beef and cabbage.
Whatever comes, this holiday will be a time for cheers and family gatherings, reminiscent of authentic Irish ceilidh. There, we escape from the bad moments in our life and reflect how fortunate we are to still be enjoying life.
HAPPY ST. PATRICK’S DAY!
Other movies of honorable mentions for the holiday: In the Name of the Father (1993), Brooklyn (2015), The Secret of the Kells (2009), Michael Collins (1996), Waking Ned Devine (1998) Cal (1984), Gangs of New York (2002), and Hunger (2008).