History, Film and Northern Ireland: From Ourselves Alone to Game of Thrones
Films dealing with the history and politics of Northern Ireland have often been accompanied by controversy. In 1936 a run-of-the-mill thriller called Ourselves Alone, set during the Irish war of independence, was banned by the Northern Ireland Minister of Home Affairs. In 1945, the Northern Ireland government was also tentative about providing RUC support for the making of Odd Man Out (1947) — the story of an IRA man on the run in Belfast.
In the early years of the post-1968 Troubles, the conflict in Northern Ireland was generally seen as an internal problem to be resolved by the UK government. Partly because of this, partly because of the complexity of the situation, and partly because of the need for sensitivity, it was not until the Troubles became part of the political scenery that significant feature films about the conflict began to appear.
One of the earliest Troubles-related feature films was Hennessy, made in 1975 and starring Rod Steiger as an unstable IRA man attempting to blow up the Houses of Parliament after his wife and child were killed during a riot in Belfast. Another early Troubles-related movie was The Outsider which appeared in 1979. The film follows the exploits of the American grandson of a 1920s IRA man who is inspired by his grandfather’s stories to join the IRA and fight against the British. In a theme that would become familiar in Troubles movies, however, he finds that both the IRA and the British want to use him for propaganda purposes.
The first Troubles film to make any real impact was Neil Jordan’s 1982 film Angel. Like many of Jordan’s movies, however, it is more interested in the impact of violence than the causes. 1984 saw the release of the film version of Bernard MacLaverty’s Cal in which a young Catholic man — who played a part in the murder of a policeman — becomes romantically involved with the policeman’s widow. While most of the usual clichés associated with Troubles movies do appear, the film captures something of the complex nature and inter-dependence of the Catholic and Protestant communities.
1987’s A Prayer for the Dying was the first major Hollywood movie to be based on the events of the Troubles. It saw Mickey Rourke as IRA hitman Martin Fallon, forced to carry out a final murder on behalf of a British gangster in order to escape his past. While carrying out the assassination in a churchyard Fallon is spotted by ex-SAS member Fr Michael DaCosta (Bob Hoskins). Sadly, the rest of the film degenerates into a question of who is going to end up shooting whom.
English director Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda (1990) was based on the controversy of the early 1980s that surrounded the security forces’ alleged ‘Shoot to Kill’ policy. Hidden Agenda featured Frances McDormand and Brad Dourif as idealistic American lawyers investigating the claims of police killings of IRA members. Despite the talented cast, the film’s political message—that any British involvement in Ireland is corrupting—can make it difficult to watch the movie purely for entertainment value.
In 1992’s Patriot Games, Harrison Ford, as Jack Ryan, saves members of the Royal Family from a republican assassination attempt. One of the republican gunmen is killed, and his brother seeks revenge on Ryan. The film was based on a 1987 Tom Clancy novel of the same name, which ludicrously featured a republican paramilitary group called the Ulster Liberation Army, described as “a Maoist offshoot of the Provos”.
The same year, 1992, saw the return of writer/director Neil Jordan with one of the best Troubles-related films, The Crying Game. IRA gunman Fergus makes friends with a British soldier who has been taken hostage by the IRA. After the soldier’s death, Fergus goes to London where he falls for the soldier’s lover who, in a famous cinematic reveal, he discovers is a man. English actress Miranda Richardson gives the definitive performance of the “mad-woman terrorist” stereotype, with a more than passable Belfast accent, but manages to up the cliché stakes by wearing the movie republican’s apparel of choice, the Aran jumper, in one scene.
1993 saw the release of In the Name of the Father, the story of the trial and wrongful conviction of four people associated with the Guildford and Woolwich bombings in England in 1974. While the less-than-authentic courtroom scenes leave a lot to be desired in terms of accuracy, this is still one of the better Troubles movies. Although it was savaged by the British establishment on its release, In the Name of the Father is much more an indictment of the British justice system of the time than a pro-Republican movie.
While In the Name of the Father was criticised by many for its lack of accuracy, 1994’s Blown Away was outright fantasy. After an attempted bombing goes wrong Liam McGivney (Jeff Bridges) flees to the US, where he becomes a member of the Boston bomb squad. He is pursued by a vengeful former comrade who has escaped from prison. Tommy Lee Jones, playing a character born in Newry, Co. Down, provides arguably the worst attempt at a Northern Irish accent heard on film, though Lloyd Bridges, as McGivney’s uncle, runs him a close second.
With the declaration of republican and loyalist paramilitary ceasefires in 1994, film-makers seemed to become more daring in their choice of subject matter. Nothing Personal (1995), set in Belfast in 1975, was loosely based on the activities of the loyalist murder gang, the Shankill Butchers. Despite this the usual range of stereotypes continued to appear, Nothing Personal still features Irish music on the soundtrack and an early bomb explosion. But despite the obvious clichés and emphasis on the paramilitaries, this is one of the few films that gives some indication that not all Protestants are policemen, gunmen or Orangemen, and that loyalist and republican beliefs and fears are often reflections of each other.
Some Mother’s Son (1996) is the story of the 1981 Hunger Strike, seen mainly from the perspective of Kathleen Quigley (Helen Mirren), mother of one of the prisoners involved. Although it provides a reasonable portrayal of the impact of the Hunger Strike on the Catholic community, the script at times forces some of the characters to deliver political speeches rather than lines. The film does, however, produce a few new twists to the usual stereotypes—the Annie Higgins character, for example, is a more overtly republican version of the concerned mother than characters in earlier films.
In the late 1990s, American films returned to Northern Ireland to provide a background to thrillers. In 1997’s The Devil’s Own, Brad Pitt plays Frankie “the Angel” McGuire, the IRA man in New York to buy stinger missiles to shoot down Army helicopters. The big lie in this movie comes when Frankie McGuire tells decent New York cop Tom O’Meara (Harrison Ford): “This isn’t an American story; it’s an Irish one.” In fact, the opposite is the truth, as the film is firmly geared towards the sensibilities of an American audience. In one scene a British security man says, “You are Irish, aren’t you Mr O’Meara?” to which Harrison Ford replies, “So is Cardinal O’Connor.”
1997, the year of a renewed IRA ceasefire, also saw the release in America of The Jackal, featuring Richard Gere as an IRA gunman released from a US prison to help track down the mysterious assassin known as the Jackal (Bruce Willis). This is arguably the most sympathetic portrayal of an IRA man in a mainstream modern Hollywood movie. Empire film magazine noted: “We’re expected to sympathise with Gere and his Basque separatist sweetie because they’re passionate believers in their causes, and despise the Jackal for being merely a professional killer, though it’s hard to argue that in real life fanatics are less dangerous than mercenaries.” (Empire, February 1998)
Slightly better was Ronin (1998), a “men on a mission” movie in which a group of mercenaries led by Robert DeNiro and Jean Reno are hired by an Irish woman, Deirdre, to steal a mysterious case. It eventually emerges that hard-line (or possibly renegade) IRA man Seamus O’Roarke is the man behind the plan to steal the case. As Ronin reaches its conclusion DeNiro’s character reveals that he never left the CIA and that it is not the case he is after but O’Roarke. O’Roarke is subsequently killed in a shoot-out with DeNiro and Reno’s characters leaving the film to conclude with a series of radio reports announcing that a peace agreement has been reached between the Protestant-dominated government of Northern Ireland and the Irish resistance and another report saying that it was the killing of hard-liner O’Roarke ‘by parties still unknown’ which created the stability to allow the agreement to be reached.
The Boxer (1998) is another Jim Sheridan-directed film in which Danny ‘Boy’ Flynn (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a former amateur boxer returning home to west Belfast after spending 14 years in jail for planting a car bomb. However, his attempts to re-establish the cross-community Holy Family boxing club are hindered by the IRA ‘hawks’ and the RUC, who attempt to use Flynn for propaganda purposes. The film is not without its ludicrous moments; west Belfast, in perpetual gloom, is patrolled by what seems to be the entire British Army. Flynn and other pedestrians cross a bridge where they are individually searched while an official road sign in the background announces, “You are entering east Belfast.” Flynn later seems to travel instantly from east to west Belfast by passing through a gate in a peace line!
1998 also saw the release of the controversial Resurrection Man. Again loosely inspired by the Shankill Butchers, the gangster element of the movie also makes it something like a local version of Brian DePalma’s Scarface. Although open to criticism of being somewhat amoral, the film has a decent script and excellent performances. Stuart Townsend plays Victor Kelly, a character clearly based on Shankill Butcher Lenny Murphy, while Sean McGinley plays terrorist godfather Billy McClure, a character probably influenced by real-life loyalist Godfather John McKeague. Brenda Fricker, as Kelly’s mother, also introduces the bitter loyalist mother to Troubles films, a character that bears an interesting comparison with the Annie Higgins character in Some Mother’s Son.
An Everlasting Piece, released in 2000 but set in the 1980s, tells the story of two barbers — one Catholic, the other Protestant — who attempt to corner the hair piece market in Northern Ireland in the face of competition from rival wig-selling company Toupee or Not Toupee. An Everlasting Piece was perhaps indicative of a wider development — a move away from the Troubles movies of the 1970s to mid-1990s towards locally based romantic comedies. In The Most Fertile Man in Ireland (2001) Eamonn Manley (Kris Marshall) a shy “mother’s boy”, with a crush on the girl working in the nearby funeral parlour, discovers that he is the most fertile man in Ireland. Eamonn is cajoled by a coworker (Bronagh Gallagher) into providing a service to impregnate wives desperate to have a child but whose husbands are infertile. After the new “business” becomes a major success, Eamonn is kidnapped by loyalist paramilitaries worried about the effect he is having on the Protestant/Catholic birth rate ratio and the impact this might have on a future border poll. The loyalists, therefore, threaten Eamonn to ensure that in future he will provide his services to Protestant wives as well.
Around 1997 we saw the brief appearance of “Peace Process” movies, still often coming from a generally left-wing or nationalist perspective, but partly because of the internal political debate within republicanism, now with a greater degree of political nuance. Michael Collins, though set in an earlier period, was influenced by ongoing political developments in Northern Ireland and is clearly a “Peace Process” movie. The Boxer, which had to have its ending re-written because of the changing course of events on the ground, might also be said to fall into the category of a peace process movie. Titanic Town (released in February 1999) provides an interesting lynchpin between ‘Peace Process’ movies and the romantic comedies that were to come later. Although Titanic Town is set in the 1970s and sees an attempt by women to broker a ceasefire between the government and the IRA, but uses much of the jargon of the 1990s peace process. The tone of the film is also more light-hearted than in earlier movies. A similar view can be taken of Divorcing Jack (1998), which also deals with the politics of a Northern Ireland peace process, though one which has more in common with the 1970s than the 1990s.
Post-Good Friday Agreement films also tended to be imbued with a greater sense of “parity of esteem” between nationalists and unionists than earlier Troubles movies. An Eleventh Night bonfire scene in The Most Fertile Man in Ireland, for example, would never have appeared in the Troubles movies of the 1970s and 1980s.
This did not mean that Troubles movies had gone for good — as the release in 2001 of two films related to the 1981 hunger strike indicated. However, these films might be considered to be part of another sub-genre — the “commemorative Troubles movie” — it was no accident that H3 and Silent Grace appeared 20 years after the real events of the 1981 hunger strike, just as it was not a coincidence that a film and television movie on Bloody Sunday were released early in 2002 on the 30th anniversary of that event.
In the early 2000s, the demand for Troubles-related movies declined somewhat. This may have been at least partly because so many of them were presented from a republican or left-wing perspective and the novelty had worn thin, while the world at large saw the Troubles as being over and so the issue was no longer topical. Besides this, in the wake of the attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001, films which were perceived to be sympathetic to any ‘terrorist organisation’ were likely to receive a cold reception.
What we have seen over the last two decades — to appropriate a word often used in the security context in Northern Ireland — is a ‘normalisation’ in the range of films being made, including both Troubles and non-Troubles related movies.
Movies filmed in Northern Ireland but with no local connection in the storyline have also been made; the psychological drama Freeze Frame was largely filmed at the former Crumlin Road prison, as were the 2010 techno-horror movie Ghost Machine and the 2014 prison movie Starred Up.
In terms of recent film production in Northern Ireland, 2008’s City of Ember, a US $50m children’s science fiction movie filmed in the former ship Paint Hall at Harland and Wolff (but receiving mixed reviews) was a significant turning point. Thankfully the HBO television series, Game of Thrones, which also used the Paint Hall facilities became a worldwide phenomenon.
As far as movies about the Troubles are concerned, those which have been produced recently often deal with the conflict as being part of the past or dealing with the legacy of the past. This was the case in 2009’s Five Minutes of Heaven where a former loyalist gunman (Liam Neeson) tries to come to terms with the brother (James Nesbitt) of a Catholic man he had shot dead 30 years earlier.
The 2010s have also produced some decent movies about Northern Ireland. Shadow Dancer (2012) starring Andrea Riseborough, Clive Owen and Gillian Anderson, is the story of a female IRA member caught planting a bomb in a London underground station who is then coerced into working as an undercover operative for MI5.
Arguably the best of the post-Troubles era made movies is Good Vibrations (2012), which tells the story of Belfast record shop owner and record producer Terri Hooley. This is a fun movie which manages to balance the story of enthusiastic, but disorganised, music promoter Hooley with the impact of the Troubles. 2017 saw the cinematic release of The Journey, a fictionalised account of how a personal friendship developed between political enemies Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness. The film was moderately or poorly reviewed, while a broader concern was the complete invention of a story to explain an important element of the peace process.
An important point to note is that there is a general difficulty in reconciling drama with historical accuracy — particularly when dealing with an event which has a strong significance for a particular group. Although it may be an exaggeration to suggest that; Michael Collins, In the Name of the Father, Resurrection Man, et al tell us as much about the Troubles as Gladiator tells us about the Roman Empire — though there may be some truth here. What the films tell us much more about is the attitudes of those who made them towards the conflict in Ireland and the limitations that commercial considerations place on creating such films.
Research by Gordon Gillespie; first published in September 2020.