Reader’s Corner: ‘We Don’t Know Ourselves’

Born in Dublin in 1958, journalist Fintan O’Toole grew up in Ireland just as the country was shaking off (or, more often, not) the bonds of pre-modern theocracy that kept them in the past. His “personal history” We Don’t Know Ourselves tells how a country tried to enter the modern world without losing its soul. It’s fantastic.

My review is at PopMatters:

Protectionism—moral, cultural, and economic—kept new ideas and products out. In what O’Toole calls a “bitter paradox”, Ireland was then “an agrarian economy that was actually not much good at producing food.” Education was primarily limited to the well-off, keeping business and farming relatively primitive. In a comical but illustrative moment, Irish bishops refused an American offer through the Marshall Plan to create a National Institute of Agriculture to modernize farming because “it would not have a proper basis in religious doctrine.” Ireland’s stagnation produced despair, waves of emigration that threatened to empty the island completely, and one very good joke that made the rounds: “The wolf was at the door, howling to get out”…

Quote of the Day: The Easter Rising


On this day in 1916, Irish rebels rose up around the country. The short-lived Easter Rising to establish a free Irish Republic was put down by British forces on April 29.

From W.B. Yeats’s commemorative epic poem, “Easter 1916“:

We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead.
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse —
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Screening Room: ‘Jimmy’s Hall’

'Jimmy's Hall' (Sony Pictures Classics)
‘Jimmy’s Hall’ (Sony Pictures Classics)

Ken Loach’s latest slice of life from the British isles is based on the true story of Jimmy Gralton, an activist deported from Ireland  for political agitation who returns in 1932 to reopen his community hall. Trouble, with “mother church” and other forces of oppression, follows.

Jimmy’s Hall is opening this week in limited release. My review is at Film Racket:

Wearing a big progressive heart on its union-made sleeve, Jimmy’s Hall could easily have been a carefree lark about good times and toothless rebellion, if it had been directed by somebody besides Ken Loach. Another filmmaker, one without a political vertebrae to speak of, could have conjured up a piece of twee Irish fun that would have been twice as fun to watch but several times more pointless. Loach does have a thing for speeches. While they drag the film to a halt more than once, there’s a bright and touching sincerity running throughout that makes that wandering stodginess not matter so much…

Here’s the trailer:

Now Playing: A Johnny Cash of the Soul in ‘Calvary’

Kelly Reilly and Brendan Gleeson in 'Calvary' (Fox Searchlight)
Kelly Reilly and Brendan Gleeson in ‘Calvary’ (Fox Searchlight)

Back in 2011, Brendan Gleeson played a cynical, caustic cop on the remote western coast of Ireland for John Michael McDonagh’s crackling black comedy The Guard. In Calvary, the two reteam for another dark-hued story about violence, morality, and modern depravity. There’s gags aplenty, but this is no comedy.

Calvary is playing now in limited release. My review is at PopMatters:

In Calvary, Father James (Brendan Gleeson) begins the worst and possibly last week of his life when he’s threatened in the confessional. An anonymous penitent tells James that he was repeatedly raped by a priest starting at the age of seven. That priest is now dead, but the man wants to a kill a priest anyway. He prefers his victim be a good and innocent priest, like Father James, because that would make people pay attention. James has a week to live. “Killing a priest on a Sunday,” the voice muses with the jangled amusement of the insane. “Now that’d be something.”…

You can see the trailer here:

Writer’s Corner: Dublin Writers Festival, From Festivals to The Troubles

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yearoffestivals1In the last bit of coverage from the Dublin Writers Festival, we have a story from Ireland’s fraught past and cautiously optimistic future.

First there was a marvelous spoken-word show from Mark Graham, who had decided not long before to buy a used camper and go attend three festivals a week around Ireland for an entire year. Apparently every town of more than two houses has a festival, so it worked.

Next up was “Where They Lie,” an investigation into the search for justice on the part of those who were “disappeared” by the IRA during The Troubles (that horrid euphemism) in the north for supposedly collaborating with the British or Unionists. It was a tough evening, with no easy answers for those in attendance.

“Where the Disappeared Lie” is here at PopMatters.

Readers’ Corner: Samuel Beckett’s Boat

beckett1Well, not literally. A cursory glance at Samuel Beckett’s biography does not indicate any particular love for sea or boats, though there is an annual Beckett festival in Enniskillen where at least one performance can only be reached by boat.

But never mind, because even though Beckett was no great joiner or lover of institutions, the Irish government has gone ahead and named a warship (OPV, or offshore patrol vessel, technically) after the author of Waiting for Godot.

According to the Irish Times, the LE Samuel Beckett was completed in April and was commissioned at a special ceremony in Dublin in May. It will eventually be joined by a second patrol vessel, the LE James Joyce. Hopefully the two can prowl the Irish Sea together in elegant futility, crews pensively pondering the waves and composing quatrains in dead languages…

Writer’s Corner: Dublin Writers Festival, Crime Time

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littlegirllost1One of the more interesting panel discussions at the Dublin Writers Festival was titled “The State of Crime”. In it, crime novelists Arne Dahl, Sinead Crowley, and Brian McGilloway held forth on everything from the state of Swedish society to whether or not they did any research with the police before writing their first books.

My writeup is at PopMatters:

As with many events at the Festival, the talk turned to writing mechanics. Moderator [Declan] Burke suggested that aspiring writers not try to put everything into a first draft. He preferred just banging it all out once, messy or not, and then going back and fixing anything from plot to characterizations on multiple later passes. Dahl suggested writing one short story a year in addition to novels, since the compressed space “sharpens your pen”. He also thought it helpful, and possibly even necessary, for crime writers to read Macbeth once a year…

Writer’s Corner: Dublin Writers Festival, Day 1

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The annual Dublin Writers Festival, which just concluded this past Sunday, was an enjoyably low-key but nevertheless enthusiastic affair, mixing up writing workshops with talks and Q&As with authors and the occasional performance piece.

I covered a few days of it for PopMatters; here’s part:

This is Dublin, after all, which proudly carries its status as UNESCO City of Literature, and where the odd plaque on an undistinguished townhouse near St. Stephen’s Green reminds you that Bram Stoker lived there, and the Gate Theatre just happens to be staging An Ideal Husband by the Dublin-raised and -educated Oscar Wilde.
The event locations were mostly clustered within an easy walk of Temple Bar, making one conveniently never far from a restorative tipple. The offerings ran the gamut from workshop-like conversations with would-be writers to themed readings and music and poetry galas. By the end of even just one day, if you didn’t already have a novel or cycle of poems in the works, you would feel as though you were somehow missing out…

Other entries to follow soon.

Quote of the Day: St. Patrick’s Edition

Belfast, where learning the Irish language was a sign of solidarity with the anti-British cause.
Belfast, where learning the Irish language was a sign of solidarity with the anti-British cause.

For tomorrow’s celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, a note on the Irish, language, and stubbornness:

If you want to make any sort of Irishman do something, the surest way is to tell him it is forbidden; and if the learning of the Irish language is a bad thing (I’m not sure that it is…) … forbidden it under pressure will stimulate it to such an extent that the very dogs in Belfast … will bark in Irish.

—Lord Charlemont, cabinet minister in Northern Ireland, 1933

New in Theaters: ‘Shadow Dancer’

Clive Owen as an MI6 agent trying to use an IRA operative to spy on her own family in ‘Shadow Dancer’

shadow-dancer-posterClive Owen continues to frustrate with his choosing of roles in films that no amount of his innate greatness can save. Case in point is the glum Shadow Dancer, which opened yesterday in limited release. Though it boasts Owen, a solid supporting cast, nail-biter premise, and crackerjack director (of documentaries, at least) James Marsh, the film barely registers a heartbeat.

My full review ran at Film Racket, here’s part of it:

The pregnant pause is one of the more useful items in a director’s toolbox for heightening drama and tension. One can’t have just nonstop chatter and explosions, after all, no matter what the oeuvre of Michael Bay might argue to the contrary. But like any tool, it can be overused. Case in point: Shadow Dancer, a smartly cast but drearily inactive IRA thriller that tries to be all pregnant pause. This constant sidestepping manner means that by the time the credits roll, viewers understand as little about the characters on screen, and the morality of their actions, as they did when the film began…

You can watch the trailer here: