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the quiet girl

An Cailín Ciúin: 'It shows an Irish language film can speak to people - it seems foolish to think it couldn't'

We chat to director Colm Bairéad about making the film An Cailín Ciúin, based on a novella by Claire Keegan.

CÁIT IS A quiet girl. She doesn’t verbalise her feelings often – everything is kept trapped inside, no matter how uncomfortable the feeling is. She might be feeling distressed, or sad, but never says it.

Perhaps it’s out of fear – perhaps it’s out of self protection. Perhaps it’s a mixture of both. 

At home, her father’s drinking issues cause friction between him and her pregnant mother. Her sisters go quiet when the dad walks into the room. At school, Cáit sits alone at lunchtime. The family’s hay goes uncut. 

The story of Cáit and her transformative visit to foster parents is told in the moving new Irish film, An Cailín Ciúin (The Quiet Girl). It’s directed by Dubliner Colm Bairéad, based on the novella by the acclaimed writer Claire Keegan. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know it’s a gutpunch of a read, gently unspooling a powerful story about a girl who finds love after years of neglect.

Bairéad first read the book in the spring of 2018. “I think like most people who read it, I fell in love with it,” he tells The Journal. “It’s a mix of different things – the obvious emotional undertone of it is irresistible, but it was also a case that the formal aspects of what Keegan had created were really enticing to me as a filmmaker, as it’s so sure of its point of view, and it’s a strictly first-person positioned narrative told in the present tense. It felt like I was watching a film as I was reading it.”

But as he was reading, he realised that to turn it into a film would require adding in some new parts, to flesh it out a bit, so the opening of the film sees fresh scenes being added to the story. That said, all of these scenes (which show Cáit at home with her family) are based on tidbits of information Keegan included in the book.

“I felt you needed to see where this girl has come from before seeing the transformation that takes place in the Kinsella’s farm,” explains the director, the Kinsellas being the relations who Cáit is sent to visit. “Thankfully Claire had left all these nice morsels in the text, references to things in the girl’s home life, so I was jumping on all of those and imagining scenes and sequences that could be true to those things.”

He also used this opening section to keep Cáit’s speaking to a minimum, so that we really get to witness her being given room to speak when she moves in with her foster parents, her relations Eibhlín (played by Carrie Crowley) and Seán (Andrew Bennett).

“I really enjoyed that. I love films that follow characters closely and can tell the story of that character without having to resort to dialogue,” says Bairéad. “That to me is what you aspire to in terms of creating cinema. If you can do that, it’s a very healthy thing to cultivate as a filmmaker.”

Irish language on screen


Bairéad is an Irish speaker who grew up in a bilingual household, and all of his drama work up to this latest feature has been in Irish. Some of his high profile work includes the documentary series Finné, and Murdair Mhám Trasna, a docudrama about the notorious murder of a family in the remote village of Maamtrasna in 1882.

This film is the latest in a bunch of Irish-language features to be released in recent years – like Foscadh, Arracht, and Doineann. “When you consider the last three years, I guess it does feel like a wave,” says Bairéad of this sudden surge.

He says this was essentially facilitated by the Cine4 scheme, from TG4, Screen Ireland and the BAI, which is aimed at producing Irish-language live-action films. “To some degree it remains to be seen with all the Cine4 films how commercially successful they are,” says Bairéad.

But they have taken on life of their own and become part of the conversation in Ireland, which is perhaps the more important thing really.” 

The scheme is certainly proof that if thought, investment and encouragement is given to Irish language projects, then the results will be impressive and – crucially – varied. 

Bairéad read Foster two years after his first child was born. “Suddenly you have this more pronounced empathy for children, a really practical understanding of what it is that children need – like emotional sustenance,” he recalls of its impact. “When I’m reading Foster and seeing the child and how she feels inside and how she’s been treated, it just felt all the more affecting.”

The book and film are set in 1981, not that long ago and yet in some ways a different time, especially regarding how children were treated here. In the intervening 40 years, Ireland has had to reckon with its long history of institutionalisation, familial secrets and religious abuse. While the film doesn’t overtly try to tackle this, it’s there in the offhand, cruel way Cáit is treated by her father, and the lack of support for her in the classroom. 

“I think I’m not sure when things shifted – the parenting style nowadays is far more conscious parenting or mindful parenting. Not that my parents were doing it wrong – it was more of a cultural thing in Ireland, that children weren’t seen in the same light,” says Bairéad. “But then you obviously had more extreme versions of that in the negative sense. When you have a culture like that the potential for abuse and lack of care to exist is far greater.”

That was part of the influence to make the film, [featuring] a child from an era when children didn’t really have a voice. Not all children, but it was a symptom that was visible in our society. It was a question of giving a child like that attention and situating that character as the centre of the universe that we’re creating.

They spent seven months casting for the role of Cáit, and it wasn’t until they put out calls to gaelscoileanna that they found Catherine Clinch. The producer of the film, Bairéad’s wife Cleona Ni Chrualaoi, saw Clinch’s tape and immediately rang him to say he needed to watch it.

“She was amazing. It was really evident just from that tape, those two videos that her mum took on her iPhone. You could tell she understood the character and she understood this was a girl who directed all this trauma inwards and she had constructed this shell around her,” he says. “And just the ability to trust in the minor gesture or even the absence of gesture. She had an innate ability to realise the camera’s ability to see into a character.”

Indeed, Clinch is a steady presence on film, holding all of her emotions delicately and internally. It’s not a showy performance, or one that relies on overwrought displays of feeling. Instead, the audience feels tender towards the young girl because we can see that below that silent surface are ripples of hurt. 

Though Clinch had never acted on camera before, she proved herself to be a professional, never fluffing a line, and requiring few takes.

International praise

An Cailín Ciúin is released today in Ireland, but it’s already been shown at festivals abroad, winning the Grand Prix of the Generation Kplus International Jury for Best Film at the Berlinale festival in Germany earlier this year. 

“It’s really gratifying,” says the film’s director of acknowledgements like this. “It shows that an Irish language film can travel, that it can speak to people. It sort of seems foolish now to ever think it couldn’t.”

After all, he points out, here in Ireland there’s an interest in film from across the world – post-Parasite’s Oscar win, there’s been an increased appetite for South Korean film, while any film lover will know the influence of the French New Wave on films internationally. The world of film is a colourful, multicultural one, so perhaps we should stop questioning whether Irish language films can fit into that paintbox.

“That notion of an Irish film being more ‘difficult’ in a way – perhaps that said something about our own relationship with the language,” muses Bairéad. “An Cailín Ciúin, it’s an Irish language film but it’s also bilingual. It’s not trying to make a political point by having everything in Irish. It’s ironically a film about the limitations of language – particularly Irish people of the past maybe still are not necessarily the best for using words to articulate how we really feel about things.”

He believes people are engaging with the film as a piece of filmmaking first – the question of the language is secondary in a sense, he says. A recent review of the film in The Guardian said it “feels like a classic”. 

“It’s ultimately a film about love,” says Bairéad, whose next feature will likely be one about an entirely different topic: faith healers. “As children we’re all these plants that have to grow, and we need the water and sunshine that is love in order for it to happen.”

“It’s a film that gets at that unfortunate truth: that your biological family is not necessary,” he adds. It shows that people can find love, happiness and the certainty about what they need from other figures in their life.

Like life itself, it demonstrates that family can sometimes be complicated, and out of that complication can come something truly meaningful. 

An Cailín Ciúin is in cinemas from today.

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