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Wednesday 31 May 2023 Dublin: 14°C
PA (left to right) Brendan Gleeson, Martin McDonagh, Kerry Condon, Colin Farrell and Barry Keoghan, attending the BAFTAS.
Darach Ó Séaghdha Why Martin McDonagh’s Englishness shouldn’t be disregarded
The acclaimed director’s success is a product of a hybrid identity perspective – and that should be celebrated, Darach Ó Séaghdha writes.

THERE IS A moment early on in the Banshees of Inisherin when Kerry Condon’s character tells Colin Farrell that he “lives on an island off the coast of Ireland”.

This reminded me of how on Achill, where much of the movie is filmed, Ireland is often referred to as “an island off the coast of Achill”. That different perspective on how big and small places relate to each other got me thinking about the movie’s acclaimed writer-director and the recent bad-tempered debates about his right to tell Irish stories.

From Brendan O’Neill in the Daily Mail to Mark O’Connell in Slate, a number of commentators this year have questioned the motives of Londoner McDonagh’s repeated use of rural Ireland as a setting, the authenticity of these tales, and if the violence and alcohol use of his characters should be seen as a glorified Paddy joke by an Englishman.

‘Us and them’

Martin McDonagh is usually described as a London-born Irish writer or an Irish-British writer, but this doesn’t really cut it. After all, it is inaccurate to lump him in with English-born Irish people like Phil Lynott or Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, because he did not grow up here. Nor can he be listed alongside Sharon Horgan or Paul Howard, who moved to Ireland when they were old enough to notice accent differences, what they signified, and to apply a child’s curiosity to the inherently ridiculous questions of “us and them” that followed.

It also is misleading to group him in with British-born Irish residents like John Boorman, Mícheál Mac Liammóir or Jeremy Irons because he does not, and has not, lived here. And while he could arguably now be counted among names like Jack Charlton and Daniel Day-Lewis who will forever be associated with Ireland and their positive contribution to Irish history and culture, honesty commands us to say that, unlike those two gentlemen, he was calling himself Irish before he reached that level of glory.

Martin McDonagh is an English man from England who lives in England. He has Irish parents, and some English people in these circumstances have very different relationships to their Irishness than others, even within the same family. This is okay and it shouldn’t be hurtful to mention it. I bring it up not to mock “plastic paddies” or to undermine his entitlement to write about Ireland – he was surely called “Irish” by his neighbours growing up – but because I think his Englishness (in particular the state of being first generation Irish) is key to understanding his work. Banshees of Inisherin is about an island off the coast of Ireland, but that island is to the east and it is much, much bigger than Achill.

What’s it about?

The central relationship in Banshees is a Brexit allegory: we have a union of two friends, and then one of them self-importantly decides he doesn’t want to be a part of it anymore (and who better to play him than the actor who played both Trump and Churchill?). His reasons baffle outsiders, but he digs his heels in, resorting to self-harm rather than negotiating. Meanwhile, all through the story characters look across the water at Ireland, wondering how they fit in.

It might be set during the Civil War but McDonagh isn’t interested in that conflict: like most movies set in the past, this one is really about the present.

These aren’t unchartered waters for McDonagh: The Cripple of Inishmaan focuses on the casting of Man of Aran, a movie presenting itself as an honest account of island life but whose cast notoriously had to be taught how to perform certain authentic crafts: a character trying to prove himself worthy to be included in a display of Irishness which is ultimately artificial is a succinct summary of the first-gen Irish condition.

It’s easy to see how the recurring theme of toxic co-dependency in his work fits neatly in with the first-generation predicament of being called Irish in England and called English in Ireland, and not being able to fully escape even after rejecting one.

These struggles are a rich source for a storyteller, and yet novels and films that directly tell stories about intergenerational Irish families in Britain and Ireland remain hard to find.

McDonagh’s use of isolated Irish locations as a fictional placeholder for England (or Irish communities within England) will surely rankle many people just as much as Hollywood shows using Irish as a magic elf language does. And I can see why he’d rather have critics compare him to Synge and Beckett than to a contemporary London director such as Guy Ritchie, or to his secondary school classmate Catherine Tate. But to minimise McDonagh’s Englishness – as many of his defenders insist on doing – is to make him an exception among first-generation Irish Londoners and ultimately this minimises their experiences rather than celebrating them.

So if and when Martin McDonagh lifts an Oscar tomorrow, my hope is that instead of rolling eyes at British newspapers claiming an Irishman as “one of their own” we can talk about how this success story is a product of a hybrid identity perspective, and look forward to hearing from writers who will address this angle head-on.


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