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Promoting 'brand Ireland' with a film about emigration? I'm not comfortable with that

There’s something weird about a media and government cheering on a movie about emigration, writes Julien Mercille.

Julien Mercille Associate professor, UCD

I WENT TO see Brooklyn because everybody is talking about it. There’s a lot of buzz in the media about how well Ireland is doing at this year’s Oscars, some of it
problematic.

(*Spoilers* below if you haven’t yet seen it)

59th BFI London Film Festival - Brooklyn screening Source: PA Wire/PA Images

Brooklyn is a familiar Irish story of emigration. Saoirse Ronan leaves Ireland in the 1950s because she can’t find work and lands in New York, where she gets a job in a top-end department store serving rich people. She meets an Italian boy there and marries him. Then, she comes back alone to Ireland for a quick visit because her sister died. And she becomes torn between staying in Ireland and returning to America. She even flirts with an Irish boy while here. That complicates matters in her head. Where is really home?

I liked the movie, it’s like my story in reverse. I arrived in Ireland from the US and often am wondering where I will end up in the end. Thankfully I haven’t found an Italian boyfriend, that would complicate things.

I won’t say how the film ends for those who haven’t seen it.

But the annoying thing to me is the way the media and government are suddenly appropriating the film’s success. They say we should use it to promote “Brand Ireland”, that “it gives the nation a lift”, in short, that “Ireland is so good because Hollywood says so”. That reminds me of the Celtic Tiger…

There’s something weird about a media and government cheering on a movie about emigration. The reason why emigration is part of Irish history is because the government has used it as a safety valve to get rid of surplus people. Much easier dealt with like that isn’t it?

The last few years have been particularly harsh. Austerity was good for those in power, but they couldn’t care less about our young and less young people leaving the country, half a million of them since 2008 (net emigration amounts to 140,000).

In fact, Ireland holds the record among OECD countries for the proportion of its native-born population that is now living abroad: 17.5% (see chart).

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They left because of lack of jobs, or lack of good jobs, or lack of quality of life in Ireland. Because, as Blindboy put it, “my generation can’t afford houses, my generation can’t afford to have children, my generation are either leaving the country or jumping in the rivers”.

That’s horrible. But it’s convenient for the government to have so many people leave because they don’t have to be taken care of and they lower artificially the unemployment rate, which would otherwise be much higher. During the peak of the recession, it would have gone up to 25%.

Because the mass media was fully behind the policies that failed a generation, they share the blame with the government.

Then why are they cheering on Brooklyn? Why are they saying it should all make us feel proud to be Irish? That we should all come together and celebrate?

It might be because that’s a way to make us believe that our leaders have been so good to us, because after all, we’re all the same, we’re all Irish. Nationalism has always been a way to rally people blindly behind their political leaders. We’re all part of the same team, aren’t we, so let’s all be cool together.

In fact, the last thing politicians should do is celebrate Irish movies, because they’ve actually been the most anti-arts in decades. They’ve cut funding for arts,
culture and film from €92 million in 2011 to €76 million in 2014.

Ask any actor or artist how supported they feel and they’ll wonder what you’re talking about. Artists live a precarious existence, working contract to contract with many empty months in between. Or often they emigrate.

So maybe we should celebrate Brooklyn for its art, for the fact it tells a universal human story, for the fact it’s actually an Irish-Canadian-British production shot in several countries, and because it is the fruit of the work of an international crew, many of which will probably still be precarious workers even after they win that Oscar.

Julien Mercille is a lecturer at University College Dublin. Twitter: @JulienMercille

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About the author:

Julien Mercille  / Associate professor, UCD

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