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Opinion: Wild Mountain Thyme does what Hollywood has always done - sells 'Oirland' to Irish America

Film lecturer Dr Seán Crosson says we have often been offended by the portrayal of Ireland on screen, but that Hollywood isn’t aiming such movies at us.

Seán Crosson

THE RELEASE OF the trailer for Wild Mountain Thyme attracted no shortage of justifiable complaints, as well as some entertainment for Irish people over the past week. 

Commentary on the film recognised the familiar features of many Irish-set American productions: appalling accents, a melodramatic love story, anachronistic rural settings, lots of seemingly unnecessary scenic shots, peculiar unstable characters and dress sense and the suggestion of a fondness for recreational violence.  

Credit where it’s due – the fact that all of this is evident within a trailer of fewer than three minutes is perhaps an achievement of some sorts. Most films require viewing in full before the range of stereotypes are apparent.  

But stereotypes are critical components of mainstream cinema. They allow a mass audience to readily identify and associate with characters and locations in the condensed format of the feature film, or the clipped content of a trailer. 

All cultures are subjected to them. We have the beret-wearing wine-drinking French, passionate Italians or humourless and efficient Germans.  

What’s behind ‘Oirish’ accent?

To appreciate the continuing resonance with audiences of the stereotypes associated with Ireland, it is worth recalling that Wild Mountain Thyme follows in a long line of productions with American origins and hopes of attracting US audiences, particularly those with Irish ancestry.  

The first fiction film ever made in Ireland, at least partly, was produced and informed by a similar perspective and concern.  

The Lad from Old Ireland was produced in 1910 by the New York-based Kalem company. The director was Sidney Olcott, a Canadian of Irish descent who wished to return to his mother’s homeland to make the first American production to be shot on location outside the US. Scenes were filmed in the Killarney area and in New York.  

Its central story follows an Irish emigrant Terry O’Connor (played by Olcott) who becomes successful in the US before returning to save his family from eviction.

The film struck a chord with audiences in the US and Olcott returned to make many other films in Ireland between 1911 and 1914.  

old irish Source: Kalem Company, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Kalem films are predominantly set in rural areas, highlighting the landscape, particularly the lakes of Killarney area, and characters and settings from the past.

But even then, in the 1910s, Irish people were sensitive to the country’s portrayal in American cinema.  

Robert G Vignola, an actor and director with Kalem, recalled in an interview many years later how the local parish priest, in the Beaufort area where they were based, denounced “tramp photographers” who focused on the “thatched cottages” rather than homes with slate roofs. 

Despite this criticism, Olcott’s work was actually a considerable improvement on previous depictions of Irishness in American popular culture, which leaned heavily on characteristics of drunkenness, laziness and violence.  

As the 20th century developed, depictions of Ireland in Hollywood evolved as the Irish American community increased in influence and status and sought more positive depictions of their homeland and heritage.  

An Irish-American romantic imaginary evolved in cinema. It was nostalgic, traditional, rurally focused and untarnished by the arrival of modernity or technology. It was an Ireland that never existed but provided a welcome and reassuring contrast to the challenges of modern American life.  

Artistic license

This romantic imaginary occasionally led to the rewriting of history.  

In 1936 Michael Collins renamed Dennis Riordan, was portrayed as surviving an assassination attempt and living happily ever after with his English aristocratic lover in the Samuel Goldwyn production Beloved Enemy.  

A year later Clarke Gable portrayed Charles Stuart Parnell in MGM’s Parnell, a highly sanitised account of the politician’s affair with Katie O’Shea.

The film is widely regarded as Gable’s worst performance, though he did overcome the challenge of adopting a convincing Irish accent by not attempting it at all. 

Perhaps more than any other film, Irish American director John Ford’s greatest commercial success The Quiet Man (1952) was responsible for popularising the tropes and accents found in Wild Mountain Thyme. 

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quiet-man-390x285 The Quiet Man Source: Lucas Spade, via YouTube

Bord Fáilte was established the year the film was released and Ford provided a template, particularly through the film’s impressive technicolor landscape cinematography, for the promotion of Ireland internationally in subsequent decades.  

The film depicts Ireland as a recuperative space for returning emigrant Sean Thornton, left traumatised by the accidental killing of an opponent in the boxing ring.   

Shanley’s approach

The director of Wild Mountain Thyme, Irish-American John Patrick Shanley seems informed by a similar romantic imaginary. 

According to the 2017 US census, about 33 million people in America claim Irish heritage. That’s potentially a huge market for depictions of Ireland. The vast majority of this population have never been to Ireland and their perspective is far removed in time, space and accent. 

Rosita Boland confirmed this in a revealing series of interviews with the Irish-American community in Boston in 2016. She found their view of Ireland was as an “abstract, romanticised receptacle of dreams and green fields, and the place that will soothe a lifelong ache”. 

Kevin Rocket’s Irish Filmography (1996), lists more than 2000 films, about half of which originated in the US. Fewer than 10% came out of Ireland.  

Thankfully more films are being made in Ireland today than ever before, but the legacy of the Irish-American tradition continues to be strong and influential, shaping how the world views this island and the accents they associate with it. 

Dr Seán Crosson is Senior lecturer in Film in the Huston School of Film & Digital Media, NUI Galway. He has published widely on Irish and international cinema including as author, Gaelic Games on Film (Cork University Press, 2019) and as editor, Sport, Film and National Culture (Routledge, 2020).

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