The Irish Phone Home: Reflections of Ireland in Jim Sheridan's in America

By Murphy, Paula | Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies, Annual 2009 | Go to article overview

The Irish Phone Home: Reflections of Ireland in Jim Sheridan's in America


Murphy, Paula, Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies


So complex, so tangled as if we have to wait on some riff of imagination to refract detail, some fiction to shape elusive meaning of fact (O'Siadhail 2002: 14)

Jim Sheridan is one of the most important and prolific filmmakers in Ireland today, and has worked in some of the most successful films in the Irish canon, including My Left Foot (Sheridan 1989), The Field (Sheridan 1990), In the Name of the Father (Sheridan 1993), The Boxer (Sheridan 1997) and Into the West (Newell 1992). The popularity of these films has ensured their influence on how contemporary Irish subjectivity is perceived in the Western world, and perhaps more importantly, how Irish people perceive themselves. Yet it is precisely this popularity that has caused critics to question Sheridan's value as an auteur. As Ruth Barton states, "[i]t is perhaps their very profitability that has rendered Sheridan's films suspect, even slightly tainted, in the eyes of the academic establishment" (2002: 4). It is true that many of Sheridan's films operate in a formulaic manner. They are frequently stories of triumph in the face of adversity and focus on a small number of characters in order to avoid obfuscating the central messages of the film. However, this should not necessarily hinder a rigorous theoretical reading of them. Mainstream Hollywood narratives for example, frequently prove fruitful for film theorists because of their universality and not in spite of it.

Sheridan's career in film has been plagued by controversy, particularly because of his advocacy of republicanism and the anti-British sentiment evident in films like In the Name of the Father (Sheridan 1993) and Some Mother's Son (George 1996). But his thematic interests have not been confined to political matters: he also addresses issues like disability in the context of an Irish family in My Left Foot (Sheridan 1989), and his adaptation of The Field (Sheridan 1990) is an almost archetypal representation of the dynamics of the small Irish community and the traditional emotional attachment to land. Sheridan is aware of his participation in the creation of identities and the power of his chosen medium. "In the sense of how people live" he states, "they live through television now; that's their ethics and morals, not the Pope" (in Barton 2002: 148). In Ireland, religion has to some extent been replaced by the media, which acts as moral guide in a new, more secular nation, possibly because some of the most significant moral issues in the last decade have been about abuse of power by the Catholic Church and have been critiqued largely through cinema and television. These issues have been brought to public attention in films like The Magdalene Sisters (Mullan, 2002), concerning the incarceration of women in the Magdalen laundries, and Song for a Raggy Boy (Walsh 2003), which deals with paedophilia in an industrial school. Considering the particular power of the media in modern Ireland, Sheridan's contribution cannot be underestimated. He works within established formulas and rarely tries to subvert them, but, as a filmmaker who is conscious of his responsibility and who is unquestionably influential, his films are an ideal vehicle through which to explore the dynamics of identity in contemporary Ireland. This article discusses this aspect of his film In America (Sheridan 2002).

Irish film in the last decade has been marked by an interest in the Irish diaspora, a fact that is borne out by the spate of recent films which deal with the experience of Irish immigrants in the United States, and particularly in New York. These include Paul Quinn's This is My Father (1998), about a second-generation Irish-American, and Eugene Brady's The Nephew (1998), which analyses the effect of a returning Irish-American who is also African-American. Martin McLoone lists Elizabeth Gill's Gold in the Streets (1997), Johnny Smallhorne's 2 by 4 (1998), George Bazala's Beyond the Pale (1999) and Bill Muir's Exiled (1999) as examples of films which explore Irish immigrants in New York. …

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