The IRA on Film and Television: A History

By Briley, Ron | Film & History, Summer 2015 | Go to article overview

The IRA on Film and Television: A History


Briley, Ron, Film & History


The IRA on Film and Television: A Flistory Mark Connelly. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2012. 267 pages, $55.00.

For a clandestine organization with a small membership, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) has been the subject of numerous films produced in Ireland, Great Britain, and the United States; it has enjoyed an international appeal that reflects the influence wielded by the Irish diaspora. Depictions of the IRA in cinema have ranged from the heroic revolutionary to the criminal and killer. The array of films on the IRA is examined in considerable depth by Mark Connelly, who teaches literature and film at Milwaukee Area Technical College. One of the many strengths of this volume is the effort Connelly makes to place the cinematic history of the IRA within the broader context of Irish history and culture. Thus, Connelly begins his survey with The Troubles of 1916-1923, when the IRA was founded amid the Anglo-Irish War and Irish Civil War. This introductory chapter is followed by other chronological chapters which take the story through the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 leading to the official disbanding of the IRA, although rogue elements of the organization remain active. The second half of the book is a little more disjointed, with chapters on the classic IRA film texts The Informer (1935) and Odd Man Out (1947), depictions of the IRA on American soil and in other international settings, efforts to portray the IRA as a criminal organization, key themes and types in the IRA film, and finally, the role of the IRA in the period following the Good Friday Agreement. The organization of the volume detracts from any sustained analysis of how the IRA genre film might be employed to understand changes in Irish politics and culture. Nevertheless, Connelly provides readers with a good overview of recent Irish history and an almost encyclopedic account of films dealing with the IRA.

Connelly suggests that most cinematic images of the IRA emerge from controversies related to the Anglo-Irish War and Irish Civil War. In this regard, Shake Flands with the Devil (1959) is an illustrative text. The Irish struggle against the British is presented in a sympathetic light. However, when the IRA leader Sean Lenihan (James Cagney) refuses to accept the treaty negotiated by Michael Collins, providing for Home Rule and eventual independence but allowing the six northern counties to maintain an affiliation with the United Kingdom, he is portrayed as a fanatic perpetuating violence. In addition, most films on Ireland fail to consider the role of Protestants living in the Republic or Northern Ireland. The conflict is presented as a struggle among Irish Catholics or a conflict between the British and Irish. Thus, by leaving the Protestant population out of the picture, the complexity of the Irish situation is often simplified

One of the weaknesses of the book is its failure to provide much background information on the film productions, as Connelly elects to focus primarily on plot development. He offers readers little information on the filmmakers or why some films were produced. And certainly some account of how the Irish film industry developed might help clarify the cultural politics of representing the IRA. A notable exception to this approach is Connelly's discussion of Michael Collins (1996), directed by Neil Jordan and featuring Liam Neeson in the title role. The film is essentially sympathetic to Collins as a man who led an urban guerrilla warfare campaign against the British occupation but in the end was willing to risk his life for peace. However, many critics in both the United States and Great Britain tended to view Collins through the lens of terrorism, and the film failed to earn the anticipated box office receipts.

One of the most interesting chapters in the book concerns Ireland's neutrality in the Second World War and efforts by Nazi Germany to enlist the IRA in the struggle against Great Britain. …

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