The Banshees and the Quiet Girl

Isobel Harbison

Two Irish movies have been nominated for Oscars this year: one in the Best Picture category – The Banshees of Inisherin, directed by Martin McDonagh, shot in English on the islands of Achill and Inishmore – while the other is a contender for Best International Feature Film (a category formerly known as Best Foreign Language Film): An Cailín Ciúin (The Quiet Girl), directed by Colm Bairéad, shot in Irish between Co. Dublin and Co. Meath.

Hollywood representations of Ireland and its people have a long history, from Sidney Olcott’s A Lad from Old Ireland (1910) to John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952), movies that enjoyed commercial success in part by appealing to the nostalgia of the Irish diaspora in the United States. For someone raised Irish in London of the 1970s and 1980s, as McDonagh was, the dramatic and comedic potential of exaggerated Hollywood versions of Ireland must have seemed a fertile and spacious alternative to claustrophobic British depictions of Ireland and the Irish on screen. Inisherin is a fictional, imaginary island, and the ‘banshees’ of McDonagh’s title suggest a self-conscious summoning of Tinseltown’s old ghosts.

But the film – based on a playscript McDonagh wrote in the 1990s – releases into the world the most comprehensive collection of Irish stereotypes in contemporary cinema: town drunks, emotionally underdeveloped men, abused boys, crooked guards, malevolent postal workers, fraternal bartenders, clairvoyant hags, and a plethora of exhausted, subservient women rendered immobile by the weight of their shawls. They are all stuck, hemmed in by stone walls and a craggy coastline, and set upon by biblical bouts of judgment and rain.

Confusion is at the core of the plot: why is Colm (Brendan Gleeson) not speaking to me, Pádraic (Colin Farrell) wonders? Then he says it aloud, then he shouts it, and it eventually drives himself and everyone around him, including his loyal sister Siobán (Kerry Condon), totally bonkers. Nobody knows, not even Colm, who just wants to play his fiddle in peace away from this wittering fool. To keep Pádraic at bay, Colm saws a finger off his left hand every time Pádraic speaks to him. The movie is set in the 1920s but the self-harm and the quarrelling seem insulated from the political tensions of that decade: gunfire audible on the mainland is neither fully discussed nor metabolised by the characters. As a metaphor, the dismemberment short-circuits whichever way you run it and what’s left is a barren gesture. Nothing of meaning resonates beyond the noise.

An Cailín Ciúin is an adaptation of Claire Keegan’s story Foster, in which a quiet, unnamed girl is sent for a summer from her poor and populous family home to the farmhouse of her mother’s cousin and her husband. Keegan wrote it in English, with only a few traces of Irish appearing when the girl is addressed affectionally by the foster mother as ‘a Leanbh’ (my child) or ‘Girleen’ (adding the Irish diminutive suffix). Temporary fostering was common among Irish Catholic families of sparce resources for whom contraception was unavailable until 1985 (from 1979 with a prescription) and abortion remained illegal until 2018. Familial networks of care have long been essential to the survival of Ireland’s children, but they were not always reliable and, particularly for abandoned daughters, never guaranteed to be safe.

We know Keegan’s story is set in 1981 from the girl’s glimpses of the TV news and snatches of adult conversation about hunger strikes, details left out of the movie, which otherwise translates the entirety of Keegan’s pristine, sparse dialogue into Irish, and shifts the setting west from the Keegan’s County Wexford to the Gaeltacht na nDéise, an Irish-speaking area of County Waterford. In An Cailín Ciúin, the girl is given a name, Cáit (Catherine Clinch), and Irish is the language of intimacy spoken between her and her foster mother, Eibhlin (Carrie Crowley), and the rest of her maternal family. By contrast, English is spoken with her cantankerous and unreliable father (Michael Patric).

While a pervasive sense of danger nips at the edges of Keegan’s story, Bairéad has softened it, filming a gentle rural idyll, with colour-graded images of tree-lined paths and photogenic cattle, inserting dialogue between Cáit and her foster father, Sean (Andrew Bennett) about feeding calves on powdered milk. The adaptation transforms a particular story of refuge to a more universal one of an adopted home, scrubbed of overt political references and palatable to international audiences and distributors. But with its sustained attention to improvised forms of care, to solidarity between mothers and others, to moments of intergenerational communication between people neglected by a state that is itself navigating a strained, partial freedom, it has produced, within a portrait of a rural and somewhat beleaguered Ireland, an extraordinary parable of resilience.

These two films are not in competition with one another, and shouldn’t be; they’re oceans apart. They reflect the ways that different journeys of exile and assimilation have produced contrasting views of rural Ireland and what, in translation, might be won or lost. As for the Oscars, their categories show how the Academy places at its ceremonial centre the domestic Hollywood version of other cultures it has long created. His old ghosts it loves to sell.


  • 3 February 2023 at 11:31am
    tupmanzozzie says:
    Always curious about what capacity McDonagh has to piss off Irish viewers of his Irish-set stories, and surprised I don't hear more dissent.

    • 4 February 2023 at 9:31am
      Owenzey Owens says: @ tupmanzozzie
      If you stereotype to condescend it is never well received. But if you really understand the culture you are capturing it's a different story. As a plastic Paddy with keen observation skills, McDonagh has a strong appreciation of the subtlety of Irish culture. He also works with great Irish actors who wouldn't put up with nonsense but know the limits and which buttons can be pressed.

  • 4 February 2023 at 8:10am
    Mary Moran-Long says:
    There’s a lot more to The Banshee than a catalogue of Irish steroetyping.

    The context of the meaningless brutal civil war on the mainland is satarised in the falling out between Gleeson and Farrell’s character. A war breaks out between two friends without good reason. The senseless damage reflects the destruction of friends and families in the civil war raging on the mainland.
    When much is destroyed peace breaks out to an extent between them, which is a contraction of the healing of the divided Ireland over the years after the civil war.

    I took that as the main message in the movie.

    • 4 February 2023 at 5:38pm
      Desmond Traynor says: @ Mary Moran-Long
      The Irish Civil War may have been many things, but meaningless was not one of them. It was fought over the partition of Ireland, and is relevant to this day. To have it serve as a metaphor for the end of a bored friendship is strained and insulting.

    • 5 February 2023 at 9:24am
      Art Ó Laoghaire says: @ Desmond Traynor
      The primary cause of the Irish Civil War was not partition; it was the refusal by Republicans to accept the Free State status. A distinction which in time has proved to be 'meaningless'.
      If Republicans had accepted the Free State as a stepping stone to full independence much of the subsequent "troubles" might have been avoided.

    • 5 February 2023 at 2:55pm
      Laureen Miklos says: @ Mary Moran-Long
      There are parallels between the Irish Civil War and the characters of Inisherin, but the relationship between Colm and Pádraic is not actual satire of the war. Colm’s decision to end the relationship with Pádraic is completely valid. Though his self-destructive methodology is grotesque it aligns with the “exaggerated Hollywood versions of Ireland” the article’s author refers to and therefore is appropriate in context of this narrative. And there’s definitely no peace between Pádraic and Colm at the end as Pádraic makes it clear the only way “their war” would have ended is for Colm to have perished when Pádraic set his house on fire. The significance at the end of the movie is the shift in their relationship: Pádraic takes over as enforcer of serious conviction.

    • 7 February 2023 at 11:00am
      Cris Fuilálainn says: @ Art Ó Laoghaire
      The primary cause of the Irish Civil War was the refusal of the British to accept a democratic mandate for an all-island Republic. We'll never know if a coalition government of pro and anti-Treaty sides would have had the ability to construct a basis on which the Treaty could have become an authentic stepping-stone, because the Churchill gave the Treatyites guns and British soldiers in green uniform to put down the Republicans. If you really think that the border's existence has proved ultimately meaningless you're either being disengenuous or you have no understanding of Irish politics.

      The irony is that after the civil war Republicanism as a revolutionary politics were pretty marginal to political life except insofar as its advocates were en route to incorporation with the Free State's natural party of government; it was as citizens of 'Northern Ireland' that a predominantly Catholic population rose up to demand civil rights in the sixties. If the loyalist police force hadn't batoned them off the street and made e.g. housing lists and employment law less discriminatory that *maybe* would have been a path to making partition viable. The Orange State and their benefactors in England only have themselves to blame.

    • 16 February 2023 at 3:51pm
      John Hobson says: @ Cris Fuilálainn
      I think it was the Ulster Protestants who objected. The British would have loved to wash their hands of Ireland, but still can't.

  • 4 February 2023 at 1:58pm
    Greg Tuck says:
    McDonagh managed to create a place that was somewhere between the mythic and the historic, not an easy task. As for cliches, surely that was the point. As Umberto Eco said of Casablanca when you have enough them and are brave enough to use them wholesale, let them expose and play with and through each other, you get something that is operatic rather than trite, a experience of of pure narrative.

  • 6 February 2023 at 6:36pm
    Charles Evans says:
    Interesting that Isobel seems to have watched The Banshees of Inisherin, failed to comprehend the meaning of what it's showing the audience, and thus concluded that it's not saying anything at all.

    Reviewers shouldn't confuse their own lack of comprehension with a director having nothing to say.

    • 8 February 2023 at 11:46pm
      Art Ó Laoghaire says: @ Charles Evans
      or the director's incoherence ?

    • 11 February 2023 at 8:05pm
      Kam Sangha says: @ Charles Evans
      "Reviewers shouldn't confuse their own lack of comprehension with a director having nothing to say". An egregious punchline knocks you out let alone abstinence from a mirror. When did Isobel Harbison become "Isobel" to you? In addition, she "failed to comprehend the meaning of what it's showing the audience". That would be you in the know.

  • 7 February 2023 at 7:06pm
    Tipp says:
    I grew up in the Irish countryside. I know how country people talk - this isn't it. McDonagh's film is Father Ted taking itself seriously. Fakery with an undertow of racism. Neil Jordan, Lenny Abrahamson in another league.

  • 11 February 2023 at 10:30am says:
    The fact that The Quiet Girl is in Irish should not put potential viewers off. Much of it is beyond words, cinematic in a very real and affecting way.

  • 15 February 2023 at 9:07pm
    4001861741 says:
    This was a terrible film, and also waaaaay too long. Compare and contrast with 'Three Billboards', its polar opposite in so many ways. Whatever MacDonagh was trying to do here, he should stay well away in the future.
    The commentator who said 'Father Ted taking itself seriously' is spot on!

  • 16 February 2023 at 10:46am
    pdan says:
    I stumbled upon an obvious filmed-for-TV movie late night a year ago and was baffled that it had Frances McDormand in it, before realising it must be the Oscar winning "3 billboards". It's a strange sensation when something that you find so manipulative and poorly written, with sitcom level characters and the most unlikely events shoehorned in for comic (or tragic) effect, still gets rave reviews and big awards. "Crash" almost seems a worthy winner in comparison. I won't bother with his latest.

    "The Quiet Girl" deserves all the prizes it can get though and if there's one "Best Picture" that came out of Ireland last year, this would be it.

    • 16 February 2023 at 3:55pm
      John Hobson says: @ pdan
      I sat through a lot of big films like Elvis and Babylon plus many small films like The Wonder and Aftersun, but it's The Quiet Girl that I keeping going back to as the most enjoyable/cathartic film of 2022. It could have been set in any country, the story is universal, but for the production team using Gaelic raised it to higher plane.

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