Monday, March 17, 2008

Irish Movies on St Patrick's Day

There'll be no locks or bolts between us, Mary Kate, except those in your own mercenary little heart!An Spailpín notes with interest that RTÉ, in their wisdom, have decided to show Into the West as their St Patrick’s Day feature. Ellen Barkin makes for a rather glamorous travelling lady, although Gabriel Byrne is mistaken if he thinks the coveted title of King of the Travellers is won as easily as rubbing one’s face with ashes. The face of the regent generally suffers a greater buffeting for that signal honour.

During An Spailpín’s urchinhood, of course, the Irish movie was de riguer on TV for the National Holiday. It seems strange now to be without them, not least as Irish movies are now like midges on the mountain, whereas back in the 1970s and 80s they were much rarer creatures. So rare, in fact, that they were Irish only in nominal theme, being made in either England or the US with a very stage-Irish sensibility. In the 1960s Disney made a movie called The Fighting Prince of Donegal, a biopic of Red Hugh O’Donnell, “a reckless young rebel who rocks an empire.” Aodh Rua himself was played by Peter McEnery, a matinee idol of the day whose hair was dyed sufficiently red to make a carrot look like a parsnip if placed next to his blazing barnet.

The Flight of the Doves was made in 1971, and was a staple of St Patrick’s Day for many years. Or so it seems in retrospect; don’t forget, RTÉ has been committed to recycling long before anyone knew what a greenhouse gas was. The Flight of the Doves was one of those stories that are especially terrifying for children, as it featured children who had to run away from a guardian who was all set to do them in. The fact that the malevolent guardian was played by Ron Moody, Fagin in Oliver!, made it all the more worrying to the infant Spailpín. Not as worrying, however, as the song sung by Rabbi Noel Purcell in the movie, called “You Don’t Have to be Irish to be Irish.” Even at six years old, your correspondent was a hopeless pedant.

One magical St Patrick’s Day in the 1980s RTÉ decided to treat the nation to a whole Barry Fitzgerald season. They gave us Going My Way, of course, and The Quiet Man (still An Spailpín’s favourite Irish movie ever), and even a edgy noir-ish policer called The Naked City. The naked city in question is New York, not technically in the jurisdiction of course, but once it had Barry Fitz in it that was good enough for us.

But of that Barry Fitzgerland season, the picture that’s stuck most firmly in An Spailpín’s mind is a movie that I have not seen or heard of since, and that an hour’s furious googling is only generating some very sparse results indeed. It’s a movie called, variously, Happy Ever After, Tonight’s the Night or O’Leary’s Night, and it’s a black sort of farce. It’s about a village not one hundred miles away from the one in the Quiet Man where the local squire dies and his only living relation, a distant cousin, arrives over from England to take over the place. The thing is that while General O’Leary is down with the locals, drinking the hard drop and not being too bothered about the rent, the young lad is an utter swine and starts evicting people and going Lord-of-the-Manor straight away. The locals decide there’s nothing else to be done except to bump him off, and complications ensure.

One of the reasons the movie has stayed with me so long is because it stars one of my favourite actors, the great David Niven, as the squireen, Jasper O’Leary. Niven makes no mention of the movie that I can recall in either of his volumes of auto-biography, so it’s fair to presume that he hated it. And the reason why, perhaps, is because Niven is cast against type as a cad. To An Spailpín’s mind though, this is what makes the picture so fascinating, like Henry Fonda as Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West. I wonder if it really was good, or is it just memory playing tricks, as memory does?

It’s fashionable now of course to sneer at The Quiet Man and the Paddy-whackery school. Well, if sitting down this evening to a TV version of Eugene O’Brien’s play Eden (a “trudge through domestic purgatory [addressing] such discomfiting issues as impotence and pervasive alcoholism,” according to the Village Voice. How jolly) is your cup of tea then go for it, but An Spailpín will pass this time, thanks. I’m off to the end of the rainbow where the crocks of gold are stashed by the fairy peoples, where you must be careful of red-haired women, where your mind is addled by strong mountain poitín, and where even the hardest of men, even Jamesh Bond himshelf, can’t help but break into song, in light lyric tenor. Happy St Patrick’s Day, from 007 and An Spailpín Fánach.

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