Ireland in Focus: Film Photography, and Popular Culture
Reviewed by Derek Gladwin
Edited by Eoin Flannery and Michael Griffin. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2009. 207 pp., illus. Hardcover: $29.95.
Underscoring the nebulous nature of Irish visual culture, Colin Graham’s foreword to Ireland in Focus: Film, Photography, and Popular Culture observes that visual forms of expression “are still a curiously invisible presence in the way Ireland, its history, and its meaning are understood.” In a similar vein, Michael Griffin’s introduction recalls Seamus Heaney’s “unease about the problematic relation between image and text.” Taking into consideration these precautions, Ireland in Focus attempts to develop an inclusive view of the Irish visual arts within Irish studies as a whole. This is probably why editors Eoin Flannery and Michael Griffin simplify and generalize their claim “to think of Irish visual culture in a more holistic sense, to study the genres of visual culture three-quarters film, murals, photographs, and images in popular culture three-quarters alongside one another.” Further deepening the relationship between visual culture and Irish studies, Ireland in Focus contributes to an already expanding corpus of critical texts focused on highlighting the visual arts in Ireland.
During the last twenty-five years, visual studies in Ireland have developed significantly, most notably in the form of the moving image. Beginning in the late 1980s, Kevin Rockett, Luke Gibbons, and John Hill’s pioneering book Cinema and Ireland (1988) not only inaugurated contemporary Irish cinematic scholarship, but also set the tone for subsequent publications. A little more than a decade later, Martin McLoone’s seminal Irish Film: The Emergence of a Contemporary Cinema (2000) expanded this discussion by addressing the cultural, political, and historical factors that continue to define Irish film within in a nationalist framework. This last decade has seen considerable growth in texts conflating Irish film and culture by Elizabeth Butler Cullingford, Lance Pettitt, Brian McIlroy, and Michael Patrick Gillespie, also a contributor to Ireland in Focus and author of the recent publication, The Myth of an Irish Cinema: Approaching Irish Themed Films (2008).
Carefully hitchhiking on these previous threads of scholarship, Ireland in Focus strengthens the resurgent Celtic Revival in visual arts by emphasizing alternate visual modes of expression, while not limiting them to only the depiction of Irish culture and history on screen. Many previous monographs, by contrast, have attempted to either define Irish film specifically or place it within some cultural or political context. This has led scholars to repeatedly question assumptions concerning what constitutes an Irish film. Certainly few would challenge the importance of such an intricate question within a rapidly increasing national cinema, but this exploration has almost become a cliché. Reflecting an awareness of this concern, Ireland in Focus sharpens the evolving question: what belongs more broadly in Irish visual studies? Rather than defining such a multidiscipline, it distinguishes among visual media that are both separate from and connected to Irish film proper. Even though many authors in this collection address cultural, social, political, postcolonial, critical, and historical issues, the editors primarily emphasize diverse mediums within the widening visual studies field—including postage stamps, typography, digital-based media, photography, painting, sculpture, architecture, landscape art, and murals—thus broadening the scope of visual studies beyond Irish film and into previously peripheral disciplines.
Divided into three distinct sections—“Film,” “Photography,” and “Popular Culture”—the editors recognize new voices in visual culture. They also identify incipient scholarship in more traditional visual forms, such as the moving image. Particularly vast in scope and theme, “Film” unpacks several unexplored issues in Irish cinema. Cahal McLaughlin’s “Cold, Hungry, and Scared: Prison Films about the ‘Troubles’” draws attention to less sensationalized and often understated elements in Irish prison films, most notably hunger strikes. In achieving this aim he demonstrates methods of inner resistance to Her Majesty’s Prison Maze (The Maze) in H3 (2001) and Armagh Prison, The Maze’s female equivalent, in Silent Grace (2001)—two films that are typically overshadowed by other notable prison films involving the Troubles, such as A Cellular Maze (1983), In the Name of the Father (1993), and Veil (2000). McLaughlin spotlights an almost monastic devotion to the prisoner’s cause, in contrast to revisiting known acts of violence or corruption in the politically charged prison system. Taking the attention away from the Troubles, on the other hand, B. Mairead Pratschke provides a detailed explication of The Amharc Eireann Early Documentary Film Series in the late 1950s, which highlights an early genre of Irish documentaries focused on a positive image of Irishness and Irish language. Even though Harvey O’Brien’s The Real Ireland: The Evolution of Ireland in Documentary Film (2004) touches on older documentaries, Pratschke emphasizes a specific niche within the 1950s and 1960s newsreel, thus opening the aperture onto an esoteric and independent subgenre. While the moving image can be simply defined as film, McLaughlin and Pratschke specifically distill this category into a revelatory subgenre.
In arguing for visual recognition of the nonmoving image, Eoin Flannery identifies the history of political mural art between loyalists and republicans as an integral part of visual culture in Northern Ireland. Because “The Art of Resistance: Visual Iconography and the Northern ‘Troubles’” primarily emphasizes the “localized colonial oppression and occupation,” it is important to also note that anti-imperial mural art is predominantly found in the working-class areas of Derry and Belfast. Comparable expression through cinema usually depends upon available equipment, a film team, actors, and subsequent distribution, all of which require at least a modicum of funding, and would be unrealistic for these demographics. Political murals, as an alternative, can substitute as an accessible visual art form not limited by financial backing, availability of technical equipment, and, in some cases, having to pass through the hurdles of censorship. While Flannery broadens the classification of Irish visual art in the “Culture” section by documenting visual expressions in urban centers, Barbara O’Connor also pushes the category by revisualizing the apparently inexhaustible motif of Ireland as nationally feminine in “‘Colleen’s and Comely Maidens’: Representing and Performing Irish Femininity in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.” Just as murals present an innovative form of nonmoving image visual art, the visualization of an historical image, argues O’Connor, can provide an equally profound influence on both a national and local identity. By visualizing symbols and engaging in community art as protest and expression, both O’Connor and Flannery create new opportunities for embracing visual arts in Ireland.
Although a segment on film must be included in a collection dealing with visual culture, a gross oversight would be to simply classify Ireland in Focus as merely another monograph on Irish film. Editors Flannery and Griffin consciously extend any extant cinematic dialog by mixing multidisciplinary fields—visual, cultural, postcolonial, and Irish studies—into the cauldron of Irish visual studies. Beyond their common connection to the visual per se, many of the texts represented in Ireland in Focus share a similar thread: an interdisciplinary approach to Irish political quandaries. Moving beyond obvious political associations of the Troubles in “The Art of Resistance,” Eugene O’Brien’s “Ta Siad ag Teacht: Guinness as a Signifier of Irish Cultural Transformations” reveals that Guinness commodities have emerged as the predominant image of Irish culture and prosperity. Similar in theme to O’Connor’s visualization of the image, O’Brien looks at economic as well as visual signifiers and demonstrates that omnipresent images of commercial marketing can frame, anticipate, and, in some cases, control social systems.
Consistently woven into the cultural fabric of Ireland, political motivations surface not only in Irish art, literature, and film generally, but also in the specific essays collected in Ireland in Focus. Even emergent notions of contemporary national politics are included through the eco-photography of Rachel Geise’s The Donegal Pictures (1987). In “Moments of Story: Rachel Geise’s The Donegal Pictures,” Christine Cusick describes how earlier photographers presciently documented now-looming environmental issues involving bogs, farming, and land usage policies. Her essay is an example of research within the burgeoning interdisciplinary study of ecocriticism, which, no less than Irish visual culture, has been largely ignored despite significant environmental abuses on Irish soil. Cusick models through environmental registers what both this collection and visual studies in general attempt to do: highlight vital issues that extend into the greater social sphere.
This collection is also noteworthy for reflecting an often-understated virtue: it connects and remains accessible to a wide audience. Certainly some texts crystallize the scholarly dialog at the expense of the general reader, but Ireland in Focus successfully conflates both academic and popular essays, accessing a wide and interested readership. Since visual culture is appreciated by not only academics, but is also of considerable interest to the general public, who use visual media as a form of daily communication and to some extent survival, editors Flannery and Griffin collect essays relevant to all levels of readership. To this end, Ireland in Focus is designed to appeal to lay readers, professional and recreational visual artists, and academics alike.
Assembling an edited book of essays confronts the inevitable challenge of uniformity, cohesion, and thematic resonance. Unfortunately, there are times when Ireland in Focus fails to master the task at hand. Even on the surface the titles appear incongruent and lack continuity, despite having been consciously situated in three distinct sections after an initial pledge to strive towards a “more holistic” sensibility. Packaging original, visual, and interdisciplinary Irish offerings in one comprehensive collection certainly appeals to any enthusiast of Irish studies, but abrupt transitions from film to photography to popular culture—all immense categories within themselves—required editorial care in melding the essays into a cohesive whole—a challenge that yields decidedly mixed results. To be fair, however, this tendency recognizes the challenges in visual studies as a whole, which struggle to integrate conflicting disciplines within a comprehensible scope for readers and viewers alike, rather than on any inadequacies of the editors specifically. While this praiseworthy collection may fall short in terms of overall uniformity, it remains faithful to its stated thesis of expanding “holistic” scholarship in an already vast field of study, ironically opening itself to what could be its most pointed criticisms. Nevertheless, such an original contribution to the field is laudable for advancing the boundaries of Irish visual culture. It makes one quickly realize how immensely undervalued it has been compared to Irish cinema. As Graham optimistically suggests in the opening pages, “the invisible presence” of Irish visual culture should encourage further Irish contributions to address the relationship between text and image well into the twenty-first century.
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Derek Gladwin is a PhD candidate in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta.
Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.