The IRA on Film and Television
by Mark Connelly
y the early 1960s Northern Ireland had become in J. Bowyer Bell’s words a “never-never land—never visited, never noticed.” Tensions, however, mounted between Protestant Unionists and Catholic nationalists. In August 1969 Catholic homes and shops were burned by Loyalist mobs, which the authorities appeared unable or unwilling to quell.
With the outbreak of violence young Belfast Republicans wanted arms to protect their neighborhoods. The IRA leadership in Dublin was hesitant. Marxist in orientation, it was loath to condone a sectarian conflict rather than a class struggle. Both the Irish Republican Army and its political party Sinn Fein split, the younger militant volunteers becoming the Provisional IRA or “Provos.”
For the next three decades Northern Ireland would be rocked by violence.
The Troubles became dominated by three conflicting narratives. The Unionists fought to maintain their heritage and the union that assured that Londonderry was as much a part of Britain as London. For Republicans, the enemy was Britain, an imperialist power that after eight hundred years of domination was still holding onto a portion of Ireland it had no legal claim to. For the British, who repeatedly stated (much to the chagrin of Unionists) that they had “no selfish, strategic, or economic interest” in Northern Ireland, the conflict was one between Irish nationalists and Irish Unionists. As a democracy, Britain had to acknowledge the principle of majority rule. As long as the Unionists prevailed, Britain could not abandon its troubled province. In 1969 the troops arrived and parts of Belfast took on the appearance of occupation.
Filmmakers in Ireland, Britain, and the United States both explored and exploited the Troubles, making movies about the IRA that ranged from accurate docudramas to farcical action dramas.
Filmmakers have made the IRA-crime link for dramatic as well as political reasons. Unionists and Tories insisted on defining the IRA as a criminal rather than a political organization. David Caffrey’s black comedy Divorcing Jack (Scala Productions, 1998) includes the villainous Patrick “Cow Pat” Keegan (Jason Isaacs). Known for robbing thirty-three banks for the IRA, he dresses like a Hollywood Mafioso, with short, styled hair, a designer suit, and jewelry. The script never mentions any political motives for Keegan’s robberies. He appears simply as a murderous thug, braced by sneering gunmen. In James Brolin’s My Brother’s War (New Horizons, 1997) a renegade IRA group robs an armored car and executes its crew. In Pat O’Connor’s Cal(Enigma Productions, 1984) the IRA conducts a holdup. Some Mother’s Son (Castle Rock Entertainment, 1996) mentions a bank being robbed four times by the IRA.
In several films IRA characters appear primarily as criminal conspirators, their ideology providing little more than a colorful back story. John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday (Handmade Films, 1980) is a gangster/suspense film detailing a series of mysterious events that first threaten, then finally overwhelm a gangster’s tightly-run empire as the IRA become the new godfathers of London.
Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s Nothing Personal (Channel Four Films) depicts both the Loyalists and the IRA as ethnic mobs rather than political organizations, their cause being a thin veneer masking parallel cults of violence. As Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle suggests, the film is not so much about politics as it is about “male nature” “The men,” he notes, “give themselves over to a culture of violence that runs amok and becomes an insane, degrading machine. The machine is so much bigger than any of the people involved that there really can be nothing personal.”
Innocent Until Proven Irish
On October 5, 1974, bombs exploded in two pubs in Guildford, England, killing five and wounding dozens. The bombings caused a national outrage, leading David Howell, former Minister for Northern Ireland, to declare, “It’s quite clear that we must hunt down the maniacs and animals who would do this kind of thing.” On November 21, 1974, bombs exploded in two pubs in central Birmingham, killing twenty-one and injuring a hundred and sixty-two people.
Arrests were made for both incidents and over a dozen Irishmen and women were convicted. In both cases investigations would lead to overturning the convictions and setting alleged “terrorists” free.
Written by Rob Ritchie and directed by Mike Beckam, Who Bombed Birmingham? (Granada 1990) is a dramatic “reconstruction” of the investigation by the journalists who publicized the case of the Birmingham Six and were widely credited for their eventual release. Chris Mullen, portrayed by John Hurt, observed that “a victim of a miscarriage of justice is far more likely to overturn a conviction successfully if he or she can first attract the attention of a television company, rather than a lawyer.” The TV movie, aired while the Birmingham Six were still in prison, is credited with generating public support that led to their eventual release.
im Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father (Hells Kitchen Productions, 1992) was one of the most anticipated and highly acclaimed motion pictures about the Troubles. It would ultimately receive nominations for seven Academy Awards and two BAFTA awards. Based on Gerry Conlon’s autobiography Proved Innocent,the film narrates the plight of the Guildford Four. Because the actual case aroused controversy, any motion picture based on the Conlon book, especially one produced by the Irish, was presumed to be an indictment of the British legal system and apologia to the IRA. The Mail on Sunday ran a column condemning the film unseen, predicting it would bring “a cash bonanza” for the IRA, especially from naïve Americans.
Set in Belfast in the 1980s, Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda (Helmdale Film, 1990) is inspired by the Stalker inquiry of RUC abuses. In Loach’s film the IRA are idealistic nationalists fighting a war of liberation. The oppressive British, corrupted by their use of violence against “terrorism,” have turned their counter insurgency tactics against themselves, destroying the democratic values they claim to uphold.
Two television movies explore in depth two of the most notorious incidents of the Troubles: the controversial killing of thirteen civil rights demonstrators by British paratroopers in 1972 and the Real IRA bombing in Omagh in 1998 that killed twenty-nine civilians. Paul Greengrass, who wrote both films, conducted extensive research to create historically accurate dramas.
Bloody Sunday (Hell’s Kitchen Films, 2002), shot with handheld cameras and natural lighting with long blackouts between scenes, has the choppy look of a documentary assembled from newsreel footage. In many scenes background conversations and ringing telephones render the dialogue indistinct. The result is an urgent realism that captures the chaos of battle. The deaths of unarmed demonstrators is blamed less on British imperialism than the tragic decision to use combat troops with automatic weapons as law enforcement officers.
Omagh (Hell’s Kitchen International, 2004) follows the career of Michael Gallagher (Gerard McSorley), a garage owner who becomes head of the Omagh Support and Self Help Group after his son is killed in the bombing. The grieving families, both Protestant and Catholic, are stunned by the authorities’ lack of action in their case. Let down by the governments of Belfast, London, and Dublin, they organize their own investigation. Learning that no prosecutions will be made to preserve the peace process, they refuse to be silent. Speaking on behalf of all victims of terrorism, Gallagher tells reporters, “We will not go away. We will not be quiet. We will not be forgotten.”