As a member of that strange disparate grouping known as the Irish Diaspora John Crowley’s movie “Brooklyn” about a young Irish immigrant navigating her way through 1950s New York left me very moved. It is a movie made the way movies should be made, well crafted, well scripted, well acted with wonderful art and set direction. It is of a piece and an accomplished, satisfying and questioning movie.
Based on Colm Tóibín’s novel, the film drew rave reviews at last year’s Sundance film festival and has been pegged as an Oscar contender. Set in 1952, “Brooklyn” explores the emotional and social repercussions of exile and loss in telling the story of Eilis Lacey (Ronan), a young woman of restricted opportunities who leaves the small town of for New York. In her expressive and highly tactile performance, Ronan suffuses the part with grace, toughness and a wounded pride as she oscillates between desire and freedom, sacrifice and hope.
Lured by the promise of America, Eilis departs Ireland and the comfort of her mother’s home for the shores of New York City. The initial shackles of homesickness quickly diminish as a fresh romance sweeps Eilis into the intoxicating charm of love with a young Italian. But soon, her new vivacity is disrupted by her past, and she must choose between two countries and the lives that exist within.
Empathetically adapted by Nick Hornby from Colm Tóibín’s novel, this tells the story of Eilis (the immaculate Saoirse Ronan), a young woman from Enniscorthy, County Wexford who finds herself almost unwittingly “away to America” and the new horizons of the titular east coast borough. “Sometimes it’s nice to talk to people who don’t know your auntie,” declares a fellow traveller as Ireland recedes and the New World looms. This is a world of red shoes, yellow dresses, maroon and blue cars, a stark contrast to the sternly jacketed women and oily-haired blazer boys (“hardly Gary Cooper”) back home.
Saoirse Ronan identified with her role as she said the movie is really her mother and father’s story. They made the journey over to America in the 1980s. They struggled and it was hard, and there were times they were doing well with work and there were times they were broke. Her mother, Monica Ronan, worked as a nanny, and she really wanted to stick it out. Her father the actor Paul Ronan is well known in Ireland and the family returned to Carlow in Ireland when Saoirse was three before moving to Dublin. Saoirse was born in Woodlawn, Bronx, in New York City. At the age of 13 after co-starring as Briony Tallis in the film Atonement, she received nominations for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, the BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role and the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress, making her one of the youngest actresses to receive an Oscar nomination.
In Joyce’s “Ulysses,” one of the characters famously says history is a nightmare from which we’re trying to awake. In Irish culture, there’s a pronounced sense of how the past is constantly superimposed over the present. Like in many of his other novels Colm Tóibín references his home town of Enniscorthy in his novel “Brooklyn”, on which the film is based, and the claustrophobic small town mentality. Nick Hornby’s script captures the atmosphere of the novel and the controlling mechanism’s of life for Irish women in the 1950’s which extend to the Irish Diaspora New York. This is wonderfully exemplified by “Nettles” Kelly, her former employer, who meets with Eilis and says she has learned that she is already married. Eilis is reminded of the small-town mentality she had escaped, where there are no secrets and her mind is made up that her future lies in America.
The film illustrates the great dichotomy of Irish “Freedom” and the abject failure of the Irish State to treat its inhabitants well, to provide them with economic opportunity, social mobility and life chances. Half a million people emigrated from Ireland in the decade after independence due to economic collapse, a trend which continued in the hungry thirties and in the war years of the 1940’s. In the 1950’s depicted in Brooklyn while the rest of Europe and America boomed Ireland exported over half a million of its young and most enterprising people “on the hoof” to Britain and America.
There has been a total lack of interest in the real life of the Irish Diaspora abroad by those who stayed in Ireland as it would have forced too many questions. Part of this lack of curiosity is entirely wilful as Ireland, with its stifling control mechanisms and mind-sets, has dumped its “social problems” abroad which includes the abused, those who want to have a say in their fertility or sexuality or those who want to have a fair economic chance in life not dependent on Nepotism, inheritance or corruption.
The thought occurred to me watching the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York that what Irish America was actually celebrating was being Irish but not in Ireland? They had the best of both world’s; a strong ethnic identity and culture but without the BS and excess baggage which meant they and, more importantly, their children had proper life chances. The Irish abroad, with the notable exception of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the oleaginous Cardinal Archbishop of New York, have had to deal with the reality of life without the thought control of the Catholic Taliban and have emerged stronger and more confident for it. It is that confidence in their own ability, identity and culture which is now celebrated on St. Patrick’s Day when the world turns green. When Irish ministers go on their taxpayer funded junkets to Irish communities abroad this reality is entirely lost on them.
See: Paddy’s Day in New York
In such a fine movie with a fine cast there is much to praise but for me there are two stand outs. One is Saoirse Ronan’s amazingly sure and convincing performance. She has received Critics’ Choice Movie Award, Golden Globe Award, and Screen Actors Guild Award nominations for best actress. I really would be surprised if she doesn’t receive an Academy Award nomination and if on the night she didn’t have Ireland’s first and greatest Hollywood Star, Maureen O’Hara, rooting for her from the “Gods.”
The second stand out is the sublime sequence that echoes the poetry of the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York, where Eilis serves a communal Christmas dinner to the downtrodden men who “built the tunnels and bridges”, one of whom (played by angel-voiced Iarla Ó Lionáird) stands to sing the traditional Irish love song Casadh an tSúgáin. Iarla is a native Gaelic speaker from Cúil Aodha an Irish Speaking area in Co. Cork and he sings this song of longing, loss and unrequited love in the soft tones of Munster Irish. While the English title is given in Brooklyn’s credits as “Frankie’s Song” it is actually translated as “The Twisting of the Rope” with the traditional process of rope making being used as an allegorical reference to two people falling in love and splicing their lives together. As so many have asked about the song I give the chorus in Irish and English below to give you a flavour and urge you to listen to the gentle phrasing of the late Mícheál Ó Domhnaill and The Bothy Band in the video below.
Casadh an tSúgáin – The Twisting Of The Rope
Má bhíonn tú liom, bí liom
A stóirín mo chroí
Ma bhíonn tú liom, bí liom
Os comhair an tsaoil
Ma bhíonn tú liom, bí liom
Gach orlach de do chroí
Is é mo liom go fann nach liom
Dé Domhnaigh thú mar mhnaoí
If you’ll be mine, be mine
Oh treasure of my heart
If you’ll be mine, be mine
Before the whole world
If you’ll be mine, be mine
Every inch of your heart
Alas that you’re not
My wife this Sunday
Today, powered by its readers and contributors, from its cyber eyries in Ireland and the centres of the Irish Diaspora The Eagle casts its Cold Eye on Life and Death and much in between.