Séamas O'Reilly: Almost all of our homegrown stars ship their Lyons Tea to London and LA

Whatever way you slice it, this was a banner week for Irish film and something we should be truly proud of
Séamas O'Reilly: Almost all of our homegrown stars ship their Lyons Tea to London and LA

Séamas O'Reilly. Picture: Orfhlaith Whelan

It’s been a delight to speak to people here in England this week, what with our clear dominance in the movie business. We’re being classy about it, of course. “Your guys will come good, eventually”, we say as our English friends dab their eyes with their Emma Thompson flags, their Eddie Redmayne scarves lying crumpled in dejection. “Better luck next time” we say, discretely popping champagne bottles and quaffing black pudding Hors D’oeuvres.

Yes, a full quarter of all the acting nominations at this year’s Oscars went to Irish actors, which as Brian Lloyd has commented, is particularly striking given the fact that it’s next to impossible to live and work as an artist in the country. Culture Minister Catherine Martin hailed the success as “a testament to the talent here in Ireland” and, in fairness, it’s very hard to imagine what else she could have said, but when it comes to most of those actors, one might indeed quibble with her definition of the terms “here” and “in Ireland”. 

Even in the face of victory — specifically a delicious, in-your-face victory like this one — the challenges faced by Irish artists need stating, as does the necessity to support and celebrate the thousands of people working day in, day out in Irish film, within an industry, and economy, that is hostile to anyone who’s not an investment banker or a Fabergé heiress.  For now, however, I will let those with more experience of that struggle tell that tale. Today, I am choosing smugness, and refusing to inform my fellow Londoners that almost all of our homegrown stars ship their King crisps and Lyons Tea to London and LA.

Other nominations went in International Feature, where the beautifully poignant An Cailín Ciúin became the first Irish-language film ever to receive such an accolade, and Live Action Short, where An Irish Goodbye marks some Northern representation to round things out. For me, it was also notable that four of the five acting nominees did their bits in Irish accents, rather than the chameleonic turns as Brits and Americans we’re more usually used to.  The odd one out was Paul Mescal, who gave a swooningly affecting performance in Aftersun, with a Scottish lilt that sounds fine to me but, since Irish people have been on the receiving end of that kind of thing since film was invented, I will leave for actual Scots to critique themselves.

The other four were those nominated for their performances in The Banshees of Inisherin, albeit not necessarily their own. To be honest, if you asked me to explain how all that film’s characters, some of whom are family members, have the accents that they do, I’d probably change the subject quite quickly.  But none of this takes away from their performances, which are universally exquisite, or the fact that the film is an incredible showcase of Irish talent and landscapes, and one that that’s thrilling to see get nine Oscar nods.

Whatever way you slice it, this was a banner week for Irish film and something we should be truly proud of. And we were, just ask any English film fan I’ve met for the past few days.  Luckily, they have a trick up their sleeves to redress the balance.  Amid the Italia ’90-style euphoria on the Irish internet, there were some quite funny queries about how many of the actors nominated were now just minutes away of being reclaimed as British in the ensuing write-ups.  This wasn’t just funny, but quite an astute critique of a phenomenon that we’ve all seen happen many times before. 

With earlier generations of thesps like Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris, Fiona Shaw, and Michael Gambon, it might have made more sense, as they were so often inhabiting British characters, often actual royalty and statesman to boot.  It’s become slightly harder to justify in the era of Saoirse Ronan and Domhnall Gleeson, actors whose names were clearly designed in a lab to make their Irishness all-but-inescapable. 

But escape it did. Ronan was famously featured on a 2019 cover of Harper’s Bazaar with the headline ‘The Spirit of Great Britain’, whereas Gleeson has been called British so many times it’s almost as if he isn’t the son of a world-famous Irish actor, and specifically one who is not just Irish, but so Irish that his blood type is Billy Roll.

Since those latest charges, the practice has dwindled somewhat. I think a large part of this is down to the fact that Irish Twitter has made a ritualistic bloodsport — one I fully endorse— of hopping on any publication that makes this error.  This they do with an energy that makes K-pop stans look positively lethargic and, perhaps as a result, such instances are becoming increasingly rare.

Early on Tuesday afternoon, with all the nominations in, I felt a strange tinge of disappointment that none of our compatriots had been resubmitted to the Union. While I was curiously crestfallen that this kind of competent journalism had ruined things a little, I lied to myself that it was good that we were getting what we said we wanted.

So, it was with great delight I saw BBC News laud ‘British actors Paul Mescal and Bill Nighy’ in their bulletins that evening, albeit a little bewildered by how Mescal had been selected from the pack all by himself, in the manner of that one cow who gets abducted by the UFO’s tractor beam, screaming down in confusion to the rest of the herd below.

The joy of our success was now doubled, since it had been fortified with a side of righteous indignation that only enhances any achievement. I submit that the Irish Culture Ministry should start offering their services to proofread such bulletins in future, a paid-up Irish film worker whose job is to go through the final text and make sure any Irish actor is correctly identified as such.

If nothing else, it might prove a fillip to the local industry, and a chance to signal their delight in the success of Irish cinema by paying a few more people back home.

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