By Mike Myers
GALWAY, Ireland –From the rocky Burren to its picturesque shoreline and tranquil bogs, Ireland offers a range of shooting locations for mega blockbusters such as Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
The First Wave of Irish Cinema can be said to have begun in the early 1970s, when Irish writers and directors such as Bob Quinn and Joe Comerford strived to produce authentically Irish stories that were socially and politically aware and movies that rejected Hollywood stereotypes of the Irish found in films such as The Quiet Man and Darby O’Gill and the Little People.
“It was sort of a movement towards making films by ourselves, for ourselves,” said William Fitzgerald, director of programming for Galway’s annual Film Fleadh festival, a major film industry event held each summer. The 34th annual edition finished in Galway in mid-July this year after two years of Covid-forced shutdown.
The increase in “big” international productions, such as the Oscar-nominated My Left Foot and The Crying Game, as well as the re-establishment of the Irish Film Board, now known as Screen Ireland, fueled what has come to be known as the Second Wave of Irish Cinema in the early 1990s.
Since then, new generations of Irish filmmakers have built on the success of the Second Wave, garnering 31 Academy Award nominations since 2010.
Screen Ireland, the government funded organization responsible for overseeing the development, production, and distribution of Irish film and TV productions, claims partial credit for the growth in the industry. Despite the harsh impact of Covid in 2020, resulting in a 45 percent drop in cinema releases according to the Irish Mirror, 2021 proved to be one of the most successful years yet for the industry. Studios spent 500 million euros producing content in 2021, more than ever before and a 40 percent increase over the record set in 2019, according to Screen Ireland.
In the company’s Screen Production Data report, the number of films produced internationally increased 45 percent, and more noticeably, local film activity enjoyed its highest year ever, with a 52 percent increase over 2019. More people working on more film productions has led to the sector housing 12,000 local jobs, with Screen Ireland predicting that number will continue to rise in the coming years.
“At the moment, it’s a booming industry and it’s really blossoming in Ireland in terms of TV and film, whether it be bigger productions coming in to film here or more local productions, who are much bigger than they would’ve been maybe 20 years ago,” said Philip Shanahan, a Galwegian short film director and editor.
Screen Ireland created multiple initiatives to help spur growth in the production sector, including the Audiovisual Action Plan, a 200 million euro funding program meant to improve and expand Ireland’s film sector, mainly through increases in budget allocation, film development funds, and co-production partnerships. The plan is one piece of the government’s larger Global Ireland initiative that seeks to promote Irish culture worldwide.
Catherine Martin, government minister for tourism, culture, arts, sports, and media, heads up Screen Ireland’s major programs.
“Ireland is on track to continue to grow, creating local jobs and a welcome spend in the Irish economy,” Martin said in an article for Screen Ireland. “Local film, television and animation ensures that Irish stories and Irish creativity are enjoyed worldwide, whilst international productions bring images of Irish locations around the globe.”
Variety magazine recognized Ireland’s growth as a film production center when it stated that, “Ireland has become a capital of filmmaking.”
With this success, however, comes a balancing act in terms of appealing to Irish audiences as well as countless international markets. Screen Ireland’s strategy of investing in more avenues of worldwide distribution and partnerships seems to be working, with more growth and activity in local and international productions than ever. The country wants to be competitive on the global stage, but not at the expense of compromising culturally rich film productions.
A mostly industry insiders event, Galway’s Film Fleadh brings Irish filmmakers together to showcase their work, offer networking opportunities, and provide learning opportunities through talks, forums and master classes. The Galway Film Fair works in tandem with the Fleadh, helping new filmmakers get their start through a pitching competition, workshops and networking events.
“The influence of the Fleadh is massive in terms of bringing world cinema to Galway and bringing in international talent,” said Gar O’Brien, head of film and television at the Irish Film and Television Academy. “But it is really the showcase for Irish film and putting it on the map.”
The concept of “Irishness” is a key element of Film Fleadh. As one of the few outlets promoting specifically Irish film, the festival is a chance for filmmakers to bring audiences stories about their own lives and country, providing an alternative to international films.
Several directors participating in the festival say film is an opportunity to get in touch with their cultural heritage.
“There’s always a real personal tone with Irish film, because we sort of pride ourselves on being a nation of storytellers,” said Nathan Griffin, a director and editor for Irish Film and Television Network.
Griffin premiered his debut directorial documentary, “Big Griff”, at this year’s Fleadh. The film celebrates the life of his uncle, Martin Griffin, a notable footballer from Donegal.
“That sort of progression from stories around the campfire and stories that are passed down, we’re quite open and explorative about looking into the past and trying to dig up things we want to know more about,” Griffin said. “There’s always a real curiosity to what’s being made.”
County Galway has served as a picturesque backdrop for a variety of films over the years, many of which are included in this interactive map.
Making films in Gaelic
One of the biggest subgenres of films made in Ireland are those made entirely in Gaelic, the traditional Irish language. Most Irish citizens today don’t speak the language on a daily basis. However, the newfound success of recent Irish-language films is helping to preserve the language, according to an article by the Irish Examiner.
“There’s something about seeing the Irish language on screen that you do feel connected with,” O’Brien said. “There’s a golden age of Irish language cinema that’s just starting, that I think is going to be really important for Irish people here and abroad for showcasing that part of our culture.”
Today’s Gaelic films are garnering more recognition than filmmakers ever thought possible just a few decades ago, owing to a string of recent high profile releases. Films such as Arracht, which examines the Great Famine in Connemara during the mid-1840s, was selected as Ireland’s entry for Best International Feature Film at the 2021 Academy Awards. Most recently, An Cailín Ciúin (The Quiet Girl), a coming-of-age film about a girl who gains a new perspective on family when visiting her distant relatives, swept the 2022 Irish Film and Television Awards and has gone on to become the highest-grossing Irish language film in history, according to an article by RTE.
In a statement to RTE, Désirée Finnegan, chief executive of Screen Ireland, called the film “a new horizon for Irish-language cinema” and said it has the ability to lead the way for Irish language representation for a new generation.