Introduction to Select Irish Literature and Film/Irish Film: Waking Ned Devine

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Context and the Celtic Tiger[edit]

Waking Ned Devine is an Irish comedy set in a small village in rural Ireland and was inspired by a true story.[1] The film was released in 1998 at a time when Ireland’s economic performance was at a historical high.[2] While cities like Dublin enjoyed the advantages of this economic boom, known as the Celtic Tiger, rural parts of Ireland were not necessarily receiving any economic benefits.[3] Rather than approach this sensitive issue with bitterness or resentment, this film uses dark humour and mockery to draw attention to the issues facing those in rural communities from a lack of amenities and services to economic struggles such as sustaining businesses without viable potential for growth. The film also focuses on the idea that money is an opportunity to break free from stereotypical Irish roles (farming), as well as the perception that money can provide comfort and security. While the Celtic Tiger was recognized globally and this boom had an impact on a great number of Irish people, not everyone enjoyed the economic benefits, so while the story is told from the perspective of the villagers, the movie effectively demonstrates how money, specifically when there is an economic imbalance between rural and urban, can marginalize, rather than unite a nation. This film loosely addresses this economic inequity between rural and urban, but abstains from an “in-depth exploration of socio-political issues” [4] which some argue is the reason for the film’s commercial success and global appeal.

Rural vs Urban[edit]

The movie is about a small village which works together to collect the lottery winnings of a recently deceased member of the community, Ned Devine. Notably, while money can serve to divide many groups, this film demonstrates how money can bring people in this community together. It is possible to attribute this unity to greed, but the underlying message is that in order to work together to gain the lottery winnings, the ties that bind this small community would have to be firmly entrenched, beyond this one endeavour.[3] What the money represents, the renewed sense of hope, regeneration of the community and the people with in it, is more important than the money itself. The reaction of the outsider to this community, the lottery investigator from Dublin, further draws attention to the sense of isolation of the rural, and the stark contrast to urban life. When the investigator arrives in the village he continually sneezes, presumably as a result of allergies, and his reaction to the villagers belies his sense of urban sophistication, while the villagers perceive his reaction as his “inability to handle the country (the real Ireland)”.[5] . There is a stereotype being challenged here, that the country folk are quaint, eccentric and unsophisticated, which completely underestimates their ability to act beyond the confines of the world they know, and trusting this stereotype is what allows the lottery inspector to be fooled.

Humour and Humanity[edit]

This film embraces Irish culture, tradition, lifestyle and economics, but it presents these issues with humour. While the film is classified as a comedy, the humour is dark, which allows the viewer to process topics such as death and dying in a way that is not only palatable but entertaining as laughter can serve to combat suffering and despair;[6] each character uses humour to communicate and to cope with their circumstances. The Irish comic tradition embraces humour, wit and satire and parody, all of which display a cultural continuity[7] and Waking Ned Devine is a good example of how humour can add levity to difficult situations, such as discovering that Ned is dead.

Despite the economic struggle and simple lives of the villagers, the movie’s overarching themes of humour, human connection and a sense of community, triumph. This connection and familiarity seem to provide the characters with a sense of comfort and in fact the Government of Canada[8] even suggests that humour is a cultural norm in Ireland that is intended to be friendly and to build trust. In the movie, the “teasing” nature of the exchanges about more serious issues, like how the money would be divided, embodies the essence of Irish humour, so that rather than overt hostility, there is a sense of friendly banter.[9] The film effectively demonstrates the interconnectedness that comes with living in a small, isolated community, and while exaggerated for effect, the atmosphere within the small village provides the audience with a tangible awareness of just how small the population of Ireland is.

Selecting and Filming on the Isle of Man[edit]

Ireland is a small country with a population of only 4 million people. While there has been a renewed interest and growth in the independent film in Ireland, it is difficult to sustain, due to costs and limited human resources.[3] Waking Ned Devine showcases Ireland and stays true to the culture and identity of Ireland, but shooting the film outside of Ireland is what made it feasible to tell the story of Ned Devine. Though it was filmed on the Isle of Man, which has caused some debate as to its Irish authenticity, the film’s narrative is true to Irish culture, people and traditions.

The film’s director, Kirk Jones, originally intended to film the movie in the Republic of Ireland, but logistics and cost prevented this from happening. Jones spent three months in Ireland immersing himself in the culture, absorbing “the dialect, the accents and the characters”,[10] but ultimately could not find a location that that captured his artistic vision for the story logistically. In order to film the movie, the building and homes in a village location would need to be in close proximity, rather than spread apart by several miles, which in a true rural, farming village in Ireland would be nearly impossible, hence Jones’ challenge.[11] Realistically, the Isle of Man, which can be seen from Ireland’s coast, is comparable in terms of landscape and geographic beauty. In fact, Jones went out of his way to ensure that the physical splendour of Ireland was captured in his film, taking great care to shoot a dream sequence scene on the Irish Sea, rather than indoors as originally intended, exactly so Ireland’s magnificent beauty was prominently featured. To achieve this, Jones’ described what it took to film this scene; a human chain of 16 people passing equipment “down to the end of a slippery, dangerous peninsula covered in seaweed and slime”.[12]

Narrative and Nationalism[edit]

The choice not to locate the film in Ireland essentially became an economic and logistical decision rather than about short-changing Ireland, either economically or in terms of authentic national identity. What is also important to keep in mind, is that this is a fictional story, thus the director, in addition to being true to Ireland, like any artist needed to remain true to his work and his vision. In order to best tell his story, it was necessary to consider not only the financial aspects of making the movie, but the artistic freedom that shooting this film on Isle of Man allowed for. This is not a documentary or a historical account and as such, it is impossible to set a standard to the Waking of Ned Devine that is not applied to other comparable fictional films. Nations are built through narrative, so as long as the work authentically articulates the ideology of the nation, it doesn’t necessarily have to be geographically faithful. Great examples of this are films like Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan. Despite being filmed in Ireland, the films are based on their subject matter, and thus the narrative is widely accepted as Scottish and American, respectively.[13]

Critics have even questioned the authenticity of the film’s Irishness because the director is English and one of the lead actors is Scottish, despite not presenting any argument that supports simply commenting on the actor and director, rather than the story itself. This arbitrary decision to declare a film inauthentic simply due to the nationality of the actors and director, would subsequently discount a number of films that are widely accepted to represent a nation’s identity. It is an actor’s job to be representative and to take on a persona, and thus nationality, by taking the role in the first place. For example Cold Mountain, a film about the American Civil War, is filmed in Romania, starring Nicole Kidman, an Australian and Jude Law, an Englishman, and yet, it is classified as an American film [14] so it is necessary to consider and analyse a number of factors beyond film production to determine national cinema.[15]

Given the vast number of factors that lead to a film being produced, from writers, to funding sources, location, and actors, it would be impossible to ever create a work that is entirely faithful to one nation if to ensure authenticity, as everyone involved would be required to be, in this case, Irish. Thus production practices make is very difficult to delineate national distinction.[16] It has also been argued that simply dismissing the Irishness of the film based on generalizations about Ireland and its people, discounts a body of work based on biases that should not serve to shape a national identity as it resorts to stereotyping in order to do so.[17] The problem with stereotyping a nation, a people or a culture is that by its very definition a stereotype is “false or misleading”.[18] Despite harsh and seemingly unwarranted criticism that the film is not Irish for a variety of reasons, the film does act as a catalyst for a dialogue about Ireland which is certainly a positive aspect of this fictional story as it puts Ireland on a global stage which in itself is important for shaping identity and breaking down stereotypes.

References[edit]

  1. Petrakis, John. “Director Jones’ ‘Waking Ned Devine’ Had a Long Incubation”. Chicago Tribune. 1 Jan 1999.
  2. Murphy, Antoin E. “The ‘Celtic Tiger’ – An Analysis of Ireland’s Economic Growth Performance”. European University Institute. RSC No. 2000/16.
  3. a b c Humphreys, Sara. “Modern Irish Literature”. Trent University, Oshawa campus. Oshawa, ON. November 7, 2013. Lecture 9: Irish Film Renaissance.
  4. Clark, David, and Ruben Jarazo Alvarez. “In the Wake of the Tiger Irish Studies in the 21st Century”. Oleiros: Netbiblo, S. L., 2010.
  5. Mann, Erika Noelle. “Cinema’s Green is Gold: The Commodification of Irishness in Film” Thesis Essay. Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois, 1999.
  6. Lickerman, Alex. “Why We Laugh”. Psychology Today. Mag., 23 Jan 2011.
  7. Messenger, John C. “Humour is an Irish Folk Community”. Irish University Review Vol. 6, No. 2 (Autumn, 1976), pp. 214-222.
  8. Government of Canada. “Cultural Information - Ireland”.
  9. Gillespie, Michael Patrick. “The Myth of an Irish Cinema: Approaching Irish-themed Films”. New York: Syracuse University Press, 2008. pg. 50. Print.
  10. Pfefferman, Naomi. “Braving the Isle of Man”. Global Village. The American Society of Cinematographers Mag., Feb. 1999.
  11. Pfefferman, Naomi. “Braving the Isle of Man”. Global Village. The American Society of Cinematographers Mag., Feb. 1999.
  12. Pfefferman, Naomi. “Braving the Isle of Man”. Global Village. The American Society of Cinematographers Mag., Feb. 1999.
  13. Gillespie, Michael Patrick. New Hibernia Review. / Iris Éireannach Nua. Vol. 7, No. 2 (Summer, 2003), pp. 145-147.
  14. Gillespie, Michael Patrick. “The Myth of an Irish Cinema: Approaching Irish-themed Films”. New York: Syracuse University Press, 2008. pg. 44. Print.
  15. Pettitt, Lance. “Screening Ireland: Film and Television Representation”. New York: Manchester University Press, 2000. Print.
  16. Gillespie, Michael Patrick. New Hibernia Review. / Iris Éireannach Nua. Vol. 7, No. 2 (Summer, 2003), pp. 145.
  17. Gillespie, Michael Patrick. “The Myth of an Irish Cinema: Approaching Irish-themed Films”. New York: Syracuse University Press, 2008. pg. 50. Print.
  18. Blum, Lawrence. “Stereotypes and Stereotyping: A Moral Analysis”. Philosophical Papers. Vol. 33, No. 3 (November 2004): 251 289.