Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Not Just in Black and White – 5 Complex Irish Clergymen from Film History as chosen by the IFI Irish Film Archive's Tiernan MacBride Library.

John Michael McDonagh’s film, Calvary, currently showing in the IFI, is garnering rave reviews and enjoying phenomenal success at the Irish box office. Brendan Gleeson’s dedication of his performance to “Ireland’s good priests” [1] has inspired us in the IFI Irish Film Archive’s Tiernan MacBride library to look back on some of the most powerful film depictions of 'good' Irish priests. Here, sourced from material in our clippings and image archives, we count down our top 5 list of films depicting well-intentioned, but humanly flawed Irish priests. 

Brendan Gleeson in Calvary. Copyight 2013 Octagon Films

5. LAMB (1985) 
At number 5 is Liam Neeson’s role as Brother Sebastian, a young priest who flees the oppressive fear and violence in an Irish clergy-run borstal for London with a bullied, epileptic student. His act of defiance against the Church and his attempt to save the boy’s life ultimately end in tragedy. When reading Bernard McLaverty’s book on which the film was based, Neeson felt, “that’s my part, if I had to kill to get it.” [2]

Liam Neeson and Hugh O'Conor in Lamb. Copyright 1986 FilmFour

Donal McCann portrays a bishop who recounts how, as an idealistic but lonely priest, he fathered a child with a young woman. He confesses his affair to his congregation, hoping his honesty will allow him to remain with them as their pastor and care for his lover and child. When his gambit fails he loses his faith and retreats to the foreign missions. Despite his transgressions he is eventually promoted to the position of bishop saying bitterly, “When they can’t sack you, they promote you.” [3] 

Donal McCann in The Bishop's Story. Copyright 1994 Cinegael

3. RYAN’S DAUGHTER (1970) 
Trevor Howard plays the formidable, rigidly moral Father Collins, who is priest, social worker, mediator and marriage counsellor to his parishioners. His faith, however, does not preclude his Republican leanings. Alec Guinness, a Roman Catholic, turned down the role because of objections he had to the portrayal of the priest as a “gruff old curmudgeon.” [4] David Lean was later to rate Howard’s performance as his personal favourite in the film. [5]

Trevor Howard in Ryan's Daughter. Copyright 1970 Courtesy of BFI

2. GOING MY WAY (1944) 
Barry Fitzgerald was nominated as both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for his role as Father Fitzgibbon, and won for the latter. [6] As Father Fitzgibbon, his traditional beliefs clash with those of the younger Father O’ Malley, played by Bing Crosby. They are reconciled by the film’s end when their church is saved from its financial woes, the parish’s troubled youths have formed a successful choir and Father O’ Malley has re-united Father Fitzgibbon with his 90 year old Irish mother -now that’s what I call a Hollywood ending.

Barry Fitzgerald in The Quiet Man. Copyright 1952 Connacht Tribune

1. STELLA DAYS (2011) 
Martin Sheen plays Father Daniel Barry, a parish priest who faces opposition from his fellow clergymen, local political forces and parishioners when he sets up the Stella Cinema in 1956 to raise Church funds. He is a conflicted character who is outwardly caring and committed to the Church, but who struggles internally with his vocation, feels a sense of superiority to his parishioners and resents his rejection for a position in the Vatican. Stella Days was filmed in Borrisokane, where Sheen’s mother was born. [7]

Martin Sheen in Stella Days. Copyright 2011 Newgrange Pictures

By Eilís Ní Raghallaigh

The IFI Irish Film Archive’s clippings and document collections contain thousands of files and images relating to all aspects of Irish and Irish-interest film and television production. They are available to view in the Tiernan MacBride library within library opening hours, or by appointment with the librarian. Please contact the IFI librarian, Fiona Rigney, for more information. 

[1] Scally, D. (2014) ‘Gleeson dedicates film role to Ireland’s ‘good’ priests’ , The Irish Times, 10 February. Available here.
[2] Kennedy, M. (1985) ‘Lambs to the Slaughter’ ,  The Irish Times, 28 May, pg. 12.
[3] O’Shea, S. (1995) ‘The Bishop’s Story’ , Weekly Variety, 24-30 May
[4] & [5] Phillips, G.D. (1996) Beyond the Epic: The Life and Times of David Lean. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. 
[6] W, K. (2003) ’75 Years of the Oscars Part One: Going My Way’ , A Sunday Times Special Supplement, 9 February. 
[7]Shortall, E. (2010) ‘Movie brings Hollywood Sheen to North Tipperary’ , The Sunday Times, 15 August. 

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