I can tell you with some authority that we Americans love St. Patrick’s Day. The Guinness-promoted slogan “Everyone’s Irish on March 17th” becomes nothing short of a law; most major cities hold massive parades celebrating their Irish heritage; Chicago dyes its river green; sports teams wear special uniforms to mark the occasion. This uniquely celebratory sort of relationship to Irish heritage in America is often reflected in our cinema, from the hugely influential John Ford film The Quiet Man (1952) to Troy Duffy’s cult hit The Boondock Saints (1999) and its comically-titled sequel The Boondock Saints II: All Saints’ Day (2009), Irishness comes across as something to celebrate. It is just one ethnic identity in a country of many, to be sure, but the presence of Irish Americans in Hollywood (especially during its Golden Era) has been felt much more strongly than that of any other cultural group.
John Ford’s The Quiet Man is known today, especially to Irish filmmakers and critics, for the so-called “postcard” view of Ireland it presented. Shot mostly on location in Ireland, The Quiet Man tells the story of Sean Thornton (John Wayne), who left Ireland for America with his parents at a young age and is now returning to lay claim to his ancestral lands and rediscover his roots. Along the way, he falls in love (in record time, as usual) with Mary Kate Danagher (Maureen O’Hara), a local woman whose brutish brother (Victor McLaglen) is the only one in the village of Inisfree who opposes Wayne’s character’s integration into the community.
Ford uses the character of the brother, in the director’s usual heavy-handed way, to establish the nobility of his hero’s homecoming. The brother’s overdrawn roughness and generally crude behaviour shows clearly how Ford feels about any Irishman who would deny his American brethren a chance to claim his own piece of Ireland. The kind of Irishness celebrated by the film’s ending, in which Sean and Mary Kate get married and burn her dowry, allows for both an American brand of (relative) equality between the sexes and a firmly Irish grip on the past.
Irish heritage becomes more of a burden than a blessing, however, in Martin Scorsese’s 2002 picture, Gangs of New York. The film has been praised for its depiction of the brutal conditions and discrimination the Irish faced during the first great wave of immigration to the United States in the mid-19th century. The life cycle of the newcomers is encapsulated in a brilliant shot during in the film’s opening sequence, as men step off an immigrant ship and right into line for army recruitment as coffins are loaded onto another ship.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Amsterdam Vallon, who hides his Irish roots in order to ingratiate himself with and subsequently take revenge on Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis, who was upset for the Oscar that year by Adrien Brody), who murdered his father (Liam Neeson). Bill the Butcher leads a gang of Nativists bent on “protecting” Lower Manhattan from the flood of Irish immigration. After his Irishness is revealed, Amsterdam openly uses it to unite the other immigrants and stand against The Butcher once and for all. At this point as well as in the film’s violent climax, Irish heritage is not celebrated so much as it is finally accepted as a vital part of America as a nation, symbolically underlined by The Butcher’s burial next to Amsterdam’s father. Nothing needs to be said about Cameron Diaz in this movie.
Where Irish-American identity was a complicated concept in Gangs of New York, it (along with every other ethnicity) functioned as more of a stereotyped joke in Troy Duffy’s The Boondock Saints. Criticism against the film has been ample, with most reviewers rejecting it as a plotless orgy of violence. The two main characters, Connor and Murphy McManus, after defending themselves from an attack by Russian mobsters, brand themselves as some sort of avenging angels and set out to rid Boston of its gang problem by simply killing all the criminals. This becomes a platform for a certain amount of religious grandstanding as the Catholic brothers go so far as to recite a prayer before executing their victims.
They are consistent churchgoers who wear rosaries around their necks and leave pennies on the eyes of the dead. Tattoos of the Latin words for “truth” and “justice” adorn their hands to complete the caricature of hyper-Catholic Ireland as viewed from that side of the Atlantic. It is their ethnic identity that defines them, as it does almost every other character in the movie, but the way it’s presented to us also prevents any sort of characterization beyond this surface level. Such shortcomings give the viewer no reason to care about any of the characters beyond who gets shot and when.
From historical accuracy to stereotypes or the relationships between emigrants and those who remain in the country, representations of Ireland and the Irish in American cinema have never failed to spark debate. The deep and lasting effect the Irish have had on American movie culture is undeniable, yet complications remain. As in The Boondock Saints, representing ethnic groups can quickly and easily devolve into gross stereotyping but, as The Quiet Man and Gangs of New York show, the difficulty of crossing boundaries for the sake of abolishing those stereotypes and accepting each other works both ways.