Our Political Editor David O'Donoghue argues the need to develop Irish art as a way to have a conversation with ourselves about our own history and society.
There was a lot of controversy recently when it was announced that the British television station Channel 4 had an ever so hilarious sitcom based on the Irish famine in the pipeline. That time where us poor Irish folk could hardly feel the sharp hunger pangs from all the whiskey and belly-laughter that abounded.
Naturally enough the Irish-net (that small corner of the worldwide web dominated by pasty, freckly fellas) exploded in outraged indignation. Then further fuel leaked out to fan the rising flames; revelations that the series was to be captained by an Irish guy who apparently couldn’t see the insensitivity of the show, and that he wanted to base it heavily on ‘Shameless’, a show that, for all its virtues, made liberal use of the drunken, lazy Irishman stereotype.
But there was one positive to come from the online explosion of outrage at the theme of this show: lots of people learned about the famine. Although to most Irish people the Irish famine is a central part of our history curriculums and of our national mythology, it is not something that the majority of the internet debates on a regular basis, especially since most of the internet’s knowledge of history goes something like “Al-Qaeda, then Commies, then Nazis then something something olden knights-and-swords times”.
All of a sudden a vitally important moment for our post-colonial state is thrust onto the international stage by a single piece of provocative media. Even for those who were aware of the famine as a historical event, conversations around the morality of this show gave new prominence to the well-supported historical viewpoints which claim that the famine was not an awful, unfortunate tragedy, but a genocide of Irish Catholics by the British State. And so, a Channel 4 sitcom brought to life and inflamed discussion over a major part of our history.
And as I write this, Charlie is currently airing.
Charlie, although receiving mixed reviews, has captivated our newspapers and airwaves in much the same way that LOVE/HATE did. Aiden Gillen grins from our front pages with his artfully discoloured teeth, his sly grin saying much the same as all the media hype: “Look! Look! Irish media isn’t all an utter failure, we can make our House of Cards.”
For what it’s worth I found Charlie to be a wonderful little thing. Not perfect by any means, its writing seems to grasp too hard to fill every moment with the kind of heart stopping profound dialogue that major US miniseries have as their small axis, but all in all, the show has been one of the most admirable pieces of original Irish television of all time. Every effort has been made to recreate an Ireland of the past with care and fidelity, where ugly wallpaper is hugged by indoor smoke and Charlie’s Charvet shirts stand out against the working class thrift of most of the costuming.
And it’s precisely this faithful yet analytically recreation of our own past that makes a series like Charlie so important. A real and vibrant Irish cultural sector is so important because it allows our country to have a conversation with itself. Whether it’s about history or politics or the economy, films, books and television are vital voices in the conversation. And what a disaster it would be if we left all the cultural voices that contribute to our conversation about our own history and society speak in American or British accents.
Culture, whether movies or books or television or music, is a mirror for a society to look in and evaluate ourselves. And how can we evaluate ourselves properly if we just pop into the British store across the road and take a glance in some imported mirrors, which may twist and distort us like those at a funfair. After a few glances in these wobbly windows of the soul we, “the scruffy Irishman”, will be turfed out. Or, will we work hard to develop and nurture our own talent, carefully crafting our own hand mirror which will give us an accurate reflection that can help us to work on our flaws.
At a time when talented young people are jettisoned from this country like they were garbage, a time when Arts degrees and pursuit of an artistic career are regarded as death sentences, we need now more than ever the talented Irish artists who can craft us a mirror. If we want to improve as a society we need to stop seeing art as a diversion, stop shoving every young writer into a PR Job and ever young graphic artist into advertising work, and start seeing art and culture as elements in our society as valuable as the bricks and steel and mortar that have built our cities. Our art can allow us to recapture our history and society for ourselves, free from the bigotry or ignorance caused by outsourcing our art (see Brad “the noble IRA man” Pitt in Patriot Games).
When we use art as a mirror, to stare straight into our identity and history, we may not like what we see. We may not like the scars and the blemishes, the sunken eyes or the discoloured teeth. But we can start owning them, talking about them, and addressing them.
Photo: William Murphy/ Flickr