Born in Philadelphia, Mark Connelly completed a masters degree in Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he received a Ph.D in English. His books include The Diminished Self: Orwell and the Loss of Freedom, Orwell and Gissing, Deadly Closets: The Fiction of Charles Jackson, and several college textbooks. He currently teaches literature and film in Milwaukee, where he is the Vice-President of the Irish Cultural and Heritage Center of Wisconsin.
His latest book is The IRA on Film and Television.
You can visit his website at www.theiraonfilmandtelevision.com.
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After studying history and literature in college and graduate school, I became fascinated with the interplay of politics and film. When I began my initial research, I was surprised by the sheer number of films with IRA connections.
I felt that any small organization that generated eighty motion pictures deserved to be analyzed in depth.
What was the experience like writing The IRA on Film and Television?
Working on this book was both easier and harder than I expected. Thanks to Netflix, YouTube, and DVD catalogs, obtaining obscure films (including two Nazi propaganda movies) was much simpler than I anticipated. Writing about films, however, is far more time consuming than working with books. You can easily flip through a book to find a passage or double-check a quote. With film, fast-forwarding and rewinding to locate a scene is time- consuming. In addition, writing about a controversial organization like the IRA requires careful attention to connotations. I wanted to establish an objective, even-handed account of Irish history before analyzing how events and personalities were represented on film. Choosing terms to describe the region itself is a challenge. Depending on your political point of view, it can be called Ulster, Northern Ireland, the Twenty-Six Counties, the Province, or simply The North.
How did you become interested in the IRA initially?
I first became interested in the IRA when I was eleven or twelve and saw Robert Mitchum in The Nightfighters. I had never heard of the Irish Republican Army or understood why they were fighting the English in World War II.
Can you give us a peek of what’s inside (an excerpt)?
The Irish Republican Army has appeared in over eighty motion pictures, granting it an unprecedented and ironic cinematic presence. A secret “outlawed” organization for most of its history, the IRA has rarely consisted of more than a few hundred active members.
Like Basque separatists in Spain, it is involved in a protracted internecine struggle with few global ramifications. The IRA is dedicated to ending British rule in a corner of a neutral island with a population equivalent to that of West Virginia, a heavily subsidized province Britain has repeatedly stated that it has no selfish, strategic, or economic interest in retaining.
An IRA victory would not create a haven for international terrorists, destabilize NATO, disrupt world markets, or endanger British security. The parochial dispute between militant Irish Republicans who want a single unified Irish state and the Unionists who wish Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom claimed three thousand lives in thirty years, a devastating number for a small community, but far less significant than the loss of life in Kosovo in a single year. Other revolutionary organizations have inflicted more harm, espouse more ominous ideologies, and pose greater threats to international stability. Yet none of these militant forces has captivated moviemakers like the Irish Republican Army.
The IRA commands a greater screen presence than the PLO, ETA, or the FLN because it is Irish. It is not the nature, size, or significance of the organization, or the value of the land in dispute, but the people it involves that attracts attention. As James MacKillop notes, as a small nation, Ireland is uniquely connected to the outside world because of the English language and its extensive diaspora.1 Unlike a regional conflict in Spain or Serbia, the Irish
Troubles reverberate around the world. A film about the IRA can easily star Irish, American, and British actors speaking their native language and draw audiences in London, New York, Toronto, and Melbourne. A nation of only 4.4 million, the Irish Republic has developed a prolific film industry whose producers can rely on overseas markets filmmakers in Hungary or Greece cannot.
The IRA has been a subject explored by major directors from three countries, including John Ford, John Frankenheimer, Carol Reed, David Lean, Neil Jordan, and Jim Sheridan. IRA characters have been portrayed by international stars such as Victor McLaglen, James Cagney, Anthony Hopkins, James Mason, and Brad Pitt. Films about the Irish Republican Army range from realistic docudramas like Paul Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday (Hell’s Kitchen Films, 2002),
shot with handheld cameras and natural lighting to create the sensation of watching 1972 newsreel footage, to Joseph Merhi’s action farce Riot (PM Entertainment Group, 1999) in which a British superhero battles IRA bikers in the streets of Los Angeles during a race riot.
Whether portrayed as a heroic patriot, ruthless terrorist, corrupt gangster, or troubled outcast, the Irish rebel has emerged as a universally recognized cinematic archetype.
What’s one thing about the IRA that would surprise most people?
Most people do not know that the Irish Republican Army traces its roots to two organizations: the Irish Republican Brotherhood established in Dublin in 1858 and the Fenians, an Irish-American organization founded the same year in New York City. The Fenians, most of them immigrants, saw themselves as an Irish government in exile. They issued bonds, published a newspaper, named a president, and appointed ambassadors. In 1867, over a thousand of them (many Civil War veterans) launched raids into Canada to pressure Britain to withdraw from Ireland. After these attacks failed, the Fenians financed a far bolder venture worthy of Jules Verne. Unable to interest the US Navy in his submarines, Irish-born inventor John Holland turned to the Fenians and built a thirty-two foot submarine to attack British ships. The vessel made trial runs in New York harbor, firing both underwater and aerial torpedoes. Dubbed the Fenian Ram, the submarine never saw active service. After a falling out over funding, the Ram went into storage. It was displayed in Madison Square Garden in 1916 as an attraction for a fund-raising drive to aid victims of the Easter Rising. It is now on exhibit in a museum in Patterson, New Jersey.
Now that The IRA on Film and Television has been published, what’s your next project?
Right now, I am revising a textbook and working on a novel.
Thanks for this interview, Mark. Do you have anything else to add?
After writing this book, I have to agree with Joan Dean, who said that in our age “history is no longer written by the victors. History is written by the filmmakers.”