I am the embodiment of what all Irish people hate about Americans who say they are Irish. I eagerly flash my Irish credentials to anyone with an Irish accent: my mom’s family is from Donegal, I lived in Dublin for a year, I say “fecking eejit” constantly. I try to watch Irish films and read Irish literature to try and stay in tune with this giant part of me I left back in the Motherland. So I often wonder, when you take away the green beer and the gingers, what makes someone definitively Irish? So far, only the movie Calvary has, in my opinion, accurately explored what it means to be Irish in 2014.
I was spoiled to be able to read Joyce and Beckett while living in Dublin in 2010. At the time, the Irish financial collapse was reverberating throughout the country. I saw similar sites to what Americans saw in Detroit: seas of unfinished housing developments, empty shopping malls, car lots of unused SUVs. The Irish people made many of the same mistakes as Americans did in 2008, and face similar political challenges in 2014 to repay their debts with painful austerity measures. The “Celtic Tiger,” a period of economic boom in the late 90s that catapulted this tiny into the realm of heavy hitter economies like the US and the UK, Irish people were finally allowing themselves to buy nicer things, to join the 20th century, to count themselves among equals at the proverbial Big Kids Table.
I think part of the draw for most Americans who are of Irish descent is that the Irish culture is so much older than America’s. We want to connect to something bigger and older than us. I’m currently typing this in a Spanish “creaky old house” that was built in 1972, par for the course in Southern California. You can’t cross a street in Dublin without seeing a building that is at least 300 hundred years old. Irish-Americans worship the Irish Sufism of sorts, that there is this unbridled magical element that has shaped us and has made the Irish just a little bit more special (Perhaps that’s why Lucky Charms has done so well, or why we pour green dye into rivers on March 17). Irish-Americans believe across the Atlantic Ocean lies a world not entirely governed by logic and unglamorous democracy, that there is an untamed green wilderness that has not succumbed to the monotony and dreariness of living in the 21st century.
Often, this is a subject that Ireland’s greatest authors wrestle with. This idea of fitting into a modern world, a world that is so vast and unforgiving it feels devoid of meaning and genuine human connection. As the arguably best modernist novel, Ulysses tackles this unsettling notion by chronicling a day of outsiders Leo Bloom and Stephen Daedalus in modern Dublin. Joyce explains and contextualizes this new world with unceasing classical references to contextualize and give a voice to these outsiders. However, I believe the writer and director of Calvary John Michael McDonagh is most heavily influence by Samuel Beckett, which colors Calvary with the Irish modus operandi: black humor.
Oddly, one of the required reading texts I picked up while studying at University of College Dublin was the book After Auchwitz, by Richard Rubenstein. He says, “children of the Earth, we are undeceived concerning our destiny. We have lost all hope, consolation and illusion” to describe that God could not possibly exist because of the Holocaust. God had broken His Covenant with us. The Order of Things had been irrevocably broken when He let 6 million of his Chosen People perish.
As with Jewish Humor, Irish Humor was birthed in tragedy. Irishman Jonathan Swift wrote A Modest Proposal, required reading for anyone who is a fan of satire, in response to the famine and hardships the Irish faced at the hands of the British in the eighteenth century. Every memorable Irish figure from Frank McCourt to Father Ted arguably has a sick, twisted sense of humor. And at their core, I believe the Irish are this way because they feel they are facing certain demise on a consistent basis. In particular (and the driving force of Calvary), the death of a Catholic institution, an economy that promised so much and delivered so little, and if you are of a certain age or lived in Northern Ireland in the 20th century, a provincial government that atrophied into one of the world’s foremost terrorist organizations.
I grew up very Catholic. Very Irish-Catholic. My parish had some great (and funny) priests like the protagonist Father James, and I was a Gold Star Catholic. I was dutiful, I received all of the available sacraments, went to Mass regularly, prayed every day, practiced good deeds and community service, vied for a coveted spot in the Christian Leadership class my senior year at my Catholic high school.
I had been having doubts about the existence of God throughout college, but I lost my Faith and belief in God in Ireland. I saw what the sex scandals had done to these communities that had placed so much of their livelihoods into the Church. While I was living in Ireland, my mother flew in from California and together we took a scary 45-minute plane ride north to County Donegal. My mom had lived there in her twenties in the 1970s, and this was the first time she had seen the village of Anagray since she left 30 years ago. My Aunt Brighid picked us up, and we settled in to a nearby pub to catch up. Brighid’s face darkened as she named 2 community members and a priest who had committed suicide in light of the scandal. Just one village among many who had been rocked by the Ryan Report.
Calvary takes place in a community not too different than Anagray, a seaside town in the forgotten county of Sligo. For those of you who are not familiar with the term Calvary, the two sentence version is this: Mentioned in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was crucified on the hill of Golgotha (“Calvary” when translated into Latin and then into English) and on either side of him there are 2 crucified thieves. One of the thieves asks Jesus to remember him in his kingdom, and the other thief remains impertinent, and Jesus forgives and welcomes the repentant thief into his Kingdom.
In Calvary, Brendan Gleeson plays “The Good Priest,” Father James. The opening scene of the film sets the tone: in confession, an anonymous man relates that he was raped by a priest when he was a child, and he was going to kill Father James in a week, by taking away a “good priest.” The rest of the movie follows Father James for the week, encountering the townspeople in this village he serves.
I won’t give away the ending or too many details because I really hope you do see this movie. Father James, a man of control and duty (a teetotaler, a widower who joined the priesthood after his wife died), feels the weight of the sins of his community. The members of the village range the gambit of the seven deadly sins: greed and materialism personified by former Irish banker (played astutely by Dylan Moran), an adulterer, a prostitute, a jaded atheist doctor, and his own daughter who previously attempted suicide.
Father James is dutiful in his ministry, and throughout the film has to answer for the sins of the Church by these people who both openly reject his help and beg for it. He grows more and more agitated as these people can’t separate the institution from him as a man. One of the ways he divorces himself from the institution by wearing the old style (pre-Vatican II I believe) all-black cassock, which gives him a distinct “Lone Sheriff” vibe, taking a last stand between renegade bandits and his town he is sworn to protect.
The crashing waves and the isolating wilderness of this Sligo town make it the perfect backdrop for Father James final test, showdown, temptation, whatever you want to call it. The seaside town had been wrecked with types of loss that come with trying to hold on to your faith in an increasingly confusing world. How do you remain faithful to a supposedly perfect God that killed your entire family in a freak car accident? That burned down your church? That raped you as a child? That simultaneously preaches all life as sacred yet so carelessly throws it away? How do you separate and forgive?
Samuel Beckett centered his dramas in this world of oblivion, not really grounded in anything real so his characters and the audience could wrestle with these unanswerable questions: what happens when we die? And perhaps more importantly, who is keeping score to make sure that the good people are rewarded and the bad people are punished?
One could make the argument that Ireland itself is this unidentified space: the bunker in Endgame, the undefined place a lone tree in Waiting for Godot (some argue that the play itself takes place at Calvary, which Vladimir and Estragon discuss in Act 1). With one foot in the mystical: a rich mythology and folklore and a language to remind the Irish what they were before colonialism, and one foot in the modern: a chaotic, lawless land where everyone is free to do and behave how they please without consequence.
Maybe that’s why I miss Ireland so much. I’m not sure which world I belong in, either. I want to believe in faeries and magic and that there is still wonder in the world. That I can still be surprised every once in a while. But I find myself in the world of Adulthood. A world of debt, injustice, and is utterly predictable. A world so devoid of meaning that it is utterly absurd.