Classic Movie Review: The Dead (1987)


TitleThe Dead
Release Date: 18 December 1987
Director: John Huston
Production Company: Vestron Pictures | Zenith Entertainment | Liffey Films | Channel 4 Television Corporation | Delta Film
Summary/Review:

The Dead is an adaptation of the last and longest story in James Joyce’s collection Dubliners. It depicts a dinner party hosted by two elderly sisters and their niece for their annual celebration of Epiphany.  Guests dance, perform recitations, sing, play piano, and enjoy a feast.  Topics of conversation touch upon Irish nationalism, opera, morality, and religion.  There’s a general underlying social awkwardness to the proceedings that I find very relatable and wonder if it’s an innate part of my Irish ancestry.

The main point of view character is a middle-aged academic, Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann), who is the target of gentle teasing, responsible for making the drunken Freddy (Donal Donnelly, who steals every scene he’s in) appear respectable, carves the goose, and provides a toast after dinner. The most powerful scenes in the film come at the end when Gabriel and his wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston) return to their hotel. Gretta reveals a tragic memory that was stirred up by the evening’s events, and Gabriel has an epiphany about their marriage.

I read Dubliners a couple of times in college (once on my own and once for a course), and previously watched the film in the classroom.  It is the last film that John Huston directed before his death, and he was in severely poor health during its production. It’s beautifully filmed, especially the final shots of snow falling over Ireland, and has a great sense of authenticity in the early 20th-century setting and the actors’ performances.  It even has a very young-looking Colm Meaney in a pre-Star Trek appearance.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Voyage of Mercy by Stephen Puleo


Author: Stephen Puleo
Title: Voyage of mercy : the USS Jamestown, the Irish famine, and the Remarkable Story of America’s First Humanitarian Mission 
Narrator: Sean Patrick Hopkins
Publication Info: New York : Macmillan Audio, 2020.
Books I’ve Previously Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Voyage of Mercy is a history of a United States mission to deliver food to the starving people of Ireland during the Great Hunger.  Approved by Congress, the military ship U.S.S. Jamestown sailed from Boston to Queenstown (Cobh) to deliver the good in the spring of 1847.  A naval ship was chosen to the unavailability of merchant vessels and the U.S.S. Constitution was even considered for the journey.

According to Puleo, the Jamestown mission was the first example of foreign aid and serves as a model of international disaster relief efforts.  The book focuses on two key characters.  Robert Bennet Forbes, an experienced merchant ship captain from the Boston area (born in Jamaica Plain and buried in Forest Hills cemetery, and I coincidentally passed his former home-become-museum in Milton on the day I finished this book), captained the Jamestown and was recognized for his good character and generosity.  Father Theobald Matthew of County Cork, a noted temperance leader, organized the relief operations on the Irish side.

The book is good but if it has flaws it is Puleo’s tendency to be  about the goodness of the people behind the relief effort.  Nevertheless, despite the success of the mission it did face challenges that later international relief efforts also suffered from. Distribution of the food stuffs was controversial as to whether it should be retained in County Cork or throughout Ireland. There was also the issue of the limits of charitable contributions to address deep, structural problems, in this case the colonial exploitation of Ireland by the United Kingdom.  I couldn’t help seeing parallels in the indifference and cruelty of the British government’s response to the potato famine to the current day response of the Republican Party to the Covid Pandemic in the United States.

This is a good and well-researched history, although I feel that Puleo stretched it out where a shorter book may have been sufficient.  Also, while I don’t know where my Sullivan family ancestors originated, it is a common name in County Cork, so I could very well owe my existence to mission of the U.S.S. Jamestown.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe


Author: Patrick Radden Keefe 
Title: Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland
Narrator: Matthew Blaney
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2019)
Summary/Review:

Say Nothing is a history of The Troubles, a 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland among paramilitary forces of Republicans who wanted a united Ireland, Loyalists who wished to remain part of the United Kingdom, and the British military forces, ostensibly sent to Northern Ireland to keep the peace, but instead responsible for numerous atrocities.  Keefe’s narrative gives a broad overview of The Troubles and the ensuing peace process after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. But he also focuses in on one incident that offers a window into the deep wounds and layers of memory of The Troubles.

In December 1972, a widowed mother of ten children, Jean McConville was abducted and murdered by the Irish Republican Army. According to the IRA, McConville was an informer for the British Army or a “tout” and was “disappeared” for her offenses. Her children were separated and suffered abuse in orphanages. As adults they continued to pursue justice for their mother.

Intertwined with the McConville story are the stories of two members of the IRA. Dolours Price, with her sister Marian, became a prominent IRA volunteer, partly because they were young, attractive women, who were imprisoned for their role in a bombing and participated in a lengthy hunger strike.  Brendan Hughes was an IRA commander and military strategist who organized the Bloody Friday bombings of July 21, 1972, the IRA’s biggest bombing attack in Belfast. Later, Hughes lead the first of two major hunger strikes by Republican prisoners in Long Kesh prison.

Another key figure in the book is Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, the political party associated with the IRA.  Adams is famed for his contributions to the peace process by willing to be flexible with the goals of Republican ideology.  But this book reveals that he achieved his political aims by consistently denying any involvement in the IRA in the 1970s.  Price and Hughes, both of whom claim they were ordered to commit atrocities by Adams, find a deep betrayal in how Adams washes his hands of guilt for the crimes they still struggle with.

A major factor in this history is The Belfast Project, an oral history project conducted in the early 2000s by Boston College. Former members of Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries (including Price and Hughes) participated in the project under the belief that the recordings would be kept secret until after their deaths.  When the existence of the tapes became known, a legal battle ensued as UK authorities tried to use them to prosecute cold cases, including the murder of Jean McConville.

Keefe is an American writer with a journalistic writing style who offers empathy (but not without judgment) for the many figures in the history.  The narrator, Matthew Blaney, lends an authentic Northern Ireland voice to the narrative.

Recommended books:

  • The Troubles: Ireland’s Ordeal 1966-1996 and the Search for Peace
    by Tim Pat Coogan
  • Biting At the Grave: The Irish Hunger Strikes and the Politics of Despair
    by Padraig O’Malley
  • Northern Ireland scrapbook by John Chartres
  • Seeing Things by Seamus Heaney

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Juno and the Paycock (1930)


Hitchcock ThursdaysFollowing up on my Classic Movie Project, I made a list of ten Alfred Hitchcock movies I wanted to watch or rewatch. I’ll be posting reviews on Thursdays throughout the summer.

Title: Juno and the Paycock
Release Date: 29 June 1930
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: British International Pictures
Summary/Review:

Hitchcock’s second sound film is an adaptation of Irish dramatist Seán O’Casey’s play about a working-class Dublin family during the Irish Civil War (which took place less than a decade before this film was made). Loafer Captain Boyle (Edward Chapman) avoids work and drinks with his friend Joxer (Sidney Morgan), while his wife “Juno” holds down a job to support the household. She calls him the “Paycock” because he is as vain as a peacock.

Their son Johnny (John Laurie) lost his arm in the war against the English and suffers from PTSD.  Their daughter Mary (Kathleen O’Regan) is on strike from her job. A young man named Charles Bentham (John Longden), informs the Paycock that his family inherited a fortune from a cousin, while also romancing Mary. The family makes many big purchases on credit before discovering that Bentham made an error.  The film ends in tragedy for them all.

The movie doesn’t have any of Hitchcock’s stylistic devices and in fact is filmed very much like a stage play.  The act breaks are even discernible. The Paycock and Joxer feel like comic vaudeville stock characters, and much of the acting is melodramatic.  I don’t know if this is due to a English director taking on an Irish play and adding his prejudices to it, but the movie is very unsympathetic to the Irish working class.  I haven’t seen or read O’Casey’s original but the elite moralism seems opposite of what I’d expect from a socialist dramatist.

Rating: ***

Alfred Hitchcock Movie Reviews:

Book Review: All the Bad Apples by Moïra Fowley-Doyle


Author: Moïra Fowley-Doyle
Title: All the Bad Apples
Narrator: Marisa Calin and Elizabeth Sastre
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2019
Summary/Review:

A Dublin teenager, Deena, on the precipice of her 17th birthday accidentally outself herself to her much older sister Rachel and her conservative father. Her other, wilder sister Mandy (Rachel’s twin) goes missing, and when her car is found by some cliffs on the other side of Ireland, she is presumed dead by everyone but Deena.

Instead, Deena goes on a road trip with her best friend, a mixed-race bisexual boy named Finn, and meets a previously unknown niece and an attractive young woman along the way.  They pick up clues in the form of letters from Mandy about the troubled history of women in Deena’s family going back centuries which includes forced pregnancy, rape, ostracization, accusations of witchcraft, abortion, and imprisonment in the notorious Magdelen laundries. The whole time they are pursued by three banshees adding an element of magical realism.

This movie ties together a story of contemporary sexism, homophobia, and discrimination in Ireland with folklore and history.  But does it with very little subtlety.  My mind wandered a lot during this book but let’s chalk that up to reader error. I’m sure this is a perfectly good book for young adults who want stories of adventure and family history with positive female and LGBT characters.

Recommended books:

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Shearwater: A Mermaid Romance by D.S. Murphy


Author: D.S. Murphy
Title: Shearwater: A Mermaid Romance
Publication Info: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (2017)
Summary/Review:

“Mermaids are real?” Patricia asked finally, looking stunned. “Like really real?” Ethan nodded solemnly.

“And they want to kill us all.”

The passage above is an actual quote from this teen paranormal romance set in a seaside village in Northern Ireland. It succinctly captures the flaws of this mermaid fantasy novel that has an excellent premise but the author doesn’t have the writing skill to make it pay off.  Clara is an American teenager whose parents die in a car crash. She learns that her mother actually was from Ireland and fled as a teenager.  Clara’s only living relative is a grandfather she never knew existed, Aedan, and she is sent to live with him in the seaside village of Portballintrae.

As Clara grieves her parents and adjusts to her new life in Ireland, she meets a handsome but mysterious boy, Sebastian.  It’s revealed that Sebastian comes from the mer-folk – the merrow – and that Clara is part merrow as well.  Clara also forms a friendship with Ethan, who is from an ancient group of families who are sworn enemies of the merrow and use merrow blood to perform magic.  Soon a plot by the merrow to kill all of humanity emerges.

Murphy does a good job of taking elements of Irish folklore and bringing them into a contemporary setting.  The big problem is that he is overly reliant on introducing big revelations and plot twists.  As they revelations multiply they must of course become bigger and soon just more ridiculous.  I think Murphy would’ve have done better to hold of on making revelations and built up the mystery and atmosphere of the novel.  A well-told story with smaller stakes (nevertheless of great importance to the characters) would’ve been far more interesting than this sprawling tale of a global threat.

Recommended books:

  • Sailor Twain: Or: The Mermaid in the Hudson by Mark Siegel
  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik
  • American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: When the Irish Invaded Canada by Christopher Klein


Author: Christopher Klein
Title: When the Irish Invaded Canada: The Incredible True Story of the Civil War Veterans Who Fought for Ireland’s Freedom
Publication Info: Doubleday (2019)
Summary/Review:

Several years back I first heard about how Irish revolutionaries attempted to invade Canada from the United States and thought to myself “That would make a good movie!”  But I never knew the details until I read this history book.

The invasions, known as the Fenian Raids, occurred from 1866 to 1871 with attempts by Irish Republicans to cross the border from Maine to New Brunswick, Vermont and northern New York to Quebec, Buffalo to Ontario, and the Dakota Territory into Manitoba.  The purpose of these raids was to capture territory of the United Kingdom in hopes of drawing supporters to the cause and perhaps even exchanging Canada for Ireland’s independence.

Klein sets the stage for the Fenian Raids by establishing the 19th-century perspective that Americans had on borders.  The practice of filibustering, private military expeditions across borders, was well known at the time, especially with Mexico.  The United States and Canada also had many border conflicts and Manifest Destiny looked north as well as west, with many Americans assuming that all or parts of Canada would one day become the United States.  Finally, there was resentment against Great Britain for tacitly supporting the Confederacy during the Civil War which made it possible that some people within government might turn a blind eye to incursions across the Canadian border.

Ireland had suffered the potato blight and Great Hunger of the 1840s and 1850s which caused the death of over a million and the emigration of at least a million more.  The survivors within Ireland used the cavalier indifference of the British to their starvation as impetus to revive the fight for independence.  The Young Ireland movement of the 1840s was succeeded by the secret society of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.  With so many Irish immigrants in the United States, it became a place where Irish Republicans could raise money and organize freely.  The Fenian Brotherhood was founded in New York City in 1858 where they established headquarters and a government-in-exile.

Or I should say, two headquarters, because much like Irish Republican movements throughout history, the Fenian Brotherhood was divided by infighting.  One of the contentious issues was whether to invade Canada or to focus solely and supporting an uprising in Ireland.  Klein notes that both Fenian branches would succumb to popular pressure and support raids in to Canada at different times.

Irish-born soldiers made up a large proportion of the men who fought on the front lines on both sides of the Civil War.  Some of them specifically enlisted in order to gain the military experience they could then use to fight for Ireland’s liberation, and in the early raids, the officers and troops were predominately Civil War veterans.  The Irish invaders had success early on at the Battle of Ridgeway, across the Niagara River from Buffalo, on June 2, 1866 where they defeated reservists and militias from Toronto and Hamilton.  This proved to be the only victory in the cause for Irish independence in-between  the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and the Irish War of Independence in 1919.

The raids more typically were a comedy of errors. The Fenian Brotherhood faced as much trouble with the United States government enforcing the Neutrality Act as they did with British and Canadian military forces.  But hubris and lack of organization were their biggest obstacles.  Again and again, the Fenians gathered together a small band to strike into Canada with the optimistic belief that once they start fighting people would flock to their cause, and they’d even gain support from French Canadians and the American government.  On one of the last raids with the supposed goal of linking up with the Métis in Manitoba, the Fenians not only failed to make any allies but they also didn’t even manage to cross the border.

One of the great ironies is that Fenian Raids did help bring independence to a country, but not for Ireland.  There was division among the provinces of Canada before the raids, but the fear of invasion lead many people to support Canadian Confederation in 1867. The Fenian Raids also played their part in the longer struggle for Irish independence, especially the key role of Irish Americans as fundraisers and organizers which persists to this day. Klein’s book takes an historical curiosity and fleshes out a story of a campaign that consumed decades of the lives of many Irish Republicans. He demonstrates how invading Canada seemed a plausible and compelling idea as well as showing why it ultimately failed.  And yes, this would still make a great movie.

Favorite Passages:

The Canadian plan offered several scenarios that could result in Ireland’s independence. An attack could divert British army troops from Ireland, increasing the chances of a successful IRB uprising. It could perhaps even trigger a war between Great Britain and the United States, which had cast its land-hungry eyes northward after having expanded west and south in the prior three decades. Under another scenario, the Fenians could seize Canada and trade the colony back to the British in return for Ireland. In essence, a geopolitical kidnapping of Canada, with its ransom being Ireland’s independence. Even the plan’s proponents understood that the chances of success weren’t in their favor. But the odds would be against the Irish no matter what they did. A slim chance is all Ireland ever faced when challenging the British over the past seven centuries. The likelihood of failure might have been high, but it was guaranteed if they did nothing at all.

Recommended books:

  • The Great Dan: A Biography of Daniel O’Connell by Charles Chenevix Trench
  • The Man Who Made Ireland: The Life and Death of Michael Collins by Tim Pat Coogan
  • The Troubles: Ireland’s Ordeal 1966-1996 and the Search for Peace by Tim Pat Coogan
  • Biting At the Grave: The Irish Hunger Strikes and the Politics of Despair by Padraig O’Malley

Rating: ****

TV Review: Derry Girls (2019)


Title: Derry Girls
Release Date: 2019
Creator and Writer: Lisa McGee
Director:  Michael Lennox
Production Company: Hat Trick Productions
Summary/Review:

The second series of Derry Girls shows no sign of a sophomore slump.  In fact, the show is funnier and more confident than it was in the first series.  Set against the backdrop of the last days of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, Erin, Clare, Michelle, Orla, and James are, well, not ordinary teenagers, but motivated by their daily teenage dilemmas rather than their geopolitical situation.  The adults, primarily Erin and Orla’s parents and grandfather, have a bigger part this season, and get some adventures of their own, which are just as wacky as the kids.  And Sister Michael (Siobhan McSweeney) steals every scene she is in with instantly GIF-able quotes.

The series begins with the Girls enduring excruciating 1990s-style team building exercises with a group of boys from a Protestant school.  In the next episode they take inspiration from a new English teacher,  Ms De Brún, in a parody of Dead Poets Society, complete with the kick the ball/poetry sequence replaced with hitting a ball with a hurley and shouting something that makes you mad (James does not like that people in Derry refer to things as “wee” even when they’re not small).  Then they take a bus trip to Belfast to see a Take That concert even though their parents forbade them over fears of an escaped polar bear.

The fourth episode shows an Irish wedding (complete with a choreographed group dance to “Rock the Boat”) and an Irish wake (with hash scones).  An episode about a 50’s style prom at the school has one of the sweeter moments when James shows up to take Erin after her date stands her up.  And the finale contrasts the excitement of President Bill Clinton and family visiting Derry (complete with actual archival audio) and James preparing to return to England with his mother (and another touching finale).

 

Book Review: Solar Bones by Mike McCormack


Author: Mike McCormack
Title: Solar Bones
Narrator: Timothy Reynolds
Publication Info: Prince Frederick, Md. : Recorded Books, 2017
Summary/Review:

Marcus Conway is a ghost.  On All Souls Day, he sits at the dinner table waiting for his family to return, and unspools a stream-of-concious monologue about this life written in a single sentence (this is the second single-sentence novel I’ve read recently!).  The single sentence isn’t as apparent in the audiobook – deftly narrated by Timothy Reynolds – but I do notice that he starts a phrase with “and” a lot, adding a certain rhythm to the prose.  Marcus talks about his own father’s death, his sometimes troubled relationship with his wife and children, and his work as a civic engineer.  Local politics also plays a big part of his story, from voting to a politicians thick-headed insistence on building a school that’s not structurally sound, to even the awful stomach virus that infects his community – including his wife – caused by bad sanitation.  Over time, Marcus unravels the details of his own death and comes to terms with his mortality.  The thing about this novel is that for all the experimental nature of its narrative, Marcus is a perfectly ordinary person doing ordinary things.  McCormack’s writing unveils the fascinating stories within the everyday person.

Recommended booksBeatlebone by Kevin Barry and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Rating: ****

TV Review: Derry Girls (2018)


Title: Derry Girls
Release Date: 2018
Creator and Writer: Lisa McGee
Director:  Michael Lennox
Production Company: Hat Trick Productions
Summary/Review:

I visited Derry, Northern Ireland in the 1990s and this nostalgic comedy seems to fit my memories of the city.  Derry is known internationally for being at the heart of The Troubles – the ongoing sectarian fighting, riots, and terrorist bombings in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s to the late 1990s.  But I also remember Derry being something of a party town.  Derry Girls captures the everyday life of the city’s citizens amid bomb threats that cause traffic delays, soldiers inspecting a school bus, and a family taking a holiday to avoid the Orange Orders’ “marching season.”

The core group of teenagers in this show are Erin (Saoirse-Monica Jackson), her live-in cousin Orla (Louisa Harland), Erin’s friends Clare (Nicola Coughlan) and Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell), and Michelle’s English cousin James (Dylan Llewellyn), who is the only boy at their all-girl Catholic school because it’s feared that his English accent would make him a target for violence at the boys’ school.  The quintet get themselves in all manner of trouble at school with the misanthropic Sister Michael (Siobhan McSweeney). Erin’s family also play a big role and they’re all generally awful in amusing ways.

The show is kind of an odd cross of “The Facts of Life” with the movie Heaven Help Us and and “Father Ted,” with some sectarian violence thrown in.  But really, despite the unique setting, the show is strangely relatable.