“God damn you, grandma!” : women and nationalism in Irish film

Haas, Allison Jean M.
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While women have been central symbols in the struggle for Irish independence at least since the 18th century, mainstream Irish nationalist movements have mostly dismissed the concerns of actual Irish women. With a few notable exceptions, women’s experience of the Irish War of Independence (1919) and Civil War (1922) has been likewise ignored. This paper examines the treatment of women in two contemporary films about this period: Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins (1996) and Ken Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006). To contextualize these films, I first consider three classics of Irish drama and film that use women to promote or critique nationalism: Yeats and Lady Gregory’s Cathleen ni Houlihan, Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, and Jordan’s The Crying Game. Cathleen epitomizes the symbolic value of the woman-as-nation, while Juno, a critique of this nationalist idea, relies on the spectacle of the titular matriarch’s suffering to make its political point. Despite the opposing politics of the two plays, both reduce their female characters to tropes: symbolic goddess or helpless victim. Michael Collins, I argue, departs from this tradition only by converting such tropes into Hollywood stereotypes. Jordan uses the character of Kitty Kiernan to transform Collins from a dangerous revolutionary to a pacifist hero in order to make a humanist argument for the end to nationalist violence in Northern Ireland. Although Loach’s story is similar to Jordan’s (two male leads driven apart by the Civil War), he centralizes women in a way that Jordan does not. Loach’s socialist aesthetic and broad cultural critique allow his female characters to escape victimhood (though not suffering) by pointedly developing their political agency. Loach’s film, therefore, represents a significant intervention in the literature surrounding the Irish conflict, not because it “sides” with the IRA, but because it privileges women’s lived experience.