painting/ – Historical culture in modern Irish film

I come from a nation that spends quite a large proportion of its time running from its visual history. Irish people often disregard the “Celtic” roots, the patterns and spirals and the ancient mythic tales of wars, magic and nature as fodder for American tourists. There is an unspoken desire to “move forward”, to reflect Ireland as the technological centre of western Europe, to emphasise how we have “caught up” and become part of the modern world. “We’re not pagan bog people anymore!” we shout emphatically at anyone who will listen, “We’ve built motorways and tall buildings so Intel and Facebook and Google would come!”

There is sometimes a lack of pride in the magic and runes of the ancient history and folklore in our country. Contemporary Irish art and design often analyse global themes and use global methods. Our current artists take pride in being well-travelled and educated in the artwork of Europe and America. Irish film is polished and masked with an international professionalism. Yet regardless of our motivation the island itself has trapped our ancient culture within, and the influence of the visual arts of our country is inescapable.

Culture is endlessly intertwined with place and history. While watching modern English cinema I often think of JMW Turner and his use of muted colours and sprawling compositions. Turner’s paintings are fastidious in the foreground, containing detail and narrative. These foregrounds are often overshadowed by bleak and near-colourless skies and background imagery that consume most of the space on the canvas.

Left: still from “This Is England” (courtesy of, click image for link)
Right: JMW Turner’s “Cologne The Arrival Of A Packed Boat Evening” (courtesy of, click “near-colourless skies” above image for link)

Taking the example of modern English film This Is England, many of the scenes seem to hark back to Turner’s style. Throughout the film the background colours are washed out, faded by the grey English skies, yet full of texture; the foreground activity is minimal yet striking and memorable. It is unlikely that director Shane Meadows would acknowledge Turner as a direct influence on his film-making style, and the landscape and weather of England obviously affect the work of both creators. However the style of a nation’s visual culture is dictated not only by these factors, but by the human history involved also.

It is worth looking at how film in France and England differ so greatly when, at their closest, the two countries are only 22 miles apart. The weather in London and Paris is very similar, and the histories of the countries overlap regularly, yet film-making in the neighbouring countries has been altered by the differences in their visual histories. Luc Besson’s assassin-led début Nikita bears little visual resemblance to Guy Ritchie’s equally underworld-led, adrenaline-filled Snatch. The colour and portrait-dominated style of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s films are likewise worlds apart from those of the darker, landscape-heavy works of fellow semi-surreal English fabricator Terry Gilliam. Jeunet and Besson are like Manet; colourful, inquisitive, engrossing, Gilliam and Ritchie appear more like William Hogarth; dark, textured and convoluted.

Still of actress Anne Paurillaud from “Nikita” layered over one of the more animated scenes in “Snatch”. Stills from the films were sourced from IMDB.

So we return to the grey little island of Ireland, close neighbour to Britain and France. Visual art in Ireland has an interesting history. The visual keepsakes of a distant past are still remarkable – the pagan sites of ancient Irish archaeology host an array of symbols that retain relevance to historians today. The use of gold and green in jewellery and the sienna-browns and earthy greys that dominate the landscape are also notable characteristics of Irish object art throughout the BCs and the ADs. Yet Irish visual culture from an Irish point of view suffered a unique blip due to the penal laws in the period of autonomous British rule (approximately 1700-1900). Much of Irish culture was outlawed in this period in an effort to expatriate the Irish people, and as a result visual depictions could have been seen as criminal evidence. To simplify a convoluted history, Irish painting became less adventurous at this time, and was executed more often by and for the landed gentry supported by the British rule. Irish painters continued to paint, but mostly without any identifying characteristics of Irish style or culture.

Detail from The Book of Kells (left) alongside a panting by Patrick Scott. Images courtesy of Wikipedia.

However, from the Gaelic Revival (late 1800s) onwards some earlier influence began to creep back into Irish visual art. The cold stone and the muted gold of ancient Ireland re-emerged as part of the nation’s visual identity. 20th Century Irish artists like Francis Bacon or Patrick Scott, despite pioneering the new tradition of gobbling up foreign influences, returned to earthy colours and patterns in their work. George Russell and Jack Yeats impersonated the somewhat mythic elongated figures that were prominent in much of 5th-7th century Irish stone carving.

These influences became immediately pronounced in Irish cinema. Although certainly featuring an influence from British or French film in terms of shots, imagery or style, Irish films Michael Collins, Breakfast on Pluto and The Guard hold strong to these animated characters, these colourful figures on earthy backdrops, the “Irish” twinge of recent and historical visual culture. Some part of a culture has been caught on the island, and aside from the influence of geography or meteorology, some artificial feature of visual culture still exists.


The Secret of Kells is one of the unsung masterpieces of modern Irish cinema. This Oscar-nominated animated story uses a graphic style that is heavily influenced by the artwork in the manuscript  The Book of Kells (circa 800AD), which is the basis for the film. However it also creates a modern, digital mask over this art style. The film is thus a monument to contemporary Irish culture – both digital and traditional, it seems to cross a divide and is thus acceptable to the modern Irish palette.

Here the tech-heavy modern Ireland is intertwined with the nomadic, earthy history. We can be bog people with iPhones, pagans with Photoshop; we can be ancient Ireland and modern Ireland at the same time. This is the culture that will be brought forward, to be reviled and disregarded by the next generation.

3 thoughts on “painting/ – Historical culture in modern Irish film”

  1. At last, someone who shares my feelings about Turner… Incidentally, I will always think of Ireland as a misty Tír na nÓg resplendent with lore, magic and mystery. It is interesting how ‘offlanders’ perceive us, isn’t it. Greetings from across the sea.

    1. Greetings to you too! Yes, Turner is fantastic, and he certainly has had and continues to have a large influence on British (and international) art.

      Thanks for stopping by the blog, careful when you leave though you might age quickly…

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