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Exile and the emigrant experience are two of the many themes Byrne aims to address in his film series, Revisiting The Quiet Man: Ireland on Film, which is running at MoMA form May 20 – June 3. John Ford's iconic and extremely romantic portrayal of 1950s Ireland will be the starting point for a larger discussion Byrne hopes to provoke. Via The Quiet Man and other films about Ireland, ranging from Robert Stevenson's Darby O'Gill and the Little People to the Bobby Sands biopic Hunger, the series will consider themes of “emigration, exile, the role of the rebel, the religious figure…identity, myth, ethnicity, assimilation, gender, the role of the woman in Irish film.” Beyond this, the aim is to raise – but not, he emphasizes, necessarily to answer – the questions “Who are we as a group? How are we portrayed? How are we perceived?” It has always fascinated him, he says, that “[As Irish,] in terms of film, our story has, up to a certain point, been told for us, not by us.” This is problematic, he believes, because “a great deal of what we know about each other as people comes from our knowledge of film.”
One night of the retrospective will feature Byrne in conversation with Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan. Another, with Martin Scorsese, whom he looks forward to talking to because “He's an Italian American. He comes from, he understands, that dual conflict about ‘Where am I from? And where is this place that I'm living in? Who am I as a result of that journey?’”
Listening to Gabriel Byrne pose these questions, I get the definite sense that he doenn't do so with the detached curiosity of a critic or a scholar, but with real personal investment. He is, after all, not just a spectator of Irish film but part of its history, too.
So who are we, as Irish? Byrne doesn't think there can be one answer. In fact, he encourages everyone to imagine his or her own Ireland (apparently that’s why he pushed for it to be called “Imagine Ireland”). But he does offer this: “I think the artistic influence is continuous; it's part of who we are…We are also a result of our history, and our history and our literature are entwined so that we have, on the one hand, the saddest music and the most joyful music, and we have the saddest poems. If you look through an anthology of Irish poems, it's incredible how melancholy we are. You know what G.K. Chesterton said about the Irish? ‘The Irish were the race that God made mad. For all their wars were merry and all their songs were sad.’ Bit stupid as a remark, but it does capture something.”
And who is he as a result of his journey? He doesn’t say specifically, but he says a lot generally. Of leaving one’s homeland, he remarks, “It allows the artist a distance from where he lives and where he was born and the influences that shaped him, so that you can do a different version of looking back. So that, instead of yearning, you can look back over the other shoulder and do it more with objectivity.” When asked about Ireland today he expresses great anger towards the Catholic church – an emotional issue, considering his disclosure last year of the abuse he suffered as a boy under the Christian Brothers. He shows concern over the possibility that Ireland might be losing its unique voice: “I could write you 20 pages of words where, if I went back to the part of Dublin where I grew up, kids there today wouldn't understand them,” he tells me. He’d like to see that voice grow stronger so that, particularly in film, Ireland can tell its own story. He also, however, seems genuinely in awe of the talent that has emerged from Ireland in the past few years – in spite of the Celtic tiger and the economic downturn, or maybe because of it.
The connections still run deep. Despite having lived in the U.S. for more than twenty years and raising his two children here (his daughter is starting college in the fall), he still very much considers himself Irish, not Irish American. But then, for him it seems that there are different kinds of home: “Home in the most profound spiritual sense is always Ireland. [But] your children determine where home is.”
For information on Revisiting The Quiet Man: Ireland on Film and other Imagine Ireland events and performances visit www.imagineireland.ie