It’s been a banner year for Irish film, theater and literature. Cahir O'Doherty recommends some of the best examples you can still catch in the theaters. 

Ireland's footprint on the world’s stage is impressively outsized. For a country about the size of the state of Indiana, it’s impact and international reach should be a source of pride for all of us.

This year Irish artists excelled in film, television, theater and literature as their increasing haul of sought after prizes and Oscar wins have demonstrated. The face we’re showing the world in our centenary year is confident, accomplished and outward looking.

Let’s begin with film, since it’s been a banner year for Irish efforts. In March the screen version of Room, based on the novel by Emma Donoghue and directed by Lenny Abrahamson, won Oscar gold for its star Brie Larson’s turn as a captive mother plotting a daring escape.

Still from Lenny Abrahamson's Room.

Still from Lenny Abrahamson's Room.

And emerging Irish and Ethiopian screen star Ruth Negga, 34, (catch her on the cover of January’s Vogue magazine) made the headlines this month for her flawless performance in Loving, the must-see film about the challenge to the interracial marriage ban in the U.S. in the late 1960s.

Negga seems to channel the young Bette Davis in her breakout performance, establishing her as a screen star of the first rank. “Some people would say to me you don’t sound very Irish,” she told the Irish Voice in an interview last month.  “It’s because I have this tendency to iron out my accent. Not because I’m ashamed of it, but because it makes my life easier if I don’t keep having to repeat myself.”

Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in "Loving."

Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in "Loving."

That’s a decision a lot of Irish emigrants will be familiar with. Clearly it’s an issue that Negga thinks about often.

“We live in a society that says if you’re this you must be that. I’ve had it all my life. You can’t be Irish. Why can’t I be Irish? Why can’t these two people in this story who love each other be together?” Loving is currently showing in theaters nationwide.

Assassin’s Creed is the name of Michael Fassbender’s big budget Christmas opener (it actually drops on the 21st) based on the best selling video game series. The film’s all-star cast includes Brendan Gleeson, and the plot is pure hokum involving Fassbender squaring off against the Knights Templar order across the globe.

Michael Fassbender star of Assassin's Creed.

Michael Fassbender star of Assassin's Creed.

The real point of Assassin’s Creed is the jaw-dropping action set pieces and no one brings gravitas to the action adventure hero franchise like the 39-year-old German Irish Kerryman.

Boston Irish film star Mark Wahlberg will star in Patriot’s Day, the controversial telling of the Boston City Marathon bombing. Many winced at the too close in time aspect of the film, but they needn’t have worried. Wahlberg turns in one of the most affecting performances of his career as a beat cop responding to jihadists in the city he and his character clearly love.

Mark Wahlberg in Patriot's Day.

Mark Wahlberg in Patriot's Day.

Irish American screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan has also received plaudits for his just released and masterful new film Manchester by the Sea (the film picked up five Golden Globe nominations). 

Let’s just make a nod to the Irish short film that won an Oscar in 2016. Stutterer was written and directed by Benjamin Cleary in the kind of debut that can only be dreamed of.

The film follows a young man whose crippling stutter makes interactions with the outside world a nightmare, despite his online social success. Alongside his Oscar for the short, Cleary also won Irish Young Director of the Year this year, and his runway looks decidedly clear. (Stutterer is available to view on the RTE iPlayer).

Still from Benjamin Cleary's Stutterer.

Still from Benjamin Cleary's Stutterer.

Meanwhile, three of the most accomplished new Irish books of the year happened to be written by Irish women. Tender, the new novel by Belinda McKeon, confirms her as an outstanding talent. A delicately observed tale of a romantic friendship between a young man and woman that veers into dangerous obsession, along the way the book smuggles a trenchant critique of the country that produced them.

McKeon’s novel has many unforgettable things to say about the vicissitudes of love and longing, and behind that it takes a scalpel to Irish mores. “I wanted to write about inherited and internalized prejudice,” she told the Irish Voice this year nodding to it perennial Irish themes. Pick it up and be dazzled.

Cover of Belinda McKeon's Tender.

Cover of Belinda McKeon's Tender.

Emma Donoghue’s talent for writing about children caught up in extreme situations continues with The Wonder, a spellbinding tale ideal for a warm winter fireside. Set in Ireland in the early 1860s The Wonder tells the story of Lib Wright, an English nurse who is summoned to an Irish village to investigate an apparent miracle: a young girl called Anna O’Donnell has reportedly survived for months without a scrap of food or water. Is it a miracle or a trick? Is the girl a saint or a scam artist?

“I do think it could be a film,” Donoghue agreed when I spoke to her this autumn. “It’s a story that would make the transition well.” Catch it now before it makes the trek to the 2018 Oscars.

Author Emma Donoghue.

Author Emma Donoghue.

Spill Simmer Falter Wither by novelist Sara Baume, 31, just won the prestigious Geoffrey Faber award (Seamus Heaney was a previous Irish winner). It’s a remarkable feat for a debut novelist whose follow up, A Line Made by Walking, will be released in February 2017.

Spill Simmer Falter Wither introduces us to a 57-year-old loner named Ray and his only companion a stray dog called One Eye. Ray's the kind of tragic Irish rural misfit that his neighbors ignore, and his dog is the kind that no one else sees the value of or wants.

Cover of Spill Simmer Falter Wither.

Cover of Spill Simmer Falter Wither.

Along the way Baume writes about rural isolation and the destructive power of loneliness with such compassion, insight and immediacy it can take your breath away.

This year has seen remarkably strong theater offerings, but among the most memorable was the Irish Repertory Theatre’s production of Quietly by Belfast writer Owen McCafferty.

It’s an instructive and unforgettable lesson in what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, as the three and a half decades of The Troubles in the North undoubtedly were. Sensitively directed by Jimmy Fay, the play had a great deal to say to our own fractious moment here in the U.S.

On stage, Quietly.

On stage, Quietly.

The immense challenge that writer and actress Laoisa Sexton is offering Americans -- critical understanding of the Irish experience -- continues with style. The Pigeon in the Taj Mahal, her Guinness dark comedy about the difficulty of finding your way to your true home, is currently playing at the Irish Rep on West 22nd Street, and it’s utterly riveting.

In Sexton’s play, trance music meets sean nos singing on the barren outskirts of a west of Ireland seaside town, with predictably explosive results. Sexton’s dramatic instincts are fully in evidence, as is her flair for finding the exact metaphor with which to interrogate our current culture. She’s funny as hell too.

When her lost bachelorette party discovers a strange wild eyed lad living all alone his caravan, the culture clash behind that -- between tradition and modernity -- plays out with an impressive frame of reference that still escapes most of the play’s U.S.-based critics, grey mirroring the play’s theme. Catch the play before its run ends on New Year’s Eve.

Promo shot for Pigeon in the Taj Mahal.

Promo shot for Pigeon in the Taj Mahal.

 

Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton stars of Loving.