There's been a lot of talk about St. Patrick’s Day in the media lately, mainly focusing on that perennially Irish topic — who’s out and who’s in. Being a tribal society for most of our existence, there will always be a particular resonance for us in stories about inclusion and exclusion.
But we haven’t had many Irish film directors unpack that debate or explore the experiences of the last decade in direct and indirect ways to get at the truth of the society we are and how we handle economic and spiritual crisis. We don’t have an Irish version of a director like Ken Loach – or at least we didn’t until now.
Meet Terry McMahon, an emerging Irish director whose approach and focus are incomparable. The emotional intensity of his work is unlike anything I have ever seen out of Ireland before.
McMahon is the director of "Patrick’s Day," a quietly devastating new Irish film about a 26-year-old schizophrenic whose mother becomes enraged when she discovers he’s having an affair.
Maura, the mother in the film played by Kerry Fox, wants to decide who her son (the gifted Moe Dunford) can see and not see, whom he can love and not love.
But very quickly the film becomes a metaphor for a larger reflexively conservative and censorious Irish society reacting to the destabilizing threat of the young. It’s a provocative and unsettling double vision.
“I used to work with the so called mentally handicapped and I used to see their minder or their parents come in and visit them once a week or once a month,” McMahon tells the Irish Voice.
“I saw – and it was never an act of malice, no one was trying to be bad – that there was a presumption that when someone who was mentally ill had an aspiration toward intimacy, they were often made to feel degenerate as if they were doing something wrong.
“In an attempt to protect them from society or exploitation we were in actuality imposing a moral certitude on them that is hypocritical beyond measure. But we can qualify it because we’re their parents or guardians. I saw this happen again and again.”
The experience made McMahon wonder what must it be like to be categorized, to have someone decide to describe you as a specific thing, then insist you cannot deviate from being that specific thing? If your entire character has been quantified and qualified in a specific way, what must it be like to want to fall in love?
“For me the film is political, but I did not want it to be a polemic. My first film 'Charlie Casanova' divided the audience and generated such anger. 'Patrick’s Day' is equally political, but it’s not driven by the politics,” McMahon says.
“I do believe Ireland is the world’s biggest asylum right now. I believe the most dangerous, mediocre people are running the country. Their presumption and entitlement is causing unbelievable pain and we accept it because it’s part of the decades of instuitionalism of us as a people.”
There’s nothing greater than the idea of the relationship with the mother, McMahon says, meaning your own mother and mother Ireland.
“I want to deconstruct that and see that sometimes there’s nothing more poisonous than that relationship when the person who gave birth to you feels like they can control you. It’s one of the fundamental poisons in our culture.”
Young Patrick is trying to make some space for himself. He’s beginning to explore his own capacity as a young man.
But his attempts to do so are deeply threatening to his mother, who has already decided who he is and who he is going to be. It turns out there is no limit to the things she’ll do to ensure the status quo – her status quo – is observed.
“The world order that Maura has constructed has to be protected on every level. Her sense of the world and herself is determined by her connection to her son. But Patrick becomes a vessel for her to exploit. She tells herself she’s the protective loving mother, but she acts like a psychopath,” McMahon says.
They say the most effective form of abuse can be identified when the abuser leaves you alone and you continue to keep abusing yourself. That’s what happens in "Patrick’s Day."
Maura’s constructed an invisible cage for her son to the point where he doesn’t even know what freedom even feels like. He becomes what he is expected to be. He’s terrified to become anything else.
That Patrick falls for an Aer Lingus flight attendant is a particularly gorgeous metaphor. She’s an alcoholic and she’s suicidal, but she’s seeing the world and Patrick begins to see the world through her eyes. He begins to have the very things that Ireland’s civic and political culture seems expressly crafted to stifle: aspirations.
Ten minutes into McMahon’s new film will confirm he’s one of the most insightful and unrelenting directors Ireland has produced in a generation. The film received its world premiere at the recent SXSW festival in Texas and continues a trend of screening Irish films at the prestigious event.