No one is going to look back on 2021 with much nostalgia. In fact, right now it's hard to imagine it will ever be more than a tale about hard times to be told to our grandchildren, if we're lucky. 

The pandemic hasn't been easy, but the pandemic wasn't the only story making the news.

One story was Kenneth Branagh's semi-autobiographical origin film Belfast, which now looks like a strong contender for Best Film at the 2022 Oscars. Critics hailed its feel-good storyline and the winning central performances from the accomplished cast. I, however, wondered what there really was to feel good about in the eruption of that brutal sectarian conflict in 1969 and the forcible mass displacement of Irish Catholics from their own homes.

The filmmaker will doubtlessly claim that Belfast isn't a historical reenactment but rather a scrapbook of personal moments that eventually led to his life in the arts, but he named the film Belfast not My Childhood Life Between The Bombs. 

An artist has a larger responsibility to the truth with a catch-all title like that, but Belfast (and its young protagonist Buddy) keep finding flimsy reasons to be cheerful and reasons to distance and overlook the not so cheerful fate of his brutally pogromed Catholic neighbors during that grimly transformative year.

American critics, ever in search of reasons to be cheerful themselves, will not be as familiar with the social and political background or the year in which the film is set, so like another of Belfast's famous sons George Best, Branagh's film may still be able to knock the ball into the Best Picture net in 2022.

But that doesn't mean that Belfast has told the truth or even a version of the truth about what really happened in that far off and fateful year in the life of the city he loves. 

The climax of film sees Buddy's movie-star handsome Da, sorry Pa (played by Jamie Dornan), knocking out the local loyalist kingpin with a cricket ball to the head (he throws a rock, but the move is a classic cricket ball type throw).

This sequence is performed to the theme tune of High Noon from the classic 1951 western. So black hats versus white hats, I guess. Dornan is our lantern-jawed hero. Look, I understand that the events of 1969 didn’t exactly cover unionism with glory, but I often couldn't believe my eyes. 

Historical accuracy was very much to the fore in the superb Irish language film Arracht, however. With its release delayed by the pandemic, the film actually benefited from the staggered rollout and created considerable word of mouth this year (it is now available for paid and free download online). 

Set in the first year of the Great Hunger, when the years-long calamity, the worst social disaster in Europe in the 19th century, is only coming into focus. With its period detail, its focus on the lives of its central Connemara-based characters and its careful consideration of how and why they have found themselves so vulnerable, the film is in some ways the anti-Belfast. 

Irish star Jessie Buckley both gave incandescent scree performances this year, the latter in the about to release on Netflix's The Lost Daughter.

In this film, Buckley plays a young mother whose identity and career are being cannibalized by the role of wife and mother, two positions for which she is abundantly qualified but which increasingly she feels personally stifled by.

Buckley makes a successful pitch for the big leagues with her so accomplished you forget you're watching a film performance. She is so good in fact that she steals the film right out from under the noses of the more celebrated cast. Catch it for her performance alone, which I suspect many people will do.

Meanwhile, Irish authors have also had a remarkable year. First of all is the one woman cultural phenomenon Sally Rooney, whose new novel title sounds like a lost Smiths Album: Beautiful World, Where Are You?

Funny, tender, scathing, and sad, it's a novel about the hard business of connecting and the painful business of losing those connections. Rooney's gift is to record how it feels to live in the now with structures and storylines that echo the novels of the 19 century. Her latest is her greatest to date. 

Another stunning new book this year was Sorry for Your Trouble: The Irish Way of Death (Sandycove, $33.95) by Ann Marie Hourihan. It's a meditation on the cultural distinctiveness of the Irish "way of death."

The power of grief can catapult you out of your life for weeks, months, or even a lifetime, and in her new book, writer, broadcaster, and film producer Ann Marie Hourihan casts a cold eye on the many unique ways that our rapidly diversifying nation deals with bereavement and its aftermath.

She doesn't escape its long shadow herself. Her father dies during the writing of the book she confesses. Then she experiences the strange disorientation known only too well to those who have lost someone dear. “I go outside. I go back inside. I don’t know where to go.”

The strange mix of forbearance and sentiment (but never sentimentality) that marks the Irish response to death is a fact that she records here over and over. We are stoic and inconsolable at once, the two together, like a double negative, like a photo imposed one over the other.

It's not unique to us but it is uniquely us. This remarkable book will make you consider how we live and the rituals we have developed for when we die.

Songwriting legend Shane MacGowan received surprisingly sensitive biographical treatment in A Furious Devotion: The Authorized Biography of Shane MacGowan by Richard Balls (Omnibus, $28.99). 

A key moment in MacGowan's life, his biographer writes, was hearing Dexy's Midnight Runner's perform Come On Eileen, which melded Irish traditional sounds with pop and soul in 1982 and spent a month at number one. 

MacGowan was inspired by this to begin to form a new band of his own, with early try-out names like The Noisy Boysies and The Men They Couldn’t Hang thrown about until eventually one member suggest a phrase they often heard him use himself, Pogue Mahone.

You have to recall how out deeply of step Irish traditional music was with the new wave synths of Duran Duran, Culture Club, and ABC the year The Pogues formed.

It sounded like music from the distant past to many until they heard the pock rock roar underpinning it and supporters were amazed by how many people would show up to their first gigs.

Perhaps by flying in the face of fashion they had become fashionable. This funny, well-written, and engaging study will remind you why they and MacGowan matter.

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