The IRA on Film and Television reveals major themes running throughout cinematic depictions of the Irish Republican Army.
Not the IRA
A dominant theme in “IRA movies” is that are not about the IRA. Although the IRA is mentioned within the film, the audience is informed at some point that the terrorists belong to a “fringe” or “splinter” group, often at odds with the “official IRA.” This allows filmmakers to exploit the public’s fascination with the IRA while clearly stating that their scripts are not depictions of an actual organization, much less a political commentary.
Thus, Hawaii Five-O’s Jack Lord fights not the IRA but “a rebel splinter group.” In Patriot Games (Paramount, 1992) Jack Ryan battles “renegade” terrorists who kill Provos and are betrayed by an IRA bagman. The terrorist bomber in Blown Away (MGM, 1994) is deemed “too crazy” to be in the IRA.
By attributing terrorism and violence to rouges and outcasts, the films create the image of the IRA as a rational political organization that uses measured violence to achieve its objectives.
Throughout the films dealing with the IRA, the organization’s philosophy, ideology, and goals are encapsulated into one word: the Cause.
In American films the cause of Irish nationalism is not condemned, only the violence of renegades working to avenge a personal grievance rather than achieve a political objective. Other films, such as The Devil’s Own (Columbia Pictures, 1997), only question the means, never the goal of the IRA.
British films are more likely to denounce the cause, implying that it is Republicanism itself that leads to terror, not merely its maladjusted adherents. Films from the 1940s and 1950s suggest the nationalist cause is simply outmoded and misguided, perpetuated by ancient and irrelevant grievances. Films made after the Troubles of the 1970s contain more strident rejections of the cause of Irish unity. The SAS officer Shane Alcott in Riot (PM Enter-tainment Group, 1999) mocks the Provo leader’s “sick ideology.” For Sam McCready in Frederick Forsyth’s A Casualty of War (IFS Productions,1990) the IRA are “psychos whose only cause is the cause of ego-tripping power at the point of a gun.”
Disillusioned Patriots and Reformed Rebels
The theme of the disillusioned patriot and the reformed rebel runs throughout IRA films, allowing directors to explore the organization without endorsing its goals or tactics. Numerous Irish, American, and British films feature IRA protagonists who have abandoned the Cause or rejected violence in pursuit of its goals.
British films depict not only disillusionment but reformation and conversion. In two wartime films, IRA characters come to see the armed struggle as futile and recognize the English as people they should work with rather than fight against. The ultimate conversion character is Jack Higgins’ Sean Dillon (Rob Lowe), an IRA enforcer who is recruited to assist British intelligence.
American films depict former IRA men doing a form of rehabilitative penance. Jimmy Dove in Blown Away works as a bomb disposal officer in Boston. In The Jackal, the FBI frees the IRA sniper Declan Mulqueen (Richard Gere) from prison to outwit a hitman intent on assassinating the First Lady.
The Hard Man
The villain in many IRA films is the Republican fanatic, the “hard man” who views compromise as surrender, denounces negotiation as treason, places abstractions above people, and ruthlessly uses violence to not only attack enemies but anyone within the organization who fails to follow his rigid standards. For the hard man, the Cause is an absolute not be violated by conciliation or weakened by personal considerations. In films like Shake Hand With the Devil and The Boxer the Hard Man is executed by moderates in the IRA to achieve peace.
The informer is an archetypal figure in IRA films, beginning with John Ford’s Gypo who becomes a hunted outcast, doomed because he turned in a wanted murderer for twenty pounds. The publican in Ryan’s Daughter (MGM, 1970) proclaims nationalist sympathies but betrays the gun-running rebel O’Leary and cowardly stands by while the townspeople blame his daughter and shear her hair in revenge. In The Wind That Shakes the Barley Damien, the young doctor, is emotionally torn when he learns a childhood friend informed on the IRA, but feels compelled to shoot him. In The Outsider (Cinematic Arts B.V, 1979) and Patriots (Boston Pictures, 1994) the British plan to eliminate American volunteers and score a propaganda coup by setting them up to be shot as traitors by the IRA. Fifty Dead Men Walking follows the intricate relationship between an IRA informer (Jim Sturgess) and his British handler (Ben Kingsley).
Odd Women Out
IRA films present women in several archetypal roles – the peacemaker, the toxic mistress, the cheerleader, and increasingly, the Hard Woman who uses violence with a ruthlessness unmatched by her male compatriots.
The Missing Unionist
The most intriguing figure in IRA-related motion pictures is conspicuous by his or her absence. Most films portray the Troubles of Northern Ireland along largely Republican lines. The background narrative is that the Irish Republican Army, however depicted, is battling the British to free the Six Counties and unify the island. The IRA’s implacable adversary, the Unionist or Loyalist, is present in only a few films and generally marginalized. A lone Unionist briefly appears in Michael Collins and is promptly blown up. In The Boxer Joe Hamill (Brian Cox) refers to Protestants as being “the other half of the population” when in fact they represent two-thirds of the people of Northern Ireland. The complexities of Irish identity are generally overlooked in motion pictures to reduce the plot to a two party conflict: terrorist against a lawful society or patriot against a foreign occupation.