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Irish cinema’s green wave: There are many stories about Ireland better than Irish Wish that need to be told

How do we make sure that the stories Ireland tells about itself on screen are not reductive?

What stories are we telling about Ireland on screen, and who’s getting to tell them? I wondered this during a few moments recently. For starters, while watching the Lindsay Lohan film Irish Wish (don’t worry, this isn’t a column where I dissect its many idiosyncrasies – though I will note that at one point they serve boxty with cream for breakfast). Next, at a screening of the stunning Irish documentary Birdsong, about ornithologist Seán Ronayne. And finally, at two recent events: the X-Pollinator professional development weekend for film and TV-makers, and last week’s inaugural Storyhouse screenwriting festival.

They might seem disparate. One is a Netflix film with a slippery sense of what Ireland is actually like. Another is Kathleen Harris’s delicately made documentary about preserving Irish nature sounds. The final two are aimed at those in the screen industries, or who want to make work in that space. Taken together, they tell us much about where the Irish screen is right now – and where it’s headed.

There’s been a lot of talk about a “green wave” in Irish culture. Our recent Oscars success has made us look back at the 1990s and all that the likes of Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan achieved in La-La Land, as well as the impact of tax incentives, studios and the Irish Film Board (now Screen Ireland) in both tempting film-makers here and fostering national talent.

As we marvel at Irish film success in 2024, the names of our latest wave of talent trips off the tongue as easily as our patron saints – Cillian Murphy, Paul Mescal, Barry Keoghan, Element Pictures, Colm Bairéad and Cleona Ní Chrualaoí. And that selection is really just a taste of the people who show what this tiny island is capable of.

There’s a lot to celebrate. But where do we go from here? How do we make sure that the stories Ireland tells about itself on screen are manifold and not reductive? And so back to Irish Wish for a brief moment. Sure, it’s a bit of fun frippery that bonds the Irish together. And yes, the world of streaming is a big and broad one – but it made me think about how there are many better stories about Ireland that need to be told.

Take Birdsong. It might seem niche on the face of it, but the story of Seán Ronayne’s quest to record all the birds in Ireland (he has only three left) has been attracting packed audiences during recent screenings. There’s clearly a big interest in Ronayne’s work and in revealing the man-made threats to Irish nature. Sometimes niche can just mean underexplored, and Ireland’s climate future deserves plenty of screen time.

The idea of what’s niche or not also came up at X-Pollinator. When I attended it a few weeks ago, I encountered many talented new and emerging female, trans and nonbinary film and TV-makers. There’s a whole ecosystem of writers, producers and directors trying to bring their stories to screen, eager to find connections and new networks.

Gender balance in Ireland’s screen industry has been dismal, but is slowly improving thanks to specific initiatives such as this. X-Pollinator wants to lend a hand to help hoik people up to higher levels. (Both it and Storyhouse received funding from Screen Ireland’s Screen Stakeholders Funding Scheme, among other supports.)

At the Storyhouse screenwriting festival last week in the Light House Cinema in Dublin, it was a relief to find that people at the top of their game in the industry also want to figure out where things are going, and how they can help newcomers. Opening Storyhouse was Ed Guiney, who along with Andrew Lowe has made Element Pictures into a production powerhouse (it won four Oscars with Poor Things this year). He was blissfully ego-free as he talked about how we might be in fact underestimating what’s going on behind the scenes in Irish TV and film land.

Later on, writer Nancy Harris generously shared the months of work and discussions that go into crafting TV episodes. Anyone thinking a TV script can be dashed off quickly should be forced to watch her presentation on what went into the five opening minutes of her series The Dry (which was produced by Element).

Both X-Pollinator and Storyhouse showed that producing for the screen requires tenacity and luck. But it also means believing your story deserves to be heard, especially if you rarely see similar ones being told. At X-Pollinator I learned about the collective GALPAL, which is “dedicated to the creation, support and celebration of works by queer people, people of colour, migrants and women”. How exciting to think of all the new stories about Ireland that are being – and will be – told by its members.

Will everyone who attends an event like Storyhouse or X-Pollinator get to bring their stories to the screen? No – and those who do will most likely spend years grafting to get there. Film and TV are not industries for those who are big into instant gratification. But the fact that these two events were organised and funded during this big Oscar year shows there’s an appetite for creating fresh new work for the screen in Ireland.

And crucially, they also show that gatekeepers such as Guiney want to see that the doors are kept open for others to walk through. The fact you can legitimately dream of an Irish film getting an Oscar nomination is a nice carrot for many Irish filmmakers. You can’t get to the Dolby Theatre without support, both financial and infrastructural. You need the backing of sometimes multiple funding bodies, production companies, your peers, and the doors held open by those who got there first.

As we celebrate all that’s been achieved during this green wave so far, it’s good to know that some in the industry are backing others to keep aiming high. TV and film can tell us about what sort of Ireland we live in, and what needs to change, so we’ll learn much about this country from those building the next green wave. But we have to hope they get the support they need to tell the stories burning inside them.

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