Sunday, March 16, 2008

St. Patrick's Day: Irish Altered States

I recently saw two powerful expressions of the grip that alcohol has on the national imagination and soul of the Irish: the film Kings from Tom Collins, and the play The Seafarer, by Conor McPherson.

I met a psychiatrist once who believed that the national Irish affinity for drinking was a product of centuries of oppression/emasculation by the British. (See post below.) Maybe.

Spoilers abound now for the film and play
, but knowing what happens wouldn’t diminish the experience of seeing either. The acting in each is superb.

Kings is a lyric film based on the play The Kings of the Kilburn High Road by Jimmy Murphy. It tells the tale of 6 young Irish guys of Connemara who leave home in 1977 because there are no jobs for them and go to London (of all places) to be day construction laborers. Before they leave, they make a pact that they will only speak Irish to one another. And so the audience reads subtitles for most of the film. (Because most of it is in Irish, it was nominated for Best Foreign Film, 2007. Very cool.)

Of course Irish as a national language was stamped out centuries ago. Its only toehold is in the West where it held on in small pockets from generation to generation.

The film picks up with the friends in middle age, although two of them look like very old men; they are serious drinkers who live only to get from one pint to the next. It follows the tensions between the friends, particularly with Joe (Colm Meany, yes of Star Trek: TNG), the most successful of the lot, who would not give Jackie a job because he was an unreliable drunk amongst the serious drinkers. Jackie was a walking, drowning man, and the friends feel guilty when they can't save him from the ultimate act of despair.

In flashback sequences we see the crew as young men, so full of hope and potential before the years of drinking wore away their life.

Theirs is world without women, although Mairtin is married, and has gone on the wagon for his wife. It’s been two days that he’s been dry when the story starts. But the wake for Jackie proves too much. He feels the pull of being with the lads much more strongly than any desire to be at home with this wife.

Jackie’s father comes over from Connemara to take his middle-aged son home to bury. It’s a very poignant scene as the little Aer Aran plane touches down at dawn in Ireland just as the the lads, barely keeping body and soul together in London, stumble home. The Irish language is a constant reminder of how alienated the men are in their London surroundings, and how deeply they are bound to each other.

The Seafarer is an engrossing, surprising play by Conor McPherson. We are in the lower working-class Dublin squalor of 2 brothers on Christmas Eve Day. The older brother Richard is a somewhat stereotypical happy drunk, as is his friend Ivan. Dick has the spirit, playfulness, and easy devotion of a child, with the mouth of a sailor. He went blind from an accident recently, but does not pity himself. His younger brother Sharky has recently returned home from a failed job opportunity in County Claire. Sharky is considered a failure all around, although from the minute the play begins we see how he does care about his brother and tried to care for him. He is on the wagon when the play opens.

Not so Ivan, the classic “Oh, me head, me head; I’m too drunk to go home to my wife” character.

Into this little wreck of a male trio comes 2 more: Nicky, a friend of the brothers now married to Sharky’s ex-wife, and Mr. Lockheart, although it is not clear how Nicky knows him.

The 5 gents are going to player poker on Christmas Eve. With a snap of the fingers to freeze time, Mr. Lockhart reveals that he is the Divel himself, come to collect Sharkey’s soul.

It’s a startlingly chilling moment. When Lockheart starts to talk about the cold isolation of hell, even nonbelievers in the audience are deeply spooked.

The luck of the Irish is with the men, and they outwit the Devil in cards, with the help of 100 proof potcheen, in time to go to Christmas morning mass, partially attracted by the beer that the monks brew. It’s an alcohol-soaked play, from start to stop.

These pieces both addressed drinking with a consciousness I hadn’t seen before: there is a resignation to alcohol in these men’s lives. Alcoholism is a disease, but most of these blokes seem to be in the grey area between alcoholics and more willfully out-of-control drinkers. Kings in particular makes the distinction that Jackie was in the jaws of the disease, while his friends were just serious drinkers.

Can all these Irish souls be in such constant pain that they need to be continously anesthetized? I don’t know if that’s how McPherson and Collins see it. Some of the characters dance around stereotypes, but then become more dimensional. As for the cosmic root of the drinking--the centuries of oppression idea is not so far-fetched. It's certainly part of what created the Irish epithet: "their wars are happy and all their songs are sad."

To someone on the outside, it’s hard not to see an underlying sadness in these daily lives, and you admire them for getting on with it all, as best they can.

Erin Go Bragh.


david bushman said...

M.A., there are only three meaningful words when it comes to Charlton Heston, and you left them out: "Touch of Evil."

There, I've posted on your site. I'll bet you're thrilled.