Guest contributor Alannah Murray is a film student, fashion enthusiast, avid Pinterest user and disability advocate. In her critical essay, she looks at the representation of working class families in Irish cinema…[restrict]
The Irish working class family experience is something that filmmakers have tried to capture for years. Whether it’s the humour or the dialect, there’s a certain essence that makes it so unique and two of my favourite examples are The Snapper (1993), and Dublin Oldschool (2018).
Growing up working class, I’ve always had an incredible amount of pride in being up to my neck in family members who would do anything for each other. My Granny grew up in the tenement buildings on Bolton Street and my grandparents raised my ma in Finglas until she was four years old before moving to Navan, Co Meath, where she met my Dad.
My other Nana grew up in Kilbeg, not far from Navan, and balanced working and rearing nine children in an end-of-terrace house. Working class families, particularly the larger ones, are some of the most creative people you’ll ever meet. They’re also the soundest, but that could be bias on my part.
I can’t remember the first time I saw The Snapper but I was with my ma when I did. With siblings running around roaring at each other, slamming doors in a house that somehow fits everyone in and seeing an awkward but well-meaning da not knowing what to do in the face of a serious issue as the mother wondered what the neighbours would think, it instantly felt familiar. Directed by Stephen Frears and written by Roddy Doyle, it shows the transition of old Ireland evolving into something new. The attitude of The Snapper is one of just getting things done.
When an underage Sharon Curley announces that she is pregnant and that she was keeping it, her father responds with a “Well, that’s that then”. It isn’t a question of how they were going to do it as a family, they just were. Dessie Curley is an example of an Irish da in a nutshell. I say da rather than dad because I think there’s a difference between the two. So what is an Irish da? There is a defined line between dads and children, a certain level of respect that they command but with a da, the line is a bit softer; there’s more of a friendship element to it. You’d sit and have a quiet drink with your dad at home over a game of football, whereas you’d go down to the local with your da, with an understanding that you are equals.
There are certain lines you don’t cross with dads and an instinct to hold back a little. A dad would have been a lot harsher if you’d come home pregnant at 19 – there’d also probably be shouting – but what makes Dessie a classic example of a da is the lack of that. On paper, having kids is the only criteria for da status but in reality, there’s a deeper trust and difference in relationship that gives you the title.
The conversations Dessie shares with his friends around a couple of pints are the awkward hush hush conversations that men across the nation needed to be having in 90s Ireland. Amongst the whispers of a young, unmarried girl getting pregnant, there is no shame from Dessie. He proudly shrugs and says, “Sure, it’s only a baby”. His friends nod in agreement, with one piping up that having a baby is the most natural thing in the world. The way Doyle originally wrote the screenplay for The Snapper has become synonymous with his style, where he discusses social issues through the medium of pub shop talk.
The relationship between Dessie and his kids has always been my favourite dynamic in The Snapper. Dessie signifies a cultural shift in Irish cinema as a character. In a lot of traditional Irish cinemas, mothers are at the forefront for emotional support and as core characters in female protagonist’s lives but in The Snapper, Kay Curley takes a backseat to Dessie. He’s the one who doesn’t bat an eyelash when Kimberly, the youngest of the Curley clan, comes through the kitchen in a full baton twirling uniform and a face full of Sudocrem.
He’s the one who brings Craig, his son who is fresh off the plane from the Leb, sandwiches in the police station after a run in with the guards. Dessie Curley was, at the time, a sign that times were changing; something he said himself when discussing Sharon’s pregnancy with his wife in the garden.
Passively affectionate but fiercely protective, his relationship with Sharon is particularly lovely. As the eldest daughter, there is a certain expectation on Sharon to set an example for the siblings; get married, dance with your dad at the wedding and raise a family. That was how it was done. When she comes home unexpectedly pregnant, you would expect her da, a pillar of the Barrytown community, to blow his lid. Instead, he invites her down to the pub and is a source of constant support throughout the pregnancy. He drives her to her scans, defends her honour every chance he gets, reads the baby books so he’s informed and he is right there with her as she goes into labour, trying (and failing) to keep her calm.
That’s not to say that there weren’t some traditional elements left in his character. When himself and Kay are discussing telling their other daughters about contraceptives out in the garden, he clams up instantly. “Whatever ya think yourself. I’m only their da, they’d only laugh at me,” he says with his hands in his pockets.
The beauty of The Snapper is in how mundane it is. The Curleys don’t have much but they have each other. As the Curleys crowd around a kitchen table to candidly discuss taboo subjects like teen pregnancy, like many other families have done before, we get a clear representation of what Irish family life is like in cinema.
Bringing us up to date with the backdrop of modern-day Dublin, Dublin Oldschool follows a gang of young people on a Bank Holiday weekend of drugs and house music. Directed by Dave Tynan and written by Emmet Kirwan, this film contains a family dynamic between Jason (played by Kirwan), his brother and his extended group of mates.
What ties these people together isn’t blood but the experience of being young in Dublin.
Living for the weekend, living for the end of a mundane job. Seeing your ex with a new fella, losing friends to emigration and the only thing you have is a heavy bass line and your mates to get you through it. There is a unity that you find in your session friends, whether you know them forever or you’ve just met them in the smoking area and have decided in that moment that they’re your best mate.
The whole film is a trip in its own way. You get the manic highs and the crashing lows of what it’s like to be young as the world continues moving around you but you’re stuck between being a kid and needing to grow up. In between the parties, you get glimpses into what life was like for Jason and Daniel before Daniel started living on the streets. It’s a poignant plea for the times when things were simpler; anecdotes about bathing with your brother until you were nearly ten because your Ma and Da wanted to save money by only heating the boiler once, going to underage raves and scratching up Joe Dolan vinyls, the first sign of addiction taking hold… Emigration, drugs, homelessness: the Irish financial crash personified in an hour and a half.
There comes a point in the film where you realise that the two brothers are struggling with the same thing; addiction. While Daniel lives on the street with a heroin addiction, Jason is out on the bag every weekend brushing it off as a bitta craic. A final standoff in Temple Bar brings the reality crashing down in a vicious back and forth of words where both brothers realise the consequences of their own actions.
At its heart, Dublin Oldschool is a commentary on an important social issue with young people in the eye of the storm, same as The Snapper.
Whether it’s drugs or teenage pregnancy in old Ireland or new, conversations about Irish society are often had with working class people at the heart of it because they’re the ones who are affected the most. Working class families, whether they’re biological or found, are the driving force of discussions around Irish life and that’s why filmmakers will give us a seat at their kitchen table again and again.
Main photo credit: @dublinoldschoolfilm on Instagram[/restrict]