The Emerald Isle on the Silver Screen
Irish Catholics have made their mark in cinema.
The cultural pallet of America was tinted green when an influx of Irish immigrants poured into the United States in the 19th and early-20th centuries. At first, the Irish immigrant story was one of a downtrodden population group trapped in poverty and chaos. There is a reason circa-1800s horse-drawn police vehicles in New York were called “Paddy wagons.”
Thanks to some courageous Catholics, like New York Archbishop John Hughes, who acted like an Irish tribal chieftain and almost single-handedly pulled the Irish out of their squalor in the 19th century, the Irish began to rise. By the dawn of the 1900s, the Irish were holding political office and increasingly becoming part of the American middle and even upper classes. The extent of how far the Irish had come is found in a quote from the British home secretary at the time of the successful Irish Rebellion against English rule that started in 1916. “In former Irish rebellions, the Irish were in Ireland. We could reach their forces, cut off their reserves in men and money, then to subjugate was comparatively easy. Now there is an Irish nation in the United States, equally hostile, with plenty of money, absolutely beyond our reach, and yet within a ten days’ sail of our shores.”
As they continued to be absorbed in political and cultural life, the Irish moved west and immigrated into the burgeoning motion-picture industry in the 20th Century. Since the overwhelming majority of the Irish who came to America brought their faith with them, a Catholic perspective made its presence known in the popular culture, especially in the film industry.
Some of the most influential figures in the early days of this industry were Irish Catholic. Hal Roach owned an entire studio. Leo McCarey directed many classic films, from the very non-Irish gem Duck Soup, starring the Marx Brothers, to one of the most beloved Catholic films of all time, Going My Way. And then there was John Ford, who inserted his Irish ancestry and a Catholic sensibility into almost every movie he made in a 50-year career. With all the Irish Catholic touchpoints in Ford films, one would expect him to have been born in Munster rather than Maine. He was the first recipient of the American Film Institute’s “Lifetime Achievement Award,” and was also very influential on the next generation of great American directors: A 15-year-old future-director Steven Spielberg met Ford during a studio tour and received filmmaking advice that changed his life, while Martin Scorcese has written extensively on the significance of Ford’s magnum opus western, The Searchers.
And then there were the stars in front of the business end of the camera. James Cagney, Maureen O’Hara, Tyrone Power, Grace Kelly, Spencer Tracy, Bing Crosby — the list could be longer.
Even though the private lives of these stars did not always comport to Catholic moral teaching, their public personas were oftentimes linked directly to their faith and Irish ancestry.
Personal failings aside, ethnic and religious elements are contained in the art that was produced. Whether John Ford was making something as overtly Irish as The Informer about the Irish rebellion or the quintessential The Quiet Man, or a western with John Wayne, an Irish-Catholic view of the world was omnipresent.
Even John Wayne, the heroic American figure of white Anglo- Saxon Protestantism, was not immune from the blanket of Catholic identity that shrouded him in his public and private life. He died a baptized Catholic.
Depictions of the Irish and the Catholic identity were not always in line with the reality, and, many times, films from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s were a mixed bag of tropes and stereotypes as the ubiquitous nature of the Irish-Catholic content in films intersected with many different movie genres. The 1939 film Angels With Dirty Faces is your basic Jimmy Cagney-gangster movie. Cagney was so good at playing wicked men bent toward violence, producers and public standards insisted on his films having “good-guy” characters to tilt the scales back in the other direction. In this film, Irish Catholic actor Pat O’Brien supplies the contrast to Cagney’s badness. O’Brien plays Cagney’s boyhood friend, now a priest, who returns to the old neighborhood to do good. Crusading priest and gangster-with-a-soft-heart may not be high art, but the film makes an interesting commentary on tribalism and the role religious faith played in Irish life from either side of the railroad tracks.
When Cagney’s character faces the consequences of his actions at the end of the film, O’Brien’s priest stands by his side and asks him one last favor. The end result: A fallen man sacrifices the only thing he has left for the benefit of others. It’s an impactful resolution and one that blends a Catholic perspective of sacrifice with Irish fatalism.
Bing Crosby, in the Leo McCarey-directed classic film Going My Way, takes the Irish-Catholic-priest trope in an even more nuanced direction. This film, from the 1940s, is almost a pre-Vatican II harbinger of things to come. Crosby’s Father O’Malley is a man in the world, if not of it. He has a life outside the Church and is comfortable in both locations. This is contrasted by the “old school” elderly pastor played to perfection by Irish actor Barry Fitzgerald, who, by the way, was Protestant in real life but almost always played Catholics.
The capstone of this infusion of overtly Irish and Catholic imagery probably remains John Ford’s The Quiet Man, produced in the early 1950s. The film contains just about every Irish and Catholic cliché known to moviedom, yet it magically rises above them all to make for a classic movie experience. It has the perfect cast, perfect score, memorable dialogue — and Ford’s insistence to film on location makes Ireland itself a character in the film.
Of course, it is not the real Ireland, but the Ireland of the American imagination. The film is equal parts truth and fairy tale. But the point of all fairy tales is to convey some kind of universal truth, and there is plenty of that in The Quiet Man, even if it’s wrapped so beautifully in Irish mythology.
One essential element of Catholic life underrepresented in all these films is the Mass. In Angels With Dirty Faces, Pat O’Brien’s priest is in his sacristy, not on the altar. There is a Mass scene in Going My Way, but it is centered on the homily, not the Eucharist. The Quiet Man has one beautiful yet brief scene in a chapel, but viewers come into it just as Mass has obviously ended. This oversight was perhaps purposeful. As far as the Irish and Catholics had come by the middle part of the 20th century in America, the faith was still “alien” to many of the ticket-buying public, and studio heads probably did not want to either offend their Catholic audience by “recreating” something as sacred as the Mass or risk offending the majority-Protestant moviegoing audience for very different reasons.
In John Ford’s last great western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a world-weary newspaper editor gives some sage advice to his young reporter after a mythological story about the Old West turns out to not be true. “When the legend becomes fact … print the legend.” Thanks to the digital age we now inhabit, we can still revisit these films. They may not all be factual, but some are certainly legendary.
Robert Brennan writes from Los Angeles.