Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on March 14, 2013
When I was a child my family regularly celebrated Saint Patrick’s Day on March 17th. My parents and grandparents encouraged me to wear green and my mother would often make my brother and I a meal that consisted of corned beef and cabbage or my personal favorite, Irish stew with dumplings. But whenever I’d ask family members about our Irish ancestors I was usually ignored or met with a wry smile and a joke about our criminal connections. The truth is that most of my Irish ancestors were apparently kicked out of the British Isles in the early 1800s and ended up in Australia, which was a penal colony at the time. As a youngster I didn’t exactly understand what it meant to the larger world to be related to convicts but I was made to feel somewhat embarrassed and ashamed due to my family’s reluctance to discuss our personal history. Now that most of my immediate family has passed on I’ve taken it upon myself to delve into our past and uncover our Irish roots. It’s been an incredibly rewarding and eye-opening experience but I’ve had to rely on my own powers of investigation along with lots of paper documents and books to give me a better understanding of who I am and how I got here. I’ve also turned to one of my favorite obsessions for insight, the wonderful world of movies.
I know what you’re thinking. How can movies, which are regularly accused of distorting history in favor of cinematic glory, possibly help me learn more about my Irish ancestors? I can‘t argue with that fact but I don’t turn to the movies for facts. I have my own set of facts about my great, great, great Irish grandfather Peter Kelly although they’re limited to the information I found on his prison records:
Actual Transcription of Prison Record:
After getting over the initial shock and horror that washed over me when I discovered the terrible circumstances that my Irish grandfather faced in his youth I was determined to understand more about who he was, what he went through and how he survived as an apparent orphan on the streets of Dublin in the early 1800s. I read through a dozen history books that detailed the harsh conditions he faced and the descriptions of the crowded slums that made up the Arran Quay area in Dublin as well the tortures that awaited children sent to Kilmainham Gaol (jail). The images that formed in my head haunted me but these fact filled documents were often dull dreary reads full of important information but lacking in empathy and understanding. They didn’t give me the emotional satisfaction that I craved so I found myself turning to movies for sustenance.
I had fantasized that my Irish forefathers were similar to the characters found in Stanley Kubrick’s magnificent historical epic BARRY LYNDON (1975), which tells the compelling story of a handsome Irish rogue named Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neil) who gains a title and a fortune only to eventually lose it all. I also read a lot of James Joyce in my teens and I presumed my Irish ancestors must have been somewhat like the elegant literary figures found in John Huston’s adaptation of THE DEAD (1987). My working class roots eventually led me to rule out those assumptions so I began to envision a life for my Irish predecessors in the idyllic countryside surrounded by lush green fields and ragged coastlines that can be found in films like John Ford’s THE QUIET MAN (1942), David Lean’s RYAN’S DAUGHTER (1970) and Jim Sheridan’s THE FIELD (1990). Of course none of these Irish-themed films had much in common with my grandfather’s life. By all accounts Peter Kelly’s childhood resembled the dark and dreary existence of the Artful Dodger found in David Lean’s OLIVER TWIST (1948) and Carol Reed’s musical OLIVER! (1968). Both films were based on Charles Dickens’ classic tale of an orphaned British boy who survives the harsh conditions found in workhouses, struggles to maintain some soul crushing jobs and eventually ends up living with a bunch of petty criminals who steal for a living. Dickens began publishing Oliver Twist in 1837, the same year my 11-year-old grandfather was arrested and charged with his first crime. The last chapter of Dickens’ heartbreaking tale was published in 1839, the year my grandfather was charged with his final crime and shipped off to Australia on a convict ship at age 13. It’s noteworthy that Dickens’ suggested that the compulsive and resourceful Artful Dodger eventually ended up on an Australian penal colony as well. Although Dickens’ set Oliver Twist in London his description of what’s often referred to as ‘The Great London Waif Crisis’ was actually a condemnation of the industrial revolution that led to an increase in child labor. Many orphans in London as well as Dublin were forced into workhouses or eventually succumbed to a life of crime. While I’d never refer to OLIVER TWIST or OLIVER! as Irish-themed films, by telling Dickens’ tale both movies shed some light on the harsh conditions that children faced across Britain during the early 1800s.
Top: The Italian Job (1969), Middle: Michael Collins (1996)
My grandfather spent nearly 2 years of his young life in Dublin’s infamous Kilmainham Gaol and many prison movies and jail scenes have been filmed there. I revisited a few of my favorite movies shot in Kilmainham Gaol including THE ITALIAN JOB (1969), THE MACKINTOSH MAN (1972) and SITTING TARGET (1972) with new eyes. But these films and many others usually only make use of the prison’s somewhat picturesque East Wing which was built in 1864, long after my grandfather had been imprisoned there. During Peter Kelly’s time Kilmainham was much more primitive and crowded. Guards carried whips, which they regularly used on children and there was no electricity or running water. The place was a filthy, disease ridden house of horrors where many went to die. A few films such as Don Sharp’s THE FACE OF FU MANCHU (1965), Neil Jordan’s MICHAEL COLLINS (1996) and most recently Rupert Wyatt’s THE ESCAPIST (2008) actually make use of the older and more dungeon-like West Wing of the prison where my grandfather was kept. I haven’t come across any films made about the conditions at Kilmainham before the Victorian age but movies such as Arthur Dreifuss’ THE QUARE FELLOW (1962) and Jim Sheridan’s IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER (1993) at least give me some slight indication of the isolation, hopelessness and utter despair that awaited anyone who was sent there. According to historians, in my grandfather’s time some children committed crimes in the hope that it would land them in Kilmainhaim where they’d at least get fed and have a leaky roof over their head. The workhouse-like environment, squalid surroundings and regular beatings were apparently less threatening to some orphans than the terrors that awaited them on the streets of Dublin. Surprisingly, the early Dublin that my grandfather experienced has rarely, if ever, been reenacted on film. But MICHAEL COLLINS, which takes place some 60 years after Peter Kelly was forced to leave Ireland, at least gave me some indication of what the city was like during his lifetime. The film offers a brief look at some historic buildings my grandfather probably saw with his own eyes while roaming Dublin’s streets in search of his next meal such as Four Courts, Dublin Castle and Trinity College.
Movies can’t possibly offer viewers an accurate picture of what life was like in the early 1800s but they can give us a window into a world that may otherwise be completely invisible. Watching all these films again, and some for the first time, allowed me to see a glimpse of the Ireland that my grandfather experienced before he was sent to Australia. And the emotional tales these films often told contain universal truths that have ultimately become part of my own story. I’m proud that I’ve inherited my grandfather’s freckles and some of his survival skills.
On Sunday, March 17th TCM is celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day by showing a batch of Irish-themed films including THE QUIET MAN. I plan to tune in and catch up with a few movies that I haven’t had a chance to see yet such as SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL (1959) and I hope you will too. It doesn’t matter what nationality you are or what holidays you celebrate because anyone can enjoy a good film and a lot of good films were shot in Ireland. You can find a full listing of TCM’s Saint Patrick’s Day schedule here.
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