(Reading time text: 15 mins maximum)
Film review by Diarmuid Breatnach
Around 60 people viewed the film “My Land” on Sunday morning (23/ 06/ 2019) in the Irish Film Institute in Dublin, scheduled at the decidedly un-prime time of 11.30 am on a Sunday morning. “In this revealing documentary, Anthony Monaghan, an Irish filmmaker now living in the United States, takes a hard look at economic migration, mass evictions, and the growing homeless crisis that plague Ireland today. In search of answers, he travels the nation and interviews Irish people from all walks of life” (the description on the FB page for the event).
The film opens focused on heavily-built man in shorts with a broad somewhat weathered face, wearing a straw stetson-type hat, brim turned up both sides and overall looking quite like a middle-aged man of the American Indigenous people. The rhythms of his speech and accent soon however reveal a mixture of western Irish and USA. The man parks his construction company pickup truck, gets out and we watch him walk on to a bridge, to look down upon a river, possibly the Missouri, where he stands looking for awhile before turning to the camera and beginning to speak.
DEVASTATION OF RURAL AREAS
Anthony Monaghan is from Erris, County Mayo and went to work in England when he was 15 years of age as many others around his age did too, especially in that area with an absence of industries and therefore of employment. Later, he emigrated to the USA. Later still, he returned and took out a mortgage on a house but, as we learn later, the bank took it from him and he has now returned to Missouri USA, where he decided to make the documentary.
We hear the sound-track of Lovely Blacksod Bay, a song about the ‘return’ of the son of an emigrant to Mayo.
Interspersed with beautiful scenery shots, interviewees talk about the problems of the Belmullet area, principally of lack of employment and consequent emigration. Included among those interviewed are Rose Conway-Walsh, Sinn Féin Senator from Bellmullet, Mayo, whose grown-up children had to move away. Another a former male emigrant who returned to the area in the early 1980s now sees his children moved away to work in England, his grandchildren there, returning twice a year, which brings excitement as they arrive and sadness as they leave. Another ‘returned’ migrant, a writer, came to the area from the Irish diaspora in London, brought as a child by his parents. He too had to emigrate for a while – now, back again, he expects his daughters to leave also.
As we accompany Monaghan to the local graveyard overlooking the sea, he points to the name of a brother on a headstone, a sibling who did not return alive from emigration.
The film shifts to a young woman, possibly Irish-UStater, accompanying herself on auto-harp while singing Noreen Bawn (Nóirín Bán), a sentimental song about tragedy in emigration.
John McGuinness, TD for Kilkenny-Carlow area, is also interviewed as is a FG member of the legal profession. Peter McVerry, of an NGO working with the homeless, also speaks, as does a local businessman.
The talk is of the devastation suffered by rural communities by unemployment and emigration, then the cutbacks on services to the areas, the closing of post offices, the isolation and vulnerability of the elderly, the long journeys to medical services ….
At a harbour, Monaghan talks to a man who fishes from a boat for a living, who says that kind of livelihood is gone, with big boats competing with the smaller ones. He sees no future for the younger generation making a living from the sea as he has done.
DUBLIN AND HOMELESSNESS
The film shots switch to Dublin streets and homeless people sleeping rough or begging. Among the interviewed now are the same people as before but more are added, including actor-author and former homeless person Glen Gannon and radio broadcaster Marion Shanley who, with three children, had faced eviction from her home. Tony Walsh, former homeless man and organiser of a food-serving service to homeless and other persons in need was also interviewed, as was bankrupt property developer Tom Hardy, author of “Waiting for the Sheriff”. Along with those was a young Dubliner, currently homeless.
A number of people, including the young Dublin homeless man, point out the profits that are being made by landlords. Tom Hardy reels off statistics in the profits being made there and also by the vulture funds in “buying” mortgage debts from banks at knockdown prices which the banks would not offer their debtors. A woman talks about the horror of having to raise one’s children in the hotel rooms in which homeless services place them, where they are cramped and cannot cook food. She talks about what this is doing to the children and wonders psychological problems are in store for them in future. “Why don’t the Government declare a housing emergency?” she almost wails. Clearly it is a housing emergency but as Gannon points out, they won’t declare it. It is not in their interests to do so. And according to the woman quoted earlier, a tsunami of evictions is on the way.
McVerry commented that there is a section of the population in Ireland who are doing quite well and who have no stake in any radical change in society. A number of the interviewees made reference to the wealth of the country, including several who said it was the fifth wealthiest state in the EU. I failed to find confirmation of that particular statistic and istead found a wide variety of rankings. Of course, the wealth of a state is not necessarily reflected in its people or, to be more exact, among the majority. While the problems of lack of affordable decent housing and employment, along with emigration cause suffering among a large section of people, revealed in rising rates of suicide, the number of wealthy are rising fast, with 83,000 people in Ireland whose income exceeds more than one million dollars per year (see References at end of review). It’s hard to believe that the misery of the struggling does not have some relationship to the soaring wealth of a tiny minority.
All the interviewees, to one degree or another, placed the blame for the situation on the Government. Most of them also blamed the banks and the vulture funds. Some pointed to vested interests of TDs who are rental landlords while other went as far as to allege corruption and in effect an integrated system of banks-landlords-vulture funds-district courts-TDs- Government.
Some of the interviewees alleged that the Irish are too accepting, too meek. One who did so was a Ginley (or McGinley), who said that the Irish had fought for the British and for the USA but had never fought for themselves. He seemed either ignorant or dismissive of the long Irish history of resistance and also of the fact that not only the Irish who fought in the British and US armies were not “fighting for themselves” but neither were the British and US working people alongside them!
Marion Shanley was one who upheld the Irish history of resistance and pointed out that in war, to which she hoped it would not come, incidents of suicide tended to almost disappear.
Given the size of the problems and the combination of political and financial interests, it was going to be interesting to see what solutions were advocated.
Anthony Monaghan wished to see some kind of combination of workers and business people to sort out the problems and hoped “the fighting Irish” would come to the fore.
TD McGuinness stated it was important for the politicians to come closer to the people and asked for greater leniency from the district courts in house repossession cases. Senator Conway-Walsh also wanted to see greater leniency from the courts but tighter legislation against vulture funds too. The homeless young Dubliner put forward the radical solution of having members of the Government spend a week in the conditions of homeless people.
Only Glen Gannon baldly put forward the clear solution, the only one possible, given the interlinking of financial and political interests: Revolution.
There is a vacuum of leadership, as a couple of interviewees remarked.
During his interview, the man I remembered as Ginley (or McGinley), referred to Ben Gilroy as a champion “of our own”, an electoral candidate who had been failed by the electorate and whose “vote was derisory” in the recent elections. However Gilroy (who was present at the screening, as were a number of interviewees), had in the past posted an islamophobic rant on social media and had shared leadership of the recently-defunct Irish Yellow Vests with a racist, anti-emigration, anti-gay and lesbian islamophobe.
This points to a possible danger, not only that we might continue to be driven downwards but that in desperation, we might turn to fascism and racism, as other people have done in difficult times. And in precisely those kinds of times, the ruling capitalist class has not usually been shy of finding their champions to push those kinds of ‘solutions’, splitting the working class and diverting attention from the real problems.
And one form of fascism has been indeed to seek the unity of workers and businessmen sought by Monaghan (though that should not of course be taken as a suggestion that he is himself a fascist). In such “unities” there is no question of which sector will be in command.
In a film about the Ireland of today, it was interesting to see no images or hear any reference to immigration other than that of the Irish diaspora. It could have been that the makers wanted to keep the narrative simple …. or there could have been another reason for it.
Anthony Monaghan said at one point that although he knew that was not possible, he’d like to go back 20 years. At the turn of the century, i.e twenty years ago, the false Irish economy bubble was about to burst.
SPIRITUALITY IN RESISTANCE
In one scene, the camera follows Anthony Monaghan going down into a holy well (St. Dervla’s) near his original home and blessing himself with some of the water there. Remarking that although he does not condone the scandals that have come out of the church in recent decades, he regrets the Irish turning away from the Catholic faith, which he feels sustained us in years past and bound us together.
One of Monaghan’s interviewees points out that the worst thing about the scandals in the Church was not the abuses themselves but the cynical covering them up by those in authority, exposing more people still to abuse and suffering.
Talking about Catholicism as a binding agent of the Irish while almost in the next breath about our martyrs and heroes of the past, ignores a very important part of that very history of resistance which Monaghan upholds. The Catholic Church, from the moment Penal Laws began to be lifted, worked might and main against that Irish resistance. Its leadership condemned the United Irishmen (in particular the few priests who joined them), the Land League actions, the Fenians and the IRA in nearly every period and in all of its manifestations. In addition, the founders of the United Irishmen were Protestants, as were nearly all the prominent people of the Young Irelanders; Protestants were to be found too among the founders of the Volunteers, the Fianna, Ininí na hÉireann and the Irish Citizen Army.
In fact, history was sorely missing in all the analyses, since no-one pointed out that the State had been set up in a counterrevolution, an alliance of Catholic Church and Gombeen capitalist class under the old master’s tutelage. There seemed to be no acknowledgement that the Irish state is a neo-colony, run by a Gombeen capitalist and political class, its natural resources to be plundered by foreign multinationals, its services to be sold to the same, its own natural industries to be run down.
Human beings do have a spiritual sense, whatever anyone may say against that – but that is not necessarily about religion, contrary though that statement may seem. A sense of who we are as Irish people, as workers, as human beings, as part of life on earth, can be both practical and spiritual. It can be conveyed in language, song, poetry, visual art …. and in a knowledge of living history.
In that respect, it was strange that in a film about Ireland made by a man from Erris, by the Belmullet Peninsula and a large part of which figures in the narrative and images, there were only five words in Irish to be heard. For Béal Muirthead is a Gaeltacht, an Irish-speaking area, though shrinking under pressure from English-speaking monoglots.
it was an interesting film from the point of view of presenting the issues and gathering some opinions about them.
But as well as who were interviewed, it was interesting to note who were not. No active revolutionaries — socialist, communist, republican …. no activists in recent or current movements of resistance. And no reference to the mass mobilisations against the water charges and the local battles resisting meter installation. Nor of the demonstrations protesting homelessness. Not even a mention of the titanic (or biblical Davidian) struggle in Rossport, Mayo, against Shell BP.
The last song I remember hearing on the film’s soundtrack was James Connolly, not the song about the revolutionary socialist and trade union organiser he was (see below) but instead one which portrays him as an “Irish rebel” out of context, without mention of class or of the Irish Citizen Army, of which he was the leader.
REFERENCES AND SOURCES:
Trailer for film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vP1lcSvBbtQ&feature=share
Lyrics and air Lovely Blacksod Bay song: https://www.itma.ie/inishowen/song/lovely-blacksod-bay-song-cornelius-mceleney-singing-in-english
Recording of Noreen Bawn: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_0n3VwC9Kr4
Recording of James Connolly, the Irish Rebel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wEmy8nif7J8
Recording of Where Is Our James Connolly?: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6tqGknooC9g
Irish economic and financial status: http://www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org/countries/ireland/
Millionaires in Ireland: https://www.thejournal.ie/wealth-report-ireland-3264492-Mar2017/