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Dear Hollywood, Ireland Is Not a Theme Park

Wild Mountain Thyme
The Wild Mountain Thyme trailer shows that Hollywood is happy to persist with Irish stereotypes.

Words by Eric Hillis

Like so many of 2020's involuntary shut-ins, I've spent much of the year binging TV shows. Watching an episode each evening, I began back in March with Moonlighting before working my way through Remington Steele, and I'm currently four seasons deep into Murder She Wrote.

What do those three shows have in common, aside from all being American shows that follow a detective format? Well, they all feature ludicrous portrayals of Ireland and the Irish at some point in their runs.

Moonlighting features an episode in which Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd's bickering dicks are hired by Kathleen Kilpatrick (lol) a young "Irish" woman who believes she's a leprechaun. The role of Kathleen is played by red-haired (of course!) American actress Alexandra Johnson, and as you can probably guess, her accent is atrocious. It's that "Stage Oirish" accent that you won’t hear anywhere in Ireland, but which American movies and TV shows continue to persist with.

Remington Steele goes further, with multiple episodes both set and filmed in Ireland. Well, I say "set in Ireland", but they're certainly not set in the 1980s Ireland of my childhood. Rather they appear to take place in pre-revolution Ireland, with English Lords living in mansions on hills while the local flat-cap sporting peasants get drunk and fight among themselves. Some of the houses don’t even seem to have electricity. I can attest that Ireland was in a bad state in the '80s, but we still had Wham, Back to the Future and Dallas like everyone else!

I haven't gotten to an Irish set Murder She Wrote episode yet, but they're coming. So far however the series has featured multiple Irish characters, none of them played by Irish actors, and all performing with that bloody Stage Oirish brogue.

While a few Irish people find this sort of genuinely offensive, most of us can laugh it off, especially when it happens in movies and TV shows from decades past. But here's the thing - Hollywood continues to persist with this baffling version of Ireland that only ever existed in the minds of Americans who have never set foot in my country.


Take the newly released trailer for Wild Mountain Thyme, an upcoming movie that appears to do for the Irish what Song of the South did for African-Americans. Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley - one of those Americans who probably calls himself Irish despite clearly having no tangible relation to or knowledge of the country his ancestors left - and based off his play 'Outside Mullingar', the film stars Emily Blunt and Jamie Dornan as a pair of squabbling lovers in the John Wayne/Maureen O'Hara mould, with Christopher Walken cast as the latter's father, a farmer who threatens to pass his land onto an American nephew played by Jon Hamm. There's also some guff about a family curse, because we're all a bunch of backwards superstitious yokels here, you see.

It's no surprise that the accents are terrible, but that's the least of the problems here. A shot of the New York City skyline, with the World Trade Centre notably absent, tells us that the film takes place at some point in recent years. Why then does Ireland resemble the 1930s?

Has Shanley ever been to the outskirts of Mullingar? If he has, he would know that rural Ireland looks nothing like the imaginary Celtic theme park of his film. He wouldn't find anyone living in houses of wattling and clay. He wouldn't see too many red-haired cailíní. And he'd no doubt be shocked to find that not everyone is white and Irish. If Wild Mountain Thyme were set in a genuine approximation of 20th century small town Ireland it would feature a supporting cast of Poles, Nigerians and Brazilians. Blunt and Dornan's characters wouldn't be working the land, they'd be employed in the giant call centre on the edge of town. If Shanley wanted to find someone wearing a flat cap, his best bet would be to take a train into Dublin and look for the nearest tourist haunt.


What's particularly annoying about the continued backwards stereotyping of Ireland is that Irish actors continue to be complicit. Witness Saoirse Ronan taking part in a shockingly bigoted episode of the terminally unfunny American sketch show Saturday Night Live, an episode so malicious that it would likely have led to the show's cancellation if it targeted most cultures in such a cruel manner. Jamie Dornan has spent most of his life in Ireland, so what's his excuse? Why is an Irish actor adopting an accent that makes him sound like an American attempting to sound Irish? English actress Emily Blunt is talented enough that I imagine she could easily pull off a passable Irish accent. But I don’t think Hollywood wants genuine Irish accents. Instead they want an accent that Americans recognise as Irish, even if it's a brogue that doesn't exist in real life. Tom Cruise's performance in Far and Away is often held up as the worst attempt at an Irish accent in screen history, but it's said that Cruise worked hard to perfect an appropriate accent, only to be told by his producers that it wasn't recognisably Irish enough for American audiences.

Aside from the issue of getting our accents completely wrong, Hollywood insists of portraying Irish people as a bunch of loveable dolts. In 2020 we're still being portrayed in the same patronising manner as African-Americans were in the 1930s, as very charming and funny idiots who like a dance and a drink, but don’t give us too much of the hard stuff or we might get a bit rowdy. Decades of this stereotype has created a vision of Irish folk in the American psyche as the sort of people it's fun to go for a pint with, but not the sort of people you want to give any responsibility to. I know from personal experience that when an Irish person walks into a bar anywhere in America they're immediately embraced by fascinated drinkers, who often lose interest once they realise you don’t conform to their perception of the Irish. While in the US I was told by Irish-Americans that I wasn't really as Irish as they were, because my surname is Hillis and theirs were Hickey or Murphy. Until recently, the state of the Irish economy meant most of our young people were forced to emigrate. Many chose the US, and while a few found success, most ended up in dead end jobs. I wonder how badly affected they were by American employers' Hollywood cultivated perceptions of Irishness. If your only experience of Irish people came from The Quiet Man, would you want to give a position of power to someone you assumed was a drunken, poorly educated gombeen? Even the tagline of Wild Mountain Thyme - "there is nothing more dangerous … than an Irish woman in love" - suggests a darkside to the Irish psyche, that we're a potentially "dangerous" people who lack self control.

These screen representations of Ireland might warm the cockles of American viewers, but they also warp perceptions of a country that has made so many strides in recent decades that Ireland is now a lot more advanced than the US in many ways (we don’t pay our employees with cheques and the idea of signing for a credit card purchase would have to be explained to anyone under the age of 20). For better or worse, Ireland is as modern a society as any in Western Europe. Romantic Ireland's dead and gone, it's with O'Leary in the grave. And that's where it belongs, because it never really existed outside of the minds of Hollywood filmmakers.

If you want to see what modern Ireland really looks like, there are plenty of options as over the last decade the Irish film industry has made significant strides. Ironically, some of the most accurate depictions of today's Ireland can be found in movies made by British filmmakers. Peter Mackie Burns' Rialto and Phyllida Lloyd's Herself play out in a Dublin that I recognise as the city I call home, but which American audiences would probably mistake for London. Dublin is a modern city like any other, populated not by flat cap wearing, whiskey imbibing loveable rogues, but by normal people. You know, like that Irish TV show that Americans fell for this year.


There is one Irish character in a Hollywood movie that Irish people can feel proud of, even if he is a villain. That's Halloween III's Conal Cochrane, who enacts a plan to kill the children of America with a signal sent from a TV commercial to microchips embedded in the Halloween masks made by his company, Silver Shamrock. I'm not saying I'm in favour of mass infanticide, but Cochrane stands out as an American depiction of an Irishman. For a start he's played by one of our greatest ever actors, Dan O'Herlihy, and performs the role with a genuine Irish accent. But what's most notable about Cochrane is how competent he is. Where most Hollywood Irishmen are gobshites, Cochrane is an evil genius. The icing on the cake is how he turns America's commercial appropriation of a Celtic festival, Halloween, or Samhain as we originally knew it, against itself. Many Americans aren't even aware that Halloween originated in Ireland ("You don;t know much about Halloween," as Cochrane puts it). It's probably our greatest cultural gift to the US. And what did we get in return? A never-ending series of movies and TV shows in which we're portrayed as drunks, terrorists and idiots.