Home > analysis, Celtic, film, Ireland, opinion > A Tale of Two Irelands: Differentiating Rural and Urban Ireland From Their Stereotypes

A Tale of Two Irelands: Differentiating Rural and Urban Ireland From Their Stereotypes

When one thinks of Ireland the first thing that comes to mind is a people with red hair that enjoy their drink. They live in a land of immense green landscapes, shamrocks, and foggy mountains. Or at least that’s how its viewed. Ireland is perceived in popular imagination as a romanticized rural country, and that the red-headed-drinking-Irish dwell there. While there is a definite rural component to Ireland today, this popular conception of Ireland ignores the urban aspect of the country. In popular visions of Irish cities such as Dublin, Belfast, Derry, Cork, Limerick, or Galway are seen in a separate world from Ireland itself. Most of these cities when mentioned dismissed as being too influenced by foreign cultures, primarily the English, to be considered truly Irish.

When these two visions are put together there are two Irelands, that of the romantic agrarian society and anglicized and foreign urban centers. But when a closer look is given one can see that there is a blur between the two in their ‘Irish-ness.’ Irish film, literature, and history all suggest this pan-Irish culture in both rural and urban centers of Ireland. In this paper six Irish films and two plays will be looked at for their depictions of rural and urban Ireland to understand the stereotypes and the real sense of place in the two communities. Information regarding the social-historical connotations will also be looked at as a means of defining the communities from their stereotypes.

Rural and urban Ireland are both assigned stereotypes that only depict the two at the surface level. Often times these visions are derived from outside perspectives on Ireland, and other times it’s the Irish themselves that are responsible for their creation. Both are defined by their stereotyping from external perspectives, but when looked at with an Irish viewpoint there is a different presentation. The two communities are both unified by their collective history and growth and unique in the sense of how they present themselves.

Only watch ‘The Wind That Shakes the Barley’ with a box of tissues nearby

The cinema of Ireland in the past twenty years has done much to show the dichotomy between rural and urban Ireland, but at the same time similar trends exist between the two. The two heritage films The Wind That Shakes the Barley and Michael Collins both tell stories of the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War. The former is a fictitious story primarily set in rural County Cork, while the latter is biographic story of IRA head Michael Collins, which is set primarily in Dublin. Both contain situations depicting the Irish perspective of the conflict through their portrayals of the English and the uniformity of Irish opinion to each. In the two films rural Ireland is depicted as being a hotbed for anti-English attitudes. The Wind That Shakes the Barley depicts this through the setting and the later juxtaposition of the Anti-Treaty forces located primarily in the country, while the Pro-Treaty groups are located in the city. The film suggest that a sense of anglophobia was more prevalent in the country, a possible derivation of nineteenth-century land issues, while the city was anglicized resulting in a more favorable view of the treaty.

It is quite possible that in the case of the The Wind That Shakes the Barley anglophobia was a byproduct of the long standing stereotyping of rural Ireland as anglophobic. Mervyn Horgan has described the difference between rural and urban centers in their stereotypes, “Where the country was egalitarian and communal the city was British and class differentiated” (Horgan 41). Horgan’s statement in an enforcement of traditional stereotypes as separating the two based upon their outlooks on the United Kingdom. The long-standing ideology of anglophobia is problematic when one considers the dependence the Republic of Ireland had on trade with the United Kingdom. As David Huff pointed out in 1979, “Great Britain has remained as the major foreign trade partner for the Republic, and trade in Ireland accounted for roughly forty percent of the total GNP” (Huff 198). In this sense, all of Ireland was dependent on the U.K. for trade up until the Celtic Tiger, when Ireland expanded its trade. Terms of social-cultural aspects that Horgan uses to separate the urban and rural communities is also somewhat invalid considering the widespread Anglicization of the whole island. In the case of The Troubles, both Derry/Londonderry (stereotypically Nationalist) and Belfast (stereotypically Unionist) both urban centers had staunchly different views of the English when viewed on the surface level, but were far more mixed upon closer examination. In contemporary Ireland it’s even harder to distinguish anglophobia based on skewed representation as Diarmaid Ferriter mentions, “…from 1971, for the first time, the majority of the Irish population (52 per cent) was living in urban areas” (Ferriter 703). Considering that Ireland is now an urbane country in terms of its population it becomes difficult to make casual assignments of anglophobia. Also given the strong connection economically since the establishment of the Irish Free State and the colonization prior to that, there has been substantial Anglicization in both rural and urban Ireland.

You will not need tissues for Michael Collins though.

In Michael Collins the rural setting is seen in a similar fashion as The Wind That Shakes the Barley, however, the sense of anti-English attitudes are more diverse and existed in the urban centers as well. It doesn’t constrain the concept of anglophobia strictly to the country, but shows that it was a divisive issue throughout Ireland at the time. One must also consider the production of the films. Michael Collins was directed by Neil Jordan, an Irishman, with United States studio financial backing, while The Wind That Shakes the Barley was directed by Ken Loach, an Englishman, and funded primarily from United Kingdom studios. Many of the social and political aspects of The Wind That Shakes the Barley are fairly traditional black-and-white stereotypes (Irish good guys, English bad guys) for most of the film. In this sense, The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a heritage story haunted by stereotypes, while Michael Collins in comparison, attempts to properly address the divisive attitudes of the period.

Similar to the production of The Wind That Shakes the Barley is that of the more comedic Waking Ned Devine. Like the former film, Waking Ned Devine is an English produced film, but set in rural Ireland. It extolls the idealized charm of the rural country; a small-hard-to-find-village, mostly friendly neighbors, laid back life, etc. The physical landscape of the film makes it also easy to generate nostalgia and familiarity. Maureen Dezell quotes James Carroll on the sense of nostalgia of the Irish landscape, “Those who emigrated began thinking of Ireland as a mythic place, and their children and grand-children learned to think of it as a lost paradise” (Dezell 220). For many Irish-Americans Ireland was a land taken away from them due to the catastrophic loss and way of life caused by the potato famine in the 1840s. Dezell quotes Carroll again on the Irish nostalgia, “The Irish…came to regard the defeated land from which they came as mythic motherland. ‘They remembered a land of extraordinary beauty…the sod [land] had been theirs, and not the landlord’s. They remembered an Ireland blessed with rare human virtues” (Dezell 23). The passage does much to explain the typical view of rural Ireland. One that is largely characterized by Irish-Americans dispossesed out of their homeland and have only thought of it since, as suggested in both passages. It is easy to see this stereotype being depicted in Waking Ned Devine, as it’s just as much a showcase of rural Ireland as it is the events of the plot. In many ways, Waking Ned Devine is a love letter to the rural stereotype of Ireland. Considering the origin of the production it’s easy to see the same potential stereotypes as in The Wind That Shakes the Barley.

Most reactions to ‘Waking Ned Devine’ are like this

Differing from this stereotype is Daniel O’Hara’s short film Yu Ming Is Ainm Dom (My Name Is Yu Ming), which sets up the cliche and breaks it. In the short, a Chinese convenience store clerk decides to move to Ireland and learns Irish Gaelic upon discovering that it is the official language of the country. Once Yu Ming arrives in Dublin the viewer sees the city as a mixture of cultures and which the native Irish can’t understand the language. The film does two important things concerning urban Irish stereotypes. First, it does enforce the idea that urban centers are anglicized in the sense of the dominant presence of the English language in the city. At the same time it doesn’t deny the same for rural Ireland. The viewer finds Yu Ming in a Gaeltacht, an Irish-speaking area, the only place in Ireland where can use the language daily. Secondly, the film suggests the diversity of present-day Dublin. Dublin today is more than simple ‘black-and-white Irish,’ but a mixture of many cultures as many global cities are. It stands out as a byproduct of the economic growth of Ireland from the Celtic Tiger, creating a more cosmopolitan urban Ireland. Yu Ming Is Ainm Dom is proof that there is more to urban Ireland than anglicization as it’s a mixture of many cultures that make up the diverse urban environment.

The last pair of films to be examined are The Commitments and Once. Like Waking Ned Devine and The Wind That Shakes the Barley, The Commitments was also an English produced film. It takes a potential new stereotype of the urban Irish as being working poor. This works for the film’s plot with the forming of a soul band, using the music of African-Americans as analogous to the urban Irish. Other than the unemployed cast of characters there aren’t any other classes seen. But as Ferriter states, “In 1982, an Economic and Social Research Institute paper recorded how deeply implanted class differences were, and predicted: ‘Ireland may enter the twenty-first century with an upper-middle class so securely entrenched as to hearken back to nineteenth-century predecessors” (Ferriter 703). Understanding that urban Ireland was highly divisive in terms of its class structure makes the depiction in The Commitments seem even more out of place. The depiction used can, however, be explained. As Dezell points out when quoting Judge Jerome Frese, “To be Irish was to be defensive, downtrodden, and meant you had to fight for yourself” (Dezell 70). The working poor stereotype of The Commitments can be seen as a byproduct of self-generated stereotyping of the Irish as poor, which can be then seen through the lens of the English creators of The Commitments.

On the other hand, there is the film Once, which was produced Ireland, and also tells the story of a musician. Like the cast of The Commitments he is relatively poor making most of his money from busking in Dublin. It differs though by focusing this element of poverty more with the general financial instability of the character and not because of the deliberate stereotype or an analogy to a similar group. He is simply a musician trying to make some money, and maybe make his own album. Like Yu Ming Is Ainm Dom, Once also showcases the diversity of urban Ireland, as the film is also features a un-blossomed romance between the busking musician and a Czech immigrant. While it isn’t quite the same as someone of Chinese heritage lost in Dublin, it does give the same idea of more than anglicized Irish in the city. It contrasts with The Commitments in the sense that it strays away from the deliberately poor Irish stereotype and focuses on the diversity of Dublin as well.

Turning towards Irish theater, one can see similar trends to the cinema of Ireland. When it comes to the depiction of contemporaneous rural Ireland Conor McPherson’s The Weir stands out as one of the strongest examples. The entirety of the play takes place in a rural Irish pub as the locals welcome a Dubliner to the area and tell each other stories. As Nicholas Grene describes it, “Remote and desolate as the pub may be, its homely atmosphere and relaxed story-telling represent an alternative life to that of the town or the city. The bar-room stands at the edge of the modern world, a last dying vestige of an older community” (Grene 304). Grene’s passage suggests that rural Ireland is a fleeting image. Many times during the play the characters mention, or indirectly suggest, that the current rural way of life is only held up by (through financial means) the tourism of ‘the Germans,’ a further reference to the changing pace there. When considering the romanticization of the country that creates the stereotype of rural Ireland, The Weir far more becomes melancholic in its reminder of the changing world. The stories that the pub-goers tell bridge the gap between the rural and urban communities of Ireland as suggested further by Grene:

“Loneliness, desolation, sexual perversion, mortality are human experiences common to rural and urban life, the past and the present…An implicitly modern urban audience is drawn with Valerie [the Dubliner] into the atmosphere of the pub and encouraged to believe in a scene that is simultaneously quaintly different and familiarly recognizable” (Grene 308).

The concept of familiarity of the urban Irish audience to the rural characters of The Weir helps bridge the gap between the two communities. The play serves a means of paying respect to the disappearing rural Ireland, one that is supplanted by a romanticized rural image.

Author Conor McPherson is one of the top Irish playwrights today

For urban Ireland, Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock works on the same level that the films The Wind That Shakes the Barley and Michael Collins do, but pays attention to story of urban Irish during the Irish Civil War. Like The Commitments the family is poor, living in a tenement house, but it seems more authentically ‘Irish’ based on the personalities of the family in traditional Irish roles. Like Michael Collins there is a moral ambiguity within the family itself over the Civil War, with the son an Anti-Treaty supporter, and the mother who rejects the violence altogether. The English character, who dupes the family out of their potential fortune, and thus dooming them to continued poverty, fits the stereotype associated with anglophobia. But in the end the mother and sister turn away from the ‘traditional’ anglophobia, instead prepare to take the steps beyond. By doing this O’Casey is separating traditional stereotypes of Ireland from reality. Like The Weir, Juno and the Paycock disestablishes stereotypes of urban Ireland through the diverse opinions concerning the Irish Civil War and that of anglophobia.

When looking at these source materials and juxtaposing them against the stereotypes of rural and urban Ireland the reality becomes more distinct from stereotypes. Rural Ireland is far more than an agrarian society that is anglophobic, and in the case of The Weir, is often seen as a disappearing lifestyle of Ireland. At the same time urban Ireland doesn’t fit the image of anglicized culture, but rather a variety of peoples, with the historical tradition of being just as connected to Ireland as that of the rural community. While both have their obvious distinctions and idealizations, they are far more than what they picture the other, or when viewed outside of Ireland itself. Ireland is a composite of the two communities, with their own unique traits but share a common Irish identity.

Works Cited

The Commitments. Dir. Alan Parker. DVD. 20th Century Fox, 1999.

Dezell, Maureen. Irish-America: Coming Into Clover. New York: Random House, 2000.

Ferriter, Diarmaid. The Transformation of Ireland. New York: Overlook Press, 2007.

Grene, Nicholas. “Ireland in Two Minds: Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson.” The Yearbook of English Studies vol. 35 (2005): 298-311.

Horgan, Mervyn. “Anti-Urbanism as a Way of Life: Disdain for Dublin in the Nationalist Imagery.” The Canadian Journal for Irish Studies 30.2 (Fall 2004): 38-47.

Huff, David L. and James M. Lutz. “Ireland’s Urban System.” Economic Geography 55.3 (July 1979): 196-212.

Michael Collins. Dir. Neil Jordan. DVD. Warner Home Video, 1997.

McPherson, Conor. “The Weir.” Modern and Contemporary Irish Drama. Ed. John P. Harrington. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009. 309-351.

O’Casey, Sean. “Juno and the Paycock.” Modern and Contemporary Irish Drama. Ed. John P. Harrington. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009. 197-246.

Once. Dir. John Carney. DVD. 20th Century Fox, 2007.

Waking Ned Devine. Dir. Kirk Jones. 20th Century Fox, 1999.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Dir. Ken Loach. IFC, 2007.

Yu Ming Is Ainm Dom. Dir. Daniel O’Hara. Video. Dough Productions.

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