A Spiritual Homecoming: Ireland in Contemporary Movies about Irish Americans

Alexandra Schein


The recent past has seen a remarkable increase in movies and TV shows featuring Irish-American characters. Movies like The Departed or P.S. I Love You have been very successful at the box office and on DVD while TV shows like Rescue Me or The Wire, which feature Irish-American protagonists prominently, were running for several seasons. The popularity of such texts and the conspicuousness of Irish-American characters bespeaks the attraction of Irish-American ethnicity on screen. As narratives of identity the movies and TV shows contribute to the salience and performance of group identities. The texts are thus part of a wider framework of ethnic identification in America.

The bond to the ancestral home is essential to the sustainment of ethnic identity (Walter 14, Rains, Irish American 55-98). Narratives constitute an important part of the connection to ‘home.’ Rains argues that, nowadays, a notion of Ireland is most often transported via the media and that an “imaginary Ireland” is consequently deeply ingrained in Irish-American culture and identity (Irish American 69). The theme of returning to Ireland has been an intrinsic part of Irish-American cinematic culture since John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952) in which John Wayne as Sean Thornton returns to his homeland to find peace and salvation after leaving behind the merciless American city. The analysis of TV and movie homeland narratives can hence reveal important notions about diaspora discourse and elucidate the role that Ireland plays in the construction and performance of Irish-American identity.

Among the movies that depict journeys to Ireland, I have selected four that I am going to discuss in following: the tourist romances1 Leap Year (Anand Tucker, 2010), P.S. I Love You (Richard LaGravanese, 2007), and The Matchmaker (Mark Joffe, 1997), and the roots narrative This is My Father (Paul Quinn, 1998).2 Although all of the films use the trip to Ireland to reflect on American reality and conflicts, distinctive discourses can be identified in the subgenres. The tourist romances, which will be discussed in the first part, rely more clearly on stereotypes and clichés about the Irish to propagate ideas of ethnic authenticity and group cohesion. Moreover, they contain a strong gender subtext that is closely linked to ethnicity and ethnic identification. The second part of the article looks at the genealogical narrative This is My Father, which focuses on the need for narratives to integrate a family and its members’ identities. The approach to Ireland is more nuanced in this drama, but the movie also emphasizes the significance of roots to provide a safe footing in life.

This article will discuss the image of Ireland that is presented to the viewer and the ambivalent approach to stereotypes in these different movies. Although the movies self-consciously expose clichés and exploit stereotypes for comic and dramatic effect, the narratives overall reaffirm essentialist readings of authenticity and ethnic identity. Both tourist romances and the genealogical narrative convey the centrality of roots and ethnic identity for the individual and the community. The movies underscore the significance of ethnic identity and either present ethnicity in general or particular family history as a remedy to central problems in the characters’ lives. Traveling to Ireland can fill perceived voids and can enable to have more fulfilling relationships. The protagonists return from Ireland with a more secure identity and a better understanding of themselves. The motivations for traveling to Ireland might have changed somewhat since Sean Thornton traveled to Inisfree in 1952, the cliché of ‘coming home’ and returning emotionally richer is, however, still a persistent one.

Moreover, the films are inextricably linked to a variety of discourses within American society. Beside ethnicity the narratives address issues like class, gender, religion, and work life; often the treatment of these issues is directly and indirectly linked to the ethnic identity of the protagonists. The tourist romances and their embrace of conservative gender politics under the guise of intercultural encounters will be analyzed in this context. I will illustrate how the journey to Ireland offers solutions to gender conflicts in US-American society. By looking towards Ireland, American protagonists resolve their identity crises, which seem to be deeply rooted in the social and cultural dynamics of the US. 

Tourist Romances

The most recent movies about Irish-Americans traveling to Ireland have varied the established tourist romance theme of movies like The Quiet Man by presenting their audiences with female protagonists. The 2010 movie Leap Year is a prominent example out of this subgenre, but P.S. I Love You and The Matchmaker can be counted among those films as well. These three movies present their respective audiences with female protagonists who do not fit the image of a roots tourist, who comes to the homeland to find out about ancestors. Negra points out that the women arrive unwillingly, accidentally, or at least reluctantly (“Romance” 82). The women presented are all confident and determined in the pursuit of their goals. However, as it turns out, these self-assured women undergo a drastic conversion when a troubling identity crisis becomes evident through their contact with Irish culture. Initially, they are shown to be immersed in a stressful, fast-paced work life in the US; their private lives are either non-existent or carefully staged, as Anna’s status-conscious and cold relationship with her boyfriend in Leap Year exemplifies. In P.S. I Love You Holly is immersed in plans for her career as artist, but has never had a boyfriend before she meets her future husband. The movies suggest that the social realities of contemporary American life drive the women to opt for an ambitious, yet emotionally unattached career and prevent them from achieving happiness in their private lives. The resulting emptiness and isolation is strongly felt when the women are confronted with a ‘different’ life in Ireland. Negra argues that the movies negotiate American identity problems by staging the European destination as a viable alternative to the confining mechanisms of contemporary life in the US:

Yet, the tourist romances are bound together by their (muted) critique of a number of dominant features of contemporary US experience—social isolation, gender disempowerment, class difference, body anxiety, and conditions of environmental oppression. These features are brought together as the implicit catalysts for the heroine’s identity crisis which is subject to adequate resolution only in a European context. (“Romance” 87)

In Negra’s opinion, the foreign setting allows the characters to leave the economic and sexual constraints of US culture (“Romance” 93). However, it can be argued that it is Ireland in particular which is essential to the eventual conversion of the female characters in the movies at hand. In contrast to other tourist romances which present the European space as abstractly different from the US (e.g. Notting Hill, Roger Michell, 1999), the country’s specific characteristics account for the change in the female protagonist and the development of the love story. The setting of the Irish countryside and the peculiar character of the locals have a strong impact on the American visitor and contribute to the (re-)discovery of a different (i.e. Irish) identity and thus to the resolution of the heroine’s identity crisis.

The way in which Ireland is characterized and the degree to which stereotypes are employed in order to explain the development of the women is thus particularly significant. Some of the representations tap into the most clichéd images of Ireland. This is powerfully illustrated by two locals in Leap Year who constantly try to give Anna advice on how to go about her journey to Dublin. Very similar to the locals that Sean Thornton meets at the train station in The Quiet Man, they quarrel about when the last bus for Dublin left and whether it is a good omen to start a journey on a Sunday. Especially in Leap Year, such stage Irishmen are used for comic effect and, more importantly, as markers of an anachronistic Ireland. Ireland’s cozy backwardness poses an attractive alternative to the fast-paced life in urban America. The movies reiterate popular representations of Ireland as rural and quiet: depictions of lush greens and tranquil countryside outweigh shots of Irish cities by far. The travelogue aesthetics and camera work in the movies present the audience with imposing views and reinforce the impression that the Irish landscape serves as a peaceful retreat from the turmoil of urban America, which is at times directly contrasted against the shots of Irish scenery as in the opening credits of P.S. I Love You. The distinctive landscape plays a prominent role in the plot and underlines the importance of the Irish setting for the narrative and its denouement. Marcy in The Matchmaker eventually rejoices in Ireland’s beauty as we see an aerial shot of her on the Aran Islands, Holly meets Gerry in the Wicklow Mountains in P.S. I Love You, and Anna proposes to Declan at the edge of the high cliffs in Leap Year. Dublin, which is identified with vice and, implicitly, with detrimental ‘foreign’ influence in Leap Year, is almost completely absent in these images of Ireland: when the audience does catch a glimpse of the city in Leap Year, the camera dwells on shots of St. Stephen’s Green and thus over-emphasizes the greenery of the park in relation to the urban space.

A partial exception to this approach is The Matchmaker, which addresses Ireland’s role as a projection surface for the popular imagination and criticizes the tenacity of ethnic identifications. The movie ridicules a popular discourse based on idealized notions and claims to authenticity that are brandished as being a far cry from Irish reality. This is illustrated at the beginning of the movie when a tourist guide introduces the country: “Ireland. Land of mystery, land of stones, land of tears, land of fish, a land of shops and places to go, a land where the voices of the dead whistle through the trees and the streets and the past reaches out and touches your very soul.” This enumeration of arbitrary and contradictory notions of Ireland demonstrates that Ireland has indeed become an imaginary space. Monahan points to the self-referentiality of such images and argues:

There is a sense from the comedy of the film that Irish culture has become, at a moment of late capitalism, a commodified end in itself. The emptiness of Ireland’s cultural commodities and the hyper-commodification of everything Irish provides a framework for much of the humour [sic] in the film. (333)

Because of Ireland’s imaginary quality and the resulting need to perform Irishness if one wants to appropriate an Irish or Irish-American identity, authenticity becomes a problematic concept. This is shown in a comical scene in which a reclusive, Irish-speaking peasant offers Sean and Marcy cappuccino and contradicts common stereotypes of what the Irish drink.

Questions of authenticity are also addressed in the genealogical subplot about Senator McGlory, who travels to Ireland himself after Marcy has failed to discover his Irish relatives. The Senator arranges to pose with his ‘fake’ Irish family in a last, seemingly desperate attempt to verify his ethnic identity and thus win the support of the Irish constituency back home. The seriousness of the genealogical quest is constantly challenged, for example when Sean asks: “His ancestors? Do you mean like all these other Irish-American politicians who come over trying to secure the Irish vote? Those ancestors? Maybe his ancestors were leprechauns. Now that would be good, wouldn’t it? That would get the leprechaun vote.” The potential expediency of genealogical research is laid bare along with the false and ignorant conceptions underlying such an identification as Irish. In repeatedly accusing Marcy and the Senator of opportunism, Sean functions as an opponent of these dubious performances of ethnic identity. In the end, the questionableness of the Senator’s Irishness becomes eminent when his father discloses to Marcy that the family is actually not Irish. He tells Marcy: “We’re Hungarian. The real name is something like Mikkelorge. McGlory is the Ellis Island name, you know the kind of thing—the US is full of them. And as a Democrat living in Boston, I may have played up the Irish thing just a wee bit.” Through this confession, the tenuousness of Irish-American ethnicity and ethnic signifiers like names is exposed. There is no objective link between ancestry and ethnic identification, and people choose, construct, and perform their identity consciously and unconsciously like the Senator and his father.

The movie works to reject superficial ethnic labels and ridicules the identity politics underlying this categorization. It contrasts the inherently false and weak identities of Irish-Americans against ‘true’ Irishness, which is safely grounded in the local community. The plot suggests that Ireland’s distinctiveness actually results from its safe foothold in a coherent group identity. The local community defies constant attempts at defining Irishness from the outside and (re-)appropriates Irish culture. The narrative thus rejects diasporic ethnicity for a more essentialist version which can only be appropriated and performed by the people of Ireland. They can drink cappuccino and sell sun tan without risk of losing the credibility of their identity while the Irish-Americans are unable to own or perform authenticity; their attempts at donning Irishness must remain futile and subject to ridicule.

Despite this rejection of appropriations of Irish culture, The Matchmaker taps into a cluster of well-known stereotypes about Ireland and its people. The Irish are presented as old-fashioned, anti-materialistic, religious, and, most importantly, communal people who appreciate family and friends far more than money and a career. This powerful myth of Irish idealism and communal cohesion is propagated in all three tourist romances. The movies portray the Irish as sociable and welcoming to strangers, as chatty and cheerful, but also conservative and candid. They have no appreciation for appearances and material goods but live frugally and modestly. (The Irish might drink cappuccino, but the drink featured most-often and most prominently is still the pint of stout.) Most importantly, Irish people are shown to be immersed in their local community—drinking, singing and dancing together, and sticking together during good and bad times. The American women are welcomed at cozy tables and in friendly pubs, they are invited to weddings and local festivals and are impressed by the affection and hospitality they experience. They find a communality and positive interdependence which clearly contrasts with American individualism and permanent competitiveness. The warmth and integrity that the community exudes are not only different from the US, but are identified as specifically Irish traits by linking them to stereotypical Irish places like the pub or to celebrations of local culture and history. Furthermore, the locals’ Catholicism serves to explain their devotion to family and community as a hospitable couple and a wedding celebration in Leap Year show. The resolutions of the heroines’ identity crises thus seem possible only in the idealistic Irish environment. Ireland in the movies has preserved a social cohesion in which traditions and mutual ties have prevailed. Its visual and social idyll distinguish it from the anxiety grounded in a perceived loss of communal values in the US. The movies are thus part of a broader discourse on American and Irish identity.

Gendering Ethnicity

The Irish men that become the partners of the American women are all part of the thriving Irish community. Take, for example, Declan in Leap Year, who wears a Claddagh ring connecting him to Ireland, his mother, and his former fiancée, showing his loyalty and devotion. Gerry in P.S. I Love You is a gregarious young man, who sings “Galway Girl” to Holly from the stage of ‘his’ pub. Negra remarks:

In this category of film, European men are distinguished by their willingness to take life at a slower pace, and by a strong sense of identity linked to their environment. If the heroines are dispossessed at a crucial level from place-oriented community (they do not know where they come from) the heroes are inevitably living their lives in just the right place. Their settledness in contrast to the heroines’ nomadism is related to their status as representatives of a social harmony that is meant to contrast distinctly with the implied social chaos of contemporary American life. (“Romance” 90-91)

The men are presented as unpretentious, honest, loyal, and reliable. It is their Irishness which allows their characterization as down-to-earth and unaffected ‘doers’ whereas men who are not portrayed as identifying ethnically seem materialistic, sycophantic, and misguided.3 Through the emphasis on the difference between ethnic and ‘less’ ethnic men the problematic status of whiteness is highlighted (Negra, “the Irish” 1-19, “Irishness, Innocence” 354-71, and “Romance” 89). White men who do not identify as ethnic, the films suggest, are part of the pretentious middle-class American society which is primarily concerned with success and material wealth. These men have lost or abandoned their ethnic identity and, by extension, their ties to community and family, to better blend into the American mainstream. The stability of values and the importance of marriage, family, and a secure group identity for the Irish are presented as correctives to such an assimilationist attitude.4

The ethnic men, as representatives of their idealistic community, show the female protagonists that character and devotion count and confront them with the superficiality of materialist and consumerist pretensions. Through their sincerity, morality, and personal integrity the Irish men throw the self-confident American women off their guard and thus trigger their conversion. Through the men, the outsider females are initiated into the harmonious community. In addition, the men act as reliable substitutes for lost father figures. In both Leap Year and P.S. I Love You, the protagonists’ identity crisis partly originates in the actual or symbolical loss of a father—an almost omnipresent theme in Irish-American popular culture.5 The paternal crisis accounts for the eccentricity of the daughter and her obvious misguidance. Moreover, the missing fathers accentuate the social isolation of the female characters.

Furthermore, the differences between Irish men and American women in this cultural encounter act as a proxy for differences between women and men in general. Differences in male/female and Irish/Irish-American character are thus juxtaposed: for example, the first scenes of P.S. I Love You show a heated and gendered argument between the eccentric and irrational Holly and her more prudential husband Gerry in which he says “Kiss me arse!” and she shouts “Kiss mine, in English!” The story then illustrates that it is only through Gerry’s continuing Irish/masculine influence even after his death that Holly eventually finds her path and overcomes her fears. Similar observations can be made for Leap Year or The Matchmaker. In all movies the American women are presented as eccentric, almost neurotic, while the Irish men appear pragmatic and reasonable. Behavioral patterns and character traits that might be attributed to their gender are convincingly projected onto their differing ethnicities. This is mainly achieved through constant labeling and categorizing as Irish or American and not as male or female.

Casting the underlying gender discourse in an ethnic guise glosses over the fact that the movies do after all espouse traditional gender roles as they present a dramatic change of strong-willed, independent women to devoted partners in a heterosexual relationship. The evolving love plot leaves the women as idealistic and romantic partners, focused on a heterosexual relationship rather than on their career and individual well-being. Marcy’s development in The Matchmaker, from her assertion that marriage just does not come natural to her to her happy reunion with Sean, is a telling example of this romantic conversion. It is also no coincidence that all three couples get to know each other as guide and tourist. Initially, the Irish men literally show the American women the way, but eventually they become spiritual and emotional guides while the women opt for the relationships and seem to have lost sight of their ambitious goals. The movies present an affirmation of traditional gender roles and heterosexual romance as the focal point of female happiness. The women discover their ‘other side’ through contact with Irish culture represented by Irish men—the romantic conclusion is thus triggered by exploring Irishness. The identity crisis of the woman is resolved by discovering a more social, and implicitly more traditional, role for herself in an organic community, a role which seems defunct in the US but still fairly intact in Ireland. Irish identity, in this context, is reduced to tradition, compulsory heterosexuality, patriarchy and a close-knit community. The movies hereby illustrate that Irishness is associated with socially conservative attitudes and that it serves as an antithesis to the allegedly libertarian and hedonistic lifestyle of parts of US society. Ethnic stereotypes are  thus offered to solve issues of female subjectivity and postmodern anxiety. The ethnic framework glosses over the improbable and highly problematic conversion of the women. It legitimizes a patriarchal and postfeminist gender discourse by using the (re-)discovery of ethnicity as an explanation for the abandonment of a modern gender role and the embracing of conservative values.6 The ethnic flavor thus hides the bitter aftertaste of a female evolution from eccentric single to sympathetic wife.

Searching for Roots

Another subgenre within the movies representing the homeland is the genealogical quest. The theme of searching for an identity in an ethnic rootedness is developed more consciously in the movies that fall into this category. The protagonists of these quests come to Ireland because of a perceived fundamental link between their own identity and the emigration of their ancestors. In contrast to the romantic comedies discussed above, the protagonists of such genealogical quest movies conceive of their journey as an attempt to uncover their family’s story, which they see as essential to their own identity. The preoccupation with family and roots is the driving force in the plot and severed roots constitute the main conflicts in the movies.

The Irish-Canadian movie This is My Father is a good example of the subgenre and one of the more challenging approaches to Ireland and ethnic identity. The film depicts an Ireland that does not fit idealized notions of a pastoral idyll or a harmonious retreat from postmodern alienation. The story revolves around Kieran Johnston, a history teacher from Illinois, who tries to find out about his father. The movie then tells the tale of Kieran’s and his nephew Jack’s visit to Ireland where they get to know his parents’ story. Finding one’s roots is the prime motive of the movie, which “shows particular sensitivity toward the emotional motivations for, and consequences of, the search for family lost during the disjuncture of emigration” (Rains, “Roots” 149). In one of its first scenes, the movie also addresses a more superficial approach to genealogy when one of Kieran’s students tells about her ancestry going back to the American Revolution and the Vikings. This noncommittal and symbolic practice is renounced in favor of a serious involvement in a ‘meaningful’ search for a painfully missed father figure. The movie evidently shares the theme of lost fathers with the tourist romances. In addition to Kieran’s trauma, the motif is mirrored in his nephew Jack and his obvious lack of a masculine authority as well as in Kieran’s parents, whose story is told through flashbacks and who both suffer from absent fathers themselves, leaving the impression of an omnipresent paternal crisis.

Irish-American Interdependence

Also, similarly to the other movies, contemporary America forms a rather bleak background to Kieran’s tedious life. His solitude is carefully staged in shots that dwell on him in his dull daily routine. Again, the social dynamics and the individualizing tendencies of US culture seem to trigger the profound identity crisis of the protagonist. However, in contrast to the female protagonists in the tourist romances, Kieran is cognizant of his isolation and actively deals with his  problem by going to Ireland. While the tourist romances resolve their heroines’ crisis by confronting them with heterosexual romance, Kieran finds solace in finding out about his family.

The representation of Ireland, especially in the story of Kieran’s parents, differs substantially from the movies discussed above. 1930s Ireland is presented as a close-knit society, which is characterized by hypocrisy and fiercely ruled by the inquisitive parish priest. Social discord emerges when Kieran’s mother Fiona dances tantalizingly and attracts the locals’ suspicion with her non-conformist behavior. This stands in stark contrast to other movies like Leap Year or Titanic (James Cameron, 1997) in which dancing scenes mark the initiation into a welcoming community and thus foreshadow the happy conclusion. The subplot demythologizes life in rural Ireland and shows how a restrictive Irish community led many Irish to leave and pursue their goals elsewhere. Contemporary Ireland is no more welcoming to Kieran and his nephew. The generally unsentimental depiction of the country is reinforced by the conspicuous lack of scenery shots which are a stock feature of the genre. On the contrary: when Kieran and his nephew first arrive in Ireland, Jack opens the window in the morning and exclaims “My God, we’ve landed in Chernobyl” as he sees a nearby power plant instead of green pastures. Neither does the landscape offer itself as an alternative to the grayness of urban America nor do the locals welcome the newcomers into an amicable community which is unaffected by postmodern anxiety.

In contrast, the subplot revolving around Kieran’s parents shows that the US once fulfilled the role of an ideal place for the potential immigrants. Kieran’s mother Fiona is enthralled by skyscrapers and Greta Garbo movies, and she wants to emigrate to America. Movies and popular culture help her sustain her dream. McLoone summarizes: “American cinema is her escape from the repression of life in Ireland. America itself comes to represent the land of freedom where dreams can become reality and desire can be expressed rather than patrolled by a celibate clergy” (193). The short appearance of TIME magazine photographer Eddie illustrates this. Eddie embodies the American promise that visits them like an apparition from a Hollywood movie. Eddie and American popular culture serve as facilitators that enable a relationship that would be impossible within the tight social constraints of the Irish countryside. Eddie also takes the picture of Kieran and Fiona which their son later finds and which sets his search for his father in motion.

The function of America and American popular culture in the subplot symbolizes the mutual dependence between Ireland and America in the creation of redemptive cultural myths as it depicts the inversion of their roles through the course of the twentieth century. While the US once served as a land of dreams for generations of Irish emigrants, Ireland now functions as an imaginary space and retreat from the anxiety and alienation of postmodern life in the US.

Although the movie discounts both the myths of America and Ireland, it subtly takes up a familiar cliché from genealogical narratives and from Irish-American popular culture in general. In spite of the relationship between the visitors and Ireland being ambivalent, both Kieran and Jack eventually draw from the visit spiritually and emotionally. Jack’s relationship to his mother and his uncle improves noticeably. He has grown from a selfish and oppositional child to a responsible and even-tempered young man. Kieran unveils the tragic story of his parents and finds his father’s grave—an act through which he finally seems to be able to accept himself and his family’s past. The last scene shows his students listening attentively as they pass around the photograph of his parents. The importance of this pedagogical framework and the effect of the journey on his identity and on his relationship to his multi-ethnic students should not be underestimated. The newfound familiarity stands in stark contrast to the beginning of the movie when the classroom atmosphere was filled with mutual frustration. Rains concludes:

Not only, the film implies, has Johnston [Kieran] acquired a more secure sense of personal identity from the knowledge of his family history, but his factual and emotional knowledge has also allowed for a bridging of the social barriers of alienation between himself and his pupils, even those whose family and ethnic backgrounds are apparently very different from his own. (“Roots” 150-51)

It can thus be argued that, similar to the narratives in the tourist romances, Kieran’s journey to Ireland also enables, but in a different way: by traveling to Ireland, finding out about his parents and acquiring a safer sense of who he is, Kieran’s integration into the American community is facilitated. The movie thus also implicitly affirms that a trip to Ireland can resolve identity crises based in the social, economic, and sexual dynamics of US-American society. Even if Ireland does not offer immediate solutions and alternatives to perceived problems, as suggested in the recent tourist romances, it does supply the Irish-American visitor with a deeper knowledge about him- or herself. This knowledge and sense of belonging imparts much needed security, stability, and confidence in a postfeminist, multiethnic, postmodern America.


The article has illustrated the continuing importance of Ireland and Irish stereotypes to Irish-American popular culture. Clichés of Irish traditionalism, conservatism and gregariousness still inform the representations on screen as the movies consciously and unconsciously navigate the stock images of Irish-American popular culture to exploit, criticize, or ridicule them. The closer look at two subgenres has shown that there are different approaches to an ‘imaginary’ Ireland and ethnicity and that the tourist romances rely much more on popular stereotypes and images of beautiful Irish landscape to present Ireland as a reassuringly backward haven where the female American visitor can (re-)connect to herself and to a functioning community. By accentuating ethnic differences, the tourist romances gloss over the strikingly reactionary gender subtext that informs the plot. The female protagonists’ conversion from ambitious career women to devoted partners in heterosexual relationships is explained by their encounter and involvement with Irish culture rather than by conservative gender politics.

The genealogical quest, in contrast, debunks cultural myths of both Ireland as a contemporary retreat for afflicted Americans and the US as a land of opportunity for the immigrating Irish of the past. The movie focuses on the individual drama that arises from social conflicts and on the importance of familial ties in an increasingly complex and taxing world. Instead of finding solace in cultural myths, the protagonist re-connects to his parents and their story. Kieran fills the narrative lack in his life, redeems his parents’ past, and emerges as a more content and stable character.

Hence, the narrative outcomes of both the tourist romances and the genealogical quest suggest that a visit to Ireland can help to solve an identity crisis that could not be resolved in the US. While the tourist romances refrain to popular stereotypes about Ireland and its traditionalist society to achieve their happy conclusion, the genealogical quest emphasizes the individual search for meaning and identity that entails a more serious approach to Irish culture. Whether the movies approach Ireland critically or not, the encounter with Irish culture constitutes a welcome break from the protagonist’s tedious and emotionally lacking routine in the US and bears significant emotional meaning and implications for their future. The characters undergo drastic changes in Ireland and leave the country with a new outlook on their lives. By discovering their own or their family’s connection to Ireland, they develop a more secure identity that gives them emotional sustenance. The dominant motif of connecting to family, community and past thus continues a tradition of spiritual homecoming that has been deeply ingrained in American popular culture since The Quiet Man.

1 Other movies in the genre which are not covered here include The Nephew (Eugene Brady, 1998), Yesterday’s Children (Marcus Cole, 2000), Laws of Attraction (Peter Howitt, 2004), Turning Green (Michael Aimette, John G. Hofmann, 2005).

2 I borrow the term ‘tourist romance’ from Diane Negra (“Romance”). A roots or genealogical narrative portrays a journey of an ethnic American to the homeland to find out about ancestors and their country (Rains, Irish American 55-98).

3 For example, Anna’s American fiancé in Leap Year is reduced to his yearning for an upper middle class lifestyle and his career. He is clearly contrasted against the more sensitive and down-to-earth Irishman Declan who refuses the American’s patronizing offers at paying him for helping Anna. The fiancé eventually proposes to Anna just to make them eligible for a high-end apartment and thus testifies his lacking capacity for ‘real’ love.

4 The examples also bespeak the continuing equation of Irish-American identity and (male) working class identity. Ambitious middle-class men cannot be ethnic and ethnic men are still almost exclusively presented as belonging to the working class. Upward mobility involves opportunistic choices and the renunciation of family and loyal interpersonal relationships. This implicit class discourse runs through many movies and TV shows, for example Rescue Me (Ted Nolan 2004 to today), The Wire (David Simon 2002-2008), The Black Donnellys (Paul Haggis, Robert Moresco, 2007), The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2002), Black Irish (Brad Gann, 2007), Good Will Hunting (Gus Van Sant, 1997), Mystic River (Clint Eastwood, 2003), and The Accidental Husband (Griffin Dunne, 2008) (Meagher 164, 173; Walter 6, 38-39; Rains, Irish American 176-78; Negra, “Irishness, Anger”; Meaney).

5 Hasia Diner addresses the phenomenon of absent husbands and fathers in her study on female Irish immigration (61, 67). McLoone describes the preoccupation with lost fathers in This is My Father (McLoone 189-90). Examples of movies and TV shows which illustrate the phenomenon include: The Black Donnellys (Paul Haggis, Robert Moresco, 2007), The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2002), Black Irish (Brad Gann, 2007), Good Will Hunting (Gus Van Sant, 1997), Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese, 2002), Far and Away (Ron Howard, 1992), The Devil’s Own (Alan J. Pakula, 1997), Road to Perdition (Sam Mendes, 2002), and The Boondock Saints (Troy Duffy, 1999).

6 The term ‘postfeminism’ is used to point out the reactionary character of the gender discourse in these movies. For further information on postfeminist discourse in contemporary media see Diane Negra, What A Girl.

Works Cited

Diner, Hasia R. Erin’s Daughters in America: Irish immigrant Women in the Nineteenth Century. Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science 101st ser., 2. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983. Print.

McLoone, Martin. Irish Film: The Emergence of a Contemporary Cinema. London: British Film Institute, 2000. Print.

Meaney, Gerardine. “Not Irish Enough? Masculinity and Ethnicity in The Wire and Rescue Me.” Irish Postmodernisms and Popular Culture. Ed. Wanda Balzano, Anne Mulhall, and Moynagh Sullivan. Basingstoke, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, 3–14. Print.

Monahan, Barry. “Defining Ourselves Through the Irishness We Sell: The Comedy of Cultural Commodification in Mark Joffe’s The Matchmaker (1997).” Screening Irish-America. Ed. Ruth Barton. Dublin: Irish Academic, 2009. 326-38. Print.

Negra, Diane, ed. The Irish in Us: Irishness, Performativity, and Popular Culture. Durham: Duke UP, 2006. Print.

---. What a Girl Wants? Fantasizing the Reclamation of Self in Postfemininism. London/New York: Routledge, 2009. Print.

---. “The Irish in Us: Irishness, Performativity, and Popular Culture.” Negra, The Irish 1-19.

---. “Irishness, Innocence, and American Identity Politics Before and After September 11. Negra, The Irish 354-71.

---. ”Romance and/as Tourism: Heritage Whiteness and the (Inter)national Imaginary in the New Woman’s Film” Keyframes: Popular Cinema and Cultural Studies. Ed. Matthew Tinkcom and Amy Villarejo. London: Routledge 2001, 82-97. Print.

---. ”Irishness, Anger and Masculinity in Recent Film and Television.” Screening Irish-America: Representing Irish-America in Film and Television. Ed. Ruth Barton. Dublin, Portland OR: Irish Academic Press, 2009,. 279–298. Print.

Rains, Stephanie. The Irish-American in Popular Culture, 1945-2000. Dublin: Irish Academic, 2007. Print.

---. “Irish Roots: Genealogy and the Performance of Irishness.” The Irish in Us: Irishness, Performativity, and Popular Culture. Negra, The Irish 130-60.

Walter, Bronwen. Outsiders inside: Whiteness, Place and Irish Women. Gender, Racism, Ethnicity. London, New York: Routledge, 2001. Print.

Films Cited

Leap Year. Dir. Anand Tucker. Universal Pictures, 2010.

P.S. I Love You. Dir. Richard LaGravenese. Warner Bros., 2007.

The Matchmaker. Dir. Mark Joffe. Universal Studios, 1997.

The Quiet Man. Dir. John Ford. Republic Pictures, 1952.

This is My Father. Dir. Paul Quinn. Sony Pictures, 1999.


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