Ireland Loves ‘The Quiet Girl’

The first Irish-language film to receive an Oscar nomination, in its modest way, unites the Gaelic diaspora

Irish tragedy! Movie lovers flock to the wellspring–in the rest of the world, that is. But such pictures haven’t always won the heart of the home country. Ireland has had its fill of “Troubles Pornography.”

Along comes ‘The Quiet Girl,’ the first film in the Irish language to be nominated for an Oscar. It’s different. It united the Gaelic diaspora in deeply-felt admiration. Why is this?

THE QUIET GIRL ★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
Directed by:  Colm Bairéad
Written by: Colm Bairéad, adapted from ‘Foster’ by Claire Keegan
Starring: Catherine Clinch, Carrie Crowley, Andrew Bennett, Nic Chonaonaigh and Michael Patric
Running time: 94 min

Yes, the picture is a marvel of Irish sensibility. The photography could unfold in silence and you could still understand every frame. The faces of the principals are fable-like, even though they set the picture in 1981. It has all the qualities of a legend.

But that’s not why the South and North love it. Ireland hasn’t always enjoyed what the movies portrayed of their struggle. Their sensitivity and sense of humor are more resilient in stories where the “Conflict” is in the background, never flogged up front. That’s why Derry Girls and The Guard are deliriously combustive, because of their attitude of “another day, another bomb threat.”

The Quiet Girl in its very quiet way is about a poverty and ingrained deficit that unfolds like an ancient rhyme. Specifically, the story is about the consequences for women and children. There is not enough food to feed the bairn, and hence they farm out some of the children–to work houses, or to foster families who have a little more milk.

If you don’t know the history, you’ll still be a rapt viewer— it’s a jewel of a character portrait. Cáit is a beautiful 9-year-old who goes away to distant relatives one summer because her family can’t afford to feed her. There’s too many mouths already, and she’s the weak link. Much to her (and our) surprise, the rejected daughter finds a care that relies on the most modest acts of cherishing a little one. Not a single thing is overdone. You remember the first time someone smoothed your brow.

I knew when I read the story the film is based on, (Foster by Clare Keegan) that Quiet Girl would cut me to the quick.

My Irish-American aunt, my mother’s youngest sib, was fostered as a baby when their mother died from complications of childbirth and malnutrition. All five O’Halloran kids were sent to an orphanage, and later rescued by my Great Aunt Tessie, who sadly said, “I can only feed four right now.”

Their birth father, (a lost cause as in The Quiet Girl) was my grandpa Jack, a man I never knew. He was a caricature of debasement. He too, spoke only English. Interesting, how the film only deploys that language through the one character who has lost his Irish way.

Like the “Foster” story,  my Auntie’s birth family eventually took her back. There was much shame; they never spoke of the period. After all, the American Dream said, “Food for everyone, a chicken in every pot.“ —Not one thin bag of government rice thrown out on a ghetto street for the neighborhood to fight over.

This was a certain kind of Irish existence that wasn’t that long ago in America, even if it seems like hidden history today. There’s always newcomers to despise and starve. Many who watch this film will think of people in their own family in a similar predicament, or one generation away.

I wish my late mother could’ve seen Quiet Girl. It is just quiet enough that she might’ve let it in. I’ve made a note to call my cousins.

Sometimes a hushed presence of mind is the right kind, a protection. As the wise man says in wee Cáit‘s defense: “You dont ever have to say anything.” He sees her. “Always remember that, as a thing you need never do. Manys the man who lost much, just because he missed a perfect opportunity to say nothing.”


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Susie Bright

Susie Bright is an author, editor, and critic known for her work at Audible Studios, The New York Times Book Review, Playboy, Jezebel, Salon, On Our Backs, Talking Points Memo, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Review of Books, Esquire, the Criterion Collection, as well as her contribution to The Celluloid Closet, Bound, The Virgin Machine, Transparent, and the Criterion reissue of Belle de Jour.

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