A powerful Irish film about the Great Famine arrives in British cinemas

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mewould be t it is wrong to say that the Irish do not remember the great famine. Since Ireland gained independence from the United Kingdom a century ago, generations of schoolchildren have learned that between 1845 and 1855, the island’s population fell by perhaps a third after a million people died. with hunger and illness, and perhaps twice as many forced to emigrate. It was a nearby blight that destroyed the potatoes that small people, especially in the rocky west of the country, depended on to survive. Among the background reasons was a system of land ownership in which areas of the country were under the control of the English masses who were only interested in their tenants as a source of income.

In many places in Ireland there are monuments dedicated to this terrible event in history. In a remote part of Mayo, for example, people walk to a memorial stone to remember the fate of hundreds of sick and hungry people who had to make a long march to present themselves for famine relief. A permanent exhibition in Dublin displays photographs, certificates and other items from that time.

Nevertheless, for the places and communities affected by the disaster, the horror of what happened has remained somewhat of a private memory, passed down in the close-knit lore of families who felt the details were too bad to share with strangers. Padraig O Tuama, an internationally renowned poet and theologian, says that one of his ancestors may have been the only member of his family who survived the famine; taken in by a Protestant teacher at the age of seven, he left at 14 and spent the rest of his life looking in vain for his relatives. Many others from the west of Ireland could tell such stories but generally preferred to keep them private.

Perhaps that hesitation is moving now, with the release in British cinemas of “Arracht” (“Monster”, pictured), an Irish film. Shot on a low budget, the film nevertheless received considerable attention on the festival circuit and was Ireland’s entry for the Best International Feature Film category of the 2021 Academy Awards (although not mentioned). This is the second film in recent years to explore the suffering of the famine; the first, “Black ’47” (2018), followed an Irish veteran of the British forces who finds his community starving and begins to seek revenge.

The story of a person caught in the general disaster, “Arracht” is more solemn and slower in comparison. The tough, brutal hero is a farmer and fisherman named Colman Sharkey, who complains to his Anglo-Irish landlord about rising rates and warns that half the local community could die within months. After a fire at the landlord’s house – and he is wrongly blamed – Colman has to flee​​​​​​ and take refuge in a cave. Still pining for the wife and infant son he left behind, the refugee takes in a starving orphan girl and they help each other through a terrible ordeal.

Donald O’Healai, who plays Colman, is from the west of Ireland. After being hired by Tom O’Sullivan, the film’s director (who also uses the Irish version of his name, Tomas O Suilleabhain), Mr O Healai was forced to starve for several weeks to get a believable scene of abduction. The relationship between him and the girl he adopts, played by Saise Ni Chuinn, provides some of the most powerful moments in the film.

But its most striking feature is not a single character but the beautiful, beautifully filmed landscape of the west coast of Ireland, materially the poorest part but perhaps culturally the richest part of the island. Traveling anywhere on that coast gives the feeling that the entire Gaelic world came within a scope of total destruction but somehow survived, at least in parts. The governments of independent Ireland carefully tended to the remaining pieces.

The film draws viewers into that dark world and brings home the miracle of its persistence. “Arracht” was filmed largely in the town of Lettermill, on the Galway coast, with local people helping out as extras. Although he enjoys lavish subsidies, the world of Irish creativity (a mixture of ordinary people in remote places who have never lost their language, and Dublin intellectuals such as Mr Sullivan) is small and intimate. With this film, that community has shared some of its inner life with the wider world.

The result is a difficult but beautiful watch that takes viewers straight to the dark heart of the events that defined the history of the British Isles, and created what many still see as an unbridgeable gulf between the English and the British. Irish. When British newspapers – incl The Economist– they agreed with editors that the famine was the result of the lust of the victims, which added to the full fury of Ireland and helped to make a political separation between Britain and Ireland impossible. inevitable.

Attempts by British governments to apologize for the famine, and for government policies to add to the suffering, have so far failed to hit the right note. It didn’t help when it emerged recently that Tony Blair’s apology speech, published in 1997, was written by a civil servant and never seen by the Prime Minister. Perhaps this film will help people in England to sympathize with Ireland, and to understand the half-hidden source of Irish anger, a little better.

“Arracht” is released in UK cinemas on October 15

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