- Film & TV
- 07 Oct 21
“As a relatively young modern country, we’re starting to come to terms with our childhood trauma - the occupation and Famine and everything that came after it”
When I call director Tom Ó Súilleabháin, he is prepping for a noisy household: he is shopping for a tin whistle for his son, and is hoping that his son will take to it. Tom went to an Irish language school in Tallaght, and loved the traditional Irish music that surrounded him there.
“Going to the Irish school in Tallaght, I was educated through Irish and there was lots of Irish music, so I tried the tin whistle, the fiddle, the accordion, loads of different instruments. So I hope to get him into something!”
Ó Súilleabháin’s education through Irish instilled in him a great love of the language, and his career has always embraced Irish language projects – but he has also appeared as an actor alongside some Irish greats, including appearances in Intermission which starred a young Colin Farrell and Cillian Murphy, On the Edge which again starred Cillian Murphy and Stephen Rea, and Lenny Abrahamson’s beloved Adam & Paul. On television, Ó Súilleabháin has starred Finding Joy, RTEs Showbands, The Clinic, and in the TG4 drama Seacht. But now, it is his feature debut as a director and writer that is putting him on the international map. Arracht is an Irish language film set in 1845, right as the Great Hunger is about to take hold of the entire country. Fisherman and family man Colmán Sharkey (Dónall Ó Héalai) is blamed for a horrendous crime that he didn’t commit, and finds himself living as an outcast, watching his country become ravaged by blight, greed and death. But when he encounters an abandoned young girl, he must find the will to survive - for both of them.
Arracht is a beautifully shot and evocative film, showing Ó Súilleabháin’s artful, meditative eye. The film has received accolades at festivals in Tallinn, Dublin, Galway and Glasgow – and from some Hollywood stars. Arracht was nominated as the Irish entry for the Oscars’ international feature film category and though ultimately it was not nominated, it was seen by many members of the Academy who raved about it. Ó Súilleabháin’s reports receiving supportive messages and praise from Pierce Brosnan, Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow, Line of Duty star Jed Mercurio, and Hurt Locker producer Greg Shapiro, who has now optioned the film for a Hollywood remake.
“It’s been amazing!” gushes Ó Súilleabháin. “From little acorns!”
It’s almost bizarre that Arracht is only the second Irish cinematic feature about the Famine, coming hot on the heels of 2018’s revenge Western Black 47, and Ó Súilleabháin thinks that we are only becoming comfortable with representing the tragedy onscreen.
“We needed time. Obviously it has been dealt with in poetry and song and visual art, but not in film as much. Maybe it’s a scared thing, and people were just apprehensive about it – how do you depict something like that? How do you express it? As I was researching the film, I started to discover that Ireland covered up an awful lot after the Famine, there wasn’t a lot of anecdotal evidence or spoken interviews or oral histories with people in the late 1800s with people who had experiences of the Famine. All the stuff I could find were court reports, or stuff that was taken down as part of a crime. But very little firsthand knowledge that was passed down. There was a lot of shame connected to it, and when stuff is covered up and shame is the result, it scars. And this country has been scarred pretty terrible, and our collective psyche has been scarred. Now, as a relatively young modern country, we’re starting to come to term with our childhood trauma, which is the occupation and Famine and everything that came after it.”
I admit to Ó Súilleabháin that my immediate response to the idea that “we” covered up is a defensive one – surely the Brits were the ones covering things up? This isn’t a new reaction to him.
“The Brits probably whitewashed their responsibility of it, I think if you go to Britain or England and ask the average English person, they don’t know much about it or what happened – they’d be shocked, I think, if you told them that the country went from nearly nine million to nearer three in five years. I don’t think it’s known about. What I found about the British response at the time was an awful lassiez-faire attitude, or ‘let it sort itself out’ – it was an economic term, but they used it as a humanitarian thing too, that it let them not only turn a blind eye but to actively remove food from the country even when people were starving. But in terms of us covering it up, I think a lot of shameful things came out of the Famine. And there’s also survivor’s guilt, when you survive something as horrible as that when many people don’t, there’s an awful guilt that surrounds that, and people don’t talk about that. We have a cover-up in our shame.”
But ultimately, Ó Súilleabháin describes Arracht as a hopeful film, as a man suffering from isolation and shame and loss finds hope and meaning again in the next generation. “What I discovered making the film is how very proud I am to be Irish,” says Ó Súilleabháin. “We come from an incredible group of survivors – people who have suffered and been oppressed but have triumphed, through working hard and living. In a way, the film does have that joy in it, the characters in it are quite heroic. Also, the immersion in the language is cathartic in a way, even if you’re not a fluent speaker. It feels authentic.”
Some Irish audiences remain wary of Irish language films, thanks to bad experiences learning Irish in school and a sense of alienation from the language, which Ó Súilleabháin is very sympathetic to.
“I don’t blame people,” he says. “When I went to my school, we did total immersion and learned language in six months. Irish was never something I loved or hated, because it was taught to me naturally. Bu that’s not everyone’s experience. There’s an awful history in the last eighty years in the Irish educational system where Irish has been broken down into these rules and it’s hard for people to connect with it as a living language. When you learn French or Spanish, you think ‘these are languages that are alive and commonly spoken and if I go to those countries, I can use them – but why am I speaking Irish? What is the reason?’ The reason is not instilled in them. Whereas when I learned it, I really felt that the language is an incredible identity, and when you’re not burdened by trying to learn it as a kid – which I wasn’t, I don’t remember learning it, it just happened – it’s something that is so enriching. And I think people yearn for that – most Irish people, if you could click your fingers, most people would love to engage with it and speak it. We’re a nation of people who yearn to speak our own language – but I understand why we don’t. But I do think Arracht feels so immersive – don’t go to see it because it’s an Irish language film, but don’t not go to see Arracht because it’s an Irish language film!” Ó Súilleabháin laughs. “Arracht is a cinematic experience and I do believe everybody will gets something out of it.”
The release of Arracht was delayed repeatedly during Covid, but Ó Súilleabháin is hopeful that the film will have new resonance in its themes – particularly the themes of community and connection. Dónall Ó Héalai gives a haunting portrayal of someone isolated from his community and scared by the dangers ravaging the country – feelings that are much more relatable to mass audiences now than two years ago. “What’s also in the film is the importance of human contact, the ability of human contact and love to bring hope back into your life. We’re survivors, and we will survive this as well.”
Arracht is in cinemas from October 15.