Director Darragh Byrne and Co-producer Erin Chapman discuss the inspiration behind “Mixed Blessings”, romanticized American views of Ireland and what they learned about the mindset of the Irish people while filming the program.
Erin Chapman: Darragh, while my work on WIDE ANGLE continually exposes me to a multitude of people and places around the world, I must ruefully admit that until producing “Mixed Blessings,” I probably defined the country through quite a catalog of stereotypes. The pervasive American image of Ireland is so bound to a set of icons — from leprechauns to peat-infused poverty — that my concept of modern Irish life was severely skewed. My only previous visit to the country was in the summer of ’89 when I visited the Waterford crystal factory, stayed in a rural b&b; and promptly got a terrible case of food poisoning. I had the complete Irish tourist experience — gift shops, rolling green fields and questionable cuisine. What a change this time around. Construction cranes in every direction, Armani-suited financial analysts with cell phones glued to their cheeks and an amazing selection of restaurants (even for a vegetarian).
Darragh Byrne: Well, when I was first approached to direct this film, I was in the midst of a production marking the 90th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. The rebellion, many people would argue, was a watershed in Irish history that eventually led to Irish independence. So it was very timely for me to be thrust into a project that was evaluating Irish identity in a contemporary sense. People forget that we are actually such a young state, still learning from our past while undergoing such immense change in our present.
Erin Chapman: Why does it seem like so few in the U.S. are aware of the radical transformation happening on your side of the pond? Despite our historical ties, I don’t think many Americans are aware of the economic and cultural changes in Ireland. Over here, there’s been a concerted effort to package the country in discrete, marketable symbols. There’s the shamrock, the pint of Guinness, the Riverdancing — all culminating in the appropriation of St. Patrick’s Day for largely alcoholic ends. Ireland is the only country I can think of whose national holiday is celebrated so whole-heartedly across the States. New York and Boston don’t need crowd control for Bastille Day parades and I can’t say I’ve ever seen a “Kiss Me, I’m Argentinean” T-shirt.
Darragh Byrne: I think the majority of American people have a romantic view of Ireland that’s bound up with generations of emigrants seeking refuge in the U.S. dating back before JFK’s great-grandfather left from New Ross in Co. Wexford in the mid-19th century. I think this film presents modern Ireland in dramatic but real terms.
Erin Chapman: Yes, I mean, ANGELA’S ASHES was a huge bestseller and every now and then a film like THE COMMITMENTS or SUNDAY, BLOODY SUNDAY will make a blip on our cultural radar — but there’s an astonishing lack of substantive material available to Americans on the contemporary Irish experience. Do you think we just don’t want to lose our image of “the auld sod”?
Darragh Byrne: The economic changes of the past 20 years are reasonably well documented internationally. But, Americans are not so aware of the societal changes and the shift in people’s lifestyles. Furthermore, the rate of change is so great, I think many Irish people are either still trying to process the experience of the “Celtic Tiger” or in denial about how it’s affecting their lives. Ireland is somewhat confusing even for some Irish people. For others, it is ironically a land of opportunity and prosperity to be celebrated and cherished. It’s important for people to accept that Ireland is a different place that requires an open mind when it comes to clinging to outdated stereotypes. I think the central thesis of this film is contained within the story about the closure of a church in downtown Limerick.
The Irish Aren’t So Sentimental
Darragh Byrne: So, when you came to Blàithìn Nì Chathàin (“Mixed Blessings” producer) and me, we objectively saw its merits. However, I must confess that to some extent we thought, “So what the church is being sold! Of course it is: nobody is going to mass, attendances have dropped by 50 percent in the last 20 years and there’s been a 96 percent decline in vocations in the last 40 years.” Of course, Blàithìn and I are not representative of the aging congregation of the church, nor do we have the same mythological view of Ireland that many Americans may share. When we went on to meet many of the parishioners and the community surrounding the church, it proved to be a fascinating symbol of Ireland’s changing times.
Erin Chapman: We seem to be more sentimental about Ireland than the Irish themselves. On my recent visits, every farmer, cab driver, and barman knew the latest OECD economic stats and spoke with pride — and only a hint of wistfulness — about how the country has changed. Even the Sacred Heart parishioners who were distraught over the loss of their church seemed to prefer modern times to the hard years behind them.
What the Future Holds
Erin Chapman: One of the most surprising and revealing things I encountered while making “Mixed Blessings” was the Irish lack of nostalgia for the old days and the willingness — eagerness, even — to embrace a new pan-Europeanism. I suppose this topic of economic and societal change has been done to death in Ireland. Your television channels are running Celtic Tiger 20th Anniversary specials while we’re just catching up to speed. But while the Irish are still riding high, do you think they’re headed for an identity crisis? For generations the country has been largely homogenous, agrarian, Catholic… It’s hard to believe how well the Irish seem to be adapting to this flood of new wealth, new immigrants and new lifestyles. Do you think Ireland is collectively contemplating the long-term impact of all these changes?
Darragh Byrne: Well, in general, I would say that the jury is out in determining the spiritual health of the nation, and I think this is illustrated by the disparate views of the characters in the story of the church closure. Some of the characters are embracing the change, others are nostalgic for simpler times. Yes, Ireland is increasingly secular. Yes, it is more materialistic and consumerist, but it still maintains a tradition rooted in family and Catholicism. The merits or misgivings of a new cultural outlook may for some be a “mixed blessing” but for the vast majority I believe that the Ireland of today is an exciting place of change, albeit with constant need for reflection.