ANALYSIS: Eagle Orm – The Irish for Fear

To coincide with our recent  J-Horror episode of the pod we conclude our examination of horror traditions of nearby nations as Ygraine Hackett-Cantabrana discusses her home country of Ireland…

Japan. South Korea. Britain. The United States of America. All nations from where rich horror traditions were born. With the cultural impact of J-Horror, K-Horror, British Folk Horror and the American Slasher, these locations have long been monoliths in genre cinema. Recently however another country has been seeping into the consciousness of the international horror community: like the beginning of a haunted house story, Ireland’s contribution started out as whispers and subtle movements, before gaining traction and now reaching a crescendo as recent releases terrify audiences worldwide. Irish horror is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, finally – and deservedly – having its moment, grabbing the attention of fans far beyond this little island’s borders. 

Despite the earliest pictures of Ireland being filmed by the visiting Lumiére Brothers in 1896, Ireland did not have its own film production companies until well after 1916, due in part to the small size of the country (despite being part of the British Empire at the time). Films made in Ireland previous to 1916 were created by overseas productions, looking to appeal to the Irish diaspora that had emigrated overseas and who were nostalgic for their homeland.

Lumière Frères: Queen’s Bridge, Belfast, 1897

The continued political and social unrest in Ireland began to shape the country’s developing film industry. The Film Company of Ireland was set up in 1915 in Dublin by American-Irish lawyer and journalist James Mark Sullivan, and after surviving through the destruction of their production offices in the 1916 Easter Rising and having to re-shoot the lost films, the company went on to produce movies that gained huge success overseas in America. The Company did not however last the outbreak of Civil War in Ireland, though had still become the catalyst for Irish indigenous film production.

James Mark Sullivan

As Ireland’s freedom from British Colonial rule started to take effect from the 1920s, as well as its navigation of World War II as a neutral state, the country’s film industry began to lay foundations for what would define its cinematic offerings. Producing mainly political documentaries – reflecting the country’s tumultuous and tragic history – it wasn’t until the 1950s when Ireland began to take its domestic film production potential seriously, with the opening of the infamous Ardmore Studios in 1958.

Ardmore Film Studios in County Wicklow, 1958

Despite Ireland moving towards a more contemporary culture in the 60s the film industry was still very much centred around political documentaries such as Mise Éire (1960) and Saoirse? (1961), with a few offerings of literary adaptations such as Playboy Of The Western World (1967). It was evident however that the Irish government were unwilling to either fund or support the homegrown industry in general, instead haemorrhaging money into the ever failing Ardmore Studios, which would effectively close in 1982.

Despite the huge influence of European cinema on Ireland, the country’s own productions struggled, not receiving much attention or funding until 1993 when the government re-established  the Irish Film Board. On an international level Irish directors like Neil Jordan and actors like Liam Neeson began to thrive, but only through American or British production companies. Even movies that seem inherently Irish like The Commitments (1993) and My Left Foot (1989) were all produced by overseas companies. As countries such as America and Britain in the 1980s and 90s were booming with a thriving horror movie industry – pumping out schlocky slashers and satanic psychological thrillers – Ireland would not produce its own homegrown horror movie until nearly twenty years later in 2004. 

Dead Meat (2004), dir. Connor McMahon

The discussion of Ireland’s lack of horror movies links to the country’s extreme censorship laws. When Ireland became a free state in 1922 one of the first laws passed was the Censorship of Films Act 1923. The Act controlled the material that films – both originating from outside and inside Ireland – could portray and aimed to restrict anything that could be seen as blasphemous, indecent or potentially obscene.

Ireland’s censorship laws were heavily manipulated by the Catholic Church’s control over the government, so much so that even divorce was prohibited from being depicted. Due to the Censorship of Films Act classics like Frankenstein (1931) and Dracula (1931) – and then later horror movies such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and The Exorcist (1973) – were effectively banned, struggling to make their way into the consciousness of the Irish public.

These tight restrictions on horror movies played a major part in the lack of a horror film industry in Ireland. In fact, probably one of the first domestic horror films produced in the country was zombie horror Dead Meat (2004) directed by Conor McMahon, closely followed by another zombie film Boy Eats Girl (2005) which was initially banned for depicting a graphic suicide.

Boy Eats Girl (2005), dir. Stephen Bradley

Irish-made horror slowly began to trickle into the mainstream, predominantly with the subgenre of comedy-horror with offerings such as 2012’s Stitches starring Ross Noble, as well as monster film Grabbers (2012). It wasn’t until the later half of the 2010’s however that Irish horror began to gain momentum, looking back at its troubled past, its turbulent relationship with nationalism and its ancient roots in folklore and magic. The result were terrifying cinematic offerings that would eventually grab the attention of international audiences like a slap in the face. 

As the grip of the Catholic Church over modern day Ireland drastically loosened, the horrors which it had forced upon the marginalised population came to light. The last Magdalene Laundry closed in 1996, a huge blight on Ireland’s history where “fallen” girls and women were sent to work in despicable conditions – overseen by frequently cruel nuns – whilst their children either died in mysterious circumstances or were sent away in illegal adoptions.

Irish Magdalene Laundry, c. early 1900s

As the extent of the abuses carried out by the Church became public knowledge, it was a found footage film from 2018 that depicted the true horrors of the laundries in a terrifying supernatural setting.  The Devil’s Doorway (2018) directed by Aislinn Clarke sees two Irish priests investigating a possible miracle in a laundry. Met with opposition from the relentless Mother Superior, they soon learn that the nuns aren’t the only evil lurking within the institution’s walls. Like all good horror, The Devil’s Doorway held a mirror up to the society from which it was born: like a baby-eating demon hidden inside the underground catacombs of the laundry, the evils of the Church and the attempted coverups ran deep through Irish society, leaving in its wake the ravaged lives of countless women and children. 

The Devil’s Doorway (2018), dir. Aislinn Clarke

Where Irish horror is now thriving is in the sub-genre of folk horror. Ireland has a rich tradition of folklore, much of it being centred around the Aos Sí, supernatural beings known as fairy folk. As well as being the origin culture of Halloween with its festival of Samhain, Ireland’s folktales are littered with banshees (Bean Sídhe), changelings, vampiric creatures, witches (Cailleach) and demons (Púca). With such a plentiful mythological history, it’s little wonder that Irish horror has absorbed inspiration from its ancient roots, with these modern cinematic expressions the equivalent of sitting around a fire, telling ghastly tales of ghouls and changeling children.

Ireland has always been a nation proud of its cultural roots, due in part to its invasion by Britain. When Britain colonised Ireland, Irish people were stripped of their native language, religion and traditions and when masses were forced to leave their homelands the Irish identity was integrated with other cultures. Now, as Ireland begins to attempt to heal from its troubled past, the horror films being produced are odes to our folklore, showcasing to the world the backbone of what makes the Irish such good storytellers.

You Are Not My Mother (2021), dir. Kate Dolan

Recent releases often base their narratives on particular Irish folktales. The Hallow (2015), You Are Not Mother (2021) and Changeling (2021) spin terrifying tales about the changeling and its place within contemporary and historical Irish society. Boys From County Hell (2020) takes the tale of Abhartach – an Irish version of a vampire – and transforms it into a horror comedy that roots itself very firmly in rural Irish locations and attitudes. Mandrake (2022) is an exploration of the once revered medicine woman and her ever changing role in current Irish society. And Caveat (2020) blends traditional ghost beats with themes that call back to the social history of Ireland, with horrible sublimated secrets being slowly uncovered. Taken together Irish folk horror is very much depicting how the past still has a place in contemporary Ireland, as well being highly relatable for international audiences. And with Unwelcome (2022) due in cinemas this Halloween, this movement doesn’t show any signs of stopping.

Irish horror is very much beginning to take its place among the stalwarts of the genre and – just like Japan and Korea – its success lie in its ability to interweave its unique cultural and folkloric traditions with terrifying tales set in a familiar social setting. After being non-existent for so long this new wave of Irish horror is finally garnering much deserved attention, bringing the country’s dark history and traditions to a wider audience and haunting the dreams of horror fans everywhere.

© Ygraine Hackett-Cantabrana

Enjoyed this article on country-specific horror traditions? You can also check out Russell Bailey’s TOP 10: British Horrors of the 00s.

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