The date of the final test and ultimate collapse of Catholic Ireland, at least as we knew it, seems beyond dispute: 2018 and the referendum on removing the constitutional defense of “the right to life of the unborn.” Four years have passed since 66.4 percent of voters supported this profound change to Irish law and the Irish mind. What kind of society is arising to replace what went before?
There are many ways one could try to answer this question. In my case, I turned on the television. I wanted to see the new social canvas that popular culture is painting for Ireland, and began my search with Holding, a comedy-drama miniseries from earlier this year. Much of the story revolves around the three Ross sisters. It’s a British production, but with heavy Irish involvement. There are lingering shots of green fields, Atlantic breakers, brooding lakes, brooding clouds, brooding cattle. We're in Ireland and only in Ireland.
One of the achievements of Holding, though, is that—Cork accents and colloquialisms aside—it renders the Irish themselves indistinguishable from modern liberal Westerners anywhere, especially when it comes to sex. Here they are, swiping the time away on Tinder, sniffing out casual sex when the urge comes over them, starting and stopping affairs. All the older Irish habits of repression, reticence, and romance have been scrubbed away to reveal a randy nation like any other.
What of the old religion in all of this? A graveyard exhumation scene gives the creators the chance to flit a bit of Catholic statuary across the screen, although only for old time's sake, you feel. “If there is a God, he's an awful bollocks!” pronounces one minor character. The remark reminds us that the natives have kicked their religion habit and that casual vulgarity has now replaced all that “top of the morning” and “God and Mary be with you” nonsense.
In a fight between two of the Ross sisters, the dialogue begins to vibrate with wider meaning and interest. “I need to be myself! I need to be somewhere that's gay!” says Florence, who is planning to leave Ireland for America with her partner, Susan. “Gay?” Evelyn replies. “Ireland's the gayest place in the world! Look at you, still wearing your marriage equality badge and your Repeal badge and all your bloody badges. What are you running away from?” There is an echo here of a conversation perhaps going on in the Irish national subconscious. With the referendums on marriage and abortion comfortably won, with gender self-ID written into law, where next for a country that has staked its new identity on a maximalist adoption of liberalism?
Holding, then, portrays Ireland launching itself, a little awkwardly, toward its desired future and at least half getting there. Conversations with Friends, another 2022 television series, lands us in an Ireland that has completed its break with the past. Set mainly in Dublin student-land and the affluent suburbs, it tracks the workings of a kind of love rectangle. This Ireland has been scoured completely of Catholicism. The old religion doesn’t trouble any of the eponymous “conversations.” The closest anyone comes to a church is when a little pod of characters decamps to Croatia for a holiday in a tastefully renovated farmhouse overlooking glorious coastline, thus joining the long, languid march of moneyed leisure through the remnant sites of hard labor and local belonging. On a walk around the town of Stari Grad, they pause on the steps of the Church of St. Stephen, just for a tourist snap.
Still, there are some rumblings of dissatisfaction in the thoroughly updated Ireland of Conversations. A pub discussion gets tense when Bobbi, one of the main characters, carries out a Marxist demolition job on default monogamy, heterosexual pair-bonding, and romantic love in all their forms. Two boyfriend-girlfriend couples sitting at the table, who until then had probably thought themselves modern and liberated, are made to squirm.
Conversations with Friends and Holding are decent primers on Ireland these days. But if you still catch yourself yearning for a drop of the old stuff, then shut the doors, pull the curtains, and settle down with Wild Mountain Thyme (2021). We are back in rural Ireland: lush, beautiful, soaked in rain. It is the story of a boy and girl who have grown up as neighbors. They are madly in love, but have yet to exchange so much as a kiss, as a result of Irish shyness and Irish complications over land and family.
In this Ireland, people still say things like “May she rest easy in Heaven,” “Things end when God says they do,” and, most startlingly of all, “I’ll see you in church.” They still have little holy water fonts nailed to the wall just inside the doorway. Marriages last, the old songs still get sung (over and over), and referendums go unmentioned. Any allusions within the screenplay to the troubles of Catholic Ireland are controlled explosions only.
Wild Mountain Thyme is an aberration, a shameless backward look at Ireland as it was or almost was. The film got pasted by the critics, and nowhere more so than in Ireland itself. As writer-director John Patrick Shanley told the film’s star, Emily Blunt: “I’m not making this movie for the Irish. I’m making this move for everybody else and all the people who want to go to Ireland.” (This group will include people who are, in fact, already in Ireland, but nevertheless secretly want to go to that Ireland.)
It is the nation of Holding and Conversations with Friends—that is to say, liberal Ireland triumphant (if a little anxiously so)—that will hold sway for some time to come. But the old country, down on its knees for more reasons than one, will stick around in the psyche for a while yet, it seems, rearing up occasionally and having its awkward say in a culture devoting itself to new and very different dreams.
John Duggan writes from Surrey, England.
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