Coming Soon to a Theater Near You: Ireland's Past

Irish gangland boss Martin Cahill came to public attention in the late 1980s, when he was pictured outside criminal court wearing Mickey Mouse shorts over his head to keep photographers from capturing his face on camera.

Now, seven years after his death, Cahill's plump and balding image beams from posters all over Ireland as Warner Bros. promotes a film, "The General," based on the notorious criminal's life.

Cahill "bombed, tortured, or shot those who irritated or challenged him," says Irish crime journalist Paul Williams. So eyebrows were raised when the director of "The General," John Boorman, spoke of Cahill as "like a reincarnation of a Celtic chieftain - the sense of celebration, cunning, and wit."

The portrayal of Cahill as a Robin Hood-style character has restarted a debate in Ireland about how the movie industry deals with the country's past.

By far the most controversial has been Neil Jordan's 1996 film "Michael Collins," about the revolutionary who helped to forge the Irish Republic's independence from Britain.

The film broke every box-office record in Ireland, but its controversial ending included a scene that never happened: Former Irish President Eamon de Valera was shown lurking in the background as his rival Collins met his death.

SUCH simplifications raise the ire of historians, who fear that the Irish public, as well as an international audience, will confuse movies with reality. But Prof. Ronan Fanning of University College in Dublin, while decrying the historical inaccuracies, says the film inaugurated "an era in which all historians, whatever their perspective, cannot but agree that the story of the Irish revolution must now be told."

While aspects of Ireland's history have recently been turned into movies, Irish film critic Ciaran Carty says Hollywood has "been notoriously wary of movies dealing with the Irish Republican Army or 'the Troubles' " in Northern Ireland. That changed in the 1990s with such films as Mr. Jordan's Oscar-winning "Crying Game," about the abduction of a British soldier in Northern Ireland, and Jim Sheridan's 1993 "In the Name of the Father." That movie, which starred Daniel Day-Lewis, was based on the true story of a young man and his father falsely imprisoned in Britain for an IRA bombing.

So far, movies with themes about Irish republicanism have performed best at the international box office. One recent example was last year's "The Boxer," which starred Mr. Day-Lewis. In the past three years, both Brad Pitt and Jeff Bridges have played an escaped IRA prisoner on the run in the US. Critic and commentator Fintan O'Toole says this is because "the very large Irish-American audience tends to define itself as Catholic and nationalist and offers a tempting marketplace for stories about the IRA."

Along with glamorizing terrorists, another criticism of the industry's treatment of Northern Ireland is the near absence of Protestant culture from the big screen. Protestant writer Gary Mitchell says, "it must be so good to be a Catholic-nationalist and be able to take a trip to your local cinema and watch elements of your own culture being explored.... It must be a treat to recognize people on the screen and say, 'I know him or her,' and 'aren't they great?' "

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