The Irish Film Festival London has been presenting the latest and greatest of Irish Film and Animation to a London audience since 2011. This year Harrison Drury attended the festival to see how it promotes the best of Irish creative talent in the UK.
Here Harrison reports from the opening night’s screening of Alex Fegan’s The Irish Pub with the director participating in a post-screening Q&A, plus a special screening of Louise Ní Fhiannachta’s award-winning short film Rúbaí.
The opening night of the Irish Film Festival London went down a treat with the UK premiere screening of Alex Fegan’s The Irish Pub for a rapturous crowd at the Tricycle Theatre.
The feature-length documentary looks at a selection of traditional Irish pubs. All at least three generations in the same family, with that family’s name painted above the doors. They have uneven stone floors and antique beams. Beer-bellied men sing in their taprooms and Irish music plays in their backrooms. Many double as convenience stores, one has even branched out into undertaking.
They are handsome and nostalgic, like old castles standing proud against the waves of what Fegan referred to as the “Starbucksisation” of modernity. They serve Fegan as microcosms of Ireland.
He talks to the daytime trade and their publicans, who are warm and tell funny stories. Their communities are brought to life in the stories they tell and given wonderful characters in the souls who have haunted their pub.
Haunted is unfortunately the word for there are troubles here also, pain and loneliness too. Though it is not explicitly referred to – the lens lingers on some drink ravaged soul sat in “his chair” at the bar – the documentary looks at drinking problems. As Fegan discussed in the Q&A session concluding the evening:
“I think there are moments where you see people that clearly, you know they’re not happy. I think they’re escaping reality, which can be a bad thing . . . but for me you can drink at home and you can buy drink a lot cheaper and that’s anti social . . . the pub is a place where people can talk and chat and in moderation I think it’s a healthy thing.”
The Irish pub seems a positive place to me. The publicans see their pubs as meeting places and their chat as a selling point. To quote one of their number: “There’s people come in to me for a drink and I get talking to them and they’ll stay for the night.” Which chimed nicely with WB Yeats’ line prefacing the film: “There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven’t yet met.” One customer likened his barman to a priest.
The houses really are like churches, adorned as they are with relics and old treasures. A confession box door is even used as a partition in one of the booths. Over another’s fireplace hangs the image of the mother of Christ upon a wooden box with doors like a dart board. During times of great religious oppression it was taken to liturgies deep in the woods
Indeed long reams of Irish history may be read on the pub walls. Fegan films inside snug boxes where women drank in a time when it was not proper for them to stand at the bar and where marriages were arranged and important conversations had.
One can also read, in the decline of the trade – almost one pub closes every day according to the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland – the depopulation of Ireland’s rural communities. It is clear in their interviews that the publicans fear the death of the institution.
I came away feeling for the publicans. It would be a shame to see such places disappear and, given that possibility, this would make a superb document of their having ever been.
The Irish Pub was accompanied by a special screening of award-winning short film Rúbaí, a poignant comedy directed by Louise Ní Fhiannachta.
Rúbaí is school child who, with the Holy Communion looming, confuses her teacher and fellow students by declaring herself an atheist. She goes on to perplex her mother, bamboozle her priest and buy a big book by Charles Darwin.
All the above worry for their troubled Rúbaí but she the audience laughing to the bittersweet end.
Rúbaí won the Best First Short Drama at The Galway Film Fleadh and Best Irish Short Film at The Charlie Chaplin Comedy Film Festival in Kerry 2013.