Arracht – Review of Irish Film at Galway Film Fleadh 2020.

Seán Crosson returns to mid nineteen century Ireland in Tomás Ó Súilleabháin’s Arracht.

Despite being a key and defining moment in Irish history, the Great Famine has to date been the subject of limited fiction work on film. The challenge of placing a fictional narrative within the context of one of the most traumatic and catastrophic periods in Irish history has perhaps discouraged directors from addressing the theme, though it is becoming the subject of increasing interest to contemporary Irish filmmakers. Lance Daly’s Black ’47 (2018) brought a Western revenge approach to exploring the impact of the famine on one family and community in Connemara.

Where Daly’s approach had epic resonances and ambitions, Tomás Ó Súilleabháin’s Arracht is a much more intimate production, though one that also contains intense moments of violence.  Both productions are also not primarily concerned with the famine, but rather use that devastating context to accentuate narratives of personal trauma and revenge.

Arracht is an accomplished production, beautifully shot by Kate McCullough and featuring compelling performances from all the cast, in particular Dónall Ó Héalaí as lead protagonist Colmán Sharkey. Sharkey is a fisherman who lives in a humble cottage in Connemara with his wife and son. Following a request from the local priest, he agrees to take on a helper Patsy (Dara Devaney).

Patsy has gone AWOL from the British Navy and as the narrative develops he is revealed to have very violent tendencies culminating in his killing of the local landlord and his staff. Colmán is held responsible for Patsy’s actions and forced to go into hiding, taking shelter in a cave on an island off the coast with his family. Here his wife and child die of hunger and disease before Colmán decides – some two years later – to reconnect with people on the mainland, eventually taking responsibility for a young orphan, Kitty (Saise Ní Chuinn) who witnessed the earlier massacre. Through their relationship his belief in humanity is restored, until Patsy returns with members of the British army seeking retribution for the earlier killings. 

There are echoes in Ó Súilleabháin’s film of earlier Irish-language productions – in particular Bob Quinn’s Poítín set in a very similar terrain though in a more recent period. Arracht similarly opens with shots of the lead protagonist distilling poteen. The characters featured here also have much of the harshness and roughness found in Quinn’s work, though largely absent are the comic interludes included in the 1978 production. 

Arracht is overall a dark and unrelenting portrayal of the period concerned. There are moments of great power, intensity and beauty – particularly in the landscape and seascape photography and the intense yet understated performances of Ó Héalaí and Saise Ní Chuinn as the young girl Kitty he takes into his care. A further strength of the film is its writing and dialogue sequences (also by Ó Súilleabháin), and the choice to cast mostly native speakers of Irish adds considerably to the creation of a convincing and engaging narrative. The great Irish famine film may still remain to be made, but Arracht represents a notable and impressive depiction of the period.

Seán Crosson

Arracht screened as part of the Galway Film Fleadh 2020 (7-12 July).

Arracht – Review of Irish Film at Galway Film Fleadh 2020


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