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The Gun and Irish Politics

Examining National History in Neil Jordan’s 'Michael Collins'

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Raita Merivirta

In the 1990s, Irish society was changing and becoming increasingly international due to the rise of the ‘Celtic Tiger’. At the same time, the ongoing peace process in Northern Ireland also fuelled debates on the definition of Irishness, which in turn seemed to call for a critical examination of the birth of the Irish State, as well as a rethinking and re-assessment of the nationalist past. Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins (1996), the most commercially successful and talked-about Irish film of the 1990s, was a timely contributor to this process. In providing a large-scale representation of the 1916-1922 period, Michael Collins became the subject of critical and popular controversy, demonstrating that cinema could play a part in this cultural reimagining of Ireland.
Locating the film in both its historical and its cinematic context, this book explores the depiction of events in Michael Collins and the film’s participation in the process of reimagining Irishness through its public reception. The portrayal of the key figures of Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera comes under special scrutiny as the author assesses this pivotal piece of Irish history on screen.

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CHAPTER 2 The Untold Story of Irish History 7

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chapter 2 The Untold Story of Irish History Films and History Historical films have been made since the early years of the cinema. For more than 100 years, public perception of history and people’s views of the world have been shaped by historical and biographical films. Films have educated millions of viewers about the American Civil War, the life and times of Napoleon, the life of a slave in ancient Rome, the Tudor court, Christopher Columbus’s odysseys, the Crusades, the October Revolu- tion in Russia and many other historical periods, events and persons of note. Quite often these films are the only source of information many people will have of a given historical person or period. In some cases, on the other hand, the subject may be a very familiar figure or event, and then the challenge is not just to portray the subject truthfully but also to reveal something new about the character or offer a new angle on the event or era. At their best, historical films by their audiovisual nature can offer new insights into the past and achieve things that written history cannot. As Robert Burgoyne notes, By reenacting the past in the present, the historical film brings the past into dialogue with the present. The critical interest of this genre of film lies precisely in the juxta- position of old and new, the powerful sense that what is being rendered on-screen is not an imaginary world, but a once-existing world that is being reinscribed in...

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