Brooklyn: Expertly filling gaps in our historical memory

In capable hands fiction can be a powerful tool for learning about the past. It can help humanize the past, making it more real for viewers, it can touch upon themes and ideas that are sometimes bogged down in dizzying historical narratives. While historians rightly wrestle with their own demons in an effort to try and engage people about their work sometimes movies are simply that much more accessible to the wider public. It is refreshing when a film so sensitively engages with the past. The new movie Brooklyn is a simple story, very familiar to Irish people, a young woman (expertly played by Saoirse Ronan) emigrates from Enniscorthy to New York in the mid-twentieth century. I left the cinema a little stunned at how completely it portrayed the people, the place, the challenges of the period.

One scene in particular stood out for me, one in which the young girl works at the parish hall in Brooklyn to give scores of local homeless men a Christmas meal. The priest, a relation of hers who organized a job and documentation for her to come to the US (illustrating the ties within the Irish diaspora), tells her that these elderly, unwashed men are all Irish. Looking at the disheveled crowd he educates her  “These are the men who built the roads, the bridges, the skyscrapers.” When the woman asks why don’t they return home, to Ireland, the priest looks surprised, “What home? Everyone they knew is dead…” A touching rendition of Casadh an tSúgáin by one of the men closes out the scene and references the Irish language some of emigrants would have spoken as their first language hinting at the jarring disconnect between their present and a past that they can never return to.

I cannot think of any other movie that so accurately depicts the life of Irish migrants and while it would have been easy for the film to become overly sentimentality at several points it never does and credit goes both to Director John Crowley and Screenwriter Nick Hornby for so expertly adapting Colm Tóibín’s book. I would put this alongside The Field and The Wind that Shakes the Barley as essential viewing for anyone hoping to gain some sort of perspective on twentieth century Ireland without ever opening a history book. Of course, after you finish watching them you should open up a history book!

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About Alan Noonan

Alan Noonan is currently a Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress. He received his PhD in history from University College Cork, and has experience as a historical consultant and researcher. He has been awarded several fellowships including the Glucksman Government of Ireland Fellowship at New York University, a Mellon Fellowship at the Library Company in Philadelphia, and a fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution at the National Museum of American History.
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