Poitín: Revisiting the first Irish language film

By Seán Lyons

Forty-five years before An Cailín Ciúin became the first Oscar-nominated Irish language film, Carraroe resident Bob Quinn directed the first film entirely as gaeilge – Poitín.

After spending a portion of the afternoon hurtling across the vast Connemara countryside, I arrive at one of the final outposts of County Galway before it meets the Atlantic Ocean; the village of Carraroe. I was told to expect a fortress of leafy-green trees encircling his home and I am not disappointed. I am here to speak with an acclaimed director of a highly-regarded Irish language film. This has nothing to do with An Cailín Ciúin.

Forty-five years before the Oscar-nominated adaptation of Claire Keegan’s novella hit our screens, Aosdána member, IFI Lifetime Achievement Award recipient and Honorary Doctor of University of Galway, Bob Quinn, directed the first feature film made entirely in the Irish language.

Poitín was shot in Connemara and centres on a poitín (moonshine) maker, played by Cyril Cusack, and two unscrupulous bandits, played by Niall Tóibín and Donal McCann, who set about trying to procure his product. It was the first recipient of a film script grant from the Arts Council and has subsequently been incorporated into the curriculum for most film courses in Ireland.

Now in his eighty-eighth year, Bob resides in Carraroe with his wife Miriam. Before he emerges from his home, I am greeted outside by his tabby feline companion. “That’s Cat-Cat,” says Bob. He brings me inside where a few hundred books, several paintings, woodcarvings, various filming equipment and a digital piano are clearly on display. I compliment his office. He says he prefers to call it his “studio”.

“What amazes is that it’s still being shown,” he says about Poitín. “Films are made and then forgotten. This one has a very long life – forty-five years”. In spite of the significant lapse of time since its release, Bob’s memory of how the film came to be couldn’t be clearer.


Making Poitín

“I had started a little film course – six weeks for one night a week – for local people and at the end I asked them to write a film. One of them, Colm Bairéad, wrote a story which I think he had already written as a short story but he rewrote it as a film. I thought it was a fine story so I asked him could I make a film out of it and he said ‘sure’ so that was that”.

“I just thought that we’re living in Connemara and people should speak Irish”

Asked why he chose to make Poitín in Irish, Bob says “I just thought that we’re living in Connemara and people should speak Irish. The only one who didn’t speak Irish was Donal McCann and he was very worried about it but I said ‘don’t worry about it – you have very few lines and I’ll coach you’. Cyril Cusack had Irish and Niall Tóibín of course had great Irish. We went ahead with it and it went ok because Donal was able to act his way out of his lack of Irish”.


A scene from Poitín

“I remember thinking it would be an antidote to the pretty, pretty tourist board films about Connemara and really that was the subversive dimension to it. It was dark and it wasn’t pretty. I said to the cameraman Seamus Deasy at the time ‘no pretty pictures please’ which is a terrible thing to tell a cameraman”.

Of course, Seamus Deasy managed to squeeze a few ‘pretty pictures’ into the film. Poitín was Bob Quinn’s second feature film and his first drama. At the time of filming, the Dublin native had been living in Carraroe for twelve years – plenty of time to get acquainted with the area, its people and their ways. The film is infamous for its unromantic depiction of Connemara. The characters (Gardaí included) are unscrupulous, nihilistic and almost entirely motivated by self-interest. After all this time, Bob stands over his representation of his neighbours.

“I wanted to show that there were people here. I was fed up with the image of Connemara – ‘it must be lovely out there; very quiet’”

“The whole idea was to get away from the image of Connemara as empty of people and just mountains and bogs,” he says. “I wanted to show that there were people here. I was fed up with the image of Connemara – ‘it must be lovely out there, very quiet’ – Jesus Christ, I’ve seen some murderous scenes here. They’ve quietened down now but when I came here, it was a very rough place – a tough place. You’d have scraps in the pub most nights but it’s quietened down completely now”.


Bob Quinn on the preconceptions about the Connemara Gaeltacht that he wanted to challenge in Poitín


“The Gaeltacht – this place – is a very vibrant, live place and it was completely opposite to what I had anticipated. There were people around and they were talking and laughing and fighting and drinking but they weren’t cowboys which was the impression outside”.


Public reaction to Poitín

Irish people are famously sensitive when it comes to seeing themselves and their communities depicted on screen. The release of Poitín elicited a reaction from the people of Connemara which has been compared in its ferocity to the “Playboy Riots” of 1907. After this film’s initial RTÉ screening on St. Patrick’s Day 1979, comments received by Bob included “disgraceful and disgusting”, “a direct insult” and “a national disgrace”.

“If it didn’t get adverse criticism, it wasn’t worth criticising, I figured. I certainly didn’t want to emphasise the Bord Fáilte image of nice people smiling and saying ‘dia duit’”.

“It’s better to be insulted than ignored,” quips Bob. “I did hear various rumbles however. ‘Lig tú Conamara síos’ (you let down Connemara) was one thing I heard. If it didn’t get adverse criticism, it wasn’t worth criticising, I figured. I certainly didn’t want to emphasise the Bord Fáilte image of nice people smiling and saying ‘dia duit’. I wanted to disabuse people of that idea that (Connemara) people were nice, simple people because they weren’t. They were tough people and they still are”.


Ageing like any good liquor

Excoriated as it was by some, Poitín has been hailed by many for its nuanced, honest and thoughtful representation of a group of people who at the time of the film’s release felt misrepresented by the Irish media and misunderstood by wider Irish society. Filmmaker Aodh Ó Coileáin describes the film as “a reaction to petit bourgeois notions back then, and equivalent to modern day thinking by some, that Connemara people sell words in Irish to yanks on the internet for money”. According to Ó Coileáin, Poitín gives the viewer a realistic insight into Connemara.

Alan Esslemont, the director-general of TG4, shares this opinion and believes the greatest triumph of the film to be the manner in which it represents the Gaeltacht community.

“It is a view that chimes with the understanding that people of the Gaeltacht have of themselves,” says Esslemont. “It’s a strong community. The state hasn’t really looked after it. To a certain extent, it has put it on a pedestal for the language but it’s a community that’s on the edge and has been struggling. It made absolute sense that the film turned out it as it did and wasn’t a romantic view of things”.


The future of the language

“I’m not a professional Gaelgoir,” Bob informs me. “I’m not an advocate or enthusiast. I happen to speak Irish because I live in a place where people speak it”. Despite his reluctance to identify as an advocate, Bob has done more than most for our native tongue, having made several critically-acclaimed films as Gaeilge, campaigned for Gaeltacht civil rights and been part of the movement which led to the establishment of TG4.

He recalls a time when the language was “held in contempt” by those around him. Growing up in Dublin in the 30s and 40s, there was little appreciation of indigenous culture. Traditional music was seen as “yokel music”. Bob’s perspective on the language changed after meeting Liam Ó Murchú while working with RTÉ. In an attempt to convince a then monolingual Bob to work on an Irish language production, Ó Murchú emphatically stated that the language is “the only thing we have”.

“Irish will be here forever as far as I’m concerned”

Over the course of Bob’s filmmaking career, the image, popularity and visibility of the Irish language have drastically changed. Less than fifty years after Poitín became the first feature-length Irish language film, An Cailín Ciúin has become the first Irish language film to garner an Academy Award nomination. Having observed this stark transformation, Bob displays a Zen-like optimism in relation to the future of the language.

“It’s been here for a few thousand years so it’s not just going to wander away,” he says. “Irish will be here forever as far as I’m concerned. I wouldn’t worry about it. As long as the people here speak it, it’ll be alright”.


Watch Poitín (1978) here

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