It’s Christmas week, 1975. The population of Ireland is 3.2 million people.
There is a hot war in the North of the country where the pre-Gaddafi era Provisionals and their ghetto guns are fighting an intense insurgency. It’s been a year and a half since the collapse of the Sunningdale power sharing agreement and the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. Almost four years since the burning of the British Embassy in Dublin.
Perhaps you’ve been enjoying ITV’s sitcom Rising Damp, in which the antagonist Mr Rigsby, a crotchety, racist English landlord, played by Leonard Rossiter, has a few choice words to say about the Irish. You decide to go see Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, which is playing in town. It’s an adaptation of a William Makepeace Thackeray novel. You won’t have read it.
The credits open to Handel’s Sarabande. (You can hardly set anything in the eighteenth century these days without scoring it with Sarabande, but this piece was obscure until Barry Lyndon boosted it into the popular consciousness). Handel used to live in Ireland. But of course, the genius composer of such works as the Messiah chorus was not produced by Ireland.
After two quick scenes establishing that our hero Barry’s father was killed while he was still a boy, the dialogue begins. We are in the Big House. Barry is visiting his cousin Nora who attempts to seduce him over a game of cards. Ah, the Protestants – sure what are they like?
Her neckline is cruising at a quite immodest altitude, it must be said. Instantly, you don’t like her. The soundtrack is Mná na hÉireann. So Barry is a Protestant.
Its 1975 in Ireland and the next scene you see in a regiment of red coated British soldiers trooping the colour around the Wicklow mountains. They’re marching directly at the camera which slowly pulls back in Kubrick’s signature technique of the symmetrically framed portrait angle shot. Is that…? It’s hard to tell – his head is at a weird angle and he has a funny British Army distorted face – but yes, its him! It’s Mr Rigsby!
Leonard Rossiter’s captain is parading his men about as part of a recruitment drive for the Seven Year’s War. This is the era of the Penal Laws. So – no Catholics will be allowed to be recruited.
After chiasticly returning to the portrait shot, there is a jarring jump cut to the next scene where you see Mr Rigsby, in his red coat, tricorner hat and cavalry boots dancing a frankly spectacular high kicking jig with Nora while Barry looks on.
You hate him. Messing around with an innocent Irish girl like that. It’s 1975 in Ireland. You’ve already had your memory of Nora’s harlotry and her Big House Protestantism pick-pocketed while you were misdirected. You’re not even ten minutes in and you’re already getting thoroughly Kubricked.
The next scene, a banquet thrown by Nora’s father in the captain’s honour, confirms something you noticed in the card game scene. These people all have Irish accents, not Ascendency accents. And the actors are doing a great job of this.
The non-Irish ones have been properly coached in very fine detail, and the Irish one’s have left their Abbey inspired accent from Dublin. Speaking of abbeys, the architecture of the banqueting hall in this Protestant Big House has a distinctly ecclesiastical character to it. Is this one of our medieval churches they stole from us and secularised? Barry the Protestant objects to Captain Rigsby’s proposal of marriage to the innocent harlot Nora, wins a duel and has to flee to Dublin to hide out.
Barry says his goodbyes to his mother at their modest farmstead (stolen in the 1650s no doubt). The soundtrack is An Mhaighdean Mhara. As he rides to Dublin, he is waylaid by the highwayman Captain Feeney and his son Seamus. They have ostensibly Gaelic names, but you infer from their horse ownership during penal times that are also Protestants.
The soundtrack is Port Na bPúcaí. It’s at this point that you begin to realise that you’re not represented in this film. Unless you’re an Irish Protestant. If you’re Gaelic, your Wicklow Mountains and your music and your stolen church are in it, but you’re absent. Kubrick has replaced 18th Century Ireland in front of your eyes with an invented alternate version in which you never existed. (A much fantasised thing in many circles.)
All of which is to preamble the many amazing adventures on the continent of the Irishman Barry with whom you, the 1975 Irishman, have been subliminally instructed not to identify with. In Prussia, Barry meets another Irishman, the Chevalier de Balibari.
We are told he’s a mass goer. However, it’s clear from his aristocratic bearing and demeanour that this wild goose is some kind of Norman. Perhaps a FitzHugh or something like that. Or a Garvan. You’re edged closer to representation but you’re left reserving judgement. In Thackeray’s novel this character is indeed a Catholic but he is revealed to be Barry’s paternal uncle. It’s complicated and you haven’t and won’t read it.
What fraction of the 3.2 million people in Ireland could have even experienced this? Precious few given its box office performance. The character of the young hero is normally the viewer’s avatar in the story, but in this narrowest of cases, efforts have been made to make sure you’re excluded. This film is about an Irishman insofar as it is about you, the Irish man watching it, being prodded and gaslight, your thoughts and emotions swung in opposite directions from scene to scene. This is a cinema experience like no other. At the halfway point, the main theme switches from Sarabande to Schubert’s Piano Trio no. 2 but you didn’t notice and you don’t know the name of it.
Kubrick fled Ireland under death threat before principal photography was completed.