Analysis: Hollywood romcoms view Ireland as a place of stone walls, sheep and cottagecore natives spouting dubious local folk tales

By Gráinne O'HareNewcastle University

"Human beings suffer," begins Seamus Heaney's The Cure at Troy. It was quoted by US president-elect Joe Biden in his 2020 election campaign video, and prompted a wave of national pride at seeing a luminary of Irish culture amplified and celebrated on a global platform.

In a shift from the sublime to the ridiculous, the release of the trailer for American playwright John Patrick Shanley's film Wild Mountain Thyme has left many wondering whether the film is a serious attempt by American creators at a charming romantic comedy set in Ireland, or if it is intended as a particularly nuanced satire. Indeed, the movie promo bears so many glaring similarities to the 2015 sketch "A Very Irish Film" by Irish comedy trio Foil, Arms, and Hog, that it is difficult not to believe the latter.

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A Very Irish Film (2015)

Emily Blunt plays Rosemary Muldoon, perpetually draped in cable-knits and plaid shawls, her face streaked with earth in case the rural scenery and livestock background extras left us in any doubt that she lives on a farm. Jamie Dornan is Rosemary's neighbour Anthony Reilly, sporting sideburns the length of the M6 and seen practising marriage proposals on a donkey. Jon Hamm plays an American interloper who threatens to derail the leads’ love story, while Christopher Walken is an agricultural patriarch with an accent as freely roaming as Walken in the music video for Weapon of Choice.

A clownish fiddle soundtrack gives way to Blunt’s ethereal rendering of Wild Mountain Thyme (Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go?) The implied historical period, based on the Famine-era fashion and archaic dialogue, is around the 19th century. This is until Blunt’s character makes a reference to freezing her eggs if she doesn’t get married soon, and viewers are forced to adjust to the idea that the film is intended to depict a modern-day setting.

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Wild Mountain Thyme trailer

Set to be released in December, the promotional material for Wild Mountain Thyme invokes echoes of a number of classic romantic films. For instance, its poster is similar to the promotional image for 2004's The Notebook, Blunt and Dornan clutching each other while sleet appears to fall around them. "How many days do we have while the sun shines?" Blunt asks in the trailer. "It’s not shining," argues Dornan, to which Blunt responds, "I believe that it is," in a clumsy knock-off of Andie MacDowell's already cringe-inducing, "Is it still raining? I hadn’t noticed" from Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994).

The trailer, moreover, serves to (albeit preemptively) instal Wild Mountain Thyme in a sub-genre of romantic comedy films that depict Ireland as a landscape exclusively composed of haphazard stone walls, lolloping sheep, and proto-cottagecore natives spouting dubious local folk tales.

The 2007 film adaptation of Cecelia Ahern’s P.S., I Love You altered the source material of the novel to create a heavily Americanised representation of Ireland, soundtracked by Galway Girl and the Pogues and often reminiscent of a Carroll’s gift shop display. 2010’s Leap Year saw Amy Adams stumbling through bogland and heckling cattle on a pilgrimage to find her boyfriend, inspired by a flimsy piece of folklore spouted by her father claiming that, "In Ireland, a woman can propose to a man on the 29th of February."

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Trailer for P.S. I Love You

Another example of the use of casual paddywhackery as a backdrop for romance occurred in the 2015 season of reality show The Bachelorette, a US dating series that attempts to curate a very traditional, romcom-style (and inherently marriage-orientated) narrative.

Such classic Hibernian courtship rituals as slow-dancing in Christ Church Cathedral while being serenaded by the Cranberries

Series-lead Kaitlyn Bristowe and her group of suitors travelled to Dublin to embark on a series of increasingly clichéd "Irish-themed" dates; they kissed the Blarney Stone, chatted in pubs with sundry subtitled locals, and took a trip to the Guinness storehouse (where Bristowe proceeded to order a glass of Chardonnay). There were sunny walks through St Stephen's Green and one tearful breakup on the Cliffs of Moher. "No better place to fall in love than in Ireland!" they gushed, engaging in such classic Hibernian courtship rituals as slow-dancing in Christ Church Cathedral while being serenaded by the Cranberries.

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The Bachelorette Goes to Dublin, Ireland (2015)

Perhaps most bizarre was a group date scenario in which six of the men hoping to win Bristowe's heart were informed by the series presenter, Chris Harrison: "I regret to inform you that the worst has happened. Kaitlyn is dead… for today," explaining that the date would take the form of a traditional Irish wake. Bristowe lay giggling in a coffin while each of her potential matches gave a eulogy and raised pints of stout in her memory.

There is a frustrating irony in the Wild Mountain Thyme trailer when Hamm’s character is shown contemplating aloud, "I don’t understand you people. Why do you make everything so hard? You just seem to accept these crazy things". It is as if the backwater politics of the film’s rural Irish community are not the baffling creations born of a heavily Americanised view of Ireland.

Regardless of the many far-fetched, schmaltzy, often poorly-crafted offerings the genre has given us, it is unhelpful to suppose that there is no room for nuanced, intelligent portrayals of characters and cultures within a romcom setting. In the last half-decade, works including Trainwreck (2015), The Big Sick (2017), Always Be My Maybe (2019), and Mindy Kaling's 2019 reimagining of Four Weddings and a Funeral have provided new and imaginative takes on the romantic comedy. They demonstrated that the charming, aspirational, escapist nature of the genre can be deployed without overreliance on lazy tropes and hackneyed stereotypes. It’s about time representations of Ireland started receiving the same treatment.

Gráinne O'Hare is a PhD researcher in 18th century Literature at Newcastle University


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ