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Megan Clark | Where’s the Craic?

‘Some Mother’s Son’

Published: Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, December 3, 2013 09:12

Some Mother’s Son” (1996), co-written by Terry George and Jim Sheridan, tells the story of the IRA prison hunger strikes of 1981. The film is unique in that it shifts the primary focus from the hunger strikers themselves to two of their mothers, played by Helen Mirren and Fionnula Flanagan. This is an unusual tack in Irish political docudramas, and it is incredibly refreshing to see a movie that focuses on family members and those on the outside of the IRA. “Some Mother’s Son” is about choices and who has the power to make certain choices based on individual circumstances and familial histories.

The two mothers in the film, Kathleen Quigley (Mirren) and Annie Higgins (Flanagan), come from very different backgrounds, a fact that is established quickly but not heavy-handedly. Kathleen is a Catholic schoolteacher, unaware of her son’s IRA involvement and decidedly anti-violence. Annie is a small-scale farmer who actively supports the IRA and her son’s relatively high position in the hierarchy. These women are thrown together when their sons are both arrested on Christmas Eve and sent to the infamous Prison Maze. While the film is based on historical reality and includes real life characters such as Bobby Sands, Kathleen and Annie are fictional creations. Nonetheless, their unlikely friendship is just that — unlikely, but not unbelievable.

Kathleen and Annie begin as reluctant supporters of one another. While their political and personal convictions are often at odds, they do not have anyone else to turn to. Eventually, they develop true respect and love for one another. After their sons join the hunger strike, Kathleen and Annie channel their differing ideologies into unified political action. While still opposed to violence, Kathleen becomes a crusader for basic human rights in the prisons.

The second half of the film is an examination of choice and free will. During a meeting with British officials, Kathleen and Annie are told that they have more control over their sons’ fates than they realize. If their sons fall into comas, they will be allowed to take them off the hunger strike and have them fed intravenously. Through strong writing and Mirren’s and Flanagan’s superb acting, the film conveys the helplessness and inner turmoil of the prisoners’ family members. These prisoners made the choice to join the IRA, but their family members have been catapulted into this situation by others’ choices. Much of this choice differential is gendered, and the film compassionately depicts what happens to these women when their sons, husbands and brothers decide to go on hunger strike.

Kathleen and Annie also have different choices available to them. Annie comes from an IRA family and has already lost one son to the Troubles. For her, intervention is not an option. The last third of the film, then, is devoted to Kathleen and what decision she will ultimately make. In actual historical reality, the families of several hunger strikers did intervene, putting pressure on the IRA leaders to agree to British offers regarding treatment of IRA prisoners.

Like other Jim Sheridan films, “Some Mother’s Son” has a clear middle-ground message. It sympathizes with low-ranking IRA foot soldiers, criticizes British policy and practice in Ireland and condemns IRA violence.

Compared to such artful films as “Hunger” (2008), which takes a more psychologically intimate look at the hunger strikes, and “In the Name of the Father” (1993), Sheridan’s masterpiece following the false imprisonment of the Conlon family, the script and supporting cast of “Some Mother’s Son” are just not as impressive. Regardless, “Some Mother’s Son” still shines as a moving portrait of strong women in crisis.

Megan Clark is a senior who is majoring in English and history. She can be reached at Megan.Clark@tufts.edu.

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