Colm Bairéad resigned himself to walking away empty-handed from the Irish Film and TV awards in March. His tiny-budget Irish language drama The Quiet Girl was up against Kenneth Branagh’s multi-Oscar-nominated juggernaut, Belfast. “We were like: ‘OK, well, that was lovely.’ We’d got 10 nominations. We’re just happy with that, you know?’”
But, on the night, The Quiet Girl swept the board, with eight wins, including best film. “Winning all those awards was, er, extraordinary.” Bairéad, 41, looks mildly embarrassed. He is modest and thoughtful, not fully relaxed at being the centre of attention. I suspect that the hour we spend chatting at the Soho offices of the film company distributing his film is about 59 minutes too long for him.
The Quiet Girl (An Cailín Ciúin in Irish) is his first film. It is the beautiful and extremely moving story of a nine-year-old girl from a poor family who is farmed out to relatives while her mother gives birth to yet another baby. It is based on Claire Keegan’s acclaimed 2010 novella, Foster, which Bairéad read after spotting it on a Top 10 list of books by Irish female writers. It left him floored, in floods of tears: “I fell in love with the story in such a profound way.” Then panic set in: “I was sure someone had snapped up the rights. But, miraculously, they were available.”
It is set in early 1980s rural Ireland, where withdrawn little Cáit (Catherine Clinch, already being talked up as the next Saoirse Ronan) is unloved and ignored by her family. Her father is a drinker and gambler; her exhausted mother struggles to meet the basic needs of her children. At the beginning of summer, Cáit’s dad packs her into his battered Ford Cortina and drives three hours to Waterford, to drop her with relatives she hasn’t seen since she was a baby: her mum’s cousin Eibhlín Cinnsealach (Carrie Crowley) and her gruff farmer husband, Seán (Andrew Bennett). But in the care and kindness of these strangers – with hot baths, hair-brushing, a pound slipped into her hand for a choc ice – Cáit comes to life. It is as if she is being seen for the first time.
This is a film of gorgeous simplicity and heartbreaking humanity – full of details that gave me great rushes of overwhelming emotion. When Cáit’s dad drops her off at the Cinnsealachs’, he drives off with her suitcase in the boot, leaving her only with the clothes in which she is standing. It tells us everything about his indifference. (The mystery for Cáit to discover is why there is a wardrobe of boys’ clothes at the couple’s house, when they do not have children.) My favourite moment comes when grumpy-seeming Seán silently leaves a chocolate biscuit on the kitchen counter for Cáit – a tiny gesture of love that speaks volumes.
Speaking to the Observer when Foster was published in 2010, Keegan described her story as “an examination of home and an examination of neglect”. For Bairéad, it has something to say, too, about the shame in Ireland’s past of children being mistreated. Nothing terrible happens to Cáit; this is not a story about abuse in orphanages or the Magdalene laundries.
“But it’s a film that’s still quite aware of that backdrop,” Bairéad says. He quotes a line from the Irish proclamation of independence. “It promises to cherish all of the children of the nation equally. That’s certainly something that we as a society haven’t always managed to do.” In the film, a neighbour of the Cinnsealachs gives Cáit the once over and asks: “Can she be put to work?” – as if this small child is a farm dog or a horse.
Bairéad became a father two years before he read Foster. One of the things that interested him was how parenting has changed in Ireland. “In 1981, we were on the threshold of a modern Ireland, but still very Catholic and socially conservative. Children were seen and not heard. That was very much a staple of Irish life in the past.” Was that his experience growing up? Bairéad shakes his head. “My parents would’ve been more liberal. But then there were still vestiges. We were hit; the wooden spoon and all that.”
He was raised in Dublin in a bilingual home – his dad was a teacher of German and only ever spoke to him in Irish. When I mention my Irish heritage, Bairéad asks my surname and translates it into Irish. “Clarke. That’s Ó Cléirigh.” He and his wife, Cleona Ní Chrualaoi – she is also his producer – are raising their two sons in Irish. “I’m turning into my dad now,” he says. “I don’t speak English to my boys.”
Irish is on the decline as a language and audiences at home will mostly be watching A Quiet Girl with subtitles. “Irish people have this sort of strange relationship with the language,” says Bairéad. “Everyone’s forced to do it in school, but most leave with very little. They can ask: ‘Can I go to the toilet?’ in Irish or whatever.”
Yet he has noticed a shift in the perception of the language, particularly in younger people. “I don’t know whether that’s because they’re more culturally sensitive. I think, after going through a recession and a pandemic, that society started to look inward a little and reappraise identity a little, you know?” Besides, there is a connection to the language: ‘It’s wrapped up in all of these things to do with national pride. And there is a recognition factor as well. People understand the texture of the language, because even the way we speak English as Irish people has all these inflections that are hangovers from the Irish language.”
A renaissance in Irish-language cinema, which began with the potato-famine drama Arracht, has been credited to a funding initiative led by the Irish-language broadcaster, TG4, which financed The Quiet Girl. Bairéad thinks the scheme is a product of a growing confidence in Irish-language culture. In the past six months alone in Ireland, there have been four Irish-language films.
So why has The Quiet Girl captured so many hearts? Bairéad answer is characteristically modest. “Um, I’m not sure what the reason is. I just think it sort of says something, maybe, about our country, our past and our character.” After screenings, people have been coming up to him in tears. “There was a woman in her early 80s. She’d been fostered as a child and she said that the film had captured completely how she felt walking into these new homes. It brought back all of that to her. As she was telling me, I could see the pain there, you know?”