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Posted 18 June 2012

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TEXT OF THE INTRODUCTORY ADDRESS DELIVERED BY DR HARVEY O’BRIEN, UCD School of English, Drama and Film, University College Dublin on 16 June 2012, on the occasion of the conferring of the Degree of Doctor of Literature, honoris causa on JIM SHERIDAN

President, Distinguished Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen

Born in 1949 in Dublin into a working family, Jim Sheridan’s engagement with artistic self-expression began with theatre. Following the death of his younger brother Frankie at the age of eleven, his father formed an amateur theatrical troupe, which externalised the family’s trauma and fuelled both Jim and his brother Peter’s literary imaginations. Jim’s theatre work developed through performing and directing at UCD from which he graduated in 1972 with a BA in History and English, and through writing and directing radical left wing and avant garde plays at the Project Theatre. He left Dublin for New York with his young family in 1980 following the conflict over the controversial Gay Sweatshop Theatre Company productions at the Project, which was subsequently threatened with closure.

It was in New York during his time at the Irish Arts Centre that he also received formal training in film at New York University. When Jim Sheridan turned to film making, it was with the experience of a hardworking arts manager, the conviction of an educated intellect, and the pragmatism of a purposeful storyteller. Though he has engaged with film as a writer, a director, a producer, and an actor, his cinema has never been rarified or exclusive. Jim Sheridan’s work is defined by its clarity.

His adaptation of Christy Brown’s memoirs, My Left Foot, is the pivot on which the story of Irish cinema itself turns. The story of Christy Brown was always a story of overcoming adversity without denying one’s roots; a tale of inspiration and strength that demanded empathy but not pity. Though its image of Ireland was an inward reflection of a remembered past, its gaze was towards an outward and positive future. So it was with Sheridan’s film, which was modern, urban, challenging and inspirational in a way no other Irish film before it had been. It literally changed how Ireland was seen on film both at home and abroad. Distinct from the broadly caricatured imaginings of American films to date and from the morosely insular reflections of a European auteur cinema, Sheridan’s voice was sincere, clear, and direct.

The international recognition the film received, including the Academy Awards that saw Daniel Day-Lewis announce he’d been given the makings of a great night out in Dublin, was instrumental in invigorating the Irish film industry at a key moment, when the collapse of the first Irish Film Board seemed to signal an end for the endeavour of an indigenous cinema in Ireland. My Left Foot changed all that. It ushered in a new era of international funding and internationalism in Irish film that did not, in spite of anxieties expressed in some critical commentary, erase the specificity of the Irish experience. On the contrary, the directness with which Jim Sheridan confronted his subject resonated both with Irish and international audiences.

So it is with Sheridan’s legacy as a film maker. Through films as writer, director, or producer, often in collaboration with Noel Pearson, including The Field, Into the West, In the Name of the Father, Some Mother’s Son, The Boxer, and In America Sheridan’s work has been instrumental in broadening both the practice and the discourse of Irish film. In itself this body of work has demonstrated the power of a fusion of mythic archetype and urban realism, facilitating his tackling of subjects from Irish historical legacies and the conflict in Northern Ireland through the dynamics of the Irish family and the transcendent power of love. Citing Joyce and sometimes Synge as his influences, he is respectful of tradition but not bound by it. He is versed in the literary heritage, but embraces the image in ways that make him a cinematic dramatist of the first order. “James Joyce always tells me the answer to everything I need to know on any project I’m doing,” he has said, and also “I want to be where the breaking wave is.”

Sheridan’s work has enabled a generation of young Irish film makers to tell cinematic stories with confidence and clarity. Inspired by his example, Irish film makers no longer feel shackled to ideological or aesthetic prerequisites. Sheridan’s work has also inspired scholarship at every level of Irish education: not just in the Academe, but also as part of the secondary school curriculum. My Left Foot introduces Junior Cert scholars to issues in adaptation, challenging them with questions of form, and it also challenges them now as Irish citizens facing Ireland’s history and identity as directly as it did in 1989. Speaking in the documentary film Irish Cinema: Ourselves Alone? in 1996 he said “Identity, identity, identity: it’s like a mantra in this country. I think the real reason we’re so concerned about identity is because we’re worried that we haven’t got one.” It’s quite a challenge, and one to which the cinema of Jim Sheridan has provided significant means to answer.


Praehonorabilis Praeses, totaque Universitas,

Praesento vobis hunc meum filium, quem scio tam moribus quam doctrina habilem et idoneum esse qui admittatur, honoris causa, ad gradum Doctoratus in Litteris; idque tibi fide mea testor ac spondeo, totique Academiae.


(Produced by UCD University Relations)


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Jim Sheridan