“The Brothers McMullen”, 1995, is an American movie by Irish American actor and writer Ed Burns. Described a romantic comedy set in Long Island, New York, following the lives and loves of three Irish Catholic brothers: “Three Irish Catholic brothers from Long Island struggle to deal with love, marriage, and infidelity.”i In the movie, Barry, the character played by director Ed Burns, gives his girlfriend Audrey a Claddagh ring. It is this Claddagh ring that she had returned to him that convinces him in the end of his love for her and overcomes his fear of commitment.
“AUDREY: Can you give me another reason?
BARRY: Yeah, because I’m going to be busy. You know I mean, I’m not going to have time for this. For us.
AUDREY: You know what? You can have this back, I don’t want it.
AUDREY pulls the Claddagh ring off and shoves it into his chest.
BARRY: Hey, Audrey, you knew from day one that I wasn’t interested in letting this become, you know, too serious.
AUDREY: I don’t care what we though was going to happen. I fell in love with you, and I think you fell in love with me too. Didn’t you?
BARRY: Come on. You know, let’s not get into this, all right?
AUDREY: Just answer the question, it won’t kill you.
BARRY: What do you want me to say? All right … okay, yeah I do love you.
AUDREY: Then why are you doing this?
BARRY: Because, you know what? I don’t want to be in love. All right, and I don’t want a wife and I don’t want a family either.
AUDREY: Whoever said anything about marriage and a family?
BARRY: I’m sorry, Audrey, it just can’t be.”ii
In her book “Irish Immigrants in New York City, 1945-1995”, Linda Dowling Almeida sees the movie “The Brothers McMullen” as faithful representation of ordinary Irish-American life, free from strong stereotypes and clichés – tellingly including the Claddagh ring as simply another oridinary part of Irish identity.
“In 1995 a small vacuum in the Irish American film culture was filled with the introduction of a movie called the The Brothers McMullen (1995). Written by Ed Burns, an Irish American who also starred in, directed, and produced the file, it is a contemporary account of three Irish American brothers from Long Island. The young men are in their early to late twenties, facing adulthood and romantic commitment after their father dies and their mother returns to Ireland to marry her long-lost love. The film is refreshing because it deals with the Irish American experience in the suburbs. The McMullen brothers are the kids who left Queens for Long Island with their parents in the 1970s. They are the product of the disapora. The film, which won top prize at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, offers a contemporary alternative to stories about the Westies, IRA conspiracies, and explosions that recent films have exploited.
While it does not avoid stereotypes altogether, particularly the guilty-wracked, Catholic conscience of one brother and madonna-whore gender conceptions, The Brothers McMullen offers subtle and familiar, if superficial, symbols of an American Irish Catholic upbringing in the sixties, seventies, and eighties.
Burns admitted to overdoing the stereotype, but claimed to be having “fun” with it. One of the real strengths of the movie from this perspective was that the brothers considered themselves obviously Irish Catholic, but the script did not suggest any overt cultural traditions such as Irish dancing, language, or feis. The only real “Irish” cultural symbol employed was the gift of a claddagh ring by the Ed Burns character to his girlfriend. (The claddagh symbol of a heart between two hands, topped with a crown, glories love and friendship. The ring is a traditional Irish wedding band.)
The McMullens were just ordinary Irish Americans dealing with relationships, growing up, and leaving home. While the Irish American characters were not running guns for the Irish Republican Army (IRA), they also were not police officers and they were not priests. But they were recognizable as Irish Americans to any New Yorker who grew up in an ethnic community in the seventies and eighties. More room exists for treatment of the “ordinary” suburban Irish American experience on film.”iii
i Internet Movie DataBase, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0112585/
ii Angela Nicholas, “99 Film Scenes for Actors”, Avon, 1999, ISBN 0380798042.
iii Linda Dowling Almeida, “Irish Immigrants in New York City, 1945-1995”, Indiana University Press, 2001, ISBN 0253338433.