The Quiet Girl (An Cailín Ciúin)

A detailed analysis of the Gaeilge film The Quiet Girl (2022, dir. Colm Bairéad) by Nigel Mulligan (plot spoilers ahead)

 

A commonplace piece of advice in filmmaking, especially in regard to the script or screenplay, is ‘show, don’t tell’. Such an approach promotes a writing style that avoids unnecessary exposition that may ultimately end up over-explaining plot points to the audience but instead aims to amplify how we might make sense of it, the meta-language in each scene. Colm Bairéad’s debut film, An Cailín Ciúin, is an exemplary exercise employing this modus operandi; it lets the unfolding events speak for themselves.

Cait

The film is a screen adaptation of Claire Keegan’s 2010 novella Foster which, harnessed to Kate McCullough’s stylish cinematography that utilizes the imagery of rural Ireland and keeps with the trajectory of the rich literary tradition of Kavanagh, McGahern and Heaney. The poetic shots use the colors and tones of the landscape to not only amplify the intricacies of the natural world but embody the conflicting worlds of the characters in the story.

The nine-year-old protagonist Cáit (Catherine Clinch) does not need to say much for us to get a real sense what it might be like for a child to feel that they are surplus to requirement in a financially struggling family in 1980’s Ireland. Bairéad’s striking opening scene confronts us with her sense of anonymity as we visually struggle to identify Cáit hiding in the undergrowth.

We might imagine that Cáit feels safer buried in nature or symbolically we can interpret her as trying to emerge from somewhere she feels stuck. Cáit is one of several children, with her mother Máthair (Kate Nic Chonaonaigh) expecting another and her slippery father Athair (Michael Patric) contributing little visible stability to the family where his remarks indicate an inability to manage his farm and put food on the table.

Athair

We see Athair collecting Cáit after she runs away from school while also picking up another woman who appears to be a romantic friend. When the woman asks who Cáit is, her father does not even name her, referring to her as the ‘wanderer’, which is an interesting term, a signifier that could represent someone who is not rooted to anywhere.

However, it is exactly this scenario that allows us to empathize with Cáit’s impossible situation – if she does say something about this new woman that her father is possibly having an affair with, will she be believed and risk further isolation? We get a further sense of her observed world where we see her father having a silent pint at the bar of a pub while she is left in a dark corner.

The old dictum that ‘children should be seen and not heard’ could be extended here, where Cáit does not even want to be seen. Cáit is caught up in an adult world full of contradictions and deception, a world where the adults do not seem to fully know what they are doing and are indifferent to the consequences, but are, in Marx’s dictum, doing it anyway.

Eibhlin

After a decision is made by Cáit’s parents to send her to Máithair’s cousin Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley), who manages a more prosperous farm with her partner Seán, a further turn of events is taken out of Cáit’s control. In the drive to Rinn Gaeltacht, County Waterford, Cáit only finds out where exactly she is going when Athair is listening to a horse race on the radio and is backing a horse called ‘Waterford’.

Rather symbolically in this scene, one cannot help but wonder what kind of wager is he taking on his daughter. During the drive to Eibhlín’s farm, Bairéad trusts the scenery to amplify the shifting worlds Cáit is experiencing. Once she arrives at her new home, however, it becomes clear we are on a working farm. Seán (Andrew Bennett) greets Athair at his tractor, but the family might be considered middle-class as the house appears bigger and surrounding shrubbery appears more cultivated than Cáit’s family home.

Cáit is left to be welcomed with instant affection by Eibhlín. In this transition, Athair stays for an awkward lunch where the real contrast between Cáit’s new home and her old one is exposed, one in which it is Irish that is spoken for the most part. Athair arguably represents this patriarchal, anglicized world, who makes no effort to speak Gaeilge throughout the film and is caught in the very contradictions that lie in the heart of Gaeilge Ireland and English colonization. Athair constantly makes a comment about the scarcity of food and he promises that Cáit will ‘eat ya out of house and home’.

Hunger

There are echoes of Patrick Kavanagh’s 1942 poem The Great Hunger with the resounding line ‘the hungry fiend screams the apocalypse of clay in every corner of this land’. Though there was no famine in 1980’s Ireland, there was an economic realignment concerning Ireland’s place in the EU where all the larger farms were monopolized which had a devastating effect on smaller farmers. At the table, Athair, blustering, tries to regale his audience with stories of his farming exploits while Eibhlín later quizzes Cáit and exposes Athair’s contradictions and realizes his inability to manage his farm, giving him an awkward, symbolic gift of rhubarb before he leaves.

Marcel Mauss’ anthropological account of symbolic exchange in his 1925 work The Gift may also help shape our presupposition that there may be more than a simple fostering arrangement taking place: a possible class division of labor between the working and middle class may also be enacted. According to Mauss, if a gift is given, it has to be repaid, and so we can only wonder if Cáit is the offering. When Athair makes the comment that they can put her to work, however, Seán dismisses the notion, and he later refuses Eibhlín’s suggestion to show Cáit the farm.

When Athair leaves without giving them Cáit’s suitcase containing her clothes leaving her no possessions of her own, we get the sense that Cáit is not only forgotten about by Athair once again. By being ‘undressed’ and re-clothed in the vestments of a boy’s clothes by Eibhlín, we get the sense that she is being symbolically ‘repurposed’. She also sleeps in a room with pictures of trains on the wall. Not only is ‘her’ room clearly that of another child, but we can also make the association that if walls have ears, this is rather part of the mnemonic landscape of collective industrial memory.

Secrets

Bairéad ultilises the scenery and the location to exhibit an almost fairyland quality when Cáit is taken to the water well, possibly a nod to Heaney’s Personal Halicon poem about self-discovery and exploration. A stylish shot mirrors the beauty of the farm but is contrasted with a forewarning by Eibhlín of the well’s deep dangers. Soon after, when Cáit asks if going to the well is a secret, Eibhlín replies ‘Níl aon rúin sa teach seo’ (there are no secrets in this house).

Bairéad allows the gentle rhythms of the relationship between Cáit and the farm to develop seamlessly as she is loved and cared for by Eibhlín, but we share in the child’s wonder when measured against the tension of Seán’s slow resistance to opening up to her. As the film will reveal, however, there are indeed dark secrets and Eibhlín and Seán are not ready to acknowledge the ultimate perishable price of living on a working farm.

Cáit finds out from a neighbour after a Catholic wake that Eibhlín and Seán had a boy who drowned in the slurry while playing on the farm. Despite Seán’s words of comfort and reassurance to Cáit that her silence is a special quality and ‘chaill go leor duine an deis gan faic a rá’ (many a person missed the opportunity to say nothing). This ‘secret’ reveals that Cáit was indeed dressed up in the dead boy’s clothes. Not only is she in effect being made to form part of a melancholic mourning ritual for Eibhlín and Seán, but a canny eye gets the sense that something else is getting relived and re-worked.

Marx asserted that ‘in awakening past labor, living labor raises it from the dead, makes it undead. In doing so, living labor also alienates and deadens itself’. This subtext is foretold in many ways in this story and when Eibhlín makes the comment that water is running low in the taps and she needs to get some from the well, but is then beckoned to the farm to support a neighbour who is delivering a calf. Cáit goes down to fetch water from the well unaccompanied and falls in. Eibhlín feels something is wrong and goes to find her – to her relief, she is alive but drenched wet.

Seán

We might consider the middle class couple’s farm, although exhibiting obvious signs of love, may actually be a more dangerous place for Cáit. Although they were apparently loving, we can make the interpretation that Eibhlín and Seán’s dedication to production nearly cost them a second child, whose capitalist machine exploits and disposes of human labor. The farm is the monster that needs to be feed. Kavanagh’s poem The Great Hunger asserts that ‘clay is the word and clay is the flesh’, where the land has the final say. The idea of the brutal reality that humans may be the ultimate sacrifice to feed the land not only reactivates Bairéad’s opening scene but colors the interpretation that Cáit might have been attempting to bury herself in the undergrowth.

As the summer closes, Cáit must return home for school. In a high-stakes handover sequence full of tension, we see her sneezing after catching a cold from falling into the well and adamantly claiming ‘nothing happened’. In fact, a little of everything has happened for her, since she has been loved a lot more but also nearly lost her life in the well suffering the same fate of her predecessor. Athair clumsily makes the throwaway comment about her sneezing that ‘ya cant be looking after them’, a phrase which Seán sees as their cue to leave.

In the film’s emotional climax, Cáit runs after Eibhlín and Seán only to catch up and be held by Seán. Seeing Athair running after her, she calls out ‘Daddy’, shortly after, nestling into the protective arms of Seán, calls out ‘Daddy’ once again and it is there the film ends. Bairéad cut leaves some ambiguity and amplifies Cáit own conflict but perhaps signaling that Seán represented the symbolic role of a real father for her.

Capitalism and patriarchy

A further possible subtext of the film that could be further analysed might lead us to the view that all the relationships are shaped at some level by what Marx referred to as economic forces. Not only are Cáit and her family not in control of their destiny, but her ‘real’ father is subject to the dire socio-political conditions of the day in which 1980s Ireland was known as a time of mass emigration and struggle for those who stayed.

Could Athair who was painted in parts as the villain be regarded as an anti-hero, disinterested in and ineffective at his work, but also as embodying a revolt, not only against an oppressive system that enforces a particular type of human sacrificing wear and tear labor, but whose adultery could also be seen as a mutiny against the patriarchy of Catholicism and the Oedipal family unit, a hand in glove capitalist creation.

The Quiet Girl is not only about the devastating marginalisation that poverty imposes on families but it can be about the support that can also come from the wider family network and the resilience of children when they can be recognized and loved in certain ways. In Bairéad’s film, however, we can say that all the parties get something out of the fostering exchange, Cáit receives different level of love and caring that will also benefit her family, while Eibhlín and Seán get to mourn their son by proxy through their time with Cáit.

The effect of this film lasts long after the credit roll, owing to Bairéad’s knowing how to allow its rich symbolic currency to let the ambiguity of its events, and the contradictions within all of us, to speak for themselves.


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Nigel Mulligan is a writer, psychotherapist, lecturer and filmmaker living and working in Dublin, Ireland.

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