Conference Contribution Details
Mandatory Fields
Young, Gwenda
Annual Conference of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies
A far down Shanty Irish ”: Marshall Neilan and the constructions of Irishness in Early Hollywood”
Boston, USA
Invited Lectures (Conference)
Optional Fields

“A far down Shanty Irish[1]”: Marshall Neilan and the constructions of Irishness in Early Hollywood”

In Hollywood, Kevin Brownlow notes that in early Hollywood “…if the business side of the industry was run by Jews, the creative side was the domain of the Irish” (Hollywood. 209). Apart from directors and actors who were Irish born, many claimed Irish heritage and often worked Irish/Irish-American themes into their films and publicity profiles.  Beginning with a brief overview of the Irish in early Hollywood, this paper will focus on Irish-American director, Marshall ‘Mickey’ Neilan, who made films from across a range of genres, but is best known for his work in the comedy genre with major stars such as Mary Pickford and Colleen Moore (both, of course, of Irish lineage).  This paper analyses how Neilan’s Irish themed films (Amarilly of Clothes Line Alley; Dinty) engaged with debates concerning immigrant identity and fed into (and off) popular notions of Irishness propagated in the late 1910s/early 1920s (see Meagher; Negra). Additionally, I will examine how Neilan emphasised his Irish heritage and temperament in the public persona he cultivated and in his private life. While Neilan’s “Irishness” was initially seen as a virtue- responsible for his light touch in comedy and his rapport with performers (Pickford’s close relationship with him was centred on nostalgia for their shared ‘shanty Irishness’)- by the mid 1920s it was increasingly regarded as the source of his personal and professional troubles. Indeed, the screenwriter Adela Rogers St John explicitly linked Neilan’s decline in the Industry to his Irish heritage “I can say that what happened to Mickey Neilan was that he was Irish. You have to watch the Irish, you have to give them some discipline, you have to have them in control of some kind. They can do the most brilliant things of anybody- which Mickey could- but he couldn’t restrain his tongue”. (Hollywood. 204).  While Neilan’s problems in the Industry were more complex than a mere matter of (Irish) temperament, Rogers-St John’s comments indicate the pervasive (and accepted) stereotype of the Irish as verbose and naturally creative but also undisciplined and unpredictable.

[1] This is Mary Pickford’s description of Marshall Neilan, quoted in Brownlow, Kevin. Mary Pickford Rediscovered. New York: H. Abrams, 1999. 64. 

travel costs part funded by CACSSS and School of English UCC