Senator Tom Hayden once pointed out that one of the reasons why traditional Irish American culture tends towards the light and aery sentimentalism of chuckling leprechauns and rustic simplicity, is not because our history is cheery and uncomplicated, but rather the opposite.

The original stories of many who reached the New World from Ireland have been simply too full of horror to tell. Their sadness and hardship was quickly replaced by a selective memory process that eventually led to the quaint, cute or rambunctious stage and screen Irish images we have come to know.

This resulting mythology is often more interesting for what it conceals than what it shows. As with the old John Cleese joke, “don’t talk about the war”, the true experience of immigrants was frequently silenced for the following generations, and it often takes a long time for realities to be faced, or even discovered.

This is My Father is about such a discovery, and is simply one of the best Irish American films ever. Its powerful exploration of the kind of social and religious constraints that often drove people away from Ireland, its heartfelt portrayal of real Irish people in an accurate, unsentimentalized setting, and its capacity for humor as well as pathos, make it an exceptional work. It’s story will be especially poignant for Irish American viewers, but is universal enough in its theme and treatment to appeal to any movie goer.

While the film is a striking directorial debut from Paul Quinn, its also somewhat of a family collaboration. The lead is played by Paul’s brother, the actor Aidan Quinn (Legends of the Fall, Benny & Joon, Michael Collins), his sister Marion (I Shot Andy Warhol, 2×4), features in a smaller role, and the cinematographer Declan Quinn (Leaving Las Vegas, The Ballad of Little Jo). Its strong cast includes such distinguished actors as Donal Donnally, James Caan, Moira Deady, John Cusack, Stephen Rea, Gina Moxley, Colm Meaney and Brendan Gleeson (recently seen in The General), and the film boasts a memorable soundtrack from Master Irish musician Donal Lunny.

The story begins in Chicago, when Kieran Jr. (James Caan), finds himself in a genuine crisis of identity. His mother Fiona, who arrived in America pregnant just before the outbreak of World War II, never told him who his father was. Having now suffered a stroke, she is unable to communicate any longer with her family. Kieran is a schoolteacher in a modest suburban school, whose life lacks context and purpose. When a homework task he assigns his students coincides with the unearthing of an old family photo revealing a man who might possibly be his father, he heads back to Ireland with his nephew, Jack (Jacob Tierney), in search of the truth.

When Jack and Kieran arrive in Ireland, their B&B is run by Seamus (Colm Meaney in a truly flamboyant role!) and his mother, Mrs Kearney. Initially faced with a blank wall from locals in the village, Kieran can only learn the tale under the auspices of Mrs. Kearney’s “fortune telling” sessions. It is through these that we learn the tale of young Fiona and her first love, Kieran.

Fiona (Moya Farrelly) is a bright, gorgeous girl with a lust for life that burns brightly despite the odds. Her mother is a domineering, bitter and snobbish widow – the only woman in the village with a car. Having taken to the drink after her husband’s death, she is determined that no romance will blossom between her daughter and the lowly Kieran, played by Aidan Quinn.

Quinn gives a stunning performance. Fiona’s unlikely suitor is a “poor house bastard” who cuts turf for his stepparents and is regarded generally in the locality as the village idiot. He is deeply religious, but his love for her is unquenchable – even in the face of opposition from the widow (Gina Moxley) and the all-powerful local parish priest (Eamonn Morrissey). Quinn put on thirty pounds for the role, and his metamorphosis into a painfully shy, rural batchelor who is overwhelmed at Fiona’s attentions, is nothing short of brilliant. He manages to evince the gentle soul inside the “outsider” and gives such a touching performance, that many of the audience (including the male contingent) were moved to quiet tears by the end of the film.

Moya Farrelly also gives a splendid performance.   Finally – we see a strong Irish woman on the big screen that does not fit into the “feisty redhead” stereotype. She is a naturally sexy and outspoken girl whose place in society prohibits a passion as strong as her love for Kieran, and her departure for America at the end of the film is no surprise.

It is to director/writer Paul Quinn’s credit that a film entitled This Is My Father is as much about the mother in the family as well as the father.   Notable too, is that while the film flashbacks are set at the end of the 1930s, the contemporary scenes really are contemporary Ireland – not just more Hollywood-Irish romanticism.   Quinn, as an Irish American who has spent two separate sojourns in Ireland as a child, is well able to address the past, but has his feet planted firmly in the present.   One looks forward to his future work, and hopefully we’ll see more Irish and Irish American films of this calibre gracing our screens over the next couple of years.

Having celebrated its East Coast premiere at the First Annual New York Film Fleadh last month, This Is My Father opens in May at theaters around the U.S.

* Posted on what would have been the 57th birthday of the director of the film director, Paul Quinn, RIP