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The Party Celebrating The Irish in Hollywood

Jamie Dornan and Kenneth Branagh were honored at this year’s Oscar Wilde awards amid excitement over Belfast. Ireland could see big victories at the Academy Awards this year, with Irish actors nominated in key categories including best supporting actor and actress. Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, inspired by his own childhood during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, secured seven nominations, including for best picture and best original screenplay.

At Ireland’s own Oscar party, the Oscar Wilde awards, in Los Angeles on Thursday, the mood was optimistic, with Belfast cast members and other celebrities excited about the film’s nominations and the power of seeing broad recognition for an Irish story.

With his critically lauded role as a Northern Irish father in Branagh’s film, actor Jamie Dornan is throwing off the shackles of the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise, in which he played an insipid sex maniac who seduces a woman who wears cardigans. Dornan literally threw off those shackles as he accepted an Oscar Wilde award for his work on Thursday, producing a pair of handcuffs from inside his jacket and then casting them aside.

In a tearful speech, Dornan honored his father, a renowned Belfast doctor who died of Covid-19 a year ago, and thanked Branagh for taking a chance on him by casting him.

Dornan, himself a Belfast native, said in his speech that he proudly identifies as Irish.

“Where I come from identity is very skewed. If you’re from the North, how you identify yourself gets you gets you into a whole heap of trouble, maybe thirty years of trouble, and it’s constantly going to be a source of conflict, sadly.”

“I’ve always been told that I’m Irish, it’s all I’ve ever known. I’ve been proud of that since the day I was born,” Dornan said, pledging to continue to try to tell Irish stories.

“If you’re lucky enough to be Irish, then you are lucky enough.”

Branagh himself, who also received an Oscar Wilde award, appeared only by video, amid reports that he had tested positive for Covid-19. He said he felt “fighting fit” but that he wanted to respect awards protocols.

The Irish Oscars party, now in its 16th year, is hosted by the US-Ireland Alliance, founded by Trina Vargo, a former foreign policy adviser to Senator Edward Kennedy. The non-profit aims to introduce rising Irish talent to Hollywood, as well as to celebrate established Irish and Irish American stars. This year, the award for a new talent to watch went to actor Dónall Ó Héalai, a central figure in a new ascendancy of Irish-language films.

Four years ago, Ó Héalai gave a popular Ted Talk about the beauty of the Irish language. After years of struggling to build an acting career, he starred in Arracht, a 2019 drama that was the first Gaelic film about the potato famine, and Foscadh, a contemporary Gaelic film about a neurodivergent man from Connemara trying to find love after his mother’s death. Both films were chosen as Ireland’s official selections for the foreign language Oscars.

“I’m really happy that I’m able to act in my own language,” Ó Héalai told the Guardian in an interview on the party’s Green Carpet. He said the blockbuster success of other foreign language films and television, such as Parasite and Squid Game, had created new opportunities for foreign language films with streaming services like Netflix, but that he also believed the rise of Gaelic film was driven by a renewed interest among the Irish in looking inward at their own history.

In filming Arracht, he said in his award speech, “t​he dignity of our ancestors was with us for that entire shoot”.

There are more promising Irish-language films in the works: Ó Héalai said he was excited about Tarrac, a forthcoming Gaelic film about women’s traditional boat racing in West Kerry. But it’s likely that Ó Héalai will soon be playing some roles in English-language films, as well. Reinaldo Marcus Green, director of the best picture nominee King Richard, called Ó Héalai a close friend and said they met in New York when he was a struggling student film-maker with $300,000 of student loan debt, “looking at Uber applications”. Ó Héalai convinced him not to give up, telling him: “Just keep going. You’re so close,” Green said.

Green hailed Ó Héalai’s “brilliant work” as he presented him with his award, saying that soon everyone “will know his name”.

Dornan called Ó Héalai’s work on Irish language film “vital and necessary” and said he was “so excited” to see the next steps in his career.

Glenn Keogh, a film and TV actor who has appeared in Curb Your Enthusiasm and Sons of Anarchy, said there had long been a “fantastic” and “close-knit” Irish network in Hollywood, and one that had been crucial to his own career. When he had arrived in Los Angeles 15 years ago, Keogh said, he had joined an Irish football team, the Santa Monica Celtics, which had helped him make entertainment industry connections. The Irish-Hollywood network was thriving today, he said, with established Irish professionals always happy to offer advice and help in securing day jobs to their newly arrived comrades.

That wide Irish network was on display on Thursday, with Oscar Wilde guests ranging from Fig O’Reilly, an Irish American model and television presenter who was crowned Miss Universe Ireland in 2019, to Donie O’Sullivan, the beloved Irish CNN reporter who covers politics and disinformation, to the Star Wars director JJ Abrams, who has emceed the Oscar Wilde awards for years and was named an “honorary Irishman” at the event in 2010.

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