Neil Jordan occupies a special place in Irish cultural life. More than just a famous film director,; he is a symbol of change, of the way the country sees itself. Fintan O'Toole reports from Dublin
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On the day they buried amon de Valera, the patriarch of Ireland's transition to independence and the villain of Neil Jordan's new film Michael Collins, Jordan himself was driving through the centre of Dublin. It was a day rich in symbolism, as momentous for the Irish as Winston Churchill's funeral had been for the British. But as the cortege passed down O'Connell Street, Jordan's eye was drawn to the many people who seemed to be watching it, not directly, but on the televisions in shop windows. This image of how difficult it can be for people to look their own history in the face, and how much easier it can be to see it on the screen, haunted him. Out of it, he wrote his first novel, The Past.

Now, though, the image of their history that Irish people are about to see on their screens is one created by Neil Jordan himself. And it is already provoking the same kind of uncertainty as did de Valera's funeral. Michael Collins deals with the tumultuous years of the Irish revolution, between 1916 and 1922, when an armed revolution led to the establishment of an independent Irish state.

The film's eponymous hero was the mastermind behind the IRA's ruthless campaign against the police and the British army. Young, sexy and self- consciously photogenic, he created his own mythology of daring escapades and almost folkloric outsmarting of a more powerful enemy. And, to add to his stature, he even turned from the unflinching deployment of violence to negotiation and compromise. The treaty he negotiated with Britain in 1921 was opposed by hardliners, led by de Valera. In the civil war that followed, Collins died in an ambush. De Valera, for his part, went on to dominate independent Ireland. For Neil Jordan's generation, de Valera, who was still president in 1973, became a decrepit symbol of an increasingly meaningless past. Collins, who died long before the onset of post-revolutionary disillusionment could take the gloss off his myth, retained the eternal allure of the lost leader.

If Jordan's film were merely trying to do for Irish history what Braveheart did for the Scots, it would probably be judged on its own terms. But with an IRA hero, played by the Northern Irish actor Liam Neeson, who makes the transition from arch-terrorist to democratic statesman, it inevitably invites comparisons with contemporary Northern Ireland. And already, before it opens, it has confirmed what its director felt that day in 1975 when Eamon de Valera was buried - that it is still hard to look in the face of Irish history.

OPINION IN Ireland is divided on Michael Collins. On the one hand, there are those who see it as a coming of age for Irish cinema, the first really big budget feature by an Irish director dealing with Irish history. The film has provoked an unprecedented statement from the Irish film censor, who said that, because of its great significance, he was giving it a general certificate in spite of its depiction of violence and obscenity. It was so important, he said, that Irish parents might want to bring their children to see it. It has also attracted a ringing endorsement from the former Taoiseach, Garret Fitzgerald. And the current Irish Minister for Justice, Nora Owen, herself a grand-niece of Michael Collins, has given the film her blessing, describing it as "very powerful and moving".

But on the other hand, it has been attacked by eminent historians, such as Roy Foster and Paul Bew, for taking unnecessary liberties. Some newspaper columnists - especially Eoghan Harris of the Sunday Times's Irish edition, whose script for a rival version of the Collins story to be made by Kevin Costner was aborted - have attacked it for glorifying IRA violence. In Northern Ireland, David Ervine, leader of the Progressive Unionist Party (which is close to one of the loyalist paramilitary organisations), has urged his supporters to boycott the film. And an anachronistic scene in which policemen from Ulster are blown up by a car bomb has been bitterly criticised by members of the RUC maimed during the IRA campaign. (Jordan himself has admitted that the scene may have been misjudged.)

There is, for Neil Jordan, a special irony in all of this controversy. Fifteen years ago, when he had just made his first film, Angel, he told the novelist Colm Tibn that what attracted him to the cinema was the fact that it was "a form and a medium that could tell a story without the burden of history on its shoulders". But the burden of history certainly lies on Michael Collins - and that is the kind of contradiction that makes Jordan so fascinating.

He is an artist who seemed, like James Joyce, to fly the nets of family, nation and faith. But, having done so, he has chosen to fly back in again, to return over and over to those three themes. The dark entanglements of children with their parents are a constant presence in his books and films. The blood of an unresolved national conflict flows through Angel, The Crying Game, and now Michael Collins. And, perhaps most surprising for an agnostic intellectual, the religious imagery of his Catholic childhood surfaces again and again, most notably in his most personal film, The Miracle. Even in We're No Angels, his film of an acerbic anti-clerical script, he included warm images of the Virgin Mary that horrified its author, the Chicago Jewish playwright David Mamet.

The tension between Jordan the left-wing intellectual and Jordan the product of Catholic Ireland is perhaps most obvious in his portrayal of women. On the one hand, the old Catholic stereotypes are still given an airing, most obviously in Mona Lisa, and he has admitted that "there are a lot of madonnas and a lot of whores in the movies I've made, so I'm not really on strong ground in that on-going battle". But on the other, he worked sympathetically with the late Angela Carter on his film of her feminist fable The Company of Wolves. And his most successful film to date, The Crying Game, is - in spite of indulging a rather ludicrous fantasy of a female terrorist - based on the idea that male and female roles are decidedly unstable.

The inconsistencies are what make Jordan interesting. It is as if, having had the burden of a specifically Irish history lifted from his shoulders, he has decided to take it up again of his own free will. His shoulders also have to carry, in Ireland at least, a special weight of expectation that always presses heavily on his work. Neil Jordan is, for modern Ireland, not just a famous movie director, but a peculiarly emblematic figure of cultural change. His work over the last two decades represents not just one man's pursuit of his ideas and ambitions, but a significant shift in a nation's culture. By starting out as a writer of literary fiction and re-inventing himself as a film director, he symbolises a much bigger change in the way the country sees itself.

Jordan grew up in an Ireland that had been, in cultural terms, largely invisible. Although born in 1951 in Sligo, part of the romantic west of Ireland so powerfully mythologised by Yeats and Synge, he was brought up in the middle-class Dublin suburb of Clontarf. The son of a father who was a schoolteacher and an amateur musician, and a mother who was a painter, he belonged to a kind of Ireland - urban, relatively prosperous and sophisticated, rapidly opening itself up to international ideas and influences - that hardly existed in literature. This was the territory that, as a young writer, he set out to claim.

The contrast between his own experience and that of one of his teachers in Clontarf, the distinguished novelist John McGahern, is indicative of the kind of change that Jordan came to represent. McGahern was sacked from his teaching job by the Catholic church after his novel The Dark had been banned and he had married in a register office. Yet, just a few years later, the teenage Jordan was savouring the freedoms offered by the slow collapse of the Irish cultural monolith whose bulwarks were nationalism and Catholicism. He was listening to the Rolling Stones and the Modern Jazz Quartet, reading Jung, watching the films of Fellini and Bergman, discovering the joys of agnosticism. Sex, movies and rock'n'roll were taking the place of faith and fatherland. If, for Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, history was a nightmare from which he was trying to awake, Neil Jordan's generation seemed, at last, to have rubbed the sleep from its eyes.

He spent much of his time at university putting on plays with Jim Sheridan, an accomplished playwright who was later, as the director of My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father, to follow him into the movie world. They went to Chicago in the summer to put on Beckett and O'Casey plays for Irish-Americans. Back in Dublin, they formed a children's theatre company and performed Yeats plays in schools, on the beach, in public parks. They left the tangled history of Michael Collins and amon de Valera far behind.

Jordan's first collection of short stories, Night in Tunisia, published in 1979 by the Irish Writers' Co-Op which he himself had established, won the Guardian Fiction prize. In retrospect, what distinguishes Jordan's early fiction from the mainstream of Irish prose at the time is precisely its cinematic quality. There are no excursions into the psychology of his characters, no internal monologues. There are only surfaces - what the reader is told is only what can be seen and heard. Looking back, the fact that the author is the son of a painter, and a future film director whose best work would often be contained in purely visual sequences, is not so surprising.

At the time, though, the originality of his writing made him the great white hope of Irish prose, and led to two acclaimed novels, The Past and Dream of a Beast, being published in the next four years. But it also, paradoxically, ensured that the hope would never be fulfilled. The film director John Boorman, who has lived in Ireland since the early 1970s, was so impressed by Night in Tunisia that he asked Jordan to be a "creative consultant" on Excalibur (1981). Then, in an extraordinary private apprenticeship scheme, he released some money from the film's budget to allow Jordan to make a documentary about it, effectively to give him some unique on- the-job training.

Boorman's selfless generosity was not without cost, and both he and Jordan were pilloried when the state-backed Irish Film Board, of which Boorman was a member, gave pounds 80,000 towards the budget of Jordan's film Angel. But Boorman has remained both an admirer and a constructive critic of Jordan's subsequent work, urging him, not always successfully, to follow his own artistic impulses and avoid the commercial compromises that Hollywood often demands.

In his relationships with the Hollywood studios, though, Jordan has become, in a sense, a test case for the ability of a small culture like Ireland's to deal on its own terms with the relentless machine of American mass media. And the results of the test are still far from clear. Jordan's work continues to hover between Dublin and Hollywood, between an Irish identity and a trans-national one, fitting comfortably into neither frame. Getting the best of both worlds is no easy task, and it is hardly surprising that he hasn't quite managed it yet. He is too much an Irish literary intellectual to make a successfully cynical Hollywood blockbuster. But he is also too much a child of the Sixties - too much excited by the power of pop culture - to be content to work the small canvas of traditional Ireland.

At times, pulled in both directions at once, the thread connecting his Irish obsessions with his American backers has snapped. With his first studio picture, High Spirits, he tried to have his cake and eat it, to make an intricate comic metaphor of Irish history with American stars like Daryl Hannah and Steve Guttenberg. The American producers panicked, cut 20 minutes, and created what Jordan himself called "a very fast, loud, noisy and silly film". His next effort, We're No Angels, with Sean Penn and Robert de Niro, was a better film but another commercial flop.

For a time, it seemed as if his future would lie in Europe, as the director of small but striking pictures and the author of original and demanding novels. In reaction to his Hollywood experiences, he made The Miracle, a film so local that much of it was actually set in his own house in the seaside town of Bray, just south of Dublin. He returned to fiction, completing the intense novel Sunrise with Sea Monster, re-visiting his familiar obsessions with the dark psychology of the family and with the legacy of the Irish war of independence. But the huge and largely unexpected commercial success in America of his next film, The Crying Game, made him a desirable property again for the Hollywood studios.

The Crying Game was followed by Interview with the Vampire, Jordan's biggest and slickest studio picture to date, but one that did little to resolve the question of whether he could be both a mainstream commercial director and a specifically Irish artist. He seemed to approach it almost as an extended job application, a test he had to pass before Warner Brothers would give him $20m to make Michael Collins, a film that had been on his mind since at least 1982. From the studio's point of view, he obviously passed the test, proving that he could make a glossy commercial picture that would bring in a decent return at the box office. From an artistic point of view, though, the film, without the surreal inventiveness that drives Jordan's best work, was a vacuous exercise.

That uncharacteristic sacrifice of artistic integrity - one that disappointed, among others, his mentor, John Boorman - makes the success or failure of Michael Collins all the more critical. It is the biggest test yet of whether he can keep one foot in the soft ground of Irish history and another in the hard terrain of commercial cinema without falling over. If he manages it, he will have pulled off something quite remarkable - using the resources of Hollywood to create for a small European country a genuinely national cinema. If he doesn't, it is not only Neil Jordan, but Irish culture in general, that will have a lot of re-thinking to do.

! `Michael Collins' (15) opens on Friday. Fintan O'Toole is a columnist with the `Irish Times'.