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Under normal circumstances, comparing a feature film to a home movie would seem like harsh criticism, but in the case of the new documentary "Our Irish Cousins," that is pretty much the only way to honestly describe it. The difference is that this one has been made with such genial spirits and good humor that viewers won't mind spend 90 minutes watching it, which is more than you can say about most home movies, including your own.
The film is the brainchild of Mike Houlihan, a Chicago-born writer (who penned the "Houli in the Hood" column for the Chicago Sun-Times between 2002-2005), actor, filmmaker and all around-raconteur of the highest order. Among his multitude of credits is the "Hooliganism" column that he has written for the Irish American Times since 1996, consisting of stories, anecdotes and tall tales largely inspired by his experiences growing up as the seventh child of a South Side Irish-Catholic family. In 2008, he compiled his best columns into the anthology "Hooliganism" and "Our Irish Cousins" follows him as he sets out to promote the book.
As Houlihan makes a string of personal appearances around Chicago, it becomes apparent that this tour is not exactly going to be a bonanza from a financial perspective. And yet, while the crowds may not be large, they are enthusiastic and, more important, they all seem to have unique perspectives on what it means to be Irish-American and are willing to share them with Houlihan and his camera. The one thing that they, Houlihan included, have in common is that while they proudly declare themselves Irish-Americans, few of them have ever actually been to Ireland.
A few weeks later, in March, 2009, Houlihan sets off for Ireland with his family in tow. Ostensibly, the trip is to promote the book, but he's also out to trace his own ancestry and to examine the intense pride that the Irish feel about their heritage. His quest takes him from Fitzpatrick Castle in Dublin to the town in Limerick County where his grandfather came from, with the occasional pub stop along the way. As he continues his journey, he gets further perspectives of what unites and separates the Irish and Irish-Americans, in both the grand scheme of things and in personal terms.
As anyone familiar with Houlihan's work can attest, the man is a born storyteller — the kind of guy who can make a statement along the lines of "You know what's funny? Here's a good story. My brother died ..." and then actually pull it off. He gets a lot of laughs throughout the film, whether from well-polished anecdotes or spontaneous interactions with the people he meets. What is even more impressive, though, is the way that he manages to quietly layer in more serious-minded concerns amidst the laughter so that when he visits the church where his grandfather was baptized more than a century earlier, the scene winds up packing a surprisingly hefty emotional punch.
Houlihan was also lucky enough to come across a number of people just as charmingly loquacious as he is and some of the funniest and wisest moments come from their comments. Arguably the highlight of the entire film is his encounter with Mike Monaghan, an old friend who now resides in Galway. Monaghan's brief soliloquy about the fundamental difference between an Irish person visiting American and an American visiting Ireland is alone worth the price of admission. Another key observation comes from comedian Des Bishop, who sums up the belief that being Irish is more a notion of simple geography by stating, "If Ireland were just an island, no one would give a s---."
"Our Irish Cousins" does not exactly reinvent the cinematic wheel, but I would take its scruffy, low-fi charms over the hard-sell whimsy of nonsense like "Waking Ned Devine" in a heartbeat. Although those of Irish descent are clearly the target audience for "Our Irish Cousins," a good part of the secret to its success is that you don't have to be from the Emerald Isle to appreciate it. No matter where you come from or how much corned beef you've consumed in your lifetime, you'll most likely find that Houlihan's observations about the importance of examining and coming to terms with one's heritage still ring true.