One film that premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “Kneecap,” follows three Irish musicians, who comprise a real-life band of the same name, as they and their music provide insight into the Irish youth culture that was born out of an ages-old struggle with Britain.
The Anglo-Normans, who precipitated the British Empire, invaded Ireland in 1171. Over eight centuries later, 26 out of 32 counties have achieved independence, while the remaining six have not and remain under British-colonial occupation to this day.
In the 1960s, the six colonized counties became a place of violence and political turmoil after a civil rights movement erupted in the region. This conflict, known as the Troubles, lasted three decades. Children born before the Good Friday Peace Agreement, which ended the Troubles, are known as the ceasefire generation.
The Kneecap band members told Variety that they made the film “to give an insight into the youth culture that has been born out of that madness — we all needed a break from it and there’s revenge in our laughter.”
Those last four words, “revenge in our laughter,” references a famous quote from Bobby Sands, an Irish Republican Army (IRA) militant and hunger striker. Sands was elected to a vacant Northern Ireland seat in the British Parliament shortly before dying in a British-run prison in Northern Ireland at the age of 27.
Sands’ full quote reads, “Our revenge will be the laughter of our children.”
Abrasive, audacious – and heartwarming
There is indeed revenge in the laughter of Kneecap’s three members — drug dealers Naoise and Liam Óg and a schoolteacher named JJ. The trio, being ceasefire babies, have their stories traced throughout the film’s runtime. Their stories are abrasive, audacious, hilarious and simultaneously heartwarming.
The film takes place at the height of a national movement in Ireland to preserve the native tongue of Irish, or Gaelic. The three leads evolve from acquaintances to friends as they decide to put contemporary and profane Irish rap lyrics over funky beats, much to the chagrin of the older generation of gaeilgeoirí, which are those who speak the Irish language of Gaelic fluently and frequently.
Naoise, Óg, and JJ thus form Kneecap and adopt the stage names Móglaí Bap, Mo Chara, and DJ Próvaí, respectively.
Their journey is raucous and vibrant, involving heavy drug use, as well as semi-frequent skirmishes with cops and anti-drug paramilitaries. The film ultimately lends fact to fiction in a deliberate effort to paint a picture of who Kneecap is and what they stand for.
But there are also brief moments of tender interactions where deeper emotions bleed through, such as when Naoise visits his dad, Arlo, played by Michael Fassbender. Arlo is a former IRA militant who faked his death and remains on the run from authorities, and his main struggle in the film involves concern for his son, Naoise.
In one scene, Arlo expresses worry that Naoise doesn’t fully grasp the weight of what it means to speak Irish in Northern Ireland. But Arlo uses English when speaking to his son.
Naoise pleads in response, and, using the Irish language, says “Speak to me in Irish.” But Arlo ignores him and continues to use English.
“You taught me Irish, so speak to me in Irish,” Naoise insists.
The Irish language is special because of its close ties to the identity of the Irish people. Under British imperial rule, the language was banned. For many in Ireland, speaking Irish is a way to connect with their heritage and fight back against centuries of British colonialism.
But it’s different for those who live in the six counties that make up Northern Ireland, because the Irish language is often used to make political statements. In the words of Arlo, “Every word of Irish spoken is a bullet fired for Irish freedom.”
Kneecap is no stranger to controversy. In fact, criticism comes constantly from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) politicians. The DUP is composed of people who identify as British for ancestral reasons. Their devotion to the “Union Jack” is fierce and unwavering, and often coupled with a strong disgust for anything overwhelmingly Irish.
British and Irish identities are often in conflict because of the bitter history between the two nations. Kneecap’s music is inherently political, anti-authoritarian, and anti-police, even occasionally calling out DUP politicians by name. The band members are extremely vocal in their support of a united Ireland – something that terrifies unionists. They even have a song called “Get Your Brits Out.”
“‘Brits out’ is a term from the Troubles that completely is about the British government,” said Mo Chara. “We don’t want British citizens out of Ireland – we want the British government out of Ireland.”
“People who call us inflammatory are not paying attention to what we’re really saying,” Mo Chara continued. “We’re always saying we’re cut from the same cloth on both sides of the division, that we’re working-class people with more in common with each other than we do with rich people in Dublin. It is those headlines that stoke division.”
A story of modern Ireland, Kneecap brings a fresh perspective to what it means to be young and Irish in contemporary Northern Ireland and how a post-Troubles generation navigates that complexity.