Do we choose our lives or do our lives choose us?

Colm Tóbín wrote the book. Nick Hornby wrote the screenplay. John Crowley directed the film. If you’ve not seen it, Brooklyn opened in Budapest last night and is well worth an afternoon or evening.

I wanted to see the Hungarian film Saul Fia (Son of Saul) but couldn’t find it subtitled anywhere. So we headed back to the 1950s to Brooklyn via Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, and joined Eilis Lacey as she emigrates.

It wouldn’t be good if I didn’t bawl and I cried a few times. [Wasn’t it Woody Allen who said: If my films has made one more person miserable, then I’ve done my job?]

The scene at Christmas, when Eilis helps  feed about a hundred or so immigrant Irish men who’d come to the country to build the tunnels and the skyscrapers, leaving Ireland and that part of their lives behind, hit me hard. There was nothing left for them at home and most would never see their families again. As in the UK, there are hundreds if not thousands (or millions?) of aging Irish navvies in the States, a forgotten minority whose dreams of Ireland have most likely elevated it to utopia status and yet their accents never fade.

In New York, many of them worked with the Sandhogs, the legendary urban miners who dug the subway tunnels. Some made it to settle in the city, raise families, and while never leaving the Irish in them behind, they made good. Others foundered, their fellow drinkers became their families, the pub their home. Alcoholism went hand and hand with the maudlin melancholy for which the Irish are known. [Newstalk aired a documentary on this last year:]

Emory Cohen brilliantly plays Tony, an Italian boy with a thing for Irish girls. And as I watched the story unfold, my own life hovered in the background. Some truths came home, some questions were answered. I left Ireland for the first time in the 1990s but I knew I’d be back. I was never leaving for good. I flew. I didn’t have to take the boat. The world has shrunk a lot since the 1950s and while it still happens that emigrants leave their homes without much hope of ever returning, there is still hope.

While the final boat scene is the heart of the film, where it all comes full circle, the entire thing speaks volumes to anyone who has ever had to choose. Her sister, Rose, who stays home to mind the widowed mother, opens another door on the choice so many make and the fate so many others have thrust upon them.

The film and the book differ, as to be expected. Perhaps the greatest difference though is that Tóbín talks of how our lives choose us while Hornby focuses on how we choose our lives.  Which one is right? That’s the 64 million forint question.



9 replies
  1. Bernard Adams
    Bernard Adams says:

    We do our own choosing, though sometimes there isn’t much to choose between, and sometimes we make mistakes when there’s plenty.

  2. Pat Moroney
    Pat Moroney says:

    Great post Mary. I saw the movie with my wife a few weeks back and the last scene hit me hard – it was beautiful, moving and not a little gut wrenching. As an Irish emigrant in the States who made all his choices it was no less impactful. Guess I have to read the book now. I’ve never liked the concept of predetermination and I know many have lives that are lived with no choice I am thankful that we have lived with choice.

    • Mary
      Mary says:

      I’ve been thinking about it a lot today, Pat, and reckon that even with fate we have a choice (or the illusion of choice) – are they one and the same I wonder?

  3. clive75mercer
    clive75mercer says:

    If it moves me, as did “The Wind that shakes the Barley”, then moved I shall be. Shamed as a Brit. that I am, of the history that my country inflicted upon yours, the burning question for me, is how many lives were changed, not so much by personal choice, but by the circumstances inflicted by others, that limited, if not dictated those choices.

    • Bernard Adams
      Bernard Adams says:

      One should not judge the past by the ethical standards of the present, and though one may very reasonably regret and deplore the actions of, for example, English landlords in Ireland years ago, shame should be reserved for one’s own regrettable and deplorable deeds. One cannot apologise where one has no responsibility.

  4. Arthur Provost
    Arthur Provost says:

    Roberta & I saw both Brooklyn and Son of Saul. Brooklyn (for me) is a sappy, but well done. Having known and worked with many Irish in my career I have a smidgeon of understanding of their life. But I also know theirs is not a lot different from the Jews and Poles and Italians and, and. Many longed for the familiarity of their home country in spite of having a better life here.

    In Denver I had a Polish (Jewish) neighbor who missed her home in Communist Poland. Her son explained that what she missed was waiting in lines for groceries and visiting with the friends she had made in those lines. That was the majority of her life in Communist Poland.

    Assimilation was usually always an issue for the older gererations.

    Son of Saul is well done, but to me it is pointless. I am sickened by and weary of stories of the Holocoust. I have lived those stories from my first memory. I sometimes feel worn down by them. My mother made sure we knew which of our relatives were survivors. Whatever pain I could feel does not approach what those people went through. I owe it to them.


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