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Traveller (1981)


Main image of Traveller (1981)
16mm, colour, 80 mins
DirectorJoe Comerford
Production CompanyBFI Production Board;
 Radio-Telef√≠s √Čireann
ProducerJoe Comerford
ScriptNeil Jordan
CinematographyThaddeus O'Sullivan

Cast: Judy Donovan (Angela), Davy Spillane (Michael), Alan Devlin (Clicky), Johnny Choil Mhaidhc (Devine)

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Newly married Irish travellers Michael and Angela head north of the border at the behest of Angela's father, to smuggle electrical equipment back to re-sell. Joining up with IRA man Clicky on the way, the ill-matched couple embark on an uneasy journey marked by blood and murder.

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From the opening credits and beyond, the painful consequences of conflict and consumerism are at the forefront in Joe Comerford's debut feature. Neil Jordan's script (his first major screen credit) places his audience into the shoes of Ireland's marginalised, much-scapegoated travelling people through the fraught relationship between newlyweds Angela and Michael, pre-modern innocents marooned in 1980s Ireland.

Comerford brought authenticity to his film by casting Irish travellers in the major roles. In many respects, Traveller represents a transition in Irish cinema from its experimental phase to the poetic realism of its maturity. Highlights include Thaddeus O'Sullivan's saturated palette of morose greens and solemn browns and the soundtrack (an often-ironic folk music medley provided by lead actor Davy Spillane). Comerford punctuates the narrative with animations and ethnographic inserts that depict traveller lifeways, anticipating the hybrid documentary style of Perry Ogden's Pavee Lackeen (Eire, 2005), on a similar subject.

It is hard not to read into Michael and Angela's forced marriage a 'state of the nation' message: they are incapable of speaking to each other yet uncomfortable within their own thoughts; when they do reach out, it is to lash out, and Michael's ultimate profession of love is to murder his father-in-law - a microcosm of the Troubles. It is their ersatz-priest, Clicky, an IRA-man confused about his own mission (forerunner to Stephen Rea's Fergus in Jordan's The Crying Game (UK/Japan, 1992)) who draws them into indirect conversation with each other.

Clicky also provides the means for Devine's murder, perpetrated to a soundtrack of Ulster violence (as shown on primetime television). Michael's anticlimactic crime raises more questions than it answers, not least as to motive - is this a political act against the father, or a fatal confusion of love with retribution?

In Comerford's Ireland, not even patricide (a staple of Irish literature famously lampooned in Synge's The Playboy of the Western World) can bring a satisfactory resolution. Nor does a violent break with the past make it an easier country to inhabit; in a typical Comerford ellipsis, all three protagonists go abroad, leaving us with the chilling realisation that, for want of any better alternative, Michael and Angela's mismatched marriage could grind on much longer than healthier, more loving relationships.

Mitchell Miller

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Video Clips
1. An arrangement (2:08)
2. On the road (7:07)
Complete film (1:17:51)
Original poster
Production stills
Comerford, Joe (1947-)
Jordan, Neil (1950-)
O'Sullivan, Thaddeus (1947-)