One of the groups that I focused on when writing my dissertation in order to complete my Ph.D. in American History was the Irish. No other people who came to the United States typified more what those outside of the Church conceived of as what it meant to be a member of the Catholic Faith. With that in mind, it will probably not come as a shock that the second highest selling book in the mid-nineteenth century was a lurid tale (mostly made up) of a former nun who told of truly horrendous things going on in the convent in which she once lived. When she did a national book tour, newspapers reported mobs of angry Irish Catholics, drawn to look vaguely monkey-like in cartoons, “disgracing themselves” by attacking the author. It would seem that some of those stereotypes have yet to die in our supposedly more enlightened, faithless modern culture. The Town (2010) speaks to how some of these perceptions have stuck with us, focusing on Irish bank robbers in Boston. The only thing missing is a soundtrack by the Dropkick Murphys, though you can watch The Departed (2006) for the Irish, Boston, and new wave Irish music trifecta.
According to the opening crawl of The Town, no other part of the world produces more bank robbers than the predominantly Irish Boston neighborhood of Charlestown. Four of the men of this area, dressed in Halloween skeleton masks are carrying out a crime for which their kind are known. They seem to know what they are doing, and in order to ensure their getaway they take with them the branch manager, Clare Keesey (Rebecca Hall). Unfortunately, there appears to be a way in which she could positively identify them. Hence, when they get together some time after their heist, the decision is made to take a closer look at her. The one chosen to do so is Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck). Yet, when he gets closer to Clare, he sees the damage the experience has done on her. Instead, they begin to strike up a relationship. Meanwhile, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent assigned to the case, Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm), begins to draw closer to Doug and his three associates. Making matters more tense is James Coughlin’s (Jeremy Renner) insistence that they commit another robbery. He is Doug’s best friend, and the Coughlin family took in Doug when his mother disappeared and his father, Stephen (Chris Cooper), went to jail for the same kinds of jobs his son is pulling. Doug wants to honor his friend, but his relationship with Clare is making him rethink his life of crime. Still, Doug is convinced to do one more robbery, and while it comes off as a success, it proves more difficult than usual. Between lying to Clare, the growing suspicions of Agent Frawley, and seeing his father miserable in jail, Doug decides that he is no longer going to be a bank robber. This is about the time when a bigger than usual job is handed to James. When Doug is told about it, he initially wants nothing to do with it. What convinces him to go through with it are a couple of factors. First, Agent Frawley informs Clare that Doug is the prime suspect in the heist where she had been taken hostage. This, obviously, puts a dent in her relationship with Doug. Still, Doug wants to make a clean break, and goes to Fergus Colm (Pete Postlethwaite), known in Boston crime circles as “The Florist” on account of his flower shop, to smooth things over. The Florist is the one who came to James with the scoop on the next job, but he will hear none of Doug’s declarations. Instead, the Florist threatens harm to Clare if Doug does not join his crew in carrying out the next heist. Speaking of which, their target is Fenway Park. Unfortunately, James’ sister, and Doug’s former girlfriend, Krista (Blake Lively), tips off Agent Frawley when Doug rejects her one last time. Thus, after they steal the money from the baseball park, the building is surrounded by the FBI and the Boston Police Department. Doug’s crew try to shoot their way out of the trap, and in the process, Doug is the only one who survives. He then goes to the Florist and murders him and his associate, leaves a large portion of his ill-gotten gains for Clare, and leaves town. In his parting letter to his would-be lover, he repeats to her what his father said to him the last time they talked: that he would see her again one day, this side or the next.
If you watch a film like The Town, particularly with its opening proclamation, you get the impression that this is what inner-city, low-income Irish life is truly like. The film makes it clear that while Doug had the opportunity to make it out of this cycle with a possible hockey career, that a life of robbing banks is the more common route for people like him. Have there been many Irish criminals in this country? Sure, some. At the same time, Doug is also meant to be a sympathetic character. He does not commit violent acts if he can avoid it, except when tracking down local thugs who harassed Clare. Now, do not get me wrong, I think this is a good movie. However, I cannot watch it without filtering it through what I had studied about the way Catholics are portrayed in film and popular culture. I suppose there are some movies out there that do not depict the Irish as either violent, drunkards, or Catholic for all the wrong reasons (meaning, just because that is what their people are instead of actually practicing the faith). None readily come to mind, but I am sure there are a few. The problem is that Catholics were, until roughly the middle of the twentieth century, a bit clannish. Take a ride on an elevated train through the neighborhoods of a big city like Chicago some time and you will see what I mean. As you head away from the sky scrapers of the city of big shoulders, you will see church steeples jutting out from the ranks of row housing. Most of these are Catholic churches, and if you go inside them you will see the evidence of members of the faithful who banded together to build a place of worship that spoke to their specific community. These parishes marked boundaries (and I am slightly borrowing from a book of that title) where those inside it were familiar, and everyone else were outsiders. This is how Charlestown is portrayed in the film, and while that might match with the reality I described, other aspects are part of the other stereotypes above mentioned. Not all people who live in Charlestown are bank robbers, just like those living in a Catholic parish in Chicago were are more welcoming of outsiders than you might imagine.
My quibbles about the stereotypes seen in The Town are minor. While it is a quality film, it is violent, there is drug use and brief nudity, and the criminals are much too glorified for comfort. Yes, Doug wants to give up his wayward ways, but he is still not above committing them to get what he feels he needs. As such, I would not recommend this to a wide audience. Regardless, Ben Affleck is a talented director, and this one is a good example of his work.