top of page

Creative Compassion, Heroic Children, and Irish Travelers

in Sheridan's In the West

Dr. Dawn Duncan

Just as Europe has the Romani people, a nomadic culture that has suffered much oppression at the hands of those who deem them less civilized in comparison to those who long for a piece of land and the security of the settled life, Ireland has its Travelers. The Travelers, disparagingly called Tinkers or Gypsies, share much in common with their continental counterparts: a nomadic life, a close connection to Catholicism, a clannish closeness and life full of ritual and tradition, as well as a continual battle to maintain their way of life against oppression both personal and governmental. In Colum Mccann 's Zoli, the Romani way of life is revealed both starkly and compassionately, but most of all heroically in the single person of the titular character, as we watch er grow from childhood to mature adulthood. Similarly, though much earlier (1992), the Irish writer Jim Sheridan and director Mike Newell created a compassionate portrait of Irish Travelers in the heroic film story of two children who journey across Ireland in an adventure that will ultimately save their family from long-dwelling grief and bring them back to an identity and way of life that provides healing and home as the settled tenements never could. 

A number of psychologists, from Freud and Jung to more contemporary practitioners, have stipulated the path children take to individuation and responsible adulthood. However, in Into the West, the children have been portrayed as making this heroic journey in compressed time and in what ultimately becomes a reversal of the child-adult roles since their father has abandoned his responsibilities, giving in to a sense of displacement in the face of intimate grief. Papa Murphy (Gabriel Byrne) has fled from the place that was home and retains the memory of the lost beloved, his wife Mary. However, such displacement has led to a downward spiral both psychically and economically. His two young boys, Tito and Ossie, take it upon themselves to return their father to his place in the world, while at the same time achieving individuation and responsible adulthood long before most adults, including psychologists, might ever imagine.


In the very few mentions of Into the West in book length studies of Irish film, it has generally been dismissed as regressive and nostalgic. In Irish Film: The Emergence of a Contemporary Cinema, Martin McLoone claims that the film "vindicate(s) the authentic experience of the west at the expense of the alienating character of the city" (20). In his study of "Film and Politics" in Modernization, Crisis and Culture in Ireland, 1969-1992, Conor McCarthy confirms McLoone's position with regard to Into the West, going as far as to lament that "the project of critical modernism is thrown out in blind critique of the results of uneven modernization, a kind of replay of Yeatsian geopolitics, with its nostalgia for 'Romantic Ireland' in the face of the ·greasy till"' (172). While McLoone briefly notes that the film attempts to integrate "aspects of Irish mythological tradition," he insists, without any expansion of his claim with regard to the mythology, that the attempt "in no way vitiated" what he sees as "essentially regressive ideologies" with regard to rural versus urban. Indeed, in discussions of the mythical or fantastic elements, the purpose of the mythical framework has been virtually ignored while scholars continually focus on the false dichotomy of rural vs. urban or modem vs. traditional. What they fail to recognize is that the critique is not of the urban, but of the settled life for an essentially nomadic culture. One cannot argue that the government block housing on the margins of Dublin provides a lovely urban setting, though much of Dublin is not only lovely but full of the wondrous energy of an international city. What needs attention here is not rural vs. urban or east vs. west, but the contrast between a static, stale way of life for a nomadic culture and the journey that matches the mythical to the cultural character. Doing so allows the film to reach universally while speaking locally.


When we look to a universal mythical level, certainly Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell have established the framework others follow. In The World of Myth, which provides a comparative study of world myths, David Adams Leeming summarizes the Jungian notion of myth's purpose as the "search for identity in the context of the universal struggle between order and chaos" (8). Joseph Campbell, in The Power of Myth, explains the journey of the hero as integrally linked to moving from childhood to adulthood, gaining along the way ''the courage of self-responsibility and assurance" (152). However, to make such gains "requires a death and a resurrection" (152). Into the West sets up a specific narrative that calls for a mythical reading: floundering father subsumed in grief, a pair of children fighting to bring back hope and create a new life, a journey that suggests universal and specific connections. Into the West focuses on the Reilly family, Travelers who have relocated to urban housing near Dublin airport following the death seven years earlier of Papa's wife in childbirth that resulted in young Ossie. The difficulty of dealing with death and learning how to live sends Ossie (Ciaran Fitzgerald) and his older brother, Tito (Ruaidhri Conroy), on a heroic journey. Philosopher Thomas Attig, an internationally recognized expert on death, dying and bereavement, emphasizes the difficulty involved: ''Ordinarily, grieving involves nothing less complicated than relearning the world, including our physical and social surroundings, our place in the greater scheme of things, our selves. and our relationship with the one who has died" (7). When we consider how the children experience death and seek resurrection, the heroic purpose of the film becomes clear: the construction of identity as the children embrace the journey to self-responsibility and assurance, and the boon of helping heal their grieving parental figures. 

Ordinarily, when children experience the death of someone close to them, surviving parental figures are expected to help the children understand and cope. However, Papa Murphy is incapable of helping the children since he cannot cope with the death himself, but instead represses his painful memories and stumbles through life in a haze. Attig's description of bereavement reflects exactly Papa's experience: 

     When we are bereaved, we suffer a shattering loss of wholeness. The patterns of

     connections to things, places, other people, experiences, activities, and projects in our daily

     lives are in tatters. Our individual, family, and community life histories are disrupted and

     cannot follow the courses we expected them to follow had our loved one lived. Line of

     connection to larger wholes and our sense of place in the larger scheme of things within

     which we find and make meaning are broken, undermined, or threatened. We feel undone,

     at a loss as to how to go on, anxious, insecure, unsafe, vulnerable. ( I 0) 

Papa can no longer live as a Traveler and lead his former community in the way of life that he had shared with his dead wife. He retreats to the urban decay of government housing where he can bring up his two boys with at least some government support, the very kind of support denied to his wife when they were turned away from the hospital. Yet he is lost in this environment, a broken man who cannot find his way, much less make a way for his children. While Papa Reilly is prompting the children to scam the government man who has come to check on the large Murphy family, a family in dire need of assistance, the seriousness of what he says underlies the comedic scene: "I'm not your father. You understand me. The other man is your 1 father" (Newell). Indeed, he isn't behaving as the father or man he once was. While Ossie does not understand the comment on either level, having never known his father prior to his mother's death at his own birth, his elder brother Tito knows only too well that the man he lives with now is not the father he once knew. Grandpa Ward (David Kelly) tells Papa, "You're a fallen man." He insists that he come back to the West, to the Old Ways, to which Papa responds "The old ways is dead." The singular might be understood as a natural reflex of his class and lack of education, or it might also be directly connected to Papa's understanding that the old way of life died when Mary died, that she and the Traveler way are one. He heads for the bar, turning his back on Grandpa and any hint of that old life that the old man carries.


From the beginning, the theme of journey is visually created through a central symbol that metaphorically will gain power across the arc of the narrative. Into the West opens on a clear, dark night on the pristine sands of Dog Bay in Connemara, a lone, wild, white horse galloping across the surf. The midnight blue of the sky and sea and the gleaming white horse is stunning, with an extreme close-up on the horse's eye giving us a sense of wild mystery, of being held in the gaze of this creature. The shot splits to morning and to the grandfather on the beach with his caravan and wolfhound. He and the horse behold one another in silence. Then the grandfather begins the journey from west to east, to see his grandsons, the horse of its own free will keeping always in sight of the caravan. It is this white horse that will mysteriously bond with young Ossie and carry both boys from east to west to encounter the meaning of death and resurrection, and in the process to achieve a sense of self. According to J. E. Cirlot, famed symbologist, the function of white is derived from that of the sun: from mystic illumination. It comes to signify intuition in general, and, in its affirmative and spiritual aspect, intuition of the Beyond. That is why the sacred horses of Greek, Roman, Celtic, and Germanic cultures were white (58). Cirlot notes that the symbolism of the horse is extremely complex, and beyond a certain point not very clearly defined. It has been associated with burial-rites in Ancient Greek chthonian cults, as well as an ancient symbol of the cyclic movement of the world of phenomena. In Germany and England, to dream o a white horse was thought to be an omen of death. However, in the form of a pair of horses, one white and one black, they respectively represent life and death. Cirlot adds, "On account of his fleetness, the horse can also signify the wind and sea-foam, as well as fire and light" (152). The white horse in this instance clearly represents the dead mother whose spirit will only rest if she acts as a guide to her sons in the journey they must take to achieve wholeness and resurrection.

Significantly, the horse emerges from the sea, returns to the sea, and is last seen behind the flames that bum away the family grief as their mother's caravan wagon is ritually burned. It is fitting that the horse carries the maternal spirit since, as Sean Kane notes in Wisdom of the Mythtellers, "Fo the matriarchal Celts, the world of the gods-the Otherworld-is decidedly feminine, its color white, its location beneath the physical world or across the sea to the west" (173). Yet the horse that serves as the bridge between death and life is not without its danger to those who encounter it. Equine-behaviorist Chris Irwin, in his essay "Horses Help with Human Psychotherapy," explains the Jungian horse symbol as "the flesh-and-blood incarnation of powerful forces bottled up within us...These are the forces that Jung called the shadow self. We know those forces could take us to our dreams and turn us into our best selves. Once we do that, we discover much greater freedom, exhilaration and inspiration as go forward in life." Both Ossie and Papa Reilly will have to face their shadows if they are to live and be whole. When the boys reach the west and are trapped between the ocean and a police force bearing down on them, Ossie is taken beneath the waves by the horse set on escape. Visually the horse's mane becomes his mother's hair, her hand reaching down to pull Ossie to the surface and into his father's arms; Ossie is resurrected. His seeming death makes his father face the fact that he cannot control death, and Ossie's return to the living heals them both. The boy knows who he is, and the Papa is once again a living, functioning man and father. 

Though there is much more that could be said about both mythical moments and magical touches, as well as practical means the children use to achieve responsibility, let us consider what the use of this universal myth to the particular Irish story might mean. When the children bring Papa home, they reconnect him with the Traveler community from which his repressed grief had severed him. Papa learns from his boys how to start anew. The children help Papa express his grief and let go of his inability to control life. They also teach him again the lessons of hope for the future, faith in the on-going nature of life, and joy in the moments of living and loving in the present. In short, these children bring Papa home again, mooring his soul so that he can return to who he is and resume the life of the Traveler. Let me suggest three conclusions that we might reach as we look at the film. At the Jungian universal level, the narrative may be seen as a heroic journey, in which the boys achieve individuation and move toward adulthood. At the level of practical reality, this film is a story about grief set in the context of today's world in which all too often children are forced to grow up fast yet adults often behave like children. At the particular contextual level of Irish Travelers, the narrative does not allow the older generation to remain static in a nostalgic grief over a past dead and gone. Instead, the children help Papa and Grandpa Ward both let go and honor that past, keeping it alive in healthy ways for the present and the future. The Irish Travelers, like the arc of this film, are on a never-ending journey that will hold both sorrow and joy-for it is the human condition. Once we all accept that much, we can feel at home on this earth and in our own skin, no matter where we journey.


Works Cited 
Attig, Thomas. '·Relearning the World: Always Complicated, Sometimes More Than Others." 

     Complicated Grieving and Bereavement: Understanding and Treating People Experiencing

     Loss. Eds. Gerry R. Cox, Roberta A. Bendiksen, and Robert G. Stevenson. Amityville, NY:

     Baywood, 2002. 7-19. 

Campbell, Joseph with Bill Moyers. The Power of Myth. New York: Anchor Books, 1991. 
Cirlot, J.E. A Dictionary of Symbols. New York: Dorset Press, 1971. 
Irwin, Chris. "Horses Help with Human Psychotherapy." Brain Injury Resource Foundation.

     Accessed 20 July 2008. 
Kane, Sean. Wisdom of the Mythtellers. Ontario: Broadview Press, 1994. 
Lamers, Elizabeth P. "Helping Children During Bereavement." Dying, Death, and

     Bereavement: A Challenge for Living. 2nd Edition. Edited by Inge Corless, Barbara 8.

     Germino, and Mary A. Pittman. New York: Springer, 2003: 267-286. 
Leeming, David Adams. "Introduction: The Dimensions of Myth.'' The World of Myth. New

     York: Oxford UP, 1990: 3-9. 
McCarthy, Conor. Modernisation, Crisis, and Culture, 1969-199 2. Dublin: Four Courts Press,

McLoone, Martin. Irish Film: The Emergence of a Contemporary Cinema. London: British Film

     Institute, 2000. 
Newell, Mike. Dir. Into the West. Starring Gabriel Byrne. Channel Four Films. 1992. 

bottom of page