IFTA 2021

Brian Quinn

This past July saw the return of the IFTAs (The Irish Film and Television Academy awards). Traditionally a time of year where Academy members attempt to coax Ireland’s Hollywood exports back to the old country with the promise of shiny doohickeys, this year’s ceremony took place entirely virtually. Broadcasted on Virgin Media One, stars were beamed in from across the globe to celebrate a year of Irish screen talent. 
Television presenter Gráinne Seoige played host for the evening, promising an “emotionally charged” ceremony in light of the effect the pandemic has had on Ireland’s entertainment industry the past 18 months. But sentiment would have to wait till later in the show, as her opening monologue got things off to a lighthearted start. “Many of you are joining us straight off the back of watching Love Island,” Seogie said,  “where there’s couple swapping, dodgy fashion choices and a dangerous amount of shifting – which sounds like an average stint in the Gaeltacht for me.” The punchlines may have landed flat in the empty studio as opposed to a live audience, but thankfully star power was soon on hand to zhoosh up proceedings.
While virtual ceremonies lack the intimacy and excitement we’re used to seeing on stage, it does make it easier for organisers to attract big industry names. Last year, legendary director Martin Scorese dropped by to present the award for Best Film over video link, an appearance which still makes Irish film fans pinch themselves today. This time around, the award was presented by Hollywood leading man Josh Brolin, who spoke of his fondness for the host nation: “My own story with Ireland is that at 20 years old I was in Dublin, and I blindly walked into a theatre on a movie called ‘My Left Foot,’ and left a changed man.” 
In the end, the prize went to Wolfwalkers, the Oscar-nominated animated feature from Kilkenny’s Cartoon Saloon. This was the studio’s second IFTA win for Best Film, having previously won in 2015 for Song of the Sea. Toasting the win, Wolfwakers director Tom Moore thanked the Academy “for recognising animation as a medium and not a genre” before tucking into a celebratory pint of Guinness.
Unsurprisingly, Normal People dominated the television categories, collecting nine awards out of its 15 nominations, including Best Drama. Following his triumph at the Baftas earlier this year, Paul Mescal scooped up the prize for Best Actor Drama, while his Normal People collaborator, Lenny Abrahamson, accepted the award for Best Director Drama. Speaking after his win, the actor said, “I am absolutely thrilled. It’s amazing to be nominated with such fantastic actors. It has been a journey of over a year now that has utterly changed my life.” Mescal went on to thank writer Sally Rooney, who won earlier in the night for Best Script Drama, describing her as “the most incredible artist and novelist working in the world at the moment.” 
Mescal wasn’t the only new face to pick up a statuette this year; Nicola Coughlan, breakout star of Derry Girls and Bridgerton, took home the coveted Rising Star award. Much to her delight, Star Wars veteran and Tayto enthusiast, Mark Hamill was on hand to present the honour. “I’m really shocked – oh my god I’m so shocked. Hearing Luke Skywalker say my name is such a shock,” the actress said in her acceptance speech. “I’m so proud to be an Irish actor. To be recognized at home is really so special, it’s so amazing and I am so grateful, thank you so much.” 
Colin Farrell, whose upcoming film, After Yang, was a stand out at the Cannes Film Festival last month, appeared from his LA home to present Best Director to Cathy Brady for her family drama Wildfire. “I’m so proud to see such great Irish directing talent nominated here tonight,” the actor said. After her win, Brady acknowledged her fellow nominees saying, “I know each of you guys had your own journey to get to this place. You’ve had your ups and downs and I just want to say a toast to you guys and your loved ones who went on that journey with you because I know this is really hard but we love it and that’s why we do it.”
Star of Wildfire, the late Nika McGuigan was posthumously honoured with the Lead Actress award in what proved to be the most moving moment of the ceremony. Accepting the award on behalf of the family, McGuigan’s brother Blane gave an emotional speech praising his sister’s work ethic: “Nika tirelessly grafted to become the best actor she could be, and in Wildfire she found a vehicle that let her express herself artistically like she had  never been able to do before. It is tragic that Nika did not get to show the world more of her endless talent, but this award and  its recognition of her brilliant performance would have meant everything to Danika.”
Irish screen legend Gabriel Byrne won Best Actor Film for his leading role in Death of a Ladies’ Man. The dramedy, which received its Irish premiere last month at the 33rd Galway Film Fleadh, finds Byrne as a carousing college professor whose life takes a series of unimaginable turns when he begins to have surreal hallucinations. Speaking after his win, the Dubliner acknowledged the iconic musician whose songs inspired the film. “I’d also like to thank Leonard Cohen himself for his beautiful music and his words,” Byrne said. “One of the things that has always stuck with me is something he said: ‘there’s a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in’. Thank you so much everybody.”
Tribute was also paid to Fergus O’Farrell, the late Irish rocker whose story of tragedy and triumph lies at the heart of Michael McCormack’s documentary Breaking Out. “This week Fergus would have been 54, and he would have loved this,” McCormack reflected while accepting The George Morrison Feature Documentary Award. Made over the course of 15 years, Breaking Out tells the inspirational story of O’Farrell’s band Interference, a forgotten gem of the 90s Irish music scene that never fully achieved the commercial potential that was expected.
IFTA regular Brendan Gleeson, nominated for his portrayal of Donald Trump in The Comey Rule, may have come away empty handed but did provide the highlight of the ceremony. When asked if he had heard any reaction from the former president through back channels, he replied that he had “no interest whatsoever in Donald Trump’s ‘back channels.’” 
Preferring not to let the night end on a bum note, however, IFTA CEO Áine Moriarty spoke after the ceremony, rounding off another successful year for Irish Film and TV:
“We were so delighted to be able to bring together such an illustrious group of Irish and International screen talent to celebrate the ongoing growth and success of our industry in Ireland. It was incredible to see the range of Irish talent and work that has been produced, often in the most difficult of circumstances, recognised tonight by a host of stars from around the world, guided all the way by the brilliant hosting of Gráinne Seoige. Congratulations to all tonight’s nominees and winners.”