Last night I was at a loose end and I sat down and watched the four episode chunk of the third season of Sons of Anarchy where the gang goes to Belfast and does things.
I'm an unabashed fan of SOA, which has a lot to recommend it, but the Irish end of things has always left me wondering if anyone involved with the production has done so much as watch the Quiet Man all the way through, let alone meet anyone Irish or ask anyone from east of South Boston whether they were getting things roughly right.
From the outset, I've been fascinated by the notion that the Sons of Anarchy's principal source of finance is running guns from Ireland to the West Coast of the US. I've assumed all along that this was just a matter of trying to find something criminal for the SOA to do without being you know, SO criminal that audiences would just revolt. I'm not sure I agree with the thinking here. It's as though the team behind the Sopranos had decided that they'd make a movie about Italian American criminals but would skip over prostitution, drug running and protection rackets in case it stopped the audience from watching the characters. In real life, bike gangs finance their operations with crystal meth, and AMC have had a good run with Breaking Bad, which is all about making crystal meth. But the team chose to go with gunrunning and now they're stuck with it.
What it's meant in practice is a succession of dodgy Irish accents from American actors who aren't very good at accents even when they're good at everything else. Titus Welliver is GOOD at playing villains. But he gets 100% less frightening every time his accent slips. Now all of this should have been pretty apparent to the team before very long, but it hasn't stopped them from upping the Irish presence as the show has unfolded, and the whole of the third season has been dominated by a confrontation between the SOA and the IRA. And for four episodes, most of the cast were in Belfast and it was just hilarious.
Of course they couldn't afford to send all the cast to Belfast, so all the principal photography was still done in Calfiornia. But they could afford to send a second unit over to Belfast to do pickup and establishing shots. One advantage of making a show about a biker gang is that you can put the cast into helmets a lot, and one helmet looks much like another. So they got all kinds of shots of mobs of bikers prowling Belfast and its environs, and then they'd cut from those shots to close ups of the actual cast doing things in US locations chosen to look not catastophically unlike the locations in Ireland.
If you don't live in Ireland, it probably works, but if you're from these parts it jars. A lot. The light is wrong. The foliage is wrong. I never appreciated until I lived away from Ireland just how much greener it is than anywhere is. It's all a rich deep green that you don't see in warmer climates. Like California. And in Northern Ireland, it's all been very carefully worked over. There are two separate scenes where the SOA get stopped by the Northern Ireland police on tree shaded roads. There are tree shaded roads in Ireland, but they're not that common around Belfast, where there's much more farmland and pasture than people realise. More importantly, the police in Northern Ireland don't stop people in that kind of terrain; it's far too hard to control.
While I'm quibbling about the depiction of the Northern Ireland Police, they don't carry full sized assault rifles any more, even on rural patrol. They don't use ordinary landrovers, and they especially don't use 1 ton landrovers with canvas tilts. Trouble cars in Northern Ireland are uparmoured long wheelbase landrovers. And if you bribed the PSNI to take down an entire biker gang, they'd bring enough men and machinery to do it properly rather than showing up half assed with the wrong vehicles. And of course, if the said biker gang then turned the tables on them, there'd be a manhunt on an epic scale until the bikers were banged up or gunned down.
Outside of the rural scenes, most of the Northern Ireland action takes places around the compound of the Belfast Sons of Anarchy chapter, which is subtly wrong at a lot of different levels. It's too spread out and open; the kind of place in Belfast that they're trying to suggest just doesn't have that much open space. And there's set dressing like wall murals that are just wrong; it's like they were trying to come up with generic bits of nationalism which wouldn't annoy anyone. Trying not to annoy people is - in my experience - the most foolproof way of getting on everyone's nerves. But that draws me into the weird idea of the linkage between the Sons of Anarchy and the IRA. it just doesn't ring true to the reality of life in that part of Northern Ireland. You're in or you're out. There's no halfway points in Northern militancy - collusion between people who hate each other, sure, but there's no half measures when it comes to which side you're notionally on.
The front of the compound is a corner grocery store called Ashby's. Which is completely not a nationalist name, but even if you skated over that (Sands isn't really a Catholic name either, but it's pretty famous now) standalone old-fashioned grocery stores like that have been pretty much obliterated even in the most entrenched traditional communities - a point neatly underlined in the establishing shot of the Europa Hotel with the gaudy Spar across the street from it. On the topic of the Europa, since the second unit crew almost HAD to have stayed in the Europa while they were there (it's so famous as a bomb magnet that every foreign crew is practically obliged by natural law to stay there at least once) it's genuinely weird that they did so little to make sure that the interior shots in California weren't done in some place that at least looked vaguely like it. But if Ashby's had ever existed and hadn't long since been burned out and rubbled, it would be a Spar by now. Everything else is.
And whee, those accents. I know they couldn't fly everyone to Ireland, but how much would it have cost to fly in actual Irish actors to play the Irish roles? It would still have sounded wrong because Irish people can tell the difference between accents, down to neighborhood, and so the Irish cast would still all have sounded like they didn't belong together, but it would still have been a lot less horrible than the Americans doing their best, and with enough Irish people in the local cast, they'd have known not to call a sixty year old Catholic Belfastman Keith.
And back to the gun running because it was so front and centre in all of this. The logistical backbone of this whole show is that Russians smuggle weapons into Ireland and the IRA then smuggles them out to California. It just doesn't make any sense. Private ownership of guns in Ireland - either half - is so tightly regulated that if you gathered up all the legally held weapons on both sides of the border, you'd be able to fit them into a single room. Keeping guns out of the hands of subversives has been a core government preoccupation for so many years that there probably isn't another country on earth which it's more difficult to smuggle guns into. It can still be done, but it's crazy hard. And smuggling guns back out would be only slightly less hard. If you wanted to get guns from A to B, running them though Ireland would be the worst way imaginable. And even the idea that the IRA would have some vast surplus of guns they no longer needed and could sell to the US is kind of dumb. The IRA's full arsenal on its best day was only about a thousand weapons. By the end of season one, the SOA had already moved at least that many guns around California. But that's just niggling at the idea of Ireland as a point of origin for gun smuggling, as opposed to a point of delivery. The really idiotic idea is the notion that the US needs to import illegal guns at all. The US is awash with guns. They're as plentiful as cell phones and the US is one of the world's leading manufacturers of firearms. It's one of the few manufacturing areas where the US still has a significant domestic industry to meet domestic demand, though it still imports a lot of weapons from Brazil and China to meet the demand for cheap knockoffs of the domestic product. There's absolutely no need for the SOA to go to the trouble of bringing in guns from Ireland. So I've suffered through all these terrible accents for no good reason.