An Cailín Ciúin (The Quiet Girl, 2022) is a triumph for Irish-language cinema. Directed by Colm Bairéad, this coming-of-age narrative, set against a backdrop of rural Ireland in the 1980s, offers up a tender account of childhood and familial love. The titular quiet girl, Cáit (Catherine Clinch), is a melancholic nine-year-old who is sent away for the summer to be fostered by her “mother’s people”, her second cousins Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley) and Sean (Andrew Bennett). The pair dote on the child, basking her with attention, which is sorely lacking in her home. She flourishes under their nurturing care and the three forge a close bond. By the climax of the film, when Cáit must return home, their parting is fraught with grief. I found myself deeply moved by the film. The emotional resonances of Cáit’s experiences drew me into a reverie on my own childhood, and my relationship to Irish culture, the Irish landscape, and the Irish language. 

At times, the film has a Jamesian quality; it is almost an Irish rendition of What Maisie Knew, with glimpses into the lives of the adult characters, filtering their affairs through the lens of the child. Though Eibhlín tells Cáit, “Níl aon rúin sa teach seo” (There are no secrets in this house), the film is full of adult secrets that Cáit tries to understand. Like Henry James’ novel, the narrative is subjectively coded, understood through Cáit’s gaze. The cinematography in the film is strikingly still: the camera hesitates, it pauses, it dwells. It mirrors the gentle, quiet, hesitancy of Cáit, positioning us to feel a close alignment with the child as she witnesses the world around her. As a result, plot points become submerged in the subtextual: gestured to in moments of conversation overheard by the child, witnessed through the gaps in doorways or from the backseat of the car. Left then on the surface of the film is an aesthetic of childhood: a visual style that invites spectators to feel an embodied alignment with this child character, to see through her gaze, but also to experience a sensory extension of her body as she moves through the world. It invites us back to experience the sounds, the textures, and the feelings of our own childhoods. 

This alignment is immediately evident in the opening scenes of the film. The first frame is set up as a stationary wide shot of the lush green rolling hills of the Irish countryside. Overgrown hay bristles against the foreground, dominating two-thirds of the frame. A row of sparse dark green trees dot the boundary of the field in the background. This is where the camera stays: watching the fields, listening to the rustling sound of wind against leaves and branches, listening to birdsong and the gentle lowing of cows in a paddock somewhere out of frame. A child’s voice cuts across this soundscape, calling out “Cáit! Cá bhfuil tú?” (Where are you?). Only now does the camera begin to tilt downwards, revealing the small child lying amongst the tall grasses. We have been listening through her ears.

In this frame, Cáit’s body is almost swallowed up by the overgrown hay. Her white cardigan is stark against the yellow-green straw that shrouds her face. Her small pale legs stick out at awkward angles. Her body is so still that it momentarily registers as lifeless. But then she moves. Cáit’s hands begin twisting a blade of grass between her fingers. The camera then cuts, reframing the hayfields from behind the child. Again, the uncut hay overwhelms the frame. It is almost as tall as Cáit, who now stands, pausing briefly, before walking back towards the sound of her siblings’ voices.

The Quiet Girl

This visual style draws on a poetic and sensory aesthetic with the aim of representing the feeling of childhood. Roni Natov writes that poetic depictions of the child work to evoke “images that cluster around childhood, the voices and tones, the smells and textures that make up the larger landscape that recalls to us our earliest states of mind.”1 In cinema, this visual and sonic style works to awaken the affective traces of the adult’s memories of childhood. Drawing on a phenomenological approach to cinema, Emma Wilson writes:

Through movement and the tactile, through the range of emotions summoned, [films about childhood seek] to reattach us to child experience, to make its affect and range of sensation present for us. This strategy emphasises film as a more than visual medium, its representation of children as more than pictorial.2

Wilson also points out that the effect of these films upon the adult spectator is dependent upon his or her “embodied knowledge of sensory and specifically childhood experience.”3 This suggests that films about the child that are made for adults rely on the mechanisms of memory (both unconscious and embodied) to bring the adult spectator into contact with their own childhood experiences. Wilson continues: “These mobile images refuse to let us deny our own past vulnerability as children, and the (involuntary) insistence of a child’s emotion and sensation in adult response.”4 By employing an aesthetic of childhood, An Cailín Ciúin seeks to evoke an empathetic and emotive response to the images on screen. It uses an evocatively subjective cinematography, drawing sometimes on haptic and sensory imagery, to represent the child.

From the very opening imagery of the film, I am drawn into the fields alongside Cáit. I am alongside her as she lays enveloped by the tall grass in the hayfield, protected from the hostile estrangement of her siblings and the careless neglect of her parents. I too am immersed, alongside Cáit, in a sensory engagement with the landscape: I hear the sounds of the wind, the trees, the cows, the birds; the smells of the earth; the touch of grass on skin and fingertips; the colours of the sky as clouds roll in. Later in the film, I feel her shame as she realises she has wet the bed, I feel her fear when she learns that her parents are sending her to live with strangers, I feel my heart beat against my chest as she races the length of the lane to collect the post, and I feel the small surge of joy as Cáit’s hand reaches out to collect the secret biscuit left for her to enjoy. These are small, mundane scenes from childhood that work, as Wilson argues, “[to] strategically [deny] the distinct division between adults and children, provoking a seizure of emotive response, where adults suddenly feel like children.5 An Cailín Ciúin addresses the spectator through their senses, focusing on textures and touch, on the details of the child’s body, foregrounding the child’s hands as she touches objects framed in close-up. By eliding this distinction between the child onscreen and the adult spectator, this film can mobilise an affective response that Wilson argues is often politically charged.

Laura U. Marks tells us that cinema appeals to the tactile: “Cinema itself appeals to contact—to embodied knowledge and to the sense of touch in particular—in order to recreate memories.”6 For Marks, cinema is as tactile and as haptically charged as it is visual and aural, which suggests that bodily mimetic processes can explain the relationship between the spectator and the film.7 In her book The Skin of the Film, Marks explores modes of “intercultural cinema,” which she defines as the home videos and avant-garde and experimental films made by exiled or diasporic (sometimes amateur) filmmakers.8 The spectator is encouraged not so much to project memories or fantasies onto the child protagonist about childhood but rather to reactivate her memories through an appeal to the senses, particularly through scenes or images of haptic visuality. Spectators then, are invited to respond to the tactile experience of watching film via close-ups of objects touched, food eaten, or images of family that remind them of their lost homelands or of their lost childhoods.

An Cailín Ciúin is not an experimental or amateur film by any means, nor is it about – or even necessarily for – the Irish diaspora. However, the connection between the imagery of childhood, the images of the Irish landscape, and the use of the Irish language work to co-opt me into an experience of my mother’s homeland and the culture that was lost to me and my siblings when she immigrated to Australia. All that is left are the memory traces of her heritage that she has passed to us through stories, that was shown to us in photographs, that we have listened to in music. I found myself homesick when I watched this film – but how can I feel homesick for a country that was never my home? I felt nostalgic for the lush green fields of rural Ireland that smell of rain and earth even in the summer. The lilting cadence of the Irish language rings out with every line of dialogue and registers as both foreign and familiar to me. I am filled with grief that I never learned my mother’s language. Here, on the surfaces of a film that is ostensibly about a neglected child finding familial love, are the affective memory traces of my mother’s culture, conjuring up memories of her childhood, of her homelands, which collide with my own memories of childhood.

The Quiet Girl

This is, of course, an inherently subjective reading of the film, informed by my heritage, my memories of childhood and my relationship to my mother. But that is precisely the point. The aesthetic of childhood that the film employs allow the spectator to find themselves in the textural interstices of the film’s form. This aesthetic invites a spectator to locate their own subjective memory traces in their embodied response. Marks writes: 

Cinema can activate inert presences, such as historical archives and fetish objects, and make them volatile so that they intervene in the present. Now I would like to add sense memory to those presences. Seremetakis writes that the Greek etymology of nostalgia is nostó, I return, plus alghó, I feel pain (1994, 4). Nostalgia, then, need not mean an immobilizing longing for a lost past: it can also mean the ability of past experiences to transform the present.9

The film mobilises the sense-memories associated with childhood and with Irish farm life in the early 1980s. But, as Marks points out, this is not about a return to the past. Rather, these nostalgic modes can allow reflexive reinterpretation of the past to politicise the present. 

Harvey Kaplan understands nostalgia as “an acute yearning for a union with the preoedipal mother, a saddening farewell to childhood, a defence against mourning, or a longing for a past forever lost.”10 Nostalgia, understood in these terms, is a longing to return to the lost home: the first of which was the womb. This is, again, evident in the opening images of the film, when Cáit lies in the uncut hayfield and listens to the sounds of the farm. The imagery is strikingly evocative of the semiotic chora: the affective spaces of infancy associated with the mother’s body. Julia Kristeva describes the chora as “receptacle, unnameable, improbable, hybrid, anterior to naming, to the one, to the father and consequently maternally connoted.”11 It is possible to draw parallels between this image of the child held, contained, in the field, in touch with the motherland that protects her from the outside world. 

However, the tranquillity of the maternal chora that is evoked here is encroached upon by the overgrown hay. This is referenced at multiple points in the film. Cáit is met with shock from Eibhlín when Cáit tells her that her mother is “ag fanacht leis na fir teacht agus an féar a ghearradh” (waiting for the men to come and cut the hay). Cáit’s father gambled the money for the haymaking away and cannot pay the men for their labour. So, the repetition of this failure – that the men have not cut the hay – becomes a motif for the inadequacies of the father, who fails to provide for his family and fails to cultivate the land. It speaks more broadly, perhaps, to the failures of patriarchy and colonial forces, which encroached on the Irish motherland but never quite managed to supress the Irish language. The nostalgic overtures here work to invigorate Irish culture through a connection to the land, to the language, and to the maternal, the semiotic, and the subversive structures that resist the law of the father. 

This film is set to receive one of the widest releases for an Irish-language film.12 This is part of Cine4’s initiative to develop original Gaeilge films for domestic and international audiences.13 The Irish Language is a significant marker of nationhood. It preserves traditional Irish customs and culture through folk stories and songs. Politically, the Irish language is linked to Irish Independence and to anti-anglicisation and anti-colonisation movements.14 Cinema is one way to ensure the preservation and the revitalisation of Irish language, both domestically and among the Irish diasporas. Arguably, this is true across a range of cultures, where the preservation of First Nations languages works to revitalise cultures and to disrupt hegemonic modes of colonisation. 

In an interview with Sight & Sound, Colm Bairéad connects the emotional and political significance of Irish language cinema:

In a way, as a republic, Ireland is a relatively young country, still coming to terms with having our own independence and identity. After the recent recession, there’s been a reappraisal of what our core values are, what we represent. There’s a newfound confidence in the Irish language, in film, music and literature, and an audience that’s more receptive to it. People are more willing to listen.15

As Wilson pointed out, the images of childhood, that draw on “our own past vulnerability” and heighten our emotional, sensory, embodied relation to the child, also allows for an affective response to the political messages of the film.16 This is part of the magnetism of the film – not only because the performances are so compelling and nuanced, but also because in drawing us into an emotional and embodied engagement with the central child character, the film reminds us of the importance of family, of love, and of our cultural languages. 


  1.  Roni Natov, The Poetics of Childhood (New York: Routledge, 2003), p. 2
  2. Emma Wilson, “Children, Emotion and Viewing in Contemporary European Film,” Screen 46, no. 3 (2005): p. 334
  3. Ibid, p. 335
  4. Ibid, p. 335
  5. Ibid, p. 331
  6. Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999): p. 129
  7.  Vivian Sobchack’s many writings on phenomenology and film (which Marks draws upon) were first to consider the application of tactility and the haptic to Hollywood cinema. Vivian Sobchack, “What My Fingers Knew: The Cinesthetic Subject, or Vision in the Flesh,” in Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkeley University of California Press, 2004). See also: Jennifer M. Barker, The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009)
  8. Marks does note that these haptic moments can occur in mainstream narrative films and cites Casino (Martin Scorsese, 1995), The English Patient (Anthony Minghella, 1996) and The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, 1995) as key examples. Ibid, p. 177
  9. Ibid, p. 201
  10. Harvey Kaplan, “The Psychopathology of Bostalgia,” The Psychoanalytic Review 74 (1987), p. 466
  11.  Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Publishing, 1980): p. 133
  12. Derek O’Connor, “Celtic Cinema’s Quiet Coming of Age,” Sight & Sound (June 202
  13. This initiative is in partnership with TG4, IFB and BAI. Five projects are developed annually, with two films receiving full funding for production and distributions. See: https://www.cine4.ie/about-cine4
  14. Seán Ó Cathail, “The Politics of the Irish Language Under the English and British Governments” in The Proceedings of the Barra Ó Donnabháin Symposium (, 2007):, p. 111-126
  15. As quoted in O’Connor
  16. Wilson, p. 335

About The Author

Dr Nonie May is a Teaching Associate for the University of Melbourne in Screen and Cultural Studies. Her doctoral research, entitled Sight, Sound, Touch: The Sensory Child of Contemporary Cinema, examines the aesthetics of childhood in contemporary independent American cinema.

Related Posts