People tell you things and, so far as I can tell, some of them believe what they tell you. We were talking to somebody. It was one of those small-towns-of-Ireland converstaions. We were talking about William Neil, who lives in Galloway, writes in Scots, English and Gaelic and – so the story went – you can see three Gaeltachts from his house. Maybe it was four; but you could definitely see them, all of them, all several of them – the Isle of Man, Antrim and somewhere in Scotland.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? And filmic, very filmic indeed. So I make the mistake of being the first person to believe it and, on my next trip to Ireland (Stranraer-Larne) I get sent to see the multiple Gaeltachts.
I agree to go to the Mull of Galloway and look. Now I don’t approve of places being called ‘remote’, but there are times when you feel like giving in and admitting that some places are remote from most other places. The Mull of Galloway is. You go south from Stranraer and after a while you realise that the road you are on has to be also the road back – there isn’t any other. It’s interesting and sometimes beautiful but it feels funny to go along to the end of the line only to come back again.
It was summer and the light was Scottish wonderful. The towns are tiny along the way, half asleep in the sun and with only the usual quorum of dogs and juveniles on the town squares just in case somebody should happen to pass by.
This is the end of Scotland. There are still those who think that Scotland does not really end: it just gradually changes colour until it turns into England. Nonsense. The Mull of Galloway is the kind of place where the Portuguese would have enjoyed peering into the distance and dreaming about the newfound lands, of Whitehaven, Workington and Barrow in Furness. You can feel proper borders, smell them - Offa’s Dyke, The Shannon or the Garden Gnome Belt in England - which my friend Francis Cowan claimed divided the Angles from the Saxons or the other way round.
It feels like the end of Scotland because you can see nothing, I exagerrate. You can see the sea. There’s a lighthouse on the very last step of the land, cliffs all around resisting some serious sea. There was a hint of something in the distance that might have been Cumberland if it was anything, but no Isle of Man, no Antrim coast, no Gaeltachts except the one I might have been standing in. Galloway was Gaelic speaking and nowadays some half hearted gestures are being made towards St Ninian as being Galloway’s, as coming before Colmcille, as giving the place the kind of ‘celtic’ sheen from which gift shops are made.
It all felt utterly lost. There are parts of Scotland that feel as though the life will never return to them no matter what happens. It felt like that and even harder to believe that Gaelic was the language not all that long ago.
I went home and started to try to get Galloway into the script, and William Neill and Walter Kennedy, through Neill’s GB poem:
WHAT MADE YOU WRITE IN GAELIC?
I would say that was my right,
Likely Walter Mór's to blame
And if some should complain
That I write too much in Gaelic,
It was Kennedy showed me the way;
The only thing I knew of Kennedy was that he and Dunbar had a Flything - a poetic combat, in rhymes and insults. Dunbar is one of the very great poets, can do mighty rhetoric and has a right filthy mouth on him when required.
Iersch brybour baird, vyle beggar with thy brattis,
Cuntbittin crawdoun Kennedy, coward of kind,
Evill farit and dryit, as Danseman on the rattis,
Lyke as the gleddis had on thy gule snowt dynd;
Mismaid monstour, ilk mone owt of they mynd,
Renunce, ribald, thy rymyng, thow bot royis,
Thy trechour tung hes tane ane heland strynd;
And lawland ers wald mak a bettir noyis.
Putting a word like ‘cuntbittin’ in a film would be a very fine thing to do. The flything covers the Irish-Scottish business. Dunbar calls Kennedy ‘Iersch’, Kennedy accepts the name and claims Gaelic ‘sud be all trew Scottis mennis lede’.
Thow lufis nane Irische, elf, I enderstand,
Bot it sud be all trew Scottis mennis lede;
It was the gud langage of this land,
And Scota it causit to multiply and sprede,
Quhill Corspatrik, that we of tresoun rede,
Thy forefader, maid Irisch and Irisch men thin,
Throu his tresoun broght Inglise rumples in,
Sa wald thy self, mycht thou to him succeed.
The standard of insult is high, dramatic and as un-contemporary as you could get.
Forworthin fule, of all the warld reffuse,
Quhat ferly is thocht thow rejoys to flyte?
Sic eloquence as thay in Erschry use,
In sic is set thay thraward appetyte;
Thow hes full littill feill of fair indyte:
I tak on me ane pair of Lowthaine hippis
Sall fairer Inglis mak, and mair parfyte,
Than thow can blabber with thy Carrick lippis.
(The Flything II. 105-112)
There was a fine piece on the Neill poem by Stan Clemmentsmith. But you can see the difficulties. You’d have to explain everything. The abuse wouldn’t be amusing until people understood what they were saying. After spending days on it, we threw it out and with it one of Dunbar’s lovliest poems, where he laments the poets, including Kennedy:
Gude Master Walter Kennedy
In point of deid lyis verily,
Gret reuth it wer that so it suld be:
Timor mortis conturbat me.
Lament for the Makaris (when he wes seik)
Could you make a film of all of this? Would you want to? Do you think we – the confused improvisers of the past hundred pages – should have been allowed to? Should have been left out without our mothers, our more grown-up children or the supervision of the Thought Police?
Well, we were, we did, and this is how we did it.
We were all quite calm really, considering. I gave up writing a diary. Instead, I was putting all my complications into the script, hammering it out, boiling it down, polishing and above all telling other people what it was and what it wasn’t and what we should do and never mind that old catalogue of things we would never do. After all the hammering and the boiling you understand why classicists develop into such a pain in the elbow.
I was determined we would arrive to film every scene with a very very clear and very very agreed list of ingredients. I made what I called Content Schedules – each day’s filming laid out with person, place and the content we were to record. It formed the basis of what I worried about before and after every day – disciplined .
We set sail.
I forget how we reached Oughterard, Co Galway, but we did, at a point just outside, just further out than the graveyard, and stayed at a hotel a bit like a ranch, a bit like a motel and very like the kind of prefab lie that the immature part of Ireland offers to itself as style.
The corridors were hung with reproduction oils – portraits of ancestral figures who must belong to somebody – though I don’t see why anybody would want to belong to them - but certainly not to the present occupants of this barely ten-year-old place. The bars were packed with agricultural implements – allowed indoors provided they behaved themselves. And why wouldn’t they? Most of them seemed to have given up even the will to rust. It was as bizarre as these exhibitions always are. And they are all around us. It reminded me of the - mostly English-run - restaurants on the Mull of Kintyre except that the English in Scotland seem to import their authentic Scottish farm implements from East Anglia and they’re much better at the shrunken heads business anyway.
Roy Keane, captain of Ireand’s soccer team and our greatest, most enigmatic and most Co Cork player, walks out of the World Cup in 2002, having delivered a speech for about 10 minutes which was ‘a feat of oratory, intelligence and some wit’ to his team mates and management, leaves them ‘practically lying on the floor’ and goes home. He explains how he feels betrayed by the manager, Mich McCarthy, to whom he had made the ultimate gesture of friendship. He invited him into his house:
‘Nobody gets into my house’See Conor O’Callaghan, Red Mist: Roy Keane & the Football Civil War, Bloomsbury, 2004.
But this was not presented only for the tourists. There were tourists; tourists are always with us and you could describe us filmers as many things, including tourists. But we did meet locals who were using the hotel the way the Irish use hotels – as a sort of Inn, as the focal point for people who need to meet in neutral venues, and nobody’s home is a neutral venue. It’s like the French, who can get quite friendly and even intimate without ever seeing the point of letting you inside their front door.
The owner – a very visible and very frequent hand-shaker – would often be seen doing neighbour talk with his customers. One day, after he had done what he had to do for a large Welsh group, who needed neither looking-after nor anything else, he noticed us, noticed we were not loitering, not obviously enjoying in any free-time way the heady air of this unlikely part of Galway and not longing to have local conversations with native informants.
Having observed our lack of needs, our eagerness to get out of his hotel early and return very late, if at all, he decided he needed to deal with us, include us in his customer-client-neighbour embrace, make us need something.
He did his best. But it was in the car park; we were loading some very purposeful equipment into some authentic film-maker cars – estates, Scandinavian. Now that we are actually making the film, we seem unable to say impressive things about it or even to describe to the man in the car park what kind of film it is.
We disappoint him. He seems unsatisfied, seems to think we should have started boasting before we really have anything worth boasting about. He will not be able to boast about us – we have failed to provde suitable material. We should have offered up Seamus, just back from shooting The Hours which is on the Oscars shortlist and will soon win something for, I think, Nicole Kidman. Mind you, Seamus is not just there for the offering-up.
We are unable to make up for this lost ground, are utterly unable to give a tinker’s curse but still carry around an itch and an unsatisfied longing to have put this suit-wearer in his place. Which would have been a mistake also because in Ireland place-putting is a subtle business, has to be done in front of the right witnesses and has to operate entirely by implication. We leave him rattling his keys and not quite sure which bit of car park to stand on next. Insincere promises were made. He’ll look out for the film; we’ll send him something or other about it; we’ll be back.
We should have known. Mind you, he too should have known. We had been, after all, filming in the graveyard for a day and more – a delicate business. Cassandra had fixed it with the Parish Priest but still we weren’t going round with permits and ID’s. We just walked in and filmed. Did nobody notice? Of course they did. Everybody did.
On our first visit, Cassandra and I walked around looking for the grave of Colm de Bhaléis, a local Gaelic poet. Louis de Paor told us about the grave and it’s mentioned in his Great Book poem but he hadn’t liked to stumble round searching – and for reasons we should have predicted and understood. The locals do not go blundering around the graveyard - because it might be offensive to the bereaved; so this grave, including its fairly recent commemorative plaque is known of but not its exact whereabouts.
We thought this was going to be straightforward but the older part of the graveyard is completely overgrown, there are no pathways and you place your foot fearfully not knowing what you might thread on – a grave, a gravestone or just a terrifying hole in the ground.
Louis probably knew he could rely on us to blunder away, find or not find the grave; and leave without anybody who had to live there getting the blame. He never mentioned – and probably thought we should have known – that Oughterard graveyard is where Michael Furey is buried in Joyce’s ‘The Dead’, that Joyce went there by bicycle from Galway - quite a trip - and found a gravestone there with the name ‘J.Joyce’ on it. Just as well, we went there innocent, not dreading Joyce pilgrims and not even tempted to distract Murray into the whorls of Finneganswakespeak that film makers are prone to surf in when Himself is mentioned.
Anyway, we found it, filmed it and it was only afterwards that I remembered the good manners we should have brought with us, the delicacies we should have observed.
I used to think that city living on an Edinburgh common stair was the furthest extremity of complicated living – the way you organise friendly un-intrusive friendliness with your neighbours; the way you decide to meet or not to meet your neighbours on the stair; the way you jointly establish areas of conversation, things you and they say and do not say. I assumed this was a dance to the slightly over-formal music of Eastern Urban Scotland
Then I got to know some people from County Clare – a rough people who took pleasure in their own roughness, bluntness, hearts of gold and strong language. The first of them was an uncle (by marriage – he wasn’t our fault) who used to write letters on toilet paper when he had to (write letters). He was on the whole a very enjoyable person, was usually in a condition of chronic emigration but would come home once a year, get drunk and visit my grandmother - his mother-in-law - specially to ‘tell her what he thought of her’. My grandmother never did anything to stop him and I suspect she enjoyed his turning up to confirm all her worst fears about men, husbands and Claremen; also the entertainment. She looked forward to it.
Then I worked with another Clareman. He also worked long and hard not to let Co Clare down and his brother worked even harder. The brother built his own house, made magnificent walls, floors, built a family stronghold. But he couldn’t be bothered to put floorboards on the concrete floors or to cover the electrical wiring with plaster. The house functioned just fine but it lived its life completely naked on the inside, rough. It was from County Clare.
When I visited him and his Clare family, although he gave me a tour of Mass Rocks, mad Clare sitting rooms with velveteen suites and banjos in the corner, what I really noticed - and what I felt was really completely foreign to me - was the eternal suburban vigilance under which they lived every moment. We were in ‘the country’, there were fields, the wind came off the Atlantic, the ground was difficult. But once you showed your face outside the door or even at a window, they made you feel you were on Quality Street and that next door’s butler might be watching. I went back to Edinburgh and noticed how all Edinburgh’s delicacies were there to provide shelter and privacy. In the country, sheltering from your neighbours is not done; and it’s not a good idea anyway. In County Clare you need neighbours and they need you and everybody had better pay attention to what is going on over the fields, behind the stone walls and the lace curtains.
So I should have grasped Oughterard. Louis did. When a truncated version of our film was eventually shown, somewhat surreptitiously, on RTE (The National Broadcaster) I moaned to Louis about the surreptitiousness and the truncation. Louis said never mind. His neighbours had noticed he was on television. You can’t have everything. This was enough.
Gíoscann cnámha na gcrann
nuair a osclaín doras mo thí
ritheann solas I mbríste gearr
cosnocht sa ghairdín.
Scairdeann an ghrian as buidéal
a chnusaigh teas ar shleasa cnoic
breac le toir finiúna.
Siúlann Feabhra faoi spéaclaí daite tharam,
Raicéad leadóige faoina hascaill.
The treebones creak
when I open the back door
light in short pants
runs barefoot in the garden.
The sun spills from a bottle
that harvested heat
on hillsides tangled with vines.
February walks past in dark glasses,
a tennis racket under her arm.
Louis de Paor, Ag Greadagh Bas sa Reilig, Cló Iar Chonnachta, 2005
I was going to say that Louis writes about Irish neighbourhoods – Irish places you’d do well to avoid calling either the city or the country or the suburbs. But it’s more that his poems live there and grow there. His poems often vibrate with the atmospheres of neighbourliness and of the complicated ways people sense each other, ignore each other, deal together with emotional and physical territory; and with the mad logic of people living, often almost literally at arm’s length from each other.
His house is part of a new estate of naked-looking lemon coloured cloned houses all built within the walls of what was the Oughterard Poorhouse, which must have been more like a prison settlement – outer walls, outbuildings, a separate chapel that Louis suggests we ask the still-building builders about. All this was well out of use by the 1920’s but was blown up anyway during the War of Independence. The thought of Ireland blowing up its poorhouses as it strikes for freedom would keep you warm on a cold night, wouldn’t it?
The outer Poorhouse wall is still there and the chapel; and there was still a deal of muck, medium-sized rocks, various building waste stuff still to be given homes just below the surface of gardens where they will be anything but welcome. The estate was almost finished but a few boss builders of a philosophical bent remained, wandering around in hard hats and layers of well integrated grime. They seemed to need more visitors than they get and I suspect Louis was up to benevolent mischief: if we – from a sort of abroad – were taking an interest in the chapel and the workhouse archeology, then people, including boss builders, might also pay attention – practical attention. A subtle intervention. I suppose in Ireland people who should be doing something else will always be up for a bit of a chat about history. These ones certainly were. Anyway, there was Louis in the midst of it all and we wondered a bit, but not enough.
We did see enough to alert us, of Louis and his tactful, graceful way of moving through the neighbourhood; the way he came to see us in the hotel and listened carefully - not like a note-taker, more like a navigator; the way he made pitches to nobody but would answer real questions really. We watched him with the hotel man. The hotel man clocked Louis. Louis clocked the hotel man. ‘Hello’s’ were offered – one each but enouh apparently. Some codes are hard to break.
Critheann an driosúr le sceon;
léimeann gréithre ar urlár coincréite.
Cromann bord stuama ag longadán;
scairdeann crúiscín is citeal
imeagla at chairpéidí olna.
Éiríonn ant-iasc órga as a chillín gloine
le gníomh raidiceach féinurlabhra,
neamhspleách ar uair a bháis.
Suíonn an sceimhlitheoir soineanta
in aice na teilifíse,
ag ithe calóg arbhair.
The kitchen dresser trembles with fright
as dishes hurl themselves on concrete floors.
A sensible teak table starts rocking;
jugs and kettes spill
their terror on wollen carpets.
The goldfish rises from his glass cell
in a radical gesture of self-expression,
free to die at last.
The terrorist, wide-eyed and innocent,
sits by the television
eating Corn Flakes.
Louis de Paor, Ag Greadagh Bas sa Reilig, Cló Iar Chonnachta, 2005
So we could have made a very very subtle film about Louis if we knew then what we know now. But we didn’t and anyway it would obviously have been another film entirely, full of the magic of everyday houses and the way you can do magic poems about them if you know how. Ever read Eavan Boland? She’s in (Irish) English but she does it too, and very differently. She does, mostly, the lone family woman surveying the scene. Louis does her too but he also does everybody else.
A little while after our film Louis’ Selected Poems comes out (Cló Iar-Chonnachta, ISBN 1 902420 94 2) and the introduction goes on a bit about the women in the poems – and they are legion. But it’s no catalogue of passing beauties and the licked lips of the watcher. Louis’ women are all neighbourhood women – all sorts and they have a friendly relationship to the poems. From time to time he may seem to have more information than he’s entitled to, about their preferred scents or about the way their elbows do feminine things. But this happens when you really live with people, people you neither sleep with nor slaver over nor share Wheetabix with. Louis enjoys people; he pays a lot of attention to them; his poems have a longer cast list than anybody else’s I can think of. The women business isn’t even the half of it. There’s a whole world in there.
I phoned Louis one day ages ago and he told me how he encountered the poetry of Sorley MacLean and was knocked a little bit sideways by it. He knows Scottish Gaelic, knows who Norman McCaig is, knew, liked and understood Iain Crichton Smith. So we nailed him: an Irish poet who knows about Scotland and who, partly therefore, can say interesting things about poetry in general and Ireland-Scotland in particular. Our film had given him a role and all the things beyond the role could come, if they came, later.
His Great Book piece, in memory of Iain Crichton Smith, is a road poem, the kind that makes you feel the stones beneath your feet. Cassandra and I had already driven along the poem, inspected a fair number of stone walls and had a good look at Oughterard graveyard. So we spend the best part of a day there with Louis and with his daughter Aoife. We record a very fine reading of the poem that will be one of the most beautifull passages of the film and persuade Aoife to say is mise an teanga for the camera. Nothing goes wrong. Louis changes the last line of his poem when he reads it – he’s an unusual mixture of performance-and page-poet. Not in the usual sense of performance poetry, just that the poem should be for the voice as well as for the page – a demanding craft.
It was only the one poem but it takes ages, as people always tell you it will with film. No matter how well they explain the slowness I don’t think you can really be ready for it unless you are a visual person the way our guys are and that would probably involve having a camera to point at things and a lens to squint into.
I have no chance of getting this so I wander round the graveyard and get lucky. On a fairly new memorialI find two lines of another Great Book poem (no. 10), one of the really great ones, by Muireadhach Albanach Ó Dálaigh, a lament for his wife.
M’anam do sgar ríomsa a-raoir,
calann ghlan dob ionnsa i n-uaigh;
rugadh bruinne maordha mín
is aonbhla lín uime uainn.
Last night my soul escaped me,
A dear bright body taken by the grave
I parted from my life last night,
A woman’s body sunk in clay:
The tender bosom that I loved
Wrapped in a sheet they took away
My soul parted from me last light; a pure body that was dear is in the grave; a gentle stately bosom has been taken from me with one linen shroud about it.
Muireadhach is a man we’ll meet again. People were always meeting him again it seems. He gets himself into trouble in each of the four provinces of Ireland, a project demanding talent, dedication and persistence. So he gets sent off to the colonies so that he can learn manners, earn some proper money and, most importantly, disappear. But the boy done well. Went native a bit – they called him ‘Albanach’ – settled down, got himself a maybe local woman and a steady poet job. The colony was Scotland; Muireadhach settled around Balloch and wrote eventually the Dindshenchas poem about the River Leven that Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh started to talk to us about in that hotel car park in Inverness.
And let that be a lesson to me. I would have been afraid of having Muireadhach in a film. I assume he would not have turned up on time, would have said the opposite of what was agreed, would have been difficult about money. And there’s that beautiful poem. I hear somebody’s written a novel about Muireadhach. Are you surprised?
A Louis de Paor day is usually like this. You think you’re meeting the poet only; you expect to travel showly long the canal of the poet’s works, concerns, enmities, grudges and grouses. But Louis doesn’t proceed canalwise. He’s more a river delta man. You never know where the next conversational tributary is coming from but you know there will be many. You can tell we had a good day, can’t you?
Sunday - The Weather
It’s taken me a good part of my life to notice weather properly – a while that went on for more or less 30 years. I’ve decided it’s interesting so I get impatient with the books about Ireland I’ve been reading recently. They go on about weather in a very English way – meaning that they think they have to excuse and explain away even a few words about the weather, repeat how boring it is, apologise and then go on to deal with weather in ways boring enough to demand even more apology than we have already been given.
Anyway, weather is interesting and, if I had thought about it properly, I would have worried about rain and filming, fog and filming, thunder and lightening and filming. I didn’t. I should have worried about what filming Ireland in the rain – again – would say about us, about Gaelic and the kind of poets it gets. I didn’t do that either.
And why shouldn’t our weather be as interesting as anybody else’s? I know Greek poets have quite a traditional riff about how the Greek brain can tolerate nothing less than the sun. So why not us and the rain, or the temperate climate? Or the drizzle? Francis Cowan and I once wrote a song about the Pathetic Fallacy of Drizzle. It never caught on.
So it rained the day after Louis de Paor day – delicate sheets of the stuff slanting across the fields that we wanted to sit there in beautiful asymmetry and just wait for us to do our irregular geometry with. So we stop on the sort of road nobody should be allowed to stop on; Cassandra and I stand there waving at the passing traffic in case they crash into us; and Seamus, Conor and Pee Wee chase over the fields in the rain, apparently chasing raindrops. We all begin to look damp and a little mad. Then along comes Louis de Paor in his car, another daughter in the back, grinning in an admiring but compassionate way and congratulating us on our firmness of purpose. Isn’t that what Macbeth didn’t have?
It’s not all his (Louis) fault. Helen O’Leary did de Paor’s poem for the Great Book. She pays great and useful attention to what Ireland really looks like and why. It’s one of the most unassertive pieces in the book. When the exhibition is hung you have to place it carefully, away from the extrovert pieces and the gaudy ones. You have to read it and not just look. She reflects the poems journey by leading the words on a road of their own over the page and by using a patchwork of field patterns – and if you want to look for the history of Ireland in any one kind of place, the field patterns will tell you a lot, like the ones in that diagram on the left – Pre-Famine field patterns.
One of the many good-ideas-at-the-time for our film involved a magic camper van, a Gaelic Tardis that would explore and explain this kind of thing and Helen O’Leary was partly to blame. It wasn’t just the field patterns, though that was tempting enough. Silage bales were involved. Helen is from Leitrim, where the local farmers draw patterns and pictures like this on their own bales as a kind of evil eye strategy – to ward off bad luck.
She did a book about them and her work is full of this kind of thing – things that come not from rumours of the art-speak about far-away places but from ourselves, where we are and what we deal with. It’s a sort of native art that seems related honestly to the standing stones, the cromlechs and all the ways that the Irish landscape behaves. Looking at this, at the best work in The Great Book and at the way calligraphers seem now so central to the way Ireland is rediscovering itself visually, I hope we can avoid losing these connections.
We never got Helen herself into the film. She was always in places more interesting than where we wanted her to be – in India doing a project with kites, Leitrim when we wanted her someplace near Dublin, America when we hadn’t a clue where she was. So I don’t think we ever got to tell her how several grown men and one very grown-up woman spent a morning getting wet and miserable, getting almost run over, getting smiled at by a dry, sheltered poet in a car – all because of her and her field patterns.
We spend an afternoon roaming around the back roads looking for David Quinn sights and since he paints the ordinary extraordinarily, David Quinn seems to be everywhere – red corrugated iron roofs, outbuildings, clumps of trees, plastic-bag-trees and bushes
We pooter up and down the road and film here and there and get in everybody’s way. After a while I notice that we really are getting in people’s way. How can you do that in Co Mayo on a Saturday afternoon? Why is there a rush hour going on? They still sell the old postcard of the Irish Rush hour – a cow, a country road and no speed, and no hurry either. This particular rush hour turns out to be made of tractors speeding at breakbone speeds because the farmers now do better paid Celtic Tiger work during the week and keep the farms going at the weekends. They have no time for the likes of us mopping up the broken down rural icons of what looked like yesterday until David Quinn got to work.
Murray finds a farmer who seems to be on a day of rest and is willing to talk. The rest of us leave Murray to do the talking – he’s not as afraid of Irish people as I am. They talk. The rest of us lurk around. I’m relieved that we have Murray, an intelligent, listening foreigner who can place himself at the feet of my countrymen and women and just listen with uncomplicated interest to the things that we Irish find it in our hearts to say to innocent visitors. The farm buildings are filmed. The sun shone. Murray’s farmer was pleased, so was Murray.
Off we go further into Mayo for David Quinn himself, who is in the Great Book as what one of the Arts Ladies called ‘a wild card’ – because he paints. The Lady didn’t think painting was a thing people did or should do any more. He’s original, very talented, very honest and very tolerant.
We turn up. It’s his birthday, he has children - including a baby - and by now it’s raining; and he’s still willing to come Out and be filmed and this is a kindness because he is one of those who think of this film as what it is and not as a stairway to the stars.
The day is dark, the fields are wet and David has made a scenario – a beautiful sequence of images, places and simple actions which speak for themselves. We have paid attention to this. When David sent it, we all woke up with eyes wide open, refreshed by, first, the fact that it was purely visual and we had been slugging it out with concepts and personalities and had been accidentally starved of pure visual pleasure for a while.
This is what he sent us:
A long field stretches downhill into the distance. A thick bank of trees on the right side stir in the breeze. Miscellaneous distant rural noises. The shot lingers, unmoving, a little longer than the scene merits.
A tree lined laneway curling downhill, birdsong more pronounced.
The gable of a shed in the evening light. A darkened doorway partially obscured by bushes, mildly lonely. Sound of breeze and chickens.
A painting of a woman with a red cardigan, again, an unmoving and slightly confrontational shot, music begins:
A shot of a child (Callan or Bella) occupied in their own thoughts, unaware of being filmed, messing around…eventually looking at the camera with whatever reaction.
The turlough as viewed from the lane with the water disappearing into the reeds. The sound of ducks. The random sounds of children messing.
A drawing of a boat
A painting of an enclosed garden, music rising, poignant:
An laneway with figures in the middle distance. Walking away from the camera. A family. Music prominent and rising.
Closer to the family, individuals discernible. Children bored and/or messing, or maybe curious about something ideally a beetle or frog. We can't hear their voices just the music.
A painting of a laneway:
Reaching the heart of the landscape. A long still shot of a group of trees and pathway between. Music reaching a crescendo. Figures amble into the shot in the middle distance and move on leaving the scene as it was.
The painting for the great book:
The music stops pointedly leaving the sounds of the landscape, distant cattle, branches cracking.
The family, facing the camera, standing with a laneway receding over their shoulders. Those who can, look at the camera, holding the hands of the babies who are looking at everything…tumbleweed blows across the shot….(is there a special effects budget?)
A painting of a tree lined avenue of sorts, sound of a very distant dog or cow:
Other possible paintings:
I hope you enjoyed it. I did. I sent it to Cassandra and she did too, uncomplicatedly - an unusual thing for a Producer to even attempt. When we arrived in Mayo, this storyboard was what we were after. And we DID fInd its ingredients in David’s immediate neighbourhood – the turlough, the trees, the farm buildings.
I assumed that we would film the storyboard. But documentary people never seem to do exactly what they say they’ll do. We pursued the remembered skeleton of the storyboard. I presume I was the only one who was confused by this. I spent most of the filming time in a condition of highly-directed confusion, like sleepwalking along a straight line.
There was the usual feeling of waiting for what felt like nothing at all to arrive – while the visuals did visual things, worried about hairs in the gate. David watched over it all like the watchful, worried angels in Peter Esterhazy’s Book of Hrabal, who drive a battered, dusty VW and are reluctant to embarrass you by doing flying, wings or anything like that.
The Quinn children came, did their turn and went gracefully home – Callan and Ali. We gave David an old map of Mayo, shook hands in the heavy rain and off we went. The first few days are done, the film is beginning to exist, we did more or less what we intended to do and we started, probably with the easy bit – easy locations, very co-operative people and no hurry. Dublin is next, where everything will have to be faster and where, although it will not have to be complicated, it probably will be.
There are not many of us, only six; but this is enough for trade divisions. The camera two are Seamus McGarvey and Conor Hammond. They know each other well and they seem to spend their days in a huddle. They never say anything about the content of what we’re doing. It’s just them and the camera and the world can make an appearance, if it likes, through the lens. Without meaning to be, they are the dictators of the shoot. If something goes wrong with the camera, we do everything again. What seems to go wrong is apparently called a hair in the gate – a blemish. This is spoken of as an Act of God, nobody’s fault. Everybody gets stoical, professionalism is shown, we hunker down and do again what we thought we did before.
Pee Wee, on the sound, does not seem to be allowed failures of equipment. Maybe for this reason, he never seems to have any. This is, strictly speaking, the crew. Then there’s Murray, directing them and Cassandra directing Murray and me trying to make sure that they all have something coherent to film and direct.
To make sure, I’ve brought in my daughter Ioanna for this part of the film. She and I have done before the essential things that nobody usually notices. She was there while we drove the poets past Bosworth Field and knows how to deal with grumpy, male part-lunatic poets, also with sane, female and differently difficult ones. The answers are: sandwiches for the males and the sort of books they haven’t caught up with yet and anyway don’t want to buy for themselves, also tea, also anticipating wants and grouses – ‘events’. When she first did this she got no credit whatsoever for the books even though they’d been bought the day before in Birmingham, were just out and were exactly right for travelling – you wouldn’t give a male poet on the road a book of poems; but a book about poets does fine. Ioanna provided books unnoticed. She did get credit for her tea-making though.
The grumpy male poet saw the tea was about to be made, marched over towards the kettle to see that Irish tea-making standards were being maintained and stood there saying agressively nothing until he saw that Ioanna had indeed penetrated the inner mysteries of Irish tea-making: she knew you’re supposed to scald the pot and she was doing it. The poet stood back, amazed. Could not believe his eyes. Had so much difficulty believing his eyes that he started explaining to Ioanna, who – remember! – had just scalded the pot, how important it is to always scald the pot. Always! He offered to show her.
This important, tradition-preserving task done, back he goes to the sandwiches and the books and Ioanna remembers that scalding water can be quite dangerous in the wrong hands but decides to let him live a while longer. So here she is working at essential tasks, none of them at all understood by The Production. However, Ioanna and I are used to doing intangible things together, the kind of things nobody notices until they’re not done.
I’ve put Ioanna into one of those essential, but very junior, positions. She’ll be doing the things that others forget to do, the driving, the mopping up, looking after people. And - it already seems on this, her first day - she will be treated like dirt. Not by everybody. The people with technical skills treat everybody with respect regardless of whether they know who they are, why they are there or what they do.
Pee Wee (Alan Young), the sound man, does it intimately. He has to plug you in, attach a battery thing to your waist, thread a wire from there through your clothes up to somewhere close to your mouth. He does it, always, directly, briefly but without briskness and with a small murmur of talk to you - the kind of thing every dentist should do but never knows how to. And you don’t have to reply or respond in any way whatsoever. Pee Wee does wrigglers, fidgeters, the nervous, the grand and the ungrand and very few of them realise how fully they’ve been wired-up. He’s a listener - which is not a thing you’d usually say about sound men.
Seamus McGarvey and Conor Hammond do the camera. We had the two of them alternating as Director of Photography (DOP). You don’t say camerman. You can’t really say Director of Photography either but Cassandra is able to say DOP without falling over. Nobody else attempts it. Must be a producer thing.
Cameramen can’t avoid having some mystique. They have to crouch behind the machine; they have to squint; and, being the primary recorders of the film, they have the only absolute say on whether a scene has to be redone or not. And they always look busier than everybody else. Seamus and Conor are - of course they are - busy in a very contained and undemanding way. But every business makes its own bubble and everybody else realises how outside this particular bubble they are. And there is a point to it. Look at the way the camera does things in ‘Is Mise an Teanga’ and you will see what the two lads – and eventually Angela Conway too – did while the rest of us fidgeted and wondered why they were keeping us all waiting.
The other thing the technicals do is keep a safe distance between themselves and all others – we others, who are a much vauger class of being. It makes you feel even vauguer that you thought you were before.
Later in the film we are in Belfast with Reiltín Murphy, the calligrapher. We spend a day shooting Reiltín doing calligraphic things with quills and the like to vellum. The day wears on, progress is made, the required shots are secured, and punctually. Reiltín spends hours providing footage and talking and listening and taking part wholeheartedly. Then, at around four o’clock - a vulnerable time of day, I find - she turns to me and says that she can see what Conor is doing, what Pee Wee is doing, what Murray is for and why Cassandra has to be there. What she can’t work out is what I have to do with the whole thing. I forgave her - later.
I could see the difficulty. There was a circle of concentration around the visbly busy people. You could see what was going on inside it and why. Just outside it there was uncertainty and turbulence. This was the place where things are done untechnically, where relationships and behavoiur are what make things happen.
The Arts have difficulties with this kind of thing when one art meets another. Theatre people seem to flatter each other in ways and to an extent that seems insincere, embarassing and counter-productive to the rest of us. But they know what they’re doing. They don’t take it literally. It works.
When you cross over into an art whose ways you arenot used to, be careful. I was used to the classical music world of circular courtesy. I envied the discipline - the edge - that other, less courteous, worlds seemed to have. The classical musicians I knew were not ruthless about getting results. We were snooty about standards in a general way; we all had a list of people we would not consider playing with. But when we did play with people it seemed more important that a high level of tea-drinking civility was maintained than that the performance was pushed as far and as high as it could go – except in a certain kind of orchestra.
I hoped that film practise would be very focussed and purposeful, plain-speaking and direct. It’s the sort of thing I always hope will happen in the next field, where the grass is always greener and the people somehow a step up on what we’ve got here. As you proably realised a good many sentences ago, things did not always work out like this.
For some film people, ruthlessnes is an aesthetic, a strategy producing, out of ruthlessness itself, good results. I think the money does this. Not that this kind of documentary pays all that well – it pays some very well, but not all. But even small film budgets are large compared to many other arts budgets. People in control of this money, aware of paying more than other people, take opportunities to stamp their feet. It took me a while to learn to stop being nonplussed by this. I can still see myself, still learning, standing with my mouth open on the streets of Dublin with my mouth open.
Film ruthlessness operated just outside the circle of the camera and the sound recording. Inside this circle, civility glowed all around. Outside it, there was often as much discourtesy and trivial bullying as could be crammed in to a project on which nothing serious ever went wrong. I got into trouble for driving through Dublin the quickest way rather than the motorway way (I’m from Dublin; I know things). Ioanna and I got into trouble for not breaking every speed limit getting to Belfast when there was no reason to get there before the following morning. Ioanna got into trouble for the fact that Irish pubs do not take bookings: you’re supposed to make them regardless. For the fact that Cassandra left equipment in a Howth hotel: you’re not supposed to let her. For, often, being there, being young, being badly paid.
Anyway, there we were, the two of us in the middle of it all smelling the atmosphere and, I suppose, starting to sleepwalk. It’s a good way to avoid punching people - that and taking notes.