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The road most travelled

Luke McManus spoke to David Hennessy about his documentary film North Circular about the North Circular Road in Dublin, a documentary musical that also tells the story of Ireland’s history encompassing themes such as colonialism, institutionalisation and the current issues of homelessness and gentrification.

An award-winning documentary musical that travels the length of Dublin’s fabled North Circular Road evoking narratives from the history of the city and nation is coming to Irish Film and TV UK’s festival this month.

The documentary North Circular ponders themes such as colonialism, mental health, the struggle for women’s liberation and the effects of gentrification.

Dublin’s North Circular Road defines the working-class north inner city as it curves from the Phoenix Park in the West to Dublin Bay in the East, passing parks, barracks, asylums, stadia and prisons along the way.

Told with musical interludes from musicians such as Lisa O’Neill and Gemma Dunleavy, the film takes its audience from the Phoenix Park to Dublin Port but also through the history of Dublin and Ireland exploring the history, music and streetscapes of a street that links some of the country’s most beloved and infamous places.

Winner of many awards, the film engages with urgent issues of today, including the issue of homelessness and the battle to save the legendary Cobblestone Pub, centre of Dublin’s recent folk revival, from destruction at the hands of cynical property developers.

It also reflects on Ireland’s dark past with institutionalisation.

North Circular is Luke McManus’ debut documentary film as director and describes it as a personal film.

Luke also pays credit to the editing of John Murphy who won the IFTA Award for Irish-language feature An Cailín Ciúin (The Quiet Girl) which has also gone on to award-winning success.

North Circular is an ensemble documentary featuring disparate, marginal urban characters, which explores numerous themes and histories as it progresses along the street.

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Luke McManus told the Irish World where the idea came from: “It’s a funny one because I come up with a new answer for this every time someone asks me because there’s a lot of different origin points.

“Ultimately, I live in that community.

“I actually live in Grangegorman, and I’m 20 doors down from the North Circular Road, and a long time ago, it occurred to me that all the things that the street connects had incredibly powerful resonance, places of Irish cultural history.

“And then I ended up working with the band Lankum on the video for Cold Old Fire- Actually one of them lived across the road from me, that’s sort of how it all happened- And it featured unaccompanied singing and the new wave of Irish folk music.

“So I was like, ‘I’d love to something in that world again’.

“They were two separate projects, and then I kind of realised slowly, it dawned on me that could be the style in which you tell one story, so they kind of merged together.”

Described as a documentary musical, Luke says: “The use of music as a specific technique of storytelling is both an aesthetic and editorial decision – to make a new innovative form of documentary which combines the musical and the factual film in a way that isn’t simply a documentary about music but is more a documentary musical, a form that reflects the traditional of musical storytelling and narrative in Dublin that began with Peader Kearney and Dominic Behan and that continues with Lankum, John Francis Flynn and Gemma Dunleavy today.

“The use of black and white imagery reiterates the connection between the values and culture of the past and those of today – there is a timeless quality to the challenges that face our characters with yesterday reflecting in their eyes as they live their present lives.

“There are numerous themes, characters and issues bubbling beneath the surface of the North Circular Road when you walk along it.”

The film shows how gentrification has impacted the traditional music community in Dublin with the pub The Cobblestone being threatened with closure.

“I think one of the themes in the film is the ghosts of the past and how they inform the lives of the present.

“It’s in pretty good nick, trad and folk music around here, and I wouldn’t certainly wouldn’t say it’s being endangered- I mean, it’s endangered by gentrification but it’s managed to push back and resist and keep growing.

“I suppose that idea of the story of buildings should be told is a very big thing in the film.

“And sometimes that’s a bleak story, but sometimes it’s an optimistic story as well, you know?

“It’s important to understand how complex life in a city can be.”

One woman in the film makes the statement that her community has been killed by development remarking that there will be no community in the new apartments like there was in the flats that were there before. Luke sees it differently.

“It’s true (that big business can threaten community) but I’m not sure that woman’s right.

“That’s her truth, that the community that she was part of was taken apart, but saying that there won’t be a community there in the future, to me seems overly pessimistic.

“I think that sense of loss, whether it’s individual loss or personal bereavement or the passing of an older order, that’s definitely something that keeps resonating throughout the film but then when you get to the end and you see Kellie Harrington and Gemma Dunleavy, these women who are young and they’re very confident in their own abilities to be outstanding and they manage their own lives and they’ve pursued autonomy, they’ve slipped out of the shackles.

“It’s like Gemma says, ‘The fire is burning’.

“So you go down the road and it’s kind of like the history of Ireland.

“You start with the empire as represented by the British Army and then you go through the revolutions, the land war and the uprising and then you have institutionalisation and the dysfunction that comes from that, but then eventually you have this great celebration.”

Were you trying to tell Ireland’s story with one road? “I just said, ‘F**k it, I’ll go for it’.

“And that whole thing about the history sort of emerged as we were making it, that this was a way of looking at the history of the city in its totality.

“The original idea, which is still there, is to have eight chapters and they have eight themes.

“So you have empire, madness, religious belief, becoming strangers, imprisonment, all these things are there thematically but then when I put them all together, you kind of go, ‘There’s sort of a chronology there as well’.

“And you go from the old man at the start with the bagpipes all the way to the young women at the end, kind of reversing back through the generations.”

Some subjects share some heart wrenching stories like the squatter who tells of a man living where he is before him and how he was reaching out for help in his final days but unable to reach anyone.

Séan Ó Túama tells of how he saw his twin brother kill his own father.

“Yeah, Sean is such an amazing character.

“He’s been through something terrible but what I admire about him is his resilience and his good humour.

“He’s been through an unimaginable trauma and obviously it scarred him but he’s still standing on the street corner having the craic with the local people and cracking jokes.

“He’s someone who’s able to make a kind of a life for himself.

“So in a way even though it is a very sad story, he kind of inspires me in a funny way and I think ultimately the film is about the power of human connection and how difficult it can be to be lonely.

“So the squatter, he lives very isolated to the point of reaching a pretty dreadful point of loneliness whereas Sean at least gets out and he’s having the banter with the shoppers, the passers by and all that, that’s what keeps him going: A sense of community and belonging and a sense of connection.”

The film deals with the modern issue of housing and homelessness with the squatter being a stark symbol of how many cannot afford to live in Dublin anymore.

“Without a doubt (people can’t afford to live in Dublin).

“Funny enough I’m doing a three part series about homelessness and I’m kind of on a journey deeper into that issue and that community at the moment.

“I think if people look at Dublin in 2022 and ask what’s happening, the housing crisis is what people would say to you on the street and in a weird way, it is sort of a sign of success.

“I know that sounds terrible but when you have that many people wanting to live in Dublin and there’s so much work and there’s so many opportunities that people can’t afford to live somewhere, it’s sort of the reverse of what it was back in the 1980s when I was a teenager.

“It’s a funny one.

“But it is in a really, really bad place without denying it, housing. And the divide between those who have secure housing and those who don’t is probably the biggest divide in the whole community now in my view, between the people who are suffering the anxiety of cripplingly high rents or the lack of security of just having your own place.

“It’s a really, really tough situation and what happened with The Cobblestone during the making of the film was a gift to a filmmaker because it tied together that sort of anxiety and it knitted it into the culture that I was interested in and also the sense of tradition and belonging.

“When I started making the film, there was no sign of that. That just popped up.”

The film shows passionate protests against the sale.

“That was amazing and I gotta be honest, I rocked up expecting 20 people and then there was a thousand. I was like, ‘Wow’.

“There’s actually two protests in that footage a week or two weeks apart and I kind of mushed them together into one.

“The second one happened around the time of Halloween so you had this sinister carnival, lads in weird costumes. That sort of tied into the aesthetic of the film perfectly, that kind of folk horror vibe that has been conjured up in the film.

“Anyone that makes a documentary has to be really lucky. That’s the truth. Luck has to smile on you.”

The film features Gemma Dunleavy, who has been interviewed in The Irish World before and spoken passionately about Sheriff Street in Dublin and the community around there.

“Gemma was in the project from the very start.

“I remember hearing Up De Flats, loving it.

“She’s super clever. She looks amazing on camera.  She’s one of these well rounded people who is a musician, a writer, a producer, a businesswoman, a dancer, she can probably turn her hand to anything.

“She’s just got the charisma, intellect and the drive. So I knew she was doing her homecoming gig during the time I was filming and it was an emerging from COVID-19 kind of show as well.

“In fact, that’s the sort of subtext of the whole film as well, the idea of the pandemic and that kind of moment when people were realising they could be together again and how heavy that was because they hadn’t been allowed to do it.

“So her gig had that kind of thing going on a little bit.”

Something else that features is sport with crowds seen heading to Croke Park and on the terraces of Dalymount Park. Luke points out there is also cricket at the start.

“I’m a huge sports fan and I’ve done a lot of sports documentaries, about things like Gaelic football and rugby and horse racing.

“I’m very interested in what sport represents culturally and historically and what its resonances are within our society.

“I think in Irish society it is a particularly powerful force.

“I think we’re way more interested in sport than most cultures and there’s many reasons for that.

“But I think on a fundamental level with the gathering of people, I’m almost more interested in the audience, the spectator as I am the events on the pitch.

“You don’t see inside Croke Park.

“You don’t see any of the footballers at Dalymount.

“That idea of what a crowd is and what a group of fans are that really fascinates me.

“To be honest I put everything I’m obsessed with into this film.

“All my little preoccupations- Crowds, squatting, sport, these are all things I’ve been trying to make sense of for ages and I’ve put it all into this.”

The film ends with the joyous celebration of Kellie Harrington coming home with her Olympic gold.

This is apt perhaps for a film that looks at Irish history and how women were mistreated in institutions and silenced to show how they have now found their voice. In fact, it is only females that you hear from in the film’s last moments.

“I kind of like the idea, the last section of the film, you only hear women. You hear Ellen Rowley, you hear Lisa O’Neill, you hear Gemma Dunlevy, you see Kellie Harrington.

“There’s a feminine energy to the film’s closing section.”

What have the reactions been to the film from those who are part of it? “Just before I finished the film, I had to get Gemma in and that was pretty frightening because if she didn’t like it, that would have been very bad.

“She loved it and thank God.

“And then the same thing with Lisa O’Neill. There were certain people who were of such stature that you felt they had to see it and then a lot of people came to see it at the world premiere in Dublin. John Francis Flynn was at that, Ian Lynch and Dylan Lynch and Eoghan O’Ceannabháin,

“They were really positive about it.

“I think probably the most interesting thing was to show it to Séan Ó Túama himself because Sean’s nephew, who’s very close to him, came and saw the film and said, ‘Look, you’re gonna have to show it to Sean’.

“I went up to Sean’s place and said, ‘Look, do you want to watch the whole film or do you just want to watch your bit?’

“He goes, ‘I’ll just watch my bit’.

“So I sat there for 12 agonising minutes watching it with him and he turns around at the end and goes, ‘It’s excellent. You’ve captured me perfectly’.

“So I just went, ‘Thank God’.

“Because you really want people to feel that they have been represented fairly and honourably.

“The response has been really good.”

North Circular screens at 3pm on Sunday 24 March at Curzon Soho as part of Irish Film London Festival. Irish Film and TV UK’s St Brigid and St Patrick Festival runs until 28 March.

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