Today is not Father’s Day, but I always think of my father at Easter. He hated Father’s Day with a particularly venomous passion anyway, just like he hated any crap Hallmark holiday manufactured to make people buy stupid cards and pretend we’re all happy as Larry. My father was not Larry. He was an artist, and a flawed romantic. He could make really excellent case for being a witty, boozy, happy go lucky raconteur, and a lot of the time that’s what he was, too.
He was a deeply sentimental man at times as well, who loved dogs and cats and old movies – and he was madly and utterly in love with my mother all his life. But it was the spaces in between, sometimes pretty dark, that made him both interesting, heart breaking and a man who ended up that figure that Joni Mitchell described so well when she wrote, “all romantics meet the same fate … “
I think of him at Easter because potentially, it’s an opportunity to have one of those “Happy Family” occasions, although in our house certainly not much to do with Jesus, whom my father had interesting respect for, despite hating the Catholic church. Easter 2003 I was studying in NUIG, and instead of joining my parents for Sunday dinner, I chose to stay down in Galway and study. Whatever. Eight days later my father was dead, and so while we probably wouldn’t have had a Hallmark Easter holiday, we might have shared a drink for the road …
Artistically, he came a generation ahead of his time, which is about the bottom line of it, I think. In the sixties and seventies, there was absolutely no funding for film as art in Ireland. There was the Abbey Theatre and everybody better be bloody grateful for that, thank you very much. Not to disparage in any way the amazing actors and artists associated with the Abbey, of course. But film makers struggled dreadfully, with the only government funding made available often limited to government-sponsored road-safety films or public service productions.
My father, who had cut his teeth firstly as a photographer for the Irish Tourist Board, then portrait photographer for the Gate and Abbey Theatres (my Godfather was the splendid actor, Denis Brennan), then went on to work with Colm O’Laoghaire on the old Gael Linn newsreels. He did an amazing job tearing around the country covering everything from the famous Aer Lingus plane crash in the Shannon estuary to President Kennedy’s visit in 1963. He was a master of his craft, he knew still and cinematic cameras, he did a lot of his own editing and was quite the perfectionist when it came to the end product.
In the late sixties, he did several road trips around the United States, where his little brother Cyril was working in New York in real estate and as a pretty fine watercolour artist. There he made contacts that at one point opened an opportunity to him that he really wanted to take – to go to Viet Nam to work as a freelance cameraman – but although my mother says he considered this with certain passion at the time, in the end, with herself and two and kids at home, that romantic idea never came to pass. Probably for the same reason, on another occasion, he had the opportunity to go and work in London, but he made a decision to stay in Ireland and try to make his own independent films.
His two most interesting legacies are a documentary made in 1969 called, “An t-Oileanach a d’Fhill – Return of the Islander” which was a piece that explored emigration, indigenous industry and the hope that was burgeoning in Ireland with the 60s in full swing and the turn of the decade possibly promising a better time ahead. The cast were all native Aran Islanders, and the soundtrack was in the Irish language. With its innovative storyline framed in the guise of documentary, it was the first of its kind in Ireland. It won an award at the Cork Film Festival, was long-listed for one of those film categories you never get to see in the abbreviated version of the Oscars.
The second was an extraordinary urban odyssey that he undertook with his long time friend and colleague Brendan Halligan, called “Capital City – Dublin”. At the time when the right wing political party in power at the time were claiming how great they’d been handling the country, he and Halligan went walkabout around Dublin city and filmed grainy, no-holds barred footage of a city in ruins. It has been described by poet Dermot Bolger as “bereft of sentimentality in its depiction of parts of the city that look more derelict than if they had been left in ruins in the aftermath of a war.” Both films will be available on new commercial DVD release this year, and if you like, watch this space for details.
Film shoots, Arriflex cameras, camera and sound crews – all part of the youth of myself and my brother, who unfortunately wasn’t around when my father took off out of this mortal coil in somewhat typical fashion: with a massive heart attack. A big heart and a big personality – sometimes gigantic. Sometimes terrifying. Sometimes just a very slow, soft breath. These days there are plenty of trendy terms for artistic types who run from zero to a million in various time-frames and patterns. I know what my father would have said to all of them.
To quote my friend Emer Martin mis-quoting Paul Durcan (I think): “every family has a mad Uncle Jim” except that in ours, mad Uncle Jim was my father.
His quirky, anarchic streak might best be described by an incident forever engrained in my memory. One Whit Sunday, I remember, in a keen bid for a Happy Family holiday, my mother had booked us into a caravan site in Brittas Bay, Co. Wicklow, where the neat little white seaside caravans were lined up in rows, emulating the neat, white suburban houses that the holidayers, according to my father, all came from.
We were supposed to stay until Monday, but after Sunday lunch, my father, who was sitting in a deck chair observing the Happy Families at their picnic tables outside their little white caravans, began to get stroppy. He began to slag off every nice Daddy, miniature picket fence, and finally – the straw that broke the camel’s back – he spotted two garden gnomes on the miniature lawn outside one of the caravans. That did it. Long weekend or no long weekend, he was not staying a moment longer. We packed up, got in the car. My mother was not happy. My little brother was mystified. But then, right in the middle of the huge field where all the caravans were arrayed, my father suddenly stopped the vehicle and got out. He stood with his arm over the car door, and roared at the top of his lungs: “YOU’RE ALL FUCKING MAD!!”
Then he threw himself back in the car, cracking up laughing. While me and my brother were, I think, a bit gob-smacked, as I looked over to my mother to check for her outrage, I saw she was laughing her heart out full blast too, and she threw a sort of naughty “what about your Daddy, huh?” look into the back seat at me. It was a small epiphany for a sulky near-teenager; it proved that despite everything, my mother was pretty much madly and utterly in love with him all her life, too.
A number of words might come to mind when I think of my father. He would probably, as one friend said, be quite happy to be referred to as a “mad bastard” – although mostly in that in fond, Irish use of the phrase. He could be difficult and dictatorial – as, I suppose is the nature of the beast, and my own interactions with him were often not the best, to be kind about it. Sometimes in the years before his death, he’d display a nasty conservatism that belied the generosity of spirit he once had.
But instead of that version of my father, there is also the image of a handsome, idealistic young man nuts about film who wanted to make films and channel a keen photographic eye into beautiful moving images and have them screened and appreciated and all that other stuff that film artists want.
I’d raise a glass for him today, except that I don’t drink any more. Sometimes, at the end, I used to try keep up with him in his own glass-raising, but he wouldn’t stand for it. Most of the time he would brook nobody apart from other hard-chaws that might also be perched, in some inevitably dark bar (I think Joni only wrote “café” so the line would scan), the darker the better.
But when I look at his work – from his early photographs, the negatives of which have been lost along the way, to the films which he more or less made the way he wanted to make film …
Well, I don’t know. There is no way to end this blog post, really, that I can think of.