'There really was a garda who got caught smuggling contraceptives over the Border'
My Left Foot screenwriter Shane Connaughton has returned to his Cavan roots for his follow-up to 1989 novel A Border Station. He tells Andrew Lynch his one regret is that his parents never saw the success after years of 'play-acting'
When Shane Connaughton's screenplay for My Left Foot secured an Oscar nomination in 1989, he found himself rubbing shoulders with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. By a happy coincidence, the Cavan man's first novel, A Border Station, based on his early life as the son of a garda sergeant, had just been published to great acclaim. "I would have a copy with me when I met people like Gregory Peck and Denzel Washington, or all the studio heads," he recalls, "and they would say, 'Oh my God, this guy's a real writer!'"
Connaughton's bright and spacious study at his house in west Dublin leaves no doubt on that score. It is filled with memorabilia from a busy literary career, including film posters, theatre programmes and a framed commendation that he once received from Cavan County Council. Despite all these plaudits, however, the 76-year-old admits to one deep and lingering regret.
"All the real success came after my parents had died," he says, visibly emotional at the thought. "I wasn't able to help them. I still have letters that my father wrote to me when I was an actor in England, but I can't read them because they break my heart."
Connaughton is a dapper, expansive and impeccably courteous man, far sprightlier than his age might suggest. Although decades of living across the water have left him with an anglicised accent, his speech is filled with Irish vernacular: "eejit", "ah, sure", "that'll be grand". A trained thespian, he often puts on a different voice when recalling old acquaintances or jumps up from the sofa to act out an anecdote.
We are primarily here to discuss Connaughton's long-awaited follow-up to A Border Station (which itself has been republished in a new edition). Just like its predecessor, Married Quarters is both a thinly fictionalised memoir and a powerful portrayal of the social tensions that defined 1950s Ireland. The sergeant's son is now a teenager, becoming aware of his sexuality and learning life lessons from various gardaí who pass through the town barracks.
"As Clive James said about his autobiography, everything in this book is true except the facts," Connaughton declares. "Only the names and a few details have been changed.
"There really was a garda who got caught smuggling contraceptives across the border. There really was another who stumbled drunk into the circus ring singing 'The Banks of My Own Lovely Lee' after Cork won a Munster hurling final. There really was a local man who went into the shop and asked for the Anglo-Celt, heard there was no newspapers because it was Good Friday, then walked straight into a barn and hanged himself. I witnessed all these things and they had a profound effect on me."
From an early age, Connaughton realised that being part of a garda family meant constantly having to say goodbye. "When I was 10, my father got a promotion and we all danced for joy. But that meant moving from Kingscourt to Redhills and I left my school, my friends, the whole community behind me. There was a terrible sense of loss."
How long did he take to get over it? "I don't think I ever have."
Connaughton senior was an upright, tough but fair-minded Galway man who had joined An Garda Síochána shortly after its formation in 1922.
"Ireland meant so much to him," Shane recalls. "He was completely devoted to protecting the new State and he found it hard when the younger generation of guards didn't share that same idealism. The garda scandals today would have just horrified him."
Married Quarters depicts Redhills as a lively but harsh community, inhabited by many emotionally repressed people whose chief outlets were violence or drink. Connaughton often came into contact with IRA men who arrived as turkey pluckers at Christmas and "stood out a mile because of their Limerick accents".
His primary school was "absolutely horrible", ruled by a paedophile teacher who hit one pupil so hard that the boy later died.
Despite all these hardships, Connaughton's happy memories of his home county far outweigh the bad ones. "We were rich in everything but money. Being so close to the Border, the station was extremely busy. I played football, went on drag hunts, watched my father arrest criminals - there was always something interesting happening.
"As Married Quarters shows, I was a very optimistic and warm-hearted boy. But I knew there were big opportunities for me out in the wider world. The guards taught me to be as daring as they were - I realised that you couldn't pussyfoot through life if you wanted something badly enough."
Connaughton's instincts were fully vindicated. He left Ireland at 17 to join the Royal Air Force, but was soon seduced by the bright lights of London and trained as an actor instead. He proudly shows me a press review of his stage debut in a Seán O'Casey play which praises him for an "accent you could cut with a butter knife".
"My friends and I became obsessed by the theatre. We would go to every show in the West End, sometimes sneaking in at the interval if we couldn't afford tickets. I slept out all night once just to see Laurence Olivier play Othello."
Connaughton's own acting CV included a stint as an Irish gypsy in Coronation Street during the late 1960s. "My very first scene was with the formidable Ena Sharples and I dried up completely." Corrie stars frequented the same pub as Manchester United players and Shane once had a drink with George Best - but as a keen observer of human drama, his chief memory is watching a barmaid who served them instantly sacked for fiddling the till.
Connaughton took roles in films directed by Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, wrote several plays - including one for Britain's National Theatre - and penned a screenplay called The Dollar Bottom that won an Oscar for Best Live Action Short in 1981. "But to my father, none of that was serious work. He always called it play-acting."
By that time, Sergeant Connaughton had retired to the 25-acre property near Finglas where we are sitting today, in "a bungalow that we turned into a bungle-high".
"He was still incredibly sharp. When some young fellas robbed the house one day, he just cycled down to the village and talked them into incriminating themselves. Just like the detective in Crime and Punishment, he understood that you could trap criminals by letting on to be a bumbling old fool."
My Left Foot, Connaughton's moving biopic of the disabled writer and painter Christy Brown, raised his profile to a whole new level. He claims to have got the job "completely by accident", walking into a Dublin pub just as the producer Noel Pearson was loudly demanding, "Who could write the script?" He took care not to sentimentalise the famously short-tempered Brown and was delighted with Daniel Day-Lewis's Oscar-winning portrayal, but reserves his highest praise for Brenda Fricker (who played Brown's mother) - "a wonderful person on and off the screen".
In Connaughton's own words, the success of My Left Foot allowed him to "bring Hollywood to Redhills". He wrote two further screenplays that were filmed there, The Playboys and The Run of the Country (based on his own novel), both starring Albert Finney as a policeman. "When I saw the local children running on to the village green, looking exactly like their parents who I had gone to school with all those years ago…" His eyes moisten again. "It was one of the highlights of my life."
Although Connaughton went on to adapt books by Maeve Binchy (Tara Road) and Colm Tóibín (The Blackwater Lightship) for the big screen, in recent years he has become tired of turning out scripts that never receive the necessary financial backing. A film version of A Border Station was recently put on hold when its producer died ("I still live in hope it will happen"), while he is also trying to raise support for a television drama about William Shakespeare.
The idea of retirement holds no interest for him. In 2012, he toured GAA clubs with his play The Pitch, the true story of a man from home who never psychologically recovered from being sent off in a club championship match. He has also been working on another novel-come-memoir about his experiences in England, provisionally titled Green All the Way. He expects to die one day like Charles Dickens, pen in hand, "although I'd love to see Cavan win another All-Ireland first".
For now, Connaughton is looking forward to the publication of Married Quarters with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. "But it doesn't really matter because I wrote this book for my children and grandchildren," he concludes. "When I show it to them, I can say, 'This is where I come from and exactly what it was like.' I'm proud to say that I can stand over every word."
Married Quarters is published by Doubleday Ireland