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Dónall Ó Héalai: ‘Losing four stone helped me imagine what the famine was like’

The actor discusses his role in Tomás Ó Súilleabháin’s Arracht, which explores the plight of a farmer at the start of the Famine

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Dónall Ó Héalaí and Peter Coonan in Tomás Ó Súilleabháin's Arracht. Photo by Macalla Teo

Dónall Ó Héalaí and Peter Coonan in Tomás Ó Súilleabháin's Arracht. Photo by Macalla Teo

Saise Ní Chuinn and Dara Devaney in Arracht

Saise Ní Chuinn and Dara Devaney in Arracht

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Dónall Ó Héalaí and Peter Coonan in Tomás Ó Súilleabháin's Arracht. Photo by Macalla Teo

When you visit Connemara, and stand in a landscape dotted with ghost cottages and dead villages, it’s hard not to think about the Famine. Here and Mayo, Clare and south Kerry were the areas worst hit by the cataclysm, and the great majority of those who died would have been Irish speakers.

This linguistic truth adds to the power of Tomás Ó Súilleabháin’s film Arracht, which is set in 1845 as news of potato blight first spreads across the west.

Connemara man Colmán Sharkey (Dónall Ó Héalai) works the land and fishes off the coast to keep his young family alive, but when thugs come to his cottage making violent threats regarding arrears in rent, Colmán, his brother Seán (Eoin O’Dubhghaill) and an army deserter called Patsy (Dara Devaney) visit the local landlord (Michael McElhatton) to try and negotiate fairer terms.

The meeting goes badly, and violence ensues: Colmán finds himself in the frame for murder, and retreats to a small island off the Galway coast where he meets a luminous young orphan girl called Kitty (Saise Ní Chuinn), and teaches her how to survive the coming storm.

That little island becomes a kind of microcosm for the dreadful hardships much of Ireland is about to endure, and Ó Súilleabháin and his cinematographer Kate McCullough use the constantly shifting moods of the Connemara light to create a sombre, reflective mood.

Arracht means monster, and the monster here is not the landlord nor the indifferent British overseers nor the distant callousness of Westminster but the Famine itself, a headless, remorseless engine of terror about to cut a swathe through the poorest homes along the western seaboard.

This is not the first film to take on the great taboo of the Famine: that would be Black ‘47, Lance Daly’s swaggering 2018 action drama which re-imagined the dreadful event through the tropes of the western genre. If the abiding emotion in that film was anger, the prevailing mood in Arracht is one of sadness and melancholy.

And Dónall Ó Héalai is quite superb as Colmán, a man who keeps his emotions firmly in check and has the tools to deal with what’s coming. It must have been quite something, I tell him, making a film about the Famine in one of the locations where it was worst.

“You know it’s not often that you read something and think, God if I was born 170-odd years ago this could well be my story,” Ó Héalai tells me.

“So because of that there was obviously a tremendous connection to the story and the place, but you know, truthfully, I just really wanted to work with Tom again. I had the opportunity to work with him in 2013 on a short film called Sínte, and I think all of Tom’s stories have great heart.”

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The shoot itself, he says, was challenging. “Any time you’re rowing curraghs in the west of Ireland in October, it comes with its own difficulties, and were it not for the commitment of everyone involved, I think we might have been in trouble. The budget and shoot were very tight.”

Arracht was made for just €1.2m, a statistic that’s hard to credit when you watch the polished and moving finished result, a beautifully photographed film with a mythic feel and haunting, supernatural undercurrents.

Ó Súilleabháin had a very clear idea about the kind of film he wanted to make, and moved beyond the old historical blame game to imagine what the Famine might have been like from an individual point of view. “The Brit-bashing and the victim thing,” Ó Súilleabháin has said, “we need to move beyond that.”

And so, in Arracht, we have the existential struggle of one man thrown by circumstance into the teeth of the coming storm.

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Saise Ní Chuinn and Dara Devaney in Arracht

Saise Ní Chuinn and Dara Devaney in Arracht

Saise Ní Chuinn and Dara Devaney in Arracht

“I guess Colmán Sharkey is more a representation of an Irish person of the past,” Dónall says, “where previous generations had this inherent relationship with nature, the ability to nourish and heal yourself and live sustainably from the ocean and the land. He’s somebody who’s incredibly independent, you could drop him in any corner of the world and he’d likely survive. I don’t think violence is his first port of call, and yet he’s drawn into this business at the landlord’s house, and has to go on the run.”

In Arracht, the Famine proper has not happened yet: it’s 1845, and the western seaboard has no idea what lies ahead of it, yet through Colmán’s experiences on a tiny island we’re given a haunting glimpse of what Ireland’s future holds.

“When you don’t have a big budget or a lot of time,” Dónall says, “I think Tom’s choosing to focus on the individual was wise. It was an interesting prism to tell the Famine through, but I think that there’s great hope in the story too, even though it’s a story that takes place during that awful time. When I’ve watched the film back, Kitty’s character, brilliantly played by Saise Ní Chuinn, I think she really embodies hope in the film, and I think that was something Tom was really conscious of, how to tell this story in a way that captures the period authentically, and acknowledges the suffering, but also gives a glimmer of hope.”

Language is an important aspect of Arracht’s power, and the use of Irish gives the drama an undercurrent of veracity, a chilling closeness to distant historical events. “Yeah, I think the language is central to the integrity of the piece. I mean obviously it was the language spoken at the time, on a basic level, but many, many speakers were lost during the Famine, and the west coast was hardest hit. And I remember also Tom and I speaking about this idea of the absence of story and song about the Famine, this great silence that played out in the aftermath of 1847, 48, 49, and that was definitely central to the approach as well.”

Physical challenges

The film’s ominous, spiritually fractured mood is generated in large part by Kate McCullough’s bold cinematography. “The aesthetic of the film, it’s beautiful but it’s not pretty, it’s haunting, and catches a part of Connemara, Lettermullen, which hasn’t been captured on screen before, and that kind of granite and grit, it makes the film, to be honest. Kate just paints these pictures, and your job as an actor is just to stand there, or sit in it ­— she makes your job very easy.”

Not all that easy, one imagines: aside from the shoot’s physical challenges, Dónall lost a considerable amount of weight in preparation for the part. “Yes, Tom likes to say there was a great element of weight loss involved. I was starting at 15 stone or something, and it did me no harm, you know!
“But we did, yeah, we dropped a good bit of weight for it. I think it was about four stone in the end, or four-and-a-half, and I knew when the script was handed to me that it was obviously going to be very challenging. But when you get that type of opportunity as an actor to tell a story that means so much to you, you just grab that opportunity with everything you have, and truthfully the weight loss was a great in for me, with the character: it helped a lot in terms of imagining what it must have been like.”

His character, Colmán, always seems deep within himself emotionally, and though he’s not unkind, there’s a flintiness to him, a necessary toughness at all times.

“When you lived through that period, or at least this is how I imagined it, there must have been this unconscious callousness that manifests, as a form of protection. That’s what we do as humans, we’re great adaptors, Colmán certainly is, and in order to survive through that period in the west of Ireland, I think it took a certain kind of mindset.”

A million dead, a million scattered to foreign parts, a country changed indelibly ­­— the grim statistics will be familiar to anyone who went to school in this state. The weight of history must have been palpable, I imagine, on Arracht’s set.

“Yeah,” Dónall concludes, “there was moments towards the end of the shoot where you really felt it, but I had to be very careful I guess because my character, Colmán, would have had no idea that the Famine was unfolding in the way we now understand, and for him there would always have been hope that the next year’s crop would be better. When we think of the Famine today there’s this awful sense of finality about it, but that wouldn’t have been there for him. But yeah, there were moments when it would hit you: I remember looking at some cottages, and being struck by the awful things this place must have seen.”

‘Arracht’ is in cinemas now


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