Patrick O'Neill's turmoil in an Age of Aquarius
The Kerry filmmaker nearly became a priest, now his film will be shown at the Vatican. Donal Lynch spoke to him about grief and sex
A transcontinental road trip with a Catholic priest might sound like an unusual enough way to celebrate one's birthday - but trust me, filmmaker Patrick O'Neill doesn't do boring.
He rang in his 47th year recently by travelling from Ballyheigue in Kerry, where he is based, to Istanbul where, in the company of Father David Casey - "a high-cultured soul" - he took in the city's ancient magic and majesty.
"It is an incredible place, the meeting of east and western culture," Patrick says. "On the last morning I went to this restaurant called Kale under the bridge that connects Europe with Asia. The view was spectacular and I was making little bits of film and so on.
"We packed everything up and arrived at the airport but when we got there the check-in desk had closed - I had mixed up the times. I had to get a new flight but, to be honest, it was still worth it just to have that breakfast and see the place."
Given that O'Neill himself once spent time training to become a priest and that his best-known (and beautifully lyrical) piece of work - The Uncountable Laughter of The Sea - was narrated by the late Monsignor Padraig O Fiannachta, I wonder if this latest piece of clerical supervision spurred any remnants of a vocation in him?
"The irony is that, even all these years later, there is still that inner pull or gravity but I really couldn't go into the Catholic Church with all its absurd rules," Patrick responds.
"At the same time, Christianity is very powerful. Faith is a kind of existential anchor. When we lost my mother recently, it was consoling to see that my father believed they will one day be together again. Watching his example was amazing."
Patrick's mother, Hanna, passed away in 2012 from cancer and the grief hit him hard.
"I collapsed totally," he explains. "It brought up a lot of my own insecurities that were never dealt with. I'm an Aquarius with Leo rising so I have a great penchant for ideas and art and they can be kind of tent- poles for a person and when they got knocked the tent comes down on you and your real character was tested. She was a great support but there was a deep, emotional connection."
He sought professional help during that time but nothing really worked. "I had a lot of people trying to help, but it's kind of theoretical. I went to grief counselling. I was too deep in it for that to touch the sides. I was good at helping other people and they all thought I was the rock, but I wasn't," he said.
Patrick grew up the youngest child of three in Ballyheigue, Co Kerry. Each of his siblings was creative, Deirdre was a talented singer and Patrick's brother, Don, would go on to become a famous designer; his shimmering creations have been worn by everyone from Oprah to Taylor Swift.
"Both of my parents had this titanic, volcanic energy, there was so much teamwork and giving on their parts," Patrick says. "Don is more about the heart and imagination - I'm more imagination and angst. He doesn't have that, thank God, he is not tormented."
Patrick was not an academic child, he says. "I was a tearaway. A little raggedy troublemaker. After school everyone was going away to be a doctor or an accountant or a carpenter - I couldn't imagine doing any of those things. A priest made a presentation about joining the priesthood and that appealed to me."
In the end he completed only a year of training and was advised to go and live some life and see if the vocation drew him back. He went out and lived life with gusto. He joined a band, dabbled in the fashion world and was once voted one of the UK's most eligible bachelors by Tatler magazine. All of which begs the question: even if the vocation hadn't been shaky, would he not have found the celibacy requirement arduous?
"No, not at all. I had, I suppose, a fairly philandering lifestyle but I was in London at one stage in the midst of it all and I became celibate for about three years. Then I'd go and have a good time again and then put the brakes on and realise 'this is a bit moronic'.
"Of course there is a link between spirituality and sexuality. In some eastern religions there is the concept of the chakra - you move through each of the chakra colours by living life fully. If you just follow your cock, to put it crudely, you will get stuck."
He is not in a relationship at the moment, per se, but remains very close to his ex, Dutch supermodel Frederique van der Wal, who has appeared everywhere from Vogue magazine to the Victoria's Secrets show.
"She is an extraordinary person and a great Amazonian beauty," he says. "We're constantly in contact. We'll figure it out. She came to Ireland for the first time the day after the Irish premiere. The difficulty is just navigating a bi-coastal relationship."
The Uncountable Laughter of The Sea is a sort of filmic tribute to the life of Father Padraig - who is both the subject of the film and its narrator.
"Father Padraig was a master of the Irish language, a poet, philosopher, wit, and also a bit of a scamp. I wanted to do something as an homage to the landscape with him as our guide. He died in 2016 in Dingle.
"He came out to New York and we had a screening there, which was attended by Susan Sarandon. We also had a screening at Moma - which was a big deal for a small Irish film."
There is another screening of the film coming up on March 5 - in the Vatican. "Pope Francis wrote a ground-breaking piece about our relationship with nature. I took inspiration from that," Patrick explains.
"Bishop Paul Tighe is an Irishman and he is secretary to the Pontifical Council of Culture. He watched the film and loved it, and now the Irish ambassador to the Holy See, which we didn't have for a while, is a woman, Emma Madigan, who will host a Q&A afterwards on March 5."
Meanwhile, work has already begun on Patrick's latest project. "It's about a man called Ian Wright (a Cork-based sculptor and founder of the Irish Natural Forestry Association), who's planted two million native trees and has been taking authorities to court for 12 years, blocking millions in grants. I want to tell the story. I'm interested in ecology, and once again the Irish landscape is the subject."
The Uncountable Laughter of The Sea is available now on iTunes
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