Funeral of David Trimble RTÉ News, Monday, noon
Nothing to Declare
RTÉ One, Tuesday, 10.35pm
The Dead Zoo
RTÉ One, Monday, 6.30pm
Cathair na Mílte Grian
TG4, Wednesday, 9.30pm
Watching David Trimble’s funeral on RTÉ Player with a dodgy internet connection was always going to be tricky.
At one point, forced to refresh for the umpteenth time, I was directed back to the dreaded ads. The sound of Queen’s Flash Gordon theme being used to sell some kitchen cleaner before the live feed returned to the church made for a strange dissonance.
But in a way, it was oddly reassuring to be reminded that life and death, the sombre and the ridiculous, are forever side by side.
A hard-headed refusal to take refuge in fake sentiment was evident in Lord Godson’s eulogy to Trimble.
It bluntly reminded viewers at home of the obstacles which republicans had put in the way of a settlement, as well as paying tribute to those in the Irish Republic – in particular those who had overcome those hurdles, such as former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, or who had helped Trimble sell the Agreement to his own people, not least Eoghan Harris, who wrote the Ulster Unionist leader’s famous acceptance speech after winning the Nobel Peace Prize. It was time to remember generously all who made it possible.
In Nothing to Declare, childhood friends Keith Byrne and Noel Murray recounted how, as 10 and 13 year olds respectively, they stowed aboard an Air India flight to New York during the school holidays in August 1985.
More impressively, the plane didn’t even depart from their home town of Dublin, but from Heathrow, to which they’d made their way on the ferry from Dún Laoghaire after promising Keith’s mum “yeah, ma, no bother” when she told him not to go far as his dinner was nearly ready.
“We were two little s***s,” admitted Noel, always “robbing, stealing food, bunking off”, but the show revelled exuberantly in their exploits, and rightly so.
The boys didn’t get through JFK quite so easily. Quickly rumbled, they were taken away by police.
The cops bought them T-shirts, took them on sightseeing tours, fed them “like lords”, and generally “looked after us”. The boys in return flogged the cops the jewellery they had shoplifted in Duty Free back in London.
Afraid they would get in trouble when they finally got home, Keith and Noel even planned to “jump off at Shannon”, but fell asleep and missed the stopover.
Nothing To Declare was deservedly crowned Best Short Film at the IFTAs, and this was its Irish premiere. Though the tone was gently amused and nostalgic, it was also an authentic portrait of a time when “there wasn’t great money in the country”.
It had a poignant finale too. Keith now has a good job, a nice house, a partner, and declared gratefully: “Life is very good, a big change from how I grew up.”
Noel didn’t fare so well. After being sent to a children’s home in Finglas, he spent more than 30 years as an addict, watching seven members of his family die prematurely from drugs. He was clean when this film was made, but clearly life hasn’t been easy.
Garret Daly, who directed, produced and wrote this film for his own Offaly-based Mixed Bag Media company, has made an absolute gem of a film, in which everything just gels beautifully.
The only shame is that it went out quite so late in the evening. It demands a repeat on prime time.
The Natural History Museum in Dublin closed in 2020 for renovations. The Dead Zoo looked at what’s been going on inside in the meantime, not least what restorers did with the two giant whale skeletons which have hung from the roof since the 1890s.
This delicate operation produced probably the best line of the entire documentary: “The whale dismantlers are coming.”
Sadly, that was as good as it got.
Many viewers seemed to love the programme. I’m delighted for them. But it was basically just an hour of people moving things from one place to another very slowly and carefully. Watching paint dry came to mind.
Even Brendan Gleeson, who can normally narrate anything and make it riveting, struggled to get much from a prosaic script.
The museum itself, Ireland’s oldest, is magnificent, but documentary making needs more than just pointing a camera at some people doing some stuff.
Cathair na Mílte Grian (City of a Thousand Suns) was a better example of how to hold attention.
This feature, which recently premiered at the Galway Film Fleadh, was variously described as “part poem, part elegy”, an “immersive cinematic pilgrimage”, even “a meditation on the impacts of war in the nuclear age”.
What did any of that mean?
Watching it, I was reminded of a wise quote from Elvis Costello: “Trying to describe music is like trying to dance to architecture.” Trying to describe a film like this in words is similarly futile. You just have to experience it.
It was a mesmerising work inspired by an Irish language poem in which a man wanders the streets of Dublin musing on the blast which destroyed Hiroshima.
Directed by Paula Kehoe, who was also behind the recent TG4 series on Irish women accused of witchcraft, An Diabhal Inti, it wove together some astonishing images, soundscapes and words to similarly haunting effect.
Co-directed, shot and edited by Feargal Ward, Cathair na Mílte Grian was a testament to the power of cinema itself to transform how we see the world, as well as to our shared humanity. This year is unlikely to deliver anything as potent or memorable. Every second of it sang.