Tuesday 21 November 2017

Film maker Patrick O'Neill on losing his mother: 'Nothing can prepare you for when they get taken away'

Film maker Patrick O'Neill tells us about his love of Yeats, becoming self-destructive to the point of suicidal when his mother died, and dating a Dutch supermodel

The searcher: Patrick O'Neill says,
The searcher: Patrick O'Neill says, "I have been a wannabe all my life." Photo: Arthur Carron.
Patrick's supermodel girlfriend, Frederique Van Der Wal
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Hell is empty, Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest, and all the devils are here. For Patrick O'Neill, the devils were all in his head when his mother died of cancer in July, 2012. "I was in hell. Total despair. Complete emotional and mental collapse. I hit alcohol very, very hard, to wipe out, literally. I became self-destructive - to a point of suicidal."

I ask him what kept him alive.

"Fuck knows. I really don't know. A lot of people weighed in to try to help but it is still not over. Nothing can prepare you for when it gets taken away," he says meaning his mother.

"Nothing can prepare somebody for that. I didn't have a family. I didn't have a mortgage. I didn't have the responsibilities of the real world. So I guess a lot of my emotional life was invested into my family, into my mother and my father."

Patrick's relationship with his mother - who was diagnosed with a brain tumour in April, 2012 - was, unsurprisingly, "very close. She was very intuitive, very sensitive. We spent a lot of time together."

Before she became ill, Patrick recalls, there were many intimate times when "we would go for walks together as friends with me trying to celebrate the young girl in her because she was a typical woman of her generation. She had self-sacrificed for her family," he says of Hanna 'Min' Godley from Kerry who married Donal O'Neill and had three children, Patrick, Don and Deirdre. "I don't know," he muses after a moment in thought, "we are supposed to be individuals; we're supposed to be strong; we're supposed to strike out on our own, and all the natural things in the world that are probably very commonplace to many people, I wasn't capable of. Too much maybe romanticism."

Asked how he processed his mother's death, Patrick - who is here to promote his new film The Uncountable Laughter Of The Sea - says: "I didn't. I am still processing it. This film is kind of addressing that. It is not played out graphically in the film but I am in the film. There is a character walking around the film, which is me, but never talking to camera, or looking to camera. Just a figure that is wandering. And that is really a trope or paean to seeking consolation and not necessarily getting it. It is set within the splendour of Kerry."

"The film is loaded with metaphors," he adds. "It is on some levels a very simple film. An exploration of the ordinary world of nature, which of course is sacred. I feel that the only difference between the ordinary and the sacred is where 'you' are at in 'your' consciousness.

"The film is a revelation of that which is always there - the sacred and the sublime, these coalesce when we learn to tune ourselves with effort and time, then one would hope to become a better human being to oneself and to others."

The Uncountable Laughter Of The Sea - loosely based on an 89-year-old Kerry priest - is, says Patrick , "about how Father Padraig has lived his life and how I aspire to live my life but don't; I'm a failure."

Born on February 12, 1971, Kerry film-maker Patrick O'Neill is a poet and former singer in two rock bands, Jude, and A Planeful Of Whores ("It was a typical vanity - I wanted to be front man of a band" ). He was also involved in fashion ("I was a founder member in London of a movement entitled 'United Aliens'.")

Patrick O'Neill is someone whose head probably hurts from too much lyrical philosophising of an evening. Indeed, he reminds me of that Bono quote about "having too much to think last night."

"I have lived the vanities. I love history. I know the deal - from Caligula to Caesar to Cicero to Marcus Aurelius," Patrick says, as the fellow habitues of The Shelbourne hotel, where Patrick and I are having lunch, start to wonder just who is in their midst talking like he has just been beamed down from another planet. . .

"I get it. I have made all the mistakes. I was once voted by Tatler Magazine one of top 100 eligible men in the UK. The vanity of wanting to be: I have been a wannabe all my life. I've done poetry books, I've fronted bands, films. Yet something is missing about who I am."

It would take probably a few more interviews with Patrick O'Neill to work out precisely who he is. Even a simple query like childhood memories elicits this response: "I don't have very many childhood memories. My brother does," he says referring to his older brother Don O'Neill, the Irish fashion designer in America whose label Theia is much favoured by Oprah Winfrey, Rebel Wilson et al.

"My brother is a beautiful person both inside and out. He is kind and good fun. He is playful and talented. I love him dearly. He has ten-point accurate memories of being with his grandmother and his mother. I don't. I have very few."

Did he block them out? "No idea. Even I look at photographs of myself as a child, I have no connection with the character in the photographs. I see a little blonde-haired boy," says Patrick, who is 44, "and I see his little hopes and his joie de vivre with a stray dog that strayed into the house when he was four years of age, and he was cuddling the dog."

Asked would he characterise his childhood as a happy one, he says: "Difficult to know." I ask him is he happy. "No - in strife and struggle. But I have plenty of moments of happiness." Patrick adds that he is more of a melancholic man by nature. "Ultimately," he says, "I have a very complicated mind. It doesn't let itself alone, necessarily. I was born with a natural, inquisitive, curious turn-over energy. Always turning over. Always seeking."

That natural disposition led Patrick towards the priesthood in Kiltegan when he was 18. What was he seeking - redemption, salvation or escape? "The lot. They're all the same. I was quite young. My spiritual director at the time said to me, 'My advice to you is you are very young. Go into the world. If you have a vocation, you'll be back.' I knew he was right." At the age of 21, Patrick, via reading poetry and via Yeats, began studying with the Rosicrucians - their theology is built on esoteric truths of the ancient past. He met an extraordinary poet at the Listowel Writer's Week in 1989.

"He was a Rosicrucian for 17 years, a sheep farmer in county Cork, a mystic - Donal an Greine. He was like an Irish William Blake. He had visions. He is dead now. He was a character in the corner of the room at the Listowel Writers' Week and he read a poem in the room with all these white-bread poets like myself who were toying around with words. He described himself as a rasher in a suit," says Patrick O'Neill, who looks like a heyday Ronnie Drew in a suit today.

"He was this gaunt figure with these tiny pupils for eyes, sitting there bedraggled, looking at everybody and when it came to his turn to quote his poem, it was off the charts. He was talking about the slates on a church belching electricity. I started talking to him afterwards and he took me for a drive in his blue Ford Escort. There was ancient moss growing on the floor of the car. As soon as I saw that, I had a feeling that he had no priorities when it comes to the material world. He became a mentor of mine and a friend."

What did he teach Patrick about life? "An Irish irrationality that is long, long gone."

He then says that "what Yeats was doing when he was looking at the Irish figurative language and comparing it to the Greek myths- and saying that the Irish myths were equally as powerful - that was incredible. He saw those myths as forces. Yeats was unbelievable. He was such a crazy, dynamite character."

I ask him what kind of character is Patrick O'Neill.

"A fuck-up. A poet. A pot-pourri. All my life I've been picking from other people. I've no necessary individual character."

On Friday, he flew to Amsterdam to meet up with his Dutch supermodel girlfriend Frederique van der Wal for her birthday. They met in New York in 2015 at a birthday dinner for the Italian artist Fabrizio Chiesa.

"She is an exceptional and powerful as well as beautiful woman," he says, adding that the Dutch named a flower after her - Frederique's Choice. "She is strong minded and deeply independent and utterly self made, strong willed with a brilliant sense of humour. . . very concerned for the environment and deeply respectful of people and very humble. She carries a lot of charisma everywhere she goes." They are rightly matched, so.

The Uncountable Laughter Of The Sea is on limited release in March.

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