Tale of a visible darkness
Fleeing the chaos and violence of his alcoholic wife, jazz musician Jim McKay was forced to raise his two sons alone in Dublin. Now, his Emmy-winning son Niall has made a documentary of their journey, and tells Emily Hourican how his gentle, determined father helped them to survive the storm
'My mother is a natural protagonist; it would have been natural for me to try and make a film about her. But I just really wanted to make something that was kind of a tribute to my father. These people who get up every day, get their kids off to school, you kind of forget about them, about these types of stories." And so Niall McKay has made an absorbing, charming and deeply touching, though sometimes slightly bleak, documentary about his father. Jim McKay is a former champion swimmer and jazz bass player who has played on the Late Late Show and at the Cork Opera House, who was the "go-to guy" for all the jazz greats who played in Dublin, but whose greatest achievement was probably bringing up two sons alone in Dublin in the Seventies and Eighties.
A Song For Dad has been four years in the making, and was the first film Niall started, although in the interim he has completed several more, one of which, Sikhs in America, won an Emmy award in 2008 for Best Historic/Cultural Programme.
Now based in the San Francisco area, where he is founder and director of the San Francisco Irish Film Festival and founder of the Los Angeles Irish Film Festival, McKay is originally from Wicklow. He was first a journalist, writing about science and technology for the Irish Times, New York Times, Wired magazine and the Economist before turning to filmmaking. He has made documentaries about Northern Ireland and climate change, directed drama for Spanish-language cable TV in the States, and produced Irvine Welsh's short film, Nuts, but nothing has been so extremely personal, and so revelatory, as A Song For Dad.
The film traces the steps of Jim's journey home from Zurich -- where he has been living with Anna, his second wife, "the love of his life", who died tragically of breast cancer just a year after the marriage and three years after they met -- to Wicklow, where he plans to try and reshape a life for himself after an absence of almost 20 years; picking up the threads of his jazz sessions and trying to come to terms with a greatly changed Ireland.
Along the way, as Niall helps Jim pack up and move out, there is a slow reconstruction of the details of Niall's childhood. It's a cycle-of-life type of film, providing a portrait of a family torn apart by their mother's drinking and mental health problems, but welded together by the gentle, low-key determination of Jim, while along the way branching out into Niall's own internal debate around marriage and children.
"He's somebody to whom things happen," says Niall of his father, and indeed there is a kind of gentle passivity to the film, but there is also plenty of winning strength and humour. Asked if he has any tips for fatherhood, Jim responds after some thought: "The jazz approach is better than the classical approach. No straight lines ... you have to busk it."
Looking at the photos of Pauline McKay, Niall's mother, it's easy to see what Niall means when he describes her as "a natural protagonist". She stands right out of the old black-and-white photographs thanks to her vivid good looks -- clear-skinned, bright-eyed, challenging. But by the time Niall, aged seven, left with his father, her drinking and shocking bouts of anger were beyond control. Her diagnoses were manic depression and alcoholism; and the manifestation of those afflictions within the family meant chaos and violence.
"It was a horrific night," Jim recalls in the film, of the episode that finally drove him away. "She was a very sick woman. She smashed up my hi-fi with a hatchet and chopped up my old bass into pieces." Afraid of what he might do -- "I thought I might kill her or something" -- Jim chose to leave, taking Niall, whose older brother was away at boarding school, and running out with just what they stood up in. From there, he raised the boys on his own, while enduring a protracted court battle, something that inevitably marked the family out as "different" in the Dublin of the Seventies and Eighties.
Asked about it now, Niall shrugs slightly: "You know what Ireland is like. To be any way different feels wrong, so you look at other people's families and you think, they've got a happy family, they're all sitting round, drinking tea or whatever. But my dad and myself and my brother spent real time together, and you go through that, and you think, actually, I was the lucky one. I've got lots of friends who come from very nice homes who are not very close to their parents."
It's a closeness that seems, in the film anyway, to slightly exclude Niall's older brother -- as though the age gap somehow kept him out of the magic circle that so clearly surrounds Niall and his father. "My brother is four years older, so he had a much tougher time," Niall responds, choosing his words with care. "He went through a much tougher time. She was a lot crueller to my brother, I think."
Throughout the film there is this slow excavation of family history, propelled along by hints of tragedy as much as the unfolding of Jim's highly likeable personality. Having recovered her equilibrium and stopped drinking thanks to a spiritual experience at the age of 37, Pauline then killed herself, after living for years with excruciating head pains that no medication could help. It was to Niall, who by then was living in London, that she addressed her suicide note. "We had become friends," he says now. "I didn't see her much between ages 7 and about 18, when I went to college. Then, I lived in Ranelagh and she lived on Leeson Street; we became friends and I saw a lot of her."
In a piece he wrote for this paper shortly after her death, Niall describes the dawning realisation that she had done what she had by then threatened several times, "I was frightened and exhilarated, and relieved," he admitted, with searing honesty. In the documentary, during one of the quiet, profound chats between father and son, he reiterates this. "I felt relieved. I cared for her, she was my mother, but what could I do?" It seems both father and son have been buffeted by a force maybe more elemental than their own, but they have survived it, finding a safe port in each other.
These days, Niall is well established in the US, with a busy schedule that still yields time for regular trips home to see his father and brother. Have things changed since winning the Emmy? "Film is like journalism, you're spinning plates all the time, and now we've got several plates spinning. It takes a while to build up that momentum." Would he ever think of coming back to Ireland? "I always plan to move back, it just never happens," he laughs. Life, as they say, gets in the way.
A Song For Dad was filmed slowly, organically, over years. "I would come home two or three times a year, make a little bit more, go back, see what I had. I was chipping away at it constantly." However, getting it across the line took "a number of things to come together. RTE finally committed, the Film Board finance kicked in. I submitted it the first time, they didn't like it, I submitted it again, they still didn't like it, I submitted it yet again, and they liked it. If you walk off with your tail between your legs in this business, you're finished."
And even while he was deep into the process, Niall "had no idea" how it would finish. In fact, he himself gets married -- after perhaps the most fumbling, indirect, over-intellectualised proposal ever, all secretly caught on camera.
It seems almost a miracle that his girlfriend, Marissa Aroy, with whom he also works, accepts (at first she thinks he's breaking up with her). But she does, and Jim travels over to the States for the wedding. While there, he suffers a bad stroke the night before the ceremony, making a slow though ultimately effective recovery. There is in this recovery a small message of hope and survival that makes A Song For Dad shine brightly; it's the enduring power of an unassuming man.
A Song For Dad, RTE One, Tuesday, 10.35pm