Sunday 16 December 2018

Eugene O'Brien: Coming of age amid murders, a miracle and 'Ballroom of Romance'

A radio reference to the devastating winter of 1982 brought back vivid memories for Eugene O'Brien - some good, some bad... The recent storms and snow brought back distant but vivid memories - good and bad - for Eugene O'Brien

John Kavanagh and Brenda Fricker in ‘The Ballroom of Romance.
John Kavanagh and Brenda Fricker in ‘The Ballroom of Romance.

Eugene O'Brien

I begin writing this as the great blizzard of 2018 is about to happen. It bloody well better arrive now after the 'fall of Saigon' scenes I experienced in Tesco earlier. I should be working on a film treatment but somehow I have engineered it in my head that I can't really work today because of the weather.

Then my fellow faithful county native suggested I write a piece for him for this newspaper - maybe about Paddy's Day - and I couldn't think of anything really, except being brought to Dublin on cold wet days to watch the parades in the 1970s. Dour affairs with endless marching bands and majorettes and the odd float. In later life Paddy's Day meant getting drunk, playing England in the Six Nations and laughing at s**t Oirish films like Flight of the Doves and Far and Away.

So I'm gazing out at the snow swirling in the sky, waiting for the storm to really hit and avoiding both the Paddy's Day article and the film treatment, with the wireless issuing red warnings and travel chaos, when a voice comes on recalling the last time it was this meteorologically mental… 1982… and suddenly I'm tumbling down the rabbit hole… back in time… because 1982 is a year I remember vividly. A coming of age year.

Seamus Darby
Seamus Darby

I was 14 - and turned 15 in the October. I was beginning to see the world differently. Leaving the remnants of childhood behind. The year flashes in front of me now. Cycling to school in the snow and ice and the freezing prefabs - and then moving into the new St Mary's school, Edenderry, in the September of that year, to warm classrooms but less craic and indoor shoes and more rules but mixed classes and the thrill of managing to talk to girls that you'd only ever fancied from afar.

It was also World Cup year so, as we did the Inter Cert, Norn' Ireland beat Spain and Italy's Paolo Rossi, back after bribe charges, dumped everyone's favourites Brazil out with a hat-trick.

I was at Landsowne Road to see Ireland winning the Triple Crown and watched on telly the cocaine, vodka and coke-driven genius frame that Alex Higgins pulled off against Jimmy White in the semis on the way to winning the World Snooker Championship.

William Trevor
William Trevor

But by far the best for us was the Offaly football team defeating the mighty Kerry. I stood on the Canal End behind the goal, everyone wearing rain-sodden crepe paper hats with 'Up Offaly' printed on them, and a big ignorant umbrella shot up blocking out a large part of the pitch. Mr Walsh, a very polite man from the town, pleaded with great restraint and manners to the man - 'Would you ever mind taking down the umbrella?" - but the thing didn't move. Then a large, fairly well-oiled looking head leaned forward, the dye from his crepe 'Up Offaly' hat running into his face, and roared at the top of his voice: 'TAKE DOWN THAT F**KING UMBRELLA OR I'LL STICK IT UP YOUR HOLE!" Our view of the pitch was restored in two seconds flat.

It turned out to be an epic match. A pulsating, heart attack-inducing spectacle in the rain. With time running out, Offaly were behind by two points and the best GAA team of all time - Kerry - were heading for a five-in-a-row. Then the greatest miracle in the history of sport happened. Substitute Seamus Darby, our neighbour, only on the pitch three minutes, caught a high ball, a little nudge on the defender, and sent it crashing into the net. PAN DE MONIUM! I have never witnessed the level of hysteria at any sporting occasion since. We invaded the pitch afterwards - the whole of the town running like children towards the players. Edenderry shut down for a week, the goal being played on a loop in Paddy McCormack's bar on a battered Betamax tape. Nobody went to school on the Monday except all the lads from Kildare who made a special point of coming in. For a very depressed region of the world it was an unbelievable tonic. In that moment anything was possible. A great joy was felt by all because, earlier that summer, darkness or a sort of evil had touched the town.

In late July of 1982, a couple of special branch detectives called to the house. They were doing a door-to-door. They wanted to know had any of us been to the half nine Mass the previous Sunday. I had been to that Mass with my father so the detective wanted to know had we spotted a man, not from the town, making a call in the phone box on JKL Street at around that time. They gave us a description. I hadn't noticed anyone. Later we were to find out that the man was Malcolm MacArthur who had just murdered a nurse in the Phoenix Park and was about to do the same to local farmer Donal Dunne, whom he met to buy a shotgun.

McArthur was, of course, found hiding out in the attorney general's apartment in Dalkey, prompting Charles Haughey's string of garbled adjectives… grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented - or GUBU, as broken down by Conor Cruise O'Brien. MacArthur went to prison but was never convicted of killing Donal Dunne. Murder was not a common occurrence in 1982 and having such a terrible thing happen so close to home felt like some kind of loss of innocence.

Malcolm MacArthur
Malcolm MacArthur

*****

Back in 2018, the blizzard still hasn't really hit. Two mates call in and are going to the pub. Feic the weather! No, I'm staying put. I'm still back in 1982… and the arrival of the first video recorder into the house. This greatly fuelled my already huge interest in films and TV. We taped everything… Alan Bleasdale's Boys From The Blackstuff blew us away. Me and my brother Ken would learn off dialogue and scenes. Yosser Hughes in a confession box talking to the priest - "I'm desperate, father…", "Call me Dan, my name's Dan…" "I'm desperate, Dan."

But the TV drama that really got me, and had a huge affect on my own work, was the BBC/RTE co-production The Ballroom of Romance, based on the great William Trevor short story. There had been a lot of hype about the drama. It made the cover of the RTE Guide and the whole country watched it, but many were disappointed. It was too slow for some people. There wasn't a huge amount of story. Set in the 1950s, it was just a small portrait of a woman attending her last dance at a local ballroom in the wilds of Mayo. I watched it on video again a week later and something clicked for me. I identified with Bridie, played by Brenda Fricker. Her loneliness and lost dreams. I loved the brilliant Irish cast - Cyril Cusack, John Kavanagh, Niall Toibin, Ingrid Cragie, Anita Reeves, Joe Pilkington, Brendan Conroy, Pat Leavy… and it was all beautifully directed by Pat O'Connor.

A few years ago myself and a mate, Eamon Little, set about making a radio documentary about the film. We stood in the abandoned ballroom up in Ballycroy, Co Mayo, listening to the wind blowing through the place and the odd swallow flying around. A faded crisp packet that cost 2p blowing across the floor of the male toilet where the scene with "the man with the long arms" and the three drunken mountainy men was shot. I recognised every inch of the building. Much smaller than I'd imagined. I could see Bowser Egan's sweaty face and Dano Ryan playing his drums and hear the old show tunes as played by the romantic jazz band and could picture the banner above the stage which read "Happy homes for Ireland and for God". We met some of the locals who had been involved in the making of the film and realised what an event the presence of a film crew in the area had been at the time.

*****

I hear a big blast of wind and it's not in the ballroom, but back in my flat. Back in the room. Back in 2018. The storm's a comin'.

But 1982 will always remain a very special year for me. Seamus Darby is alive and well and owns a bar down the country. MacArthur is now out of jail and William Trevor passed away in 2016, aged 89.

One of the great gifts of watching The Ballroom of Romance was that it introduced me to his writing. I have been a huge fan ever since and have read all his work. The short story itself is barely 14 pages long yet captures a whole community, and the inner life of one woman, with an almost unbearable intimacy. You could do worse this Paddy's Weekend than dig out the short story and give it a read. Here is the last paragraph:

She rose, saying it was time to go, and they climbed over the gate again. "There's nothing like a Saturday," he said. "Good night to you so, Bridie." He mounted his bicycle and rode down the hill, and she pushed hers to the top and then mounted it also. She rode through the night as on Saturday nights for years she had ridden and never would ride again because she'd reached a certain age. She would wait now and in time Bowser Egan would seek her out because his mother would have died. Her father would probably have died also by then. She would marry Bowser Egan because it would be lonesome being by herself in the farmhouse.

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