Monday 16 September 2019

Eugene O'Brien: 'Rubbing shoulders with Aldo in a community with a common goal'

Seeing two once divided communities come together in a group effort was heart-warming, writes Eugene O'Brien

John Aldridge has a go at conflict resolution with the sideline officials during the Ireland v Mexico game at USA ’94
John Aldridge has a go at conflict resolution with the sideline officials during the Ireland v Mexico game at USA ’94

Eugene O'Brien

Last Sunday night I was at the Oscars. I drank too much Guinness and talked with Silence of the Lambs villain Buffalo Bill. I met a great Irish sporting hero. I heard views on Peter Casey and suddenly felt very lonely in the crowd.

Was this a dream? Was it real? Sometimes life is stranger than fiction. For one thing I was nowhere near Hollywood, I was in the Johnstown House hotel near Enfield for the 'Oscarz Night', a gala event to raise money for both Derry Rovers soccer club and Edenderry GAA. The two codes working together, which at one time in our history would have been unthinkable.

The idea is that groups of local people are cast in seven different 10-minute re-enactments of famous films. A crew films them in locations around Edenderry, Co Offaly, my home town, and then last Sunday the casts joined 800 people in a gigantic function room to see the edited final products for the first time.

I was asked to be a judge, and, from the off, a sense of high excitement was in the air. I was shown into the actors' green room. Some had clearly started earlier in the day. I couldn't help but get caught up in the barely controlled mania as the casts were introduced and made their entrance to sit down in front of the big screen.

My fellow judges were ex-Offaly footballer Peter Brady, who was a brilliant player for the county until 2000. Unfortunately for him, he made his debut in 1983, the year after Offaly's legendary win over Kerry, so he just missed out on that glory.

On the other side of me was John Aldridge - yes Aldo, a part of Jack's Army. Who can ever forget his, "you f**king cheat" to the fussy sideline officials at USA '94 in Florida - before coming on to score the goal against Mexico that got us into the next round?

A Scouser born and bred, Aldo would have died to play for Ireland, unlike some of his modern counterparts… We'll mention no names, Mister Rice. Our other judge was Frances Carroll, who had cast and coached the people in the art of screen acting. Her trick was to get everyone to try not to ape the stars but do their own thing. So, for example, Hannibal Lecter wasn't an Anthony Hopkins mimic, but played it straight. In fact, he chewed less scenery than Sir Anthony. His co-star Clarice Starling, meanwhile, had run the Dublin city marathon earlier in the day and came second.

So we kicked off with The Snapper and over the next three hours, the fervour and laughs, and absolute delight, at seeing people they knew up on the silver screen, filled the place with an infectious undeniable joy. If the great Stanley Kubrick could recreate Vietnam in the London Docklands for Full Metal Jacket, then here they recreated the jungles of 'Nam for Forrest Gump in the woods of Edenderry! The Full Monty had a group of very natural likely lads, who had the energy and confidence to run the national grid. I started off my comments by saying that The Full Monty was a small English film that - and one of the lads came straight out with - 'there was nothing small in our Full Monty!' Then we had Taken with a very impressive rendering of Neeson's famous speech, Jerry Maguire with a full-on Show Me the Money scene, and, finally The Quiet Man, where the spirit of Barry Fitzgerald and Victor McLaglen, in particular, were brought back to life!

We retired to another room to deliberate, but it was clear that a very diplomatic policy was to operate, so each project had to receive something, regardless of merit. But that's OK, too, as everyone who took part gave time and commitment. The roof nearly came off as each winner was announced and then inspirational speeches about coming together and community were belted out by the organisers and positive vibes swept through the room as it was partitioned and the disco started up.

I watched Aldo have photos taken and chatting with people. He told me that he loved that it still meant so much to people and I confirmed that it did and I thanked him for just everything and the great moments of the late '80s and '90s, even though I knew he'd heard it a million times. A memory suddenly flashed into my head of the night in 1990 when we played England. I watched it in Slattery's, of Rathmines. Sheedy equalised and a table of drink went flying and I was drunk and hugged my brother - but deep down I felt like a lead balloon. I had just broken up with someone, and although the match was a brilliant distraction, and on the surface I was thrilled and happy, underneath I was struggling. She was in the bar, too, that night and I ended up going to bed with an ex to try and compensate. I think the ex took drunken pity on me, so it was a night mixed with a great joy that we'd managed to avoid defeat to England and excruciating regret and loneliness.

Back at the Oscarz, I had to shake the memory away and get back into the party mood, but for some reason I struggled to do so. I felt a kind of attack of angst and being alone in a crowd. I surveyed the throng of smiling faces and began to think about the masks we wear. How many people in this very room were pretending while struggling with all sorts of things. We all do it. We self-medicate with alcohol, or we ignore anxieties and worries, and hope they'll go away. I got into conversations with people with real mental health issues that they are brave and open about and continue to struggle and cope with.

A man approached me with an idea for a play set in the 1940s work camps of Bord na Mona. In the week the job losses were announced, it seemed very apt. The camps attracted people from all over the country, all desperate for any kind of work. Conditions were harsh. The living quarters were huts with galvanised roofs, very little comfort. The work could be dangerous too, and there were fatalities.

The night went on, drink took hold and I heard voices of support for Peter Casey and the conversations he raised. There was respect for Michael D but the 'Liberal who will always be seen to be saying the right thing' can grate on people. This is the heartlands, we ignore people's concerns at our peril. That is why Trump and Brexit happened. The liberal elite ignored the anger and hurt people felt. This is exploited by Casey and the like for their own ends.

The music stopped and the bars shut and the people lingered. Oscars were gripped in hands. Buses and taxis assembled. I got a lift in a car, which was like the Tardis, as it seemed to be able to fit however many of us squeezed into it. But thank Jesus, we made it back to the town.

I was home. Climbed the stairs. Into the bed, thankful that I had witnessed a community come together in a group effort - and any feelings of angst or loneliness that I had felt earlier disappeared.

I counted my blessings and gave thanks for my family and I fell into unconsciousness, conked out… and dreamt of Hannibal Lecter inviting Aldo and Forrest Gump over for dinner of some fava beans and a fine Chianti.

Sunday Independent

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