PICTURE a lawless frontier town in the 19th century, caked in mud, blood and sweat. Tough, whiskery men in battered hats stalk the narrow streets in search of their fortune.
A whore with a heart of gold and skin as smooth as porcelain — but as resilient as old saddle leather — sings like an angel in the
local saloon, while a confidence trickster tries to fleece the whiskery men of their hard-earned.
There’s an officer of the law in town, all stern eyebrows and stiff moustache. But the real law around these parts is the bigwig saloon owner, a slick, slippery dude in a sharp suit and waistcoat, who lords it over the population. Beneath the smooth exterior he’s a sadistic bastard who’s not above punching his girlfriend full-force in the stomach when her sarcasm irritates him.
The rules are enforced by a lanky gunslinger in a black suit who’ll have his six-shooters out of their holsters faster than the guy looking down their barrels can blink.
In the evenings, the whiskery men entertain themselves by getting drunk, losing their money at the roulette wheel, getting drunk some more, brawling, getting drunk some more and watching bare-knuckle boxing bouts.
Deadwood? Nope. We’re in Oughterard, Co Galway, which convincingly impersonates the fictional town of Dominion in the Klondike Valley at the height of the Yukon gold rush in TG4’s impressive four-part drama An Klondike, beginning tonight.
If Dublin can pose as Whitechapel in Ripper Street and Co Down can become Winterfell in Game of Thrones, it’s not much of a stretch to accept the rugged landscape of Connemara as northwest Canada.
Nonetheless, in lesser hands the whole thing could have come horribly unstuck. It’s a credit to everyone involved — from production designer Padraig O’Neill and director of photography Colm Hogan, to first-time director Dathaí Keane and the outstanding cast — that An Klondike is utterly persuasive.
In 1887, Irish immigrant brothers the Connollys — smart, two-fisted Tom (Owen McDonnell), strongly religious Padraig (Sean T O Meallaigh) and the youngest, feckless hothead Seamus (Dara Devaney) — enjoy a stroke of luck when an old friend, who struck gold in the Klondike and is rich enough to return to Ireland, gifts them his claim, along with a cryptic map leading to its location. Seamus scarpers with the map during the night.
By the time the other two catch up with him in Dominion, he’s lost the claim to ruthless town boss Jacob Hopkins (Robert O’Mahoney), who very much wants a piece (or preferably all) of whatever action the map leads to.
The conniving Hopkins offers Tom the chance to win the claim back by beating a tough Native American called Joe (Julian Black Antelope) in a bare-knuckle fight. He succeeds and befriends Joe, who becomes the brothers’ ally and uses his knowledge of the region to decipher the map’s instructions.
An Klondike, which was screened in an edited, feature-film cut at the The Galway Film Fleadh but really requires the breathing space of its four episodes, has been called “the first Irish Western”, and that’s effectively what it is.
It comes complete with all the twists, turns, betrayals, reversals and colourful characters of the genre, not least Hopkins’s gun-toting Irish enforcer Galvin (Ned Dennehy, channelling a Celtic Clint Eastwood).
Far from being jarring, the mix of languages and accents is an accurate reflection of the melting-pot make-up of the historical setting.
This is how you take a shoestring drama budget and spin it into gold thread.
An Klondike, TG4, tonight, 9.30pm