Listowel's Christian finds 'Sanctuary' in writing

After the cinematic release of his latest film‘Sanctuary’, Fergus Dennehy talks to Listowel writer Christian O’Reilly about growing up surrounded by literature in Listowel, how ‘Sanctuary’ came about and getting invaluable advice from his ‘mentor’ John B Keane

Playwright Christian O'Reilly
Playwright Christian O'Reilly

Christian O' Reilly's latest feature film, 'Sanctuary' on which he is screenplay writer, has been running in a number of cinema screens across the country for the last few weeks and is already garnering rave reviews.

The story writer behind the much loved 2004 film 'Inside I'm Dancing' starring James McAvoy, Christian's talent as a writer is truly undeniable, having also worked on shows such as Ros Na Rún, Red Rock, Casualty, as well as being a notable playwright.

A Londoner by birth, Christian moved to Listowel at the age of eight after the separation of his parents and he says that growing up in the North Kerry town, amongst other factors, influenced him hugely in his future career choice.

"Oh definitely, I think growing up in Listowel, the great literary town that it is, definitely helped to influence my move towards writing. Almost uniquely so in Ireland and in Irish towns, Listowel was and is still such a literary town that back then, to become a writer, it was a very acceptable thing to do," said Christian, speaking to The Kerryman last Wednesday.

"Writing is something that is just so celebrated in the town so this gave me the confidence to feel that this [writing] was something that was okay to pursue and it wasn't even a conscious thing you know, it was just something that you grew up knowing that this was something possible."

"Writers Week especially is just this fantastic celebration and the town is just so proud of it. It [the town] puts on its best face during the festival and it does have an impact on you; since I've gone on to become a writer too and had some success here and there, the town has been incredibly encouraging, incredibly positive and incredibly embracing," he continued.

"When my parents separated as well, I used to write letters to my dad in Waterford and there was one memory that sticks out as another spark for my writing career. I'd written him a letter and he told that I wrote well. That was huge for me that my dad, who was also a writer, thought that about me."

Those early days of wanting to be a writer were not without their difficulties though, with Christian admitting that he did find, and to this day, still does find doubts creeping his mind. Thankfully for Christian though, he had the guidance of his '"mentor" and "literary giant" John B. Keane to fall back on.

"Growing up there in the time of John B, everyone in the town knew John B and Bryan McMahon, they were just giants of literature but they were also so incredibly approachable."

"I would consider John B a huge mentor for me, my very first mentor actually, I went to him countless times for bits of advice and I found him incredibly helpful and encouraging and he gave me key piece of advice that I continue to use to this day."

"Apart from telling me that I had to write from the heart, another thing he said was to keep at it, just don't give up, keep going and persevere; another thing he told me and I think it was a wonderful piece of advice was to 'get it write and then get it right', as in allow yourself to write it, no matter how bad it is and then revise it after that."

When his teenage dreams of being spotted by Chelsea sadly evaporated, Christian then turned his head towards what he saw as the next best thing - a journalist and more specifically, a sports writer.

"I went to college and did Communication Studies, with the view to being a sports journalist but in the course of this programme, we did something called media writing and this introduced me, amongst other things, to writing fiction and writing scripts and I really fell in love with that, the idea of making stuff up."

"Someone suggested that I try writing for film on the basis that I had a love of writing dialogue and it was around then that I actually got a few more key pieces of advice. One tip was from my sister Ciara who told me that I had to put my passions into my work," he continued.

"So I went off and wrote a screenplay about a guy in his 30's that gets a second chance at becoming a professional soccer player and so I was writing about something that I knew about and loved and I was writing in a form that I was beginning to love as well, that of screen writing."

"I still remember writing that script and having the sense of 'I don't care what anyone else thinks, I have to write this, I need to write this', this was the spark that made me really commit to it [writing] and to make me really believe that I could do it."

Even with this newfound sense of liberation when it came to his writing, paid commissions were still far too rare for Christian's liking. This unstable period meant that he was forced to take other paid work - work that would ironically lead him back to writing and more importantly, writing his most successful works to date.

"I worked for two years with a disability rights organisation called 'Centre for Independent Living' and it was through this work that I came up with the idea for 'Inside I'm Dancing' and ultimately 'Sanctuary'."

'Sanctuary' which has just finished its run in Tralee cinema, is set in the world of people with intellectual disabilities. It tells the story of Larry, who has Down Syndrome, and Sophie, who severe epilepsy. Both are attracted to each other and through the help of a sympathetic care worker called Tom, they sneak away to a hotel room during a supervised trip to the cinema.

"What do they do once they are there? How do they express a love that dare not speak its name? Are they aware that in Ireland they are about to break the law? - these are the films that the film tries to explore. We want to invite people into a world that they probably know little about," said Christian.

'Sanctuary', which started out life as a stage play originally, is a product of Christians collaborations with the 'Blue Teapot Theatre Company' who commissioned him to write the play.

"I was asked to write a play exploring the world of people with intellectual disabilities - their relationships, frustrations, intimacy, everything like that - they wanted a play that started a conversation about this topic," he continued.

The Blue Teapot Theatre Company is a multi-award winning Theatre Company, Performing Arts School and Outreach programme for people with intellectual disabilities at the forefront of arts & disability in Ireland.

"I was invited to watch the company performing and improvising as actors and I was blown away by how talented they were - it was amazing!"

"We basically just all sat around and we said 'alright guys, lets talk about sex! Let's talk about relationships, do you want boyfriends/girlfriends? Do you want to get married and have kids?' and it was truly an eye opening experience to listen to them because it was a topic that I knew very little about."

"All the company talked really openly about their frustrations and desires and all of a sudden, I was given all this fantastic material to work with and throughout the process, I was comstantly consulting with the actors. They were heavily involved in the whole process."

The play, which was directed by Petal Pilley, was first shown back in 2012 at the Galway Theatre Festival before going on to be performed in Wexford, Dublin and Galway again.

The film was commissioned in 2015 and since its release has garnered critical acclaim and although the film has since reached the end of its run in Kerry, he's not giving up on it coming back.

"If anyone in Listowel, Killarney or Dingle wants to see 'Sanctuary' in their cinema - please go down to your local cinema and request it and with enough demand, hopefully we can see it back in Kerry again," he finished.


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