Cork film-maker's tale of a great Irish sean-nós singer on longlist for foreign-language Oscar

Cork film-maker Pat Collins’ tale of one of Ireland’s greatest sean-nós singers is on the longlist for the foreign-language Oscar, writes Esther McCarthy

Here’s an evocative moment in Pat Collins’ Song of Granite involving legendary Irish folk singer Joe Heaney.

While working as a doorman in a New York hotel, he removes a glove from his hand, touches the cold stone, and dreams of returning to his Connemara home.

It’s a moment that says a great deal without words, and an indicator that this is as much an emigrant’s story as the tale of one of Ireland’s most celebrated sean-nós singers.

But Heaney, who ended up recording hundreds of songs and gaining success abroad, was an
enigmatic character, and the film doesn’t seek to provide too many answers about what motivated him or made him tick.

For West Cork-born Collins, building here on the success of his acclaimed film, Silence, Heaney’s story gave him the opportunity to explore the craft of sean nós, with three different actors playing him at different points in his life.

“It was a desire to do something with sean-nós singing,” he says. “I’ve wanted to do something on it for a long time. Personally, I believe that Joe Heaney is the greatest exponent of that in the 20th century.

“You could say that Margaret Barry, from Cork, was an interesting story from a traditional point of view,” he says, adding that he kept returning to Heaney.

“There was something about Joe Heaney’s story, growing up where he did in Carna in Connemara, and the wealth of stories and songs that was in Carna. He was immersed in that as a young person, and was lucky, I suppose, in that he was swept up in a folk revival in the Sixties. He ended up singing in a lot of the clubs and being recorded by Topic Records.”

Joe Heaney (40’s) recording. Joe is played by Mícháel Ó Chonfhaola. Pic: Westland Studios

Heaney then headed off to the US, where he worked as a doorman in Manhattan. “He sings at the Newport Folk Festival. There was no other Irish sean-nós singer that had that kind of range of experience. He was an outstanding singer, but he also knew what he was doing. He was thinking about it as an art form. He was always looking for ways to improve it and to improve himself as a performer.

“He carried the tradition on his back as well. He had a very strong sense of duty to the tradition.”

Told mostly in Irish with subtitles, and depicting Heaney’s homeland in sweeping vistas of black and white, Collins’ immersive, seductive film is a worthy Irish entry for the longlist for Best Foreign Language Film at next spring’s Oscars.

It charts how economic realities and a spirit of curiosity sent Heaney all the way to the UK and then Manhattan, but there’s also a sense, not least in the music, that home is never far from his mind.

“There’s a kind of a sense of him being exiled as well,” says Collins. “He left Connemara in the 1940s and ended up in Scotland, married and had kids there. When he went to America he was looking for a way back as well. Not maybe at first, but as the years went on. He’s exiled from his own past and he’s exiled as well, literally, from Ireland. But he’s kind of exiled from himself a little as well.”

It’s an astute observation. One biographer said of Heaney that the more you knew him, the more complex he was. Indeed, the film also depicts how he left his wife and young family.

“We didn’t dramatise any scenes where he’s having an argument with his wife or anything like that,” says Collins. “I tried to keep it very low key. The fact is I don’t, or anybody
involved in the production really, doesn’t know why he did what he did. I don’t think I have the right to dramatise something from their lives when I don’t know what went on. I did think it was an important part of the film. It had come out in a documentary back in the Nineties, so it was public knowledge that he’d left his family. I felt it was important to include it because it was all part of his complex make-up.

“I do think that’s important, that you let it up to the viewer sometimes. I think when somebody (in cinema) tells me how to feel, tells me how to think about the film, how to interpret it, then there’s nothing left for me in the experience. I do think it’s a two-way process.”

Pat Collins poses for a portrait at The Wrap and Getty Images SxSW Portrait Studio in March 2017 in Austin, Texas. Pic: Robby Klein/Getty Images Portrait

Born in Drimoleague and now based in Baltimore, Collins cut his teeth as an award-winning documentary maker (he still makes a couple a year) before turning to drama features. “I was always interested in Irish cultural subject matters and I usually worked in documentary along those lines. The same as with Silence, this film always felt like a drama that had a documentary sensibility.”

But when Collins was younger, he didn’t consider a career in film, and was in his thirties when he made his first documentary. “I didn’t watch a lot of cinema growing up, really, but I watched a lot of television like everybody else. Cinema wouldn’t have appeared to me until I was 17 or 18 when I moved to Cork city. Even at that point, I started reading a lot, reading poetry and books and going to the cinema.

“I had an inkling when I was 18, 19 that I wanted to do something like history or writing. I was big into music, purely as someone who listened to a lot of music. There was no lightbulb moment or anything like that. It was a very gradual thing.”

It was while living in Galway for a 13-year period that his interest in film was honed. “I worked in the Galway Film Centre and edited a film journal called Film West. I programmed the Galway Film Fleadh for three years as well. It was a fantastic way for me to learn. I learned an awful lot doing that work. Criticism, essays, reviews, they’re really important for a filmmaker like me.”

Collins is currently working on a documentary on American folklorist Henry Glassie, and is co-writing a feature with collaborators Eoghan MacGiolla Bhríde and Sharon Whooley, set in the Aran Islands during John Millington Synge’s time there.

He finds making dramas has brought new challenges compared to his documentary work.

“I would say it’s more difficult. So much more could go wrong with something like Song of Granite, when you’re looking at production design, costume and casting.

“But then again, sometimes when you’re making a documentary in the edit suite, in the middle of it, and you cannot work it out, it’s the hardest place in the world to be!”

Song of Granite is released on Friday, December 8


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