It is a bleak, emotionally intense and absorbing film, with superb performances from Colm Meaney, Brendan Conroy and Donal O’Kelly.
The use of Irish adds to the film’s impact by underlining their sense of attachment to their roots, but also their isolation in London
THE powerful new film, Kings, directed by Tom Collins and adapted from Jimmy Murphy’s play, The Kings of the Kilburn High Road, should help to begin a debate about the legacy of emigration from Ireland, while also giving food for thought about the situation of those who have come to Ireland in the past decade and how they will cope with the challenges of integration and displacement.
At the screening of the film at the Galway film fleadh in July, Collins said: “I feel we are bringing this film home. I can’t say any more because I am too emotional.”
He did not need to say anything else; he has done enough by helping us to confront an issue that affected so many Irish families but was, paradoxically, a taboo subject.
One in three people under the age of 30 in 1946 had left the Republic of Ireland by 1971. For an issue so pervasive in Irish society, there was a curious reluctance to talk about it. Fr Jerry Kivlehan, of the Camden Irish Centre, maintained in 2002 that “Ireland hasn’t even begun the debate” in relation to the subject of emigration. Irish governments had made it clear from the 1950s that they were not going to intervene actively when it came to emigrant welfare.
It is also the case that a defensive reaction to the idea of so many emigrating was to depict them as somewhat feckless and easily led, which amounted to a tendency to blame the emigrants themselves rather than the society they had left.
Of course it would be inaccurate to see all emigrants as victims. Undoubtedly, some Irish experienced discrimination and racism, but Catherine Dunne, who wrote about the Irish in London in the 1960s, was also able to identify a perception that the English were a very tolerant people. When the work had dried up, however, the travelling labourers were often left destitute. As an RTÉ Prime Time programme revealed in 2003, the conditions many emigrants were living in were appalling.
In 2000, the homeless organisation Shelter revealed that 11% of people sleeping rough on the streets of greater London were Irish, and highlighted the fact that Irishmen were the only migrant group whose mortality rate was higher in Britain than their country of origin.
The RTÉ programme makers gained access to film in Arlington House, a “wet” hostel in Camden where up to 450 men live — more than a quarter of them Irish. Of these, approximately 20 die each year. Once a thriving home to 1,200 men who poured onto the building sites every day, the hostel now houses men suffering from physical and mental illness, depression and chronic alcoholism. For those who remained in England — in some cases for more than 50 years — there was a feeling, to quote one of them, that “to go back now, you’re like a stranger in your own country”.
An Irish psychiatric nurse working on the condition of the older Irish in Britain in 2004 summed it up by saying “we’re finding deep wells of sadness in ordinary human lives”.
For many years the Catholic Church was the only organisation that took an interest in, and acknowledged some responsibility for, the plight of the Irish in Britain. The Irish bishops set up the Chaplaincy Scheme, which metamorphosed into the Episcopal Commission for Emigrants, still in existence today.
One of the reasons why this new film makes such an impression is because of its determination to highlight the voices of the emigrants themselves. When occasionally referred to in the past, they were often talked about in the abstract, or else religious and charitable organisations would speak on their behalf and sometimes would collect money for them at church gates, but the displaced individuals remained invisible, like a hidden generation.
Tracing the experiences of a small group of young men who left Ireland in the 1970s filled with ambition for a better standard of life and determined to stick together, (“All for one” was their motto), the film is centred on their meeting up 30 years later to mark the death of the youngest of the group, Jack Flavin.
It is a bleak, emotionally intense and absorbing film, with superb performances from Colm Meaney, Brendan Conroy and Donal O’Kelly. The use of the Irish language adds to the film’s impact by underlining their sense of attachment to their roots, but also their isolation in London as they drink in the backroom of a pub and reflect on their lives to date.
They simply don’t know where to call “home”. The father of the dead man, Mickser, who has come over to London to bring his son’s body back to Connemara, offers them a dose of reality before their drinking binge. Dismissing the misty-eyed talk that all emigrants periodically indulge in about returning home, he tells them to stop dreaming: “Ireland’s just a hard rock at the edge of another hard rock.”
The struggle with drink is constant, as are the tensions between the Irish who have done well and those who have floundered; the hierarchy of the London-Irish always created conflict and frustration, partly because the Irish were just as capable of exploiting and ill-treating their fellow natives as the English, and partly because of the belief that the term “Paddies” was a liability. At one stage, one of them roars “Up The Paddies!” to which the character Joe Mullen, the most materially successful of the group who owns his own business, responds, “Fuck the Paddies! You can’t get a good Paddy in this town for love nor money”. One of them admits sheepishly: “This place has been better than home… I’m not going back. As bad as it is here, I’d rather stay.”
COLLINS’ film also raises the question of who was to blame when things went wrong for the individual emigrant. Was it those who drank with him night after night or those who fled and were not interested in giving him a leg up even when he was sober? Some of the scenes are a reminder of the work done by Ultan Cowley who interviewed Irish immigrants about the impact of alcoholism for his book, The Men Who Built Britain. One of them responded simply: “I never felt that I fitted in. I took drink to make me fit in, to make me feel that I belonged. Who I belonged with was other Irish people living in the same shitholes and there was a camaraderie of pain there, of knowing another man’s pain.”
In depicting the isolation felt by long-term migrants who struggle to find a place called home, this film will resonate with some of those who have more recently arrived to Ireland looking for work and a new life.
Bisi Adigun, the vibrant Nigerian actor and founder of Arambe Productions, was asked a few years ago to present a short theatre piece at a multicultural event in Dublin and chose an excerpt from Murphy’s play, and the Irish emigrant labourers were impersonated by an all-African cast. It could not have been more appropriate in his view: “If you want to know what Africans are going through, go and see The Kings of the Kilburn High Road. Emigration is a universal phenomenon.”