His story collection, A Day For The Fire And Other Stories, won several awards in 2005, and his last novel, In Their Dreams of Fire (2011), has been hailed as the greatest Irish historical novel since Strumpet City.
A lawyer in both the US and Ireland for 20 years, O’Callaghan’s first love is making vivid films about his native countryside and its history. His screenplay, The Soldiers of Destiny, was acclaimed at the Sundance Film Festival in the 1980s. O’Callaghan’s 1994 film, Broken Harvest, based on his own story, revealed the lingering after-effects of the Civil War in 1950s Ireland.
His newest feature film, The Lord’s Burning Rain, which premiered at last year’s Cork Film Festival, opened the Corona Fastnet Film Festival in Schull a couple of weeks ago.
Sixteen-year-old Donnachadh rides a newly-purchased horse home through the Sheha mountains in the 1960s. He encounters a seductive tinker woman, who tries to steal his horse; a broken-down farmer, who gives him poteen; a ghost-like prophet of death; and a hallucinatory vision of the battle of Kilmichael in the 1920s, in which his father took part.
“The story is based on Homer’s Odyssey and the idea of Telemachus, who goes in search of his father,” says O’Callaghan.
“Along the way, he meets all these people that tell him bits about his parent, and, in the same way here, Donnachadh meets all sorts of people. The tinker woman, based on Circe; the Protestant farmer, who reflects Nestor, the old warrior, who has returned from war and knows everything about what happened. And the blind prophet, who tells him he has to go into hell and see what his ancestors did before he comes out the other side.”
On a tiny budget, the film took nine months to make. “We were totally independently funded. Not even the Film Board was involved. I kind of didn’t want to wait around. I wanted to do it my way, and I think that, nowadays, if you do get outside funding, you are always kind of required to leave some things in and take some things out,” O’Callaghan says.
Movie-making is not the way to get rich, says O’Callaghan wryly, which is why he stepped away from it for many years, to concentrate on writing. “I never made money from my films, only lost on them. But it’s what I love doing most.”
Another O’Callaghan film, A Day For The Fire, plays as a double header with The Lord’s Burning Rain. In the former, a man returns to his native village after a 20-year exile. In a rural pub, another man reveals, during a brief conversation, that his son has taken his own life.
The casual admission of this tragedy shocks the viewer into the realisation that, even in such an idyllic landscape, the pressures of modern life can take their toll. It’s a powerful piece, and was shortlisted for the Oscars.
Now, O’Callaghan is considering another major script, The Caress, based on the life of Liam O’Flaherty, which he describes as a cross between The Quiet Man and Man of Aran.
“Much more of a love triangle, so probably much more commercial,” he says. Looks like you can’t keep the writer out of the movies, either.