BÚ Media, the producers of An Klondike, have hit pay dirt with their new four-part series on the great gold rush that swept across Canada’s Yukon Territory in the late 1890s. It was a fever that gripped thousands of Irish emigrants as well as a quarter of Seattle’s police force (and even the city’s mayor, who resigned his post and bought a steamboat to ferry prospectors to the Klondike).
One of the things that makes An Klondike, which begins on TG4 this week, distinct from other drama series and novels about the period is that their central characters speak Irish, mixed in with English-speaking characters, as would have been the case at the time.
“I thought why necessarily does an Irish-language story have to be set in Ireland,” says Dathaí Keane, the series creator. “The Irish language travelled all over the world when Irish emigrants left Ireland. We can tell any story we want if we base it in a historical era when Irish was used.
“I was looking around and I’ve always liked westerns. There’s a scene in Deadwood, which was a big influence on An Klondike, where there are two ‘Cornish miners’ talking to each other in Swearengen’s bar and they’re talking Gaeilge. I was thinking there were Irish people in the Wild West. They must have spoken Irish when they went out there. They probably took a while to learn English so why not come up with a story in a western setting told through the medium of Gaeilge.
“We play on it a little bit. We have characters with a foot in both camps. Irish Pat we saw as someone who emigrated from Ireland at a young age but still had a good blast of the language but was very much in the American side of the camp. He could understand some of what was being said whereas the American characters didn’t have a clue what the Irish characters were saying to each other.
"You could have levels of understanding. The audience would be aware of certain storylines that the characters were saying to each other whereas some of the people on screen weren’t aware of them. It was very useful.”
One of the other striking things about An Klondike is that it is shot in the west of Ireland. The set of the fictitious Dominion Creek, the boomtown where the action takes place, was built on the grounds of Glengowla Mines outside Oughterard, Co Galway. Other locations include the Inagh Valley up as far as the border with Co Mayo to Sheffrey Pass. It is extraordinary how interchangeable the wilds of Canada are with Connemara. The only concern Keane and his production staff had was making sure that a flock of sheep — which were not native to the Yukon in the 1890s — never wandered into shot.
The plot follows the adventures of the three Connolly brothers, as they’re enticed north from toiling in Montana’s silver mines to the Klondike by a claim given to them by their father’s friend, Bear Brennan. It happens that Sam Steele, a Canadian folk hero and one of several historical characters weaved into the script, is on the beat in Dominion Creek as the town’s marshal.
Steele — whose name is given to Canada’s fifth tallest mountain, Mount Steele— is the Royal Canadian Mountain Police’s most famous staff member. He was a career military man who parlayed with Sitting Bull and fought in the Boer War. He’s also credited with introducing the Stetson-style hat to the Mounties’ uniform. The singer-songwriter and actor Steve Wall, who plays Steele, says it was odd parading around in the Mounties’ trademark scarlet tunic.
“It was toolbox wear. I felt so British when I had it on, with the moustache and everything. And up on the horse I had to carry myself with my back straight and shoulders back, to try and make him appear a ‘stiff upper lip’, larger-than-life military man who doesn’t like unruliness. It was great fun.
“I’d very rarely admire that type of military character but it is interesting to see what drives him. His name is very apt. He is steely. What his troops liked about him is that he didn’t stay back and issue orders. He was pretty much at the frontline. You could imagine confronting some of the class of people who would have been arriving [in the Klondike]. He would have had only a few Mounties at his disposal. To challenge these people and to take their arms off them, he was a pretty tough cookie.
“When he was brought in part of his job was to try and vet who actually got in. He introduced a rule that you had to have a ton of goods — basically food and all the stuff you’d need to survive — to enter the Klondike. It was the only way he could try and save lives.”
One of the lives that prospered in the Klondike was the real-life character Bridget Mannion. In the series, she’s a spirited maid who piques the interest of one of the Connolly Brothers with her sharp tongue. She brandishes a pistol in her first scene.
“It was hard to credit that women made the trip up there,” says Keane. “In another sense women had an opportunity up there that they didn’t have anywhere else in the United States or Europe at that time because the Klondike was an egalitarian society in many senses. It was one of the last bastions of the Wild West. People who fled civilisation ended up in the Klondike because they kept getting pushed further west by encroaching rules and state lines. The ones who had one last hurrah ended up going to the Klondike to strike it rich. Women were a big part of that story.
“Bridget Mannion was originally from Rosmuc. She went out to the Klondike as a maid and ended up prospecting on her own. She made enough money in the Klondike to come back to Ireland and was buried in Rosmuc. She lived to about the age of 93. There is still a bursary in Rosmuc to send kids to college from money she made in the gold rush.
“I had read about it online and then asked people on set about it. Our boom operator is a guy called Pádraig Ó Mainín from Rosmuc. He knew of Bridget Mannion and was vaguely related to her. He told me it was true about the college fund she set up from gold rush money so I got corroboration on the ground with that one.”
An Klondike begins tomorrow on TG4,at 9.30pm