Gerard Barrett tells Esther McCarthy that his new TV3 drama ‘Smalltown,’ explores his love of and concerns about rural Ireland. 

Mainstream entertainment is largely about the Marvel cinematic universe but Gerard Barrett’s work, he quips, is more about the rural cinematic universe.

His first film, Pilgrim Hill, an intense tale of the loneliness and isolation of a farmer in crisis, signalled Barrett as a major new voice in Irish cinema. 

His follow-up, Glassland — the story of a son desperately trying to protect his troubled mother — proved that his debut was no one-off.

Now Barrett is returning to the tractors and farmhouses of rural Ireland, this time on our TV screens, to tell the story of emigration and finding your way back home.

As well as established actor Pat Shortt, Smalltown boasts a talented young cast, led by emerging talent Charlie Kelly as the central character in the three-part drama series for TV3.

He is Conor, a young man who moves to London in a bid to make a better life for himself, only to find that much has changed within his family and relationship dynamics when life circumstances bring him home.

Pat Shortt as Tom in Smalltown.
Pat Shortt as Tom in Smalltown.

“For me it’s a continuation of what I’ve been doing with Pilgrim Hill and Glassland, shining a light on issues in Ireland — not in any moral way or anything like that, but purely in what I see going on around me in my own life and in my own community,” explained Barrett.

“I’ve a strong affinity to rural Ireland, it’s where I come from, it’s who I am. I’ll always go back and tell rural Ireland stories. 

"I wanted to tell the story of how immigration has affected families all over rural Ireland and how immigration hasn’t only affected the immigrant, but it’s also affected the parents. I wanted to tap into that, see who’s left at home, and how that impacts them.”

The series also deals movingly with the topic of cancer, when Conor comes home to spend time with his seriously ill mother. 

“It’s a family dealing with a crisis. Cancer, I think, is ripping the country apart, and I wanted to talk about that, bring it to the table. Everyone uses the ‘C’ word and they don’t want to use the full word. I wanted to bring that conversation to a primetime audience, to discuss that. 

"On top of that it’s about Pat Shortt’s character and Charlie’s character, and where both of them belong, where their futures lie. 

"You’ve a young man who doesn’t know if he belongs here or abroad, and you have a man, a father, who doesn’t know where he belongs. It’s very much about uncertainty, and ultimately, family.”

The series marks the first leading onscreen role for Dublin actor Charlie Kelly who, as well as a successful career in theatre, is notching up some impressive screen credits. 

As well as a supporting role in Jim Sheridan’s forthcoming film, The Secret Scripture and musician Nick Kelly’s recently wrapped big-screen debut, The Drummer and the Goalkeeper, he has a central role in Jadotville. 

The Netflix-acquired tale of how an Irish battalion fought back under siege in the Congo in the 1960s will be shown later this year.

“Jadotville was a fantastic experience,”said Kelly. 

“We filmed it in South Africa for three months last summer, just outside Johannesburg. It’s telling the story of these men. We did a screening in Galway and a lot of the veterans were there, including some of the guys that we played. It’s a film which is doing something for the people it’s about.”

The young actor didn’t realise he’d be working with Pat Shortt until days before filming on Smalltown began. 

“I’ve been watching him since I was a kid — everyone in Ireland has. He makes you feel very comfortable. I had seen Garage and I didn’t know until a few days before that he was doing it. He was an amazing guy to have there.”

Barrett feels that having Shortt on board was crucial to the success of the series. 

“Pat was the only person I ever wanted for that role. I think he recognised the world that I created. It’s his world, it’s where he comes from. This character, I think, is the closest he’s ever played, in my opinion, to where he comes from. He knows these people. He was phenomenal.”

It’s evident why casting directors have their eye on Kelly— he’s incredibly sympathetic in what is a difficult role. 

“I got on board through an audition. I’d heard Gerard was doing something. I’d seen Pilgrim Hill and Glassland and when I read the script, it was the kind of storytelling that I like, that I’m interested in. It’s real. There’s no fluff — it is what it is.

“I really related to Conor as soon as I read it. It spoke truthfully about Irish people in their 20s and the uncertainties and worries that you have when you get to that stage, after college, and you’re not quite sure what you want to do. 

"I related to his sense of feeling that he didn’t quite belong where he was from and that something else was out there, that he had to leave home to find his own way.”

Barrett also wrote the script and was on board as a producer, and you get the sense that he is passionate about telling stories from rural Ireland. Much of it is steeped in his own DNA — he grew up in the tiny village of Knockanure, outside Listowel, and says there are Conors all over North Kerry.

“Our generation had it the worst, in a way,” explained Barrett, who recently turned 29. 

“I came out of school in 2005, you finish college in 2009, and there was nothing. Like, nothing.

“My brothers are older than me and when things went whollop in 2007, they’d had a good seven or eight year run at it. A lot of people would have had their houses built, had a bit of a nest egg. 

"But when we came out it was like bang - nothing. So you literally had to go. And when that happened, it was like sucking the air out of a balloon in rural Ireland. The whole thing went flat.

“Emigration is part of us forever. But before the last 15 years, there was never such prosperity before. And I think that was a weird thing for a lot of people - they had so much then they had so little and they had to go.”

For Barrett, who made his first film by the age of 25 and looks set to enjoy a stellar career, there was an awareness that he would have to make the breaks for himself.

“It’s never a good time for an artist, you know. I did my own thing and went off and studied film, TV, media. But you’ve got to stick at it. It doesn’t come to you —you’ve got to go and get it. It was tough. But I did a lot of writing in that time.

“I stayed in Kerry, I didn’t run off to the city or anything, because I knew I didn’t have to. What was the point? Why be in competition with 100 other people? 

"I always said I wanted to make my first film by the time I’m 25 and make three by the time I’m 30. And just get on with it. Pure ignorance like!” he laughs.

But it’s a self-assurance that has served him well. While he has no notion of leaving behind Irish stories, next we’ll see him direct his first US film. 

He recently wrapped Brain on Fire, an adaptation of Susannah Cahalan’s bestseller about her struggle with a serious brain disease. 

Actress Chloe Grace Moretz plays the author.

“We’re just finishing that at the moment. I wanted a totally different experience to grow as a filmmaker and I got this opportunity,” he said of the project.

“It’s set in New York, about a girl who gets a mystery illness, a true story and I connected to it, and with Susannah, because her family are from Tipperary. 

"It was a different challenge, and I wanted it to be. The book has sold over 12 million copies so there’s a big potential audience there. 

"It’s exciting to know that there are a lot of people out there waiting to see it. And I had a really great team of people around me. It was exactly what I needed, something different.”

Smalltown debuts on TV3 on Thursday, September 1, 10pm.


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