Irish builder Tony Monaghan hopes his documentary about construction workers in his adopted home in the US will help inspire people to improve their lot, writes Marjorie Brennan
TONY Monaghan is no stranger to tough experiences. He was only a teenager when he left his home town of Belmullet, Co Mayo, to work on farms in England before moving on to the US, where he built up his own successful construction company. But he needed all his hard-won resilience and determination when he decided to make Rednecks and Culchies, a documentary on the lives of blue- collar workers in his adopted home of St Louis, Missouri.
“I started making it two years ago and I went around America, looking for help to do it. But nobody would take me seriously so I put a crew together myself. When we were shooting it, they kept asking for a script but I told them the script was in my head, that there are thousands of stories out there.”
Monaghan had no previous experience as a director but now his documentary has been picked up by Brink Vision, a leading independent film distributor. It is an even more admirable feat given that he had very little in the way of formal education.
“I only spent four or five years in school. The beatings were constant and I was put down — the teachers would say ‘You’re too thick to teach’, and all the kids would laugh. I couldn’t wait to get out. I wasn’t comfortable in that environment, but I knew I was intelligent, I had been told by a lot of people. I could read situations, I am an intuitive person.”
Monaghan left Ireland at 15 to go picking potatoes in England.
“I worked on farms, then I went up to London, where it was all about drinking. But I boxed there, and I liked that, it was a good outlet.”
He eventually decided to move to America, where he worked in construction and ended up setting up his own business.
“I am a plasterer by trade and I have worked for myself since I was 20. I couldn’t put myself in a situation where I was working for someone else.”
In Rednecks and Culchies, Monaghan looks at the lives of construction workers, many of whom have drug and alcohol addictions and criminal records. “St Louis is a great city but it has a lot of issues that people are afraid to deal with. One person’s struggle is everyone’s problem because, in one way or another as a community our lives intersect. The documentary is a story about people, love, relationships, addiction — how life can get bad and you can come back out of it.
“I’ve had my ups and downs too. The people I spoke to really try but it’s hard for them to get rid of their demons. Some people want an instant high, some people want to work through the torture.”
Monaghan says that, contrary to expectations, he didn’t come across many Irish emigrants when he was making the documentary.
“I didn’t meet as many as you’d think. Mostly the Irish who went out there did very well. They moved from blue collar to higher society, through education; they had that gene to help them climb higher.”
Monaghan believes that while his childhood was tough, his experiences gave him determination and a strong will to succeed.
“While too much rejection is not good, especially for a kid, sometimes it makes you stronger; you want to prove you’re as good as the next person, that society can’t put a label on you.”
He is also conscious of sharing his good fortune with others and is donating 20% of the proceeds from the film to a St Louis organisation that provides housing, support and resources to women on low incomes.
“We do a lot for charity, helping people in bad situations, we try to show them life is not that bad, to help them recover their self-esteem. If you can give someone their self-esteem back, that’s the best thing.”
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