Liam Heffernan: the former Glenroe star has some hurling experience from his days at North Mon school before taking his role in Clash of the Ash.
IT’S 22 years since the release of one of the few Irish feature films in which hurling looms large as part of the plot. Michael Moynihan spoke to Liam Heffernan, star of Clash Of The Ash, about his preparation for the role of Phil, teenage tearaway, star hurler and unlikely role model for a small sect of Dubliners...
IT’S NOT a long list. If you take away the opening sequences of The Wind That Shakes The Barley, then you remove about one-third of the total number of hurling sequences to be found on film. The other big one is Rooney, of course, with its Kilkenny and Waterford line-ups from the 1957 All-Ireland hurling final, while some robust boozing hurlers including a young Joe Lynch in Young Cassidy (1965), just about complete the set. And even the latter seem more interested in routing peelers out of the pub than playing the ball properly.
However, there’s always Clash of the Ash. The basic script would be familiar to frustrated youngsters anywhere in the world, all of them eager to clear out for the bright lights; the difference here is that the frustrated teenager in this case is a talented hurler.
Liam Heffernan — you may recognise him as Blackie Connors of Glenroe — was that soldier, playing the lead role of Phil.
“It was 1986, I was working with the Cork theatre company Graffiti, and Fergus Tighe came to Cork to scout and cast people,” recalls Heffernan.
“I did a screen test which consisted of rolling a cigarette and blowing a smoke ring. Fergus contacted me afterwards to tell me there was a part in it for me.”
Innocent times: cast and crew spent a month living in the now-vanished Royal Hotel in Fermoy, where the movie was set. For many it was their first experience of making a film, but the lead had some familiarity with the role, or at least the game.
“I went to the North Mon in Cork,” says Heffernan. “On Wednesdays you had to go up to the Old Mon Field to play hurling, but I wasn’t a star player or anything. I was a soccer player with Rockmount, that was my game, but at least I could hold a hurley, I could hit a ball. I was sporty enough that way.
“The fact I’d actually played hurling was a big help, particularly with some of the basic moves. Some of the other sequences were more difficult, because it’s such a skilled game. Showing it properly is hard, and what was shown in the film was pretty simple, but the important thing is it was believable.
“The hurling was part and parcel of the character’s life, it was what he was good at. It was probably a bit autobiographical for Fergus, because he was from Fermoy, so the hurling was an expression of what he was about.”
Heffernan took a refresher course with his director before filming began, and the pair put in some training on the banks of the Liffey.
“A few weeks before we started shooting I practiced, though. I was in Dublin at the time and I’d head up to a patch of grass up by the King’s Inns, off Bolton Street, and myself and Fergus would blast a sliotar at each other.”
When the cameras started rolling, Heffernan reaped the benefits.
“The first week of the shoot we did all the hurling sequences, but we used very little of the hurling sequences we shot — there was a whole other game that didn’t make it into the final film.
“We did a whole week of hurling with the Fermoy minor team, and afterwards they told me they’d been saying at the start of the week, ‘who does he think he is, he’s dreadful’, but at the end of the week they told me I’d have made the team.
“I got a great kick out of that.”
Just as action sequences in movies are prepared in the minutest detail, the hurling sequences in Clash of the Ash were planned down to the last swing and pull; spontaneity wasn’t an option.
“There was very little free-form hurling — that’s the way when you’re making a film,” says Heffernan.
“Everything had to be mapped out. In some of the longer shots you can see that there’s some hurling going on, but it was all pre-rehearsed.
“You wouldn’t always get it right, the whole film-making process is very slow anyway, so there wasn’t much room for improvising hurling as we went along.”
The off-field action concentrates on Phil’s claustrophobia and longing to go to London. For anyone growing up in the 80s, it was a common story.
“It was of its time, particularly the characters coming back from London, which was a real feature of the 80s. Some younger actors see it and don’t get it, they don’t remember the ‘we have to get out of here’ feeling.”
But as with all cult tastes, the movie lives on for a small but appreciative audience. Heffernan was at a gig in the Temple Bar Music Centre recently when he got a slight nudge in the back at the counter.
When the actor turned round he was facing several large gentlemen with drinks in their hands, but it wasn’t quite the intimidating scenario it first appeared — thanks to the movie.
“It was funny,” says Heffernan, “One of them said straight away, ‘You better be wearing your helmet on Sunday,’ which is one of the crucial lines in Clash of the Ash.
“It turned out the lads have a copy of the film and on a Friday night they often get together before going out and they put it on and watch it while they have a few cans. It’s nice to know there’s a few people out there who still enjoy it after all this time!”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved