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'He was having nightmares about masked men': Why would a mother bring her son to be shot?

The documentary, by Sinéad O’Shea, explores the difficulties experienced by people living in the Creggan area of Derry.

Image: Sinéad O'Shea

HOW FAR WILL a mother go to protect her son? And what choice does she have when faced with a real threat to his life?

These are among the many multi-layered ideas and real-life dilemmas explored in director Sinéad O’Shea’s feature debut, the documentary A Mother Brings Her Son To Be Shot, which reaches cinemas this weekend. 

The documentary is the result of five years’ work by O’Shea, who formed a close bond with the O’Donnell family who live in Derry’s Creggan estate. O’Shea met with the family after hearing the mother, Majella O’Donnell, had made a ‘shooting appointment’ for her son Philly – meaning that he was to meet with paramilitaries in order to be shot in both kneecaps.

This was because he was a drug user and the paramilitaries believed due to this he posed a threat to the area. Majella knew that more severe punishment might have been meted out if Philly hadn’t been shot. 

In the documentary, O’Shea meets Majella, Philly, and his younger brother Kevin Barry, and it’s through them that we see the impact of the Troubles on the Creggan estate. In this underprivileged working class area, you don’t turn to the police for protection. Paramilitaries look after things here.

‘There was never any distance between us’

1916 Easter Rising commemoration A colour-party from the The 32 County Sovereignty Movement parades to Creggan Cemetery in Derry. Source: Niall Carson

Majella was “in such a vulnerable position originally”, says O’Shea.

She met with her and Kevin Barry, finding them a “hilarious” pair. At the time O’Shea was raising a small baby on her own and the family bonded over helping her with her own personal situation. 

“I knew quite soon that it wasn’t going to be a piece of journalism, it was going to be a documentary,” she says. “There was never any sense that I was the person in charge of things and that they were my subjects. It was a very equal relationship.”

It can’t have been easy, approaching a family during such a difficult time.

“I think if I had been more journalistic and been more focused on facts and figures and getting soundbites out of people, they wouldn’t have done it,” says O’Shea now. “They were the people who were giving me advice, and who had their own insights into things.”

Was she brave to do this? “I don’t think I was really brave,” she says. At one point, three years into filming, the family withdrew from the process. O’Shea became “so worried about what the consequences were of not finishing the film” that she just kept going.

The resulting film is both moving and troubling. The O’Donnell family are depicted as normal people living in an extraordinary situation. In particular, Kevin Barry’s life shows the impact of the Troubles on youths who grew up post-Good Friday Agreement.  

Flags and propaganda

Source: Geomovies/YouTube

“He’s growing up in a place where employment prospects are terrible, and where there’s really high rates of PTSD, really high suicide rates, in this atmosphere where there’s really very little hope,” says O’Shea of Kevin Barry, who is just a teenager.

“So what he does hear about is a lot of how the Troubles were really exciting, and it’s all just stuff that’s going to appeal to a little boy I suppose – there’s flags and there’s propaganda and there’s guns and there’s weapons and there’s marches.

He’s really affected by the Troubles despite not living through them because the Troubles start to become this really magnificent spectacle to him.

O’Shea’s film uses the family’s story to tell the wider story of the impact of the Troubles on everyday people, particularly those who do not live in privileged areas. “I definitely think they are two aspects to the community that are really underreported, that unemployment is such a problem there and PTSD is so prevalent,” she says of Creggan.

She also shows that though there has been a peace process, that does not mean that there is peace. 

“A war doesn’t end just because there’s a peace agreement, or because Tony Blair and Bill Clinton say it’s over,” she says. “It takes such a long time I think for people to recover from that level of trauma.”

No one is undermining the achievements of the Good Friday Agreement, but I feel people have underestimated how much recovery there needs to be and how much support is needed still. I think so many communities in Northern Ireland are being left behind.

‘Other parts of Derry are thriving’

1916 Easter Rising commemoration A woman walks past a newly painted Republican mural commemorating the 1916 Easter Rising in Creggan Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Through the work of community workers featured in the documentary, Darren O’Reilly and Hugh Brady, we see the efforts being made to bring people together.

“Other parts of Northern Ireland are thriving, other parts of Derry are thriving, and they see this and they go how is this not happening for us,” says O’Shea of people living in Creggan.

“But I think it’s to do with class and it’s to do with educational levels and I think they don’t have the same opportunity to exorcise that level of trauma,” she says of the situation there – noting that some people don’t get to leave the estate in their life, never mind the city of Derry.

I was surprised by the level of poverty and the level of unemployment and I was surprised by the headlines, that there is no police presence, that there is no thought ever of calling the police and they don’t really believe in the government either, so you’ve got this whole estate which is self-policing.

She saw firsthand early on how this works, when she went on a drive with some shooters. “You never quite knew what was real and what wasn’t – I never really knew who was telling me the truth,” she says. 

“Hugh kept saying your phone is tapped, you’re under surveillance. And I never knew whether to believe him or not, but I did go through this phase for about two years where I was presuming all my conversations were being recorded, and being really careful in everything that I was saying.”

She knows she could be wrong: “But the problem with that place is that whatever you thought was definitely wrong [or] definitely an exaggeration turned out to be accurate so I don’t know, I still really don’t know.”

She found that it was difficult to make appointments with people, and began to surmise that “people just became a bit addicted to chaos” . “There were lots of things that happened that were avoidable – Philly never really needed to be shot, I would say. But things just kept snowballing the whole time. It was like entering a different timezone or a different realm at times. It was. It really is its own place.”

Women and film

Easter parades Youths at police vehicles as they try to prevent Members of Derry 1916 Easter Commemoration committee take part in an unregistered parade in the Creggan area Source: Niall Carson

O’Shea did an MA in film production at the age of 23, and went on to win an IFTA award at 25. Over a decade later, she reflects on her journey to her first feature and how the landscape is changing with regard to gender. “I think it’s much easier for young men to progress, or was at least – I think it might be changing profoundly now,” she says.

“But when I look back at some of the things people said to me when I was in my early to mid 20s, people used to savage the stuff I gave them and I would accept it really politely.”

She looks back now and thinks this was “absolutely terrible, I would never speak to somebody like that”. But she also thinks her accepting response was problematic too, saying her male friends would have “just mocked” such savaging of their work. ”I think I just really lacked this sort of self belief – but I do think that is a gender issue.”

O’Shea thinks this is probably why she moved into current affairs, but also says that she thinks she is a better filmmaker “for having to spend so long thinking about what I’m doing, having to convince people to give me money for such a long time”.

She’s worked on projects where she’s asked the cameraman to point the camera one way and they’ve pointed it in another.

“I do think in certain situations, especially in those patriarchal hierarchical old school film ones, a woman’s voice is like a dog whistle, it’s just not audible to certain men,” says O’Shea. “And it’s so tiring and it slows things down so much and it actually just wears you out too.”

She says she knows talented women who’ve left the industry as it got “too much for them to just have to fight that all the time”.

“I think maybe it’ll be nice where it’ll get to a point where it doesn’t have to be discussed,” says O’Shea of gender and film. “But until we get to that point I think there’s absolutely no harm in ventilating this.”

“I appreciate so many amazing men – I have worked with excellent male colleagues, but the numbers [regarding gender balance in film] are so damning.”

She is glad to see things changing – O’Shea particularly notices this when she works with younger crews – and says that “life is much richer when women have more agency”.

A Mother Brings Her Son to be Shot is in cinemas now.

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