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'When you engage with your own language, there's something very healing for the soul'

The director of Arracht, an Irish language film about the famine, speaks to us.

THERE’S A SCENE in the Irish film Arracht – out this weekend after a Covid-caused wait – where the main character stands in a narrow stretch of water. His ribs are visible, his muscles taut. He’s in the grip of hunger and grief. The scene lays bare the impact of the Great Famine on Irish people: the despair, the starvation.

The film itself, directed and written by Tom Sullivan, takes its name from the Irish word for monster. In Arracht, the monster is the Famine, but it’s also grief, and it’s almost literally also a monstrous character who wreaks havoc against the wishes of those around them.

Arracht is a film about when the peaceful existence of a young family is threatened by monsters, and how those monsters haunt the father – farmer Colmán Sharkey (played by Dónall Ó Héalaí) – for years after.

It was made in the Irish language, with some short sections in English, under Cine4, a partnership between TG4, Fís Éireann/Screen Ireland and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland which was set up to develop original feature films in Irish.

Shot in Lettermullen and made for just €1.2m, its slick look belies its low budget. It was Ireland’s entry for consideration for Best International Feature Film at the 93rd Academy Awards, but sadly didn’t make the cut (this year’s submission for the same category, Foscadh, also stars Ó Healaí). 

“We were supposed to go last April into cinemas but that all got stopped and it gave it a bit of an extended life,” says director Tom Sullivan when speaking to The Journal. “Since then it did the Oscar run and that was amazing.”

He didn’t originally intend the film (which stars Michael McElhatton, Peter Coonan and Siobhán O’Kelly) to be about the Famine. “I started out with the character and one of my interests when I’m developing character is isolation, loneliness and also trauma,” says Sullivan, who has worked in film and TV and whose first short premiered in 2011. 

“It all sounds very dark but even when writing comedy I tend to start with characters who have something going on – which is most of us as humans.”

He wanted to set the film in Connemara, as he has “a lifelong relationship with Connemara and the sea, and it’s all very evocative to me”, though initially the first few scenes he wrote “could have been set any time, any place”. 

The Famine started to make its way into the film in large part because Sullivan felt that “the ghost of the Famine walks the roads” of Connemara, “so they forced their way into it”.

“And also the trauma thing, I started to draw parallels between Ireland’s trauma and this individual [character's] trauma – and as a nation we were traumatised back then and we’ve been dealing with it ever since,” says Sullivan. “And now I think we’re starting to deal with it a lot more.”

He wanted the film to be authentic, to tell the story of the Famine through an individual’s eyes.

We don’t step away from what actually happened, even to historical fiction. The attitudes of the English and the landlords at the time are echoed in the film based on historic facts.

But he says he “didn’t set out to make a film about any kind of political statements”.

When he researched the topic, he found that “what happened at the time was a perfect story of consequence and with that also an atrocious laissez faire foreign policy by our rulers at the time. There was racism in there too but I don’t hammer that home – but it’s there if you look for it.”

There’s a powerful moment in the film when Colmán says of the Famine: “This didn’t just happen to us – it was done to us.”

Luck with language

Sullivan grew up in Tallaght and attended an Irish language school. “I was very lucky and it changed my life,” he says.

“Sometimes the Irish language gets a bad rap with people because of how it’s taught. I was lucky enough to go to an Irish language school. I don’t remember having to learn Irish, it was something that happened,” he adds.

A lot of people who went to national school had a rough time with Irish, I understand that. Sometimes there’s a reticence to grab it and embrace it but what I’ve discovered through my journey with it is it is very endearing and I think it makes this film special.

The film was quick to come together, written in 2017, shot in October 2018 and ready to come out in late 2019. The speed was due to the aforementioned film scheme.

Being selected for consideration for the Oscars “was brilliant”. “It was one of those moments with your life when you go ‘this is mad’,” he says. “I set out to tell a story and little did I know the ramifications of it would be so large and life-changing really. It’s been incredible, it’s the gift that keeps on going.”

Dark beauty

Sullivan is full of praise for cinematographer Kate McCullough, and the work she did on the film, capturing the beauty and eeriness of the Connemara landscape. “Landscape is a special effect you can never pay for,” says Sullivan. “That part of the West of Ireland is incredible.”

They looked for the “dark beauty instead of the prettiness” of Connemara when deciding on locations. “Anytime it started to look too pretty we pulled away from that and what we wanted was water on rocks, and rain and browns, and colours of that time of year.”

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The changing landscape helped the narrative, as it echoed how the area went from prosperous to post-Famine.

Another visual transformation in the film is that of the lead, Dónall Ó Héalaí, who had to physically change to show the impact of the Famine. He lost a lot of weight in order to play the emaciated Colmán.

“He really put himself out there. It’s a huge part of the film when someone is willing to put himself on the line for it – it really ups the game,” says Sullivan.

Sullivan currently has two new scripts in development, one which is set in Glasgow 50 years after the Famine. The other is vastly different, set in 1986 inner city Dublin. 

When he was making Arracht, did he ever come across any criticism or concern about the fact it was in Irish? No, he says. “It is a non-thing.”

“Anyone who’s watched it has said that because of the authenticity of the language you forget very quickly you’re watching a film in Irish.”

I think it’s a magical thing we manage to achieve and I think it’s something people go along to see just for that. When you can engage with your own language without it being a ‘thing’, there’s something very healing for soul about that.

Although Arracht is about pain and hunger, Sullivan describes it as being “a film of hope”, and says the use of the Irish language in it is “nourishing”. 

“What I get from it is we come from a really heroic nation of people who survived these terrible things, and I think if you get anything from the film it’s the pride in where we are and what we have endured and how we come out of it. And I hope people enjoy it on that level.

“When I watch it I get that feeling of ‘we are a great little country’ and we need to put our pride in it.”

Arracht is in cinemas now.

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