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'People are telling very vulnerable, raw stories': Documentary series looks at dark moments in Ireland's past

The series, which is on TG4, will look at the Tuam Mother and Baby Home in its next episode.

Source: TG4/YouTube

A NEW DOCUMENTARY series will look this coming week at the story of a man seeking the truth about what happened to his sister at the Tuam mother and baby home.

The third episode of Finné, which goes out on TG4, will feature Peter Mulryan talking about his experiences in the home. The title ‘Finné’ means ‘witness’, and the series gathers personal testimonies from people about major incidents which happened in Ireland’s past. 

The first episode looked at the murder of 19-year-old Una Lynskey in 1971, and the quashing of a conviction over her death. The second episode looked at the trial of Gail O Rorke, who was acquitted of helping her friend Bernadette Forde take her own life. 

Producer Paddy Hayes said that the show is all about personal testimony, and that he was inspired by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin saying his u-turn on his stance on the Eighth Amendment was down to hearing the personal testimonies of four women. 

It showed Hayes “the power of personal testimony to change minds and alter people’s preconceptions”.

“In Finné, which means witness, that was very much the inspiration – to give people the chance to tell their story,” he said. This means that in each episode (every one of which tackles a different topic), the person at the centre of the story directs their comments to camera, making it an intimate experience for the viewer.

Raw and honest

PastedImage-82060 Peter Mulryan's search for truth about the Tuam mother and baby home features in next week's episode.

There are a number of directors across the series, and Hayes said that they were inspired by a new wave of documentary coming from the United States “where it’s very much story driven, where someone’s telling a story – it’s almost told like feature film”.

“So you have really narrative-driven documentary that you’re doing, a story-driven documentary,” he said.

On next week’s show on Peter Mulryan, Peter tells his story and of course there’s a little bit of interpretation and context from other commentators, but really it’s a chance for someone to tell a story in a raw, honest way.

It took a bit of time to get some of the people to agree to take part in the series, but Hayes said that generally they didn’t chose subjects whose aim was just to go on television.

“People are telling very vulnerable raw stories, they go into very deep psychological places that require deft handling and they require great trust in the person who is telling the story,” said Hayes. “So I do assure people that we are far from tabloid journos, it’s not salacious. Really the idea is that it should be cathartic.”

Of the episodes that have aired to date, he can “say very confidently that these people have got great closure and great catharsis telling their stories”.

The aim of Finné is to tell the story sensitively and non-salaciously, said Hayes. “There is drama,” he added, saying that he wants each episode to spark a discussion among those who have viewed it.

Four to six-hour interviews

The series isn’t just about crime – one episode, for example, will look at the controversial Wood Quay excavation in Dublin through the story of archaeologist Pat Wallace. Further episodes will feature Louise Hannon, a transgender woman who took a workplace discrimination case against her employer, and Ann McCabe, who talks about the murder of her husband Detective Garda Jerry McCabe.

“When we were casting – if that’s the right word – around, we were quite machiavellian in that we said ‘where’s there a good story’?” said Hayes. “And while some of them are crime oriented I was very reluctant to stick to that alone because I think a personal testimony of living through a trying time, we shouldn’t restrict ourselves to that, I think it would get a bit samey.”

Filming involved sitting down for interviews that could be four to six hours long, which were then followed up by more filming. “It’s a very simple idea but it means that we really give the time and space for that person to tell their own story,” said Hayes. 

We want to see those emotions etched on people’s faces. Be it sorrow, relief, joy – that’s where the drama is. Very little of the documentary is contemporary if you like. People are reflecting on things they’ve lived through.

Of the next episode on Tuam, directed by Louise Ní Fhiannachta, Hayes said it speaks to the power of personal testimony. “I could read 10 articles on the mother and baby home in Tuam but until you hear someone who has lived through it telling their story in all its raw power, you really don’t get that sense of it,” he said. 

While Ireland is no stranger to looking back at its past – the popularity of shows such as Reeling in the Years is proof of this – Finné is a new way of looking at our country’s dark moments. Are we at a different point now where we can examine things with a fresh eye?

Hayes said that he does think the Eighth Amendment referendum did put a new emphasis on the power of personal testimony. “These are ordinary people telling extraordinary stories and that can inform people, whereas perhaps up to now we were dependent on people with a degree of fame maybe, or journalists or politicians to change attitudes. I think we are in an age now where you and I can tell a story and change attitudes,” said Hayes.

Work on the second series of Finné is underway.

The next episode of Finné, which is narrated by RTÉ’s Orla O’Donnell, is on Wednesday at 9.30pm on TG4.

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