Celtic noir: Connemara’s Tarantino-esque crime drama

Owen McDonnell in character as Inspector Fiachra Greene
Owen McDonnell in character as Inspector Fiachra Greene

By David Hennessy

Crime dramas from Scandinavia have become very popular in recent years. Fans of such programmes can enjoy an Irish language counterpart as part of the upcoming London Irish Film Festival. An Bronntanas (The Gift) is contemporary thriller starring Owen McDonnell, well known from ITV hit Single Handed, and veteran American-Irish actor John Finn of Cold Case. It is written and directed by Tom Collins who directed Kings, the film based on the play Kings of Kilburn High Road. An Bronntanas is Ireland’s entry going forward to the Oscars for Best Foreign Language film. It is also a five part series that is airing on TG4 in Ireland.

An Bronntanas begins with JJ returning home from Canada to his fishing village in Connemara for his father’s funeral, then reluctantly staying to take over his father’s failing factory. It is at his father’s month’s mind that JJ and his unreliable brother Macdara are among those called out to sea on a stormy night, answering a call about an abandoned vessel. After the rescue crew find a huge quantity of drugs, JJ wants to inform the garda while Macdara disagrees, persuading JJ that this could his way to avoid making so many unemployed and turn the factory around.

Of course, it is not so simple. Owen McDonnell’s detective Fiachra Greene arrives to investigate what the boat was doing there and what happened to its valuable cargo, as do the vicious owners of the drugs.

Owen tells The Irish World: “I’ve heard the phrase Celtic noir bandied about a lot. I think it owes something to the Scandinavian crime drama in that they’ve shown us if a story is good enough and well enough told, it doesn’t really matter what language you tell it in. But I think it’s slightly different in tone, it’s not as dour, as dark as consistently as the Scandinavian dramas have been. There is a humour in it that I think goes through all Irish tragedy. If you look to plays and stuff like that, there’s always humour.

“Some people who aren’t Irish when they watch some Irish stuff, they can’t believe people are laughing in it but we always seem to need that comedic thing to get us through.

“If it’s clever and intense enough and sharp enough, people will watch it and I think TG4 will be hoping that this will be a drama that would be good enough for people who maybe don’t watch television in Irish to want to tune into it because it’s a drama rather than because it’s an Irish language programme.

Owen acts with John Finn, well known from Cold Case, who plays his father in the drama
Owen acts with John Finn, well known from Cold Case, who plays his father in the drama

“I like the idea of trying to promote the language not for the language’s sake but by making stuff that’s good so that people want to watch it rather than shoving it down people’s throats. Why not watch this and forget about the fact it’s in Irish? If the language is promoted through that, I think that’s a good thing. Hopefully it will become something that people feel the need to watch, despite the fact that it’s in Irish.

“I read the script and I was blown away by the ambition of it. There was so much action in it and a really good, sharp modern story that kind of reflected modern life in the rest of Ireland and not an idealised look at it. I was very keen.”

Quite a coup for an Irish drama, let alone an Irish language drama is the addition to the cast of Cold Case’s John Finn. However, it is not the first time Finn has acted in Irish, taking part in a celebrated Cold Case promo for TG4 where when an Irish suspect refused to answer interrogation questions in English In the promo, Finn’s Lieutenant John Stillman asked in flawless Irish: “Cá bhfuil an bhean seo? Ar mharaigh tú í?” (“Where is this woman? Did you murder her?”).

“John is of Irish descent, John loves Ireland and in a meeting about something else with Tom Collins, it transpired that John had been coming over to Donegal for years learning Irish in the summers so he jumped at the opportunity to spend two and a half months in Ireland working. He did us all a big favour by coming over and doing it for a lot less than he gets paid for Cold Case I would imagine.

“He’s a really nice lovely guy, no ego. He got into acting late, he was a merchant seaman for years, drove a taxi cab in New York for a long time so he’s a very down to earth guy.”

Although the actors got on great, there seems to be something chilly about the relationship between Inspector Fiachra Greene and the John Finn’s local garda Sean Og: “It’s kind of hinted at more than made very clear but I think you can tell by the way they interact with each other that there are some issues probably concerning his mother and why they ended up in the west of Ireland in the first place.

“My character is coming in to investigate a crime but that’s complicated by the fact that he grew up in the area so he’s effectively investigating friends and family. That complicates his mission and the fact that he is effectively his father’s superior in the investigation doesn’t necessarily help their relationship.”

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The premise of An Bronntanas reminds The Irish World of True Romance. Written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by the late Tony Scott, True Romance saw Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette as a couple who find themselves with a large quantity of uncut cocaine. When they seek to cash in, they find themselves on the wrong side of some dangerous people: “I think Tommy would probably be very pleased with that comparison. I suppose it has that Tarantino sense to it and there is some pretty graphic Tarantino-esque violence to come so I think that’s a fair comparison. If you’ve transplanted True Romance from LA to Connemara, it could work.”

The theme of family seems to be central to An Bronntanas not just with Owen’s character and his father but also with the brothers at the story’s heart who have an uneasy relationship: “There’s a lot to do with the questioning of the loyalty we have to family and whether that is worthwhile. How much do you say: I would do the right thing for my family, I would do the wrong thing for my family? The question of loyalty is brought up quite a lot in it: Familial loyalty and loyalty to where you’re from as well. How much you would do for your family if you knew it was actually wrong, if it went against your own moral compass for your family.”

It is easy to identify with JJ’s moral dilemma. He is facing hardship at the factory and wants to see nobody unemployed when their group’s discovery seems like good fortune coming to the rescue: “In the initial moment, it seems nothing bad is going to happen that hasn’t already happened. It seems like a clean deal but you do the wrong thing for the right reasons, it’s still the wrong thing. You may despise drug dealers or drug peddlers but can you despise them if you are one yourself even if you are doing it for the right reasons? It’s all those types of dilemmas. What would you do in that situation?”

Owen has lived in London for seventeen years since first coming to study drama at Central School of Speech and Drama. Returning home to Galway to film, did he notice that Ireland was still, like JJ, feelings the effects of recession? “I think they are. I know from my own experience that things are hard. There are a lot of my generation, mid 30s-early 40s, who are kind of stuck where they are. If they’ve bought a house and they’ve been lucky enough to keep their job, they’re in negative equity. They can’t sell their house and if they lose their job, that’s it: They lose everything. There’s a lot of that. People are keeping their head above water but it’s a delicate balance.”

Being well known as Sergeant Jack Driscoll in Single-Handed that ran on RTE and ITV from 2007 to 2010, did Owen have any reservations about taking a part as another police officer? “It’s not just a guard, it’s a guard who’s the son of the local sergeant [Jack Driscoll replaced his father Gerry in the role of guard in his own home town]. The comparisons are there but when you see Fiachra’s motivations and just the type of character he is, he’s very different from Jack Driscoll from Single-Handed. He’s ruthlessly ambitious. My agent said the same thing to me and I said: ‘No, have a read of it’. It’s very different. Those fears of being typecast were completely put to bed by the script.”

An Bronntanas screens as part of the London Irish Film Festival at The Tricycle Theatre on at 8.30pm Wednesday November 19, followed by a Q&A with director Tom Collins and cast members. For more information, go to http://irishfilmfestivallondon.com/

The series will be available to view internationally online at tg4.tv. 

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