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The bad old days

Luke Hanlon told David Hennessy about his new film The Troubles: A Dublin Story which shows the true- and ugly- face of the IRA in Dublin during the dark days of The Troubles.

With The Troubles: A Dublin Story, writer-director Luke Hanlon has created a film that shows the gritty and brutal reality of the IRA in Dublin: Intimating and kneecapping drug dealers, carrying out robberies, all to fund the war machine up north.

The film is based on true accounts from those who were there and experienced the bloody battles first hand.

The film centres around Sean (Ray Malone) and Francis (Adam Redmond), two brothers from the north side of Dublin. Although they are far removed from the horrors of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, when they see on Bobby Sands die from his hunger strike they decide to volunteer for the cause.

What moved you to write and make this film?

Luke Hanlon told The Irish World: “It was just growing up south of the border when this was happening every day up north.

“We’d see films and it was always about these certain types of IRA men and women that were either villainised or lionised.

“Where I grew up, there was a lot of people who were involved in the IRA but it was a completely different story.

“They weren’t soldiers, they weren’t the way they’re conveyed on TV or the media or Hollywood.

“They were just really, really ordinary.

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“A lot of them worked jobs, had families. You’d know them and everyone kind of knew who they were in the neighbourhood.

“It was just the way it was.

“It was that duality of worlds that always fascinated me.

“I always wanted to make a story and then a film about it.

“You can see in the film, it’s not a glamorous life but at the same time, I didn’t want to shy away from what they do.

“These are the stories I know, a lot of the situations in the film happened. It’s fiction but when they take that young fella off in the car, that happened.

“When they’re meeting drug dealers, them things happened.

“When they’re robbing things, it all happened and we don’t want to glamourise it. We don’t want to sanitise it either.

“I think the safest thing as filmmakers: Just tell the truth.

“Put your hands up and say, ‘This is how I see it, I’m not taking a side’.

“People do be giving out to me to take a side.

“It’s not my place.

“My place is to present it and let the audience decide. Let the audience have discussion and please God, people come out talking about it and maybe come out a bit conscious about it’s not as glamorous as young men may think it is, it’s quite ugly.”

Were there decisions you made to ensure it wasn’t depicted in too glorious a way?

“I had a rule on set: Nothing is cool.

“People want to do cool things and there’ll be ideas being thrown around, ‘We could do this and make it look really cool’, and I’d always be like, ‘No, it’s not cool’.

“Then I’d be subconsciously glamorising it.

“It wasn’t cool.

“It was grubby.

“Everyone was awkward and uncomfortable, and no one really knew what the hell they were doing.

“The bosses weren’t super villains, the soldiers weren’t super soldiers. They were just everyone. They could be you. They could be me. They could be anyone.

“That was the kind of rule so we did make a conscious effort.

“As the crew went on, they kind of got it where it’s like, ‘He won’t let us do anything cool’.

“Because it’s not a cool film.
“It’s an enjoyable film, it’s a good story, but it’s not John Wick. It’s not Lethal Weapons.

“It’s much realer and rawer than that.”

Did anything surprise you in your research?

“I think the thing that surprised me the most was the thing that I knew personally, the ordinariness of it.

“Then I tried to get into it and speak to all these people and it just confirmed what I knew.

“It was boring. They’re boring.

“You see Brad Pitt playing the IRA guy or some Hollywood version like Patriot Games, it’s not like that at all down south because they weren’t on the frontlines firing guns, it was basically money making rackets. They were feeding the war machine.

“That’s what they were doing down south. They were doing the robberies and the kidnappings and all that sort of thing. “

“When I looked into it, that really surprised me.

“It’s like, ‘Oh, so it is like that. I was right’.

“It’s really ordinary which is kind of terrifying as well.”

You could have made a dramatic set piece about the robbery but actually you showed it in a gritty way where the three IRA men get stuck in the post office with guards outside. One of them gives the shop lady a back of the hand and her young daughter happens to be there with her..

“That’s the story I know.

“I know that that is actually what happened.

“They were doing a robbery.

“It wasn’t a post office, it was a different situation but there was a rule: No Gardaí, no children.

“The commander of the robbery stood up, ‘That’s it, it’s over’, walked out. They all got arrested and done a lot of time in prison just because there was children, again that stuck with me,because it was such a weird morality.

“They had no problem doing them things and one child on the thing and you were coming out.”

Adam Redmond and Ray Malone play the brothers Francis and Sean.

What was the process? You did interviews with people who had involvement…

“Yeah, so I knew people.. It’s completely fictional but I spoke to a lot of men and women involved, some that I knew personally.

“I’d hear the stories but I’d also see the man behind the stories, so that’s where I kind of got the characters from.

“Then I spoke to victims as well because you’d know people in Dublin.

“The IRA kind of policed the working class communities and then when people stepped out of line, they got a clip behind the ear.

“That’s kind of where it came from and then the story was built on that.

“The opening scene with the Bobby Sands thing, that happened.

“That’s working class folklore.

“When Bobby Sands died, that and Bloody Sunday were the biggest things for recruitment down south for the IRA because they were queuing around the block.

“They didn’t know what they were signing up to.

“They were young men full of testosterone, nothing going on in their lives.

“They didn’t even know who Bobby Sands was really.

“They just saw the TV and then they are just queuing around the block to join up for something, that they feel like they’re part of something.”

We see that in the film, don’t we? In the story of Sean and Francis. They don’t know what they’re getting into…

“It’s naivety and patriotism.

“I’ve had people come at me, ‘It’s pro- IRA’.

“It’s not pro- IRA, I don’t think anyone comes clean out of it.

“It shows the naivety and hypocrisy of everybody involved.”

We see the two different sides. Sean is a bully and treats his wife appallingly. Francis is better but…

“But he’s still a hypocrite.

“He protests but he goes along with a lot of it.

“No one comes out clean, I feel.”

Again they are shown as everyday scumbag whereas IRA brings up other images..


“And it’s from talking to so many people. Everybody, even when we showed the film at festivals, the amount of people that would come up after, grab you on the shoulder and be like, ‘I knew them two’.

“Everyone had a story about one or the other, or both of them characters that lived on their street.

“Everyone knew them characters.

“It’s nice because a lot of people go in with preconceptions of what it is.

“I’ve always maintained it’s a family drama.

“To me it’s about the family on the periphery of this IRA thing.

“They’re just ordinary, what I’m trying to get across is it could be anybody. These are just ordinary young men, nothing spectacular about them, that are just around the periphery of this war going on a couple of miles up the road.

“They just fall into it and that’s kind of where I try to focus the story.

“Someone like Sean would be idolised.

“When he walks out to the street or the pub, the young men would be impressed with him, ‘He’s mad. He’s dangerous’.

“And in communities where I grew up, that’s respect but at the same time when he goes behind closed doors, he’s a monster.

“I wanted to show that side of people and I wanted to put it to the audience.

“You probably end up liking this guy the way you look at Goodfellas and you like them and they’re doing awful things.

“There is no redeeming characteristics about the guys in Goodfellas, but for some reason you like them. You think they’re cool.

“I always like filmmakers who just show the ugliness of them as well.”

Speaking of the brothers, it nearly becomes brother against brother as in The Wind The Shakes the Barley..

“That’s a superb film.

“It’s based on the same principle, the two brothers and how that kind of ideology can just pull even close brothers apart like that.

“I was inspired by that film as well. It’s a beautiful film.”

You spoke about these men having little going on in their own lives. It’s probably important to remember as well it was the 80s…

“Yeah, there’s unemployment. There’s low standards of living.

“There’s nothing really going on in Ireland.

“The 80s were dreary as f**k and when you have no education really, and here’s a chance to be somebody, it comes back to that thing of status in the community and that’s very, very appealing to young men.

“Lads I grew up with ended up in prison or dead from drugs.

“My kind of age it was drugs.

“Everyone got into selling drugs and not because they were bad people, there was status in it. They could be somebody.

“And when you have no other opportunities- Not excusing any of it- Sometimes that kind of thing happens.”

Drugs plays a role in the film. Again, they have been the scourge of communities in Dublin as much as anywhere. The IRA have always liked to see themselves as protectors of the community but they didn’t mind taking the drug dealers’ money…

“Nobody wanted me talking about that. That’s a very raw subject on the Republican side of things.

“Like you just put it, they have great propaganda against the drug dealers: ‘We’re anti-drugs’.

“But they were taxing the drug dealers and nobody talks about it.

“The police didn’t want to talk about it because they benefitted from the IRA policing their own communities and the drug dealers.

“The IRA don’t want to talk about it because it doesn’t bode well for ‘men of the people’ to be charging drug dealers, extorting them really.

“It’s one of those dirty little secrets. Everyone from my kind of community we all knew about it, but no one ever mentioned it.

“When we’re looking back on the history of the IRA it’s like, ‘Oh, we can say they were bad because they killed people and they planted bombs’ and they’ll stand over that but for some reason, no one wants to stand over getting their hands dirty in the heroin trade.

“Murder’s Fine, heroin is not so fine.

“It’s complex.

“Again, there’s no judgement from me.

“I’m just presenting it.

“Once the ceasefire happened, what does a soldier do when there’s no more war?

“A lot of them just left. A lot of them put the guns down and walked away, but a lot just stayed, just another gang.

“I’ve written the sequel and in the sequel I follow it up.

“We’re talking with a few people now about getting that going.

“We follow up into the 90s as the ceasefire is happening and we follow that very story.

“We take a character who has been basically a torment to all these drug dealers for all these years and all of a sudden, the war’s over.

“There’s a lot of angry drug dealers there.

“There’s a lot of angry police.

“There’s a lot of angry citizens and it’s like, ‘What does this man do? He doesn’t have an army behind him anymore’.

“So we go into that in the sequel, which we hope we get made soon.

“In my head, it’s a trilogy.

“We go all the way to the 2000s and the third one’s nearly written already.

“Basically, I wanted to just show when you look back at it, the evolution of a process like this from war at the very start of the first one to basically how it just dies and the new, powerful criminals rise up.”

We’re talking about The Troubles as if it’s long finished but the peace has been put in jeopardy not so long ago by Brexit. What was it like to see that when I’m sure you were at various stages of working on this film?

“That’s people, isn’t it? We’ve a short memory.

“I remember The Troubles. I remember the ceasefire. I remember the Good Friday Agreement, but now that’s taught in history class.

“That’s history now.

“We take it for granted now that there’s no war.

“You know yourself probably from just looking at TV every single day bomb goes off and then its waiting: ‘The Loyalists claim responsibility’. ‘The Republicans claim responsibility’.

“And then it’s, ‘Oh, ten dead, five dead, four injured..’

“And now it’s just nothing.

“I think like everything in life we kind of take it for granted when there’s no war or there’s no COVID or anything and then all of a sudden, something happens and then you realise how lucky you are.”

Is it important to have someone like Rosie, a barmaid played by Sophie Adli, who is a Protestant studying at Trinity? Her romance with Francis shows they are not so different even if it causes problems for both.

“I’m very good friends with an orange man.

“I knew nothing about orange men except they were ‘evil’.

“I got to know loads of Protestants.

“I thought they were the devils.

“They’re normal people.

“They’re just like you and me.”

The Troubles: A Dublin Story is on DVD and digital now

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