Barley and me
Rachael Moriarty, co-writer and co-director of the Irish language film Róise & Frank spoke to David Hennessy ahead of the film closing the Irish Film London Festival this month.
Following quick on the heels of The Quiet Girl, Róise & Frank is the latest Irish language film to get tongues- and tails- wagging.
Róise & Frank is a love story between a grieving widow and a stray dog starring veteran Irish language actress Bríd Ní Neachtain as a middle-aged woman reeling from the death of her husband and who can hardly muster the enthusiasm to get out of bed.
But when a stray dog appears from nowhere, sits right in her late husband’s chair and leads her on the same walk she used to take with her husband Frank, she starts to believe her husband has come back to her- just like he said he would in his dying words- but in the form of a lurcher- terrier cross.
The film deals with themes like loneliness and grief but is at its heart an uplifting comedy tale- or should that be tail- of what happens when people start to believe.
Rachael Moriarty, who wrote and directed the film with Peter Murphy, told The Irish World: “When somebody loses somebody they often tell the story of getting a sign from the universe or a symbol, maybe a robin coming into your back garden that wasn’t there before, or people sometimes identify with butterflies sending them a message of sorts.
“So we were kind of saying, ‘Well, what if that was a larger story and somebody really believed that their loved one had returned and it was a dog?’
“That was an idea that just grabbed us and I think it grabs people as well.
“Like most things, it developed from a random stray thought.”
Any pun intended, ‘stray’ thought?
“I didn’t intend that thought at all,” she laughs.
Bríd Ní Neachtain is a veteran actress of both the Abbey Theatre and the TG4 soap opera Ros na Rún. There was never anyone else thought of for the lead role.
“She’s so experienced.
“I mean, she’s wonderful.
“I mean, Bríd is somebody that we were talking to when we were writing the scripts so she’s always been just a central part of the film, when we were writing it.”
The film also stars Irish World award winner Lorcan Cranitch as a neighbour who has eyes for Róise and could do without the interference of the mutt whether he is or is not her reincarnated husband.
“Lorcan himself would say that he’s not a native or a very fluent confident speaker.
“But he showed, like in so many Irish people, he actually had loads in him.
“I mean, he’s brilliant in it.
“His Irish is great. His performance as Donncha is brilliant.
“I think he played it really well because he did the thing that really good actors do, he found the humanity of the character whose actions may be very bad, but whose motivations we can understand.
“I think he did that really well.”
The part of Frank is played by Barley the dog who provides so much of the comedy with little looks or sounds that seem to convey what he is thinking. Rachael says this is all down to his expert trainer.
“He’s such a brilliant canine actor and Bríd acts so brilliantly with him.
“You just identify so well with dogs.
“They are like friends. You attribute so much to them.
“They have personalities. They can understand you.
“You can read their mood, they can read your mood.
“So we just thought that that bond is just such a special rich one, that it would work. That you could believe someone came back. It had to be believable. We had to be able to believe what she believed.
“And we did cast a dog with a face that we thought would also help you to believe what she believed.
“He has quite a lovely expression.
“He has nice dark eyes against light fur, you can read his face very well.
“And that really is down to the skill of the animal and the animal trainer who was on set with Barley all the time.
“He was just able to really interpret the script, break it down and get all those wonderful looks and interactions that Barley gives through the film.
“They knew what Barley had to do and he was treated like a member of the cast to be honest.
“He turned up on time, he did his work and it was great.
“I thought it would have been kind of like, ‘Oh, how are we going to do this?’
“But with the correct dog, it was really a pleasure.
“For any animal lover, I think it’s just lovely to see those big close ups and the expression that you read into a dog’s face.”
Delighted to have Frank back in her life again, Róise cooks the dog steak and allows him to sit on the couch watching the hurling which bemuses her adult son Alan who, like much of the village, thinks his mother is gone mad.
Shot in the Gaeltacht area of Ring, Co Waterford and obviously filmed during summer, the film shows the beauty of the country when the sun is shining.
Passionate about his hurling when he was a man, Frank the dog even helps a young boy named Maidchi to gain the confidence to become the star of his school hurling team.
Hurling is also central to the story which was another reason for setting the film in Waterford.
“Hurling is a very big part of the film.
“We wanted somewhere with hurling, we wanted somewhere with Gaeilge, a Gaeltacht area.
“We had been thinking of other places but we went down on a visit actually and even driving along, every kid is walking along with a camán, with a hurley stick in their hand. It’s in the blood down there.
“And then it’s such a beautiful Gaeltacht as well, it’s such a beautiful landscape and there’s a great community so it was so perfect in so many ways.
“People there are so lovely and they were so helpful and so welcoming and they created a lovely environment to make the film.
“There’s a very strong amateur dramatic and local theatre there, they’re arty people in that area and so an awful lot of the cast are people who wouldn’t have acted on screen before but just became part of the whole process and really helped us to achieve something that is difficult, which is to put a community on screen, to really get a whole community.
“You’re looking at a community where Irish is the daily spoken language and the kids speak Irish every day and they have a lovely culture, so we wanted to set it in a real Gaeltacht and shoot it in a real Gaeltacht and have people from the area.
“And I think that for an audience watching, it gives an authenticity. I mean, for audiences, even in Ireland and abroad, you’re getting a little peek into a Gaeltacht community and you’re seeing a lot of the real life.
“It was good to have Irish in the film, but to have Irish in the film because it’s in a Gaeltacht, not to superimpose it in any way on the story.
“The story is set there so that’s the language.
“It’s part of our culture and I hope it’s accessible to people.”
Rachael says the authenticity of the hurling scenes is down to Claire O’Connor, the four-time All- Ireland camogie winner with Wexford and winner of three All Stars. Claire plays the coach Sinead in the film.
“It’s such a visual, amazing, fast sport, and it’s challenging to capture it in a dramatic way.
“It moves so fast that it’s hard to choreograph, so we were very lucky that we had a brilliant choreographer of the actual hurling.
“Claire O’ Connor just took the boys and ran through moves with them, and choreographed it just because it’s so fast moving, that it could just be chaos and hard to follow.
“She’s a real superstar.
“She was a key part of making sure that the hurling was correct and she was also just brilliant at picking up really nice moves and showing a little bit of the fluid poetry of the game.
“It was something we really wanted to get on screen.
“Claire was instrumental, we just got a good person who knew what she was doing, that was the secret.
“I always think, and Peter’s the same, if you’re doing anything to do with sport, you have to have an expert in the sport. You have to have somebody who really knows what they’re doing. Because it’s the first thing any sports fan will criticise.
“People can lose belief.”
Róise & Frank follows The Quiet Girl (An Cailín Ciúin) which broke box office records for an Irish language film.
Just last year The Irish Film London Festival was opened with an Irish language film in famine drama Arracht.
The Irish language is going through something of a resurgence, particularly in film, that shows no signs of stopping.
“It’s brilliant. I think it’s fantastic to see the success of all those films because I think it just builds a whole new chapter for Irish language films.
“I’m an Irish speaker but I know plenty of people who would feel a little bit underconfident about their Gaeilge. They would have done it in school, but they’re not going to speak it.
“It’s just changing that idea of a negative that I can’t connect with into something that you can sit back and enjoy a story and connect with.
“This allows people to connect with that part of them without having to speak it.
“It’s great that people are hearing Irish and seeing films in Irish.
“When we were in the US, people came out to the screenings who had never heard that there was a language such as Gaeilge.
“So they would go, ‘What is that language?’
“So that’s fantastic in cultural terms that people get to be aware of it.
“People can see all those wonderful films that have been made under the scheme so far and feel connected to it without having to be fluent Irish speakers, you don’t have to be.
“I don’t come from a Gaeltacht. I come from the east coast from Wicklow where we don’t have a Gaeltacht.
“I suppose I’m an example of somebody who doesn’t come from the heartland of Gaeilge but still can be a part of the Irish language cultural world.
“And that’s why I’m so keen that people at all levels can be a part of this.
“I think in Irish history maybe the language was divisive, and I hope that’s really behind us now and we can all kind of enjoy it culturally.
“I think you have to acknowledge that people would have felt that it excluded them.
“I know people who would have felt, ‘Oh no, that’s not for me because I don’t speak Irish’.
“I hope that’s gone.
“It should be something we can all enjoy.”
Just like the The Quiet Girl discovered the talent of Catherine Clinch, Roise & Frank gives us the young performance of Ruadhan de Faoite who plays Maidchi.
“Ruadhán was somebody we found through local casting and he was just wonderful and fantastic in the role.
“I just think he knocked it out of the park. He was brilliant.”
They say you should never work with children or animals. Well Rachel has done both here..
“The end of that quote is because they will outshine you, upstage you. I think there was a bit of a risk for some of the other actors because Ruadhán is so strong and Barley is so strong and they’re so charming.
“The children or animals thing, it really pays off, doesn’t it?
“I like both, children and animals.
“I was happy to work with them,” Rachel says laughing.
Like Clinch, Ruadhán has a way of conveying a lot even not saying much.
“Isn’t it amazing? Two brilliant performances from young actors, amazing.
“Yeah, they’re brilliant. And there is something very compelling.
“And isn’t it great actually that the Irish language film scheme is bringing new faces to screen?
“It’s growing, it’s about the future. It’s about seeing new faces, new talent.
“I think looking to the future is really important as well.”
How much is Rachael and other cast and crew members looking forward to coming to London for the festival?
“Very much looking forward to that.”
Gerry Maguire, Head of Irish Film London, told us recently that Róise & Frank is right to close the festival as it is light hearted and funny and a good note to end the festival on.
Rachael agrees: “That’s what people have been saying to us. They have been saying that they’ve been leaving the cinema quite uplifted.
“Even though it is a film that deals with serious themes and deals with loss and grief and all that, the ending I think gives people a lot of heart. So yeah, I hope it will be a lovely night in London.”
“People have been quite moved, I think, because we’re big believers in animals and how much humans can get from that relationship.
“Even if you don’t believe the central conceit of the film, that she believes her husband has come back as a dog, the relationship with animals themselves can be very uplifting.
“I think that people get a lot of warmth out of that actually.
“I think that is another reaction that we’ve had.”
When do we get to talk to the man who steals the show then, is Barley coming to the festival? “It would be brilliant if he was.”
Has Barley seen the film himself? “I haven’t heard his review of the movie yet.
“I haven’t heard whether he’s lapping up all the praise or not.
“I think he’s generally more interested in sausages than the critics so we’ll have to see what he thinks.”
Róise & Frank screens at 8pm on Sunday 20 November at the Irish Film London Closing Gala at Riverside Studios.
The Irish Film London Festival runs 16- 20 November.
For more information, go to irishfilmlondon.com.