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What does it mean to be Irish?

Frank Mannion told David Hennessy about his documentary Quintessentially Irish which seeks to answer that question. His journey took him to the White House, London’s St Patrick’s Parade and McGovern Park in Ruislip.

What does it mean to be Irish? This is the impossible question that Frank Mannion seeks to answer in his new documentary, Quintessentially Irish with contributors such as former James Bond actor Pierce Brosnan, President Michael D Higgins, Oscar-winning actor Jeremy Irons, rock star and philanthropist Bob Geldof, history making jockey Rachael Blackmore, GAA commentator Marty Morrissey, Olympic gold medallist Usain Bolt, actor Andrew Scott, Prince Albert of Monaco, and many others.

The film also features London Mayor Sadiq Khan and chef Anna Haugh who Frank spoke to at last year’s St Patrick’s parade in London.

For the production, Mannion also had exclusive access to the White House on St Patrick’s Day and Áras an Uachtaráin during the visit of Joe Biden.

Originally from Carlow Frank Mannion, who lives in London, told The Irish World: “Because I’m an immigrant myself, I wanted to tell a version of the immigrant’s story.

“6 million people in the UK have an Irish grandparent, there is 82 million people of Irish heritage around the world.

“No one’s interested in my immigrant’s story because that’s the same story as millions of others.

“Because no one’s interested in my immigrant’s story or the average Joe Irish immigrant story, you have to find someone who people would be interested in and that is Pierce Brosnan.

“He’s from another culchie county, Meath.

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“He is the son of a single mother.

“She moved to London ahead of Pierce but when she got her nursing degrees, she had enough stability to bring Pierce over with her age 11 and from then it was a process of assimilation at school in Putney, finding a dream to become an actor, fulfilling that dream, and the irony of part of that dream is that his big break was a TV series about the famine that was called The Manions of America.

“That was actually partly shot in Carlow.

“I remember when the Hollywood circus came to town, so Pierce Brosnan is my first recollection of anything to do with the movie business in Ireland. It was that gig that got him an American agent and he got Remington Steele and built an incredible career.

“His story is the American dream which every Irish immigrant- or every immigrant no matter what nationality- seeks to have.

“We’re absolutely thrilled and honoured to have Pierce in the film telling us not just his personal story but his family history in the film.

“He’s a proud Navan man.

“His Irishness is genuine and heartfelt and he’s a lovely warm engaging guy: Very natural, no airs or graces. Turned up without any publicist or agent. Just him, just a really lovely man who has got a fascinating story and is clearly a very talented guy who loves to work, as he says.

“Like he said in the film, his mother is 91. She lives in South London and he tries to find projects that brings him back to see her.

“I love the fact when you look at his career there is James Bond, Mamma Mia and so forth and then subtly underneath that there are projects that are great projects that are close to his mother like The Last Rifleman which he shot in Northern Ireland, Four Letters of Love which he’s just finished with Gabriel Byrne also in Northern Ireland.

“It’s getting close to his mother and that’s a real Irish mammy trait, isn’t it?”

But it is wrong for readers  to think this film is all about Pierce Brosnan or any of the other well known people who feature, it includes all walks of life..

“It’s really just a slice of life of modern Ireland and while it has the likes of Pierce Brosnan, it’s about trying to put your finger on what is Irish.

“It’s an impossible task to set, but all the film is meant to be is to be thought provoking, to consider your own Irish identity if you’re Irish born and raised or if you have second generation or third generation, or in Joe Biden’s case no family connection back until the 1840s and he very vehemently declares himself Irish.

“It was great to have someone like the former Ambassador Daniel Mulhall who’s now a successful author.


“I thought, ‘That’s interesting, former Ambassador also is a Joycean scholar now, maybe I can get him to talk about Joyce’, which I did. Not many people know that James Joyce set up the first cinema in Ireland.

“We wanted to find examples or case studies about surprising stories.”

The film also tells the story of how two Irish students stole priceless paintings from the Tate Gallery in London in political protest.

“Similarly again the Tate Gallery and the Hugh Lane paintings, it was fantastic and Stephen Hogan is the nephew of the ‘thief’.

“They’re not thieves obviously, they were two university students who had a patriotic cause that we needed to get those paintings back to their rightful home in Dublin as Hugh Lane had written in his will.

“They expected to fail spectacularly at the heist and instead walked out in broad daylight down the steps of the Tate with this priceless piece of impressionist art by Berthe Morisot, the greatest female impressionist painting.

“That caused a major story around the world that knocked the wedding of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier off the top story of the newspapers.

“It was great to get Prince Albert, the offspring of that relationship: Another proud man of Irish origin.”

Your journey also took you to McGovern Park in Ruislip with some shots of matches being played out there..

“I thought it’s important to show that it’s a very impressive stadium out there and the standard of the sport there is amazing, both hurling and Gaelic football. It’s incredibly high standard.

“Northolt Airport is literally right next door so in a lull in a match you see a jet taking off.

“I love it because that’s the airport that the royal family have traditionally used, Queen Elizabeth and now the king.

“And then the first thing she sees ascending from that airport is a GAA match. It’s a fantastic image to think of the king and queen for decades seeing over Ruislip that that’s their first image, a quintessentially Irish image, while leaving the realm.

“I think it was the PHL Hydraulics cup match.

“I had to google PHL Hydraulics but again it’s a very successful Irish immigrant story.

“We didn’t really cover it in the film but it’s amazing just how Irish people really own construction in London if not nationally.

“It’s amazing what we’ve built.

“Famously obviously it was the London underground and stuff like that, but Ballymore built Battersea Power Station.

“It’s incredible, our reach. It really is.

“Irish people aren’t bold and brash which is a good thing. No one is boasting about how the Irish built Battersea Power Station but they did, it’s phenomenal really.

“A more famous story is James Hoban designed the White House.

“They refer to James Hoban but they don’t refer to the fact that he was Irish, from Kilkenny.

“He lived in Ireland until he was 32.

“The fact that an Irishman designed and built the White House, probably the most famous building in the world, is an incredible immigrant’s story.”

Frank’s film journey would take him to the White House. He remembers how he got the President of the USA to speak about his Irishness.

“I did manage to get a couple of questions answered.

“It was quite amusing because there was a breaking story that day that there was a big Pentagon leak on Ukraine.

“That leaked just an hour before so Biden was running late and when he appeared the US press core, who are savage, were just shouting at him, ‘Are American secrets safe, Mr President?’

“He was ignoring them and I just asked him, ‘Why do Irish shoe makers make great Presidents?’

“Because his great great great grandfather and Barack Obama’s great great great grandfather  were both shoemakers in Ireland before they emigrated in the 1840s.

“And having pretended to be a very deaf elderly man ignoring the White House press core, he was suddenly a man of great hearing, heard my soft Irish lilt through the crowd and answered my question very vividly.

“In fact it obviously struck a chord with him because later that day the social media account of the President of the United states, POTUS, and Barack Obama did a joint social media post saying, ‘Who would have thought the great great great grandsons of Irish shoemakers would end up being presidents of the United States?’

“And that was directly after my question to him on that exact same subject.

“The last time I checked, it had 6 million views and likes on social media. so I’m glad I helped the White House press office with their Irish- American president that day and Barack Obama as well got in on the act.”

Prior to this Frank and his crew had filmed the St Patrick’s parade in London.

“With London, it was great to have so much of the parade.

“It was a great experience.

“It makes you proud to be Irish really when you see the strength and how long that parade is.”

Frank spoke to Mayor Sadiq Khan at the parade.

“It was great seeing Sadiq and he was wearing Father Murphy’s gear.”

At that parade Sadiq referred to the dark days of signs that read, ‘No Blacks, No Irish Dogs’.

“When I first came over to London, it was still people telling me Paddy Irishman jokes.

“I haven’t heard that in decades.

“That’s all gone.

“Daniel Mulhall says it’s because we have changed it. The Irish who have come over over the years have managed to change the perception of who the Irish are because of our hard work, our endeavour, our contribution to British society and because of that, the British and all over the world in every country have a much more positive approach to the Irish than they did in previous decades where the Irish here were segregated and discriminated against. It was pretty shocking. the stories you hear.

“I don’t hear those kind of jokes or those kind of stereotypical stories, it’s gone thank Goodness.”

Mayor Khan did surprise Frank with someone else he described as a ‘Londoner’.

“We were kind of shocked that he said Oscar Wilde is a quintessential Londoner. I mean he is kind of right, he is a quintessential Londoner.

“People have dual identities and Osca Wilde is a very good example.

“Sadiq Khan is absolutely right.

“Yeah he is a quintessential Londoner, every play we have read or seen onstage of Oscar Wilde is essentially British high society so he’s right to say he’s a quintessential Londoner but a dagger goes kind of through your heart when you hear that because he was born  on Merrion Square. He went to Trinity in Dublin, he’s a quintessential Irishman but there are dual identities.”

There is a very funny exchange or juxtaposition of clips in that you ask three young girls, all in GAA tops and at the St Patrick’s parade in London if they, who all have English accents, are Irish.

They all answer yes in unison and without hesitation.

The funny bit comes when you then ask their friend with an Irish accent if her mates with English accents are Irish and she says, ‘No, they’re plastic’.

“We were slightly worried whether we should edit that out because we don’t want to offend them obviously, It’s meant in gest and obviously they are all Irish of course.

“Under anyone’s definition of Irish, they are.

“Yes, there is this pejorative term ‘plastic paddy’ but we felt we had to put it into the film because it is, especially in the UK anyway, used as a term so we thought, ‘We’re not offending anyone’.

“I hope people find it amusing. We know the girls themselves don’t find it in anyway offensive but it’s just a desire of all of us to be Irish.”

You stayed away from social issues but raised the big question of a united Ireland.

“It’s funny because we filmed that day in Bushmills whiskey distillery.

“We drove a mile down the road and there was Bushmills village which has all the union jack flags and we were kind of shocked.

“That’s on the way to the Giant’s Causeway and so we just got out of the car and we just took some impromptu voxpops from the local population. None of those people were cherry picked.

“We literally just said, ‘Hi, we’re making a documentary. Can we just ask you a couple of direct questions?’

“They were all very happy to answer, which surprised my Northern Irish cameraman because he says that is always swept under the carpet.

“He was amazed how open people were about the situation but also how raw the situation still is.

“Just because you’re Catholic doesn’t mean you’re going to vote for a united Ireland, that was a very clear just from that filming at Bushmills and at the Giant’s Causeway is that it’s a much more nuanced question beyond what Sinn Féin in the south tells it.

“One of the big issues we found is that the NHS is one of the main reasons Catholics in Northern Ireland, or anybody in Northern Ireland, wants to stay part of the UK.

“That’s a huge concept for the voter regardless of their religion in Northern Ireland I haven’t heard politicians in the south, particularly Sinn Féin, discuss.

“That would be a hot potato issue if there was a referendum.

“It’s always been about, ‘Is there going to be violence? Are the loyalists going to be inflamed by the concept of a united Ireland?’


“There’s always that understandable shadow but there are also major issues such as health that would be a major topic of conversation if and when a referendum comes.”

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising but the conversations you had with people about it were free of any hard line responses.

“They’re practical people.

“There was an acceptance of, ‘If that’s what 51% want to, yeah, we’ll accept it, we’ll have to accept it’.

“There wasn’t the, ‘We’re going to rise up’.

“They were level headed and they were all religions that we interviewed there in the Giant’s Causeway.

“It’s a very exciting time.

“Joe Biden was in Belfast two months before that opening up a new building in Ulster University.

“They’ve got amazing infrastructure in Northern Ireland now.

“It’s an incredible place to visit and they all know it’s because it’s peace time and we have prospered.

“We wanted to show that Ireland is a thriving country.

“It’s not leprechauns. Just before the pandemic, we were an even bigger investor in America than France.

“The Irish film industry and television industry is based on tax credits.

“We give President Michael D Higgins credit for essentially founding the modern day film and television industry.

“Last year we covered An Cailín Ciúin and An Irish Goodbye, this year it could have been Oppenheimer and Poor Things.

“It shows that it’s not a flash in the pan, these industries have been decades in the making.

“They’re here to stay.

“If you think for 82 million people of Irish heritage all around the globe, I bet you only around 10 per cent of those have ever visited Ireland so the more inward investment and inward tourism we get, the better.”

Quintessentially Irish is in selected cinemas now and available to stream from Amazon, iTunes and other platforms from 29 April.

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