In my early teens, I had my first real brush with the movies when the BBC came to my mother’s village in Donegal to shoot for TV an adaptation of Jennifer Johnston’s novel, The Railway Station Man (screenplay by Shelagh Delaney, no less). The long disused Cashelnagore railway station was fitted out for this tale of a war veteran restoring an old station and his burgeoning love affair with a recently widowed Derry woman. The film was heavily trumpeted by the Beeb for reuniting Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie two decades on from Don’t Look Now. It was a much more pedestrian film than Nicolas Roeg’s icy classic but not without its merits. We knew that the interiors were filmed further down the coast in Glenties while the railway station incongruously planted in the middle of a lonesome bog was used only for outdoor shooting. About nine months after filming we watched it in my grandmother’s house. At one point in the narrative Julie Christie’s character Helen has to make a mad rush to the station to avert an incident that could have terrible consequences. She leaps out of bed in the middle of the night, hastily throws on some clothes and gets on her bicycle. Seeing her make her way out her front gate, my uncle, a cinephile with a sense of humour you might call ‘dry’, opined “she has some cycle ahead of her to get to here from Glenties.”
Though I was no ingenue in terms of parsing filmic narrative or understanding how movies were made, I couldn’t get the image of Julie Christie’s long-distance sprint up the Donegal coast out of my mind. Such was my first ever experience of the jarring gap between the landscape of the movies and the one you know in real life. It is something people in cities accustomed to film-making, such as New York, Los Angeles or Paris, have long been used to. These days I am most likely to see the urban geography of Paris rearranged. In Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Owen Wilson goes searching for the restaurant in which he has been boozing with Hemingway and Fitzgerald only to find it is now a modern-day laundry; in actual fact, the restaurant — Polidor on rue Monsieur-le-Prince — is still there, virtually unchanged since the 1920s. As I watched more and more movies throughout the nineties (and, thanks to the tax breaks, more and more movies were filmed in Ireland), I had opportunities to observe how movie-Ireland was different from Ireland-Ireland. Sometimes the geography of the island was boldly defied as in Gorgo, where Dalkey and its Martello Towers is shifted to the Gaeltacht or the Hollywood teen film Leap Year which sees Amy Adams getting landed on a beach, rather than at a port, somewhere in Kerry.
But sometimes movie-Ireland wasn’t even Ireland. It had long been serving as a proxy for other places, such as in John Huston’s Moby Dick where Youghal passed muster as New Bedford and it’s hard to imagine too many of Roger Corman’s Galway-produced Z-movies were set in the City of the Tribes either. I remember watching Mike Newell’s adaptation of Beryl Bainbridge’s An Awfully Big Adventure, in which Dublin stood in for post-war Liverpool. Hugh Grant dines in Bewley’s on Grafton Street (immeasurably more glamorous on screen than the glorified college canteen it had become by the mid-nineties), pays his bill and then emerges out of the front gate of Dublin Castle.
In Braveheart the Battle of Stirling famously took place in the Curragh, with the arses of thousands of FCA volunteers on display as William Wallace defied the Sassenachs with a mass-mooning, which was a definite mark-up on the free boots and army-surplus bag that usually attracted the post-Leaving Cert crowd to Mullingar or Finner Camp for a week of training. Films set in the north during the Troubles were usually filmed in the 26 counties because of the, er, Troubles. Irishtown and the Ringsend gas works became a permanent landmark of Belfast, the North Strand flats stood in for their more famous Divis counterparts in In the Name of the Father; a bomb in Jim Sheridan’s The Boxer went off opposite the Front Lounge, with the dome of City Hall in the background probably convincing the casual viewer that this was indeed Titanic Town under attack.
Even the most iconic buildings in the country were not safe from shuffling. The real Four Courts got bombarded by the pro-Treaty forces in Michael Collins (in the abysmal Kevin Spacey/Martin Cahill vehicle Ordinary Decent Criminal, the courts were moved up the river to the Customs House) but there were other jarring details. The set that Neil Jordan and Co built in the grounds of Grangegorman hospital in the summer of 1995 was probably the most impressive one of its kind in Irish history but its O’Connell Street was all askew, with the GPO standing at the end of the prospect from North Earl Street. A street parallel to the main thoroughfare was also there where it wasn’t in real life (think Marlborough Street, only a couple of blocks further west) and it is here that the insurgents from the GPO are arraigned after their surrender (including Dev, who must have decided there wasn’t near enough action down at Boland’s Mills).
The fiery Dáil sessions were filmed in Trinity College rather than up the street in their actual historical location in the Mansion House; I remember the filming, which I observed as I wandered across Front Square a week before Michaelmas Term began. The building used was the 1937 Reading Room, founded in that very year by none other than… Éamon de Valera. In fairness it was an ideal setting for a parliament session, more so than the side hall on Dawson Street which was more accustomed at the time to raves and Sinn Féin Ard Fheiseanna. Trinity also, of course, stood in for Liverpool in Educating Rita, a film I had difficulty watching as a child, sore as I was over ‘our’ urban landscape being purloined in such a flagrant manner.
An even weirder use of Trinity occurred three decades earlier when the World War I aviation drama The Blue Max was filmed in Ireland. Dublin University was transformed into Luftwaffe headquarters in Berlin, with biplanes parked in front of the Graduate Memorial Building, which, like many other buildings in the city at the time was black from acid rain. There was also a jaunt through the streets of fictional Berlin that almost made sense through real Dublin: down Winetavern Street from the arch at Christchurch (that redoubtable Dublin chronicler Éamon Mac Thomáis recalled Dubliners shouting at cinema screens: “that’s not Berlin, that up by Christchurch!”), down by the Four Courts and on to Trinity, where the magisterial James Mason was hanging out in the GMB.
I watched the film for the first time in my days working in Laser Video on Georges’ Street in the late nineties. A colleague was keen to see it because his mother was supposedly in it and had a scene where she kissed George Peppard. As the film progressed though it became increasingly apparent that his mother, if she did work on the film at all, had ended up on the cutting-room floor and Ursula Andress’ buxom countess was the only lady getting anywhere near Colonel Hannibal Smith’s lips. If my disorientation at Dublin being overrun and ruled by the Jerries was not bad enough, can you imagine my poor colleague who was learning that all these years his mother had been living a lie?
Ireland itself ended up being outsourced too, as our little Celtic cousin the Isle of Man began to undercut our tax breaks, with Waking Ned and Cathal Black’s Love and Rage, among other productions, being filmed there. But there were more location-based ads filmed during the Celtic Tiger years, most notably by Guinness, who seemed keen to rekindle an Irish identity for the stout. Probably the most successful of these was the ‘Quarrel’ ad, where hearing the late Mic Christopher’s Heyday on the radio prompts Michael Fassbender to walk out of his flat, across the Burren and then to swim the Atlantic to be reconciled with a friend in New York. A friend from Kildare claimed that Fassbender was actually walking back into Dublin as he passes by the Perpetual Motion sphere on the M7, though I can’t substantiate that.
Once he gets across the water though it all gets tricky. He storms through a street basketball game, past the Naked Cowboy on Times Square and into…the Dice Bar, on Benburb Street, back in Dublin. He needn’t have gone to all that effort, after all. Of course, the Dice Bar was one of those few Dublin bars that could readily impersonate a Manhattan dive (though, come to think of it, shouldn’t it be on the Lower East Side rather than by Times Square?) and the ad’s director even had the foresight to change the light-fittings, something which regular patronage of the Dice Bar at the time caused me to notice. Any hopes of suspending disbelief for me were dashed however when I noticed standing next to Fassbender’s friend as the two are reunited was Pedro, a shaven-headed Spanish cook whom I worked with in a number of establishments over the years. This was a time when the general Georges’ Street area was central casting for Guinness ads. Pedro beams unobtrusively as the Fassbender and his smouldering friend embrace — it’s a perfect piece of acting by an extra but I sure as hell wasn’t buying it as being set in New York. Still, it is probably a bit petty to pick holes in an ad where the main character swims the Atlantic…
(by Oliver Farry)