A gangland drama based on real life

Sat, Dec 10, 2011, 00:00

WHEN LOVE/HATEfirst aired on RTÉ1, last autumn, the critics weren’t overly kind. “More Westlife than Westies” was the verdict in The Irish Times.

This wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for a drama series that aimed to depict the drug addiction, squalor and violence of organised crime in postboom Ireland. But with the final instalment of this year’s second series due to be screened tomorrow evening, the national broadcaster appears to have a winner on its hands. Love/Hatehas found its feet, and its stock and audience – 660,000 viewers last week – have soared.

For Stuart Carolan, the creator, writer and executive producer of the series, its success has been “a game changer”. He’s “had a lot of offers from the UK” and is working on other scripts alongside those for the third series of Love/Hate. “It feels for the first time that if I don’t f**k it up I can keep going with this,” he says.

Carolan, a 40-year-old father of three from Navan, in Co Meath, and a graduate of Trinity College Dublin, has laboured in the broadcasting trenches. Having started as a researcher on the RTÉ children’s programme Echo Island, he went on to produce The Last Wordfor Today FM when Eamon Dunphy was in the presenter’s chair. It was for this show that he created and voiced the radio character Navan Man. He left after making a split-second decision that he had had enough.

Later, in 2003, he worked with the veteran broadcaster again, helping to develop and launch The Dunphy Showon TV3. When that was axed after a season he decided to give writing his full attention. “I gave up drinking for two years. I didn’t want to be lying in bed half the day thinking, I’m a writer,” he says, self-mockingly.

His writing for the stage was immediately successful. Defender of the Faithplayed at the Peacock Theatre in 2004, and Empress of India was produced by Druid in Galway in 2006. Defender of the Faithwas also staged off-Broadway and in the UK, earning Carolan the 2005 George Devine Award for the most promising playwright in Britain and Ireland.

For television, he wrote one episode of RTÉ’s Rawin 2008. “They told you what they wanted, what the parameters were,” he says. “It was fine, but you were restricted.”

The idea of Love/Hatewas building in his mind for years. He says he was profoundly affected by the murder in 1996 of the journalist Veronica Guerin; his mother’s work as an emergency-department nurse, treating the stabbed and the shot, also gave him an insight into the human stories behind gangland violence.

He says the creative team on Love/Hatehave treated the project as an obsession. At one point the producers of the series, Suzanne McCauley and Steve Matthews, spent months tracking down the rights to a Ewan McCall song, Come My Little Son, sung by Luke Kelly.

Carolan is reluctant to choose who has been the star of the series for him, but he says, “Aidan Gillen’s John Boy character just burns up the screen.” He adds, of Brian Gleeson’s depiction last season of the psychopathic Hughie, “When everyone saw his tape it was just like, ‘Wow, this guy is great.’ The same with Peter Coonan coming in this year to play Fran.”

His research for Love/Hatehas undoubtedly been thorough, with much of the crime depicted on screen clearly based on the minutiae of real events. “I’ve spoken to cops, other people involved in the justice area and people who are on the outskirts of organised crime,” he says. He rattles off the names of scores of gang members, and he knows their backgrounds. He is equally well briefed on the businessmen who fund drug gangs and the Irish criminals based in Spain who pull the strings back home. “They’re up to their b******s in it,” he says of some legal and financial professionals who work for gangs.

While he hopes to explore this area further, he says that making political points in drama is difficult. “There’s the famous John Gilligan line about: ‘I won the money on the bookies.’ And then there’s amazement about Bertie Ahern using the same line. And I remember in the first series thinking, I might use that line. And I wrote it in a script. It seemed to be crowbarred in to make a big point, and so I took it out. And so you try and make the point in lots of little subtle ways.”

Carolan still wants to explore the crossovers between drug gangs, dissident republicans, the prison system and Irish criminals living in Spain, as well as “looking at it all from the cops’ angle”.

The character of Darren, played by Robert Sheehan, has perhaps provoked the most negative attention, with some commentators dismissing him as too good-looking to play a gangland criminal. Carolan says he has “no problem” with criticism but strongly disagrees with those who regard Sheehan as miscast.

“One review, The Irish Times, said something like he didn’t look ferret-faced enough . . . I also find it hugely patronising that people think Dublin is divided into people wearing pyjamas on the street, chain-smoking, drinking cider and bringing horses into lifts in flats complexes, versus some kind of middle class.”

He points to the killings of Gary Douche, a 21-year-old from Darndale, Dublin, in Mountjoy Prison in 2006 and of the middle-class teenager Brian Murphy outside Club Anabel in 2000 in south Dublin as seminal moments in Ireland’s attitude to class.

He says that the beating to death of Douche, “in a holding cell not fit for animals”, by a mentally ill inmate who then smeared him in excrement, left him “just lost for words”. Douche was in State care and in a holding cell for his own protection, and Carolan is incredulous that nobody in officialdom was held to account for his death.

By contrast, the killing of Murphy provoked a media frenzy, resulted in protracted court cases and public debate, and inspired a book that is to become a film. “I don’t mean to diminish the grief , but nobody is going to make a film about Gary Douche from Darndale.”

True crime Sources of a series

The events in Love/Hateare frighteningly familiar. In the first episode of this year’s series Fran and one of his henchmen chase a rival down a street and beat him over the head with a baseball bat before bundling him into a van. In October an almost identical abduction occurred in East Wall in Dublin, with fatal consequences for 29-year-old Ciarán Noonan.

The fact that this dramatised street beating was filmed months before it was mirrored by real events is an eerie example of the show’s grasp of the gangland pulse.

Mostly in Love/Hate, however, the drama reflects events from the past rather than foreseeing violence yet to unfold.

Aidan Gillen’s gang-leader character, John Boy, is clearly based on prominent criminals such as Martin “Marlo” Hyland and Eamon Dunne. As John Boy comes under intense Garda scrutiny, his assets seized and property searched, he retreats into his cocaine habit. This fuels his paranoia about informers in his gang, which results in him ordering a number of murders.

His closest allies, Nidge and Darren, decide John Boy is a liability and must be taken out.

This is similar to the sequence of events that led to Hyland’s death in 2006, when he was killed by men he trusted and whom he had previously ordered to kill others.

When Hyland was shot dead, Dunne stepped into his shoes. Dunne escalated the killing spree started by Hyland, bringing heavy media and Garda attention on himself and those around him.

An Irish gang based in Spain decided that Dunne was destabilising their business, and arranged his death.

Dunne’s killing took place in April last year. Like John Boy, he was shot dead in a pub, with some of his former henchmen looking on.

Former detective inspector Brian Sherry, who was a senior garda in Finglas and Blanchardstown, investigated both Dunne and Hyland. He believes Love/Hateis an accurate depiction of reality.

“The killing of John Boy compared to Dunne,” he says. “Why it happened and how it happened – it’s as close as you’re going to get.”

IN MORE GENERAL terms, Sherry believes the show also captures the pressure gangland criminals exert on each other. “Like the programme, they are buying drugs on credit on the strength of the profits from the next haul,” he says. “Then something goes wrong, the drugs are lost and the money is still owed. Then guys have to do things like shootings for more senior criminals to pay back the money, put things right.

“Or you have guys buying debts off other guys, like John Boy buying Darren’s debt from Fran. And then Darren is compromised he has to kill Stumpy for John Boy.”

Sherry also points out that Stumpy has badly beaten Darren’s girlfriend, Rosie, so Darren also has personal motives for carrying out the killing.

“He got paid to do it too. So you see in the show that it’s often complex, there’s often a number of pressures and motives that lead to a murder. In my experience, that’s what really happens.”