Love/Love: from Nidge weasel to nice guy
Filming ‘Love/Hate’ opened Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s eyes to how some of Dublin’s poorest communities live, prompting him to work with Barnardos
Tom Vaughan-Lawlor at a Barnardos centre. ‘I’m just glad children have this amazing place to come and that they’re nurtured and feel safe and they can play.’ Photograph: Patrick Bolger
Project leader Mark Brennan and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor at a Barnardos centre. Photograph: Patrick Bolger
One day, two fans of crime drama Love/Hate called its star, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, over for a chat. “We were filming,” says Vaughan-Lawlor. “They were out with their kids in a pram. The kids were gorgeous and they were very tender with them. But it was really late at night and they were addicts. I thought the woman was about 50 but then I saw she was pregnant. The kids were tired and one was a bit upset, but their love for their children was obvious. But they were both high and the kids were very young. And I realised that the chances for these kids . . . ”
He stops. Vaughan-Lawlor is explaining the importance of the children’s charity Barnardos but he’s a bit lost for words. We’re talking at a Barnardos centre in Tallaght. There are 40 such centres nationwide and they deal with 6,300 children. They work with families of very young children who have been referred to them by the HSE. They have a preschool and an after-school service, where children are nurtured and fed and parents are coached.
Vaughan-Lawlor is in the midst of a busy week filming the Haughey drama, Charlie, but has made time for this meeting. While he has photographs taken around the grounds and with staff, a key worker, anonymous for reasons of confidentiality, takes me on a tour of the facilities. The presence of Barnardos here is very discreet. You would never know it was here. “We don’t want to stigmatise the people who come here,” says project leader Mark Brennan.
The key worker shows me a “sensory room” filled with mild lights and mellow music. There is an area for one-to-one time and chats with key workers, on the wall of which are four expressive circular faces representing four emotional states: sad, peaceful, affectionate and happy.
Every room has tiny wooden chairs. There’s a room full of donated Christmas presents. The staff of Barnardos favour the basics: clothes, books and jigsaws.
“Some parents buy something expensive they feel the kid must have,” she says, “but then the kids mightn’t have nice pyjamas or food for Christmas day.”
They do a lot of work with parents on household budgeting and meal planning.
There’s a safe outdoor play area and a shed full of pedal cars and bikes. “They love being outside,” she says.
Some of these preschoolers are underdeveloped for their age, often because of undernourishment and sometimes because they have been kept too long in prams or push chairs because there’s no safe place to play. “They’re floppy,” she says. “Not as strong as children their age should be.”
And sometimes they have suffered other hardships. In a bright and cheerful preschool room filled with toys, she says: “We can tell a lot about what they see at home or maybe how they’re being treated themselves, by how they talk to the dolls.”
She does this job, she says, because it works. The children and their parents make huge progress. “And when they go off to school we feel like proud parents ourselves.”
Ten minutes later Vaughan-Lawlor and I are sitting on those tiny chairs. There are pictures on the wall of the children who use the room. “These children handle huge adult problems,” he says. “I find it very upsetting. I’m just glad they have this amazing place to come and have a hot meal and a sense of structure and responsibility, and that they’re nurtured and feel safe and they can play – and that the facilities are amazing. It’s amazing to see the work Barnardos does bolstering and inspiring people.”
His relationship with Barnardos has been largely driven by his time on Love/Hate, the crime drama shot in some of Dublin’s most deprived areas. “Stuart [Carolan, the writer] has one foot in drama and one foot in journalism,” says Vaughan-Lawlor.
“We’re not social workers, but at the same time we have a social responsibility, because we’re guests in those communities and you’re dealing with a very sensitive subject that affects these communities at a day-to-day level. So Stuart has used kids in the areas as extras to show them how a film set works and how the actors work. Engaging with communities is very important to him.”
Is the programme seen differently by those young people? “I would imagine so. What’s amazing is how accurate they feel the show is in terms of representing what goes on in their communities. It’s so close to the bone in a lot of those places.”
What do they think of Nidge? “I think Stuart is very intelligent in how he writes it. He’s always reminding you that these people have chosen a life that’s very, very dark. That their moral conscience is dubious and they’ve made certain choices with their lives. The show is always asking: ‘Are you sure you like these guys?’ ”
He says that there is a difference between depicting acts of violence and condoning them. “But it does play on your mind that this man is very ruthless and that some people identify with him. Sometimes you have people coming up saying, ‘I want to be you,’ and it’s a very intense thing to hear.”
He says he has been simultaneously impressed by the community spirit and shocked by the lack of facilities in certain parts of the city. He believes the experience has had an effect on most of the cast, many of whom have become more involved with charities.
“A lot of us on the show get slagged off for having middle-class accents,” he says, “but because we film so much in those areas our sense of social responsibility has deepened, without question. It’s been an eye-opener.
“I grew up in a middle-class part of Dublin where we had a lot and we didn’t really see that side of things. Then I lived in England for nearly 14 years and I forgot these parts of Dublin existed.”
So in recent months Vaughan-Lawlor has worked with Barnardos. He’s helping it to raise funds – its statutory funding is down 17 per cent – and he recently volunteered at a centre like this one.
“My wife came with me and we’d just dropped our son off at nursery,” he says. “That was all very middle-class, in a well-to-do area, and then we came to the Barnardos centre and they told us about the kids and the households they’d left that morning. And the intensity of it all was so staggering. There was one little boy who was incredibly tactile with me, very clingy and wanting to show me around and be close. Subsequently I was told he had no father. So that’s what it was about.”
He sighs. “Then we picked up our son and had a very nice day. You forget how lucky you are.”
Donate at barnardos.ie