Luke McManus: ‘The North Circular Road tells the story of Ireland’

For his feature debut, the director offers a fascinating psychogeography of a thoroughfare and beyond

You know what Dubliners are like. Every resident of every street reckons their locale best encapsulates what’s best, worst and most in-between about the capital. But an objective case really can be made for the North Circular Road as all those things, and Luke McManus is here to make it. North Circular, his captivating new documentary, rides waves of song from Phoenix Park in the west to the docks at the eastern end. We begin with talk of empire and end with a parade for the returning Kellie Harrington. The film offers a singular psychogeography — to use the phrase favoured by the English writer Iain Sinclair — of a thoroughfare and surrounding areas.

When did McManus decide to embark on the project?

“It’s funny. I have a million answers. I have been amusing myself giving different answers to this question,” he says. “I suppose the first thing to say is I moved there 20 years ago. I lived there. So that’s where it came from. Ultimately, I just walk down the road a lot. But I am interested you mentioned the psychogeography, because that was certainly something I was interested in. Iain Sinclair — and I guess WG Sebald - does the same thing.”

As he began his research, he discovered he was less of a blow-in than he had thought.


“I’m from Bray, but I was telling my aunt about making the film and she said: ‘you know you’re from there?’ It turns out my grandmother lived around the corner from me now. And she had a very tough existence there — in a basement flat with seven brothers and sisters and all sorts of trauma and tragedy. In a weird way, I went into my own backstory.”

McManus formed his interests when studying at Trinity College Dublin and then went on to work at RTÉ for a bit. He acted as director on series such as Psych Ward and the indestructible Room to Improve. He produced Feargal Ward’s documentary, The Lonely Battle of Thomas Reid, among the most acclaimed Irish films of the last decade, and has done further admired work for Netflix, the BBC, NBC, Channel 4 and TG4. North Circular is McManus’s feature debut as director. Appropriately for a film named after a road of this shape, it has a genuine narrative arc.

“I’ve taken a maximalist version of the North Circular,” he says. “We move through Grangegorman, Mountjoy Prison, Phibsborough, Summerhill, Sheriff Street. These are iconic places. They have a cultural and historical weight beyond their mere physicality. They represent a lot of different things. It occurred to me you got Uachtarán na hÉireann at one end and you’ve got the captains of finance down at the docks at the other. These rarefied elite groups. In between, you have ordinary people. There is this Dickensian boulevard of all of human life.”

He mentions that Dickensian quality. One thing that struck me on first watching North Circular was how it depicted a world that seems oddly unchanged through the decades. Though, towards the close, we do get a blast of Gemma Dunleavy’s post-garage beats, the prevailing sound is of folk music in various shades. This version of the city seems untouched by looming modernist architecture or the advance of sushi-serving food trucks. The glassy monochrome photography adds to the sense that we could still be in the 1970s or 1980s.

“What I was trying to do — and I think this is subconscious rather than premeditated — was to be contemporary, but at the same time to delve into the past and make a historic film without use of archive footage,” he says. “There are eight chapters in the film. And each of them has a different location and a different theme. And then I realised the road was telling the history of Ireland. The first song is about Parnell. Then you’re in the park and it’s all about Empire — and the British military mind. You move through a revolutionary period in O’Devaney Gardens and Stoneybatter. Then you move on to problematic institutionalised religion. You end with two women who are self-actualised in Kellie Harrington and Gemma Dunleavy. It’s a temporal as well as a geographical journey. So it’s a bit highfalutin. Ha ha!”

North Circular was shooting as various significant events played out. Protests against the plans to build a hotel around the Cobblestone pub in Smithfield brought out thousands. The boxer Kellie Harrington won her gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics and returned to a rapturous welcome. While all that was going on, the authorities were fighting to contain the Covid pandemic. In future years, North Circular will stand as both timeless record of a key artery and as snapshot of a remarkable period in the road’s history. McManus has said elsewhere that the film might not have been made without the Covid shutdown. What did he mean by that?

“When you’re pitching a film you have to excite them and reassure them at the same time,” he says. “Those are two different things. So you have to make them excited about the possibilities, but you have to reassure them that you can deliver to them. I sat there saying: ‘I can make this film. Everything is within the five-K radius. I live in Grangegorman.’ That might have got it over the line. At that time everything was being delayed by Covid. I was saying: ‘this is a small film. It’s mostly outdoors. We can make this happen.’”

The events of that busy summer provided McManus with a perfect conclusion to his geographic and temporal arc. Harrington’s return — to an area conveniently at the eastern end of the North Circular Road — allowed a raucous celebration of working-class Dublin, echoed by the whole nation. The director was able to wind that in with the folk sounds of Lisa O’Neill and the hip-hop leaning Gemma Dunleavy to positively operatic effect.

“The beauty of documentaries is that you have a plan but you’re praying a better one is going to emerge,” he says. “I was thinking: this Kellie Harrington thing’s probably worth filming. That’s literally as thought-out as it was. That was actually a fascinating experience. For two reasons. One, there was still a Covid lockdown. So there’s an element of lawlessness to that gathering. The second thing was I discovered that, bringing the camera down there, I was having the same conversation over and over — which was: ‘you’re normally here when there’s killings. You’re normally here when there’s murders. Now you’re here for Kellie. And we’re so proud.’”

At the other end of the road, he had those protests concerning the attempt to clothe The Cobblestone pub — a famous venue for traditional music — in yet another hotel. The energy of that demonstration confirmed that, contrary to what cynics believe, there is still considerable resistance to the ongoing bland homogenisation of the capital. McManus’s film shows what gets lost in such developments. He is capturing an ancient spirit.

“It was a good nine months into production when that kicked off,” he says. “I rocked up with my camera expecting not that many people. I was blown away by what I saw. In the original proposal I had a section about Peadar Kearney and Dominic Behan and Brendan Behan — the folk singers of the past who were political. Many from Summerhill. Then I realised this is happening in front of me. These people are politicised.”

“There was a vibrant, visible connection with a radical past.”

“It’s real, urgent, contemporary. But it also was a brilliant hinge between my cultural stuff — all the songs — and the political content of the film and the issue-driven stuff.”

McManus began by discussing Iain Sinclair, a writer who has spent his life wandering about London and documenting the political, social and human histories of every corner he passes. North Circular works in a different manner, forcing the reader to move at the pace of the unfolding montage. Our walking tour has to keep up with the guide.

“It’s the road. We’re walking down the road,” he says. “And I found out something since that has tickled me pink. The film is 85 minutes long. I went on to Google Maps and I asked: ‘How long does it take to get from the Wellington Monument to the Point Depot, going via Phibsborough?’ Eighty-four minutes. So it’s like a real-time walk.”

There was a strong team on the film, but I get the sense this is an eminently personal work. A good plan for a first feature.

“It kept going in the back of my head: if this is shite you only have yourself to blame,” he says. “Plus I live there. So I’d have to move house and be reminded of failure every morning. Ha ha!”

I think he’ll be all right.

North Circular is released on December 2nd

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist