The quiet man


If you tread softly, it’s easy to sneak up on and be amazed by an almost forgotten Ireland, co-writer and star of Silence, Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde, tells TARA BRADY

TIRED OF THE explosive exploits of superheroes? Bored with monolithic tentpole releases?

There is another way. This weekend, Silence will descend on selected cinemas. The latest film from veteran documentarian Pat Collins follows a young sound engineer, returning to Ireland after a 15-year absence, as he seeks out the country’s quietest landscapes. Our hero’s Luddite-friendly mission to escape all man-made sound takes him to Inishbofin, Galtymore, the Burren, Connemara, Ballycroy and Tory Island.

The cinema, in turn, is transformed into a contemplative, otherworldly space.

“It’s pared back,” nods Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde, Silence’s star and co-writer.

“The themes that are explored are subtle things like loss, our attraction to landscape, reconciling with the past, and language. Too much drama would have pushed those out to the edges. It’s like a meditation. Walk into the film and you have space. The dialogue is sparse. You’re not bombarded with what Hollywood might throw at you. Pat was very courageous in what he did.”

In common with his director – Pat Collins edited Film West and programmed the Galway Film Fleadh before moving into the documentary sector – Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde is a polymath. Born in Gaoth Dobhair, Donegal, Mac Giolla Bhríde worked as a civil engineer for 10 years before plumping for the road less travelled. The son of writer, educator and sean-nós singer Nellie Nic Giolla Bhríde and the brother of Corn Uí Riada sean-nós champion Dominic Mac Giolla Bhríde, Eoghan had a yen for the arts long before he made the jump.

“I had always been writing and working on short stories, but being a civil engineer as well, it just wasn’t working out,” he says. “It’s hard coming in from a 12-hour shift and starting work on something else. I just didn’t have the headspace. I had to bite the bullet. So I bought a ticket to Mexico and spent a year in Central America writing.”

Was the sean-nós an influence on his work?

“I think so. Growing up you often thought your language was in some ways inferior to other languages, that it couldn’t describe things like other languages with bigger lexicons. Especially English, because its so immediate and in-your-face and has so many words. Then you start to learn songs. And they really, really attracted me to Irish. The sean nós opened up new ways to express yourself or to be descriptive.”

Since Eoghan’s 2001 sojourn down Mexico way he has written two collections of short stories, Idir Feoil is Leathar (2002) and Díbeartaigh (2005), and founded Éabhlóid, a boutique multimedia imprint that publishes books and produces documentaries. Their newest film, Ar Leirg na Gaoithe, a portrait of Donegal fiddler John Doherty, will be broadcast by TG4 later this year.

There’s more en route. We catch up with Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde at the end of lengthy bus trip from Donegal to Dublin. It’s the first leg of a journey to Ecuador where the young multihyphenate plans to write his third collection of stories. “I didn’t know how busy I was until I started trying to get away,” he laughs. “Everything we do is small, so it just seems to tick along.”

Back at the turn of the millenium, Mac Giolla Bhríde’s artistic ventures soon brought him into contact with Pat Collins. They’ve collaborated on several projects since, with Collins at the helm and Mac Giolla Bhríde working as translator or interviewer. Silence, Collins’s first foray into feature films, marks a Brave New World for both parties.

“I first worked for Pat on a documentary he made about Tory Island,” says Mac Giolla Bhríde. “He had the idea for Silence in 2006. At that point, he had already secured funding for development. And he asked me if I wanted to work on the script for it. So Pat and myself and his wife Sharon [Whooley] got together, sometimes in Cork at their house, sometimes in Dublin, and by email as well, until gradually we got a script together. It was 2010 when it was definitely happening. And he asked me then if I’d be interested in acting in it. By then I trusted him enough to say ‘Alright’.”

It’s neither surprising nor inappropriate that Silence has had a long thoughtful gestation. As our leading man journeys across the nation’s least-spoiled territories, calling in on The Irish Times’s Michael Harding and Inishbofin Heritage Museum curator Marie Coyne along the way, an overwhelming sense of loss emerges.

“That’s what my girlfriend says too,” nods the softly spoken Donegal man. “We knew we were working with themes of loss and decay. But we didn’t want it to be all about mortality. Early on, the script had a very sad story about a fisherman drowning and my character had lost a son. But it was too overpowering. So we took out the specific references. Pat left it so that the audience has a lot of room to respond in their own way.”

The film is equally fascinating as a chronicle of lost things. In this spirit it may be the first occasion that audiences can hear unadulterated Donegal Irish emerging from a Dolby sound system.

“Years ago, I remember telling pat once that going out to Tory Island was like a breath of fresh air for me because they speak how people did when I was growing up in Gweedore,” says Eoghan. “Going out there, I can speak freely. It’s the same accent that had a radius of miles when I was young. It’s how all the old people spoke. I gave Pat reel-to-reel tapes where you can hear my grandfather. He had that thick accent you get when you’re brought up with one language.”

For Mac Giolla Bhríde, who writes in his native dialect, speaking with Tory dwellers is an important inclusion in the final cut.

“It was great doing the Tory scenes,” he says. “The language in Donegal is more diluted now. The old people who didn’t speak any other languages and who had that very Gaelic mentality are gone. I’m very glad I had the chance to speak that way in the film. You see that culture gradually floating away and it makes you interested in folklore and language and reviving some of the things you heard when you were young.”

Does the dialect shape his own writing?

“I think so,” he says. “Our dialect has been sidelined a bit. I think it’s important to use it in writing even though lots of editors would like to change it. Standardisation is fine, but I think we should be aiming for a language that encompasses everything. We have some lovely words in our dialect that have fallen out of use elsewhere. And if you go back far enough a lot of those words were common to all dialects.”

Since filming Silence, Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde has been named as this year’s Mayo County Council Writer in Residence and as the recipient of the third Michael Dwyer Discovery Award for his work on Silence.

“I was chuffed, I really was,” he says. “I didn’t know what to say when my name was called. The only prize I ever got before was for playing Puss In Boots when I was 10. And I had said to my girlfriend as we were walking down to the award ceremony that I wished we had had the chance to show the film to Michael Dwyer. I didn’t know him except to see around the French Film Festival and stuff like that. But he was a champion for so many films and I always read his stuff. Then when you get involved with film, you want to reach out to someone you respect. So that award has taken pride of place at home.”

In keeping with Silence’s forays into folklore and memory, the film begins with a recording of Nellie Nic Giolla Bhríde singing The Breeze And I. It’s a lovely flourish on an already gorgeous soundtrack featuring Seán Mac Erlaine, Damian Valles, Karl Burke and Rory Gallagher. “My mother had a reel-to-reel recorder she must have bought in the Sixties,” says Eoghan.

“There were lots of old reels at home but we hadn’t heard them in years because the machine hadn’t been working. Listening back, we found some songs she sang when she was younger than I am now. That track was recorded before I was born. And you wonder what she was thinking or what kind of frame of mind she was in. It’s an interesting window back into the past.”

Hold it right there. We have a movie tagline.

Silence is out now on limited release