This is Bray: Nine lives in an Irish seaside town

A new TV series, Our Town, follows a diverse group of young people with big dreams

Some of the young stars of Our Town: ‘You’ve got working-class Bray. You’ve got middle-class Bray... It’s in the shadow of Dublin, so it has this identity thing.’ Photograph: Arthur Janowsky

Some of the young stars of Our Town: ‘You’ve got working-class Bray. You’ve got middle-class Bray... It’s in the shadow of Dublin, so it has this identity thing.’ Photograph: Arthur Janowsky

 

For Our Town, a documentary series about the lives of a diverse bunch of young people in the seaside town of Bray, Co Wicklow, director-producer Adrian McCarthy and his team at Curious Dog Films and Wildfire Films spent more than a year following their subjects, who along the way grapple with big dreams, creativity, anxiety, lack of purpose, work, education and parenthood. Babies are born, family members die, one young person is shockingly assaulted, the Covid epidemic begins and many of the participants make big decisions about their futures.

After a year in which the young have often been scapegoated and stereotyped, Our Town is a beautiful portrait of young people in all of their strength, vulnerability and wisdom.

The idea of doing a a three-part series about young people in a small town, McCarthy says, came from RTÉ’s head of factual, Seán Mac Giolla Phádraig. The idea to make that small town Bray came from McCarthy.

“In a previous life, I used to be a location manager on feature films,” he says. “I used to be in and out of Bray and I always found it a really interesting town because it’s a proper seaside town and it’s always had this kind of identity crisis... You’ve got working-class Bray. You’ve got middle-class Bray... It’s in the shadow of Dublin, so it has this identity thing. Maybe because I grew up down in west Cork and we were always saying, ‘we’re different to Cork city’, I liked the way that a lot of people, though their back garden might have been literally on the border with Dublin, were still very proud to be Bray.”

CJ and Sammy aka The Bray Side Boyz. Photograph: Arthur Janowsky
CJ and Sammy aka The Bray Side Boyz. Photograph: Arthur Janowsky

The next step, he says, was finding the right people to feature. Many older citizens of the town make colourful cameos, often talking about the Bray’s past, but the series’ heart is with the young. To find people, McCarthy visited youth clubs and, at one point, held “something like auditions”, but they discovered most of them through word of mouth. “Anyone who wanted to be in it we didn’t really go with,” he says. They ended up with nine subjects.

Very raw

Dylan had been scouted for an English football club at a young age and is now back in Bray trying to figure out what to do next. “When we met Dylan the first time, he was still very raw with that,” says McCarthy.

Joni is an indie songwriter and actor who, to McCarthy’s delight, liked to wander around the town listening to Morrissey’s Everyday Is Like Sunday, a miserabilist anthem about a different seaside town. “Aside from the politics, I would be very into Morrissey,” says McCarthy.

Regan, a boxer and potential Olympian, starts the series trying to make his coaching father proud. “You could see this thing that a lot of young sports people have,” says McCarthy, “where their parents, sometimes, are the ones that are pushing them.”

Adrian McCarthy (producer/director), Judy Kelly (director) and Oda O’Carroll (producer) with the participants of Our Town. Photograph: Arthur Janowsky
Adrian McCarthy (producer/director), Judy Kelly (director) and Oda O’Carroll (producer) with the participants of Our Town. Photograph: Arthur Janowsky

Not everyone has their futures mapped out. Correy and Luke, two contemplative early school leavers, are a little lost until they find support at a youth centre. Aed, a dreadlocked environmentalist, hated school until his mother helped establish the alternative, economically troubled Sudbury School.

And many of these young people have experienced hardship. Gabi is a trainee nurse, care worker and single mother struggling to find suitable housing and reckoning with the aftermath of sexual assault. Ciara is dealing with bereavement and loss as she pursues a course in horsemanship.

We also meet Malawi-born rappers CJ and Sammy, aka the Bray Side Boyz, as they prepare for a gig and are commissioned to write a song for the Bray Wanderers football team. “They’re both working and struggling to survive and following this dream,” says McCarthy. “And I like the fact that they write about this town and they kind of put their arms around the town.”

These young people are (with the exception of the charismatic CJ and Sammy) not the type of people who usually seek the limelight. They’re sensitive, thoughtful and complicated, and McCarthy is very protective of them. He showed each of them the finished films, he says, and he was willing to remove anything that worried or upset them.

“They had to feel like it’s okay. Especially when they were under pressure, when sh*t was hitting the fan a little bit... It goes out on TV and they’re going to get what they get locally and I’m very conscious of that... We have a responsibility.”

Personal things

It was a strange experience for them all. Ciara O’Connell, the young trainee horsewoman, tells me that she usually doesn’t talk so openly about personal things. Talking to horses at the stables is what she usually does for “counselling”, she says. She loves working with horses. “If I do need to say anything I just tell the horses and they can’t tell anybody.”

Ciara O’Connell: ‘People are going to be sitting down and watching me, it’s a weird feeling,’ Photograph: Arthur Janowsky
Ciara O’Connell: ‘People are going to be sitting down and watching me, it’s a weird feeling,’ Photograph: Arthur Janowsky

She only felt comfortable talking about the loss of her brother and her mother in Our Town because she trusted McCarthy hand his crew (who include director Judy Kelly, producers Oda O’Carroll and Martha O’Neill and editor Brenda Morrissey). “It was a struggle, but it was good to get it out there and to talk about those things. You don’t usually have people coming up asking you questions, so I got a lot of things off my chest. It was very hard to do but I clicked with Adrian and Oda straight away and that made it a bit easier.”

How does she feel now the series is coming out? “People are going to be sitting down and watching me, it’s a weird feeling. [But] it will help someone... It doesn’t matter where you come from or what type of person you are, everybody has ups and downs.”

Over the course of filming, the bubbly, outgoing CJ Odilo of the Bray Side Boyz experienced a horrible racist attack in Dublin city. It left him with a fractured jaw and a lot of self-doubt. In the wake of it he became scared of groups of young men (“Some were just coming up to say they liked my music,”) and had qualms about continuing with the documentary.

“I couldn’t even talk,” he tells me. “I really felt like, ‘Guys, why can’t you just continue this part with Sammy and my manager.’ Because that time I wasn’t feeling well. I wasn’t really in the mood.”

Footballer Dylan and rapper CJ. Photograph: Arthur Janowsky
Footballer Dylan and rapper CJ. Photograph: Arthur Janowsky

Again, it was the relationship with the director and crew (“We became more like friends”) that convinced him to continue. And CJ thinks it was important to show people the consequences of racism. For a while he second-guessed himself and started dressing more conservatively.

“Before I got attacked, I used to tell myself, ‘I’m doing my music, I’m a superstar,’ I dressed the part... But when it happened, I kind of blamed myself. I don’t know these guys. I’ve never met them before. But they attacked me. I was trying to find a reason for myself. Maybe they saw I was wearing these gold chains and gold rings and shiny diamonds? They were talking about my race... and [saying] I should go back home [but] I was thinking, ‘It’s because of the way I dress.’”

Rich picture

The documentary doesn’t just dwell on the negative. It paints a rich picture of all of their lives. It shows the joy of CJ’s music (when watching it, he said to Sammy, “Bro, we’re good!”) and the birth of his new baby. He’s a doting dad. “When my baby came, I really felt like there’s more to life than just being scared.”

Another participant remains largely off screen. Jasmin Anderson provides the personal Bray-accented narration, an element that was very important for McCarthy. “I tell the story of everyone in Bray but I don’t tell anything about myself,” says Jasmin when I call her.

A 29-year-old with a nine-year-old son, she works in the Royal Hotel as a front- desk receptionist and is finishing a degree in business management in IADT. She has never done anything like this before, she says, but she loved it because she could relate to the stories. She is a young mother struggling to find an affordable home, like Gabi (she believes she’ll never be able to afford her own place in Bray). She has experienced bereavement, like Ciara. And she has experienced racism, like CJ. “I actually cried when I saw that part in the show because I’m mixed race myself so I’ve seen what racism can do and how it can affect your mental health.”

Jasmin Anderson, the series’ narrator: ‘I tell the story of everyone in Bray but I don’t tell anything about myself.’ Photograph: Arthur Janowsky
Jasmin Anderson, the series’ narrator: ‘I tell the story of everyone in Bray but I don’t tell anything about myself.’ Photograph: Arthur Janowsky

She hopes that everyone watches Our Town and that the people of Bray are proud of it.

They should be. McCarthy and his team have highlighted each participant’s individuality while, at the same time, providing a compelling portrait of a town and a community. Throughout their ups and downs the young people’s love of their town shines through.

When I speak to her, Ciara O’Connell is tentatively considering working on a stud farm elsewhere when she finishes her course. “Bray is my town and it always will be,” she says. “If I do have to head off for a year or so, I’ll always come home.”

The first episode of Our Town airs on RTÉ2 at 9.30pm on Thursday, June 24th

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