Johnny Cash gave her a daisy and the rest was history

The New York film maker who tumbled upon creativity in the haystacks of Kildare

Imelda O'Reilly is an Irish film-maker, who is originally from Kildare. She is a professor at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Her passion for stories began sitting in dark cinemas watching characters created by Vincent Price, Peter O'Toole and Olivia de Havilland

I tumbled upon my creativity in the haystacks of Kildare. I inherited a love for the arts from my mother Helen O'Reilly, my uncle Oliver Caffrey, and my grandfather Edward Caffrey. My mum loves theatre and brought me to see Maureen Potter as a child.

I was eight years old and on holiday with my uncle in Portugal when I encountered a tall man wearing a cowboy hat. This tall man, who gifted me a wild daisy, was Johnny Cash.

I had met Johnny three years previously as a five-year-old when he sang on RTÉ. I was so moved by his voice; I ran across the room and kissed the telly.


One day my mum had gone to Dublin for work, meanwhile, at the age of eight, I was busy producing my first play in the back yards of the Curragh Plains. I made puppets from cereal boxes and lollipop sticks. I placed a board over my pram, transforming it into a proscenium stage. Tickets to my puppet show were tuppence - and that included ice lollypops.

When I was nine, my first poem was published in a Jinty comic. It was titled “Have a Go Girl”. When the check arrived in the post, I knew I had dithered my way into a scribbling hole.

As an adult, I went on to have a collection of my poems published and my fiction appears in the anthology Shenanigans.

I went to New York to pursue my dreams and began writing and directing my own plays in Manhattan. My first play, Faz In Ate, led to me becoming artist in residence at Mabou Mines, an artist-driven experimental theatre collective.

In the 1990s, I was part of a female collective of six Irish women called the Banshees, based in New York. The collective included, Emer Martin, Helena Mulkerns, Caitriona O'Leary, Elizabeth Whyte and Darrah Carr. In this group I performed my poetry to music and recorded an album of poetry set to music, In People's Heads. I also toured Eastern Canada opening for Gael Force Dance.

After moving into film, I completed my Master of Fine Arts at Columbia University. I was then awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to Morocco to make a narrative film, Bricks, Beds and Sheep's Heads. I studied Moroccan Arabic and the film was a regional finalist for the Student Academy Awards. I continue to make independent films for my company Faz In Ate films.

Pursuing an artistic life, I have lived on four continents. In Paris I worked in film, in London I performed my poetry, in Seville I wrote a novel while on a New York Film Academy fellowship. I also spent three years in Singapore working for New York University as an Assistant Arts Professor in their Graduate Film Program.

Life always brought me back to New York, though.

When my feature screenplay We're the Kids in America was chosen in 2018 for L'Atélier, which is part of the Cannes International Film Festival, I was thrilled. It is based on a short film Eggs and Soldiers that was broadcast on RTÉ and screened at more that 100 festivals. I am currently casting We're the Kids in America with the help of Maureen Hughes. My US producer Barbara DeFina and Irish co-producer Edwina Forkin are on board for production.

Last year I returned to Ireland to visit family. I am a proud auntie with three nieces in Ireland and three nephews in New York. I have two sisters in Ireland and a brother and sister in New York. When I’m asked where home is, I proudly say Ireland. I wouldn’t be the artist I am today without the influence of my family, friends, and my Irish roots.

During the pandemic I was remembering the first hard-shoe hornpipe I learned, King of the Fairies. My dad John O'Reilly's side of the family are gifted All-Ireland champion dancers. I decided to structure a film around that dance and the Elvis Presley song Suspicious Minds, which I had translated into Gaelic. I am currently in post-production on that short film, which is of course also called Suspicious Minds.

I have a soft spot for Ireland. There is a mysticism in the countryside that casts a reflection on the liminality of life. I am a resident at Westbeth in Manhattan, where previous resident artists included Lou Reed, Tom Waits and Diane Arbus. I am also an Associate Professor of Film at James Madison University. I enjoy mentoring a new generation of students in storytelling and some of them are now award-winning filmmakers working internationally in the industry.

As a female voice, it is rewarding to honour Ireland’s legendary history in the arts. However, a life in the arts involves sacrifice and the work involves digging deep in the sand searching for gold.

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