‘The famine is still a powder keg emotionally for us as a nation’

Arracht is variously translated from Irish as “monster”, “darkness”,” freak”, “fearsome”, or, more verbosely, “a huge, terrible creature with a threatening look on it”. It’s also the name of Tom Sullivan’s thrilling new Great Famine drama.

“I’ve always liked the word,” says the film-maker. “And sometimes my ideas come from very superficial places. It doesn’t really mean monster; it kind of gets lost in translation. It has many, many different meanings. The word spectre comes up in some translations. But it’s more of a dark force or a kind of evil. It can also be a giant mythical creature. It fits well with the film because it’s a film with many monsters in it. The famine is a monster. Loneliness is a monster. Some of the personalities in the film are monstrous. Even the arrogance of the lead character at the beginning of the film. So there are monsters all the way through.”

Tom Sullivan: ‘Sometimes my ideas come from very superficial places’

Set in 1845 as potato crops increasingly fail due to the blight, Arracht concerns Colmán Sharkey (Dónall Ó Héalai, a remarkable performance), a fisherman who takes in a soldier returning from the Napoleonic Wars at the behest of the local priest. When the stranger and Colmán visit the local English landlord’s house to plead against rising rents, a violent confrontation leaves Colmán on the run for a crime he did not commit. After years spent in hiding, Colmán returns to a decimated community. There, he encounters a tough young girl named Kitty (newcomer Saise Ní Chuinn). 

The film-makers saw many girls for that role, more than 80 of whom were genuine contenders, before settling on Ní Chuinn. A terrific performer, the young actor brings a direct lineage from Poitín (1978), the first feature shot entirely in the Irish language by vanguard film-maker, Bob Quinn. 

“We had Dónall playing the lead so we need an actress who was from Connemara too,” says Sullivan. “It was a low budget. We couldn’t really have a kid who would have any difficulty with the language. We went to all the schools. And we just found this little one Saise near Spiddal. It was only after the callbacks we learned that she was Bob Quinn’s granddaughter. And let me say that what was on paper is far stronger now because of Saise. I needed her to be weak and vulnerable so that Colmán could come to the rescue. But what I got was something different. We realised very early on that Saise was never going to be weak and vulnerable. So what you have now is much more interesting, because instead of this character who’s sick and needs his help, it’s almost turned on its head, where she actually saves him.”

There was still more pedigree brought to the project by Kila, who provided the IFTA-winning score and by Kate McCullough – the cinematographer known for her exquisite work on I, Dolours; The Farthest; Normal People – who shot the evocative-looking Arracht in Lettermullan, some 20km west of Galway city. 

“I was lucky enough to get in on the groundfloor with Kate,” says Sullivan. “I directed and she shot one of my first shorts I made. Kate is the kind of artist who is very picky about who she works with and what she makes. But we are almost like a brother and sister. So I’m hoping that, even if she hates the next project, she’ll kind of have to work with me. Her process of film-making is so exact. She’s relentless. It really puts manners on everybody. Kila came along when I was having difficulties with the edit. Brian, the main guitarist, was almost like an engineer. And Kila are like a circus. It was a privilege to be part of that. They came in at a time when I really needed them and made sense of the film.”

Arracht is the latest manifestation of a renewed interest in the Great Hunger. A documentary series, The Hunger: The Story of the Irish Famine, narrated by Liam Neeson, screened last year. Black ‘47, Lance Daly’s drama set against the most devastating year of the famine, premiered in 2018. These new fictions and projects are just that: new. 

“There’s very little spoken documentation or stories around the famine,” says Sullivan. “There has been a lot of songs and some visual art. So it has been broached, just maybe not cinematically. The best sources – for me – were court documents where somebody might have been arrested and then they would have had to tell their story. But in terms of stories that are passed from one generation to the next class, there just seems to be a real barrenness. A lot of secrets went to the grave with a lot of people.

The west of Ireland really formed my brain and has been in my soul ever since. A lot of my friends are from there. They know I’m from Dublin but they tolerate me

“There was a lot of shame around it. And survivor guilt. It’s still a powder keg emotionally for us as a nation. I think it has taken this long for the famine to become a talking point because we tumbled from the famine into the power of the Catholic Church. In a weird way, we’re only taking a breath now, in the latter part of the last century. It’s akin to childhood trauma: you start to deal with your childhood in your 30s, just as we are a new state coming to terms with our history now.”

Sullivan – or Tomás Ó Súilleabháin, as it says in Arracht’s credits – grew up in Tallaght where he attended a Gaelscoil run by two teachers from Connemara. School excursions to the Gaeltacht inspired a lifelong love of the language and the landscape, an affection that powered Arracht into existence. 

“I was always one of those kids that were into the natural world,” recalls Sullivan. “Our teachers would take us down to Connemara for the last month of the school year. We were younger than normal kids would be going to the Gaeltacht. We were like 10 or 11. I think it was just a massive influence on me. The west of Ireland really formed my brain and has been in my soul ever since. A lot of my friends are from there. They know I’m from Dublin but they tolerate me.”

Sullivan studied earth science at University College Galway before forging a career as an actor in both television (The Clinic, On Home Ground) and film (Fifty Dead Men Walking, Adam & Paul). He is, accordingly, hugely sympathetic to the cast of Arracht, who had to weather various storms during the intensive, four-week shoot. (“At least the crew can put on jackets: the actors just have to shiver and freeze,” he says). This inside knowledge has shaped his work as a screenwriter and film-maker. 

“I acted for a long time and I really enjoyed it for a long time,” he says. “But in the latter part of my acting career, I didn’t. Sometimes I think, you should have got into writing and directing quicker. I hung on a bit too long. But everything about my acting experience informs how I direct and how I write. When I’m writing anything I really try to write parts that actors would really love. Nobody is just servicing his or her storyline. Because I used to play a lot of pirates that used to service other people’s storylines, and they had nothing going for them and that used to really frustrate me. I think it was one of the main reasons why I fell out of love with it in a way. But when I’m writing, I made sure that all parts are there for their own reasons.”

Last year, Arracht was Ireland’s nomination for the Best International Feature category of the Oscars
Last year, Arracht was Ireland’s nomination for the Best International Feature category of the Oscars

On the eve of its Covid-delayed theatrical release, Arracht has already made a splash both here and abroad. Last year, the film was Ireland’s nomination for the Best International Feature category of the Oscars, following in the footsteps of Gaza, Viva, Song of Granite, As If I Am Not There and Kings. Arracht was named Best Irish Film by Dublin’s Critics’ Circle at the Dublin International Film Festival in 2020, before going on to win the Audience Award at Glasgow and additional international prizes for Sullivan, Kate McCullough and Saise Ní Chuinn. This summer, Arracht was optioned for a Hollywood remake: producer Greg Shapiro (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) is attached. 

“The guys involved there are incredibly smart people and really experienced,” says Sullivan. “They’re very respectful of the film itself. Which is incredible, obviously. They’re being very delicate in their handling of the whole thing. They love the story and the beats. But they want to set the movie in America or in some other historical period. They’ll use the same characters and the same kind of dynamics that’s in our film. It’s a huge compliment for us. I would like to think that the characters in the film go on beyond it. I’m working on other things right now but maybe someday I’ll get to continue their story.”

Arracht opens October 15th

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