JOHN CUNLIFFE was the apple of his parents eye. There was nothing they could not do for him, but such devotion to their son left John with little sense of independence and ill-prepared when the challenges of the adult world forcibly intrude upon his life.
This is Foscadh (Shelter ), the new Irish-language, Galway made, feature film from writer/director Seán Breathnach, and based on Donal Ryan’s novel, The Thing About December.
Foscadh has already won Best Irish First Feature at the 2021 Galway Film Fleadh, and it has been selected as Ireland's entry for the Oscars’ Best International Feature Film category - the second year in a row an Irish Language film has been chosen.
Foscadh goes on general release in cinemas on Friday March 11, and Seán Breathnach, who is from Leitir Mealláin, and who who teaches scriptwriting and production on the MA (Cleachtas Gairmiúil sna Meáin ) and the BA (Cumarsáid agus Gaeilge ) programme at NUI Galway’s Acadamh na hOllscolaíochta Gaeilge, is understandably excited to see it finally reach the big screen.
“I’m hugely excited, but there is trepidation as well,” he tells me, during our Monday afternoon interview. “I don’t know how it’s going to be received or what people will think of it. At this point it’s been shown at film festivals, and there is a particular type of audience that goes to festivals. They have expectations, and they don’t mind challenging films, and anyone who sees this, I think, will find it a challenging film, in a good sense.
“The filmmakers I like make films that treat the audience with the utmost respect, whereby the plot and narrative isn’t spelt out, and you are given space to have your own interpretation of the characters and what they are doing.”
A film about challenges
Set in Joyce Country, northern Connemara, particularly around Corr na Móna, and starring Dónall Ó Héalai (Arracht ), Fionnuala Flaherty (An Klondike ), and Cillian O’Gairbhí (Blood ), Foscadh focuses on a naïve recluse, John Cunliffe (Ó Héalai ), who is suddenly propelled into manhood at the age of 28, when his overprotective parents pass away.
Friendless, lonely, isolated, and introverted, John inherits mountain land that is in the way of a lucrative wind-farm development, forcing him to confront the real world for the first time.
Seán was approached by the producer, Paddy Hayes, with the idea of turning The Thing About December into a film. “There was the opportunity with the TG4 Cine4 film scheme,” says Sean. “I had made a short, Solitude, which was shown at the Fleadh a number of years ago, that had similar themes, and he saw a fit there.”
Seán Breathnach. Photo:- Mike Shaughnessy
Seán admits he read Donal Ryan’s acclaimed 2014 novel in one sitting (“I really loved it, and connected with the story, and the male protagonist. I could see similarities with myself and the way he saw the world” ), and was intrigued by the challenge of turning a novel focussed on the interior life, into a film.
“There were themes of isolation and the struggle to get over the expectations his parents had for him. I thought these were interesting,” said Seán. “There are a lot of interior monologues, but I relished that challenge, to convey that using sound and vision and montage. I knew it would push and challenge me.”
Foscadh is a film about challenges, particularly of the personal kind, and especially those facing young men as they enter their thirties.
“It’s delving into masculinity, finding your way in the world, and where you belong in the world; knowing how you should be; relationships with the opposite sex; finding out about yourself and knowing yourself,” says Seán. “These kinds of things are tough on young men, and I think that’s borne out in many of the statistics regarding depression. Now, we don’t really go down that way in the film, but it was in the thinking when we constructed some of the scenes for the film.”
Seán describes John as “a man lost”, saying, “He’s had a fairly cosetted life. He is one of these men, you come across them, you certainly come across them in rural Ireland, who have been brought up a certain way and who have had everything done for them, hence the title, Foscadh, shelter. He hasn’t had to fend for himself.
“A lot of people ask me if he’s neuro-diverse. I say he’s shaped by his environment. You have to imagine that his parents loved him so much they did everything for him, but the cycle of life, they pass on, so what is to happen to him then?
“He’s left to his own devices. He can sort-of cook, he knows where the shops are, but he really wants human touch and to connect with people, but he’s painfully introverted and shy. He finds it difficult to do so. He’s the kind of person that will never go out there and find someone. Someone has to find him and the story is about how people find him and about how he reacts to them.”
The two Donals
Dónall Ó Héalai as John Cunliffe in Foscadh.
John Cunliffe has a sympathetic and powerful portrayer in Dónall Ó Héalai, one of Ireland’s finest actors. “I don’t know if anyone else could have played this role,” says Seán. “We chased Donal, we wanted him for the part, and thankfully he connected with the story and came on board.”
Foscadh is also unusual in that John Cunliffe is in every scene, unlike in more conventional films where the main character will be absent from time to time (eg, Luke Skywalker is not in every scene in Star Wars, Jack Nicholson is not in every scene in The Shining ).
“We never leave his story,” says Seán. “I made a creative decision to stay with him no matter what and we’ll see how he reacts to what happens on screen. I think that was the most inspired creative choice made because of Donal. I can’t speak highly enough of him. He tells the story through his face, eyes, and movement. There is very little dialogue compared to more conventional films, so has to carry the film, and boy does he carry it.”
Dónall Ó Héalai, Seán Breathnach, and Fionnuala Flaherty during the making of Foscadh.
Seán is also full of praise for Donal Ryan, and his support for the Foscadh. “It is difficult to adapt a novel for the screen, 200 odd pages, lots of characters, and a lot of interior thoughts,” he says. “Fairly early on, we knew we'd have to change some of the plot. We stayed in touch with Donal, sent the scripts to him, we did change the plot somewhat, but he was on board, and was very happy with how it turned out. He was at the screening at the Fleadh. He led the applause and gave it a standing ovation.”
Irish language film
Foscadh, along the Famine-era drama Arracht, and crime drama Doineann, are all new Irish feature films. All are as Gaeilge and all were made in County Galway. This really is a moment for Irish language, Galway made, film.
Seán Breathnach. Photo:- Mike Shaughnessy
“We are seeing the fruits of the investment by Fís Éireann, TG4, and BAI, through the Cine4 scheme,” says Seán. “It’s very difficult to make a film. We had a great budget of €1.2 million, which would be considered quite small by cinema standards, but fair play to the various organisations, they put the scheme together and were hugely supportive, and they trusted us and let us have a go at this.
“I believe that between cast and crew, the talent is there, but until recently, the money wasn’t there. What you are seeing is the fruits of a good few years' work. The Cine4 scheme started in 2017, and there are more films coming through the pipeline as well. TG4 has been there 25 years, talent has developed from there, and Cine4 has to be central to that.”
Club Scannán Sailearna in Indreabhán will hold the first showing in Conamara of Foscadh on Thursday March 3 in Seanscoil Sailearna, Indreabhán, at 8.15pm. For tickets go to www.clubscannan.ie