Florence Gabriel in Windows of Wonder
The county of Kerry is synonymous with a number of things; its scenic beauty, the prowess of its football team and its love of literature. From the Gaelic writers who hailed from the West of Kerry to the playwrights from North Kerry, the county has consistently punched above its weight in literary circles. The work of its writers has also proved a fertile stomping ground for film makers looking for adaptations. Maurice Walsh wrote the short story that John Ford turned into the multiple Oscar winning film, The Quiet Man, while John B. Keane penned the play which inspired Jim Sheridan’s The Field. While John B. is, undoubtedly, one of the best known Kerry writer’s, another Listowel based writer, Bryan MacMahon, has an equally rich oeuvre which, until now, has not been adapted for film.
His short story, Windows Of Wonder, was, once upon a time, on the Inter Cert syllabus and it was here that writer, Jason O’ Mahony, first came across it. “I can remember reading the short story in class and the writing was so beautifully descriptive, it immediately came to life on the internal cinema screen of my mind,” says Jason. “I fell in love with the story and it was always a dream to see it made as a short film.”
Jason has worked in film for “the past ten years or so but always on the marketing, PR and festival side of things” but has recently formed a flourishing partnership with director and producer team, Maurice and Elaine O’ Carroll. “We met a couple of years back but bumped into each other at last year’s Kerry Film Festival,” says Maurice. “I was working on a script with Tom Lawlor and we asked Jason to come on board as producer.”
It proved to be a fortuitous meeting that saw the creation of Burnt Ice Pictures, which has seen Maurice, Elaine, Tom and Jason work together on three short films already this year and Windows Of Wonder, their fourth, is their most ambitious undertaking to date.
Windows of Wonder is a beautiful short story, written in Bryan MacMahon’s inimitable style, that focuses on a young teacher that goes to work in a remote rural village sometime in the late 1940’s or early 1950’s. She discovers, much to her dismay, that there is something wrong with the children; their imaginations are closed and they have yet to discover the wonder of the world. When she realizes that they have never heard the stories and legends of Ireland, she begins to tell them wonderful tales and little by little they come out of their shells, becoming happy, rambunctious children. What follows is a battle of wills between the carefree fun-loving teacher and the staid, sober principal with the happiness of the children hanging in the balance.
“When I first adapted the short story, I envisioned it as a retelling of the tale set it in a modern Ireland,” says Jason, “I’m doing the FÁS film and television production course in Monavalley and they’re fantastically supportive in terms of allowing us to use their equipment but I didn’t think it would be possible to set it in the 1950’s. Then Maurice, with his infectious enthusiasm, convinced me, over a few pints that it should remain true to the original and be set in the 1950’s. Needless to say, it was me drinking the few pints and not him!”
“It was easy for me to be enthusiastic about the 1950’s,” laughs Maurice, “all I had to do was direct, I didn’t have to look for the costumes, locations and props.” This is where Elaine’s skills came in, she trained as an interior designer and so, she has an innate understanding of costumes and set design.
“We were fantastically lucky,” says Elaine. “It was an amazing journey; we had almost no money to make this short film and so relied on the good-will of so many people to get it made. As soon as we started looking for props we realized how large an undertaking it was going to be. But when we mentioned it was for an adaptation of a Bryan MacMahon short story people started coming out of the woodwork with all manners of fantastic props.”
“People were incredibly supportive,” says Tom Lawlor, who is an actor and plays the role of the teacher’s father in the film. If the name is familiar it’s because Tom is Tom Vaughan Lawlor’s Dad and Tom Jr. has become a household name as Nidge from RTÉ’s Love?Hate. “And Elaine did trojan work building an incredible look to the film.”
“It was a fantastic learning experience for me,” says Elaine. “I was aware of who Bryan MacMahon was, of course, but I had no idea of the love that people felt towards him. Everyone had such wonderfully warm stories about Bryan that I feel incredibly close to him. Tom McElligott, for example, who is a past pupil of Bryan’s gave us a loan of a book that Bryan read in class. Tom also told us this wonderful little story about Bryan; one day he got all the children to close their eyes and told them that whatever they imagined could actually happen. He had them imagine an elephant standing in the school yard, he told them to imagine its long trunk, and its massive grey body. He told them to imagine its four strong legs, standing like trees in the school yard, and to imagine its big flappy ears. Bryan kept this up for a few minutes and when the children opened their eyes they was an elephant standing in the middle of the school yard!”
“And this was the 1950’s, an elephant was as rare as hen’s teeth,” laughs Tom. “But there was a circus visiting the town, unbeknownst to the children and Bryan, being Bryan, convinced the circus to bring the elephant into the school yard. Can you imagine the delight on the children’s faces when they opened their eyes and saw the elephant?”
“That story is typical of the man,” adds Elaine. “Every where we went we had doors opened to us as soon as we mentioned his name. Moyderwell and CBS primary schools in Tralee and Lixnaw primary school gave us a ton of props, from old school desks to maps, black-boards and even old globes and Enda O’ Brian and Maurice O’ Keefe allowed us use their properties for locations.”
“We even sourced a car from the early 1950’s,” says Tom. “We didn’t think it would be possible but searched online and found the Kerry Veteran Vintage and Classic Car Club’s website and their secretary, Mike O’ Connor, actually gave us a loan of a genuine 1951 Riley!”
No film, however, can get by on just props and locations and Bryan Carr’s stage school provided 17 young actors to play the parts of the children. “Finding such brilliant young actors was a huge break for us,” says Maurice. “As a director it’s essential that you have talented actors to work with and they were just fantastic. They really brought the script to life. Though the young actors were all accomplished on stage, none of them had ever acted in a film before and they took to it like true professionals, especially our three young leads Laura Daly, Clodagh Hickey and Simon Carey.”
It sounds like a very busy set? “It certainly was,” says Jason. “We even had a visit from Jimmy Deenihan, the Minister for Arts. He’s an accomplished film maker himself so it was nice of him to drop by to wish us well. He’s a huge supporter of the arts and of film, in particular, and of course a massive supporter of the literary arts in Listowel.”
“There’s a nice symmetry to this story,” says Maurice. “Bryan MacMahon was a fantastic writer and wonderful teacher. One of the little things that we’ve tried to do with the story is add visual clues about Bryan. He used to finish every day by reading a story to the children. And he would do that at a quarter past three, so the clock in the film is always set to that time. Bryan felt that no matter how school had gone, no matter the laughter or tears, no matter whether you were in the teacher’s good books or bad books, that you should leave school having heard the most amazing story so that you would look forward to coming back the next day.”
“At the heart of every film is a story and Bryan MacMahon was the ultimate story teller. Film making is simply story telling with technology. We only hope that the short film can, in some small way, live up to the power of Bryan MacMahon and his stories,” says Jason.
At the very least the film has introduced Bryan’s stories to a new generation of young actors. The film is still a long way from being completed, the next stage is post-production, which will see the short film edited and a soundtrack attached. From there it’s off to the festival circuit. “It’s early days yet,” says Jason, “but we’d love nothing more than for the short film to screen at festivals around the world. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to introduce the work of Bryan MacMahon to audiences in different countries outside of Ireland?”
It certainly would and, while it’s too early in the game to predict the level of success the film will have, it looks like Kerry’s strong tradition of story telling is continuing. The instruments used to create those stories may well have changed from pen and paper to film and lights but the essential ingredient has remained the same – the story.