On the 6th March 1988, Mairéad Farrell, Sean Savage and Daniel McCann, three members of an unarmed IRA unit, were shot dead by British SAS forces in Gibraltar in extremely controversial circumstances. Martina Durac’s film, Mairéad Farrell: Comhrá nár Chríochnaigh, explores the life and death of one of the IRA’s most iconic female members. The journey is guided by Professor Bríona Nic Dhiarmada, who spent many hours in discussion with Mairéad in the year before her death, and travels back to Belfast, Gibraltar and England to revisit her memories of that time. The film screens this Sunday at the IFI as part of its monthly showcase for new Irish film.
Recalling how the project came about, director Martina Dulac tells Film Ireland how a number of years ago she was researching a documentary series that she was going to make for TG4/BAI about women who served in the IRA and Republican paramilitary organisations during the last 40 years and more – “I felt their stories had not been told before, in their own words.”
As Martina was working on this and seeking the women who would be involved, she began to think more about Mairéad Farrell, whose story she was broadly familiar with. Mairéad joined the IRA in her late teens; spent over ten years in Armagh Women’s Prison for planting a bomb at the Conway Hotel in Dunmurry; was appointed the OC of the women in the Armagh jail; went on hunger strike along with Mary Doyle and Mairead Nugent seeking the same five demands to be met as the men in Long Kesh were; was tipped to occupy a very significant role in the now changing Republican movement in the late ‘80s when she was released; attended the University in Belfast for a short while; and was shot dead in Gibraltar by the SAS.
“It seemed to me a life story waiting to be explored,” Martina explains. “Speaking with the commissioning editors in TG4 I said I wanted to make a film about her. That’s when I discovered that Bríona Nic Dhiarmada, who I already knew, had been planning to make a film also and had been writing a book [unpublished] about Mairéad just around the same time that the killing in Gibraltar took place. Myself and Vanessa Gildea [producer of the film] went to meet with Bríona and we decided to work together. I would direct the film and Bríona would get involved as consultant. However, as I delved into the research more it seemed to me that the best way to tell the story would be for Bríona to be our on-screen guide as she revisited the events of that time and what they meant for her as well. When she agreed to this we set off on the journey along with Vanessa and Paddy Jordan, the cameraman, and we travelled with Briona from Dublin to Leitrim, Belfast to England and then on to Gibraltar and Spain, in search of the story.”
Bríona Nic Dhiarmada had had a very particular relationship with Mairéad Farrell for about a year and a half before her death while writing her book and because she also had a strong family connection to the North of Ireland and had been visiting it quite regularly from the mid-1970s, her role as “on-screen guide” is vital in bringing a better understanding to Mairead’s life. “I felt she was well placed to tell the story, Martina says. “It was important for me that we did not attempt a straightforward chronological biography as I don’t think it would have been the right way to approach this. How do you get inside the head of someone who lived through these times, did what she did and died as she did? The film was always going to be partial, in a sense, an exploration and a series of questions and reminiscences. Bríona brought a humanity and a curiosity to the project and I think she’s a compelling on-screen guide through what was a complex story. Even so, it was not possible to look into every facet of the story in detail as we are hidebound by the exigencies of making a 52-minute film.”
Martina points out that Mairéad’s journey from a middle-class upbringing in Belfast to a high-profile member of the IRA is seen as being somehow different from most of the other IRA activists because she came from a comfortable background and might have been more expected to end up in university than jail. “I’m not sure this distinction entirely made sense as she was definitely exposed to what was happening in Belfast and beyond all throughout her childhood years but this sense of otherness did add to the mystique that surrounded her after she was released from prison and became a spokesperson for the new direction into which the IRA and Republicanism in general was headed. She was, in a word, charismatic. From looking at old interviews with her it’s possible to see both the charm she possessed and the real determination to succeed in her aims even if that meant risking her own death and the deaths of others. This is something we do not ordinarily come face to face with in our own lives and I was drawn to explore it. She was as complex a person as we all are and she lived through a time in Irish history that is indelibly etched into the psyche of the country and has had long-lasting effects on how communities on both sides of the border viewed and still view each other. I wanted to see if we could explore this in some way in the film that would offer any inkling of understanding.”
Reflecting on the experience I ask Martina if is there one thing above all else about Mairead that she came out of the experience with a better understanding of. “I think it’s fair to say that I went into the making of this film believing that there had to be very strong reasons for Mairéad Farrell acting as she did in getting involved with the Republican movement so young and becoming an active service volunteer in the IRA while in her teens. Bríona says it in the film and it comes across to me also from the accounts of other people – Mairéad Farrell was a product of her times and the history of her people. It’s impossible to have made this film and not see that. She didn’t start out with a desire to hurt or kill other people; I think she started out with anger, the anger of the young at injustice, and I think she set out to do what she thought was necessary at the time to stop this injustice. In the light of so many actions, resistances, uprisings and revolutions across the world that we’ve seen since then, how many can we say are really successful for their protagonists and bring them what they think they fought for? Maybe very few, but I think I understand the desire for change and the deep frustrations that drove her to do what she did a bit more now that we’ve made this film.”
Mairéad Farrell: Comhrá nár Chríochnaigh screens on Sunday, 27th July 2014 at 13.00 as part of the IFI’s Ireland on Sunday monthly showcase for new Irish film.
Martina Durac, Vanessa Gildea and Bríona Nic Dhiarmada will participate in a post-screening Q&A.
Tickets for Mairéad Farrell: Comhrá nár Chríochnaigh are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie