Loretta Goff rides into town and checks out Padraig Conaty’s film about a shy and awkward, Wild West-obsessed Billy Burns, whose cheerful cowboy fixation masks the scars of a childhood tragedy.
Padraig Conaty’s directorial debut, No Party for Billy Burns, is very much an Irish Western. The film’s titular character, Billy Burns (Kevin McGahern), lives in rural Cavan, but imagines himself a cowboy from the Wild West. Shy and innocent, Billy leads a fairly lonely life with his grandfather (Shane Connaughton), not quite fitting in with the local lads in the pub. It is his imagination that sustains and entertains him.
Like Billy in his hometown, Cavan seems out of place as the setting for a Western. As a result, the film, which captures rural life in a very realistic way, also carries the feel of a fantasy. This is especially evident in its opening and closing sequences which intersperse Super 8 footage of old Westerns with home movies of Billy’s childhood, reflecting a filmic nostalgia. Conversely, Billy’s day-to-day life, and glimpses into the lives of other locals, encapsulate the isolation and frustration felt by many in small communities.
The pub forms the centre of this community as the place where everyone gathers, shares news and kills time. A group of men the same age as Billy seem to spend most of their days here, elucidating a lack of opportunity that perhaps leaves them without many other options. Among them is Ciarán (Charlie McGuinness), whose evident frustration with his circumstances grows throughout the film along with his volatility. Billy, however, remains on the fringes of this scene. He appears to go almost out of habit, ordering a pint and observing the scene, waiting for rare moments to join in.
Billy’s sense of isolation is made even more visceral at home, where the sound of loud, chilling wind often invades the scenes. Amidst this, Billy regularly sits alone in the only lit room of the house performing his own radio show for entertainment. Other than his grandfather, Billy’s only other real companionship comes in the form of Laura (Sonya O’Donoghue), his romantic interest. Unfortunately, Laura does not return his feelings and has been with Ciarán for a number of years, which only leads to complications.
Conaty, who also wrote the film, deals very empathetically with the character of Billy as he searches for his place in the world. In a Q&A following the film’s screening at the Cork Film Festival, the director explained that while the lead role was written for actor Kevin McGahern—who also inspired the character by being the only one to dress up for a Wild West Festival held in their local Cavan—he also drew inspiration from their local community. Equally, McGahern stated that he performed the role based on a number of people he knew growing up—described as “shy country lads” who would never leave the country.
Conaty and McGahern both spoke to the ways that the film reflects their local area, including the general “cowboy” attitude of many locals, who often speak and behave in ways that offer easy comparison to cowboy films. Between the development of characters that reflects this locality and the fact that the film was shot in their hometown in Cavan, No Party for Billy Burns carries an air of authenticity that viewers from rural communities will connect with. However, its themes of isolation and of feeling trapped in a certain life are also universal.
The film, which took six years to complete on a budget of between €7,000–8,000, is a personal project handled with care, showcasing both scenery and daily-life in Cavan through the lens of its shy, observant lead. While No Party for Billy Burns evokes a number of classic Westerns throughout, such as High Noon (1952) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), it also allows the space for Billy to create his own path in the narrative. Similarly, the film itself is able to avoid certain generic conventions by remaining very rooted in its rural Irish setting, developing its own category as a modern Irish Western.
No Party for Billy Burns screened on 13th November 2017 as part of the Cork Film Festival