June Butler reviews Maurice O’Carroll’s film Mountrath Unlocked about a town that drew on its community spirit of old in times of trouble.
Mountrath is a small town with a big sense of community. Situated in Co. Laois, many Irish would say they have never spent time in the town, much less known about the indomitable spirit of the people who live there. Director Maurice O’Carroll’s charming documentary will change all of that.
It is an area given over to farming and in the town itself, there are a number of fine restaurants and homely bars. According to the many interviewees, everyone knows everyone. Teenagers help neighbours as much as they assist their own family members and if there is work to be done, everyone pitches in. One interviewee tells of youngsters arriving home and heading straight out into the fields to rally around parents and neighbours with what needs to be done – driving tractors, milking cows, ploughing fields. Another interviewee maintains that there is never a dull moment and even at 5 in the morning, there are always people in the town centre milling about and chatting to each other.
2007-2008 saw what many considered to be the worst financial crisis the world had ever witnessed since The Great Depression. The Wall Street Stock Market crash on October 29th, 1929, was believed to have been the trigger to the slough that lasted through most of the 1930s and for some countries, right up until World War II. Given how agonisingly arduous The Great Depression was, comparing it to the financial crisis of 2007/2008 showed just how bad the latter event was and the level of devastating damage it did to the world economy. The crash of 2007/2008 seemed to signify the beginning of the end for Mountrath. Businesses closed, bars struggled to keep going and a pall of gloom hung over the town. Then to make matters worse, a motorway bypassing Mountrath was completed on the 28th of May 2010. The people of the town were left reeling from this newest development and had to helplessly watch as visitors stopped coming to the town and small enterprises came under the hammer again. It was ten years after the motorway was built, almost to the month, when CoVid19 gathered full momentum and hit the already besieged townspeople in March 2020.
Once the first CoVid19 lockdown came into play, Mountrath experienced hardship like never before. Instead of downsizing or temporarily laying off staff, businesses had no choice but to fully close. Restaurants and bars lay empty for months. The town centre was desolate and empty. Townspeople interviewed were despondent and saddened by the event. One employer was forced to let all of his staff go, confirming tearfully to director Maurice O’Carroll how difficult he found this. O’Carroll cleverly allows not just interviews to gather pace and give a sense of how trying the times were, but also introduces the background noise of radio news bulletins as disastrous updates follow ruinous broadcasts and lend to the documentary a sense of being assailed from all directions. Sandwiched in between the radio programmes, are citizens from all walks who freely give their views on what each lockdown means to them. One lady knits furiously while hilariously updating O’Carroll with her wry take on life in general. In the midst of the pandemic, a town stalwart Tom Delaney passes away, throwing everyone into the additional pain of mourning for one of their own. There is a touching outpouring of grief for Delaney and dozens of people line the main street as the funeral cortege slowly inches by with pallbearers on foot. Everyone is joined together in offering support to the family and each other. Sadness is shared in an outpouring of compassion.
But in a testament to the spirit of this wonderful town, bit by bit, hope comes to Mountrath. It was always there but in recent times had receded somewhat. Now it is out and proud. Townsfolk speak of the little things and talk of their appreciation for kindness between each other. Bringing elderly neighbours a cup of tea. Making sure that even two metres apart, people feel like they are cared for. In an interesting spin on the indefatigable spirit of Mountrathians, the population does not appear to be following the path most beleaguered towns would follow in that it has increased since the financial crash in 2007/2008 from 1,435 (census of 2006) to 1,661 (census of 2011) immediately after the motorway bypass of the town. Then to cap it all, the population of Mountrath increased again to 1,774 in the census of 2016.
Director Maurice O’Carroll has created a wonderful documentary about the town and it is a homage to the people of Mountrath that through thick and thin, they have survived with kind-heartedness and a wicked sense of humour intact. It makes me proud to be Irish. Next time I’m in Mountrath, I’m going to raise a glass to the people of the town in Purcell’s bar. And Kirwan’s bar. Maybe go back to Purcell’s bar for another. And it would be wrong, so so wrong, not to square it up by yet another in Kirwan’s. Cheers!
Mountrath Unlocked screened on 21st July 2021 at the Galway Film Fleadh 2021.