Pat Collins’s new film adaptation of John McGahern’s novel That They May Face the Rising Sun is not just a departure into narrative fiction but a progression of the themes he has been exploring in his films for over thirty years, probing the changing nature of Ireland and Irish society in the 20th Century.

Collins’s films examine man’s connection to the land (Silence), the impact of colonialism and emigration (Living in a Coded Land), explore modernity and tradition (What We Leave in our Wake) and observe the process of making or creating art (in Song of Granite and The Dance, as well as his documentary on the author John McGahern, John McGahern: A Private World).

In many ways, Rising Sun brings all these themes together by observing over the course of a farming year the lives of a small rural community in County Leitrim sometime during the 1980s, their connections to each other and the role of kindness and forgiveness in navigating the everyday. For Collins, who grew up on a small farm in Drimoleague in West Cork, there’s a humanity to the characters that drift in and out of the kitchen of writer Joe and artist Kate Ruttledge (Barry Ward and Anna Bederke), to drink tea or something stronger, and chat.

Barry Ward and Anna Bederke in That They May Face the Rising Sun (2023)
Barry Ward and Anna Bederke in That They May Face the Rising Sun (2023)

The film does not employ a traditional narrative structure, in so far as it does not track the hero’s journey, but instead offers up a snapshot of the lives of a community. Indeed, it’s a script that probably wouldn’t have made it past an intern’s first read at a Hollywood production company. But what a relief that is. The film’s depiction of art, work, friendship, regrets, forgiveness, marriage, death and the bringing in of the harvest is enough story for any lifetime.

Unlike the vast array of post-apocalyptic libertarian material appearing today, Collins’s film stays with you, winding its way into your consciousness so that you feel a little better about being alive by the time you have finished watching it. The focus is on the appreciation for the so-called small things in life: the building of a shed, the bringing in of the hay, the pint in the pub, the cup of tea and the chat in the kitchen. “There would come a time when these days would be looked back on as happiness,” writes Joe in the film.

Much like Collins himself, who was sitting at his kitchen table writing when I visited him in his home in West Cork, we were running late because we had spent too much time drinking tea and chatting in their kitchen – sound familiar? “Make sure he calls about the website,” states Sharon Whooley, his wife, partner, and producer, down the phone, referring to some order of their business as we left for a screening in Baltimore.

Pat Collins
Pat Collins on Silence

Collins’s introduction to the world of film happened in the 1990s, when he moved to Galway as a man in his mid-twenties. He took the six-week film foundation course at Galway Film Centre and spent four months sitting in with editor Arthur Keating. “When I moved to Galway, I was probably close to emigrating. All the young people had left West Cork and it was a lonely place at that time,” said Collins.  “Galway was a revelation to me as much for the Irish culture as anything else, hearing Irish spoken on the streets, going out to the Aran Islands, or down to the Burren, and learning Irish in Áras na nGael in Dominic Street. It was like being born again.”

In 1997 he made his first documentary Necklace of Wrens, about the Irish language poet Michael Hartnett. He followed this with a film that has many parallels with Rising Sun called Talking to the Dead. Based on a book by the same name by Pat Sheeran and Nina Witoszek, “it was about how central the funeral tradition was to Irish culture and that so much theatre, poetry and politics was based around the Irish funeral,” said Collins. It’s one of the few traditions that has been maintained, according to Collins. “Where I grew up, there might be somebody you might not get on with. But you shake their hand or sympathise with them at a funeral, all the same. That’s not false. It comes out of a need for survival as much as a decision to connect.”

“If you have a credit card you don’t need the local shop to give you credit. If you have your own car, you don’t need a lift anymore. Machinery now does the job that you needed ten neighbours to help you with. But community really comes of a need rather than just a desire to say hello.” It’s no accident then, that these are the scenes portrayed in both Rising Sun and Meitheal (the Irish concept of a rural community working together to bring in the harvest) and which form the core to both works.

Community really comes of a need rather than just a desire to say hello.

Ruth McCabe, Barry Ward, Lola Mae McCormack, and Anna Bederke in That They May Face the Rising Sun (2023)
Ruth McCabe, Barry Ward, Lola Mae McCormack, and Anna Bederke in That They May Face the Rising Sun (2023)

As with any community, there is conflict and disagreement which both arise out of and are dispersed by the humour. “It’s the darkness mixed with the elegiac quality that I’m drawn to,” said Collins.  “I’m trying to explore that thing about tolerance and connection between people, as opposed to a story that happened within a single character or a family. The humour is as important as the darkness so that it’s not just this elegy for a way of life that is gone. It can’t be all serious, but it does end up in a very serious place.” There is a balance that needs to be found.  “A lot of cinema is either all darkness or all laughs but life is a mixture of the two. And at the end of the day you have to be able to say (to your audience) you should really go and see this film.”

Collins was inspired by the films of Bresson, Dreyer, and Ozu who made transcendental cinema—a phrase coined by screenwriter and critic Paul Schrader in his eponymously named book. It’s a type of filmmaking that highlights the spiritual or sublime by concentrating on the ordinary.

“I particularly admire (Ozu’s) Autumn Afternoon,’ he said. ‘The filmmaker gives you time to look at the reaction on somebody’s face, rather than fill the scene with dialogue, so that you can see how they are feeling.”

He also borrowed some of the stylistic techniques of Ozu. “My tendency was to shoot a wide shot and have it locked off,” he says. Which can provide a more realistic performance. “I was reluctant to shoot singles (a close-up of an actor’s face), but then (if you don’t) it leaves you with no options (in the edit). It worked beautifully for the scene where Patrick and Sean act out part of Synge’s Playboy of the Western World in Joe’s kitchen. ‘But then it’s risky,’ said Collins, who was encouraged by Cinematographer Richard Kendrick to shoot some single shots to give Pat more options. ‘And sometimes I’d be grumpily agreeing to it. But then I was glad of it. In fact, we found a lot of the pacing, particularly with Joe and Kate, came from those single shots where you can see them listening to each other—looking out for each other.”

Song of Granite (2017)
Song of Granite (2017)

Rising Sun is Collins’s first narrative fiction feature, although he has done hybrid documentaries such as Silence and Song of Granite. “It was a new experience for me. I knew I couldn’t rely on archival footage or documentary elements (to support the story telling); the film lived or died by the performances. But working with Barry Ward, Lalor Roddy, Sean McGinley, and the cast of Rising Sun was fascinating. There’s something almost mysterious about it. These actors have such craft, skill, and insight into their characters. They do incredible things with just the slightest gesture or the way they look with their eyes. Their inflections can transform a simple line into something heart-wrenching or deeply meaningful, far beyond what’s written on the page,’ said Collins. ‘I remember a scene with Sean McGinley where the camera was on him, and his look was so powerful that everyone was blown away. Most people can’t do that unless it’s happening to them in real life, but these actors can tap into it effortlessly.”

These performances were punctuated with the use of the Pillow Shot (it has nothing to do with pillows), which features in transcendental and documentary filmmaking. This is a cut to a shot of the environment that has an emotional impact but does not move the narrative forward. It was the use of these shots that gave the Rising Sun a quiet, emotional underpinning.

Some shots or scenes seem to have appeared in other of Collin’s films. For example, the dancing at the wedding is curiously like the opening scene from Living in a Coded Land, and so too is the view of the long avenue leading up to Joe’s farm with the trees on either side like an echo of scenes from his documentary, John McGahern: A Private World. “I’m not conscious of repeating myself but I go over the same motifs in different ways,” said Collins.

I think I am trying to replicate feelings or ideas or experiences I’ve had, that maybe have been burned into me.

Rising Sun is not just a film based on the McGahern book, nor a new departure into narrative fiction, nor a milestone in his career, it represents something deeper—a reflection on an Ireland that has disappeared in our lifetime. “You could look at the characters, the small farmers, truly living in nature, unlike people today who just visit for a long weekend. They were part of the environment in a way that people aren’t anymore, and their disappearance is significant,” said Collins. “Those small farms were the canary in the coal mine for the crisis, a whole class of people wiped out by capitalism and modernity. This breakdown is continuing to happen now, even in places like West Cork.”

This is not just an economic or social loss but is an unravelling of a fabric that has been in place for thousands of years. It’s the loss of something that made Ireland unique. The character of Jamesy in McGahern’s novel, was based on a real person who was known as the poet of the community. “That did not mean Jamesy wrote poetry,” said Collins. “But that he noticed things: the arrival of the cuckoo, a strange bird flying across a field. In other words, the poet of the community was someone who paid attention to small details.”

Collins is mining similar territory in a radio play that he’s writing on Patrick Kavanagh. The poet walked from his home in Monaghan to Dublin to meet Æ George William Russell in Dublin in 1931. “I’m trying to recreate that journey, what he was thinking and what he might have heard along the way,” said Collins. “It’s not that I have done it before, but I feel like I’m at the same thing, because it’s still a project about someone at the slow walking pace, someone in nature, and thinking about life or poetry,” said Collins. “It’s to do with attention to the details, and attention is a form of love to a certain extent. Kavanagh talks about that.”

‘To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience, it is depth that counts, not width. A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junction of four small fields – these are as much as a man can fully experience.’ – Patrick Kavanagh.

Collins’s films are the poetry and his field is rural Ireland.


About Niall McKay

Niall McKayNiall is an Emmy award-winning writer and director and Podcaster, and former Executive Director Irish Screen America. Niall wrote and directed, The Ferry, a film starring Aoife Duffin, which was featured on RTÉ’s ShortScreen. He produced a historical documentary about the Filipino Farmworkers for PBS called Delano Manongs with partner Marissa Aroy (nominated for a 2011 California Emmy). A former columnist for the Irish Times and staff writer for Wired, Niall broke the story about the NSA spying on Europe in the New York Times and was also a regular contributor to The Economist, The Financial Times, the New Scientist. Niall’s personal documentary The Bass Player was nominated for a 2010 Irish Film and Television Award and won a in 2008 won a California Emmy for Sikh’s in America.  He’s been on the juries of the Cork Film Festival and the Galway Film Festival and the student Academy Awards and worked as a shorts programmer for the Tribeca Film Festival.


Gemma Creagh is a writer, filmmaker and journalist. In 2014 she graduated with a First from NUIG’s MA Writing programme. Gemma’s play Spoiling Sunset was staged in Galway as part of the Jerome Hynes One Act Play series in 2014. Gemma was one of eight playwrights selected for AboutFACE’s 2021 Transatlantic Tales and is presently developing a play with the Axis Theatre and with the support of the Arts Council. She has been commissioned to submit a play by Voyeur Theatre to potentially be performed in Summer 2023 as part of the local arts festival. Gemma was the writer and co-producer of the five-part comedy Rental Boys for RTÉ’s Storyland. She has gone on to write, direct and produce shorts which screened at festivals around the world. She was commissioned to direct the short film, After You, by Filmbase and TBCT. Gemma has penned articles for magazines, industry websites and national newspapers, she’s the assistant editor for Film Ireland and she contributes reviews to RTE Radio One’s Arena on occasion.

Write A Comment