ON OCCASION, I mentally register a subject to write about and file it away until a window of opportunity and the inclination to explore it arises. This might be some record for me as I began writing these words some five years ago, for what it is worth. These years later and with much water having flowed under the bridge I still feel it is a subject worthy of talking about.
At that time, in October 2011, I attended a function for Mental Health Awareness Week which was being held in the excellent, independent Broadway Media Centre in Nottingham. The film, Arise You Gallant Sweeneys! had been organised as a private showing for the Framework charity’s 10th Anniversary celebrations at the cinema and I was fortunate enough to receive an invite due to my research work in the area of mental health. Framework, should also be commended here for the excellent work they carry out with the homeless and the vulnerable.
Arise You Gallant Sweeneys! was a small budget documentary film that told the story of four elderly Irishmen living in a hostel in Nottingham, who left their home shores for economic reasons during the United Kingdom’s building boom of the 1950s and 1960s. None of the men, for disparate reasons, had ever returned home to Ireland since migrating all those decades ago, living the rest of their lives in exile for different reasons in different parts across Great Britain.
The four now-elderly alcohol-dependant men whose tale was documented were Sean Lynch, who was but ten years old when he left his home, Tom Coffey, who departed at just eighteen years, Tom Sweeney, who was of similar age and lastly, Pat Kelly, aged twenty four when he bade farewell to his home country.
The story documents a road trip to their original homeland for the four men and relates a poignant tale of homelessness, penury and alcoholism against a background of exploitation as ‘navvies’ creating the roadways of England, Scotland and Wales with its hard labour and equally hard drinking. Tangentially, folk singer Ralph McTell told an echoing lamenting story in his beautiful and haunting ballad, From Clare to Here:
‘There’s four who share this room as we work hard for the Craic
And sleeping late on Sundays I never get to Mass
It almost breaks my heart when I think of Josephine
I told her I’d be coming home with my pockets full of green
And the only time I feel alright is when I’m into drinking
It sort of eases the pain of it and levels out my thinking’
In the Broadway Cinema as I took my seat, an Irish fiddler played at the corner of the auditorium. Maybe it’s just me or maybe it’s because of my own origins but there is something that seeps into one’s very soul when the strains of Celtic music sound, it’s lilt, it’s sadness, sometimes it’s pure joyousness too. Presently, after a , heartfelt and dignified spoken introduction, the film began and we saw the inception of the road trip – men who after a drink or two would always talk about home – how they’d perhaps like to see it for one last time before it was too late and they met their maker. To the good people who organised it, great credit, including Framework I understand. Soon, a small party including the four men set sail with a provided mini-bus, back home to Ireland after all those years.
One might be forgiven to imagine this to be a sentimental story but this is not the case. The men’s humour and character serve to make it not so.
Of course things had changed for the men over many years. Families had become fractured and information was hard to find in some cases, even to the point of one of the group discovering that the brother he had thought was long passed away was in fact still very much alive, leading to some emotionally draining scenes. The returning brother showed little love for his long-lost sibling, even claiming he should be ‘drowned in the Atlantic’.
‘Come all ye loyal heroes and listen on to me.
Don’t hire with any farmer till you know what your work will be
You will rise up early in the morning from the clear day light till the dawn
and you never will be able for to plough the Rocks of Bawn.
Rise up, gallant Sweeney, and get your horses hay
And give them a good feed of oats before they start away’
(From The Rocks of Bawn by Patrick Kelly)
The little film, whilst roughly-hewn was extremely moving as we were taken through the decades and on the road, explored each of the men’s home towns. It engaged and yet was disturbing at times, even by turns wickedly funny. As a viewer, I had the feeling that I wanted to somehow ‘make it right’ for the men and to understand the real reasons they had never returned home before.
Many men of this ilk worked their hearts and guts out in those days, they took their pay, often drank it and lived from week to week or from day to day. The men in our story it is explained now lived in supported accommodation in Nottingham. One is no longer with us, God bless him. The others’ road will most likely end here. Thankfully though, after this one final visit of their roots.
It would be true to say that there was little sentiment in the film. It was nevertheless, an engaging one, at times unsettling and more than anything, ultimately a moving one.
Watch the original trailer here: