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“There Are Not Many Places in the World Better To Live Than Dublin Right Now”: Luke McManus on His Inner-City Doc North Circular

A black and white image of musicians gathered in an Irish pub.North Circular

Regular Dublin folk, and the folk songs that have preserved their histories, guide viewers along the city’s North Circular in director Luke McManus’s first documentary feature. A three-and-a-half mile long loop separating Dublin’s inner city from its first hints of suburbia, the North Circular Road was laid in 1763 concurrently with the city’s South Circular Road, which now comprises residential homes and, until the early 19th century, largely ran through countryside.

Due to its longstanding urban location, the North Circular has been synonymous with working class residents, leading to a broader public consensus that much of the road ran through rough neighborhoods. Prisons, asylums and Magdalene laundries were intentionally situated along the route, as well as housing complexes like O’Devaney Gardens (which is now undergoing redevelopment, stoking anxieties amid Ireland’s current housing crisis).

A longtime Dublin resident who lives a stone’s throw from the road, McManus allows residents to tell their own stories about the North Circular, which encompass frustrated calls against gentrification, intentions to dispel nasty stereotypes about certain stretches or wishes to simply regale viewers with colorful anecdotes. What really entrances, however, are the songs bellowed by subjects in pubs along the road, essentially supplementing individual interviews with a broader historical context of the North Circular Road, the city of Dublin and Ireland as a whole. 

I spoke to McManus ahead of the film’s July 28 U.S. release date. This weekend, McManus will be in attendance for post-screening Q&As at NYC’s documentary cinema DCTV, with a musical accompaniment from North Circular subject and singer Annie Hughes.

Filmmaker: Tell me about the origins of this documentary, which is about a very specific area of Dublin. When did you formally decide to embark on this project, and how long was the overall process? 

McManus: The idea had been knocking around for a long time. I live there, about 20 doors off of the North Circular. It always struck me as a fascinating place in terms of what it linked together—these neighborhoods with these huge residences, both historical and contemporary, and these interesting institutions and landmarks.

I was a big fan of the psychogeographers of London in the ‘90s: Iain Sinclair, Will Self and W.G. Sebald. Then Gianfranco Rosi made [Sacro GRA,] a wonderful film about the road around Rome. So, it was always in my mind and I never quite got it going. Then someone else put out a film called North Circular Road and I thought, “Ah, shit, someone else has made the movie!” Then I saw the trailer and realized it had nothing to do with North Circular Road. I don’t know why they called it that. That kind of lit a fire under me. Then the lockdown happened, and I was like, “Well, I’m kind of confined to this neighborhood, so it’s the only film I can make. I better get it made.” 

The aesthetic approach came out of another project I’d done with a band called Lankum. They were probably the leading Irish folk music band of my generation. I don’t know if you’re familiar with them, but they’re like The Velvet Underground of trad music, I would say. I’d done a sort of extended music video with them that was in 4:3 black and white. That was a great success in terms of aesthetics. I wanted to do something longer form in that aesthetic world, and I wanted to do a film with the North Circular. I didn’t realize they were the same projects until quite a bit later. I put them together and managed to get something that was compelling.

Filmmaker: So you formally began during the pandemic? 

McManus: Right. I pitched the film in October of 2020 to the Arts Council in Ireland, who funded the movie. They’re amazing. They don’t give you notes, they don’t look for equity or back end, they just go, “Here’s a not-very-good amount of money, but you’re an artist and we’re just gonna leave you at it. Come back in 15 months.” In November of 2020, I found out the movie was happening. On the 2nd of January ’21, I started shooting, and I delivered a rough cut by Christmas. It wasn’t a hugely elongated period, and I was dipping in and out of other jobs. The joy of making a film in your community is that you can sit at home, get a WhatsApp message going, “There’s a protest happening on the roof of a squat” and be there in 20 minutes with your camera. 

Filmmaker: That’s a very truncated time period from beginning to end. To that point, how did you go about choosing your interview subjects and the folk songs that would illustrate the broader history of their individual stories? 

McManus: It was hard, but it was also easy [laughs]. I suppose the truth is that I was making the film for 15 months, but I had also been making it since I moved into that area in ’97. Knowledge, feelings, observations and connections are built every day. Then you find yourself walking around during the pandemic, because you have nothing else to do, so a lot of the characters fell in my lap. Séan Ó Túama, the man who plays the tin whistle, is the busker at my local store. If I go to buy bread and milk, he’s the guy standing beside the shop. I remember one day thinking he’d be worth a shot, and he certainly bloody was! It was funny, because I said, “Look, I’m making this film, would you have any interest in being part of it?” And he said [impersonating Túama], “I’d be very interested in that, thank you!” 

People do select themselves, in a way. You have a conversation with them and gauge whether or not they want to be part of it, and whether it’s gonna work for both of you. But I was so lucky with this film, like with the two lads at the very start on the steps of the monuments. I was literally walking through the park one day and heard these two boys playing. I came around the corner and there they were. I was like, “I’m filming next Monday. Are you around?” They were like, “sure,” and back they came. I’d walk past houses and hear music coming out of it, knock on the door and just have chats with people. It was really quite organic. And it wasn’t a huge crew. It was me on my own for a long time. Sometimes luck is with you and sometimes luck is against you, and it was really with me on this project. I’ve never been so fortunate.

Filmmaker: I’m curious if there were people or pieces of music that didn’t make it into the film that you felt would have been great characters or sonic presences.

McManus: Yeah, definitely. There was one song, “Sergeant William Bailey,” which is a famous song by Peadar Kearney on a Lankum album and on The Dubliners’s album, as well. It’s literally about a man who used to stand on the North Circular Road trying to recruit Irish mutes into the British Army. We recorded a version of that song—Ian Lynch from Lankum recorded that song’s chorus, but he also recorded a song called “Banks of the Nile,” which I’d never heard before. It was so spectacular, fresh and unusual that I felt, “Well, ‘Sergeant William Bailey’ was a seven out of 10, but that bad boy is a 10 out of 10, so let’s go with that.” 

There was really only one character who didn’t make the cut, a man called Martin who lives right around the corner from me. He looks like a retired policeman. He wears a neat blazer and has neat hair, but Martin thinks he’s the reincarnation of the Archangel Michael, and he has the Holy Scrolls to prove it. He’s also got quite an extensive collection of documentation, jewelry and tattoos. He was like something out of Night of the Hunter. He had this incredible gothic quality. I was hypnotized by him. But the editor, John Murphy—an incredible talent who also did a film called The Quiet Girl, which was nominated for the Oscar last year—made the point that it felt a bit uncomfortable. I realized that with Martin, I was never able to get beyond the delusion. He never told me about himself or where he was from. I almost felt like he didn’t really have the ability to consent in a meaningful way to what I was doing. I thought about his family and how upset they might be by it. So, in the end, Martin hit the cutting room floor, but I still think there’s a project there. I just haven’t quite figured out what it is yet.

Filmmaker: The black and white imagery you employ also evokes Night of the Hunter

McManus: Yeah, it’s like a fever dream. You have these weird animals—birds coming out of a cannon, fish heads, herons standing on steps. I just love that kind of folk horror, creepy animal, wintry-forest aesthetic.

Filmmaker: The deer with the debris wrapping around its horns. 

McManus: I call it a turban, like he’s a proud maharaja of India. I was talking to a park ranger and he told me that that deer would’ve done that deliberately, because they want to impress lady deer. That’s what the antlers are all about: The bigger the antlers, the more appealing the stag. He was almost a hundred percent sure that the material that he wrapped around it was the boundary of the cricket pitch that’s also in the film, which just blew my mind.

Filmmaker: I love the film’s exploration of Irish music and folk songs as an oral history that preserves a culture that, as the film shows, is still at risk of disappearing due to rampant development and the displacing of vulnerable citizens. Do you have any personal connection to Irish music that made this oral history thread really resonate for you?  

McManus: I think I’m named after Luke Kelly, the great singer from the Dubliners. It wasn’t a huge part of my life growing up, but every Irish person has this in their blood, I think. [Folk music] went a bit out of fashion in the ’90s, because I think it became very emblematic of immigration, economic hard times and our past trauma. People in my generation wanted to move forward—go raving, look at the internet, be modern, European, connected and networked. But when the [2008] crash happened, we saw a huge explosion of this music. It found its relevance again. In Irish culture, to respond to adversity we write songs about it. It’s something we do well, adversity. I always think the Irish funeral is the best funeral you’ll ever go to. People sing songs, and I’ve heard some of the best singing ever at Irish funerals.

It’s part of my neighborhood and it’s part of my friend group. Ian Lynch from Lankum literally lives across the street. He was the crusty punk learning the pipes back in the naughties, and I was like, “That’s weird, never seen that before.” The pub where I go drinking has these lads playing on a Sunday night. You get people who’ve sold out 2000-seaters, but they’re playing at a table two nights later for a few bob and a few pints. There’s just this wonderful democratic quality to this music. It’s so unglamorous, so un-elitist. It’s a wonderful thing.

Filmmaker: Speaking of Irish funerals and generational musical influence, I have an uncle who recently passed away. He played the fiddle beautifully and passed it down to my younger cousin, but even so our family gatherings are so quiet now. I miss hearing “Shoe the Donkey.” I was reminded of him in the scene with the bagpipe player, who was quite disheartened talking about how the tradition might end with him since his children and grandchildren might not pass the torch. If less people are continuing these traditions, what is the road forward? 

McManus: Well, the bagpipes are a bit of a very specific case, because a bagpipe is a Scottish instrument, and the playing of the pipes in the army is actually an inheritance from the British empire and the British Army. That’s one of the things that I found so fascinating about Anto, which is the piper’s name—he’s a proud Dub, but he’s playing Scottish music on a Scottish instrument. What I loved about that was that he reflects the complexity of relations between Britain and Ireland. It isn’t just about one or the other; there are all of these little intertwining connections with regards to the trodden folk. 

One of the things that my community really boasts is that there was an enormous passing of the torch to a new generation. You look at the Lisa O’Neills, the Ian Lynches and people like Annie Hughes, who sings at the start of the film, or Julie Kavanagh. These are young, charismatic and, in some cases, very successful musicians who gathered in pubs with older people and learned from them. There’s been this huge transfer of knowledge across generations, and it’s really revitalized the older generation while informing the younger generation. One of my favorite cuts in the film is when Ian Lynch is singing “Banks of the Nile” in that gravelly, weathered voice, and when it finally reveals him, you’re expecting to see an old man. Instead you see this rather handsome, t-shirt-wearing young man with nose rings. There’s always a moment in the cinema when people go, “Whoa, that’s what that guy looks like?” I think it’s a wonderful image, that traditional voice in that very hip and contemporary body.

Filmmaker: Ireland also has a storied history of displacement, either with people being forcibly evicted in their local communities or taken from the country to populate other British territories, like Australia, which the film mentions. Of course, Ireland also has a long and ongoing struggle for independence and freedom from British colonial influence. What was your goal when it came to illuminating this reality? 

McManus: I’ve gotten to the age now where everything is complex and nothing is straightforward. In Ireland, Europe and America, there’s a lot of oversimplified nationalist rhetoric and problematic nationalism. I was always curious to push back against that. I grew up in the 1980s when the IRA were blowing up England and six-year-old kids going on shopping trips. It was a very difficult experience to be an Irish person in that environment, because you knew there was an injustice, but you also knew that dreadful things were being done in your name. There was a very compromised and problematic sense of Irish identity. I suppose the big thing in the film is about how healed the country has become.

In my lifetime, I’ve seen a peace process. I’ve seen a laying down of arms, a rapprochement between the two communities and the island. I’ve seen divorce legalized, contraception legalized. I’ve seen gay people come out of the shadows of illegality and get married in public. It’s a great public approval and warmth. I’ve seen one’s right to choose being enshrined at last. I spent a lot of my life campaigning for those things, and maybe never thought it would all happen. 

It’s funny. I think it’s very easy to always be negative about the way the world is, but I can’t help thinking that Ireland, despite its problems, is in a wonderful place, ultimately. We’ve got a huge housing crisis in Dublin now, and that taps into what you correctly identified as a very instinctive fear of displacement and an anxiety around property that goes all the way back to the 12th century with the famine and immigration. It’s an emotionally raw subject that resonates back, and it is a huge issue. But at the same time, if you have somewhere to live, there are not many places in the world better to live than Dublin right now. It’s a wonderfully exciting, dynamic and interesting place, in its darkness as well as its light. I was happy enough to make a film that was ultimately quite dark and challenging at times, but I felt it was very important that by the end of it, you were left feeling that there was light and hope out of energy in the place. There’s nothing I hate worse than a miserable film, even though they’re sometimes wonderfully artistic. I just don’t think that’s my type of movie.

Filmmaker: You highlight the Panopticonic element of Dublin’s North Circular and Sheriff Street. Prominent prisons, asylums and Magdalene laundries have long been located in these areas and have been filled with neighborhood denizens. They loom as a threat for the desperate and destitute, and though many are defunct, they symbolize a lack of productive resources for residents. Was it difficult to gain access to film in some of these spaces? 

McManus: We went into the asylum buildings, the only remaining ones that feel like they might ever be atmospheric. There’s a very dilapidated, decayed church on the asylum that we filmed in that was actually used as a center of psychological experimentation involving a quadraphonic sound system and copious amounts of ketamine back in the 1980s. That’s another documentary I’ve got planned. 

Filmmaker: And it involves the element of sound, as well.

McManus: Right, it’s an incredible story, very Adam Curtis, I’m definitely going to go there [laughs]. I managed to get access to the Magdalene laundry after a lot of lobbying, because every documentary filmmaker in Ireland is doing a Magdalene laundry project. But the future of that building is being contested at the moment, so people were very sensitive around it. 

I’m going to make a little confession here about Mountjoy Prison, which I probably shouldn’t, but we never got access because of COVID-19. They were extremely concerned about getting COVID in the prison, and I was tearing my hair out. I’d shot all the exteriors with [former inmate] Willa [White] and had all this cool outdoor footage, but you had to see inside. I was moaning about this one day, and one of the cinematographers goes, “I have loads of archives from something I did there two years ago.” So, those half a dozen prison interiors were actually from another project, but once you put them into that black and white Academy ratio world, it’s amazing how forgiving that aesthetic is. We won the American Cinematographer Award at the Salem Film Festival. We had five DOPs shooting on seven different camera models, and we still managed to create something distinctive enough to win an award. Thank you, black and white.

Filmmaker: We touched upon this a little bit, but you expressed that something important for you is to not make a weepy film. In that case, what do you hope viewers glean about Irish tenacity and hope even within the bleakest of situations? 

McManus: The most interesting comment I’ve had—and I’m telling this to everybody, because it resonates with me—is I was actually doing a screening in my hometown, and an Italian man put his hand up in the Q&A and said, “I don’t have a question, but I’m from Napoli. Thank you for making a film about Napoli.” It blew me away, it was just amazing. But I knew exactly what he meant the minute he said it.

These places exist all around the world—these urban districts that are disheveled, looked down upon and dismissed, but have energy, creativity, anarchy, mischief and humor. To me, that’s where life is at its most powerful and rich. Anna Manning, the woman that talks about O’Devaney Gardens, sums it up in four words: “Chaos, but good fun.” I think that’s the ultimate lesson of the film. Don’t turn your nose up at the edgy places. The edge is where the fun happens.

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