The phrase ‘What’s the story?’ may have been turned into shorthand Dublin slang over the years, but it’s a greeting that taps into cliched Irish openness and curiosity: “So, what are you all about?” Telling tales has been an Irish obsession for centuries, and back-stories, roots and forks in the road are the main themes of a new film by Donal Dineen called Pathways: Irish Routes to the Art of the Matter.
The documentary — commissioned by St Patrick’s Festival — is a beautifully paced, contemplative film that traces Irish expats’ artistic journeys, hoping to unearth a few home truths along the way. He says the people in question are all artists who have “navigated their way through stormy waters… to reach calmer shorelines and bring home the jewels”.
Shooting in Dublin, Belfast, London, Kerry, Malmö, New York and LA, Dineen and director Steve O’Connor tracked down 10 artists in a range of disciplines, squeezing every last epiphany and artful frame out of their modest advance.
The pair went to the homes, studios and neighbourhoods of Enda Walsh, Annie Mac, Fiona Shaw, Aoife McArdle, Sean Curran, Rich Gilligan, Eva Rothschild, Brian Ormond, Brian ‘B+’ Cross and Richie ‘Jape’ Egan, who provided the tinkering ambient soundtrack.
Speaking on the phone the day after the premiere at Dublin’s Light House Cinema, Dineen admits he was winging it in his pitch to the festival organisers, but he knew this tale would eventually tell itself. As he says in the film’s intro: “Water always finds its way,” and there’s more than one pathway for a story to unfurl.
“I made a very passionate case for the story that I was going to tell, but I had no idea what that was,” he says. “But I was convinced the method of making up a story by talking to storytellers would be effective, because each of the people had a breakthrough in their life via art, and that’s the experience I’m trying to connect up.”
When it comes to telling stories, Kerry man Dineen has previous. He could well be the closest Ireland has to an underground John Peel-type figure — initially as the host of music TV show No Disco in the early 90s, a cypher for alt-rock, indie and experimental electronica, a true outlier in RTE programming at the time. Many of Dineen’s leftfield choices had no promo videos, and were instead presented with his own abstract impressionistic shorts and animations.
After No Disco he spent nearly 20 years digging in the underground for nuggets to share on his radio shows Here Comes the Night, The Small Hours and Radio Activity on Today FM and 2XM, and his residency on TXFM. His DJ sets and festival collaborations are fuelled by an inspirational passion that hasn’t dimmed any, and his latest freewheeling Dublin club night is even called Backstory.
He maintains that “DJing is just storytelling with added buttons”, and he can still recall his first experience of live entertainment – the local seanchai in his home village Sliabh Luachra: “It’s very much an oral tradition and singing kind of place, very musical too.”
Dineen says the interview with playwright Enda Walsh “kind of set the template for the whole thing”. In the film, Walsh recalls one of his customers when he was a paperboy aged 10, and her sleuth-like efforts to work him out through his family. His mother doesn’t ring a bell but there’s genuine glee when she knows his father, and it clicks for her: “Oh, I have you now!”
“Jesus, that’s so succinct and so right,” says Dineen. “It’s like the bit of you that’s alive is the bit that’s challenging you to say to somebody, ‘Why do you exist, and what are you doing about it?’ That’s a fantastic part. We had 16 hours of footage and we basically tried to narrow it down to moments like these, where there was a glint in someone’s eye — if there was a glint in someone’s eye we marked it on the timeline to go back.”
Pathways explores the obsession with clinging to Irish roots and identity, with 59-year-old Fiona Shaw pointing out that she left Cork at 20, but it’s the first 20 that count. The film also dips into the romanticised Irish wanderlust, and of taking our stories with us when we leave.
The film’s commission by St Patrick’s Festival also suggests an evolution of sorts from the broad strokes Irish identity we’ve been fed over the decades — all shamrock face paint and rote-learned mythology. As well as Pathways, the festival programme includes walking tours, theatre, debates, gigs, poetry and spoken word performances.
And theatre company THISISPOPBABY has curated a self-contained programme at the Complex in Smithfield, with plays, live art and “dangerous ideas” — including the rolling video installation Made In Dublin by Eamon Doyle, Niall Sweeney and David Donohoe, which splashes frantic images of the city onto a giant triptych screen, battering it with glitchy abstract electronica — like Koyaanisqatsi reimagined by Squarepusher.
Donal says: “Ah man, honestly, I’m not a man to swear by organisations and what they do because generally they’re compromised, but St Patrick’s Festival over the last three years has been the most radical festival in the country as far as I can see. The programming has been so brave, so extensive and tied to a meaningful theme. And I think this year is the best so far, with THISISPOPBABY getting involved. They’re not just having the craic, they’re saying so much as well. And we were encouraged all along the way to be part of that conversation.”
Dineen admits there’s little jeopardy in the conversations in Pathways, and he’s chosen artists whose move away worked out — even if Jape admits he resisted the turned-down Swedish way of life for years. But there’s inspiration to be had in the interviews as well, as Dineen explains: “The ambition was to be insightful and instructive, and the ultimate compliment would be if it was educational.
“I left the secondary school system not having a clue that I was into art, but if I had seen a film like this there’s a good chance I would have really thought about it. I ended up studying law, and the only reason I should’ve done law would’ve been to sue myself for studying it in the first place, which would’ve been the longest-running case in history.”
He adds: “The one thing that’s lacking I think is that buzz of a new generation, but then again it’s not about that, it’s about the generation that has left. I had qualms and some reservations about there being no young black faces in it. In fact I chased Rejjie Snow to New York and begged him. But he had a point, like he was saying, ‘I don’t fit in there’. And I suppose he’s right, he’s a different case – a young Irish lad who’s making it in a totally different world, without that feeling of having to bang on about being Irish.
“I suppose it’s a changing period and if somebody was to make a film in 10 or 20 years about that pathway, I hope our sense of identity will have changed quite a lot by then. And maybe it’s not for me to say, but it’s a remarkable enough film in that it was made by two people for 20 grand, just expenses. You can compare that with the resources our public service broadcasting has for programmes like Dancing on Shite, or whatever the fuck it is.”
There’s no shortage of serious Irish music fans and artists railing against the gradual erosion of proper coverage on the national airwaves, and thousands signed the petition when RTE suddenly axed No Disco in 2003. But it often seems like Dineen has been shafted more than most, in the arms race towards the middle ground. He was elbowed out of Today FM in 2011, after joining in 1997 when it was Radio Ireland. His last dealing with RTE was a too-brief stint on 2XM, with his weekly Radio Activity show dropped in 2014.
At the time he tweeted: “Space for all things new and interesting is disappearing… the music is the last thing that matters.” I remind him of another post when he said: “The middleman is a dope,” and he doubles down, adding: “Yeah he’s a fuckin’ dope that guy… and we’re in a period where the middleman appears to be getting even dopier.
“I would really love never to work for any of those people again because the closer you get to those places the more they stymy your creativity, the more they are fed up. You don’t fuckin’ get in there if you’re a strange bird or a rare thing – if somebody with multicoloured feathers and a great way of doing things arrived at RTE they’d be shot by the security guard immediately. If you’re different you kinda get boxed off as being ‘funny’.
“There’s a golden age of Irish music. Look at this year’s Choice Prize – it’s better than the Mercury Prize, yet why aren’t we building on this? Why isn’t 2fm amalgamating all that power into a community and making it grow? If it’s inclusive it will expand and make the dream bigger – all boats rise. It’s crazy how things are. Things are wrong, somebody should take a good long hard look at themselves.”
Despite a few tweets as Radio Activity was folding, Dineen still bowed out gracefully, with a poignant piece in the Irish Times about his “love affair with radio”, taking a few gentle enough sideswipes about mainstream radio “playlisting itself to within an inch of its life”, without naming names. He says he’s now at a stage where he’ll just call it, saying: “Recently I reached the age that my dad died, and I just decided I’m gonna say whatever I want, even if it might not work out so well for me.
“In Ireland, there’s a feeling of, ‘Oh, you can’t say that’, about sacred things like RTE, but I’ve got to the point of not giving a shit anymore. I’m not saying the Pathways film says anything like that but there’s a chance in the future that I will make things that will call out a few things in this country that we put up with.”
In the meantime, Donal has also been putting his efforts into calling on Irish acts for his web series This Ain’t No Disco – his first time in front of the camera since the 90s. He and director Myles O’Reilly have already released four episodes of between 45 minutes and an hour, and the middleman is barred for life. He says the series felt like a “step towards” the Pathways film, but it feels like it could run indefinitely, and he’s also promised a podcast.
The title – aside from the nudge nudge Talking Heads reference – is a clue that it’s not some rehash for middle-aged Pavement fans on a nostalgia trip. He’s said the mission was “to create improvised, visceral and organic live performance films… to help showcase the true and sincere”. This time Dineen isn’t presenting music videos, but acting as a conduit for artists to collaborate and converse, always in the background, helping to stick cables down with gaffer tape or provide hands-on live animation with his old-school overhead projector and a white sheet.
“I suppose my own dilemma over the last year was to try and find a job. Really I’m an out of work radio DJ, ‘not good enough’ to be on the big stations,” says Dineen. “So I’ve been looking for ways of doing what I want to do, and This Ain’t No Disco is an exercise at doing something at my own pace. It’s become really good for me – I’ve got back into being filmed and I hadn’t done that for 20 years.”
This Ain’t No Disco is a remedy against promo circuit magazine programmes and hyper-scroll video feeds, and like Pathways, the camera surveys the whole scene. Footage of Conor O’Brien composing on the fly with Nico Muhly at Manhattan Beach Studios has the same visual weight as guitarist Niwel Tsumbu improvising at a kitchen table or Lisa O’Neill singing in the back of a white van in Clontarf – or even a few random strangers petting each other’s dogs on a Dublin terraced street. Donal says Myles has an “eye like Werner Herzog” for keeping things in that other directors would drop, like filming Donal and Conor O’Brien going through the shitty X-ray machines at Dublin Airport before flying to NYC, or a Dublin lad begging for a spin on Donal’s ‘disabled’ scooter when Dineen had a cast on his leg.
“When you’re two people and if you are in the form or in the zone, you can pick things up that are just reality, natural, on the fly, and the fact is we kept our eyes and ears open the whole time,” Donal says.
He says after the comfort blanket of radio, he never thought he’d be on screen again, because he was so self-conscious back in the day, “like the minute I see my face I see a fuckin’ stupid nose and a fuckin’ stupid head. But basically you can’t get away from that, you were born that way, so mid-40s I decided that I really want to tell these stories.
“The next thing is to find another project, my next plan is to also make a podcast. I’ve sunk my teeth so much into this and I’ve had a real energy rush. Ultimately after spending 30 years thinking about what to do, I know I’m a storyteller of sorts. When I ask my friends they say I’ve been doing that all my life, and I’ve now realised I want to keep doing it for as long as I can.”
- Watch Pathways: Irish Routes to the Art of the Matter below. It will be screened at the Complex in Smithfield, Dublin on March 18 as part of Where We Live, by THISISPOPBABY. For all other St Patrick’s Festival events, visit stpatricksfestival.ie.
- Watch the first four episodes of This Ain’t No Disco at thisaintnodisco.ie
- Featured image by Brid O’Donovan