‘Death or Canada’, a new 2 x 52 min HD docudrama produced by Tile Films and complete with lavish reconstructions and CGI technology, will see its first installment air on Tuesday 25 November on RTÉ 1 at 10.15pm with the second part airing on Tuesday 2nd December.
The docudrama set in 1847 - the darkest year of the Irish Famine, follows the true life story of the protestant family, John and Mary Willis (played by Tony Murphy and Rose Conway) who, along with their five children, abandoned their home in the west of Ireland and gambled everything on finding new lives in North America. They flee Ireland on a rotten coffin ship, with over 100,000 to Canada. The British Colony of Canada gave refuge to tens of thousands of Irish famine victims, who in turn were responsible for the building of North America as we know it today.
The docudrama is a co-production between Tile Films and Ballinran Productions in Toronto. Interviews and dramatic reconstructions were filmed on Achill Island and in Cobh earlier this summer. Director, Ruán Magan (producer of the IFTA winning In Search of the Popes Children) and DOP Colm Whelan (If I Should Fall From Grace) then flew to Toronto with the lead actors to film the scenes of the Irish famine along with 160 Canadian cast and crew members.
Casting took place in Westport Co. Mayo to find the Willis Family – John and Mary Willis and their five children. The Production Designer was Cos Egan (Count of Monte Cristo), make up Morna Ferguson (The Old Curiosity Shop) and wardrobe designer Lynne Williams (Cromwell in Ireland). The Canadian production crew included production Designers Rocco Matteo (Interstate 60) and Jennifer Jacobson (Time Travellers Wife).
Acme Pictures in Toronto created the CGI scenes such as the mayhem at Limerick Docks in 1847, the famine ships arriving in Grosse Isle Canada and the hundreds of steamers and liners at Toronto docks as the Irish immigrants make their way up St Lawrence River. CGI scenes were also created to replicate the hundreds of fever sheds and the Toronto hospital that housed the sick and dying Irish. Both programmes were cut and sound mixed in Toronto. The History Channel UK and History Television Canada – in association with the BCI - will also broadcast the programme.
Executive Producer Stephen Rooke explains how the project came about; “I was trying to get home after attending a documentary film festival in Marseilles and the flight was delayed, in the queue ahead of me was a Canadian producer and we started chatting. The Canadian was Craig Thompson, Managing Director of Toronto-based TV production company Ballinran Productions. He was developing a docudrama about the massive influx of Irish famine refugees that almost overwhelmed Toronto in 1847, and was looking for an Irish co-production partner. My interest was immediately piqued.
“To begin with it sounded like a fascinating project. But it was what Craig said next that really attracted me. It was a famine story with a difference. The traditional perception of the Famine is that it only affected the Catholic population of Ireland. But that’s not the whole story. In fact, there was also a large Protestant population that was badly hit. Many Protestants were small farmers who were absolutely devastated by the crop failures. Many died and many more emigrated. I’m a Protestant myself and I’d never really heard that side of the story, so it just blew me away.
“Tile Films and Ballinran Productions formed a co-production partnership and set about trying to raise the necessary finance for the project. Ballinran secured the support of History Television Canada and the Canadian Television Fund. It was up to Tile Films to secure the balance of funding from RTÉ and the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland’s Sound and Vision Funding Scheme, which the company managed to do by mid-2007. The project also qualified for benefits under the Irish-Canadian Co-Production Treaty.
“I approached seasoned director Ruán Magan whom I had co-directed ‘The Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut – he shared my enthusiasm and excitement for the story and now, 3 years after my airport delay, we have finally brought the story to the screen and are extremely proud of the finished films. It’s coming on the back of Tile’s other major docudrama series, ‘Cromwell in Ireland’ (broadcast on RTÉ in September), which looked at another great catastrophe of Irish history. It’s great to be able to follow that with another docudrama that hopefully will provoke an equally strong emotional reaction.”