3 December 2022 The Irish Film & Television Network
31 Oct 2014 : Paul Byrne
Both fly-on-the-wall and maggot-in-the-ground, Aoife Kelleher’s documentary ‘One Million Dubliners’ takes a look at Ireland’s most famous resting place, Glasnevin Cemetery. Paul Byrne puts another Irish filmmaker on the slab.

A light documentary on a potentially dark subject, ‘One Million Dubliners’ is an engaging, good-natured walk among Dublin’s most famous tombstones. And lucky for us, and filmmaker Aoife Kelleher, holding our hand for most of it is Glasnevin Cemetery tour guide Shane MacThomais, who sadly passed away just as this documentary was completed.

‘One Million Dubliners’ offers up many fascinating stories, most of them to do with how the here and now deals with the past. It’s enough to know that the likes of Luke Kelly and Michael Collins have their graveyard groupies; Kelleher isn’t about to give us the history, just its strong effect on the present.

Still, this feels like a warm tribute to MacThomais as much as anything else, a tour guide who clearly loved his job. Early on, MacThomais got advice from his father on how to be a good tour guide - tell them something that they know, tell them something that they don’t know, tell them something that will make them laugh, and tell them something that will make them cry. It’s an approach that seems to work pretty well here for Aoife Kelleher too.

PAUL BYRNE: It's a fascinating if potentially macabre subject - what did you hope to reveal here? There are 1.5million stories you could have traced...

AOIFE KELLEHER: We wanted to tell the story of Glasnevin, past and present, with 1.5 million people buried there - including some of the most famous figures from Irish politics, arts and literature - not to mention all of the people who work in Glasnevin and visit the graveyard, but we couldn’t cover everything.

One of the first things I did when I began spending time in Glasnevin, before we ever shot a single frame, was to take the tour of the cemetery with the charismatic tour guide and resident historian, Shane Mac Thomáis. That was inspiring and reassuring because Shane, who knew so much about Glasnevin, would begin every tour by acknowledging that he could only hope to scratch the surface of all that could be told about the cemetery. That’s also true of our film: we hope we’ve given an insight into life and death in Glasnevin but we finished the documentary knowing that there was so much more to tell.

Luckily, you had some stars on board - Michael Collins, Daniel O'Connell and Brendan Behan being just three; was this a hard documentary to sell? Did the budget come easily?

Early in the process, the film’s producer, Rachel Lysaght, told me that she had a documentary in development about Glasnevin Cemetery and wanted to know whether I would be interested in directing it. I thought it was an incredible idea and together with the executive producer, James Mitchell, we wrote up a proposal and submitted it to the BAI Sound & Vision scheme. RTE and The Irish Film Board were already on board in principle at that point, so when the BAI agreed to fund us, we were ready to go.

Hit any tombstones where you couldn't gain access; anyone reluctant to talk here about their dearly departed?

We were acutely aware that great sensitivity would be required in asking anyone to be involved in a film about life and death. In some cases, we were asking people to talk about family members who had died and allow themselves to be filmed visiting their graves, so we were always very careful when approaching people and took our cues from them. We never wanted to be intrusive in any way. We were very fortunate in that everyone we approached was happy to take part. People seemed to find it cathartic to talk about the person who had passed away because it was a way of keeping their memory alive.

Sadly, the great Shane MacTomais passed away before the film was completed - it must have been rewarding for him, to have someone shine a light on his somewhat hidden work?

Shane is really the central figure in the documentary. As soon as I went on the tour with him, I was struck by his charisma, his warmth, his humour and his extraordinary capacity to transmit his knowledge about and love of Glasnevin to people, young and old. He seemed like the perfect person to guide an audience through the cemetery, passing on his anecdotes and his insights. Having spoken to Shane's family and friends over recent months, I know that he enjoyed the filmmaking process - he was incredibly generous with his time and constantly joked with us about wanting to have his hair and make-up done. That said, Shane was always very modest about his role in the cemetery - he described himself as a caretaker of Glasnevin and was much more interested in talking about history than talking about himself, though he did that too and was very open and engaging in interviews. Personally, I'm very happy that the film exists as a tribute to Shane's extraordinary life and work.

Did making the film have an effect on you? I'm thinking ‘Spinal Tap’, Elvis' grave, "too much fucking perspective"...?

I've always been fascinated by cemeteries - they're incredibly beautiful places to visit and full of fascinating stories, particularly a cemetery as iconic as Glasnevin. I loved the idea of making a film in a cemetery and the possibility of focusing on the lives in a cemetery, as well as the deaths. What was fascinating about making ‘One Million Dubliners’ was discovering the broad spectrum of opinions that Irish people have about life and death - some believe in a very vibrant and present afterlife, some believe in a very Catholic and spiritual Heaven, some believe that we are "like flowers: we bloom for a moment and then we die" and that's it. Having made the film, I think that everyone has a unique view of death and the afterlife and that any one view can seem quirky and unusual to someone else.

The film won at Galway - did that come as a surprise? And what effect do you think it will have on the film's box office chances?

We were thrilled and completely overwhelmed to win Best Feature Documentary at the Galway Film Fleadh. The reaction to the film over the course of the festival was really incredible. ‘One Million Dubliners’ was only just completed when we brought it to Galway, so we hadn't had any time to anticipate the response - we just wanted to get it finished in time for the screening! There was absolute silence in the Town Hall Theatre for a moment after the film ended and I assumed that the audience hadn't liked it at all, so when they suddenly rose to their feet for a standing ovation, Rachel Lysaght, the producer, and I were surprised, delighted and relieved! Galway is a hugely prestigious festival and other films who have won the Best Feature Documentary award have gone on to find a wide audience, so hopefully it will help to attract people to the screenings. We'll have to wait and see.

‘One Million Dubliners’ is in cinemas from today.

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