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TG4's 'Murdair Mhám Trasna' Premiere To Coincide With National Pardon
04 Apr 2018 : Nathan Griffin
IFTN caught up with ROSG producer Ciarán Ó Cófaigh ahead of the much anticipated docu-drama feature film ‘Murdair Mhám Trasna’ based on the Seán Ó Cúrreáin publication, ‘Éagóir’.

The show will air on TG4 – Wednesday, April 4th at 9:30pm.

TG4’s highly anticipated docu-drama ‘Murdair Mhám Trasna’ received a major boost ahead of its debut following the Irish government announcement that President Michael D. Higgins will officially pardon the innocent Irishmen who were hanged or imprisoned for life in relation to the infamous Mám Trasna murders in 1882.

‘Murdair Mhám Trasna’, centres on an infamous event in Irish history, the brutal slaying in 1882 of a family of five in the remote village of Mám Trasna in the west of Ireland. A swift and severe response from the British authorities led to the conviction of innocent people, the hanging of some and the imprisonment of others as a result of perjured evidence and bribery. 

The events were described by the prominent British historian Robert Kee as “one of the most blatant miscarriages of justice in British legal history”.

As the miscarriage of justice began to unfold and the perjury was admitted in the press, both nationally and internationally at the time, a refusal by Gladstone’s government to allow a public inquiry contributed to the fall of that government in Westminster in 1885. The innocent victims have never been pardoned by the authorities but this feature length production moves that prospect significantly closer.  

‘Murdair Mhám Trasna’, which has recently been selected to represent Ireland in the history category at the Celtic Media Festival, is produced by Galway based production company ROSG for TG4, with support from the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.

Dara Devaney, Pól Ó Gríofa, David Heap, Aidan O’Hare, Eoin Mac Diarmada, Conor Lambert, and Michael Judd all star in the project, which is produced by Ciarán Ó Cofaigh. 

HODs on the project include: Director; Colm Bairéad, Ciarán Ó Cofaigh, DOP; Colm Hogan, Line Producer; Eilís Ní Cheallaigh, Excutive producers; Séan Ó Cuirreáin; Ciarán Ó Cofaigh; Máire Ní Chonláin, Editor; Conall de Cléir, Production Designer; Conor Dennison, and Costume Designer; Triona Lillis.

IFTN journalist Nathan Griffin spoke with the film’s producer Ciaran Ó Cófaigh about the project’s history, how the documentary came about and the efforts made to pardon the men wrongfully prosecuted for the Mhám Trasna Murders.

Can you tell us a little bit about the project and what drew you to it, originally?

“The murders themselves are a story that is well known here in the West of Ireland, particularly in the Gaeltacht areas, and anyone who is aware of the history of the Galway Cathedral, would know that it was built on the site of the prison where these men were hanged. I just met a good friend of mine Seán Ó Cuirreáin randomly in the street in Galway one day. I asked how he was getting on and what he was up to, he told me that he was writing a book on the infamous Mám Trasna Murders of 1882 .  Knowing that whatever Seán puts his hand to would be good, I asked if he would be interested in doing something for TV on his telling of the story, and it went from there. It was from that conversation that the project evolved and our film is based on Seán’s book Éagóir.  Like many people I thought I knew the story but after reading Seán’s book I realised that I only knew ‘the half of it’.  It is a complex and dramatic story with many twists and turns, which we have faithfully represented in the film

“The impact of the story was widely felt - not only in the Gaeltacht, but also on a National, and International level as the story of this gross miscarriage of justice spread beyond Ireland and Britain.

Apart from the clear infringement of civil and human rights, there is also is also a strong linguistic element to the story and a blatant disregard for the language rights of the accused. The eight local men charged with the notorious murders were all native Irish speakers, most of whom had little or no English. The trials in Dublin were conducted in English with a judge and jury who understood no Irish.

The accused men’s solicitor, a 24-year old novice from Tuam, Co. Galway, had graduated from Trinity College Dublin only two years previously and, as a non-Irish speaker, was unable to communicate in any meaningful way with most his clients, all of whom were charged with the capital offense of murder.  So it was a miscarriage of justice in many ways but I suppose from the linguistic side of things, the English & Irish languages play a central role in the story and how each language is represented.”

Can you tell me a little about how the docu-drama is interlinked with the Presidential Pardon, and the efforts that have come before in clearing the names of the men involved?

“When Seán Ó Cuirreáin was the Irish language commissioner, he organised a commemorative weekend for the Mám Trasna murders about 6 years ago and president Higgins was a part of that commemoration.  The President had been very close to the story over the years and it is really his and others efforts to bring it to light that led on to Seán Ó Cuirreáin’s writing of his book (‘Éagóir’), but even from the point that the book was published, the President has kept a close eye and strong interest in what was happening. The fact that the story of the pardon has been announced ahead of the broadcast is really great for the film but it’s also great for the people involved and the families who suffered this gross miscarriage.  So the decision on pardon was completely independent of us, but in a way because of the book and the film that followed it, there was a certain momentum and we might have helped to raise the status of the story a little bit more.”

Having only covered the story recently for the first time, there certainly feels like there is significant momentum behind this project with the pardon coming at the same time as the release of the docu-drama film…

“I know.  There is no question that the government were aware of the film but we would have no influence on the proceedings of the government or President apart from the fact that we helped them highlight the issue again.”

But also it will be a fantastic point of reference for people in Ireland to understand what exactly happened once the Pardon is confirmed and the media brings it into the public eye..

“There is no doubt that the timing is great.  People are beginning to hear about the story as the pardon is covered in the media and now they can see how the story unfolds in our film on TG4.  I think it is one of those things that you can write and speak about but the great advantage that we have as filmmakers is that you can present something in a visual way that is accessible to people and hopefully understandable to many.

The advantage with a docu-drama is that is presents the audience with a visualisation of the dramatic elements of the story while also getting the learned perspectives from experts, in history, law and sociology.  Due to the complexity of the story it was a challenge to tell it comprehensively in the amount of time we had but the director Colm Bairéad did a great job and we believe that it has all the elements of a strong, appealing film. We choose to tell it as a docu-drama because it has three distinct elements to it, murder-mystery, courtroom drama and political intrigue.  If we were to present the film as a full dramatisation we would have to focus on central characters in one of those elements which would mean we could not tell the full story.  It was a challenge due to the complexity but we feel like we did it justice and hopefully it will be perceived that way.”

The resemblance of the characters is remarkable with Dara Devaney (‘An Bronntanas’) looking incredibly similar to ‘Maolra Seoighe’, can you tell me a little bit about casting?

“There is a section at the end of the film where we show some of the original prison images of the convicted men alongside the actors who portray them.  Dara is strikingly similar to the character he plays, Maolra Seoighe/Myles Joyce. We made a conscious effort to physically match our cast with the original prisoners and I believe that when dealing with a true story we were obliged to do so.

“When we first saw the original photos I always felt that Dara Devaney was the right person for the central role.  But even if he didn’t look like Maolra we would probably have cast Dara anyway as he is a great actor, and we have used him in much of our previous work: ‘Na Cloigne’, ‘An Bronntanas’, and ‘Cré Na Cille’. Whenever we get an opportunity to work with Dara Devaney we always take it.”

You can see the full account of the events that unfolded, when ‘Murdair Mhám Trasna’ is broadcast, on Wednesday, April 4th at 9.30pm on TG4.

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