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A Belmullet eye on blue-collar life

Living

A STORY TO TELL Tony Monaghan, whose documentary on the American working class has received international praise.

Interview

Ger Flanagan

Every now and then you hear of a success story about an Irish emigrant who travelled to America with nothing but a burning desire for a better life, that does nothing but make you smile. Belmullet man Tony Monaghan is another example of an Irish man who successfully chased down the American dream.
At the tender age of 15, with only five years of school behind him, Tony left the west of Ireland for London to work on farms. From there, he moved to the US, where he set up successful his own company, ‘Irish Construction’.
Now Monaghan has turned his hand to something entirely different, and with no less success. During his immersion in the construction industry for over two decades, he became aware of a massive plague in US blue-collar society: drug and alcohol addiction. So moved and shocked was he, that he was inspired to shoot and produce a documentary on the subject, based in his adopted home of St Louis, Missouri.
The resulting film, ‘Rednecks + Culchies’, is a hard-hitting tale that highlights the harsh reality faced by construction workers suffering from addiction – a reality that Tony believes most Americans chose to ignore.
The cameras follow the Mayo man as he dives head-first into exploring the lives of his employees to gains a greater understanding of their ways while offering his help along the way. It makes for truly unforgettable and eye-opening viewing.

Determination
The path to making the documentary was not easy, however.
“I had it in my head for a good while, and I was looking for help here and there … but I couldn’t find it,” Tony tells The Mayo News.
With no previous experience of directing, and only a little education, he struggled to convince people that the hard-hitting film he had in his head was more than a pipe dream.
“I went through a lot of people, because they were all asking ‘Where is the script?’. I just said it’s in my head, just listen to me.
“But try telling a fella that a man who came from the West of Ireland, who could barely read or write, could make a movie that would be successful and see what they would say. A lot of people laughed at me.”  
However, Tony’s confidence in his ability to turn the project around remained unshaken. “[Filmmaking] was just in me. I was good at telling a story, and it was just a little fluke that was in me.
“Eventually, I got a bit of money together myself and started to shoot.”
Although the title of the documentary suggests that other Irish emigrants might appear in the film, Tony stumbled across very few whilst shooting.
“The Irish gene in America seems to do very well,” he explains. “They all seemed to climb into politics or education, or even some medical field, the Irish are really good at that. Most Irish-Americans were very intelligent and did very well for themselves.”
As well as having crippling drug and alcohol addictions, many of the construction workers in ‘Rednecks + Culchies’ also have criminal records. Far from wanting to keep their struggles off camera, however, they were eager to engage.
“For some reason, they all actually wanted to tell their stories. Everyone said that these guys would be shy, that they wouldn’t talk, but I said they’ll talk to me because I am the same as themselves.
“I used to drink, but not anymore. I have been up and down so many times in my own life. I knew they would talk to me, because I can deal with them.
Tony is quick to explain that he does not employ these men for philanthropic reasons; it’s not because he feels sorry for them. It’s their trade skills he is seeking.
“I didn’t find these guys, they are what is out there … and these are good guys, the work they do is good.”
Still, with addiction so rife among construction workers (many are ‘out of their minds on crack and meth’, Tony says candidly), working with them carries risks.
“These guys would fight you, anytime of the day; you have to be ready for them,” Tony admits, then adds protectively: “but they wouldn’t be bad besides that.”
Unsurprisingly, it’s not a working environment that everyone is able for. “Most Irish guys couldn’t work for me,” reveals Tony. “I had one before, and he had a nervous breakdown after a month. I had to send him home because he couldn’t handle it.”

Strength
Tony returns home to Belmullet, where he has a farm and keeps horses, a couple of times a year. While his documentary focuses on problems within America’s social fabric, he warns that Ireland is in no position to judge.
“This country has changed a lot in ten years. Standards go down and morals go down, now the Irish are like ‘Steal if you don’t get caught’.”
He has been particularly affected by how easily greed can take root here. “I used to be disgusted here when the Celtic Tiger was going on. I travelled all over the place, and I can tell you that I never saw anything like it. I said to myself, this is not the country I grew up in. Thankfully it has gotten better since.”
In many ways, filming ‘Rednecks + Culchies’ has served to deepen Tony’s admiration of American blue-collar society. He’s quick to praise the resilience and fortitude he has witnessed.
“I was talking to a guy who was buying a horse off me, and I told him the one thing about the Americans that stood out, was that no matter how bad and how far down these guys were, they would try and climb up.
“Even if he is homeless, out of work, he might not have eaten for three or four days, he might do ten years in jail, but he’ll never kill himself.
“One thing I noticed was how strong their minds are compared to ours. There is nobody in Ireland who hasn’t been affected by suicide, including myself. I have been down in my luck plenty of times, but they taught me to never give up. It is probably one of the best strengths I got from them.”

Grounded
Since premiering in American theatres, ‘Rednecks + Culchies’ has received huge acclaim around the world. Leading independent-film distributor Brink Vision has invested in the documentary, and Tony has been featured on Fox News, in The New York Times and The Huffington Post and elsewhere. However, the Belmullet man remains grounded.
“I never wanted to be famous. I am as happy sitting with a bum as with a millionaire,” he says. “One of my mares had a foal this morning, and that to me is as good as going to Hollywood.”
Although he has received an offer to make more movies, this hard-working and daring Mayo man has chosen to take time out for himself to decide on his future.
“My hopes are to have a healthy life with my daughters,” he says, modestly.
He’s not writing off the prospect of more filmmaking though. “I would like to make a documentary on Ireland, but I’ll wait for a little while, because it’s kind of draining going through all that stuff.”

‘Rednecks + Culchies’ is available to purchase on Amazon. For more on the documentary, follow the Rednecks + Culchies page on Facebook, @rednecksandculchies.

Plasterer, Johnny Dickie in a scene from 'Rednecks + Culchies'. Sadly, Johnny passed away after the making of the film.
HARD-HITTING Plasterer Johnny Dickie in a scene from 'Rednecks + Culchies'. Sadly, Johnny passed away after the making of the film.