Tommy Hughes and Joe McDermott (on right) are pictured on the grounds of Burrishoole Friary (Abbey), which was an integral part of the original settlement that gave rise to the town of Newport as it exists today. The Friary was also one of the main filming locations for their documentary: ‘Old Port to Newport’.?Pic: MIchael McLaughlin
Bringing local history to life on the big screen
ON a small hillside two miles outside Newport last week, cows lazed and grazed in the heartland of Burrishoole, where the meandering Furnace River winds its way to Clew Bay in the shadows of the Nephin Range.
With the all-seeing eye of Croagh Patrick, the great citadel guarding the Bay’s eastern shore for several millennia, ever-watchful in the distance, the landscape around the old Abbey at Burrishoole has not changed much in the last 600 years. However, it is the story of the human footprint of the area that brought The Mayo News to an unlikely corner of the county on a winter morning, to the remnants of a medieval town settlement, whose great story has been comprehensively documented on film for the first time.
The 67 minute film has been 18 months in the making and was a labour of love for locals Tommy Hughes, its director, cameraman and post production technician, and Joe McDermott, who both scripted and presents the brilliant and detailed documentary.
It is a tale of the story of Newport, from its origin as the old port of Burrishoole a few miles west of the present town almost 600 years ago, and explores a number of themes that inform the history of the area, from the early Christian anchorites through to the arrival of the Dominican Order and the construction of St. Mary’s Friary at Burrishoole (the Abbey).
The story deals with all the crucial periods in local history, including the advent of the prominent Norman families, the development of the modern town and its subsequent history, with Captain Pratt and the Medlicottes in the early 1700s, the rebellion of 1798, the De Bille story, the Great Famine, the advent of the railway through the town, the War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War and the scar they left on Newport, and the success of Martin Carey, who lifted the economic fortunes of the area.
The documentary deals with all the prominent people and happenings in Newport’s colourful history, is shot on location around the town and parish at the scene of these major events, and is comprehensively researched and brilliantly scripted, shot, edited and presented.
Old Port to Newport
“For years I’ve always wanted to do something like this,” Tommy Hughes explained. “I have a deep interest in local history and have worked on previous smaller projects with Joe. We did a full dramatic reenactment of the famous ‘Belcarra Eviction’ ten years ago, and filmed it and made a DVD and we also did the story of the rebel Manus Sweeney in 1999 (who is buried in Burrishoole Abbey), while I also made a film of the history of Ballintubber GAA Club.”
Tommy, a carpenter by trade, added that when he first got passionate about video and camerawork, he made an attempt at trying something like ‘Old Port to Newport’, but didn’t manage to make it work.
“I couldn’t do the script, it is a whole different thing, but then Joe comes along and changes everything,” he recalls.
Joe McDermott is a native of north county Dublin, but moved to Newport decades ago. He is a retired former teacher of English and History in Rice College in Westport, but says he owes his natural ability on-camera to his involvement in his local dramatic society growing up - saying; ‘it was all we had’.
What got the documentary rolling, they say, was that several years ago there was a Chambers’ Clan reunion in Newport, and people came from all over the world to participate. As part of this, Joe did a historic tour of Newport and Tommy filmed it.
“I always remember at the very end of it, we both realised at the same time that there was such an interest in history that needed to be put into film format, and we got talking about it, and that was 18 months ago,” said Tommy.
“But now we’ve decided to get really serious and go for it,” adds Joe. “We have commissioned local musicians to provide music, worked hard on the script and storyboard and shot this documentary properly. We paid for music rights, got permission to use images, it is all done legitimately.
“We held our breaths until it was premiered in Newport and it got a resounding reaction, and a standing ovation. A couple came in at one stage, I mean, this is a pub on a Friday night, and you couldn’t get a drink because the staff were watching it themselves. We put a lot of work into this and it was satisfying to get that reaction.”
The production ‘Old Port to Newport’ is all the more remarkable when it is considered that Joe and Tommy, while both members of the Newport Historical Society, freely admit they are just friends and amateurs, with a mutual interest in history and filmmaking. They say they knew broadly of the area’s history but had to sit down together, and separately, and make out a storyboard and script before venturing out for each shoot.
“We were learning as we went along,” says Tommy, “so we may not have done some bits as good as we might now, and a lot of the history crossed over, so it wasn’t shot truly chronologically as it appears on the documentary, as it wouldn’t have made sense to have done so.”
Joe clarifies this.
“We stayed within Chronology in one section – Butlers to the de Burgos to the Dominicans and into Grace O’Malley. Then we went back and did early Christianity, which was before the founding of Newport, but there were people settled in this area as far back as 100 BC and we decided we wouldn’t cover these Celtic farming societies – we could have done so and looked at beautiful places like Caher Geal (The Bright Fort) or the Ringfort in Kiltarnet, but we couldn’t cover the entire settlement history of the early farmers of the area, it was about focusing on the actual founding of Newport.
“I would script a piece and film it with Tommy, and we would link scenes to have them make sense and flow together, and bit by bit the history of Newport Town and the major events and different eras of the last 600 years came together, like a jig saw.
“I got better at script writing which is a whole different art altogether, but we didn’t shoot it scene by scene as it appears.
Tommy explains that there is a scene where Joe arrives at Newport Church and says ‘this is St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church in Newport’.
“While walking up the steps he then does a little piece about the door which is modeled on Clonfert Cathedral, which is very important, and then he says ‘but the real treasure is inside behind the high altar’.
Once he says that and opens the door, the next thing is he appears inside and says ‘this is it’ (as the camera pans to Harry Clarke’s priceless stained glass windows), but there’s a year between us filming those two shots either side of the door, though nobody would ever know.”
There was of course, a few little bloopers along the way, and some trickery included in the editing process, but both Joe and Tommy say they had great fun with the project.
One day they were filming at Carraigohowley Castle and lit the fire in the hearth inside, before heading off for a cup of tea to allow it time to build. When they returned it was like a scene from the apocalypse, with smoke everywhere inside and jackdaws circling nosily around the castle.
“We thought we had the place burned down but it was how the birds had blocked the chimney,” laughed Tommy.
Another scene caused major trouble, as it needed 23 takes, with Joe standing on the shore in a pair of wellies, trying to beat a rising tide.
“We did it on our own. We did all the scripting and shooting and editing on our own as we couldn’t be relying on other people to be there. I told Tommy, as he was directing, to let me know if I wasn’t doing my thing right, but we never had bad words,” said Joe, while Tommy adds he is more than happy to be behind the camera, and says he could never substitute roles with Joe.
“It is a hobby. We’d be at it Saturday and Sunday and a few hours in the evenings during the week,” he said. “I have a passion for history and the camera work and post-production process. I was always interested in how a story was portrayed through the medium of film – I always wondered how so much could be told in a short space, well now I have a fair idea.”
There was also some novel improvisation along the way, with Tommy making a long camera boom, which he counter-weighted with gym weights, and monitored through a portable television strapped to his chest.
“We had to do everything ourselves, so it took a bit of time. The scenes where the castles are in black and white and the new roof is on the Abbey, with the galleys in the harbour and the bell ringing, it was all done by Tommy, and was painstakingly time consuming,“ explained Joe.
“It was far from Speilberg,” Tommy interjects, “but necessity is the mother of invention at times and the scenes give a flavour of what Burrishoole looked like centuries ago when it was a thriving port, and really adds to the experience for the audience.”
Newport looks great in the documentary, and at times the environment and conditions set the mood with a kind of appropriate pathetic fallacy. All voiceovers were done at Burrishoole Abbey, with nature providing background noise, and both filmmakers say they got lucky, obtaining some very dramatic shots that came by accident, often due to failing light and improvisation, but which ended up being very relevant and suitable to the subject matter of the scene.
They say they faced up to the war of Independence and the Civil War – which they finished at the statue of Ned Lyons in Newport - telling his harrowing story and quoting a Wilfred Owens’ World War I poem.
“It is not all about home comes the hero, there is a message about the futility of war, the dark side of conflict as well,” they say.
There are other things that fascinated people such as the number of religions in Newport, from Quakers, Presbyterians, the Church of Ireland, Catholics, a group called Darbyites and Methodists. The rise and fall of these religions is explored, many at the scenes of their once great churches.
The tale of the ‘Cathach’ also blew people’s minds, according to Joe.
“It is the oldest book we have in Ireland, and the second oldest book of psalms in the world. The story behind it is that Colmcille borrowed it and took it home and copied it. Then, the owner found out and went to the king – who made one of the most famous judgements in old Brehon Law – ‘to every cow its calf and to every book its copy’.
“It was copyright law in sixth century Ireland. So Colmcille was exiled and went off to Iona and Lindesfarne and all these places and the book was called the ‘Cathach’ because it was encased in a silver box and carried into battle by the O’Donnell’s.
”It disappeared from record and in the early 1800’s, Sir Neil O’Donnell was approached by the Benedictine monks of Ypres (now famous as a first World War I battle site in Belgium) and they said to him; ‘we have the ‘Cathach’ and if you can prove you are an authentic descendant of the O’Donnell’s you can have it’, and he did and the ‘Cathach’ was kept in Newport House from 1813 to 1843.
“We tell that story sitting in the opulent surroundings of where it was kept – Newport House. In 1843, O’Donnell gave it to the Royal Irish Academy for safekeeping, and that is where it is today. It is 1400 years old, older than the Book of Kells, and we got permission from the Academy to show a page of it for illustration purposes.”
The story of the origins of the new port, or Newport as we know it today, are equally fascinating, involving Captain Pratt leasing the estate from the Medlicotts in the early 1700’s. Looking to establish a linen industry, he was unimpressed by what he saw when he arrived at the Quaker community in Burrishoole, but having crossed the Black Oak River to get there, he remembered it and went back and decided he could build his town there.
It was the death knell for the Quaker settlement at Burrishoole, who were gone by the 1740’s and then the area was abandoned as a town.
The dominant position of the church at Burrishoole, where the Abbey was erected in 1469, without what Joe McDermott describes as ‘planning permission’ (authorisation from the Pope) was also coming to an end, owing to the Reformation sweeping across Europe.
Both Joe and Tommy say they are delighted with the production and that they persisted with their idea and saw it through to completion. It is a true local production with Newport musicians Timothy McHugh, Kevin Corbett, Julie Langan and Martin Hughes playing traditional airs to accompany scenes, along with some improvisations from Joe’s wife Pauline, to create sound effects for the early Christian chapter.
Ronan Courell makes the DVDs in Castlebar, while Joe’s son Alastair created and maintains their website, and his daughter Sineád looks after their social media and event pages on Facebook.
Money was never a motivation for creating ‘Old Port to New Port’ which can be bought on the website of Purple Foxglove Films - the registered partnership Joe and Tommy set up - www.purplefoxglovefilms.com
‘Old Port to Newport’ is not only entertaining and educational, it is also a great promotional tool for the region, an ideal gift and reminder of home for those who have left these shores, and, of course, a perfect stocking filler this Christmas.
The DVD is on sale locally in Newport, in the Post Office and in Chambers’ Newsagents and in Seamus Duffy’s Bookshop in Westport and Henry McGlade’s Music Store in Castlebar.
Already, the duo are working on their next project, which will be the story of Mayo, beginning with the Children of Lír, and covering landmarks such as the Céide Fields and the big houses like Moore Hall. They will also tell the story of the developments of towns in Mayo and will script and film across all parts of the county, from Cross Abbey Beach in Belmullet, to the heart of Castlebar.
Keep an eye out for Joe and Tommy and Purple Foxglove Films - they’ll be coming soon to a TV near you.