Oldenburg: John Connors on How Making ‘The Black Guelph’ Saved His Life

Irish Travellers, Ireland’s indigenous ethnic population, are rarely shown in movies. When they are — think Brad Pitt as the incomprehensible bare-knuckled boxer in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch (2000) — the depiction, says Travellers filmmaker John Connors, is “superficial and patronizing… fucking terrible and insulting to be honest.”

At the same time, the Travellers community remains among the most disadvantaged and discriminated against in Western Europe, a legacy of generations of forced assimilation and active oppression by the Irish state. Part of this includes Ireland’s industrial schools’ program, a nationwide system of reform schools for “neglected, orphaned and abandoned children” that included a large number of Travellers kids. A national inquiry into the industrial schools’ program reported, in 2009, that many children had been subjected to “systematic and sustained physical, sexual and emotional abuse” and that the institutions, most of which were run by the Catholic Church, protected the abusers.

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All that history is backdrop to Connors’ directorial debut, The Black Guelph. Multi-generational trauma hangs over the crime thriller, which follows Kanto (played by Graham Earley), a small-time drug dealer trying to get off the streets whose long-absent father Cormac (Paul Roe), an industrial school survivor, returns home looking for forgiveness and reconciliation.

Conners spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about his struggles, both emotional and financial, in making the movie, his attraction to the “dark stories” in Irish history, and why, in Ireland, making a film about economic disparity is “the ultimate taboo.”

Black Guelph premiered at Germany’s Oldenburg Film Festival, where it won both best film and best actor awards. The movie is still looking for a world sales agent.

Can I ask you about your personal background? Because The Black Guelph feels like a very personal, almost autobiographical film. What was the origin of the project?

Well, I come from an Irish Travellers background. I don’t know if you’re aware of us, but we really stem from the old Gaelic Ireland, and we still hold on to a lot of the old ancient kind of ways. We were traditionally nomadic, but we were forced to assimilate by the Irish state. The state went to war with Travellers almost. Every single institution discriminated against us. Even for me, I was put in an all-Travellers class in school, deliberately segregated from the other kids. And because they thought we were stupid, and couldn’t read, we were given coloring books instead of actually being taught. My grandfather went to Letterfrack, which was like the Alcatraz of Industrial Schools, the worst of the worst. It was right on the edge of the coast, in Galway, and it was so rugged and hard to get there, you knew you’d never escape.

I mention that just because all that was at the back of my mind with this film. I believe unresolved trauma comes back to collect. We inherit trauma from our parents. It goes down the line if we don’t deal with it. I’m someone who has struggled, who still struggles, with mental health problems. My father committed suicide. He was a paranoid schizophrenic. I was close, very close, to suicide when I was 20 years old. My brother Joe reached out to me, and said: ‘you need to do something.’ That’s when I started acting, because I always loved films, it was escapism for me. Every Sunday, I would ask my mum, if she’d have the money to take us to the cinema. We probably went every second Sunday of the month, me and Joe, and once we’d get in we’d just sneak from one film to another, till there were like search warrants out for us from the family, right? No matter what was going on in my mind, no matter what kind of anxiety I had, when I went into a cinema to watch a film, it just brought me to another place.

So in 2020 when my mental health was just getting really bad, and I really didn’t know how I was going to keep living, I was reminded of back when I was 20, and what saved me then, which was creativity, film. So my business partner, Tiernan Williams, who is also one of my best friends, got this plan together to get me to make this film. In order to save my life. And it did. I think without it, I would have committed suicide.

How did you get the movie made, because you did it completely independently, without any government support?

Me and Tiernan tried to get the film financed a couple of years previously, but no one would fund it. This is a small country and our leadership is very small and all the institutions look after each other. I’m outside that system. And this film is an attack on all the institutions in Ireland. It’s about the intergenerational clerical abuse of the Travelers community and the legacy of mental health problems. I talked to someone at [government film funding body] Screen Ireland. I sent this person the script to get notes. And they were very adamant that this was not the right fit for me for a debut, that it would “set the wrong tone.” Which I just think is ridiculous, that someone would think they would have the power to tell you what kind of artist you are.

I think that’s a big part of the problem we have in Ireland, you know? They told me: this is very dark. And I said: well clerical abuse was dark, intergenerational trauma is dark. But we Irish, we’re the world’s experts in repression. Sometimes that’s why we drink alcohol, so we can hug each other and crack jokes. Now I love being Irish, but how we repress our feelings and emotions is terrible.

It’s also a class thing. We are a very class-conscious country in Ireland but we never talk about economic class. The upper classes dominate the media, they totally dominate the narrative. You can criticize just about anything other than class, other than economic privilege.

So we didn’t get any support and put it out into the universe. I went on the radio talking about the film and how no one would finance it. And someone listening, who was a fan of my work, of what I’ve done as an actor and who likes the stands I’ve taken for the community, reached out and said he’d back us. That’s how we got our funding.

The Black Guelph
‘The Black Guelph’

What was the shoot like?

We shot it in January 2021, when Ireland had 10,000 COVID cases a day, which is very big for a small population like ours. Then we had the lockdown. We couldn’t get costumes, props. It was freezing in January. The actors were ready to walk off set. COVID took up about a third of our budget. We had to come back, five months later, for reshoots. We shot 145 pages in 21 days. With 156 set-ups. It was crazy.

I’m super excited to finally just get the film out there because it’s been so long in the works. I’ve worked a year and a half on this and didn’t get paid a cent, with no other work coming in and putting all my money into this.

The image you show of Ireland is so far from the bucolic depiction of rolling hills and harp music we often see on screen. What do you think of that, more mainstream, depiction of your country?

Those are basically films for Tourism Ireland. I’ve no interest in that. I’m interested in the dark side of Ireland. I’m interested in our psyche because Ireland is very, very complex. Ireland has great charisma, Ireland’s a great storyteller. But Ireland is capable of very dark things. I’m interested in the stuff that Ireland is repressing, all that stuff we’re pushing under the rug. I think we’re great storytellers and that we’ve influenced the world in a great way through our arts and literature. But with film, we’re really not there. We could do way better. But it’s basically one class of people who run these funding institutions, the Arts Council and Screen Ireland. They’re uncomfortable with someone like me, a Traveller from a working-class background. I didn’t go to [elite boarding schools] Black Rock or Belvedere. I didn’t go to Trinity College. I left school at 15, you know, to go work and build things with my hands. Because that’s what I was told I had to do. If we are talking about diversity, about wanting a diversity of stories from people from different backgrounds, maybe we should start funding people to tell those stories.

What were your cinematic touchstones with this film? Martin Scorsese and Mean Streets seem an obvious reference.

It’s an accumulation of all my personal experiences and all the films I’ve seen and absorbed. Scorsese and Ken Loach are my two big heroes. Mean Streets and the early Scorsese movies are definitely an inspiration, when the writing was really immersive and his camera movement. I love having the camera move. I don’t like to cut unless I have to. That documentary feel. And the social realism of Loach. Also Hollywood movies. Hollywood gets a lot of stick [criticism], but 1970s Hollywood, from the end of the 1960s up to maybe Taxi Driver in 1976, that’s the absolute best. Those are all my favorite films.

The Black Guelph
‘The Black Guelph’

In terms of shooting, I wasn’t super meticulous, I didn’t do a shot list. I knew the style I wanted, I knew what we wanted to shoot on a certain day, and then I’d be more instinctual and spontaneous, to see what the actors came up with. The big chase scene, for example. All that was in the script was: ‘Kanto gets chased by the guards.’ We just landed there in Sheriff Street which is the most notorious area in Dublin, a breeding ground for gangsters. Jim Sheridan (In the Name of the Father, My Left Foot), our greatest director, a working-class guy, he’s from Sheriff Street. We get there and there are 24-hour armed police on patrol because there’s a family dispute going on where one family has a grenade launcher and the other has a bazooka. Just to give you a sense.

But when I go there, the people welcome me because of the films I’ve done and the noise I’ve made about working class rights and stuff. So we start the chase scene, and we get to a house and I go to a woman and say: can we run through your house and jump over the back wall there? And she says alright. Then we go around the corner and there are drug dealers, and we say: lads, you want to be in the film? And they say sure and show us their weed for the camera. Then the fella comes by in the wheelchair and gives the camera the finger. We put it all in. When we saw the kids with the motorbikes, Tiernan says: Kanto could jump on the back of a scrambler (motorbike) and that’s how he gets away. So we did it. Our production people are shitting themselves, the business people, insurance and stuff, and panicking. But I say: this is what we’re here for. If you don’t want to do it, then go. Luckily Graham [Earley, who plays Kanto] is up for anything. Like me, he loves chaos.

Explain the title to me: The Black Guelph. What does that refer to?

The Black Guelph were a group of people in ancient Italy who wanted to uphold the power of the Pope and anyone who opposed them was either massacred or banished, like Virgil, the great poet who inspired Dante’s Inferno, from which we also take inspiration from in this film. What we are really saying with the title is that the Black Guelph is Ireland. Ireland decided to protect the power of its institutions over the interests of its people. And Ireland continues to do that in different ways.

This is one of the first films told from the perspective of Irish Travellers. Do you hope it will put your story back in the narrative of Irish identity?

Now with the Travellers, we are formally recognized now as an ethnic minority but there are no legal ramifications for that. It’s bullshit. After generations of trying to destroy our culture. In 1963, the Prime Minister of Ireland led a commission where he said, and this is 18 years after Nazi Germany, that his main goal was, and I quote, to find “the final solution” to the itinerant problem. He called Travellers itinerants.

The suggestions made to the commission, by government ministers and local councilors, were things like: shall we sterilize the women? Or castrate the men? How about we put them out on Spike Island off the coast? Why don’t we take their children away? So many Travellers’ kids were put into the industrial school system, we were the most-represented group. As a result, [Catholic order] the Christian Brothers, set up a Travellers-only industrial school where the first cases of abuse came out.

Even now, discrimination against Travelers is the last acceptable form of discrimination in Ireland. Every single study, by the EU, the UN, shows, by a wide margin, that we’re the most discriminated against people in this country. Ireland is a pretty liberal country. But studies have shown something like 90 percent of the youth says they wouldn’t want a Traveller as a girlfriend or boyfriend, as a neighbor or friend. Whereas if they get asked the same question about a person of color, it’s the opposite, 90 percent say it wouldn’t matter.

When it comes to depictions of Travellers in film and TV, most of them are superficial and patronizing. Honestly, they are fucking terrible and insulting and offensive depictions of us. I don’t think there’s ever been a true Travellers film. I’m trying to make a film now in our own language, which is called Cant or Gammon. It’s an Irish language, but our own specific Irish. That’s what I want to do next. I actually got Screen Ireland to give me some development money for it, so hopefully, they’ll fund it too. That’s why getting into Oldenburg with The Black Guelph is a big deal. We want to a good festival run with this film and if we do well in the cinemas, that might put some pressure on them to back this next movie.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

Check out the trailer for The Black Guelph below.

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