So many stories of love and life started ‘Under the Clock’ at Clerys on O’Connell Street. A new documentary discovers some of these tales. We talk to its director and two participants about their memories and involvement.
Colm Nicell – Director
“Clerys is loved for a reason, but we needed to look at why that tradition died”
A cameraman by trade, Colm Nicell has worked in broadcast television around the globe, from the Middle East to the UK. It was only in 2014 that he returned to Ireland to set up Snackbox Films with his two business partners, with the intention of producing films that would entertain an Irish audience.
They soon found success with Older than Ireland, a wonderful documentary that charts the story of Ireland through the perspectives of thirty Irish centenarians. Nicell served as cinematographer, but he was hungry to direct a feature of his own. “I wanted to address themes of communication, relationships, and love. So we started to ask ourselves, what are the dying traditions that fed into that? What really stuck out was the clock.”
Nicell is of course referring to the iconic Clerys Clock on O’Connell Street. Once considered a great place of romance for townies, culchies and tourists alike, it’s lost its luster over the years.
“We wanted to look into why these traditions have gone by the wayside, what’s taken their place, and whether what’s taken their place is better, worse, or the same. Clerys is loved for a reason, but we needed to look at why that tradition died.”
The result is Under the Clock, a fascinating and oftentimes surprising documentary. Though the film begins with people recounting their youthful experiences meeting under the clock, it soon dovetails into dating, marriage and gender politics in Ireland in the 20th Century. The film walks a fine line between swooning nostalgia and casting a critical eye over an oppressive time in our country.
“I didn’t want to be preachy. Irish films can have a very heavy social message and not be very audience friendly. We’re not going to shy away from the issues our film raises, but our mantra is that we want to do it in an entertaining and engaging way.”
“When making the film, I was always thinking about how the audience would feel coming out of the cinema. And I decided that I wanted them to finish the movie and think ‘do you know what? Life is good. Terrible things happen, but people have uplifting and poignant stories.’”
On paper, the structure of the film seems unwieldy. Tales of romance and first-loves soon give way to the realities of life in a very catholic Ireland. Themes of alcoholism, sexism and transgender identity weave their way in and out of the narrative. But it’s a gamble that has paid off.
“The film is about Clerys clock, but it’s kind of not. It’s a meeting place that has lead to all these different experiences. It could have been solely romantic stories, but I didn’t want to make a film with one underlying theme.”
Nicell was often surprised by how candidly his subjects spoke. One of the most poignant scenes in the film involves Christina, a woman in her 70s, describing her abusive marriage. What makes it even more surprising is that Christina is Nicell’s mother.
“I never put people I know in my films, because it can be tricky if they don’t end up in the final cut. I only intended to do that interview with my mum to fill in some blanks about the marriage gratuity. After that, I just threw in a question about marriage. I didn’t expect her to reveal so much detail that she knew would appear on screen. Obviously it was something she wanted to get off her chest. My sister had never seen my mum speak about it so publicly, so it was very emotional.”
Nicell himself is only 38 years old, but most of the interviewees in the film range from their 60s to their late 80s. And yet he never found it hard to bridge that generation gap and make a connection with his subjects.
“By their nature, documentary filmmakers are nosy people. We’re really interested in people’s stories. It’s not a skill you can learn, you can either relate to people or not. You have to realise that the stories people are telling you are important to them, no matter how trivial you think it is.”
The real challenge for Nicell was in post-production. Though he had secured early funding from Screen Ireland, formerly known as the Irish Film Board, Nicell struggled to amass the full funds needed to complete the film. That necessitated a break halfway through the production.
“You don’t want to sell the film short by trying to scrape every penny on the post-production, but you have to be realistic. That means sometimes projects slow down. A film like this, you could have finished in a year, but sometimes you have to work on other projects to keep the lights on.”
Two years after production began, the film is finally ready to be released. Snackbox intends to enter the film into a series of film festivals next year, but the priority is a limited release this October, followed by a tour of one-off screenings around the country. “Of course I want my film in festivals. I want critics to like it. But at the moment we just want to get the film out there where people will see it.”
Ireland has changed rapidly in the last few years. Women and LGBT members in particular have achieved rights that seemed unthinkable 50 years ago. But for a lot of the people in Under the Clock, they feel that something has been lost along the way, that intimacy and connectivity have been diminished in a dating landscape increasingly defined by online dating. Over the course of the film, did Nicell start to become nostalgic for a time past?
“You can’t help but be. When you hear peoples’ stories you do become nostalgic, because they remember the bad times, but ultimately they have a warm feeling about the past. You just have to be careful that nostalgia doesn’t become a rose-tinted view of those times.”
“You can miss stuff from your youth, but you get to exchange it for other things. Nothing stays the same so you just embrace it”
Chris McMorrow is a Dublin-based painter that moonlights as a writer and actor in his spare time. When he saw a post on Facebook asking people to share their experiences of Clerys Clock for the film, he knew he had some good stories to tell.
“It led to some ridiculous moments, because there were no phones or computers. I remember when I was fourteen, my brother was too hungover to meet this girl, so he sent me to Clerys to tell her he couldn’t make it. All I had was this grainy photo, so I ended up having to ask every girl if they were Marion. When I found her, she was so annoyed, that she turned and walked away without saying goodbye. A couple of years later they married and they’ve been together for 40 years.”
Like many of the people in Under the Clock, McMorrow expresses some sadness for Clerys current state. “It’s an institution. It’s a shame to see it go the way it did.” Over the years, it’s featured in two of his paintings. One of them depicts a couple embracing under the clock on a rainy night. McMorrow says he wanted to capture the romance of the building, calling it “a little slice of the old Dublin.”
Nonetheless, McMorrow’s nostalgia is tempered by recent developments in the city, and he tries not to live too much in the past.
“It’s a different era, but not necessarily in a bad way. Dublin now is so much more vibrant and there are so many places that have opened up. The likes of South William Street didn’t have anything except warehouses. You can miss stuff from your youth, but you get to exchange it for other things. Nothing stays the same so you just embrace it.”
“There’s a huge culture in the city that’s going missing and it needs to be shown”
Ann Ball will always have fond memories of Clerys Clock. It was under its hands that she met the boy who would eventually become her husband. “He was so handsome and lovely. Though these days, I try to put him up on Ebay to sell!”
Her love of Clerys led to her writing a blog about the place, describing her experiences in her youth. When she heard that Under the Clock was being made, she rang up the production office and asked if they would like her to share her stories.
Though Ball has always wanted to act, the realities of filmmaking have made her reconsider. “The lads are lovely, but we were knackered by the end of the day. It took about seven hours. They asked me to gaze out the window, gaze at the photo of my husband, all this gazing. I came in at the end of the day and asked my husband did he want to see my gaze. He begged me to be quiet!”
It’s not just romance that Ball discusses in the film; she also goes into detail about “getting your wear off of boys.” Are her grandchildren excited to see her talk about kissing on the big screen?
“They’re having conniptions! I told them they’re going to be seeing me in the trailers and the film, and they were mortified!”
Unlike her granddaughters, Ball is excited to see the finished product. For her, it’s a chance to show people a part of Dublin that’s slipping through their fingers. “It’s like O’Connell Street has lost its life. That might sound ridiculous to someone else, but whenever I walk by, I think ‘oh you poor thing.’ There’s a huge culture in the city that’s going missing and it needs to be shown.”
Under the Clock (Snackbox Films) is in cinemas from October 5
Words: Jack O’Higgins