Director Luke McManus takes the pulse of the city through a journey along the length of the North Circular Road, from the Phoenix Park to Dublin Port, meeting characters and hearing their personal stories, often told in music and song.
“I think the North Circular Road bears the marks of its history; the marks of power, of privilege, and pain and poverty, and unravelling of lives.”
One of the Phoenix Park deer had a turban-like mess of torn cloth and dried grass tangled around its antlers. First resting, then walking by several trees, by chance, filmmaker Luke McManus was present to capture him as he went about these seemingly mundane actions.
With the footage committed to black and white film, the drone of an uilleann pipe was cut in, accompanied by a fluttering tin whistle melody. By dint of the edit, the deer was now elevated to an almost regal position amongst his herd. Like a king, now he was a guardian of the rangale, surveying the land for threats.
The arresting image didn’t necessarily have any meaning at first, McManus says. It was simply his own good fortune to be there, capable of witnessing it, equipped with a camera. “You have to keep your heart and brain open to that stuff. Capture it and we’ll figure it out later on.”
McManus had been ruminating on the park, scrutinising it as a place emblematic of British imperialism. He focused his lens on its cricket team and became particularly fascinated by the friezes carved into the Wellington Monument. “They were just these extraordinary images of Indians being slaughtered by British soldiers,” he says, while sat in the Irish Film Institute on Eustace Street.
But the one point that kept prodding at him were the deer. “I was thinking to myself the question, why are those deer in the park?”
Some of them were in fact, the descendants of the Phoenix Park’s oldest residents, the fallow deer. They had been brought to Ireland by James Butler, Duke of Ormond and commander of the English army against the Irish Rebellion of 1641.
The park was originally established as the Royal Deer Park in 1662 and wouldn’t be publicly opened until 1747. As such, McManus points out, the 707 hectares of enclosed land were there for the deer to be hunted. “To keep the horses fit, the men fit and their swords sharp.”
Beneath the green and pleasance, he says, “all of the Phoenix Park is a military package, and the deer are a living, breathing representation of that military presence.”
This silent reflection on the park’s deer would, in the end, serve as the opening scene of McManus’ latest documentary, North Circular. An excavation on the North Circular Road, from the Phoenix Park to Sheriff Street, its unofficial endpoint, the director peered into its social and musical history by studying it in the present.
The history of the city, of the country is etched into each surface of the road, he observes. “It’s all there.”
The walk from the Wellington Monument to the Docklands station is almost seven kilometres. When Luke McManus did a calculation of how long this trek would take, he came back with an estimate of 84 minutes. North Circular, he quickly points out, runs for 86.
Without being intended as such, the film is one for the city’s flâneurs, those who stroll its length, absorbing the sights and sounds, stewing on their significance. Shot in a 4:3 ration, North Circular cinematises the viewpoint of the admirers of Dublin’s surface and depth, its characters and signage, the stone faces on the tops of its buildings and the commencement notices posted below.
Told through the lyrics of ballads, old and new, and partially anonymous narrators, its central story is that of the curving R101 road, which marks the border to the inner-city.
Within its arc, there is a total of eight chapters, the central stories of which are generally fixed on an event that transpired since the pandemic. McManus commenced shooting in January 2021, with an idea of involving the folk artists who congregated around Stoneybatter, participating in trad sessions.
Naturally, he found himself covering the campaign to protect the Cobblestone Pub at the top of Smithfield, with the interior of the threatened site becoming a character, itself. He trailed the eviction of protestors running an illegal community centre from a disused building on Prussia Street.
He spoke with a squatter, a once-patient in the Grangegorman Asylum, and a former inmate of Mountjoy Prison. He visited the derelict site of the felled flats in O’Devaney Gardens. And on Sheriff Street, trailed singer Gemma Dunleavy and the homecoming of Olympic gold medal boxer Kellie Harrington.
“I was thinking to myself the question, why are those deer in the park?”
Each moment is grounded in the present, whilst thematically harking back to a past era. Dunleavy articulates her success as being that of a flame now capable of burning when previously it would have been extinguished in the Sean McDermott Street Magdalene Laundry. The pushback against the influx of developers draws parallels with the 19th Century Land Wars.
The North Circular Road, as such, is depicted as a realm in which all time exists simultaneously. By way of this thought, McManus is telling a threefold story, this being that of the R101’s current life, its former usages, and its symbolic nature, acting as a synecdoche of Ireland’s story as a whole since the 17th Century.
“The journey you go through is the history of Ireland,” he says. “It is Empire and rebellion, the Land Wars, institutionalisation, and then finally, this liberal society.”
In his 1951 novel, Requiem for a Nun, William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The line, ubiquitous to the point of cliche, captures the profound sense of eeriness and eternity experienced on a trek of the North Circular Road.
From one of its vantage points, the former site of the Grangegorman Asylum – today the campus of Technical University Dublin – the ghosts of the road’s past co-exist with its current population, with some of its spectres still living. There is a peculiar feeling of tranquillity that is experienced, with the distant roar of traffic resembling lapping waves.
The campus encapsulates the balance of darkness and light depicted in North Circular. Few literal shadows can actually be cast across the spacious grounds. The campus is a sunny, relaxing retreat from the city. But, in between the university’s contemporary blocks, its harrowing story of institutionalisation is sensed in the limestone structures, which in 1911, contained as many as 1,640 patients, 53 of whom were children.
McManus had lived in the neighbourhood for two decades. He saw the asylum finally closed its doors in 2013, and on his daily route to the shop, he encountered Seán, a local busker and former patient.
“I started doing the film,” McManus recalls. “And I thought, ‘I’d say he might be interesting to talk to.’ And yeah, he was. He revealed layers of himself as the relationship developed.”
Intercut with footage of Seán chatting with passers-by on the street and performing the tin whistle in his house are brief clips of the asylum’s decaying quarters. Paint peels from the walls. Plaster is strewn across the floor.
“It goes back to 1980,” the voice of Seán says. “At the time I was 19. I was whisked away. I was given no say in the matter. Where did I end up? In the fuckin’ Gorman. I was 19, dreamin’ of Paris and I got the ultimate nightmare.”
Seán reflects on his experiences being paralysed by a “miracle drug”, and how after, he “couldn’t walk, talk or shit for a month.”
There is no old footage from inside Grangegorman, or St. Brendan’s as it was later known. Nor is any imagery from previous decades necessary either. The memories are rendered real through his terse remarks and the pauses between words. His particular experience is given greater weight through the dialogue created by linking shots of him smoking alone with a cold wintery sun shining over the leafless campus and a sorrowful ballad sung about criminals sent to the Van Diemen’s Land colony in Tasmania.
McManus didn’t want to use archives in the depiction of the documentary’s journey, he says. “I wanted it to feel like archive without being archive.”
Through the voices of those who bore witness to history, the imagery is more tangibly felt than if it was presented as old stills or grainy newsreels.
“The journey you go through is the history of Ireland. It is Empire and rebellion, the Land Wars, institutionalisation, and then finally, this liberal society”.
The road itself fulfils the purpose of an archive. It absorbs the myriad of stories, houses those who preserve them and projects them back on the world, be it via a lyric, a plastic bag of personal items, or a derelict site, like O’Devaney Gardens, epitomising the erasure of whole communities in the name of progress.
“The meaning of the city is multifaceted,” McManus says, and it reveals itself to those who approach each of its surfaces determined to find a depth.
North Circular is a creative by-product of the pandemic, being a deep interrogation of a singular place, when McManus couldn’t be adventurous in the traditional sense.
“That thing of having five kilometres, you walked the same streets a lot, and got a bit bored of that,” he says. “So, you go looking for the new shape. What’s that face carved on that building? Why is there a skull-and-crossbones on a cross outside St. Peter’s Church?”
The film’s central, unspoken thesis is that a piece of physical infrastructure can be a living organism. It is a song collector, possessing all host of ballads that span the emotional spectrum.
A man walks his ferret on a leash. A squatter discovers in his ramshackle abode, bondage paraphernalia and a note, begging neighbours for assistance. Two men crouch under a bridge by the Royal Canal as a helicopter roars overhead. A young singer subverts the taboo of living in a council flat through song.
Nothing is lost in the archive that is the North Circular Road. The thoroughfare is a beautiful mystery, and when reintroduced by McManus, it is majestically transformed into a rare and mystic space. Nothing is as it seems, and the bare trees on the Grangegorman campus become less a sign of somewhere cold and uninviting. Through the director, they begin to resemble nervous systems, processing history and sending it straight into the brain that is the R101.
North Circular opens on December 2nd
Words: Michael Lanigan
Photo (of Luke): Killian Broderick