My Peculiar Movie Story

It’s not often one watches an exciting suspense movie based on true events, then wander into a bar an hour later and meet some of the very people involved in the real thing.

But that happened to me recently.

It was an intriguing, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

And, who knows, may lead to my novel ‘Pretty Ugly’ being turned into a big hit at the box-office.

I’m not what you’d call a movie buff, in part because the nearest cinema is over an hour from my home along a winding mountain pass through Glenveagh National Park in the remotest northwest corner of coastal Ireland plumb on the Wild Atlantic Way. And I don’t have Netflix. And I rarely watch television.

But I’d met former prisoner and IRA hunger striker turned writer, Laurence McKeown, whose latest play had been performed at my local theater, which I reviewed, and we’d agreed to meet in Belfast, my native city, on my next trip there.

Laurence McKeown, Sean Hillen author,

Meeting Laurence McKeown (r) – a man who has achieved so much in a lifetime – was an absolute pleasure.

A week or so later, I went there to talk to Laurence about being a guest trainer at the annual ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ that my wife, Columbia, and I host every year in the heart of the Donegal Gaeltacht (which he agreed to do and was a terrific success).

While chatting, he asked if I’d be interested in seeing the world premiere of a new movie entitled ‘Maze’ based on actual events about a mass breakout from a prison of the same name just outside Belfast in 1983, where he himself had been incarcerated for 16 years.

I remembered the break-out well for though I had by then emigrated to America and was working as a journalist in Kansas City, I’d read about it in the papers and my parents had told me details over the phone from their working-class home in west Belfast where some of the prisoners were from.

The Movie House on Belfast’s Dublin Road was packed for the evening premiere, with some former prisoners who’d been part of the escape and local political and social leaders seated in the audience. I came early and nabbed a central place near the front.

Maze’ is written and directed by Stephen Burke, known for ‘Happy Ever Afters’ (2009), ‘81’ (1997) and ‘After 68’ (1994). By chance, both Stephen and I attended the same Belfast school, St. Mary’s, during our teenage years. The movie is an engrossing cinematic accomplishment based on a well-written script. Created on a low budget, it is filled with emotion and raw passion, philosophical musings, exciting action and slow-fuse suspense focusing on the escape by 38 IRA members, the biggest prison escape in Europe since World War II, from what was then considered the best-guarded prison in Europe. The acting is superb, with Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as Larry Marley, the mastermind behind the daring escape, and Barry Ward as a prison officer, Gordon Close, in the starring roles. The caliber of the supporting cast is equally impressive.

As the movie ended, I was delighted to see an old acquaintance, Brendan Gunn, whom I’d not seen in several decades, receive much-deserved mention in the credits. Brendan is a gifted linguist and dialect coach and his brilliant work helped the main actors, who are from around Dublin, adopt a broad northern Irish accent, pivotal for credibility and character backstory. A pioneer in this specialized movie-related field in Ireland when he first began his work in the mid-1980s, Brendan’s ‘students’ have included a remarkable list of mega-stars such as Brad Pitt, Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Aidan Quinn, Cate Blanchett, Jim Sturgess, Julia Roberts, Richard Gere, Natalie PortmanDaniel Day Lewis, Penelope Cruz, Saoirse Ronan and Colin Farrell.

Leaving the cinema after talking briefly to Stephen about my novel ‘Pretty Ugly,’ based in part on the life of former US Senator Edward Kennedy, as a future movie proposal, and to Laurence who spoke on a post-show panel, I drove homeward through quiet streets.

Feeling thirsty after being inside for several hours, I decided to stop off at the Felon’s Club, a stone’s throw from my mother’s home in Andersonstown. The Felon’s is an important place in local Belfast folklore. It started life as a parochial hall before becoming a school and then being transformed into a local drinking club and, as its name suggests, a popular gathering center for IRA members, many of whom were avoiding – or had just been released from – prison. I’d heard Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane, a former leader of the Maze prisoners and a talented musician and singer, was playing there and I was curious to hear him.

As luck would have it, Bik had not started his performance when I arrived and I found him standing at the bar. We chatted, making our way back to the reception area to the security guard on duty. Telling both men I’d just come from seeing the movie they both suddenly became curious, asking me questions about it. Then they announced deadpan that they were among the 38 who had escaped. Excited and keen to learn more, I encouraged them to tell me their stories of what happened to them that fateful day.

Some of what they said was adrenalin-filled stuff, much of it more exciting than what we see in movies. About how they managed to smuggle guns into the prison ahead of the escape (the movie shows them doing this inside cans of paint, but actually Bik said the guns were smuggled painstakingly by their individual parts over a period of time, then put together inside the prison; how they surprised the on-duty guards at gun-point by timing their shift changes between cell-blocks; how unfortunately they ran head-on into more guards at the front gates of the prison and how a brawl broke out, with shots being fired;  how, rushing through the open gates, they were torn to shreds struggling through rolls of barbed wire outside, then fled madcap through fields searching for escape routes, with trained search dogs, armed soldiers and police hot on their heels). After our hour-long chat, one thing became crystal clear – fact can sometimes be stranger than fiction.

That’s my movie story – and more importantly – that’s their real-life story.


See the Winter Offer for ‘Pretty Ugly’

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