Shane Connaughton brings it all home to his beloved native county

Story by Sinead Hogan

Wednesday, 29th April, 2009 12:00pm

'I would hate to let their stories go unrecorded,' says the charming Shane Connaughton by way of a sort of modest explanation for why he writes. 'We are all extraordinary people. Everyone is unique and has a story to tell. I believe that.'

He won the Hennessy Award for New Irish Writing in 1985, was short-listed for the GPA Literary Award for his first book, and as co-author of the screenplay for My Left Foot, was nominated for an Academy Award. One could forgive internationally celebrated writer, actor and producer, Shane Connaughton, if his recollection of his roots became even a little bit hazy.

Not so, though. A gentleman down to his creative fingertips, Shane was polite and warm, it seemed, to everyone he encountered at the Johnston Central Library for the launch of his latest book, Big Parts. And he loves nothing more than to bring it all back home - as he did in making Run of the Country and The Playboys in Redhills, and plans to do with A Border Station.

With his soft-spoken optimism and enthusiasm for life and for people, his reason for writing rings true. Asked to describe himself, there"s no naval gazing: 'I"m somebody who"s very happy and lucky to be able to earn a living at what I want to do,' says Shane.

He was born in Kingscourt in 1941 and moved with his mother (a native of Mayo) and father (from Galway), four brothers and three sisters to Redhills when he was ten.

'It was very disturbing to move at that age, because you lose your friends, your school, your community and everything and you have to start afresh,' he says. A family of eight children, however, was big, but not unusually so in rural Ireland in those days. 'There was a woman who had 22 children - amazing. But eight was considered to be big. For instance, if eight children gather round a table of an evening and you have a mother and father there as well. That"s ten people in one little room. How on earth did parents cope?'

'Think of modern parents who only have to deal with one or two and there"s all this child psychology and God knows what, but our parents had no help at all,' he exclaims. But asked if he thinks if the old way was healthier, he"s amused:

'Oh, I don"t know about that, Sinead! Who knows? It"s all a chapter of accidents, how we survive at all, but some of us do,' he says wryly. 'We got on with it. There was no such thing as television of course. Ireland was very rural and very beautiful then; it hadn"t been destroyed much. We always had something to do. We were always out in the country, in the woods playing,' recalls the writer, who says the richness of his childhood in Cavan inspired his writing.

When he moved to the UK as a young man, Shane worked in factories, offices and building sites before training as an actor at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School when was about 20. He worked in various theatre companies all over England and Scotland, and moved to London, where he and his wife Ann (from Stoke-on-Trent) now spend much of their time. They have two children - Tara is in New York and Thomas in London.

Shane has a strong sense of pride in his native county, and it was the inspiration for his earlier books. 'There"s nowhere like Cavan. It"s one of those unsung counties, like Leitrim and Fermanagh. It"s so beautiful, the people are so interesting and the language is so interesting... My first book, A Border Station, is all about Redhills. It"s almost like a verbatim account. Run of the Country the same and the Border Diary was all about the making of the film Run of the Country in Redhills. It"s all Cavan. Yeah, it was very important. We"re all very parochial in Ireland. We love where we come from no matter where it is.'

His love and gift for language was born in Cavan, where there was lots of material to inspire a writer. 'Cavan is very rich in language. It"s very flavoursome. The sayings are great and the wit is great, so if you"ve got a pair of ears at all, you couldn"t fail to be impressed and engaged by it.'

Unlike his previous books, Big Parts is set in England, about 30 years ago in a house in London shared by an eccentric group of people, including a cross-dressing playwright, his lover and an ex-jailbird. The unpleasant main character, a racist bigot, is redeemed by his efforts to care for a schizophrenic woman, who would otherwise be institutionalised. Brilliantly capturing a sense of post-swinging-sixties London, the bizarre story is based on Shane"s true life experiences of people he met in London.

'It was the same thing as inspired me to write about Cavan. It was something that I knew about and thought was very interesting, and thought that people would be interested in hearing about it, so I felt I had to do it. That"s what we do,' says the gifted writer, who used a diary (opened in 1987) and tape recorder to keep a record of interesting events and sources of inspiration.

'It had to be shaped for the purposes of fictional narrative. I had to put it through the mill, as it were, to write the book I wanted to write. Otherwise, I"d just be a sociologist going around examining interesting things.'

Asked about his career highlights, Shane proudly rates a play in the National Theatre in London alongside others by Samuel Beckett and Sean O"Casey. 'That was an amazing thing,' he says, but without hesitation, the first highlight was filming The Playboys and Run of the Country in Redhills.

'To have Sam Goldwyn, one of the most famous names in Hollywood, coming to your native village to do a major feature film, with all those big stars...'

Big Parts by Shane Connaughton is out now.

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