The Irish Way of Living and Dying: An interview with Aoife Kelleher

Aoife Kelleher’s debut feature-length documentary, One Million Dubliners, explores life at Glasnevin cemetery – the final resting place of some of Ireland’s greatest modern heroes.

Aoife Kelleher pictured second from left

Aoife Kelleher pictured second from left. Picture courtesy of Aoife Kelleher

This wasn’t Aoife’s first time to explore the topic of death. Corrigan’s Funeral Home on Aungier Street was the subject of her first documentary as a film student in DIT.

“I’m sure it sounds incredibly macabre, but I always found that stuff interesting,” she says. “It’s an area that is present for everyone, but not really spoken about.”

Producer Rachel Lysaght – who thought it was interesting that Glasnevin cemetery had its own marketing department – first approached Aoife about the idea of making a film about the site. The two had previously worked on a number of projects together including a short film called Home for the Irish Film Board’s Reality Bites scheme.

“Between myself and Rachel and James Mitchell, the executive producer, [we] wrote up the full proposal treatment for BAI submission over the summer of 2013. We got funding in September and we started immediately.”

one-million-dublinersFrom the outset, One Million Dubliners was not going to be ‘just a historical documentary’ – it would tell modern stories as well.

“The idea of merging history and the contemporary life of the cemetery was [challenging] from the point of view of how to structure it,” Aoife says. “So I decided to follow the tour.”

The tour was guided by the late Shane MacThomais, Glasnevin’s resident historian and storyteller, and the leading character in One Million Dubliners.

“As soon as I was on the tour, it became immediately apparent that he would be one of the central people in the documentary. It just made sense then to follow his tour [throughout the documentary] because he was just so warm and engaging. [He was] so good with everyone, from tourists just off a red-eye flight to kids on a school tour.”

Aoife clearly has a lot of affection for Shane, which comes across in the documentary. Shane is a very likeable character; a real header who provides comic relief for the audience as well as some intriguing insights about his own perspective on death.

He was an amazing guy,for us as a film crew and for everyone who visited Glasnevin. He was really, really generous with his time and very, very funny. It was really wonderful spending time with him. If I had a question, he would be great and really helpful about answering…He was great at introducing me to people…It was just a real privilege to get to know him.

Aoife and the team had one day of shooting left in their budget: Easter Sunday, a significant date in Glasnevin’s calendar. However, Shane died suddenly before filming was complete.

“I was in the edit with our extraordinary editor Emer Reynolds. We had been in there for two weeks planning the structure and how best to tell the various stories that we had. And then we got the really, really terrible news about Shane. It really was absolutely devastating for everyone. I can’t explain how much of a shock it was…When making a film about the rituals [of death] and talking to people about how they live and die, that will never prepare for the reality of someone actually passing away.”

Rachel Lysaght and Aoife travelled to Glasnevin to recalculate how they would finish the film.

They contacted Shane’s family and his colleagues at the Glasnevin Trust to seek advice on how best to complete production.

“When something like that happens I think you have to acknowledge as a documentary maker…that you have to be guided by other people…Everyone in his family and all of his friends knew he really enjoyed the process of making the film. It captured so much of his work within the cemetery and all that he had done for Glasnevin. His family really wanted him to stay in [the film], and to show everything that he had done.”

Although Shane steers a lot of the narrative, there is a wealth of strong characters who give an insight into Dublin today and the importance of death and funerals in Irish culture.

For Aoife, the documentary is not only about Glasnevin:

I think that in some ways, beyond anything else, it’s about Dublin and it’s about Ireland. It’s about the Irish way of living and dying and how we talk about it and the stories we tell about it. I think that there’s something completely unique and really intriguing about the Irish attitude to life and death. I think that’s what we conveyed above anything else.

“Every single person we interviewed had a completely different attitude, and a completely different take on life and death and on what happens when we die. That was fascinating.”

Tracking the common causes of death logged in the death register at the cemetery “teaches you so much about Irish society and inequality” from 1832 to today.

Having tackled such a universal topic as death, I wonder if One Million Dubliners has influenced Aoife’s view on death:

“I think that really what the film does is acknowledge that everyone’s view is completely unique and also everyone’s view seems completely offbeat to anyone else’s…I think that what the film does is give everyone the space to explore their own ideas. I think that’s what I’m still doing.”

One Million Dubliners is out on DVD now.

Read Conor McMahon’s review of One Million Dubliners on the city.ie.

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