Back to Barrytown: The Northside Trilogy

Cinemas have been on their knees as they remain closed due to restrictions. Once they open they’ll have to contend with the knock-on impact of less films being pedalled into cinemas as studios kick the can down the road by pushing release schedules out to next year or continue to pull productions altogether. Quite incredibly however, there seems to be no shortage of productions being made about previous releases in a bizarre cinematic inception for the times in which we live. Reminiscing on the past is top of the list for networks, with the likes of Friends: The Reunion stirring up a frenzy in viewers high on fumes emanating from the past. I could be cynical about this kind of direction, but it’s comforting and when done well it is a harmless, affecting tribute to beloved classics. RTE recently tried its hand at this format, finishing up just this week its three part documentary series Back to Barrytown. Each installment revisits the three films in Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown trilogy, The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van. Colm Meany appears as the hot-headed but well-meaning father figure in each of the three films, so it made sense for him to take the audience for a spin down memory lane.

‘Go find some urban decay’ – The Commitments (1991)

An old-fashioned telly is fixed to a dolly and the pixelated screen plays famous scenes from the three films, showcasing how much Dublin has changed in the interim years, thirty years to be exact for The Commitments which was the first installment in the series. Roddy Doyle captured the essence of Dublin in his first novel, through the musings of Jimmy Rabbitte the lovable protagonist. Jimmy is a proud Northsider, who fancies himself as a Brian Epstein type figure, resolved in his quest to start a Dublin soul band. He rounds up the gang, including Deco, the cocky bus conductor with the most soulful voice and disagreeable manners. It was the first installment in what would become fondly known as the Barrytown trilogy, a collection of novels set in a fictional working class suburb of Dublin’s Northside. It’s the incomparable Dublin humour of the restless 1980’s that Roddy Doyle so eloquently captured throughout all his novels and the writing was so good that eventually Hollywood came knocking.

Meany guides us around the city, taking us to familiar haunts that got their 5 minutes of fame when a film crew came to town, intent on making a film about a band that were determined to save Dublin’s soul. People stand at their railings on Sherriff Street and motion down the road to where they once stood when they were extras. The script was picked up by the British director Alan Parker who tasked the location scout with finding ‘some urban decay.’ For anyone who knows the fictional suburbs of Barrytown in real life (Kilbarrack and Donaghmede), they know that some of the scenes are an embellished, romanticised version of that area. The high rise flats in Ballymun and the Smithfield market are all wrapped up to create that urban vibe Parker wanted to portray. While the visuals drew on some artistic license, the script didn’t and the way in which it managed to stay true to its Northside humour is most definitely why the film works. If the script had been even 2 degrees out of line, eagle eyed Dubs would have spotted it.

Starting a band

‘A HOUSE LIKE A PINBALL MACHINE’ – THE SNAPPER (1993)

After the success of the first film, audiences were keen to have another look at Barrytown with The Snapper. Another British director took the reins for this one and it’s clear Roddy has complete admiration for Stephen Frears, who created a film very much in the writer’s own head. It’s also very evident that Hollywood had pulled a few tricks on him with his first film and as a tough man to please, Frears went up in Doyle’s estimations when the writer brought the director to his hometown of Kilbarrack only for Frears to say ‘we’ll just film it here.’ That suited Roddy down to the ground as he continued to teach classes in Greendale school around the corner while filming took place.

The Snapper is such a unique film because of the way it was filmed (almost entirely) on a Kilbarrack street: and you knew it was too. It certainly wasn’t a romantic depiction of Dublin like The Commitments had been, it had that fresh sense that this was just normal family life. That feeling of the chaotic Curley household had that ‘pinball machine’ environment, with kids crashing through doors and bike falling down the stairs. Production did a fantastic job with the sets, separating out the Curley house and the Burgess house, the latter of which gives you goosebumps just thinking of the cold, wooden house that Sharon steps into to confront George. Colm Meany also really shines here, in a way that he couldn’t with his cameo role before. Pure comedy gold brings the film to a close as Meany bundles Sharon into his minivan, scalding Kay for asking if they want to bring sandwiches to the maternity ward by exclaiming ‘where do you think we’re going, the pine forest?’ before bombing it to the Rotunda.

Starting a family

‘THE VAN IS A CHARACTER IN ITSELF’ – THE VAN (1996)

The Van is the final installment and from interviews with production and principal cast, the least liked, least revered and least remembered of them all. There is palpable disappointment when the key players reflect on the experience of making The Van. It dealt with unemployment in a humorous way by using the chipper van as a character in itself and the two main characters use it as a vessel to raise themselves themselves out of it, ensuring their souls don’t feel redundant. It missed something important however that the other two installments thrived on, the universal storyline of unemployment didn’t seem to resonate in a moment when Ireland was basking in euphoria after Italia 90 and heading straight into the eye of the Celtic Tiger. Stephen Frears returned to direct this after the success of The Snapper and is particularly critical of himself and how he shot it. He also partly (and rightly) attributes some of the blame to a shift or maturation in Roddy’s writing style. It’s true that while the physical comedy was there as Bimbo drives his pride and joy into the sea at Dollymount Strand it was a bit staged, and didn’t accurately reflect Roddy’s exceptional story on men trying to lift themselves out of unemployment. That depth of story probably wasn’t as visual or comical as much as audiences would have wanted.

Starting a new job

In all three novels, Roddy tapped into the sentiments of hope that were emerging after a desperate decade of austerity. When The Commitments get together, they just need an apparition like Joey ‘the Lips’ Fagan who arrives on ‘a fuckin’ Suzuki’ to save Dublin’s soul and that soul in many ways is the actual soul of Dublin, which had been stripped of its beauty during the preceding decade of the 1980s. The ambiguous ending where the band are left high and dry by the promises of stardom and end up going back to their 9 to 5 jobs after a taste of success is kind of telling of Roddy Doyle’s own outlook on life. Incredibly, most of the principal cast ended up meeting the same fate, as in an imitation of art in life some of them joined the Commitments reunion and toured for a while but as with all these gimmicks the interest teeters off, people lose interest and it moves on to the next generation. Robert Arkins who played Jimmy Rabbitte in fact soberly questioned if his starring role helped or hindered his life in the end. Doyle captured the emerging sentiments of hope but coupled that with the realities of life and for that reason, all three have classic Chinatown endings. 

Meany and Doyle sit in Cleary’s pub watching each of the films with fresh eyes together. Meany is the every man, chuckling along at every gag and set up, while Roddy is the characteristic writer, giving very little away. When he does pipe up, it is to point something out of substance, or particular importance to him. He never has and never will ‘sell out’, remaining staunch in his views and principles and very much his own man. He knows his characters but he also knows the Irish, more specifically Dublin and even more specifically, Dublin’s Northside. He very much knows himself and his characters and is intent at protecting that legacy at all costs.

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