ducking and diving for a living


Mícheál Ó Mealaigh plays an affectionate tribute to Derry-born filmmaker Tom Collins, a key figure over the last three decades of Irish cinema, who passed away last month.

I am still trying to come to terms with the death of my friend, Tom Collins, the very talented writer, film maker and entrepreneur.

I first came across Tom Collins at the Celtic Film Festival in Gaoth Dobhair in 1990. I had just begun a new career in the television industry, and was most impressed at Tom and Margo Harkin’s production of Hush-a-Bye Baby. It was fresh, contemporary, provocative and humorous and it left a lasting impression.

The cast for Hush-a-Bye Baby (1990) featured Sinead O’Connor (third from left)

A number of years later, when I was Commissioning Editor for TG4, Tom approached me with an idea to do a short art film on the canon of Irish poetry, from the alleged first poem ever written in Irish called Aimhirgín up to the twenty first century. Not a very commercial project, but a worthy one for TG4 and all the more appealing because Tom had hustled up two thirds of the budget for the project from other sources, a feat in itself. He had also convinced the Nobel Prize-winning Seamus Heaney to present one of the poems. It turned out a beautifully visualized film.

Colm Meaney in Kings

Approaching its tenth birthday, TG4 in conjunction with The Irish Film Board advertised for projects that could become the channel’s first feature film. Tom had seen a production of Jimmy Murphy’s The Kings of Kilburn High Road in The Tricycle Theater in Kilburn and pitched the project to us as an Irish language feature film. It was a very Irish story about emigrants who were forced to seek work abroad, but it was also the story of the growing population of Polish community living in Ireland and indeed the story of every emigrant forced elsewhere due to economic circumstances.

Because Tom had a production company registered in Derry, he felt that he would be able to bring Northern Ireland Screen on board to further enhance a tight budget. A historic meeting in a back room at the Galway Film Fleadh confirmed the support of TG4, IFB, NIS, ILBF and with Government tax incentives the production was to be a De Facto/Newgrange Films production with Tom directing. Filming would take place in Ireland Northern Ireland and London. Tom was central to putting the whole package together.

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His efforts paid off when Kings garnered 14 nominations for the IFTA, winning four; was awarded The Spirit of the Festival Award at the 2008 Celtic Media Festival and secured a nomination for the best foreign language films at that year’s Oscars. But a comment from fellow Derry man, Brian Friel, when we were discussing a proposed feature film for TG4 based on Friel’s classic play, translations, appeared to hold more importance than any other accolade: “I thought Kings was strong and beautiful and moving and utterly compelling. And what performances.”

An unsolicited pilot script for a Celtic Noir crime show entitled At Brontanna’s instigated a four hour series as well as a feature film cut, which Tom directed and produced in conjunction with Rosg Teo.

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His final project for TG4 was a feature film adaptation of Padraic Ó Conaire’s book Seacht mBua an Éirí Amach, entitled Aithrí/Penance. While shooting that film in his native Derry he took time out from a very busy shoot to send a video of congratulation to me when IFTA chose to recognize my efforts on behalf of the Irish language television industry.

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Tom insisted that I play the voice of the drunken pig in his short animated adaptation of Flann O Brien’s An Béal Bocht – in his last weeks he was still planning a remake as a feature film.

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Watch: Tom Collins on growing up in Derry

He discussed an adaptation of Brendan Behan’s An Giall with me and had completed an impressive adaptation of John Deane’s Reading in the Dark for which he had Colm Meaney and Peter Mullen lined up. While all this was going on he wrote me “I’m actually back on the chemo, but if I tell anybody then I’ll not get tuppence for my various schemes and scams. Sick men are bad investments!”

So much ambition, so many projects and sadly so little time. With all his ducking and diving, I wish Saint Peter luck in controlling that boundless energy. Ar Dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.

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