Film Eye

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2007), Reviews, Volume 15

Joe (Colm Meaney), the only one who did well.

Joe (Colm Meaney), the only one who did well.

Pretenders looking for their crowns
Kings
Director: Tom Collins
by Mícheál Mac Aonghusa

Surely the most chilling line of dialogue in Kings is the acknowledgement, ‘Seo é do bhaile anois’ [‘This is your home now’]. To a single Connemara man who has spent 30 years in London and more or less confined his social life to the boys who ‘came over’ with him it represents the recognition of life-long alienation of a special kind. This is often the experience of emigrants/immigrants worldwide. Within a few years the home they left is no longer recognisable, and the country in which they work and sleep is foreign in their minds. Up until recently Irish people were referred to as ‘working’ in England. They weren’t considered to be ‘living’ there. Even at the last Irish census enumerators reported difficulty in persuading ageing parents not to list adult children who were not present on census night, or any other night for many years. There is a significant difference between the perceived status of Irish immigrants in England and those in the US. In the US they quickly become American and are so recognised after the first generation. In England one meets second- and third-generation Irish with local English accents who would never regard themselves as English. Hundreds of them can be seen and heard at Irish dancing competitions. Part of the problem is that the Irish at home don’t recognise the Irishness of their cousins in England. That causes great hurt. At least the Yanks are ‘Irish-American’ long after their contact with or knowledge of Ireland has become minimal.
Kings deals with a particular kind of migration, of single men from Connemara. Before the advent of universal post-primary education it was common for families in Connemara to keep girls in school until the Leaving Certificate but boys could look after themselves without schooling. In the middle decades of the twentieth century thousands of them ended up ar an mbildeáil in London, Northampton, Huddersfield and elsewhere. On Friday nights and Saturdays Connemara Irish was the language of

Six boys from Connemara take the boat to England in 1977

Six boys from Connemara take the boat to England in 1977

certain pubs in Cricklewood, Kilburn and Camden Town. A small few built up their own construction empires, and some returned home to build hotels and supermarkets. But most kept hoping against hope that they would make big money and return home as people to be respected. Very many posted money home to their mothers every week, and that kept many a family going and paid for the education of younger brothers and sisters. They never saw the inside of the Irish Club or attended an Irish Embassy reception. As they worked, or begged for work, ‘on the lump’ their families at home changed, Connemara changed, Ireland changed. It was always changing, but in the last generation the change has been almost a transformation into another country, a foreign country to those who left 30, 40 or 50 years ago.
The ones who had the worst life, as well depicted in Kings, were those who never married or established any kind of relationship outside their original circle. The Connemara–London migration didn’t change like the Dublin–London one did in the 1960s, when families and married couples took the boat rather than the single men and married men on their own as was the practice in the 1950s. Two characters, Git (Brendan Conroy) and Jap (Donal O’Kelly), had grown old in body but were still trying to be ‘kings’ and return home as heroes. ‘Kings’ here has nothing to do with monarchy. As Ó Dónaill lists in his Irish–English dictionary, a common meaning of rí is ‘pre-eminent person’: Is é rí na bhfear é—‘He is a king among men’. To return home without having anything to show would have been seen as shameful. The Irish-speaking pub became their comfort zone. Alcohol became a constant companion. Some, for a few years at least, went back to Connemara for a week’s annual holiday. Others lost contact almost completely. A generation or so ago only business people, doctors, priests and politicians had telephones at home. Where there was a telephone to call, one had to go through operators and have a pile of change and a huge amount of patience. The (Irish) Department of Posts and Telegraphs appealed to people not to use the service on Christmas Day except in an emergency! Most Irish people in London in the seventies and earlier would never think of ringing home. Letter-writing was out of the question for those whose literacy in English or Irish was limited. Often speakers of the richest and most sophisticated Irish had little or no experience in writing it.
Kings is based on the play The Kings of Kilburn High Road by Jimmy Murphy, first staged in 2001. In the film version the action happens in 2007 and is built around the death of the youngest of six boys who left Connemara for the bright lights 30 years before. Jackie (Seán Ó Tarpaigh) felt badly let down by Joe (Colm Meaney), the only one who did well and ended up employing people from places ending in ‘a’—Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia etc.—but forgot about his mates from the other place ending in ‘a’,

The five survivors 30 years later in the comfort zone of the pub. (All images: New Grange Pictures)

The five survivors 30 years later in the comfort zone of the pub.
(All images: New Grange Pictures)

Connemara, as he was bitterly reminded. Jackie’s father, Micil (Peadar Ó Treasaigh), collects the coffin and accompanies it home on an Aer Arann flight to Galway (a reminder of how important this service is to communities, as Aer Lingus accountants found out when they tried to abandon the carriage of remains). Micil pays the (Islamic) undertaker and leaves the rest of a wad of sterling to buy drinks for the boys. It was from money that poor Jackie had sent to his mother, who saved it, probably in expectation of a more joyful homecoming.
Anger, frustration, jealousy and bitterness as well as loss are expressed as often happens at funerals, when all these emotions burst out. But even in the depths of sorrow there is plenty of humour. And amid all the discrimination there is not a little comradeship. There is really great acting in Kings, in the body language and the facial expressions as well as the superb timing of retorts. The dialogue is well written, sharp and clipped. The dialogue coach, Mairéad Ní Chonghaile, has achieved a perfect result. Screenplay and production avoid anything suggestive of sentimentality, nostalgia or any patronising of the characters. If you have a chance of filling a time capsule, make sure there is a DVD of Kings in it.

Mícheál Mac Aonghusa is a freelance journalist and community worker.

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