Let's all Raise a Glass to Philip Donnellan

By David Fox

An Englishman in Ireland and an Irishman in England. Philip’s family was scattered with the Famine – the defining Irish Story, until recently dismissed and hidden.

In the days of Anglo-Irish disagreement, long before it was cool to be Irish, I believe Philip was cool. He made films about what mattered, and more, he managed to make them inside television: like The Irishmen, the best film yet made about the Irish in England.

Everyone interested in work, or avoiding it, must see The Irishmen. It’s about an almost lost breed: the Irish peasantry, straight out of The Conditions of the Working Class. Engels didn’t like them very much, but Philip did. It’s about McAlpine’s Fusiliers, the men who built the motorways; alone in their own company, recreating home in portacabins along the M1. Like many of the Irish in England in the early ‘60s, of course they weren’t in England at all.

Philip’s film, using non-sync images, wild sound and voices seemingly overheard (rather than the standard and dull interview slumber that hours of videotape induces) shows images that are precious. There are so few images of this flickering black & white world. No one seemed to be pointing the camera in that direction then, certainly not for television. To some this quiet film may not look like politics, but the BBC thought differently. They never showed it. They banned his great political film about the British Squaddy too, after one showing – was it called Gone for a Soldier? I don’t remember – one of the most moving things ever on British television.

I first met Philip at the Camden Irish Centre, in the bar of the John F. Kennedy Room, and saw him a few times in a few bars since. I’m sorry to say that I had always meant to spend more time with him, and listen to his stories and learn something of the trick. You think people are going to be around for a while and there’s always something else to be done – like paying the rent – we’ll put off the revolution! This is sad. There seem to have been a lot of deaths lately, and we shouldn’t make that excuse any longer. Good filmmakers, like good people, teach you to seize the moment.

David Fox is a film director and editor.