Sober thoughts in the Emer­ald City

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Living - - CINEMA -

Writ­ing saved Colin Brod­er­ick and he is us­ing his skill to hon­our a dis­ap­pear­ing way of life, writes Aine O’con­nor

IR­ISH con­struc­tion work­ers are an in­sti­tu­tion in the US. For cen­turies, al­most ev­ery fam­ily in Ire­land has ex­ported some­one to build Amer­ica and the com­mu­nity has its own unique sub-cul­ture, one that Ty­rone man Colin Brod­er­ick got to know well over his two decades as a car­pen­ter in New York. He could see too that it was a way of life that might soon dis­ap­pear. An ad­dict and al­co­holic for decades, part of his heal­ing process was to write and the re­sult is the film Emer­ald City, an hon­est look at a dis­ap­pear­ing and strangely un­doc­u­mented world.

At first, Emer­ald City feels like it might be a homage to the lov­able Ir­ish rogue, the stereo­type of the sweary, heavy-drink­ing, fight­ing Ir­ish charm­ing chancer. But be­fore long it’s clear that the film sees through the ve­neer and in many ways it is not a pretty pic­ture. Yet the com­mu­nity on which it is based have lapped it up. Peo­ple are de­lighted and moved to see the char­ac­ters and life they know de­picted hon­estly, warts and all.

“It was a huge relief to have the movie ac­cepted like that,” Colin says.

That world is dis­ap­pear­ing for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons, Ir­ish con­trac­tors find it hard to com­pete with work­ers from South and Cen­tral Amer­ica, the crack­down on im­mi­gra­tion since 9/11 has also had an im­pact and fewer young Ir­ish peo­ple are go­ing to the US to work in con­struc­tion. In that way, the es­tab­lished com­mu­ni­ties are not be­ing re­plen­ished, so cer­tain is­sues are be­com­ing more ob­vi­ous.

“The de­pres­sion and the al­co­holism and all that sort of cow­boy life­style is com­ing to a head,” Colin ex­plains in a barely di­luted Ty­rone ac­cent. The film deals with ex­ile and be­long­ing, iso­la­tion and con­nec­tion, es­pe­cially for men. “There’s a ter­ri­ble sad­ness in the movie and it comes from my own ex­pe­ri­ence, I dealt with all of that stuff in my own life.”

Au­di­ences have been im­pressed with the qual­ity. “They go into it think­ing that these con­struc­tion work­ers made a Mickey Mouse movie but they’re blown away by the pro­duc­tion val­ues. I was deal­ing with mostly a bunch of guys who had never done any act­ing and ev­ery­body just gave it all they had, which makes it a very mov­ing movie.” His fourth wife, Rachel, plays the fe­male lead, it also fea­tures John Duddy aka for­mer pro­fes­sional boxer the Derry De­stroyer, and Eden Brolin, daugh­ter of ac­tor Josh, a close friend of Colin’s and a big fan of the film.

Colin was born in Six­emile­cross in Co Ty­rone in Jan­uary 1968. “By the time I was 16 I had left school and I was drunk ev­ery chance I got. At 18, I was liv­ing in Lon­don. I drank, I sold hash and I squat­ted. I moved to Amer­ica when I was 20 and at 23 years of age I hit bot­tom.”

He got sober for the first time but de­vel­oped an ad­dic­tion to opi­ates be­fore start­ing back drink­ing at 31. “I got stabbed and beaten and jailed sev­eral times. I did an eight-year run through my 30s that was just in­sane and sui­ci­dal. I would push it all the way to the very edge, wake up out of a black­out and think ‘Fuck, I’m still alive.’ I would wake up in jail and have no idea why I was there. Or wake up strapped to a gur­ney in a hos­pi­tal and hav­ing no idea why or how I got there and sign my­self out and go straight to a bar. Eleven years ago, I was liv­ing like an an­i­mal. I was in Times Square beg­ging dol­lar bills from strangers for vodka and cig­a­rettes.”

He wasn’t home­less, he was mar­ried to wife num­ber three and liv­ing in Hell’s Kitchen and one Sun­day morn­ing, at 39 years of age, sit­ting in bed with a can of beer it clicked. “An awak­en­ing they call it. I sud­denly went, ‘Holy God, I’m an al­co­holic.’ I lit­er­ally knew in my heart that it was over, and I still know it. I haven’t had a drink since.” Part of his re­cov­ery was to write. “It was 2006, I was still detox­ing and it was a way of sav­ing my life, I wanted to clear up the mess that was in my head.”

The book that emerged, Orangutan, got him an agent and pub­li­ca­tion, “The book freed me of the first wave of mad­ness and my life started chang­ing. Then my agent said, ‘you’ve got to write about your child­hood, why are you so screwed up?’ So then I wrote That’s That which was the first time in my life I ac­tu­ally went in and looked at my past grow­ing up in North­ern Ire­land dur­ing the Trou­bles.”

Since Anna Burns won the Man Booker Prize for Milk­man, about a young girl grow­ing up dur­ing the Trou­bles, peo­ple are won­der­ing why the sit­u­a­tion hasn’t been mined more of­ten. Colin believes it is for two rea­sons: that Ir­ish at­tach­ment to se­crecy and in the North an el­e­ment of de­nial. “My whole com­mu­nity re­ally backed off and peo­ple were re­ally weirded out by me writ­ing a mem­oir about grow­ing up in Co Ty­rone dur­ing the Trou­bles.” How­ever, once he did, it gave li­cence to oth­ers to talk. “I think of my life in terms of be­ing in a tribe and for some rea­son I am the guy in my tribes who was given the gift of writ­ing and it’s up to me to tell the sto­ries and present our com­mu­nity as they are. That then gives other peo­ple the free­dom to talk be­cause se­crecy in Ir­ish so­ci­ety has been the death of so many peo­ple. The sui­cide and the de­pres­sion in Ire­land over be­ing fear­ful over ex­press­ing your­self hon­estly is in­sane.”

He believes, too, that chil­dren will ac­cept any­thing as nor­mal, “Peo­ple weren’t even con­scious that we went through a war. I wound up hav­ing a men­tal break­down dur­ing the process of writ­ing my sec­ond book be­cause I ques­tioned my­self so much.” In Emer­ald City his char­ac­ter ex­plains that as a teenager he had known the men killed in the Lough­gall mas­sacre in 1987. It is true. “I was at three wakes in an af­ter­noon, I knew them and I went into those houses and I saw half their faces blown off and it wasn’t un­til I was in my 40s that I thought ‘What a trau­ma­tis­ing event’. We heard bombs all the time, I lost fam­ily mem­bers, friends in bombs and some­how it be­came so nor­mal.”

He still gets let­ters from all over the world thank­ing him for his hon­esty. Maybe what res­onates, he sug­gests, is not only get­ting sober, but thriv­ing. “I like be­ing 50 bet­ter than be­ing than any other age. I am fi­nally com­ing to terms with who I am. I just shot my sec­ond fea­ture movie, my third book is com­ing out in De­cem­ber, I have a wife, I have two kids who have never seen me drunk. I live in a nice house in Wood­stock and that’s all brand new stuff al­though it’s re­ally a life most peo­ple would have had in their 20s. My life is a mir­a­cle and no­body is more aware and more amazed by it than I!”

‘Eleven years ago, I was liv­ing like an an­i­mal. I was in Times Square beg­ging dol­lar bills’

www.col­in­brod­er­ ‘Emer­ald City’ is avail­able on itunes and Ama­zon

SUC­CESS: Colin Brod­er­ick and Josh Brolin. Above,Emer­ald City

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