Sober thoughts in the Emerald City
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.colinbroderick.com ‘Emerald City’ is available on itunes and Amazon
SUCCESS: Colin Broderick and Josh Brolin. Above,Emerald City