breaking ice

'The intention was always to champion what these guys achieved'

Director Jason Branagan has worked tirelessly to bring the story of Ireland’s first bobsleigh team to the screen.

“COOL RUNNINGS WAS good aul’ craic,’ quipped six-time Olympian Terry McHugh in 2018, “but we could make a far better film focused on the Irish story.”

Well, thanks to the efforts of director Jason Branagan, the tale of Ireland’s first brave steps onto the bobsleigh track have now been brought to the screen.

‘Breaking Ice’ is Branagan’s first feature length sports documentary and it brings an essential Irish Olympic tale out in the open. A story (well told by Eoin O’Callaghan on this site in 2018) of talented athletes finding their way on the ice and, eventually, to the Olympics despite being shackled along the way.

Before the Jamaican bobsled team’s exploits in 1988 were distilled into a Disney movie, Ireland’s brush with the hundred-mile-and-hour sport came about thanks to one man’s thirst for the adrenaline of hurtling down an icy track in a bullet crammed with men clinging grimly to a thin notion of control.

Larry Tracey, a successful London businessman of Irish extraction who paved the way for the tricolour to fly at the Winter Olympics, is one of an impressive array of voices assembled in Branagan’s film and he sat down to help tell his side of the intriguing story at Neptune Rowing Club. A fitting location given the background of the original bobsledders.

“He’s an incredible character,” Branagan tells The42, “hopefully in the doc we do Larry justice. It was important to me to make sure this guy was known and gets the credit he deserved for, in a certain sense, single-handedly driving Ireland into winter sports.

What he did with the bobsleigh team, for Irish winter sports is incredible. He was this man with a vision. And he had resources… a lot of people wouldn’t have been as willing to funnel those resources into getting other people to the Games.”

Most winter sports are expensive pursuits, but bobsledding – by the time you factor in the requirement of a track and the cost of time on that track – requires… well, a few bob.

Tracey, had the means and the persistence to take rowers from the water to the ice. Jim Cassidy, Pat McDonagh and Gerry Macken joined him in earning a place for Ireland in Calgary 1988. Lamentably, the day’s powers that be in the OCI intervened a matter of  days before the Games and denied a happy ending to a fantastical debut story.

Breaking Ice - Still 3

However, this is not a story about a disinterested governing body. ‘Breaking Ice’ is about the men on the mission.

“I could be wrong, but I think there might have been a bit of catharsis (for the athletes) in making the doc,” says Branagan.

“There was a little semblance of fear that I wanted to create some sort of Olympic scandal sort of piece, that was never the intention. The intention was always to champion what these guys achieved I think we have done that.”

Of course, telling that story on film requires footage. And images of an under-served team cutting their cloth in imaginative ways to make ends meet in a bid to qualify for Games in ’88 and ’92 are thin on the ground.

Branagan was ready for the prospect of a film dominated by interviewees, taking inspiration from Alex Fegan’s films ‘The Irish Pub’ and ‘Older Than Ireland’ before assiduously whittling down over 30 hours of interviews into a crisp 70-minute story.

Liberty Video / YouTube

He is indebted too, to the foresight of Terry McHugh who trained a camcorder on his efforts to reach Albertville ’92 and handed all the footage over. Further life is brought strikingly by evocative animated snippets by Rachel Fitzgerald.

The notion to take on the task of committing this story to film came to Branagan when he was sitting in a Burger King on a dim February day in 2018. And there was no more glamour to be found in the hard slog of ensuring the story intertwined.

One thread in particular, just refused to tie in neatly. The last interview Branagan filmed was with the prince of Monaco, an Olympic bobsledder in his own right who trained and competed with the Irish up-and-comers before supplying the four-man bob Ireland used to compete at the Nagano Games.

“The last piece of filming we did was Prince Albert in January 2019, so the next 12 months were a painful struggle through trying to make the thing,” says Branagan.

You edit it together and then go, ‘ah, have I made a huge mistake? you just go again and again and again, have good people around you who you trust.”

“It was a bit heartbreaking (cutting Albert II of Monaco out), he was a super nice bloke, but the big crux of his story was him giving them the four-man bob that they used to compete in Nagano ’98.

“I tried a hundred different ways of keeping that story in, but it always felt wrong because the film finishes with ’92. So we had to discard everything after that. 

“Through all the prep we thought we might go all the way up to ’98 – the first rime they qualified a four-man bob. But all the content we had covering 92-98 all ended up on the floor.”

Breaking Ice Galway Laurel Poster_smaller size

In sending the trailer around in recent weeks, Branagan noted comparison with his experience making an independent film and an Irish team who had to independently forge a path for themselves into new territory.

Yet with the finished product finally in hand and lined up for a final-day showing at the innovative online-only Galway Film Fleadh (running 7-12 July, purchase access to view it here), Branagan has succeeded in bringing together more than the threads of the story, but the people themselves.

“Looking back on it now, they’re all proud of (it). They’re all super humble, gentle guys . Everyone said at different points: it’s like this thing happened 30 years ago. They don’t really think about it, it doesn’t play on their minds any more. It was interesting for them to revisit it.

“We did a private screening for them in the IFI before we premiered. For them, this idea of them breaking barriers or opening the door for other athletes was never something that occured to them or was what they intended to do. It just happened.

“Looking back now, I think they realise that what they had done was, in my opinion anyway, particularly special.”

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