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Micko, Giles and bringing the story of Irish sports icons to screen

The challenges and rewards of productions on the Irish sport documentary landscape.

Updated at 08.00

pjimage (1) (1) There was widespread praise for the documentaries on Mick O'Dwyer and John Giles. Source: INPHO

“THERE’S THREE STATUES in Waterville. The statue of Our Lady at the top of the town, there’s one of Micko and there’s one of Charlie Chaplin.

“We were filming a lot in Waterville at the end of the tourist season. The Ring of Kerry buses would come along and they’d park outside what was Micko’s hotel. Everyone filed out, they’d take all these pictures of Charlie Chaplin, then they’d run up to the other statue, realise they didn’t know him so they’d get back on the bus.

“Micko was there sitting on a bench and there’s that sense you are in the presence of greatness and you don’t even know.”


Source: Loosehorse/Vimeo

Cormac Hargaden is reflecting on his time spent shining a light on the life and times of Mick O’Dwyer.

The Kerry man’s extraordinary sporting feats were chronicled in the documentary ‘Micko’ which aired last January and yet despite the fact that his career has been pored over down through the decades, the production was a salient reminder of what he had achieved.

Something similar occurred in the aftermath of their offering on the soccer life of John Giles last winter.

“We’d 15-20 minutes outside Elland Road one day and John was mobbed by the Leeds United young fans. I don’t think John is hugely comfortable with adulation, he’s a down to earth fella, but they worshipped him.

“But I think particularly with Johnny Giles, it’s only when you trawl over the footage, you see he was an extraordinarily gifted player.

“Say my sons are football fans, they’d no idea that not only he played football but that he was so good. It’s nice to re-introduce someone like John Giles to another generation.”

Timely reminders then about being in the presence of greatness.

Welcome to the world of Irish sports documentaries. Hargaden is at the forefront of that, a director with Loosehorse, the company that he co-founded with Trisha Canning.

Having originally worked with Setanta, they started out with the brilliant GAA series ‘Breaking Ball’ when they got their own setup established.

They’ve taken a look over the years at Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh and Paul Galvin, followed Roddy Collins coaching time with ‘The Rod Squad’ and had a front-row view with ‘Marooned’ for Páidí Ó Sé’s act of deliverance to Westmeath football in 2004.

Source: eir Sport/YouTube

Source: John McCarthy/YouTube

Since last October they have released their examinations of the lives of O’Dwyer and Giles, along with ‘Blues Sisters’, which provided close-up access of Dublin’s march to All-Ireland ladies football glory, and ‘All-Ireland Day: The Hurling Final’, a different view on Galway’s meeting with Waterford last September.

In a country with an insatiable appetite for sport, their documentaries have been showered with plenty plaudits. The common refrain after these instalments is why can there not be more? Hargaden explains why meeting that demand is not easy.

“Our career as a company started with sports documentaries and it’s only in the last year or two that we started making them again. In that middle period was a realisation that in the first instance it’s very difficult to get access to the best stories, particularly in Ireland I think, and in the second instance it is a very difficult genre to get funded.

“What happened last year was a very specific decision from RTÉ to re-divert funding that was going to magazine programmes to fewer, larger documentary projects. I guess we were interested in getting involved in that and pitched the project.”

The thorny area of the rights to sporting footage can often cause complications.

“For example we made ‘The Girl on the Undercard’ about Deirdre Gogarty the boxer, who fought on the undercard of Mike Tyson and Frank Bruno,” said Hargaden.

Source: eir Sport/YouTube

“That would be a case in point that we made a lovely film, told Deirdre’s story and found ourselves in a very tricky situation securing the rights to the fight itself because the legacy of Mike Tyson’s fights became very complicated legally.

“And because this one fight at the centrepiece of our story was on the undercard, it was a very tricky and protracted negotiation for us to be able to get access to any footage. So I guess for years we withdrew from the arena of sports documentaries because we had so many little pet projects and we didn’t get them made. It becomes bruising after a while.”

Last year things fell into place for them. Hargaden knew Mick Bohan and when the latter moved into the hotseat with the Dublin ladies football side, he approached him. The case for a documentary was made to the Dublin squad’s leadership group and after the players considered it, they gave it the green light and opened the door.

“If you take those three documentaries – A Year Til Sunday which Pat (Comer) did in ’98, Blues Sisters  and Marooned that Pat Collins did in 2004. People tell us they were great documentaries.

“They were also very lucky documentaries. A documentary of Páidí getting knocked out in the first round to Offaly in the 2004 Leinster championship would only have gone so far.

“Obviously the more you practice the luckier you get. You’re trying to anticipate when the story is going to happen. In the case of the Blues Sisters, I kept an eye on the ladies championship and was aware of that dynamic that Dublin were in my eyes a compelling story.

“Often the hard-luck story is. In a way all you needed was for them to get to the All-Ireland final and you have a good story.”

Source: RTÉ - IRELAND’S NATIONAL PUBLIC SERVICE MEDIA/YouTube

Their success after three final losses on the bounce closed off that documentary on a happy note. The look at another All-Ireland final last September, similar to their football offering on the meeting of Kerry and Dublin in 2015, was a different project to take on.

“The thing about the All-Ireland projects is I’d like to think it wasn’t about the All-Ireland days and who was going to win the match. It was an attempt to capture the fact that that day was about much more than a football game.

“Without being snobbish about it in a pro-GAA away, it’s a fairly unique sporting event. I think trying to build multiple storylines reflects the different impact that the day had. It’s more of a large scale production rather than a documentary.

“Over the course of the day we might have had 12-15 people filming it whereas for Micko or Giles was a tight team of maybe three people.”

The thought of doing a deep dive into the life of beloved Irish sporting figures like O’Dwyer and Giles had been on Hargarden’s mind for some time.

“I remember when Jack Lynch died in 1999, I did a piece the following day down in Cork for Breaking Ball and I was talking to all these people who were paying tribute to Jack Lynch from a sporting point of view.

“All his buddies and colleagues and political rivals. I just thought it was an awful shame. I would have much rather talked to Jack himself.

“Both the John Giles and Mick O’Dwyer documentaries were retrospective. So we just had the opportunity to talk to them about their life story.

“I’d become very friendly with John over many cups of coffee. For about four or five years I’d been trying to make it and then an opportunity arose and I suggested it as a project that would solve a problem for someone.

“So we got the green light and turned it around very quickly. I’d say it was done from start to finish in six weeks. That’s often what happens, a project that was on the starter blocks for five years just needed that bit of luck.

Source: Anann1916/YouTube

“With the Micko documentary, I’d have Micko as a personal hero of mine. I’m of an age that would have grown up with that Kerry team. Jack O’Shea lived in Leixlip, not too far from me when I grew up. So I knew the scale of that project and I knew it mirrored the John Giles story in that there was potential to tell a social history through one life. I knew Micko had a storytelling ability.

“The Micko documentary, I think RTÉ took a little bit more persuasion but eventually they came around. So we started filming in late August just to capture the end of the summer. The day of the Mayo semi-final was the start of the filming but most of it was done in November.

“I’ve always found something very humbling or moving about the juxtaposition of someone in their physical prime and then someone in a different age but really sharp mentally. Mick O’Dwyer described his debut with Kerry, which was a defeat against Waterford, in painstaking detail of the winning point for Waterford.

“That was on the first day when we were wondering how would Micko handle sitting down and talking for long periods of time. That’s 60 years ago and it’s purely embedded in his memory.”

Source: Tallowman GAA/YouTube

The aim always was to sketch an image of these Irish sporting icons and reveal something more rather than to solely provide a reflection on their achievements.

“Everyone has their tastes,” said Hargarden.

“I’m interested to a point about who wins a match on a Sunday but what I find more interesting about sports is that it tells a slightly broader story.

“I think it would be a waste not to talk to someone like John Giles or Mick O’Dwyer and not use the time span of their career as a prism to maybe look at the changes in Ireland in a very light touch way.”

On a wider level, it’s a theme that he returns to with his wish for more of these types of sport offerings in Ireland.

“The first documentaries I really remember were ‘Hoop Dreams’ and ‘When We Were Kings’ and that kind of era. Then ’30 For 30′ came along and you’d things like Undefeated and I’d just be a big fan of those docs generally.

“I think they can be quite cinematic and touching and not about sport at all. They’re much more about human relationships. I think the more they get of it, the audience will grow.

“Obviously TG4 have been making really fine Laochra Gaels for years. But I think in Ireland by and large we’d been relatively vanilla with the way we do sports documentaries. It tends to be a little bit about a roll call of a set of achievements.

“Whereas if you look at the Escobars movie or the classic example like OJ, those documentaries are about an awful lot more than sport. It’d be great if there was a willingness to pick that up.”

So what’s the dream documentary to make?

“I’d do the 1982 All-Ireland final but as a moment in time in terms of Ireland at the time. I think we’ve done that to death with Italia ’90 but I think there’s a load of Irish sporting moments that tell a story about Ireland at a particular time, that we haven’t touched.”

And any projects in the pipeline for the coming year?

“We would be developing a few but we’re back where we were last year wondering can we get funded on any of our pet projects.

“Unfortunately the genre of sports documentary funding has no memory. So we’re back exactly where we were this time last year with a set of pet projects hoping that someone will come along and say that’s one we want to back.”

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Fintan O'Toole

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