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Colm Tóibín on filming his novel Brooklyn: 'Everyone in my home town wanted to be an extra'

John Crowley’s new film gives Enniscorthy more glamour, but also perfectly captures the place Tóibín grew up in

Article By The Guardian - Original Can Be Viewed Here

The town of Enniscorthy in the south east of Ireland, where I was born and where the heroine of my novel Brooklyn also comes from, still carries signs of a former prosperity.

The cathedral, for example, was designed by Pugin, the great English church architect of the mid-19th century. The castle, built first by the Wallop family in 1590s, was restored as a family home at the end of the 19th century by the Roches, grain merchants in the town.

Along the west bank of river Slaney are beautiful old stone warehouses used for the storing of grain.

And in the streets that radiate from the market square in the centre of the town are some fine merchant houses.

In Castle Street, which runs between the market square and the castle, is a building called the Athenaeum. This was an old gentleman’s club, a place where well-to-do men could relax in the evening. I remember it in the early 1960s, the front room with a roaring fire in the winter, armchairs all around, and a large table with the day’s newspapers, and all the periodicals too, for members to peruse.

The room behind this had a billiard table. And then upstairs there was a high-ceilinged hall, which had been used as a dance hall and was now, by the early 1960s, a theatre. Indeed, it continued as a theatre and was widely used until the late 90s when the entire building, because it needed repairs, was closed.

In the late 50s my father ran dances in Athanaeum in order to raise money to buy the castle and its gardens from the Roches, who no longer lived there. The plan was to make the castle into a museum and to build a ballroom for modern dances in the space where the garden had been. The garden had included a tennis court where the young Roches and their friends had played. One day, a local man swore he overheard a loud shout of “Balls to you, Miss Betty”, as one of the players prepared to serve to Miss Betty Roche.

In my novel Brooklyn, when the young Eilis Lacey and her friends go to a dance in the early 1950s, they go to the Athanaeum. The town she inhabits is a town before supermarkets, with many small shops, and a place where most people did not have a car or a telephone. It was also a town, like most Irish towns, that had a legacy of emigration spanning a hundred years. Almost every family in every generation in Enniscorthy had members in England and the US. In the summers, many of them would return for a brief holiday, the American emigrants much less than the English ones because of the distance and the expense.

You noticed the difference between those who were home from England and those who were home from America. Emigrants home from England were low-key. Many did not seem to have much money. Returned Yanks, on the other hand, were full of glamour. They had fancy accents, fancy clothes and fancy dollars. In America, they made clear, you could become a millionaire. Even the ones who had not become rich themselves sounded, or looked, as if some day they might be worth a fortune. It would just take a bit of luck. America was full of lucky people, or so it was believed.

All this happened in the small streets of the town in the summer. In the winter, Enniscorthy went back to being itself. I have written about the town now in a number of novels and stories, but it is strange and interesting when I drive through the streets I have described, or walk along them these days, that they seem more vastly real than any story could make them. They are the thing itself, the life we shadow in words and then try to turn back to substance in the readers’ imagination.

Some months before the filming of Brooklyn I had lunch in a restaurant in Soho with John Crowley, who was to direct the film. I noticed how patient he seemed, and quiet-spoken, direct. I also realised that he had other things on his mind, and that my wanting the Enniscorthy scenes shot in the actual town, rather than in some other town, might seem like a novelist talking, and not someone who knew anything about film. I didn’t push the point and he didn’t promise anything.

When they told me soon afterwards that they were going to shoot the Enniscorthy scenes in the very streets where they happened, I wondered if they knew what this meant. It meant that they would find a way for the Athenaeum to be reopened and they would shoot the dance scene in the very place where my father ran dances. They would shoot the wedding scene in the cathedral where I went to mass all through my childhood.

They would shoot the scenes where Eilis walks through the town, first as a young Irishwoman, and then as a returned emigrant, in the very John Street and Court Street that I had imagined for the novel, and that I had known all my life. They would shoot the beach scene in a place where we had gone on holidays.

The whole town, it seemed, once the film was announced, wanted to be extras. The film people built a shop. They made a former bank building into a post office. But there are some scenes that are pure, authentic Enniscorthy, especially the streets where Eilis walks. These streets – John Street, Court Street, Lower Church Street – have not changed much. No new buildings have been added or demolished there since the 1950s. They have a lovely timeless feel to them, a timelessness disrupted by the arrival of a girl home from America wearing sunglasses, causing every head to turn.

The town is given a glamour and sometimes a sort of darkness in the film, but more than anything it seems real, exact, true. Whereas words slip and fail, and the power of words lies in their ambiguity, visual images are sharp and exact. In the film of Brooklyn, Enniscorthy is transformed, but it is also captured.

It is easy then to imagine a girl coming home here from America in the early 1950s suddenly seeming different, and easy too to see her mother in a house in Court Street wanting her to stay. And easy to imagine then the pull between two places – between a job in Brooklyn and a job in Enniscorthy, between the beach at Curracloe on a warm summer Sunday and the beach at Coney Island, between the easy familiarity of home and the hard-won familiarity of away, and between two young men both of whom offer Eilis promise, a whole future to be thrown away, or whole future, on the other hand, to be imagined and inhabited.

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