Above: A still of Seán and an iconic United Irishman cover. Check out the trailer for the documentary which is being premiered on Tuesday May 15th in the Sugar Club. Tickets available here.
Seán Garland is one of the giants of Irish republicanism. As a young man he bore the slain body of the mythologized Sean South after the Brookeborough raid during the Border Campaign. He led a life that put him at the centre of Irish revolutionary politics for decades. Kevin Brannigan has just emerged from a five year edit hole with a one hour documentary made up of intimate interviews with Sean. Rashers Tierney sat down with him to hear about the project.
So, who is the Man In The Hat and what prompted you to make a film about him?
The Man in the Hat is Seán Garland an 84 year old veteran of the politics of the 20th century. It’s a name that was bestowed on him by the CIA when they say they were trailing him around Moscow when he was supposedly helping shift North Korean made counterfeit dollars into Europe. Of course it’s something that they have never been able to prove and since Seán slipped their clutches when they tried to bundle him onto a plane in the North of Ireland after picking him up in Belfast it’s never going to get to the non-jury court in the US that they had hoped for. Ironically I’ve never seen Seán wear a hat.
I’d imagine access could have presented something of an issue here for other film-makers. How did you persuade him to take part in the documentary? From what I’ve seen it’ a very honest portrayal, and there’s a lot that can be read between the lines of what he says.
So much has been written about the war in the North. Just looking at my bedroom book collection every second book is about the Provisional IRA’s campaign or Provisional Sinn Féin’s ‘road to peace’. Reading The Lost Revolution by Scott Miller and Brian Hanley for the first time opened up the wormhole for me that there were dissenting voices within the Nationalist communities to the Provisional agenda and these voices were calling themselves Marxists! It’s a wormhole I couldn’t stop myself going down.
Seán took a lot of persuading but I think an RTÉ one on one with Proinsias De Rossa at the time of De Rossa’s retirement as an MEP helped show Seán that everyone else was getting their version of events out so it was about time he did too.
I had been involved in a lot of left media projects and around 2012 I started to get heavily involved in Lookleft Magazine which was in the main funded by the Workers’ Party. I think this helped build up a level of trust between Seán and myself that if he agreed to be interviewed it wouldn’t be a hatchet job or a hagiography. I had hoped to do a few small interviews and turn something around relatively quickly, but over five years on…
Oh you mention being involved in left media projects. The Workers Party back in the day had a reputation for being fairly ahead of the game when it came to media. It’s papers the United Irish and the Irish People are often cited as hugely successful interventions, covering topics like clerical sex abuse and housing. Did you talk to Sean much about that? And speaking of the media, what’s with the mythology about the Workers Party being in control of RTE?
We managed to get access to lots of past issues of the United Irishman newspaper and other Workers’ Party publications going back as far as the split with Provisional Sinn Féin. That was the most fun part of this project – sitting in Graham’s (my co – Director) attic surrounded by boxes of stunningly designed Newspapers and magazines made me really nostalgic for an old Left that looked great, was a mass movement and was making an impact. Thankfully from looking at the Repeal imagery we seem to have got back on track on the aesthetics front..
Newspapers form an important part of the film – especially considering that it was an ad in a newspaper that helped make Seán make his initial contact with the IRA.
Workers’ Party control of RTÉ and the infamous Ned Stapleton Cumann is discussed but I suppose you’ll have to go see the Documentary for Seán’s take.
Garland’s political activism stretches right back to the Border Campaign of the late 1950s and early 60s. He takes in “the troubles” and the development of the Workers Party as a political force in Ireland. Not to mention his shenanigans with the CIA and the North Koreans. If the doc is an hour long, did you find it hard to pinpoint what material to focus on and give it the breadth it deserved?
Really hard. If you take it that every weekend somewhere in Ireland someone will at some point be singing ‘Sean South from Garryowen’ and not knowing that it was Seán Garland who carried South’s body across the border as the British Army closed in with dogs and helicopters there’s an hour long documentary in just that.
Seán almost did too much! At times during the edit and even in the interviews period I would get very overwhelmed with what to focus on and how to keep the Doc not being just a mish-mash of kind of connected off the wall anecdotes.
Within the space of an hour Seán discusses his meetings with Charlie Haughey when the Workers’ Party is helping prop up an early 1980s Fianna Fáil Government and then meeting Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang in the same decade.
But I’m happy now that we’ve got the right balance and have managed to weave a thread through all the events that connect them in an evolutionary logic.
What’s your favorite anecdote about Garland?
There’s a story that Irish Diplomats as part of a UN Mission to North Korea in the mid 90s raised a toast at a dinner at their hosts request to Seán Garland. Some of the diplomats just happened to be ex Workers Party members. Coming not too many years after the split it makes me wonder were the North Koreans doing it for the wind up!
Garland is a controversial character. He divides people, especially when it comes to discussions of “the troubles”. The feud with the Provisionals and I guess even later, the split with Democratic Left and I’m sure much other bitter acrimony I’m clueless about. Are you anticipating or worried about any negativity around the documentary?
Oh most definitely. I’m seeing it on social media already. If you look back at old Indymedia articles from around the time Seán was fighting extradition to America you can see the bitterness but also it must be said a lot of perceived ‘old enemies’ from Sinn Féin to Fine Gael crossed the floor to support Seán.
Garland is one of the most important figures in Irish politics since the partition of the island and to get him ‘on tape’ is something I’m incredibly proud of and it’s a project that will add to the lexicion and also help us understand our immediate past a bit more.
I think in Ireland because the state was born out of the killing fields of Kerry (where the Ballyseedy massacre took place) and other places where Civil War atrocities were carried out we fell into camps and tend to treat politics the way we treat our football teams. The one we support can do no wrong and has all the answers. Hopefully people leave their preconceived notions at the door, but in saying that the Q and A after would be pretty boring if they did so come along and lets have it out.
Politically, what’s your own take away from spending so long knee-deep wading through the experience of Garland and the Workers Party? Does it represent a fundamentally different era? One where the soviet pole shaped even Irish politics? Is it mad to go looking for “lessons” in this stuff given just how rapidly society is changing?
Is it changing? Over there in London town the hacks are letting some washed up Czech ‘spy’ set the agenda with some classic red-scaremongering and guffawing in outrage that Corbyn won’t suit up and get on board Theresa May’s war wagon against the Russians.
Now imagine the above red-baiting but multiply it by Ireland in the 1980s and then think that in that environment of a Catholic church dominated society that a party that campaigned openly as Marxist, that was constantly surrounded by whispers of criminality and that was pro-choice could get seven TD’s into the Dáil and an MEP into Europe. Definitely the 1980s Workers’ Party are worth examining and learning from.
Political violence of any kind really bores the hell out of me and the idea of people dying in a bomb attack for a cause dreamt up by an elitist vanguard of mainly men is nauseating and never progresses society.
But as you’ll see this film doesn’t celebrate violence. But doesn’t shy from discussing it either.
The Man with the Hat: The Revolutionary Life and Times of Seán Garland gets its first public outing on Tuesday May 15th at 7pm in the Sugar Club. Tickets are available here.