Emmet Kirwan was the final person to step on stage at a recent spoken word event in The GPO’s main hall. Out of the 300-odd people in the room the vast majority were familiar with the Tallaght-man’s work. Whether it was his on stage or small screen acting, voice over work, or, more directly related to that evening, his stirring and emotive poetry. By the time Emmet uttered his final syllable the entire room was ready to go to war for him.
The Dubliner’s magnetism means you linger on every word he speaks. He proved this once again when he recently sat opposite a juxtaposingly less dynamic Ryan Tubridy on the Late Late Show.
The clip of Emmet berating our current government’s approach to social welfare fraud and social hierarchies had his name on the agenda at water coolers around the country the following Monday morning. Most of the country was watching the show to hear the provisional results from the referendum, yet Emmet still managed to capture the nation. While he was silenced on a national broadcaster from speaking about what way he’d be voting (He voted yes), he tells me how important the result was.
“One of the things we learned from the debate around the repeal movement was that Ireland is a country that’s decent and has decency towards each other. People who are dyed-in-the-wool Catholics were swayed by the testimonies of women who bared their souls. And they made a choice. They said, ‘You’re more important to me than some priest telling me what to do. Even though I used to look towards him for moral guidance, I have a moral compass myself’.
“It also comes from our history because for a long time we didn’t care about each other and we turned a blind eye… So hopefully we can shift all the decency that we had for the [repeal] testimonies to new testimonies about things like homelessness and drug addiction.”
If you’ve seen a little more of Emmet than usual lately, on magazine covers and talk shows, it’s because he’s involved in perhaps the biggest Irish film of the year. ‘Dublin Oldschool’ arrives in cinemas today [June 29], with many critics heralding it as an instant classic. The film, directed by Dave Tynan and co-written by and starring Emmet, tells the story of two brothers, both in the middle of a drug-addled Bank Holiday weekend in the capital, both teetering on very different societal rungs.
The dichotomy between the recreational drug use and what modern society perceives as more sinister drug use is a recurring trope in the movie, and it’s something Emmet was trying hard to incorporate.
“We talk about the derogatory term for ‘junkies’, but everyone is on drugs. You know what I mean? It’s this idea of ‘somebodies’ and ‘nobodies’, it’s a real pernicious idea that is populated by media and magazines and governments. It’s nonsense. Every citizen is supposed to be equal and when they do drugs some people go, ‘Well, he does heroin so he’s not the same as me, I do ketamine’. So the idea was to show the hypocrisy of the younger brother Jason’s character against his older brother who says to him, ‘You’re only one weekend away from where I started’.
The relationship between Emmet’s character and his brother, played by Ian Lloyd Anderson, is what binds the film. The onscreen connection between the pair is electric, undeniable and often heartbreaking. ‘Dublin OldSchool’ is another perfect example of a skill we often see in Irish writing – the ability to have an audience in tears and then a fit of laughter, regardless of the seriousness of the topic, with just a few raw lines. Think ‘The Young Offenders’, ‘Derry Girls’, ‘Calvary’. Talking about a tender and explosive scene that takes place in a Temple Bar laneway between our two protagonists Emmet recalls a representative, real life anecdote.
“There was a councillor in a window in that laneway and she stuck her head out the window and said, ‘I don’t know what the fuck yous are doing here but that language is atrocious and you’re shouting’. So someone from the crew went around and apologised to her, ‘We’re sorry, we’re actually making a movie’. And she asked what it was about, and we said addiction and she said, ‘Oh thank god. An Irish film about addiction. I’m a councillor and I work with people and addiction all the time, so work away’. It was serendipitous.”
The journey to the big screen for ‘Dublin Oldschool’ has been a long and inevitable one. The story began as a theatre show in 2014 winning Ian and Emmet Dublin Fringe Awards for ‘Best Performers’. The play went on to sell out multiple dates and venues. It’s a slightly more unusual route for a script to make, the more popular direction being book to film. Emmet talked to me about the differences between stage acting and performing behind the camera.
“In theatre, people go, ‘Oh, fourth wall, you can’t see the audience’. That’s nonsense, you can see the audience. You’re not a bleedin’ magician. Theatre is a conversation with the audience, and you judge it based on them. So I’m waiting on the sign for when to slow it down or when to speed it up. But ultimately in a film, the cameraman does that, the director does that, the editor then does that. So you have to lock in to each other in the way you can’t in theatre. You really do have to block out everything around you whereas in theatre you’re doing it night after night after night… Like Tobey Maguire in Spiderman, you know when the man throws him the punch? Once you get to that level, when you’ve done it so many times, there’s an athleticism to it.
“It was incredibly hard doing spoken word on stage and then trying to distill it [into ‘Dublin Oldschool’], because on stage there’s an instantaneous and inconspicuous ‘clap-trap’ – you say something and then there’s an instantaneous response.”
While the themes Emmet explores in his work are engaging and socially relevant, it’s also the manner in which he delivers his words that resonates with and engages those in earshot. At the aforementioned spoken word night in The GPO, there was a smorgasbord of accents and cultures, from Finglas to Chicago all the way back to Tallaght. For Emmet, the concept of dialect and identity has an important role in the future of Irish performance art.
“The place where you’re from and the crucible where you’re forged essentially has a lot to do with it. You are the collection of the experiences of your friends, who your family are, your environment, and your neighbourhood. So if there are bad experiences you just get rid of them, or learn lessons from them…That has influenced my writing, my work and everything. And actually, when I started to try and not copy other cultures or other places and just try to make them influences, then basically make what I was doing solely about what I was doing or where I was, that was the only time when I turned a corner. I started to resonate a lot more with people.
“[Your accent] used to be something that people tried to beat it out of people. They got sent to speech and drama lessons, as if the accent and who you were and the way you spoke wasn’t good enough. Fuck that noise. Who you are on an island like this is so much based on accent.
“The prejudices we had against groupings of people is predicated on accent alone, because previous to this we were a mono-cultural society of all white people that basically tried to dictate your intellect, your intelligence, your character based on how you sounded. So there was a lot of weight on that and there still is.
“Even as a poet you can use an accent to make two words rhyme that wouldn’t in another instance. You’re freed up by your accent, your accent is a tool, it’s indicative of who you are. It’s indicative of both your family, your friends, your experiences and where you’re from. The new Irish coming in have a new Irish accent that sounds like their parents. It’s part of where they’re from, who they are, that’s their identity, and they should embrace that. We should embrace it.
“We should embrace our own accents and be confident in our own accents. And I really mean that for every accent, doesn’t matter where you’re from, don’t let anybody tell you to ‘speak correctly’ because the idea of anybody in the island of Ireland speaking correctly is a nonsense. We all mangle the English language, so whatever way you talk is your own way. So keep it. Keep it lit.”
‘Dublin Oldschool’ is in cinemas from June 29.