Glasnevin documentary was a work of art

Documentary pays ‘reflective and respectful’ tribute to famous graveyard

RTÉ has been turning its attention this November to matters related to dying, and it can hardly be denied that dying matters!

My favourite treatment of the matter was the documentary One Million Dubliners shown last Thursday night on RTÉ 1. Director Aoife Kelleher showed a confident hand in this tribute to Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery and the people associated with it.

I loved the reflective and respectful tone of the film – Kelleher’s contributors mused on the nature of life, death and beyond, sharing a wide variety of views, from those like the cremation technician who believed death was the end, through those who weren’t sure but had hopes to those who were more convinced, like Derek O’Brien who believed he’d meet his musical hero Luke Kelly in the afterlife.

Kelleher showed an admirable warmth towards her interviewees and a respect for the dead.

I was surprised by how many famous people were buried there – Daniel O’Connell, Parnell, de Valera and Michael Collins among others. Collins was a particularly interesting case – apparently he continues to receive adulation, including roses on Valentine’s Day. But it wasn’t only about the famous dead – we saw Danielle Doyle visiting the grave of her mother Nicola, and Bridget Sheerin at the very moving Holy Angels plot visiting the grave of her stillborn baby Maria.

In so many ways, the central character of the film was tour guide and historian, Shane MacThomáis. I was particularly taken with his account of his father’s death and funeral in Glasnevin and how it felt strange for him to go back to guiding tours through the cemetery after that. He was well used to death, but the Holy Angels plot really got to him. He informed and joked with his audiences and I thought the best footage was of him giving a guided tour to primary school children – their expressions were priceless as he told a scary story about grave robbers.

I knew that MacThomáis had died after the filming, which must have had quite an impact on the film crew, but I wasn’t prepared for the emotional punch of the film’s ending – it began and ended with a funeral, but whose funeral was revealed for sure only when we were shown the name plate on the coffin.

I often wonder if documentaries can be classified as works of art, but if so then this one made the grade – I loved the subtle music in the background and the way the camera captured the moods of the cemetery. I thought the aerial shots were particularly striking, as were the autumnal colours in many scenes.

The film was part funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) and they deserve to be complimented for that. I’m not always happy with their other work, of upholding broadcasting codes and standards.

Their most recent decisions make for interesting reading – I wasn’t too happy that several complaints against The Savage Eye were not upheld. Most concerned the foulest of language that the scriptwriters put into the mouths of child actors. RTÉ defended itself – “the use of coarse language was editorially responsible and justified” and the BAI supported RTÉ. It was a sad reflection on a country that voted extra child protection measures into the Constitution not too long ago.

However, they did uphold, in part, a complaint against Chris Donoghue (pictured) of Newstalk’s Breakfast Show for bias on the same-sex marriage issue. On a show in the summer, he declared his intention to vote for same-sex marriage and his impatience at not being able to vote sooner. On last Friday morning’s show, he described the decision as “daft and depressing”, and I thought he was beyond disingenuous in suggesting his only offence was being in favour of ‘equality’, which he thinks he is not allowed to say.

He was even more contemptuous of a BAI decision on a similar issue in relation to RTÉ Radio 1’s Mooney Show last August.

I think Newstalk has a big problem on its hands when one of its most prominent staff is so dismissive of the Broadcasting Authority. Also problematic is Donoghue’s practice of referring to ‘marriage equality’ when same-sex marriage is discussed. This is the campaigning language of one side of the debate and so is inherently biased. Imagine the furore if a presenter spoke about traditional marriage as ‘real marriage’ or ‘genuine marriage’, with all that would imply.