Nonetheless Greengrass received full backing to make a film of the Omagh tragedy from the people most deeply affected by it, the families of the 31 victims of the Real IRA bomb that exploded in the center of their town in August of that year. His script has been made into a full-length film, “Omagh,” that follows the course of the day’s events, from the calm of an ordinary Saturday morning in a County Tyrone market town suddenly devastated by a 500-pound bomb, through the long and frustrating quest for justice by the parents and friends of the victims. The scale of the atrocity and the attendant grief for so many bereaved families are more than one film could contain, and Greengrass and director Pete Travis concentrate primarily on the emotional journey of one man, Michael Gallagher, whose 21-year-old son Aiden was killed by the explosion. A shy father of three who neither sought the attention of the media nor ever grew comfortable with it, Gallagher was thrust reluctantly into the spotlight seven years ago as the spokesman of the Omagh Support and Self Help Group. This ad hoc committee was formed out of frustration by the relatives of the dead and injured at the slow pace of the criminal investigation carried out by the RUC and the British government. The Omagh group persevered with its quest to identify the bombers and bring them to justice, despite pressure to desist from several fronts that claimed the relatives were damaging the peace process. Their own investigations turned up evidence that the Real IRA had brokered a deal in the aftermath of the bombing that it would call a ceasefire if the British government guaranteed immunity from prosecution for its members. Further leads on the case revealed an even more horrifying prospect: that information had been given by IRA informers to the authorities on both sides of the border in the summer of 1998 that a bombing was planned for Omagh in mid-August, but no action had been taken. Was it the case that a security apparatus that had been on high alert since the early 1970s had wound down to half speed and failed to stop the bombmakers in time, or worse still, that the bomb had been allowed to go off to discredit a new splinter faction of the on-ceasefire IRA? The horror for the relatives that either of these versions might be true gives a formidable punch to a film already suffused with strong emotions.
The Michael Gallagher role is played by Omagh native Gerard McSorley, a dependable character actor in almost every Irish film of note over the past two decades, from Neil Jordan’s debut feature “Angel” to “Bloody Sunday” and “Veronica Guerin.” A versatile performer, he often plays the heavy or a sinister paramilitary character on the fringes, but he finally gets his due in “Omagh”‘s demanding lead role, giving a deeply affecting performance as the meek everyman Michael Gallagher. Physically slumped and bewildered by the fate that has befallen his only son, his portrayal of the hapless Gallagher pulses underneath with indomitable determination to have Aiden’s memory kept alive and his killers made to pay for what they have done.
The remainder of the cast is made up regulars from Irish film and TV that are largely unknown in this country with the notable exception of Oscar-winner Brenda Fricker, as Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan. O’Loan’s report on the Omagh investigation was at odds with the official version presented by the police and ultimately forced the resignation of RUC chief Sir Ronnie Flanagan. The efforts of the Omagh group to keep the investigation alive have led to several prosecutions and a civil case is in progress against the alleged perpetrators of the bombing.
“Omagh,” winner of the highly-regarded BAFTA Award for best drama in 2004, will be screened at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival at the Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theatre on June 9, 10 and 11. Note that the June 9 screening is a benefit and tickets cost $250.