By Olivia Tracey
With only 10 crazed days in Dublin recently to catch up with countless friends, I consider myself especially blessed to have snatched a precious hour with one of my native city’s most interesting and talented characters, writer-director Peter Sheridan.
We met at his local, Keogh’s Cafe, where he got a wonderful welcome back "howa ya?" from the delighted waitress after a long six-week absence.
"Yeah," said he, "I’ve been away for a while," leaving me to believe that he’d been of in some far-flung exotic location.
Well, the fact is that he was no further than Naas, Co. Kildare, where he was deeply immersed in shooting his first feature, Brendan Behan’s "Borstal Boy."
Despite being the toughest work he ever did, managing a time schedule tighter than a Marilyn Monroe corset on an equally tight $2 million budget, it was also, he said, one of his most exhilarating experiences. A pet project tucked up his sleeve for a long time, it all came together beautifully, thanks to a great production team, which included his renowned brother Jim Sheridan along with his Hell’s Kitchen partner Arthur Lappin, The Irish Art Center’s Nye Heron, and Pat Moylan of Andrew’s Lane Theater, of which Peter is also chairman.
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They managed to keep 90 percent of the shooting in Ireland at the old, disused Devoy army barracks in Naas, which worked as the perfect borstal. A multicultural cast was also part of the picture, with talent from Ireland, England, the U.S. and even Kosovo. Actors included up-and-coming American star Shawn Hatosy of "In and Out," Derry actress Eva Birthistle, and the English actor Danny Dyer of "Human Traffic," which has opened in the U.S.
"He is absolutely a star, without question" Sheridan said enthusiastically about Dyer, obviously thrilled to have captured the actor on celluloid under his directorship. With editing starting shortly, they are looking toward an early fall release for "Borstal Boy."
In the meantime, Sheridan has also given himself the ideal opportunity to look back with his first memoir, "44 — Dublin Made Me." It’s a tremendous read, describing in honest detail his colorful childhood growing up in Inner City Dublin at 44 Seville Pl., the third child among five boys and one girl in a household that included four lodgers, a motherly mother and a hard-working, inquiring Frankie-and-Johnny-singing father who loved to argue and who had to win.
As his Da’s special messenger, young Peter knew every backstreet in Dublin, whizzing everywhere on his bike from Sheriff Street to Shelbourne Park, where Da worked three nights a week along with his CIE day job. We witness the arrival of the Sheridan’s first television set and their first twin-tub washing machine, the gambling world of horses and greyhounds, the magical CIE mystery train, young Peter’s school days with "Mongrel" Brother Denehy, the Northern Ireland Troubles, the Beatles, Sean O’Casey, theater, soccer, sex, and his mad interest in the Legion of Mary, which, of course, was a madness with a method.
"Catherine Griffin was in the Legion of Mary," Sheridan said. "That was one good reason for joining it. It also had something to do with prostitutes. That was a second good reason."
"44" is a book rich in humor, bluntly honest and balanced with moments of sadness that would draw tears from a stone. It also has that indispensable happy and hopeful Hollywood ending, which leads one to expect a possible movie version down the line.
As for the writing of the book, Peter admits to having found it enormously therapeutic, and credits Irish writer Deirdre Purcell for her springboarding advice to "Write the first sentence . . . commit yourself." And so he wrote the first sentence on Jan. 22, 1998 and completed the last on Nov. 15 of the same year. By March 1999 it was released in Ireland and the UK and is now selling worldwide across the United States, South Africa and Australia, the latter two markets putting it in first and second place, respectively, on the bestseller list.
Indeed, his own family, though thrilled with the successful outcome, were equally thrilled with the process. His wife, Sheila, and four children — Rossa, 27; Fiachra, 25; Doireann, 21, and Nuala, 19 — never saw their father in such great form, enjoying his whales of laughter as he recalled countless memories in all their hilarious detail and transcribed them in longhand on paper. Unfortunately, his own father died in 1995, but it was a loss that gave Peter the freedom to be objective in his writing. Thankfully, his mother was around for the initial release of the book. She died of cancer two months later, on May 23, 1999.
Though not new to writing, considering also, among others, his hugely popular play "Mother of All the Behans" and his multi-award-winning short film, "The Breakfast," Peter is still reluctant to credit himself with a writing career until he has completed his trilogy of books. So next in line is a tale of love and obsession, Ireland and England set against the backdrop of his parents real-life first meeting in Dundalk train station in the 1940s. It also deals with his father’s popularity among women and his reciprocal appreciation of them, a subject about which Peter was given the all-clear by his mother before she died. And completing the trilogy will be a romantic-comedy set in an old folks home in Sheriff Street, exploring the fun and games, trials, tribulations and changes that have taken place over the years to the present Celtic Tiger era.
Meanwhile, 44 Seville Pl. was bought by the businessman of the family, printer Paul Sheridan, and has since been turned into a school for disadvantaged kids. As for the rest of the Sheridan brothers, they have all found their respective successes between Johnny the jazz musician, Jim the Oscar-winning writer-director, Gerry the co-partner to Paul, and their only sister, Ita, a school teacher who also writes for the Gaelic channel TG4’s "Ros na Run" soap opera.
And as Ma and Da Sheridan rest in peace, Peter Sheridan lives in peace, using his talents to do everything he was born to do. As his father said, "You could train yourself to do anything. The human brain is a limitless machine." And of course he was right. Yet again.