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Tom Collins: “For me it's all about the work, which is about creating a reflection of a modern Irish cultural identity that can travel beyond borders, history and these shores.”
21 Jul 2022 : Nathan Griffin
Filmmaker Tom Collins.
Celebrated Director, Writer and Producer Tom Collins has passed away.

Best known for his work on Irish Language Feature Films such as Kings, An Bronntanas (The Gift), and Aithrí (Penance), documentaries such as Teenage Kicks: The Undertones and The Boys of Saint Columbs, as well as the award-winning animated short An Béal Bocht, the Derry-native has been a force in the Irish film industry since the mid-nineteen-eighties when he was a part of the Derry Film and Video Collective.

In addition to other notable features include Bogwoman (starring Peter Mullen and Seán McGinley) and Dead Long Enough (starring Michael Sheen), Collins was also a successful producer, working on Margo Harkin’s Hush-a-Bye Baby, Bob Quinn’s The Bishop’s Story, and Cathal Black’s Korea.

Collins’ work helped put Derry on the filmmaking map and was a vital figure in the development of not only Irish Cinema in the 80’s and 90’s but more recently in the growth of Irish-Language cinema, the fruits of which we are seeing today with the success of titles such as Arracht, Foscadh and An Cailín Ciúin. Indeed, he is the only person to direct two films submitted by Ireland to the Best Foreign Language Film (now Best International Film) category at the Oscars, with his Irish-language titles Kings in 2007 and An Bronntanas (The Gift) in 2014.

“A mischievous chancer”

A fixture on the Irish and international Film Festival circuit, Collins was much loved by filmmakers in the industry and is remembered as a larger-than-life character, both in terms of his towering height and his quick-witted, cheeky personality. Collins’ daughter, Kerry Film Festival Director and Galway Film Fleadh Shorts Programmer Eibh O’Brien-Collins said of her father: “He lived one hell of an amazing, full, big life. He was a father, grandfather, husband, friend, uncle, filmmaker, photographer, and mischievous chancer.”

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“Tom was a rebel, both as a republican and a filmmaker and he believed that storytelling really did have the power to change things. He couldn't take no for an answer and it's only through his bullishness and energy that he got to tell the stories that he did. Right to the end he was striving to create, not because of a vanity to leave a legacy, but because he still had important stories to tell..."


"He worried about not having done more, but because of his commitment to making films that weren't always immediately recognizable as commercial, getting anything done was an achievement and he shone a spotlight on worlds that would otherwise have been closed to a wider audience."


"As a friend he made me laugh, challenged my perception of the world, and drank me under the table. I'll miss him terribly, but the way he faced his illness for the last few years taught me a lot about living. Rest in peace Tom.” - Owen McDonnell, Actor.

Tributes from the filmmaking community have praised both his humourous nature and his time spent mentoring emerging filmmakers. Tom Sullivan, Director of Irish-Language Famine Feature Arracht noted how Collins had mentored him in the past, saying “he was brilliant, I’m still taking his advice,” while award-winning production designer Tom Conroy said “before he got into film, Tom taught me photography in NCAD & it was wonderful to meet him on film sets afterwards.”

Jonathan Loughran, producer on Black ’47 said that he and Collins enjoyed “fun times in LA when he was over for Kings, and I always enjoyed bumping into him at the Fleadh or elsewhere over the years. He never stopped being a messer in the very best way,” while director Maurice Sweeney (I,Dolours, Blood) described him as “A huge talent and generous with it”.

Actor Peter Coonan, with whom Collins worked on his final film Áithrí (Penance), previously said: “I had the most wild and wacky experience working with [Tom]… there was never a dull moment, and his enthusiasm was infectious” while Oscar-nominated director Lenny Abrahamson (Normal People) described him as a “lovely and brilliant man”.

Trainee Director, Clapper Loader, Producer, Director

Having grown up during the troubles and being active in the Republican movement for a significant period of his youth, Collins turned to photography and filmmaking. Beginning his work as a Camera operator in Derry, Collins shot and produced countless community oriented programmes and news inserts. The most well-known project he photographed was Mother Ireland (1987) for Channel 4 for which he won a Femme Cathodique award for his photography. This controversial, feminist documentary charted the relationship between feminism and nationalism in Ireland. Produced by the Derry Film and Video Workshop with partial funding from Channel 4, the film explored the use and abuse of images of femininity in Irish culture. However, the film was not shown until 1991 due to Channel 4’s concerns with some of the subjects in the film.

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“Tom was one of those men who brought you into his own personal inner sanctum before you worked with him, and so immediately you felt a part of something special, and when he leaned in and asked in his soft dulcet Derry timbre “would you do that for me Peter?!”, there was only ever one answer. He will be sorely missed.” - Peter Coonan, Actor.

In addition to his photography, Collins worked in a number of positions on set before moving into production and direction. Speaking to IFTN in 2016 about his formative years in filmmaking, he noted how he found his way to producing and directing: “My first engagement with moving film was persuading Director Karl Francis to take me on as a trainee director in Wales in the mid-eighties. However, within a few days they sacked the clapper loader, so I had to shift into becoming 'a loader'. It was a nightmare. I dropped the spool in the bag.

“I then shot ‘Mother Ireland’ for Channel 4. That got banned. So, I shot the 16mm pilot for Hush A Bye Baby in Derry, Brendan Galvin was the assistant, wherever he is now!” he continued. “After that experience, I realised producing was for me. I put together a play, which a commissioning editor for ZDF read. She commissioned me to direct it and it turned into Bogwoman. It’s all been down-hill since then!”

Collins produced Margo Harkin’s Hush-A-Bye Baby – an 80 minute drama shot on 16mm film in Derry and Donegal, which premiered to critical acclaim at the Dublin Film Festival on 24th February, 1990. It was selected for many festivals world-wide, where it received several international awards, and was the official Irish Government selection for the European Young Film category of the European Film Awards in 1990. 

Co-written by Margo Harkin and Stephanie English, while with Derry Film & Video Workshop in the late 80s, the film was both Harkin's idea and her directorial debut and was the result of several intensive research projects and workshops with young people in the city. Its aim was to contribute to the conversation about sexuality and women rights in Ireland and its occasional humorous tone was designed to make it accessible to young people in particular. It was also notable for featuring a young Sinead O Connor as both actress and composer of the soundtrack.

A ground-breaking film in Irish Cinema

The story was set in Derry in 1984 and was directly influenced by the moral panic, which beset Ireland during the first abortion referendum in 1983. It was released in March 1990, at a time when filmmaking was at its lowest ebb in Ireland. The film enjoyed television sales all over the world, had theatrical runs in Dublin, London, Paris, and Nice and has been widely anthologised in books and articles on Irish cinema. It has been described as “a ground-breaking film in Irish Cinema”. It continues to be taught in Irish, American, and Canadian universities as part of `Irish Studies' or `Irish Media Studies' curricula. Profits from the distribution of the film were ploughed back into the community sector in Derry, in keeping with the Workshop's objectives to support indigenous talent.

Following on from this Collins produced and directed a number of feature films and documentaries with his company DeFacto Films, which he set up with Sara Mackie. These included A Long Way To Go, a documentary on the life of one of the members of the Birmingham Six, Johnny Walker, which follows his return to Derry and facing the future a free man and More Than a Sacrifice, a large budget year-long documentary project for Channel 4 where four Derry people were given Hi 8 cameras to record their lives through the first IRA Ceasefire. Speaking about Collins, Mackey told IFTN: "He was a giant and he'd love all this attention!"

In 1994, he served as producer on writer/director Bob Quinn’s The Bishop’s Story starring Donal McCann and Ray McBride, which was shot by Seamus Deasy, and in 1995, he produced Korea, which was written and directed by Cathal Black with a cast featuring  Donal Donnelly, Andrew Scott, music by Stephen McKeon, and editing by Emer Reynolds.

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“I loved Tom. For such an imposing fiery character, he was a softie at heart. A straight talker and a man of conviction, he dealt with his struggle bravely and with his wicked self-deprecating humour. I wish I was in touch with him more often. I'll miss our WhatsApp chats. My heart goes out to his lovely family.” - Dara Devaney, Actor.

1997’s Bogwoman would be Collins’ feature film debut as a director and proved to be a pivotal film both for Collins and for Derry filmmaking. The film focused on the role of Women in Derry, pre the Civil Rights Movement with the title Bogwoman representing a play on a term of abuse directed to women from the Bogside.

It is a powerful and moving portrait of two decades in the life of Maureen (Rachael Dowling), an Irish woman who journeys from innocence through experience and adversity to finally take her place behind the barricades as the Civil Rights movement explodes and the British Army arrives to keep the peace in Northern Ireland of 1968.

As per the IFI Collins noted that at the time a lot of women would have felt powerless but were hoping that their daughters wouldn’t be, that they would get control of their own bodies.

The film, which  also starred Peter Mullen (best known for his work with Ken Loach), was funded by the Irish Film Board. RTE, Arte/ZDF, the Arts Council and the National Lottery. The feature film opened Galway Film Fleadh before screening at over thirty Festivals including, Cuba, Brazil, Prix Europa, Berlin, Rome, and Chicago. Collins was short-listed for the prestigious New Directors section at San Sebastian Film with the Festival Director, Diego Galan calling Bogwoman “an extraordinary film”.

In 1999  he produced Bob Quinn's It must be Done Right, a retrospective of the work of Donal McCann includes clips from some of his greatest roles and interviews with the likes John Turturro, Gabriel Byrne, Bernardo Bertolucci, Lelia Doolan, Sebastian Barry and Tom Murphy among others. The documentary centres on a fascinating public interview with McCann himself, on fine form, filmed at the Galway Film Fleadh in 1998, just a year before he passed away.

In addition to working as a line-producer on the popular British teen football series The Renford Rejects in 2001, Collins returned to documentary with Teenage Kicks: The Undertones, which saw veteran BBC Radio DJ John Peel takes his first visit to Derry and discovers for himself the band that forged his favourite pop song Teenage Kicks. The film, through the use of interviews and archive footage of Derry and The Undertones, takes Peel and the audience back to 1975 to look at the socio-political reality from which the punk legends rose to fame.

In 2004, Collins made the short film Phantom Cnut, which stars a young Nicola Coughlan as a young girl who plots a clever revenge against her teacher.

Speaking about how Collins' positive influence inspired her to believe in pursuing a career in acting, Brigerton and Derry Girls star Nicola Coughlan told IFTN: “I remember meeting Tom when I was 14 years old. I travelled with my parents into Áras Na Gael in Galway City to audition for The Phantom Cnut. I remember waiting in the hallway with lots of other schoolgirls and being so nervous, that was until I walked into the room and met Tom. He instantly made me feel at ease, he was jovial and warm, and made what could’ve been such an intimidating experience such a nice one.

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“Getting that part was a huge moment for me and Tom’s faith in me at such an early stage allowed me to dare to dream that it was possible to make acting my career. I am forever grateful to his kindness and support, he will be sadly missed.” - Nicola Coughlan, Actress.

"He directed me through the scene and immediately when we finished he brought me out to the hallway to talk to my mum. He spoke to her about me so kindly and so supportively it’s something I, and she, remember to this day," Coughlan explained. "Getting that part was a huge moment for me and Tom’s faith in me at such an early stage allowed me to dare to dream that it was possible to make acting my career. I am forever grateful to his kindness and support, he will be sadly missed.”

In 2006, he ventured into romantic comedy with Dead Long Enough starring Michael Sheen, Angeline Ball, and Jason Hughes. The film tells the story of two brothers from Wales on a stag night, who return to a small village in Donegal where they spent a working holiday 16 years previously. There, they bump into an old flame and a series of mishaps and misunderstandings reignite old passions and throw their lives into confusion. The screenplay is based upon the novel by James Hawes, who co-wrote the script with director Collins.

Dead Long Enough was nominated for a BAFTA Cyrmu award for Best Film and received the Audience Award at the Cardiff Screen Festival 2005.

“The film simply hit a chord. Everyone in Ireland has an uncle or a relative who was a King at one time.”

Next up for Collins was Kings, the big-screen adaptation of Jimmy Murphy's play The Kings Of The Kilburn High Road, which would go on to be one of his most successful films, also became a landmark title in the development of Irish Language cinema.

The film starred Colm Meaney in the story of a group of Irish men who emigrate to London but return to their hometown after 25 years for a friend's funeral. The ensemble cast also included Donal O'Kelly, Brendan Conroy, Donncha Crowley, Barry Barnes, and Sean O Tarpaigh. PJ Dilon worked as cinematographer on the film with Dermot Diskin editing. 

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“I worked with Tom on a couple of projects and have very fond memories of making ‘Kings’ in particular, a film he was fiercely passionate about. He was a funny, charming, larger than life character who never took no for an answer! I’m very sorry to hear of his passing.” - PJ Dillon, Cinematographer.

Set in the mid-1970s, the film follows a group of young men who leave the Connemara Gaeltacht, bound for London and filled with ambition for a better life. After thirty years, they meet again at the funeral of their youngest friend, Jackie. The film intersperses flashbacks of a lost youth in Ireland with the harsh realities of modern life.

Kings was selected as Ireland's official entry for the 2008 Academy Awards in the Best Foreign-Language Film category. In 2007, Tom Collins won the Director's Guild of America / Ireland New Finders Award, while the film itself was nominated for a record 14 Irish Film and Television Awards (IFTAs) in 2008, going on to win 5 IFTAs, including Best Irish Language Film.

Speaking of the film’s success, Collins spoke of the film's wide resonance: “The film simply hit a chord. Everyone in Ireland has an uncle or a relative who was a King at one time. I think they thought of the generations that were lost. We as a nation let a lot of our emigrants suffer in the back streets of London, we had a Celtic Tiger economy and we did very little to help the men and women who worked hard to build an economy. I don't know why but the most poignant audience for me was in Canada; they seemed to be very empathetic to the film.”

The film wasn’t Collins’ first foray into Irish-Language filmmaking, having also made the 2001 documentary Aimhairghin that revisited some of Ireland's major Irish language poems. This would prove to be a key film for Collins and one which led to him making two further Irish Language Features in An Bronntanas and Penance, as well as the award-winning animation An Béal Bocht.

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“I’ve known Tommy for many years and had the pleasure of editing two of his feature films, Kings and Athrí/Penance. Tommy was a big character, larger than life and a great director, very collaborative and a joy to work with. He had a wicked, dark sense of humour and always an eye for a bit of mischief, which made working with him great fun. My condolences to his family and friends.” - Dermot Diskin, Editor.

Before that however he would return to Derry once more with The Boys of St. Columbs, a tender profile of the lives of several great Irish figures, including Nobel Laureates Seamus Heaney and John Hume, who have helped transform modern Ireland and who all attended the same school in Derry in the 1950s.

Featuring the story of Paul Brady, Phil Coulter, Edward Daly, Seamus Deane, Seamus Heaney, John Hume, Eamonn McCann, and James Sharkey, this documentary film tells the story of seven men who started out in St. Columb’s school in Derry City. Born around the second-world war, they knew fear and segregation as young boys. The young boys' circumstances forced their precocious consideration of the downtrodden status in which they lived. Looking to education, they saw the one thing that would raise them out of their oppression and lead them to become some of the most important figures in Irish culture in recent history.

“We have achieved something in Irish that has never been done before on such a scale”

Collins’ next endeavour was the hugely ambitious 5-part TV miniseries/feature film, An Bronntanas.

Written by Collins, Joe Byrne, Paul Walker, and Eoin McNamee, the story tells of the personal, familial, and community fallout that ensues when the main character, reformed alcoholic and recently returned emigrant, JJ Magill (Dara Devaney/ Darach Ó Dubháin), chooses the darker side. The story’s central themes include filial loyalty, where the doughty Carmel (Charlotte Bradley) impels her younger son to take over his late father’s struggling business despite his brighter prospects across the Atlantic, and romantic love, where the feisty Róisín (Michelle Beamish) chooses the better of the two brothers and manages to keep a blind eye turned to their increasingly frantic cover-ups.

First broadcast on TG4 as a five-part television series in October-November 2014, An Bronntanas was very successful with its core audience and the wider Irish public, making the thriller one of the most popular indigenous dramas so far on TG4. Similarly, the feature film version attracted a capacity crowd at the Galway Fleadh in July 2014 before going on general release in Ireland.

An Bronntanas embraces many of the themes of Collins’ work  such as the Irish Language, the immigrant experience, and marginalised communities, and more, while also introducing new elements. In the vein of Celtic noir, whose atmosphere is influenced in equal part by recent Nordic noir TV drama and by the darker side of Irish rural society, An Bronntanas engages with big moral dilemmas faced by ordinary people. Dealing with characters on and beyond the margins (fish factory employees in danger of being downsized, Polish visitors, alcoholics, and returned emigrants – not to mention Irish-speakers), the drama overturns older screen images of the romantic west. As producer Ciarán Ó Cofaigh said: “we have achieved something in Irish that has never been done before on such a scale.” 

An Bronntanas was Collins’ second film to be selected by the Irish Academy as Ireland’s entry for the Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Category. He is the only Irish Filmmaker to achieve this honour.

Speaking about this achievement and Collin's inpact on the Irish industry, IFTA CEO Áine Moriarty told IFTN: "Tom Collins was a great character and a mighty force to be reckoned with.  His career in Irish filmmaking speaks for itself.  His influence can be felt across many facets of the industry today, in particular his championing of Irish language filmmaking."

"I recall the extraordinary impact that his seminal Irish language film Kings had on audiences around the world back in 2008, with its honest and raw depiction of immigration, a universal story.  The Irish Academy has had the honour of selecting two of Tom's films over the years, to represent Ireland in the Oscar best international film category.  Tom was the only person to achieve that twice," Moriarty added. "Over IFTA’s 20 year history, Tom’s work was recognised by his peers and he leaves behind a legacy of film that will continue to inspire the next generation of storytellers.  He will be sorely missed and our thoughts are with his family”

In 2018, he adapted and directed an animated version of An Béal Bocht, adapted from Flann O’Brien’s only novel written in Irish under the pseudonym of Myles na gCopaleen. It is a biting satire of the life story of a young Gael reflecting on his life from Sligo Gaol. It was first shown (outside of festivals) on TG4 on Christmas Day 2017 and features the voices of Owen McDonnell, Tommy Tiernan, Bob Quinn, and Donncha Crowley. The artwork was done by John McCloskey, whose graphic novel version based on Collins' screenplay was published in 2012. The film was nominated for an IFTA Award for Best Short Film and won Best First Animation at the Galway Film Fleadh in 2017.

Collins’ final film Aithrí (Penance) was once again in both English and Irish and was released in 2018 with a cast that included Peter Coonan (Love/Hate), Barry Barnes (71), and Gerard McSorley (Omagh). The ambitious narrative  alternates between Ireland during the 1916 Easter Rising against British rule and the city of Derry/Londonderry in Northern Ireland in the 1960s, during the Troubles. A Catholic priest is forced to confront his past as a firebrand preacher promoting violence against British rule in Ireland when a former protege who fell under his influence reappears 50 years later as a hardened IRA gunman.

The film has taken on a new resonance in a post-Brexit world where Northern Ireland has once again become a political flashpoint in light of the current UK Government’s general apathy towards the work done during the peace process. This is something Collins seems to have been keenly aware of when making the film, saying “in these times of loudly debating nationalism, borders, and Brexit, I hope this film, through the central character’s story, underlines that we are always a few heartbeats away from violence and we can live to regret ill-judged rhetoric.”

Legacy

Collins' passing has come at a time where much of his fierce determination to realise an Irish-Language Cinema is bearing fruit. Alongside pioneers such as Bob Quinn, Collins’ work helped pave the way for the current “golden age of Irish-Language Cinema” with titles such as Finky, Arracht, Foscadh, Tarrac, and Róise & Frank, all gaining success through the Cine4 structure between TG4, Screen Ireland, and the BAI, as well as Doineann, which was funded by Northern Ireland Screen, BBC Gaeilge, and TG4. Chief amongst these is An Cailin Ciúin, which has broken box-office records for an Irish Language feature and is being tipped as Ireland’s best chance for a nomination in the Oscars’ Best International Film category next year.

This is in addition to Collins’ early work in putting Derry on the map as a filmmaking city. Lisa McGee’s hit Channel 4 series Derry Girls has captured the imaginations of audiences the world over with its honest and humourous take on growing up in Derry in the 1990’s ,and aside from its breakout star Nicola Coughlan getting her first lead role in Collins’ short The Phantom Cnut, it’s not hard to see a direct line from the work of Collins, Harkin, and others in the Derry Collective, in paving the way for Derry to shine internationally and to spotlight marginalised communities (particularly women).

These twin pillars of Collins’ legacy – reflecting a cultural identity through filmmaking, and developing Irish-Language Cinema are perhaps best summed up by the man himself. Upon receiving the Foras na Gaeilge Award for Outstanding Contribution in the Irish language in Film and TV in 2019, Collins Said:

“I enjoyed directing Aimhairghin, Kings, and An Bronntanas, although the real work has been accomplished by those who tried to teach me Irish over the years, from irate Christian Brothers to patient commissioning editors, fellow filmmakers and some confused actors. 

“For me, it’s all about the work, which is about creating a reflection of a modern Irish cultural identity that can travel beyond borders, history, and these shores.”

IFTN would like to offer its condolences to Tom’s family and loved ones.





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