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How ‘An Irish Goodbye’ charmed Hollywood and triumphed at the Oscars

Hailed for its powerful examination of grief and brotherhood, 'An Irish Goodbye' won Best Live Action Short at the Oscars earlier this month. The team behind the film tell its story.

By Lee Campbell

Seamus O'Hara and James Martin in 'An Irish Goodbye' (Picture: Floodlight Pictures)

When the Oscars took place earlier this month, one of the night’s most heartwarming moments came when An Irish Goodbye scooped the prize for Best Live Action Short.

As director Tom Berkeley accepted the prize alongside co-director Ross White and lead actor James Martin, he reminded the crowd that James – now the first leading actor with Down’s Syndrome to star in an Oscar winning film – was celebrating his 31st birthday. It immediately sparked a rendition of Happy Birthday from the great and the good of Tinseltown.

“It’s not every day when you can plan your birthday and also have an Oscar in your hands on the same day. It’s been a fantastic ride,” James tells Rolling Stone UK days after that Oscars win.

James also rubbed shoulders over Oscars weekend with the likes of The Rock, James Corden, Jamie Lee Curtis, Brendan Fraser and Colin Farrell. He wasn’t shy about striking up a conversation with anyone on the red carpet. As Tom recalls, “It’s probably easier to ask who he didn’t meet.” James has his reasons – “You have to make the most of the opportunity because you never know when you are going to meet these people again.” Fair point.

The film, which won the same accolade at the BAFTAs in February, tells a magical, heartfelt and funny 23-minute tale about two Irish brothers who are wrestling with the recent death of their mother.

While the film may be set on the Emerald Isle, the idea came to Tom – an ardent Leicester City fan – when attending an away game at Wolves.

“We were at Molineux [Wolves’ home ground] and spotted a couple of adult brothers who were instantly compelling. They had a typically fiery brother relationship, hurling abuse at each other for the whole game, and a goal goes in and they’re in each other’s arms,” he recalls.

“There was this added element of a duty of care because the older brother had Down Syndrome. I thought that was a really interesting juxtaposition. We were speaking a lot at that time around grief. Football is one of those places where men come together to reckon with their emotions in ways that they can’t do elsewhere. These two characters were polar opposites in the way that they were handling their emotions. It went from there.”

Casting two siblings with viable chemistry, however, proved challenging. “It’s a really tricky thing. You have to get the chemistry and the look right,” says co-director Ross.

“We got tapes through from various actors but it wasn’t quite sticking. Then Seamus [James’ on-screen brother] sent us his tape and it was one of those moments as a director where you breathe a massive sigh of relief.”

Seamus O’Hara and James Martin in ‘An Irish Goodbye’ (Picture: Floodlight Pictures)

Seamus O’Hara, who has appeared in Game of Thrones, The Northman and in the hugely anticipated Dungeons and Dragons reboot has a rugged classic Celtic look and is originally from Cushendun, County Antrim. He was taken by the script immediately. “It was really well written. I responded to it instinctively as it jumped off the page. I knew from the first read exactly what I was going to do, who the character was, what the relationships were,” he says.

“It’s a beautiful story. It gave me time to work on and foster those relationships, and tease out little moments of nuance. It was such a comfortable, safe film set that Tom and Ross had invited me into. When you provide those sorts of environments for working in, the magic happens.”

O’Hara describes working with James Martin as a “total joy”. He said that they were in regular contact with each other, bouncing ideas back and forward, which helped create a strong bond on set. “We’d done a lot of groundwork getting ready for shoot days. He’s a very good actor. All you have to do is listen because the quality coming at you is so interesting.”

Incredibly, the movie was filmed over only four days on a very limited budget across three locations in Northern Ireland.  The cinematography is stunning, thanks to Director of Photography and Luxembourg native Narayan Van Maele who now lives in Ireland.

It also marked one of the most significant Irish wins on the night, alongside a Best Supporting Actress victory for Kerry Condon in Martin McDonagh’s Banshees of Inisherin.

“Ireland is a nation of storytellers. As a tradition, storytelling is old as time itself and is something that we have always prided ourselves upon to be able to do,” says Seamus.

“Sometimes moral stories, sometimes comedies, sometimes tragedies, sometimes all of these. The film industry now seems to be catching up in how those stories are made and received.”

After meeting at drama school in London, Tom & Ross have been collaborating now for the guts of ten years. The pair share a mutual love for playwriting, The Beatles and Joni Mitchell. They are now starting to find their groove as writers having ditched acting as a career.

““It’s been a long journey but we’ve been in each other’s pockets since the get go. Our creative partnership is really flourishing now,” says Berkeley. They are currently working on their third short movie, ‘The Golden West’, which will premiere later this year. The next milestone will be to write and direct a full-length feature film together, something that they are both focussed on.

Meanwhile, James has gone back to work at Starbucks and a leading Italian restaurant in Belfast, but remains an actor too. His game-changing role now means that other actors with Down’s Syndrome can dream of similar Oscars glory. So what advice would he give to a younger generation who are potentially battling adversity on an everyday basis? “I know what problems are out there, but never judge a book by its cover, he affirms.” From Belfast to Beverly Hills, it’s been quite the journey.