Shane Connaughton was seventeen when he left Redhills to join the RAF. On his return, some thirty-four years later, for the making of the film The Playboys – with Albert Finney, Robin Wright Penn and Aidan Quinn – he felt like he’d never left home;
‘like I’d just gone down the road for a message or something. It’s like that Scottish song, “For fame and for fortune I wandered the earth, and now I’ve come back to the land of my birth …” The extraordinary thing was that I recognised all the children, because they all looked like their parents when I was going to school.’
One old acquaintance came and sat down opposite him in the pub one night, saying, “You don’t know who I am, do you?” before lifting his hair to reveal an ear missing.’ Connaughton remembered him well from school. ‘It was John Mulligan. Joe Smith, my friend from Redhills used to say “Friends, Romans, Mulligan, lend me your ear!” You know how cruel people can be …’
It is a tradition in the town of Redhills to welcome back locals who’ve done good – priests returning from the missions, winning football teams – and one that they continued when the local band paraded through the town in Connaughton’s honour after the making of The Playboys. ‘That was the height of my life, really,’ Connaughton says.
Back in 1958 the young Connaughton set off to Hornchurch in Essex with the idea of becoming a pilot, forgetting all about Ireland as soon as he stepped off the boat at Holyhead. He’d never been further than Clones, and yet he found himself in an RAF training camp surrounded by public schoolboys from Eton and Harrow. He was walking around the barracks one night when he innocently asked his friend, ‘What’s that big glow in the sky there?’, to which his friend replied, ‘Oh, that’s London.’ ‘I thought, wow, I’m going there, I’m going there tomorrow, and I walked out.’ The commanding officer got on the phone to his father, who quipped, ‘That’s the only thanks you’ll get from that buck.’
His first job was in a Lloyd Loom factory in Bromley-by-Bow, one of the first places to have been bombed by Hitler during the Second World War. ‘The people were wonderful. Ordinary Cockney Londoners were very witty. I thought to myself, these people are just as witty as Cavan people. The women used to have to run across the yard to this terribly basic toilet. And I remember once I was out there pushing a barrow with this guy when a girl came out and he shouted after her, “Don’t rush, darling, you’ll burst your boiler!” And she said, “Don’t worry, you’ll never be near enough to get scalded.” I thought that was a fantastic rejoinder.’
He was relaxing in digs in Leytonstone one day when he came across a letter to the editor in his local newspaper which read ‘Dear Sir, I understand why your critic didn’t like our recent production, but you must remember that our fund of professional actors has dried up of late, but soon our standard will reach the heights again …’ signed Jimmy Cooper, Artistic Director of the Renegade Players, Ilford. ‘I read that and the next minute I found myself getting up, getting the writing pad and writing, “Dear Mr Cooper, I have toured Ireland as an actor, and played Hotspur in Henry IV.” I’d only ever seen one play!’ After being called in for an audition, he took himself down to the local theatre, where they happened to be doing a season of O’Casey. He then got hold of a copy of O’Casey’s Complete Works and memorised a railway porter’s speech, which got him a part as a colonel in the Ilford Players’ production of a play by Gerald Savory, who was head of comedy at the BBC at the time. ‘It was an “anyone for tennis” type of play. In fact, someone actually said, “Anyone for tennis?” After a few weeks rehearsing I sensed that things weren’t going well. The director called me over and he said, “Shane, you’re not capable of playing Colonel Watt-Smith. But what I’m going to do is I’m going to turn you into an Irish farmer.” This was set in the home counties! What the hell was an Irish farmer doing there?’
Six weeks later, Connaughton was sitting on the same bed, reading the same local newspaper, and this time the review was more favourable: ‘The only other person worthy of note was Shane Connaughton, with an accent you could cut with a butter knife.’ And that’s how his stage career began. ‘Me and my friend, we watched every play in the West End, we were consumed with passion. We wanted to go to drama school, so we went to the Bristol Old Vic. It was like a man in the desert being given food, you know, or water. It was so exciting. My father never dignified it by calling it acting, he always called it “playacting”. He would have liked me to be a policeman or something. But I knew what I wanted then.’
Connaughton might have been a professional footballer. ‘The very first game of soccer I played was on Hackney Marshes. The referee said to me, “I’m a selector on the London Boys and I’m going to get you a trial,” and he was true to his word. Connaughton had a trial for Leyton Orient – where he scored two goals. But by this time his acting career had taken off.
Shane had a stint in Coronation Street back in the ’60s, where he remembers enjoying the freedom of Manchester and drinking with George Best. Around that time he was commissioned to write a play, and in 1969 he decided to hire The Roundhouse in Chalk Farm. It had just opened, and Marianne Faithful was acting in Hamlet there. Connaughton’s play was set in an Earls Court bedsit and it won him an award from the Royal Court. ‘I got away with it,’ Connaughton chuckles. ‘I wasn’t found out.’
A Border Station, his award-winning collection of short stories, was published in 1985. Four years later the screenplay he’d co-written for My Left Foot was nominated for an Academy Award, and it was soon after that that The Playboys came to the town of Redhills. And now there’s talk of a new film – based on A Border Station – to be filmed here this summer by Picture Palace. ‘We have an idea of Ciarán Hinds and Anne-Marie Duff to play the father and mother,’ says Connaughton. Not only that, but Jeremy Irons is set to direct his screenplay for The Misremembered Man, adapted from Derry writer Christina McKenna’s debut novel. Irons was first approached to play the part of the lonely bachelor farmer, but insisted he was completely wrong for the part and would like to direct it instead.
Connaughton hasn’t really left home again since The Playboys. He has a house in Cavan that he comes to as often as he can, and he loves the beauty of the place, ‘the generosity and wit of the people, and the sensational social life. I know that sounds ironic, but there’s always something happening here. I love being in Con Smith’s pub in The Bridge, the old bar, with the fire, and the old characters, such lovely people. The great talk, the stories … Each day is a blank page. Something exciting is sure to happen.’
© Will Govan. First published in International arts and literary magazine, The Moth