I’m standing in a marquee tent in Killalla, early on an August Monday morning. The sweet smell of crushed-underfoot-soil-and-grass fills the tent. Outside, the new day is already busy burning off fog, the hills of north Mayo, stamped into fields by bushy hedgerows, roll away, green and still toward the Atlantic. Inside the unnaturally-white-hued space, human-anxiety-energy spills everywhere, as a hundred or more teenagers and young men, a good many of them hungover, pretend to organize themselves under loose-trending-to-no leadership. There’s a scrum around the tables in the middle of the tent as we wildly pull from a three-foot high pile of custom-made-ragged-Irish-peasant clothing. Rags, that kinda-sorta fit, in hand we retreat to the folding chairs we staked out, with instinctual tribalism, as soon as we entered the tent. Looking around with confused-country-suspicion, we slowly start to change into our costumes.
“Hey, came here lads,” a too-tall-goofy-looking fella from the 18th Battalion lurches into the middle of us.
“Has anyone any chewing gum,” he asks in an almost childlike voice. “Sarg is threatening to send me home for being drunk – fucking bollox – and I only had ten pints last night.”
“Argah, go chew me arse,” one of our fellas retorts impatiently, head down, untying his shoes.
“What?” the drunk says, his eyes flaring. “What the fuck did you say?”
“I said,” our fella replies; sitting up in his chair, folding his arms, staring the drunk dead in the eyes. “Go. Chew. Me arse.”
The drunk lunges at him, but he’s easily pushed aside by another of us, and falls onto the grease-muddy tent floor.
We all laugh too loud.
A few fellas from the 18th kinda-sorta scramble over. We can tell their hearts aren’t in it; he’s a gobeshite – but even so, he’s their gobeshite.
Then we’re all standing, shoulders squared, jaws cocked, staring without looking. Our hearts aren’t in it either: It’s fucking 7 o’clock on a Monday morning!
Suddenly our sergeant is in the middle of us.
“What the fuck are you gobeshites up to now?” he growl-yells, staring around – his eyes burning into everyone.
“Fuck-off back to your side of the tent,” he snaps at the 18th lads, and turns to us, his lips moving just enough to speak through gritted-teeth. “If anyone so much as closes his fist this week, or causes any trouble of any sort on this assignment, I’ll have them fucked-off of this ridiculous film, and drummed out of the 5th Motor.”
He draws a loud breath in through his teeth.
“And, what’s more, I’ll provide a personal redundancy payment of an almighty kick in the arse – do you dolts understand?”
We understood £18 a day as an extra in “The Year of the French” – an historical television drama being made by Ireland’s national broadcaster; RTE – when a summer job for a teenager would have paid £25 a week.
Our west-of-Ireland-teenagers-minds formulated a calculus that, as pretend-men recruited first as weekend-warriors for the Republic of Ireland – “sand bags,” the regular soldiers called us, “good to stop a bullet”– and then recruited as a not-so-faux-Irish-peasant-mob, it all had to be about the £18 a day. Especially with a pint retailing for £0.64. Because, you see, our teenage minds had added the key bit of teen-cunning that, as members of the FCA (“na Forsai Cosanta Aituil;” translated to the Queen’s English as the “Local Defence Forces” – kinda-sorta like the US National Guard, but outfitted with woefully outdated equipment) we were presumed eligible to buy a pint almost anywhere we went with the FCA. This presumed street legal status was based upon the then reigning kinda-logic that you were supposed to be seventeen to join the FCA, and with the drinking age at eighteen, and Ireland’s post-colonial-aragh-fuck-it-anyway attitude, then membership in the FCA granted us a license to drink. Flaws in this kinda-logic became apparent, but not acted upon, when this same aragh-fuck-it-anyway attitude (combined with a national fixation on diverting youth away from interest in the IRA) then allowed people as young as fourteen into the FCA – and, by extension, the pub. It was, as we would have called it: An Irish solution to an Irish problem. In this case getting close to perfection as there was neither problem nor solution – but sure, aragh-fuck-it-anyway.
The military organizational structure had the 5th Motor Squadron catchment area as Castlebar and its environs, with the 18th Infantry Battalion being for the rest of county Mayo. The FCA’s enemy was generally described in the anti-IRA code of “subversers;” as, when in a mock ambush situation, we would fake-scramble out the back of a military truck into pelting rain, glare fuck-this-for-a-game-cowboys at the wet-grass-muck-cow-shit, only to hear the sergeant yell; “get down, there’s fucking subversers above in them trees.” However, the 5th Motor’s real enemy was the 18th Battalion. This was as old a divide as the first humans (the fossils showing teeth lost in bitter factional fighting would seem to indicate they were in fact Irish) from the east side of Lake Victoria deciding they were a bit more “erectus” than “that gang of humpy gobeshites” on the west side of Lake Victoria: Geographical tribalism.
Eventually, post-7:00AM-scuffle, appropriately bedraggled in custom-made-ragged-Irish-peasant clothing, we – just a handful of generations away from actual peasantry, but now Hollywood pros – head off to “Make-Up.”
Inside the “Make-Up” tent, the line snakes around two low wooden platforms on which, sitting in folding chairs, the young men of Mayo are transported from 1981-peasant-cool to 1798-peasant-cool by Dublin-peasants, who like us, were looking to make a few pound. With sassy-insulting-aplomb, they gel our hair to make it protrude erratically, and apply a greasy-brown-liquid to our face, arms, hands and feet to make us look like we rolled around in dirt all day. Which was more or less what peasants did back then, planting and reaping their crops by hand, eating and sleeping on earthen-floored-mud-huts: Plus, in 1798, the closest bath to Mayo was at One Merrion Square in Dublin – and hadn’t once yet been filled.
“You can’t wear dat,” the “Make Up” woman – who was barely older than us, but seemed to know a lot more about Hollywood than we did – says incredulously to the £18-a-day-peasant in the chair.
“What?” he snaps back, in a suitably accusatory tone – we’d show the Dublin crowd who was boss down in Mayo.
“De watch!” she says, her voice rising. “Sure dey didn’t have watches back in dem times.”
“Then how the hell did they tell the time?”
“I don’t give a shite how de told de time, I just know dey didn’t have no fucking watches – I know dat for sure. Dey tol’ us dat before we come. Now lose it, or de director’ll give you a roight bollocking.”
She finishes peasantizing him.
He stands to leave
“I’ll see you so in the rape scene,” he says, with a wink and a cunning sideward nod.
Suddenly the sergeant is there, whacking the new-old-peasant on the back of his spiked-up-hair. The sergeant is dressed in slightly better peasant attire – the number of rips per square meter (remember now, we were still relatively new Europeans in ‘81) being lower on his clothes.
“Get out of here with that dirty tongue on you,” he barks at the departing peasant, shaking his head in fake-woe-is-me disbelief.
Then turning back to the make-up woman, he asks, eyebrows raised lecherously; “And is there really a rape scene?”
“Get out of it, you durty auld fucker!”
In 1798, mother Ireland – ever an extra herself in the plots twisted by Europe’s powerful sophisticates – was, yet again, in full-scale rebellion. In that year, the same fields in North Mayo which the wannabe-directors had turned into a television set, ran red with blood. First it was the blood of British soldiers and Crown sympathizers, then that of French soldiers, Irish rebels, anyone who looked like French, rebel or Irish – okay pretty much everyone got at least one bayonet in the guts for good measure. Starting in a May that year, a series of organic rebellions – by both Catholics and those of the “dissenting” Protestant religions such as Presbyterians and Methodists – had rattled the London installed government of Ireland, which was made up of the “Ascendency” – people, both Irish and British, who had “ascended,” via enormous land grants for their successfully brutal suppression of previous Irish rebellions, to positions of power in the colonial administration. If you’re confused, that’s pretty much the intent. Irish history is deliberately formulated to be confusing: If we ever sorted it all out, we’d head off on the piss for about a hundred years to soothe ourselves – there might be a few gone on ahead of us! The organic rebellions were sort of petering out, as in everyone involved had been hung, shot, or had their head shaved and stuck into a vat of boiling tar (where was Amnesty International when we needed them?) or given the obligatory bayonet in the guts. In fairness, this was de rigueur at the time: Rebels – and their families, their dogs, their cows, their houses, their daffodils, all-things-associated-with-a-rebel – paid the maximum price.
Then, out of nowhere, the French – fashionably late as always; after all, fashion is everything if you’re French – showed up in north Mayo. Three ships, about a thousand soldiers, a few cannons, some horses for the cavalry, and a quite capable, thirty two year old general, named John-Joe Humbert – ok, it was actually “Jean Joseph Amable Humbert.” (For full effect, his name must be pronounced in a nasally-constipative-high-pitched-bad-French-accent.) He was a good general, he’d have to have been with all the battles he won for Napoleon – who, at the time, led the European Invading Armies Champions League. The British Parliament had only recently – after a hundred years trying to legislate the Catholic Church in Ireland out of existence – decided that manipulation of the religion in general was as good a way as any to manage the we’ll-be-ruled-be-no-one-not-even-ourselves Irish. They did this first by funding the establishment of a Catholic seminary in Maynooth, “for the better education of persons professing the popish or Roman Catholic religion;” thus softening the anti-British stance of the all-powerful, and equally repressive, Catholic clergy. Then they played their divide-and-conquer colonial trump card, as seen in the tragically wrongheaded words of Brigadier-General C.E. Knox: "I have arranged ... to increase the animosity between the Orangemen and the United Irishmen …. Upon that animosity depends the safety of the centre counties of the North.”
However, the fashionably-late-French were smiled upon by the gods of rebellion, surprise and excessive drinking as they landed in the place that time, and the Crown, had all but forgotten: Mayo. At this time in Mayo there was no religious divide; everything was Catholic: The people, the mountains, the wells, the cattle, the dogs in the mud-rutted streets – even the Protestants were Catholic! And the peasants, thick in the fields harvesting potatoes – rubbing dirt on their faces, arms, hands and feet for dramatic effect – were bursting with Catholic-rebellious spirit for something to break the boredom. Five thousand Mayo peasants joined up with French soldiers, and went on the rampage for a few weeks; first taking Killala and north Mayo, then on to Castlebar – which they took so fast that the incident became known as the “Races of Castlebar.” Then, everyone went on the piss; job well done. A few days later they worked their way up the country – rebelling all the way; as in killing, burning, raiding; the same tactics that the British army would use in reverse when beating back the rebels – only to get an unmerciful beating above in a field in Longford at the hands of a much bigger, better organized, and presumably less hungover, British army. Retribution for the rebellion – and the aforementioned rebellious atrocities – was brutally efficient. Immediately after they had won the battle, the British Army summarily executed two hundred rebel prisoners, and buried them in a mass grave in Bully’s Acre.
Meanwhile back in Killala, 1981, the 5th Motor Squadron was engaged in a pitched battle outside “Make-Up” with a wannabe-director; a man who might have turned bald at age twenty five, or could be fifty and bald, but never grew up. He waved his clipboard frantically, as he spittle-red-faced-wild-eyed yelled at us “to lose the watches, socks-and-sneakers, and tee shirts” that we still had on under the custom-made-ragged-Irish-peasant clothing. We fought back, with sullen distrust, insisting everything would be stolen, and more pointedly that we couldn’t – not even for £18 a day – walk around the fields and roads of North Mayo in our bare feet: We had simply evolved too far out of our peasant-ness to do so. We won, … and we lost. The watches and tee shirts were stashed back in the tent, and the sneakers – though no socks – were allowed, at least up until the time we got set in place for filming; then they’d have to be stashed.
“And I don’t give a shoite if they get rained on,” he added, to cement his victory.
We’d never thought of what it’d be like in rain wearing only custom-made-ragged-Irish-peasant clothing.
“Fall in,” the sergeant barked.
Too late now.
Immediately we form ourselves into ranks, stand at attention.
“De thaobh clé,” he barks again – “from the left” in her Majesty’s English – and leads us out into the field.
We marched past the 18th Battalion fellas who, as a much larger group, were still getting themselves organized – “chlé-deas-chlé;” left-right-left – and on to the film shooting site. There another wannabe-director summarily, and with customary directorial disdain-for-extras, waved us off.
“You’se are only crowding out me scene here.”
He told the sergeant to bring us back at 1 o’clock – four hours later!
We hit the town – Killala; which happened to be all “Made-Up” itself, with fake 1798 facades on the shops and pubs – but couldn’t find a pub open. Pubs were not allowed to open until 10:30AM; foiled again by the “Ascendency” – this time our own gobeshites above in Leinster House. Eventually, using the skill we had least mastered – patience – we got into a pub. With the brazenness of adolescence, Made-Up-to-look-dirty, wearing the custom-made-ragged-Irish-peasant clothing and Adidas Beckenbauer sneakers, we plonked ourselves up at the bar. At 10:37AM – it takes a few minutes for that many pints of Guinness to settle – we started lorrying pints. We all chose Guinness – the famously over-famous Irish porter, whose corporate headquarters at the time were in London, and whose stock was traded on the London stock exchange – as an appropriately confounding patriotic choice of drink. On hungover-empty stomachs, it didn’t much to get us going, and a couple of pints in – by 11:00; I mean we were only sixteen and couldn’t believe this luck – we were playing darts and pool, the jukebox blaring Madness’ “Baggy Trousers, dirty shirt, pulling hair, …,” some already-old-sixteen-year-old bought a newspaper to catch up on the weekend sports. All in, we were damnably modern peasants.
But time never stops – even if your not allowed to have a cheap Casio on your wrist – and a genuine scramble had to be effected to get us back to our “shoot location.” There we fell upon a lunch truck, serving food out a window, and all lurched into line, much to the server’s chagrin.
“I’m finished,” he said looking at his I’m-so-lucky-to-be-able-to-wear-this watch. “Eleven to one is lunch. I’m all done.”
“We were just let go be the filum-fellas,” one of our fellas says, with admirable disdainful-scorn – we were learning fast. “You have to serve us!”
“Let go? Let go?” he says, his voice raising. “Youse are all fucking-stinking-drunk, that what’s youse are. What were you let go from? A vat of Guinness?”
He threw his hands in the air, but served us anyway.
Then, full of porter and pork chops, we were ready to make our television debut. Without complaining – a deal is a deal is a deal – we whipped off the Beckenbaurs, flung them in a heap, and got into position, our bare feet cold upon the planet. The scene was set for a few hundred peasants to charge up a hill toward a cannon, with four or five redcoats – professional actors – which was to blast off a few times. A wannabe-director strode through the crowd of peasants – looking distinctly not bemused at the state of us – and tagged different people to fall down dead on each blast.
“You’re not acting now, just fall,” he spoke into a loudhailer, sternly waving his clipboard at us. “The camera is too far away, just fall and stay there, don’t move ‘til I come through and tell you too. If you start acting the bollox you’ll ruin the whole scene. All roight, let’s do a practice run.”
We failed a few times – badly: A cameraman caught someone laughing; one fella tripped a whole bunch, who went down in a heap before any blast.
“Lookit lads,” the wannbe-director was back in front of us, the loudhailer pressed to his mouth, his voice edging between exasperation and full on anger. “I could fire the fucking lot of ye’se – all roight? I can go and get all new people for tomorrow, good people too. But then I lose a day, and you lose a few weeks of nice lolly – roight? Your choice. We’re filming this one. If it works you come back tomorrow, if not … .”
He left the loudhailer in place for effect, as he stared out over it Hollywood-director-style.
£18 a day worked.
We peasanted for a few days around the fields of Killala, embracing – perhaps a little too easily – our role as an unruly rabble, prone to outbursts of daytime drunkenness. Then on Friday morning, after unloading the FCA truck, we were marched past the Peasants-R-Us tent, and on into the Community Centre in town. There we were outfitted as British soldiers – in kilts nonetheless. We were distinctly unperturbed: cash money and the chance to hold a gun are sudden cures for a teenager’s I’ll-pick-these-up-for-a-few-weeks-especially-when-I’m-drinking-political convictions. “Costuming,” with the need to get boots, stockings, kilts, and redcoats that actually fit – plus a medium sized dispute over our attempts to wear rolled up jeans under the kilts – and “Make-Up” (just a few daubs of white to make us as deathly-white as 18th century Scottish soldiers) took their sweet time – but what did we care, the pubs didn’t open ‘til 10:30 anyway. Fully rigged out as Frazier’s Fencibles, we head out to a field, where we learn to march British Army 1798 style, how to drill with a musket, and, most importantly to us, how to load-fire-and-reload a musket. The muskets were modern recreations that fired tissue balls propelled by blank cartridges. By 11:00 we’re ready to kill some French soldiers – via a tissue ball to the heart from a hundred paces – but instead we’re summarily, and disdainfully, waved once again and given a return time of a few – deadly – hours later.
Like any de-mobbed soldiers, we hit the bar – hard – prop up Guinness’ share price for a few hours, and then head back to the Community Centre to get our muskets, just the littlest bit drunk – ok, quite drunk. With all the pomp and ceremony of a late eighteenth century military maneuver, we drunkenly fall in, shoulder arms, left turn, and start to march – temperatures rising, faces reddening – across the countryside of north Mayo, looking not for French soldiers to shoot, but wannabe-directors to tell us how to get on camera. At the head of our kilted-Red-Coated column marches an outrageously drunk fourteen year old, with a Union Jack on a ten foot pole – smartly socketed into a leather pouch harnessed to his torso, thus preventing his tipping arse-over-head into a drunken heap. He staggers at the head of the column, waving the flag with a wildly-provocative-bloodthirstiness for French invaders. We march onto the set, behind our flag bearer, his flag and his eyes crazed by too much porter.
“Where the fuck are them fucking French bastards?” he screams at the wannabe-director. “Jesus, I’d kill for a glass of water, and something to fucking ate too.”
The wannabe-director stares for a moment at the flag bearer. His shoulders subside under a deep breath. Then with uncharacteristic discretion-is-the-better-part-of-valor, he quietly de-flags the outrageously drunk fourteen year old, hands the flag to the drummer boy next to him – who is fifteen, and thus slightly bigger, and perhaps, slightly less drunk.
The wannabe-director looks us over – with customary directorial-disdain. He speaks quietly into his walkie-talkie, and then orders us down the back side of the hill from the set to a lunch truck parked on the road. There, with muskets arranged into a neat self-supporting stack, like the Red-Coat pros we had become, we attempted to mitigate our earlier choice of activity, consuming alcohol-sponging pork chops, watery-vegetables, funny-bitter-insults from the truck-chef, and walloping cups of hot tea. Twenty minutes later, we wander back up the hill to the set, muskets drooping shotgun style out of crooked arms, newly-refilled-cups-of-hot-tea in our hands. The wannabe-director is crouched down on one knee, his shirt removed in the rare heat of midday sun, his walkie-talkie, as always, held up to his mouth. Like moths to a flame, we wander over to him, looking to get sent into action. One fella walks up directly behind the wannabe-director, a musket dangling precariously from under one arm, a cup of tea in his other hand. On the opposite hill, phalanxes of ragged-Irish-peasants and French soldiers stand in position, poised for attack. Suddenly a French cavalry formation charges down the hill, swords held aloft, ready to crack open British skulls. Galled by this faux-attack by his faux-enemy, the would-be-1798-tea-drinking-Red-Coat, throws his arms up, his musket falling to the ground, the contents of his cup spilling down the wannabe-director’s bare back.
“Aaaggghh,” the director yells jumping up, the skin on his tea-scalded back already reddening. “You fucking idiot!”
Suddenly the sergeant is there – a bit wobbly himself, but there nonetheless.
“Sorry about that, sorry about that,” he pushes the scalder away from the scaldee. “Stupid, stupid mistake, but that’s all it was, a stupid mistake.”
With both hands he propells the scalder a few yards backwards.
“Pick up the rubbish around the side of this hill, you fucking gobeshite, and don’t let me … .”
“I’m no fucking-picker-upper,” the scalder growls, eyes wild with booze, face ablaze with I’m-ready-to-fight-anger.
They stare at each other, kilts flapping in the breeze; and I wonder what a fight in kilts looks like.
Finally, we’re sent into action. We rehearse for about an hour, marching 1798 style down the hill, spacing out ten feet apart, loading our muskets, shouldering them, shooting, reloading, shooting again. One fella gets filmed up close doing the reloading; thus promoting him from extra to junior-movie-star. We do that until the heat and exhortations of the film crew have worn the booze out of us. Then we’re filmed for less than two minutes.
It’s a success.
We’re officially extras.
The faux-battle over, we muster at the top of the hill. The sergeant calls us together, falls us in.
“Today was a historic day,” he starts, almost tearfully – and then we knew he must’ve bought a naggen of whiskey in the pub to get him through the afternoon. “For the 5th Motor Squadron. We executed a maneuver that even the British army themselves could hardly have done any better.”
We watch bored-quizzically as he walks along in front of the ranks, his eyes watery-red, hands clasped behind his back, just above his slightly skewed kilt.
“Now, we’ll march in formation to get rid of these damn uniforms. Have no shame boys, no matter what color our coat might be, inside it we’re still saighduiri Eirinn; soldiers of Ireland. And what’s more, we’ll shame them 18th Battalion gobeshites straggling back like the peasants they are.”
On his command we spin around and march down the side of the hill.
All the way to town we march, “chlé-dheas-chlé;” Red Coats marching in Irish – and why not, in the eighteenth century fully one third of the British Army were Irish, desperate for work of any variety.
Marching through Made-Up-1798-Killala, we passed – with the stoic-hungover faces of pretend-men who had recently pretend-killed – a large group of onlookers: Germans (the only Europeans with money in 1981) in their brand new pastel-colored rain jackets; locals faux-begrudgingly stopping their day once again to look at something new; and the “nosey bastards” – as we called them – who drove a few hours from somewhere else in the west of Ireland to see “what the fuck is it at all that’s going on above in Killala,” and consume a rake of pints as part of their investigation. In the crowd was a traveler – or what we would have called a tinker – that I had gone to primary school with, and had stayed in touch with whenever we might bump into each other. The last time we had met he told me he was all done with school.
“Ah, the judge took the license off me father, so I quit to drive him around.”
Now he leaned up against a fake-façade-corner behind the “nosey bastards,” a cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth.
“Go on Farrell,” he yelled, catching my eye, and smirking. “Y’ould woman in a dress!”
In the Community Centre we disrobe, silently sad to give back the uniform we had railed against drunk-eloquently in the pub. By this point in the day, around 7:00PM, we are all hungover-dry. We make a valiant attempt to drain Killala’s reservoir through the Community Centre sinks, and then head for the FCA truck. No one pretends we’ll march. In “civvies,” exhausted, hungover, traces of ghostlike make-up still on our faces, we’re beyond accepting orders. I climb up into the back of the truck, take a seat against the tailboard, and survey what’s left our television career.
The scaldee wannabe-director walks past, raises his clipboard, shakes his head and half-smiles at us. A handful of Red Coats – professional actors; red and white uniforms tight to their fit bodies – pass, guiding a cannon dragged by two skittish farm horses, led by their farmer, his beer gut lurching out over arse-hanging-behind-the-knees-Wranglers. A night shoot – perhaps?
We wouldn’t know – no extras required.
Our role was completed. Over our five days, we had won and lost battles against ourselves – first as a peasant mob, then as Frazier’s Fencibles; we made £90 for a week’s entertainment, during which time we each probably drank thirty something illicit pints. But even with all the fighting with the wannabe-directors, the ducking in and out of 1798-Made-Up pubs, the weirdness of daytime drunkenness, we had captured a glimpse of a world that most of us would never again experience.
The FCA truck rumbles out through 1798-Made-Up Killala. The thinning early evening light helps to fudge the lines so the fake facades appear real. The crowds of “nosey bastards” have started into their evening’s drinking: Kids pick greasy chips from grease-stained brown paper bags, and gawk, open-mouthed at the FCA truck stuck in traffic: Fathers grasp pints of Guinness, brows furrowed as they glare at us: Mothers cradle half pints of lager in two hands, and chat, smiling as they glance around for the kids. The tinkers have taken up a stand behind a HiAce van, swigging – with stay-the-fuck-away-from-us-wild-abandon – from flagons of cider: They pay us no heed, except for one fella, stripped to the waist, who puts up both fists in drunken-mock-fight. I look for my friend but don’t see him there. We lurch on.
The truck pulls out of Killala, out into a countryside we know too well; brush lined fields, white-faced cattle staring blankly, hills heaped one upon another seemingly-forever toward the start of a long sunset. We rumble down the darkening roads of north Mayo, each revolution of the wheels taking us closer to a world where we fit in with seamless anonymity, and further away from the world of daring, trouble, and the intense-excitement when we heard the wannabe-director’s now seemingly magical words; “cameras rolling in … three… two … one!”