Film: Jerry O’Neill

Today we will bring you a rare treat, a special screening of a short 10 minute film from The Loopline Collection TV series ‘Imprint – the Book Show’. The film is  based on  the late novelist and playwright J.M. O’Neill, whose first three books, ‘Open Cut’, (published 1986), ‘Duffy’s Dead’ (1988) and ‘Cannon Bang Bang’ (1989)  were the first to depict, so authentically, the raw and bleak lives of immigrant Irish labourers, working on London’s buildings sites during the 1960’s and 70’s. The film also features interviews with Shane Connaughton, Eoghan Harris and Roy Foster.

Jerry O’Neill knew that world of the buildings, as he himself was a hiring agent for John Murphy, one of London’s biggest Irish contractors. 

In Jerry’s own words, this was “… a world of kerbside sweat and manpower, open-cut tunnels, timber shafts looking across a chaos of traffic. Gangs eat in cafés if they can, wait for the evening of warmth and drink, sleep like the dead until the alarms explode them into another day.”

In 1967 he became landlord of the Duke of Wellington pub on  The Balls Pond road, Islington. During his tenure of 13 years, he turned a defunct snooker-room into what became London’s first Irish fringe theatre, ‘The Sugawn Kitchen’. It produced plays by great Irish playwrights such as Synge and O Casey and it became a hub for Irish actors and writers living in London. It was at the Sugawn, that O’Neill wrote and produced his first play, ‘God is Dead on Balls Pond Road’ a gritty portrayal of the life of the Irish navvy.

Jerry O’Neill didn’t start writing novels until he was in his mid 60s; Each night after clearing away the glasses in his pub, he would write bits of plays and novels  and remarkably within a two year period, he had completed his first three books, all of which were so highly praised and commended that it was suggested that he would become a literary cult figure, but sadly O’Neill’s books did not get the distribution they truly deserved and faded out of print. 

In 1990 O’Neill returned to Ireland, where he continued his writing until his early death at the age of 77 in 1999. Ironically at the time of his death, unbeknownst to O’Neill, he won the pounds 5,000 Kerry Ingredients Book of the Year Prize, for his last novel ‘Rellighan Undertaker’, but sadly he didn’t live to collect the award.

The short film is housed in the Irish Film Institute.