Northern Ireland-set An Irish Goodbye tipped for Oscar and Bafta success

Grief and comedy combine in the story of two brothers reunited in rural Northern Ireland after the death of their mother. Jenny Lee chats to the writers of the Oscar-tipped short film, An Irish Goodbye, and its Belfast star James Martin who hasn't let Down syndrome stand in the way of his acting ambitions...

James Martin in An Irish Goodbye
James Martin in An Irish Goodbye James Martin in An Irish Goodbye

EAST Belfast writer and director Ross White is hoping to follow in the footsteps of Belfast-born director Terry George with Oscar glory after his film was shortlisted for an Academy Award in the live-action short film category.

Selected for the top 15 from over 200 films, An Irish Goodbye, written and directed by White and his creative partner Tom Berkeley, was the only Irish or British short to make the shortlist. Last week it was announced that it had also been longlisted for a Bafta.

Set against the backdrop of a working farm in rural Northern Ireland, An Irish Goodbye is a black comedy following the reunion of estranged brothers Turlough (Seamus O'Hara) and Lorcan (James Martin) after the untimely death of their mother.

The brothers' pained reunion is worsened by the fact Turlough must now make new care arrangements for Lorcan, who has Down syndrome.

Lorcan wants to continue farming the land he grew up on, but Turlough decides he's sending him to live with their aunt on the other side of Ireland.

When the brothers discover an unfulfilled bucket list belonging to their late mother, Lorcan senses an opportunity: he'll only agree to leave the farm once he and Turlough have themselves completed every single wish on their mother's list…all 100 of them.

Filmed in Templepatrick, Saintfield and the Sperrin Mountains, An Irish Goodbye is produced by their company, Floodlight Pictures, with support from Northern Ireland Screen and BFI.

White and Berkeley met at college in Guildford and after initially setting up a theatre company at college, made the move to screenwriting in 2020.

Northern Irish short film An Irish Goodbye in the running for an Oscar
Northern Irish short film An Irish Goodbye in the running for an Oscar Northern Irish short film An Irish Goodbye in the running for an Oscar

At this time, they both left London to return home to their families and to focus on writing, bringing themes of brotherhood, displacement and returning to your motherland to the forefront of their mind.

Although they have already enjoyed critical acclaim for their first short film, Roy, the duo reveal that An Irish Goodbye was the first film they penned.

The inspiration for it happened at a Leicester City football match, which Berkeley attended with his father.

"A couple of rows ahead of us there were two brothers very similar to the ones that you end up seeing in the film. The older brother was sort of acting as a carer for his younger brother that had Down syndrome. One minute these two were at each other's throats hurling abuse and then a goal would go in and they were in each other's arms hugging. To be honest, it was quite a boring match and watching them was more compelling than the game itself," he laughs.

"The next day I spoke to Ross about that relationship and our conversation turned to grief and how it would be interesting to see how these two very different characters would process it. One with a kind of superhuman empathy who leads from their heart, and the other who is very neurotic about things. The seed of the film was how you could take those two through the process of grief together and what would they learn from each other?"

Although dealing with grief, the short is full of laughs – including fart jokes and helium balloon inhaling – and highlights the very Irish way of processing difficult situations.

"People speak about black comedy and gallows humour as being such an Irish thing – where we almost like making a joke in the darkest of moments. It comes through in a lot of our work, where tragedy and comedy are not too far apart," explains White.

An Irish Goodbye has already won a number of awards on the festival circuit, including European Audience Award at Leuven International Film Festival in Belgium and the Grand Jury Prize at Edmonton International Film Festival in Canada.

"It's been shown in five countries and the response internationally has been a dream. It's such an honour to come this far," says White, commenting on their Oscar success so far.

Seamus O’Hara and James Martin star in An Irish Goodbye
Seamus O’Hara and James Martin star in An Irish Goodbye Seamus O’Hara and James Martin star in An Irish Goodbye

The final list of five nominees will be named for the 95th Academy Awards on March 12 – coincidently, the same day as actor James Martin's birthday – will be revealed on January 24.

"I am trying my best to fit into some suits for the red carpet," laughs the Belfast 30-year-old, who also has Down syndrome and has already enjoyed award success in America, winning the best actor accolade at the New York City TV festival for his first film, Ups and Downs.

The son of broadcaster Ivan Martin, he got involved in acting at the age of 16 with Belfast drama group Babosh, and has also starred in ITV drama Marcella alongside actress Anna Friel.

"I love acting and meeting up with different people in different shows," he beams.

It was Martin's debut screen performance that caught the writer's attention, as Berkeley explains: "We hadn't even finished the first draft and we set our sights on James, engineering the whole thing around him and fitting filming in with his schedule."

Although proud to be a role model for other young actors with Down syndrome and promote diversity on our screens, Martin is keen to stress that disabled and neurodivergent actors should be treated and applauded for their acting skills, not their difference.

"Stephen Hawking in The Simpsons, for example, was a fantastic actor. Everyone should be given opportunities to show their talent."

And his ambitions? "Just be an actor and be a really good one," adds James, who also is a skilled chef and works part-time at Belfast restaurant Scalini's.

His favourite part in An Irish Goodbye was the bucket list cooking challenge and teasing his on-screen brother about eating cereal, saying "do you not cook in London?".

"I loved playing Lorcan because he is so open, honest and funny. I loved filming in the countryside and working alongside Seamus. We've got a lot of things in common and we had such fun on set."

The off-screen relationship between the two actors shone on camera, as White explains.

"James and Seamus Facetimed each other in the weeks leading up to the shooting. We also did a couple of days rehearsing – all of which was great in building up their rapport, something you've not got time for on a five day shoot.

"When we got to the first day of shooting they were already best mates and acting like brothers, so we just pointed the camera at it."

Keeping the peace between them is odd-ball parish priest Father O'Shea, played brilliantly by Paddy Jenkins.

"That was the most fun character to write for. Honestly, you had to rein us in because we were writing big chunks of him just going off. I think we've probably got enough material to do a spin off with Paddy," laughs Berkeley.

Plans are in the making for further distributing An Irish Goodbye, including broadcast television in Ireland and a streaming service.

The filmmakers have just completed their third short, The Golden West, a period film shot in north Wales. Starring Eileen Walsh and Aoife Duffin, it is about two women that flee the famine in Ireland in 1849 to go looking for gold.

"Then we are dedicating the next couple of months to hibernating away and doing some writing and getting the feature film ideas percolating," adds White, dreaming about a Best Picture nomination in the future.