I watched The Commitments for the first time when I was 16. What first grabbed me was the world it brought me into: Dublin in the 1980s. Grimy and gritty rain slicked streets, graphited and run down. The slow tumble towards decay. No money. No jobs. No hope. Then it became about something else. The simple act of just watching the film seemed to fill a void in me. And over the next couple of years, I filled that void at least once a week with a dose of the characters from Barrystown Alan Parker brought to life from the novel written by Roddy Doyle.
When I was 11, my family emigrated to Australia. The move was tough for me. I was at an age where I was beginning to understand what it meant to be Irish. A sense of national identity was stirring within me. A youthful fascination with our country’s long and dramatic history has begun to fill my head with wonderful notions. I had been born into a country of rebels and poets, martyrs and musicians. My country’s identity was shaping my identity. I am who I am because my country made me this way. Our history. Our struggle. Our triumphs and our tears.
On 31st December 1987 my dad got me out of bed at around 10.30pm. Dad drove me into the centre of Dublin where we stood, at the stroke of midnight, outside Dublin’s Mansion House to watch the Lord Mayor ring in, not only the new year, but the beginning of Dublin’s Millennium year. People cheered and hugged each other. Perched on my dad’s shoulders, I remember getting sprayed with champagne from the bottle the Lord Mayor aimed over the gathered revellers.
In March 1988 all that was taken away (at least, that’s how I felt for more than 10 years). It was something I struggled with and harboured a lot of anger because of. As a pale and freckled lad with an odd accent trying to adjust to suburban life in Sydney in the late ‘80s the seeds of being an outsider were planted. I had come from Dublin, a city celebrating 1000 years to a country celebrating its 200th birthday. Something about this didn’t sit well with me.
I was enrolled in a local school within a week of arriving and life went on. For all intensive purposes, I looked like what Neighbours had led me to believe Australians looked like. The reality in school was different. There were white Australians, of course, but also Filipinos, Egyptians, Iranians, Chileans, Chinese, South Africans and more. There were Catholics, like myself, Anglicans, Muslims, Jehovahs and people who practiced no religion at all. The spectrum of differences was overwhelming. And as soon as I opened my mouth I was found out and my difference exposed. I had never felt so different before. So I worked on my accent, turning my U’s to A’s, my R’s to Ah’s, my Ah’s to A’s. I was blending in, assimilating.
For 5 years, I had been starved of anything Irish, be it on the telly or in magazines or newspapers. Other than on St Patricks day or when classmates blitzed me with a round of Irish Jokes (‘Paddy Irishman walks into a bar…’ or ‘Have you heard the latest Irish invention…’) there was almost nothing for me to hang onto that connected with who I felt I was in my deepest self. Other than an elusive idea of Irishness, I had nothing concrete to grasp onto.
When my parents brought The Commitments home on VHS one day for us to watch on the VCR, I had no idea how much it would affect me. It began with the scenery of Dublin. Streets and places I knew and grew up around. Landmarks, names, references that were not so much learnt as they were part of my DNA. The character’s accents, that strong North Dublin brogue, filled with angst and sarcasm. The accent I had, overtime, left behind.
Before my parents had to return the video the next day, I’d watched the film twice more, staying up late and getting up early before school to do so. I didn’t know what it was – it was too soon to really understand what was drawing me to it. A few months later when the local video store was selling off ex-rental copies of the movie, I bought my own. By then, I knew what it was. This film was my link to Ireland. It was my connection to my Irishness. When I watched this film, the part of me that yearned for ‘home’ was fed. It was my portal, my bridge.
It wasn’t long before I could quote verbatim from any part in the film. It had become my identity card. And at the centre of this film was it’s main protagonist, Jimmy Rabbitte. Jimmy was an entrepreneur, a chancer, a man witj vision. The manager of The Commitments, but not a performer in the band. He was friends with the musicians but not a musician himself. He was a dreamer and he was a doer. A man who was a once on the outside and on the inside of events in his life.
As a 16/17 year old I came to identify so deeply with this character that his fingerprint is permanently imprinted upon me. At once, I had someone who I could look to to model myself after, but also, the deeper realisation of how powerful fiction, storytelling, was as a means of connecting. I had lived my whole live having imaginary conversations in my head. With friends, family, famous people, historical people, completely made up people. It’s how I passed my time. And here on the screen in front of me was Jimmy, talking to himself in front of the mirror, in the bath, in bed, being interviewed by Terry Wogan. He lived and expressed this inner monologue that I thought was something only I did.
Jimmy Rabbitte had reached out over the oceans and through the TV screen to connect with me. He seemed to be saying, ‘This is what it is to be Irish. This is what it is to go after your dreams.’
My favourite quote from the film, and maybe one of my favourite ideas of all time, is one that is not said by Jimmy, but to Jimmy by The Commitments troubadour, Joey ‘The Lips’ Fagan. At the moment when the band might reach dizzying heights, it all falls apart, irrevocably. As Jimmy and Joey walk away from the choatic scenes of the band imploding, Joey tries to offer Jimmy the wisdom of his years:
Joey: Look, I know you’re hurtin’ now, but in time you’ll realize what you’ve achieved.
Jimmy Rabbitte: I’ve achieved nothing!
Joey: You’re missin’ the point. The success of the band was irrelevant – you raised their expectations of life, you lifted their horizons. Sure we could have been famous and made albums and stuff, but that would have been predictable. This way it’s poetry.
The struggle and the poetic. To me, what being Irish is all about. And as I’ve developed as a writer, it’s unconsciously, instinctively shaped my work. Struggle and revelation. Life and realisation. The inner me always reaching out, looking to connect with someone. Can me being who I am connected with you being who you are? Can this sharing of experiences and understanding bring us together, open doors, unite us, or untether us from whatever holds us back?
I’ll only find out if I keep writing, keeping myself open to experiences, open to wonder. The path is never always straight or flat. The journey never without incident or trial. But this way there lies discovery. I’ll let my friend Jimmy have the last word:
Jimmy Rabbitte: [pretending to be Terry Wogan] So, lookin’ back Jimmy, what have you learned from your experience with The Commitments?
Jimmy Rabbitte: Well, that’s a tricky question, Terry. But as I always say, we skipped the light fandango, turned cartweels ‘cross the floor. I was feelin’ kinda seasick, but the crowd called out for more.