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A heartbreaking secret... and the need for healing

Director Jim Sheridan tells Ivan Little how his new film, about a Protestant woman locked up in an asylum and later accused of killing her baby, has echoes in theTuam baby scandal.

Six-time Oscar nominee Jim Sheridan reckons he's relatively un-shockable. The Dublin writer/director has been around the block a few times, making gritty movies about everything from the Troubles and injustice to emigration and poverty.

But the recent discovery of a mass grave containing the bodies of up to 800 children at a former Catholic mother and babies home in Co Galway has shaken Sheridan - and thousands of Irish people - to the core.

By a bizarre twist of fate, the Tuam horrors unfolded just as the 68-year-old Sheridan was promoting a new movie about a woman who was caught up in the very same, Church-dominated "care" system and was locked up in a mental hospital, because a priest branded her a nymphomaniac.

She later had an illegitimate child in a notorious Magdalene Laundry before she was accused of killing it.

Sheridan shares the belief of campaigner Catherine Corless, who helped uncover the babies' remains in a sewage area near the Bon Secours home in Tuam, that similar mass graves are hidden around Ireland.

"I think there are a lot more. And the more that are exhumed and examined, the better," says Sheridan, who describes the mother and baby homes scandal as "insane".

He adds: "It's kind of weird. When the British left here and took the structures of the old Dickensian-type poorhouses - and their huge civil service - with them, we went flying back and gave all the power to the Church.

"We also had (Eamon) de Valera urging people to 'burn everything English except their coal', which was a mental thing to say. Even if you felt it, why would you say it?

"I think all that needs to be examined. Part of the thing that fascinates me is that examination between personal responsibility and communal responsibility."

Sheridan's film, The Secret Scripture, stars the iconic Vanessa Redgrave, who gives a compellingly understated performance as the Sligo-born Protestant woman Rose McNulty, who returns from Belfast during the war to be caught up in a maelstrom of Church and state patriarchy, the unwanted attentions of a priest and anti-British hatred from the IRA, who eventually kill Rose's lover for serving with the RAF.

The Secret Scripture title refers to a diary of her life that Rose kept in a Bible during her 50 years living, virtually forgotten, in mental institutions. The film is based on Sebastian Barry's 2008 novel of the same name, which was nominated for the Man Booker prize.

Barry's book was inspired by a story told to him by his mother of an old relative, who was put into a lunatic asylum amid suspicions surrounding her "no good" ways.

Producer Noel Pearson, with whom Sheridan collaborated on the hugely successful film My Left Foot starring Daniel Day Lewis, acquired the rights to the book soon after it was published and set about turning it into a film.

A screenplay had already been written by Co Dublin man Johnny Ferguson before Sheridan came on board.

"He kept on at me to direct the movie and I liked the idea of it all. Here was a woman who was trapped in institutions and the Church were constraining her," says Sheridan, who was devastated when Ferguson died in 2013 from cancer at the age of 50.

He says: "I couldn't get his story out of my mind. It kind of haunted me.

"People are always asking me why I made the film and I have a load of logical reasons, but my wife says it was because Johnny died.

"And, yes, it was an emotional experience for me."

Sheridan made changes in the screenplay and storyline and consulted Sebastian Barry, who raised no objections.

Vanessa Redgrave had already committed to star in the film as the older Rose McNulty. Sheridan says: "I've always loved her as an actress and having her attached to the film was a blessing."

Redgrave is passionate about the story at the centre of The Secret Scripture; about what was going on in Ireland at the time and about the people who did nothing to stop the injustices.

She is on record as saying: "Governments have been mainly responsible, Churches have been responsible; I wonder who spoke out and protested against these crimes during the '30s, '40s and '50s, for instance? A tragic story, but it's true. Truth should be told. And this film is part of telling the truth."

American actress Rooney Mara plays the younger Rose and Newry's Susan Lynch has a pivotal role as the nurse in a mental home where Rose's case is eventually reassessed by a visiting psychiatrist.

"She's a real beauty, another great actress."

Enniskillen-born actor Adrian Dunbar also stars in the film, in which there are also roles for Barry McGuigan's daughter Nika and Omar Sharif jnr, the grandson of the late star of Doctor Zhivago, who died in 2015.

Another recently deceased actor was a particular favourite of Jim Sheridan - John Hurt, who starred in his classic Irish movie, The Field.

His loss has clearly impacted on the director, who says: "Hurty was the greatest. There was never a bad word out of him. He was a total pro, who could inhabit any part and transform any role. Just look at him in the Naked Civil Servant, Elephant Man and 1984, not to mention the Field.

"He could be absolutely extraordinary. Some actors can be very good but few can be extraordinary."

The Secret Scripture premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year but Sheridan expects that it will earn the wrath of some figures within the establishment in Ireland.

He says: "It's not showing Ireland in roses. I think there's an element of people here who will feel that I am showing up things that they don't want to see. But the job of movies is to do that."

Sheridan knows that The Secret Scripture has already divided the critics, but he is hoping that it will be well received by audiences and not just in Ireland.

"It will get a release in America and England, but I think they will put more into it if it does well in Ireland," he says.

Sheridan has shown down the years that he isn't afraid to confront contentious issues - like the Troubles.

His 1997 film, The Boxer, told the story of Danny Flynn (Daniel Day Lewis), an IRA man, who tried to settle down and follow a peaceful path after his release from prison, where he'd been sentenced to 14 years.

But it was Sheridan's movie In the Name of the Father which re-defined the Troubles movie genre - and received seven Oscar nominations.

The film was an intense docudrama that focussed on the wrongful conviction of the Guildford Four - in particular, the plight of the late Gerry Conlon, again played by Day Lewis, and his father Giuseppe Conlon, portrayed by Pete Postlethwaite.

After Gerry Conlon died in 2014, Sheridan led the tributes, saying: "We fought, we were pals, we had a mad relationship, like brothers."

He says he viewed Conlon's speech outside the Old Bailey, when the Guildford Four were released in 1989, as a moment of historic significance. And the keen observer of the situation north of the border also thinks the recent Assembly elections could prove groundbreaking.

"I find it very interesting," he says, adding that, from Sinn Fein's perspective, it was a "brilliant" tactical move to force the poll.

But he adds: "It doesn't make me happy that there's a chance of the whole thing at Stormont collapsing and direct rule coming back. We just don't need that."

Sheridan is also concerned about what Brexit will mean for Ireland, north and south.

Sheridan started his career in the theatre and worked as the artistic director for the Irish Arts Centre in New York before returning to make his movie debut with the biopic My Left Foot, which he had adapted from the memoir by disabled Irish artist Christy Brown.

It was his first partnership with the actor whom he calls "a genius" - Daniel Day-Lewis - who won an Oscar.

Brenda Fricker won an Academy Award as best supporting actress and the film was voted Best Picture, but Sheridan had to content himself with nominations for Best Director and Best Screenplay.

Returning to the Troubles, he co-wrote the screenplay for Terry George's movie Some Mother's Son, about the IRA hunger strike at the Maze.

And Sheridan's currently considering making another film about the jail.

"I want to do one about the escape from the Maze in 1983. I know there is another film being made at the moment, called Maze. But I want to do it a different way," says Sheridan. "I am fascinated by the escape and the kind of conditions of it. It was almost as if it was a symbol of moving to the peace process.

"My approach to it would be that the prisoners were at the end of the hunger strike and that they were at their lowest point, in despair. And somebody figured out that the thing that tortured them in the past during the hunger strike - the food lorry - was the way out."

Thirty-eight prisoners escaped from the jail in the commandeered lorry. Prison officer James Ferris was stabbed in the chest with a chisel and died of a heart attack.

Sheridan says: "The fact that the prisoners couldn't use guns during the escape was significant and it was almost the prescription for the ballot box and the Armalite strategy that republicans were later to adopt."

Sheridan says he is also intrigued by many of the incidents that occurred during and after the escape - none more so than the Protestant family who swore an oath that they would keep silent about the IRA men who had taken over their house near Dromore after the break-out.

They hid there for 24 hours as the security forces searched for them and Provo bomber Bik McFarlane told the family to swear on the Bible that they wouldn't contact the police for 72 hours after he and his colleagues left the house.

The family honoured the promise after contacting their local minister.

"That is a great story to me," says Sheridan.

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