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"Stella Days"

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From the Nenagh Guardian, August 15, 2009
"Putting a Sheen on the life of a Borrisokane priest"
Borrisokane’s anticipated entry into the world of the big screen is drawing near with the filming of ‘Stella Days’ due to begin before winter sets in. The man around whose quest to provide a cinema the film is based was Borrisokane’s Parish Priest Dean Patrick Cahill, who will be played by screen legend Martin Sheen, whose late mother was a native of the town. Gerry Slevin compares the Dean Cahill he and so many other Borrisokane people knew with the man that ‘Stella Days’ and Martin Sheen will endeavour to portray.
According to a press release from Newgrange Pictures, the parish priest of Borrisokane as envisaged in Stella Days the film, is one who “feels like the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. Although he works hard to fulfil his daily duties he has nothing in common with his parishioners and secretly fears he has lost his vocation. The things that make his life worthwhile – music, his daily swims in the lake and, especially, the cinema – he enjoys alone. When forced by his bishop to start a big fund-raising campaign, he attempts to reconcile his passion for film with his duty to the Church through the creation of the Stella Cinema”.
Hardly the image of Dean Patrick Cahill, the man whose decision to introduce weekly cinema life to the people of Borrisokane back in 1957 forms the basis for the film as it emerged from Michael Doorley’s book of the same name?
Those who knew Dean Cahill or ‘the Canon’ as he was probably better known will probably wonder at that interpretation of him as imagined by the film’s screenplay writer Antoine O’Flathartha. It is extremely doubtful if Dean Cahill ever thought of himself as a misplaced cleric. He oozed authority, belying his small to medium size stature; he invariably had a confident air about him and it would probably be true to say that he saw himself as being, somewhat, more intellectually gifted than the rank and file membership of the parish he led for so long. His Mass homilies often had an element of acerbic wit to them, at times a cutting edge, e.g. “Today (August 15th) is the feast of the Assumption of Our Blessed Lady into Heaven NOT the feast of the Show in Nenagh as so many of you might seem to think”.
Yes, he loved music, he loved Church music and his splendid baritone voice gave brilliant expression to innumerable hymns and psalms. He also transferred his great love for Gregorian chant to his choir members and to children growing up through the schools. His daily visits to Coolbawn and his swims in the lake are legendry. This was a practise he indulged in right through his long life – he died in 1990 – and he was a familiar figure heading off for Coolbawn, irrespective of what the weather was like.
Possessing a distinctive speaking voice that could be clearly heard in any company, he could also laugh at himself and on one occasion regaled various groups with his recall of a trip to Dublin one day on business. He returned home by train, arriving in Cloughjordan station only to discover his car he thought he had left there that morning prior to embarking on the train was nowhere to be seen. He searched and searched, and asked people he saw around the place if they noticed anyone or anything untoward there during the day. No one could help him. Eventually, he remembered that he had driven to Dublin that morning!
Thirty-five years was quite a lengthy spell to minister as Parish Priest of Borrisokane or indeed of any parish. He lived a further nine years having handed over to his successor Fr Jimmy Madden. 1973 saw the Dean’s fondest dream realised when the new church was opened. Erected at a cost of just under 100,000, it replaced the church in Mill Street that was situated just across the road from the Parochial House.
According to the screenplay for Stella Days the parish priest of Borrisokane didn’t see the need for a new church. But the bishop wanted to build bigger and better churches right across the diocese. This would seem to contradict the view prevalent in Borrisokane around the time discussion on the church was taking place. Whereas the Parish Council leaned towards having the existing church renovated, Dean Cahill is thought to have preferred a new church and he succeeded in getting his way. It was prior to this that the Stella Cinema came into being (1957), its aim along with providing film entertainment, being to amass funds that would help towards the improvement of the existing Ss Peter & Paul Church or the building of a new one.
There are two things worth emphasising here. First, ‘Stella Days the film, will bear very little resemblance to Michael Doorley’s brilliantly evocative recall of Borrisokane life in the late 1950s and early ’60s. True, Michael’s book, as the title suggests, brings to mind that cinematic era in Borrisokane and it forms the basis for Newgrange Pictures adaptation. Antoine O’Flathartha’s imagination then takes over as the world of fiction enters the scene. Second, while the film is set in Borrisokane and is expected to be filmed for the most part locally, the priest in the film is named Fr Daniel Barry, a fictitious character, and it is probably open to speculation as to whether or not it will eventually emerge from Martin Sheen’s depiction, as a true representation of the Dean Patrick Cahill, still remembered by so many.
Stella Days the film, is set in the Ireland of the mid-1950s, a time when rural electrification was under way, when young people were leaving for England for work and the bishops were becoming worried about the position and power of the Church in this changing world. Fr Barry doesn’t see the need for a new church in his parish and favours modernisation. Encouraged by a new schoolteacher, Tim McCarthy, he decides to follow his passion and establish a local cinema in Borrisokane, bringing light and joy to the town and, at the same time, raising funds for the new church.
He faces plenty of opposition; from the bishop and a number of influential parishioners, led by Brendan McSweeney who see film as a source of moral corruption; from locals who doubt that they can transform a church hall into a proper cinema in a few weeks; and ultimately from his own crisis of conscience when he discovers that Tim has fallen in love with a married woman, Molly Phelan.
Newgrange Pictures sees Stella Days the film, as the story of a man, a story about the conflict between love and duty, hope and faith, and between the excitement of the unknown and the security of the familiar. It encapsulates the dilemma of Ireland of the mid-1950s – on the cusp of the modern but still clinging to the traditions of the Church and a cultural identity forged in very different times.
Lined up to direct Stella Days is Thaddeus O’Sullivan (Ordinary Decent Criminal, December Bride) and it will be produced by Jackie Larkin (native of Ennis) and Maggie Pope of Newgrange Pictures. Bringing Antoine O’Flathartha’s screenplay to life will be a strong cast headed by Martin Sheen. Irish actor Stephen Rea (The Butcher Boy) and recently in RTE’s Father & Son is also lined up as is Romola Garai, recently seen in Atonement.
Funding for the film is at an advanced stage and the project was awarded €600,000 by way of production support from the Irish Film Board, this amount notwithstanding the ravages currently affecting public spending in Ireland in the wake of the global economic crisis.
Understandably, down Borrisokane way there is an eagerness setting in, an anticipation of unprecedented activity arriving in its midst. People are wondering if they might see themselves portrayed on screen. Michael Doorley’s original book made graphic reference to several local ‘characters’ of the 1950s and ’60s, many of them now dead. They were such as to be worthy of inclusion in any entertainment form and it remains to be seen what shape the finished product will take and how it portrays Borrisokane and its people.
One imagines that Dean Patrick Cahill, if he were around, would glean tremendous enjoyment from the whole buzz associated with Stella Days. Just as Michael Doorley’s book evoked that era in Borrisokane so explicitly, so too, hopefully, will Stella Days the film and Martin Sheen’s representation of the man responsible for bringing the Stella Cinema to the town, adequately reflect a special time there when, in the words of Michael Doorley, Borrisokane ‘had its own distinct rhythms and time honoured way of life’.

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