A Mighty Celt

The relentless rise of screenwriter and director Pearse Elliot

One of Northern Ireland’s leading screenwriters, Pearse Elliot has recently made his directorial debut with The Mighty Celt, a story about a young Belfast boy who gets caught up in the underground world of greyhound racing.

Starring Gillian Anderson and Robert Carlyle, the film premiered at the Dublin Film Festival in February 2005 and was also nominated for the Crystal Bear Award at the Berlinale Festival in the same month.

The Mighty Celt was shot in Belfast and charts the experiences of Donal (Tyrone McKenna, pictured above), a fourteen year old boy who adopts a greyhound and trains him to become a champion contender with the help of Good Joe (Ken Stott).

As the story develops, Donal’s mother Kate (Gillian Anderson) forms a bond with a former IRA man called O (Robert Carlyle), who has recently returned to the city. But soon Donal starts to learn more about O’s real identity, forcing him to face the past and his approaching adulthood.

Financed by BBC Film, the Irish Film Board, the Northern Irish Film and Television Commission and TV3, The Mighty Celt is widely seen as Elliot’s breakthrough work and proof that Northern Irish film can attract big names to work in the burgeoning industry.

In 2004, Elliot confirmed his potential as a screenwriter with the BBC production Pulling Moves. A fast-paced comedy drama set in and around the streets of west Belfast, where Elliot grew up, it treated the city and its residents in a manner that verged on the irreligious.

Starring Ciaran McMenamin, Simon Delaney, Kevin Elliot and Ciaran Nolan, the series followed the progress of four friends trying to make ends meet by increasingly unconventional means.

‘These guys survive and augment their manual labour jobs by opportunistic and sometimes altruistic motives,’ explained Elliot.

‘The lads aren’t criminals or lazy, just men who exist in every working class community in the UK and Ireland, only with the added bonus that we [in Northern Ireland] have this colourful world and background as their environment.’

Pulling Moves was a gutsy, honest and unapologetic portrayal of ordinary people, which included a collection of strange and intriguing characters.

‘The characters are mostly based on people I’ve met over the years and some of the things I’ve got up to myself,’ said Elliot. ‘I’ve tried to make the series very fresh and capture the way people are, the way they talk and the Irish humour that has always been a part of West Belfast.’

Elliot has always been a writer. As a child he dreamt up stories in old school jotters, the hard work eventually paying off when he won a prestigious BBC young playwrights competition in 1995. From there he was offered his first commissions, which led to A Rap at the Door (1999), Elliot’s debut work for television.

Starring Ciaran McMenamin, Maria Connelly and Patrick O’Kane, the drama consisted of three emotionally fraught monologues from two brothers and their sister, whose mother had mysteriously disappeared years previously.

A Rap at the Door showcased Elliot’s ability to get under the skin of his characters and garnered widespread acclaim. It announced the arrival of a distinctive voice, unwilling to explore the usual avenues of Northern Irish drama, but portray a much starker and realistic world.

Elliot has often argued that the Belfast he grew up in was largely misrepresented in drama, a fault he has been keen to address. His mission has been to highlight the stories of ordinary people on screen, exposing all their hopes, quirks and foibles:

‘I was sick to death of inept dramas made about the North that certainly weren’t representative of my community and were made by people that hadn’t the first clue who the people were. So I wanted to address that from a fresh, rather than formulaic point of view.’

In 2004, Elliot collaborated with Paddy Breathnach, director of I Went Down, on the raucous comedy Man About Dog (2004). The film followed a group of friends attempting to succeed at greyhound racing but falling foul of a group of criminal travellers.

It used a cast of relative unknowns and many of the locals Elliot had grown up with as extras. The characterisation, dialogue and knockabout farce were not to everyone’s taste and the film was widely criticised, but it displayed an energy and verve that attracted the cinema going public.

Elliot is working on a bewildering array of future projects including a novel and a slasher movie set in Co Antrim. He has proved that there is a demand for original voices in Northern Irish drama and has brought vitality, edge and humour to the scene.