The Monday Club

New feature film written and directed by Brian Mulholland is a love letter to his home city. 'The Belfast psyche is peculiar. We slag each other out of love. That's worth celebrating'

When filmmaker Brian Mulholland set out to make The Monday Club, his intentions were relatively humble. He wished to tell a story of Belfast that went beyond the usual trappings. Violence and political chaos held little interest.

Rather, it was the people that drew his focus. It was they who made the city what it undoubtedly once was: an important and vibrant place. As he describes it, The Monday Club is 'a love letter to Belfast'.

Following a warmly received screening at the Belfast Film Festival last month, The Monday Club will show in the Belfast Barge on Monday, May 18 before making its Queen’s Film Theatre debut 12 days later.

An experienced director of independent short films, Mulholland has been promoting that section of the industry for many years through his series of Film Devour festivals held mainly in Belfast's Black Box. He says that Northern Ireland’s shorts sector is doing very well – ‘It looks a hell of a lot better than it did’ – fuelled by a variety of indigenous talents, interesting genres and styles.

Something more personal inspired his current journey in feature-length work, however – something close to his own experiences as a child of his hometown’s distinctive tapestry. 

‘I come from a working-class background in Belfast, and for all the hardships I laughed a lot,’ Mulholland recalls. ‘The Belfast psyche is peculiar. We slag each other a lot, but that’s out of love and camaraderie. You’ve earned it through friendship, being able to push each other’s buttons. I think that’s where the comedy lies, and our strength.’ 

The Monday Club’s story is at once simple and, perhaps, familiar to many.

Veteran actor Derek Halligan plays Danny, the last of a diminishing breed. This former docker attends his favourite pub every Monday in part to reminisce, but also to maintain a tradition linked to the titular gathering, one whose membership of old dockworkers has been picked off by time.

Danny is the last of an original set, ‘the magnificent seven’, that once embodied a fraternity girded by steel, forged in the din of now-silent shipyards. His recollections, delivered to camera, stand as a paean to Belfast's industrial past, which now seems long departed. 

His contributions are not the only elements to the film, however. The film also includes admirable performances from a youthful cast, including Shaun Blaney, Robbie Beggs, Zoe Smedberg and Katie Richardson, leader of the band Katie and the Carnival. Yet Danny remains the essential link to a bygone age.

‘Belfast is not without its flaws, but there is a lot of character here,' says Mulholland. 'I wanted to put that character up on screen and tell positive stories. I haven’t really seen Belfast celebrated as much as it should have been.'

Mulholland suggests that his characters in the film have much to say about ‘universal themes of life, loss and love.’ Indeed, he contends that his picture ‘might feel melancholy but, at the same time, it’s a celebration of friendship'.

The subject matter may be broad, but it brings to the fore a part of Belfast’s history that all of its residents should feel proud to remember. Ultimately, the writer and director felt a connection with those who built mighty inventions for a still vast world, and with The Monday Club, he is determined to see those accomplishments properly recognised. 

The docks are a good jumping-off point,’ Mulholland muses. ‘There are so many stories from down and around there. It was a time when we were building, not destroying. That’s worth celebrating more than we do.’  

On a human level, he speaks of how such deeds bound a proud workforce together in spite of religious and political differences.

The Monday Club, Belfast film

The men who worked in the docks shared a brotherhood. If you do a word association with Belfast, after the Troubles, it’s usually Titanic. That is one of the positive things about the city in previous eras, these ships that we were sending out into the world. The men who built them had to share a real loyalty and friendship, so that was my starting point, that community.’

When it played at the 2015 Belfast Film Festival, Mulholland’s newest project induced a standing ovation from a full house. The hard-working filmmaker feels proud that The Monday Club should have touched something in the hearts of its audience, especially those belonging to the generation that Mulholland wishes to acknowledge and even acclaim.

‘It is a fading era,’ he agrees. ‘You don’t see elderly gentlemen drinking in city centre pubs anymore. That old-style Belfast pub, the working-man’s club, is disappearing now.’

Refreshingly, Mulholland avoided the shadow of Northern Ireland's late unpleasantness, this society’s fixation with its own divisions, so as to define his film by another standard. ‘That was a purely conscious effort on my part. 

'The religious denominations of the characters have been fudged deliberately, purely because that’s not what it’s about. It’s about family,’ he concludes. 

‘I think it’s maybe time to move on. I didn’t want to go too deep into the politics but to tell a story about great characters from Belfast, how they emote, how some suffer loss and others celebrate life. Through our little differences, we’re all basically the same.’

The Monday Club will screen at the Belfast Barge on May 18 – with limited space, email to attend – and at Queen’s Film Theatre on May 30.