An Irish Wake

The question I get asked most frequently (other than “What time is it?” “What would you like to order?” and “Were you born with that?”) is “What’s happening with the Irish thing?”

Paddywhacking. I’ve been calling it Paddywhacking because I’m a smartass and nobody likes the actual working title, The Irish Connection. You know it if you read the blog.

After my return from Ireland last winter, new drafts of episodes one and two were prepared while I waited around to see how they would play into my current drafts of three and four. We were hoping, with the next round of rewrites, to finally get all four hours of the miniseries into linear working order — one we could at last call a real first draft that contained all the characters and story elements and plot lines we wanted to run with. From there it would just be a simple matter of fine tuning the machine through subsequent drafts and then playing it all out in front of the cameras.

By the summer of 2005 I was asked to do some quick additional work on the first half of the story in preparation for my overhaul of the back half. Once that was turned in, we were, by my estimate at least, fourteen days of writing away from the holy grail we’d sought for so long. Roughly two hundred pages of screenplay that held water and all made sense as one huge story. And was maybe even entertaining to boot.

New contracts were drafted, additional fees raised. And then, just as two years of work were about to pay off…nothing.

There’s a term for this phenomenon. Development hell. It’s very common, but knowing that doesn’t cushion the blow much when it happens to you. In my case, this particular trip through Dante’s pre-production inferno came courtesy of shake-ups on the Canadian end of the project. Our broadcaster, the mighty CBC, chose this particular moment in time to play musical chairs with all the executive staff. New people were put in charge and old go projects were suddenly up for re-evaluation. Then the Canadian production company had their own staff switcheroo. The upshot was that some people left, some people stayed, some people were replaced, and some were not. And with all the rethinking going on, our entire project — probably just one of many in the mill that suffered the same fate — stalled. And it stayed stalled.

And then months went by. And then a year. And then something else happened. The final, symbolic nail in the coffin.

Among our various research outings — to Darndale, to the ice bridge, etc. — there had been a meal. This was a special meal, arranged through the grace of some convoluted mob ties. Over the course of a dinner, set to take place in a secluded and expensive Old Montreal restaurant, we were to sit down and pick the brain of a real live Irish gangster. His candid discussion of his line of work was meant to give us the necessary insight to flavour the miniseries script accordingly.

Mister X, as I shall unimaginatively refer to him, arrived after the rest of us were seated. He was dressed in a dark suit, with gold chains and slicked back hair. And he looked like a gangster. Or, at least, he looked like Ray Liotta playing a gangster in a Scorsese film. It’s hard to say if the movies reflect reality or vice versa sometimes.

Introductions were made all around. It was understood that Mister X could not discuss anything that might incriminate himself or the members of his family. This was a reasonable caution on his part, considering one of his brothers was already in jail awaiting trial for one count of murder and two counts of kidnapping. Or was it two murders and one kidnapping? I could never keep that straight. Anyway, we were assured by Mister X that his brother was innocent of all charges. Wink wink.

His anecdotes were often vague, filled with statements like, “Things were said,” “Things were done,” “Some things happened.” We were left to assume that none of these things were very pleasant for those on the receiving end. Although he tiptoed around the specifics, statements like, “The only thing that works better than violence is extreme violence,” didn’t leave a whole lot of ambiguity lying on the table next to the bread rolls.

Some of his stories weren’t always appropriate for dinner conversation, like one about an associate’s miraculous survival after a particularly bloody altercation. “And there were these fucking Cambodians cooking a dog in the bathtub, and they set the building on fire,” he told us, winding down to the punch line. “So the firemen come, and they find him lying there with the knife in his neck. And he’s still alive.”

The details of how the brothers X ran their money-making ventures were outlined for us as a simple business model. Someone looking to start, renovate, or forestall bankruptcy on a small business — say a restaurant or bar — would come to the brothers for a loan no bank would give them. If the brothers liked the look of this business and thought they might care to own it themselves, they coughed up the money. If the borrower was able to pay them back at a huge interest rate, fair enough. If he fell behind and couldn’t make good, the brothers would move in and take over the business.

“He meant ‘take over’ the business,” one producer told me later, pointing his finger and making a trigger-squeezing gesture.

“Yeah,” I replied, “I read between the lines.”

In this way, they ended up “owning” all sorts of joints, high class, low class, and everything in between, all over town. They weren’t the owners on any sort of legal document, but it was clear who was boss. If you don’t mind applying a bit of muscle now and then, this is how you expand, this is how you succeed. This is how you piss off the wrong people.

Fast forward to a few months ago. Our research soirée was becoming a distant memory when an innocent question was dropped during a conversation.

“Did you hear one of the X-brothers got shot?” This in an otherwise mundane discussion of recent local events.

I hadn’t heard a thing. “Really? Which one?”

Our one.

A trip to the recycling bin produced the relevant newspaper articles. The hit came in the middle of the night, outside Mister X’s suburban home. The photo showed a field of police evidence markers numbering all the spent shell casings littered throughout the scene. By all accounts is was a hail of gunfire that made the demise of Sonny Corleone seem like a gentle passing.

Again I read between the lines, this time from newspaper copy. I gleaned the reaction of various X-family members I’d heard about or met, and caught the usual hints reporters like to drop without stepping over nebulous legal boundaries. Cute phrases like, “known to police,” and “a settling of affairs” get sprinkled in just enough to paint a picture without making specific accusations that might invite lawsuits. Who ordered the hit and why remained obscure. A simple, unrevealing obituary ran a couple of days later under a picture of a familiar face. If any heads rolled in the aftermath, the media never connected the dots, and I haven’t heard a peep about the murder or the X family since.

That, for me, was the final demise of the whole Irish show. Many months had passed since the last bit of news about the project, and then this struck like a piece of punctuation at the end of a sentence. A bullet-hole period.

Is it possible the miniseries may rise from the dead and put everyone back to work sometime in the future? Anything can happen. Especially when two public broadcasters and two film companies pour that much time and money into developing a high profile international co-production. But I’m not holding my breath, and neither should you.

So the next time you run into me and want to ask about my work, there’s all sorts of cartoon news I can share. But please, let dead Irishmen lie.

Yet they were of a different kind,
The names that stilled your childish play,
They have gone about the world like wind,
But little time had they to pray
For whom the hangman’s rope was spun,
And what, God help us, could they save?
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

– William Butler Yeats

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