A tour through Dublin as it is, was and can be in North Circular

Director: Luke McManus Featuring: Lisa O’Neill, John Francis Flynn, Séan Ó Túama, Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin, Ian Lynch, Gemma Dunleavy Running Time: 80 minutes

“Those in power write the history, those who struggle write the songs”. North Circular quotes Frank Harte’s assertion, and in its journey through the length of the North Circular Road, stopping off for snippets of life from Phoenix Park to Dublin Port, it aims to expand on that meaning. It gives equal voice to the song and the struggle, a comprehensive history and very current rumination on expression, identity and culture, going far beyond north Dublin, to Ireland as a whole. With what, how much and why are those who struggle struggling? From brass bands to football chants, sean-nós to dance music, the people of the Northside are given room in Luke McManus’ warm and engaging doc to assert themselves, to step outside struggle, to explain, expand and enjoy those songs.

The documentary literally takes us from stop to stop along the North Circular Road, giving snapshots of people living in Stoneybatter, Phibsborough (the Bohemians section is personally, thankfully, short) and more. Intimate stories of growing up in the flats, or of stretches and struggles in Mountjoy or St. Brendan’s, pull the viewer in, making them at home with McManus’ interviewees. Keeping the subjects in voice and always front and centre of the camera, never hearing from the director, keeps these accounts from being exploitative. The fact that there’s always a next stop on the road to get to eschews easy answers, or doc-friendly framing – the emotion of each moment speaks for itself. Always people are expressing their own stories, in their own terms, history and song united.

Using the writing and performance of music as a unifying theme, North Circular makes the case for the importance of Dublin as a cultural space. It’s vital to see artistic expression from the ground up, something personal, rather than product. We see Gemma Dunleavy recording at home, immigrants drum while young fellas sincerely join them for a dance and a bit of craic. It’s so easy for Ireland to buy into its own bullshit as a home of culture, but its all just hot PR unless it comes from somewhere, and the doc shows us those places.

A core strand through the film the efforts through 2021 to save the famous Cobblestone Pub, a centre of Dublin’s new folk and trad scene, from destruction at the hands of property developers. Images of mock caskets marching through Dublin are resonant through the camera’s black and white. We’re so used to hearing about the city’s slow descent into hotel hell and though the Cobblestone now has its stay of execution and raised profile, it’s vital to zoom into the macro, to see what it means to the Mulligan family, to view it as a space for performance. For the individuals outwards, what’s at stake in selling Dublin’s soul becomes clear. As a place to build community, as a hub for people to beat their addictions and experience their changing identities, as somewhere with thousands of personal histories to build on top of its big one in the books, McManus shows us what the people of Dublin stand to lose when there’s no homes for them to live in.

Equal parts sensitive and celebratory, the film’s 80 minutes flies by in a comprehensive view of a variety of lives. It’s hard when you live in the middle of Dublin, of any place truth be told, and hear it torn down from the outside. When you hear politicians and friends alike dismiss the inner city as an unsightly hell, when you see council notices and company press releases unfeelingly announce the next part of town that they’re tearing away, it’s worth remembering the people heard in North Circular, the joy that comes in the closing moments listening to Dunleavy’s Up De Flats over footage of a victorious parade for Kellie Harrington. These songs are such bangers, so why aren’t these people writing the history too?

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

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