Neil Jordan: “I was homeless. The first thing that hits you is the shame”

Writer and director Neil Jordan was shunned by the Irish literary community for making films, but he's still proud of tackling terrorism, race, gender, and identity in The Crying Game

I was brought up in a middle-class suburb outside Dublin. It’s a lovely city but it was weird. Very Catholic, very priest-focused. I stopped going to Mass when I was 12.

My family were fine about it, there was no big crisis. I used to be an altar boy, which was quite a sweet thing to be, but I just dropped out. It just went from me, the whole religious world. Maybe it was sublimated by my imagination and preferring other stories. I hated football and all those boyish pursuits, and I didn’t do well at school. But I was happy in my world of books and music.

The opportunities for work in Dublin then, outside the civil service or working in a bus depot, were limited. I went off to London for a few years, worked on construction sites, things like that.

I was homeless for a while. These were the days before there was any Big Issue to sell. I don’t think people fully understand homelessness. The first thing that hits you when you’re on the streets is the shame. You’re filthy. And you become literally invisible. People just don’t see you. You become very aware of being excluded from the visible, freshly washed world. It’s the strangest experience. And because you’re so ashamed you don’t want to call anyone. The solution for me would have been to call my family but I was so full of shame I didn’t want to do that.

Neil Jordan with his wife Brenda Rawn and members of his family at the premier of Breakfast on Pluto in Dublin in 2006.

I got married young, and by the time I was 24 I had two young kids. I had a job in a railway depot. Then I went on the dole for a long time. I was a house husband, while my wife was a teacher. I was looking after the kids at home – not very well I might add. Though I was happy, I enjoyed that a lot. I never thought I’d have kids, it was kind of magical. I’d be at home scribbling away in this little cottage then I’d cycle to school to pick them up. That suited me quite well. But eventually I got sick of going into the labour exchange in Gardiner Street. So I started to write.

When I went to college I set up a drama group with a friend of mine, Jim Sheridan (who went on to direct My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father, In America). Then with my money from the dole and an arts council grant I set up a small publishing firm called the Irish Writers’ Co-operative and we began to publish books by friends of ours who couldn’t get published anywhere else. We all fully accepted that by writing we were choosing a life of poverty. But the firm became quite successful. By the mid-Seventies Ireland was starting to loosen up, become something quite different. Traditionally, Irish writers always had to go away. But around the mid-Seventies that changed – we decided to stay and make the culture work for us.

I don’t like watching my own films

If I was giving advice to my younger self I’d tell him to take himself more seriously. I’d tell him he’s more than a worthless bunch of instincts and ambitions and confusions. When you’re young you just think nothing you do has any value. Between that age and my early 20s I don’t think I believed my dreams and ideas had any value whatsoever. I thought I was unemployable. I seemed capable of writing but why would anyone ever value me for that? So when people began to publish my stories in the Irish press I was stunned that anyone took me seriously. I’d tell my younger self to be much more arrogant. He was shy, very introspective. But he was young and strong and full of ideas – he should have been saying to the world, hey, listen to me!

When I started writing movies it was regarded as a bit of a betrayal by Ireland’s literary community. I’d written a few novels by then so I was in ‘the club.’ There was a general feeling that making films was something novelists shouldn’t do – James Joyce or Flann O’Brien would never have done it. My 16-year-old self would never have considered that you could write books and make films as well. I think he’d have been impressed with how much you can say in a film.

Neil Jordan behind the camera on the set of 1992’s The Crying Game, with Miranda Richardson and Jaye Davidson.

I saw The Crying Game again recently and I was pleased to have made a film that was about so many things – terrorism, race, gender, identity. It was a very hard film to finance because it was about all those things  studios don’t want movies to be about. They don’t like anything complicated, real, disturbing or self-searching.

I don’t like watching my own films but sometimes I have to, if it’s an anniversary and I’m asked to look back on them. I watched Mona Lisa recently. It’s weird – I’d always thought movies were ways of disguising or telling lies about your feelings. I was shocked to see how much about myself I was actually giving away. Mona Lisa is a film about a man who genuinely doesn’t understand women. It’s full of these weird, naïve, romantic concepts about women, and I see now, that’s exactly what I was like when I made it, at 32. I wasn’t young but I didn’t know much.

When I started writing my book Carnivalesque I just thought I’d start and see where it took me. It’s weird to see now how close the book is to my own young life, the place it’s set, the world it’s set in. Boys change so much when they get to 14. You look at your teenage son and think, where did he come from? What could he have to do with me? Then when he’s older, unless there’s some severe damage, he’ll come back to you.

I think boys’ adolescence is far harder than girls’. Because they don’t have the language for it. So they become non-communicative. As a father I’ve been lucky in that I was always at home with my kids. My kids literally grew up around me.

I used to have tremendous arguments with my father when I was starting to write. He died quite suddenly – in fact I got a message telling me he’d died when I was showing my first film in Los Angeles. It’s a shame – we could have continued to have many more conversations if he’d lived. In the Fifties, fathers didn’t talk to their young sons. Much of what was going on remained unspoken. My father was a very good parent but there was a lot of unexpressed stuff going on, I do remember. I think that really hurt men in those days. But that’s the world, isn’t it – people die. And leave you with all these unexplored dialogues that you keep running in your head for the rest of your life.

Carnivalesque by Neil Jordan is out now (Bloomsbury, £16.99)

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