Phil Kelly is the young anti-hero of Clash Of the Ash. A restless teenager, a fan of The Cramps and The Pogues, great at Hurling but with a strong aversion to studying. Pressured by those around him – from his Mum to do well at his exams, his Dad to take a job at the local garage and his hurling manager to prove himself on the field. This short film manages to tell its story of the frustration of small-town Irish life with a great deal of humour and compassion.
Clash Of The Ash was written and directed by Fergus Tighe in 1987. It was shot on 16mm with a running time of just over 50 minutes and won Best Irish Short at the Cork Film Festival that year. Some months later the film was broadcast on RTÉ 1 where it made quite an impression on my teenage self – primarily because it contained a lot that I could identify with.
Phil Kelly (played by William Heffernan) is the anti-hero; a restless teenager imbued with natural hurling ability and a strong aversion to studying. The location is not fictitious but instead it’s the very real Fermoy in County Cork which is a welcome touch. Like much of 1980s smalltown Ireland it’s a claustrophobic place that drives people away but inexplicably retains a strange sort of hold on them. The latter is exemplified by Gina Moxley’s character, the tempestuous Mary Hartnett who has returned after a stint in London. The other members of their gang are languid Martin (Vincent Murphy), uptight Willy, and mousey Rosie who carries a torch for Phil. Control and the expectations of others are what Phil fights against. Kelly Senior wants him to take on a job in the local garage while his nagging and snobbish mother has her sights set on him getting a good Leaving Cert. Meanwhile on the sports field the coach Mick Barry (Alan Devlin) has high hopes that his star player will make the county minors and by extension a job in the bank.
“The GAA looks after its own”.
There is a keen build-up to the upcoming match against local rivals Mitchelstown. But Phil isn’t happy. He prefers to train alone (running down a hill backwards and belting a tennis ball around a handball alley) and just can’t apply himself in school. He has little interest in what his well-meaning father can arrange for him and clashes with his mother about late nights and “cavorting with gurriers”.
“It would be more in your line to think about the Leaving Cert”.
Music plays a key part in Clash Of The Ash. Phil wears a Cramps t-shirt, has a Rum, Sodomy and The Lash poster stuck to the bedroom wall and spins Dirty Old Town on the turntable. Mary complains about sharing a house with NME hopefuls The Saints and Scholars while it’s revealed that Martin is talented musician but lacks the motivation to take it to the next level. In a pivotal sequence the gang borrow Willy’s father’s car and drive into Mitchelstown to see The Big Guns play the local nightclub. An exercise in pint stealing means a clash with angry punters and an increase in tension with Murphy (Phil’s nemesis and hurler on the opposing team). The ill-feeling between the two players explodes during the crucial game. It proves to be a turning point in Phil’s life.
Clash Of The Ash takes place in a world of Silk Cut posters in shop windows, radio clips of Michael Lyster reading soccer results, interminably boring Irish classes and lessons in how to skip mass effectively. The television in the pub is tuned to RTÉ’s Closedown (national anthem), the Sunday Press costs 50p, the dole is paid on Tuesdays and the bank is seen as an ideal career choice. While drifting down the river Martin wistfully remembers a time when local trains still ran and flattened ha’pennies so wide that they could be used to buy penny sweets from the almost-blind shopkeeper. However the sense of claustrophobia is ever-present and the drift towards emigration an inevitable outcome. The moral: when others try to run your life then escape becomes necessary.