feast or famine | 

Star of new RTE drama North Sea Connection says its a ‘unique show’

“Telling great stories in Irish or English is a gift”


Dónall Ó Héalai on the red carpet© ??  `??_/O????????

Sunday World

They say it’s either a feast or a famine in the precarious world of acting, and that certainly seems to ring true for Dónall Ó Héalai. Since starring in Great Hunger epic Arracht in 2019, the Galway man has never been busier.

As the TG4 alumnus pops up on primetime RTÉ television next weekend, however, it may well be the first time many viewers have seen him without subtitles.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the case,” Dónall says over the phone from a sun-drenched Spiddal during the recent heatwave. “Certainly most of my work has been in the Irish language, in Ireland in any case; so I’m delighted to be part of the team and really looking forward to the show getting out to the public now.”

Set on the scenic west coast of Ireland, North Sea Connection, premiering this day week, follows thirty-something fisherwoman Ciara Kenny (played by Sing Street star Lydia McGuinness), whose life is blown off course after her brother Aidan (Game of Thrones’ Kerr Logan) becomes embroiled with a Swedish drugs cartel.

With just this teaser to go on,Magazine+ perhaps unimaginatively floats the notion of ‘Kin on the Atlantic’, when its star assures that the six-part series will paddle its own canoe in the crowded crime genre, not least thanks to a female-led cast which also includes the likes of Sinéad Cusack.

Dónall Ó Héalai opposite Lydia McGuinness in new Irish crime drama North Sea Connection

“I think it’s quite a unique show, to be honest,” tells Dónall, who plays deckhand Shane McDonagh, who gets caught up in the trouble with the siblings.

“It’s an Irish-Swedish co-production and there’s Swedish characters in the show. There is a unique feel and texture to the show, and I don’t know if it’s similar to Kin and Love/Hate in that regard.

“We shot around an incredible part of the world: Renvyle, Letterfrack, Glassilaun, all around the northern edge of Connemara. So the landscape is a big part of the show. I think it’s its own thing.”

The 35-year-old previously portrayed a fisherman facing even stormier times when framed for murder in Tomás Ó Súilleabháin’s Famine-set success, which got a delayed released last year due to Covid-19.

Irish actor Dónall Ó Héalai© Getty Images for US-Ireland Alli

And the actor recalls how he was considering his career options while living in New York when he reeled in his breakout part in the Oscar long-listed film, which separately scored him an IFTA nomination.

“I had taken a step back and when Tom approached me with the script it wasn’t a case that there was an offer on the table. He was submitting the script and [asked] would I be interested in being attached to it. So then when it all got greenlit and the film was funded it was great,” explains Dónall, who was honoured at the Oscar Wilde Awards, celebrating Irish talent in Hollywood, earlier this year.

“We certainly knew with Arracht that it was a very important story and we cared a lot about it. I suppose the creative life is one with plenty of ups and downs, so any time you get a chance to do work that you really care about it’s a gift.”

Awards magnetAn Cailín Ciúin, Doineannand Róise & Frank,are just a few more of the titles bringing Irish-language film to a worldwide audience like never before.

And, following on from his sensitive turn as a bereaved recluse in this year’s Foscadh, now Dónall — who started out as a homegrown heartthrob in TG4 teen drama Aifric — is being billed as Ireland’s first real Irish-language superstar.

“How do I feel about that,” he laughs, repeating the question. “I suppose when you’re making a film and creating a story, you do hope that it transcends language to some extent. Working in English, Irish, or any other language, hopefully the story will affect people at a place that maybe goes beyond that.

“It’s been amazing to see the increase of Irish-language projects, be they feature films or drama series, in particular when you look at [TG4 film-making initiative] Cine4 in the last few years. I wasn’t expecting it — I don’t think any of us were — just to see how it’s grown, how people’s interests are obviously there.

“I’m just very happy to be telling interesting stories — that’s why I do what I do and that’s what I love about it.”

Yet Dónall’s biggest role to date could be one even the most devoted cinephile has never heard of — voicing an outlaw immigrant in best-selling video game Red Dead Redemption 2.

“It’s crazy how popular the game is,” says the star, who next appears as a boxer in upcoming Irish film, Clinch. “I’ve only played it once and I think I died far too soon!”

North Sea Connection starts on RTÉ One tonight at 9.30pm

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