by Seán Lyons
Having performed with such luminaries of traditional music as Frankie Gavin, Johnny Ringo McDonagh and Tony Linnane, Conor Connolly is no stranger to rubbing shoulders with the greats. Perhaps this is what made him an ideal candidate to play a role in Martin McDonagh’s Oscar-nominated film The Banshees of Inisherin alongside the likes of Brendan Gleeson, Colin Farrell, Kerry Condon and Barry Keoghan.
A native of Clarinbridge and a stalwart of the Galway trad scene, Conor Connolly is a button accordion, piano player, and singer who has already achieved a great deal in his short musical career. In 2019, he became the TG4 Ceoltóir Óg na Bliana (Young Musician of the Year). He has toured extensively and represented Ireland at the World Expo in Dubai in 2021. Most recently, he played a sold-out solo show at TradFest Temple Bar.
Featuring in a Hollywood blockbuster like Banshees was not on Conor’s agenda when he received an unexpected phone call in midsummer 2021. “I didn’t audition or anything like that,” he says. “I got a phone call from Conor Byrne who was the musical coordinator of the film. He couldn’t tell me a lot. He said ‘it’s fairly big but we don’t even have a title on it yet’.”
Conor was drafted in to play the non-speaking part of one of several “music students from Lisdoonvarna” who come to the fictional island of Inisherin to learn from Brendan Gleeson’s character. His fellow musicians included John Carty, James Carty, Ryan Owens and Oliver Farrelly.
“Early on, we didn’t know what to make of it but it was only when we were on location that we got the feel for it and we knew that it was going to be something special,” he says.
“I immediately started thinking about what accordions I could get from that period”
At this early stage, Conor’s mind was less concerned with red carpets as it was with finding the right instrument. “We were told that the time period was the early 20s during the Civil War. I immediately started thinking about what accordions I could get from that period.” Eventually, he found one that suited; “a small little two-voice international in C#D.”
Rehearsing with the stars
Preliminary rehearsals for Banshees took place in August 2021. “We were brought into the RTÉ studios in Galway for fitting, and hair and makeup,” he says. They warned me not to get a fade for the next six months. I hate my hair long, especially on the back and sides – it was like hell.”
“The following day, we were brought to the Druid Theatre. The actors had been in there rehearsing. We were waiting outside in the lobby. Pat Shortt and Jon Kenny were there, Kenny Condon was there and a few of the other actors like Gary Lydon.”
“I remember seeing this lad with a Nike peaked cap pulled down, shades on, really modestly dressed in jeans and trainers that were worn in. He lifted up his head and it was Colin Farrell.”
The music of Banshees
Even in pre-production, Conor was acutely aware of the vital role that music would play in Banshees. “The music gives the whole feel to the film,” he says. “It fills in so much and it gives the actors a feeling of how to develop their characters.”
During rehearsals, one of the main tasks that Conor and his musical counterparts had was to learn the tune which Gleeson, an accomplished musician in his own right, was composing for the film.
“Brendan was composing his tune during this stage and we were learning it from him. He was thinking it had a Donegal feel to it – a fling or a highland feel. You’d think the tune was very basic but it took us ages.”
“Brendan champions the musicians because he was Martin’s ear. Martin would have his own strong opinions on the music based on what he’s seen for certain films. Himself and Brendan would be going over and back.”
Conor Connolly (centre) during filming with Ryan Owens (left) and Jon Kenny (right).
Filming Banshees on Achill
Banshees was filmed on Achill Island in the winter of 2021. “We were put up in the Mulranny Park Hotel,” he says. “Brendan had his own house and he invited us over to pay through the tunes and make sure everyone was comfortable.”
“The call time was seven o’clock in the morning and we were brought to Achill by minibus. It was myself, Ryan Owens, James Carty, Pat Shortt, Jon Kenny and Gary Lydon – all of us in this minivan going out to Achill in the dark in the winter.”
“We’d arrive at this ‘camp’ where we’d have our own little changing rooms. Our costumes would already be hung. We’d get changed, get the hair done, get the makeup done. While you’d be waiting around, you’d get your breakfast and a cup of tea from the catering. You’d be picked up again then and brought to where the pub is.”
He remembers being in awe of the actors around him and fascinated by their methods. “I had so much respect for them,” he says. “Colin (Farrell) doesn’t drink or smoke anymore. He downed a full pint of Guinness 00 just to get into character before the drunk scene when he staggers up to Brendan.”
“I’d say there was easily 45 takes although they were nailing it every time,” he recalls. “We’d have to pretend to be playing in the background. They’d do 45 from Brendan’s point of view and then they’d have to do the exact same from Colin’s point of view. That went on for about five hours.”
“Out in the marquee, Ryan was teaching Barry (Keoghan) how to do a few steps and myself and Brendan were playing for them”
Waiting aside, he remembers the atmosphere being relaxed and upbeat. “Out in the marquee, Ryan was teaching Barry (Keoghan) how to do a few steps and myself and Brendan were playing for them. On our final day, they said ‘and that’s a wrap for the musicians!’. We got great pictures. Nice little memories.”
Countdown to the Oscars
Although Conor’s invitation to the Oscars was lost in the post, he was grateful to be invited to the premiere of The Banshees of Inisherin at the Lighthouse Cinema in Dublin in October 2022 where he and John Carty provided the music.
While his part in the film was small, Conor, along with the rest of the cast and crew, is proud to have been a cog in the nine-time Oscar-nominated machine. Speaking on his experience at the premiere, he says “it was the first time I’ve seen every single person wait to watch the credits of a film.”
Asked if he would like to work on a film in the future, Conor replies “Definitely. It was so depressing coming out of it and going back to reality. Overall it was a brilliant experience. Brilliant atmosphere and the big egos were left at the door.”