South Roscommon's Philip Dolan in a scene from 'That They May Face the Rising Son', the film of John McGahern's acclaimed novel which closes the Dublin International Film Festival this Saturday night (March 2).

First-time actor Philip 'pinching himself' ahead of Dublin premiere

A chance encounter at a South Roscommon Singers Circle session in Knockcroghery has opened up a whole new world for a local man, who is relishing his big screen debut and being a first-time actor in his mid 70s.

Rewind to February of 2022, when director Pat Collins visited Murray's Bar, Knockcroghery for a documentary he was making on Traveller singer Thomas McCarthy, who has Offaly roots and is a regular visitor to the group's festival and sessions. With filming completed, Pat Collins sat down to listen to the other contributions on the night and Philip Dolan's witty story of his childhood in Glangevlin in west Cavan struck a chord, so much so, that he offered the Roscommon man a part in his next project, a film of John Gahern's acclaimed final novel 'That They May Face the Rising Sun'.

“Pat heard one of my stories and he told me afterwards that's my Jamesie (the character in the film). I don't know why or how he made the decision,” laughed Philip this week, as he geared himself up for the Irish premiere at the Dublin International Film Festival this Saturday (March 2), prior to a general cinema release at the end of April.

With absolutely no acting experience, the Roscommon man and a big John McGahern fan has been “pinching himself” ever since and described the rehearsals in Leenane, and filming in Connemara in the summer of 2022 as “the best time of my life”.

Set in rural Ireland of the late 1970s/1980s, 'That They May Face the Rising Sun' is McGahern's final novel and it follows the story of Joe (Barry Ward) and Kate (Anna Bederke), who have returned from London to live and work in a small close-knit community near where Joe grew up.

Now embedded in life around the lake, the drama of a year in their lives and of the memorable characters around them unfolds through the rituals of work on the farm, play and the passing seasons of a bygone Ireland.

It's what Philip described as the beautiful “complex simplicity” of McGahern's writing depicting the characters of a rural community with all their good points and faults and failings.

Even though it is set in the recent past, Philip said rural life has changed so much in just a few short decades.

“The difference in life from then to now is unbelievable. It's totally different and I think what Pat or John McGahern was trying to show us is this sort of quiet life around the lake where not a lot happens but yet everything happens,” he mused.

It's generally accepted by many that the novel is based on the experiences of John McGahern and his wife on their return to Leitrim. The character Philip plays, Jamesie, is a type of a local advisor to the couple, and he based him on the many characters he met growing up in Cavan and later in Roscommon.

“It was the best time of my life,” the South Roscommon man said of the filming experience. “Looking back on it I grew in confidence after the first week went by,” he enthused, heaping praise on the director Pat Collins and his co-stars like Barry Ward, the main character who he shares most of his scenes with.

“He (Barry) got into the habit of giving me a smile or a thumbs up (during a scene). That meant an awful lot to me to get his approval,” explained Philip, who actually opens the film with that 'hello, hello, hello' greeting so familiar in rural Ireland. An old character, he has the habit of telling people who they are and where they are, he laughed.

Knockcroghery's Philip Dolan in the middle of the photo pictured with the cast of 'That They May Face the Rising Sun' at the film's premiere in London last October.

While getting the part was one coincidence, that was only the start. It is generally accepted that the character of Jamesie is actually based on Philip's brother's brother-in-law, a man who accompanied McGahern on trips to the mart or to the factory in Athleague, and the pair often stopped off in Murray's Bar in Knockcroghery on their way back to Leitrim.

Philip, who lives with his wife Marina in the old Station House in Knockcroghery village, also believes that his character's name could well have been a nod to the great Jimmy (Jamesie) Murray, the revered All-Ireland winning captain of 1943 and 1944, who McGahern greatly admired for his footballing exploits.

Having worked overseas in the oil industry all his life, spending a lot of time in Paris, over 20 years in Africa, and places like Taiwan, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan on big sites, the experience gave Philip great respect for director Pat Collins and how he worked on the set.

“I'm old enough to remember the fair and you'd have an old farmer, a cattle dealer who would lean back against the wall, observe things and chew a bit of grass.

"Then just at the right time, he'd make the right move. That was Pat, he'd stand there and then nod or make a move. It was a lovely set to work on.”

Despite having absolutely no acting experience, Philip said he wasn't phased by it because he knew, and had come across many of the characters depicted in the film, like McGahern's uncle or the auctioneer/publican, whose business he had visited in Leitrim.

“I didn't even bother to act. I based Jamesie on old characters I grew up with Glangevlin, not too far from where the book is set,” or the characters who visited the family when they moved to Knockcroghery.

With really positive reviews from the London premiere in October and more recently in the US, he hopes the film is received well back home too. Either way, he said the whole experience has been just “wonderful”.

“I really enjoyed London because you asked me am I pinching myself, of course I am. My sister is in London and she has been there since 1960, and for them (the premiere in Leicester square) was great.

"To be able to sit with them and see your mug coming up on the big screen. You have to pinch yourself, is this real?”.

While Philip modestly brushes off any talk of more acting work, he is looking forward to recording one of McGahern's stories for radio in conjunction with a local group in the near future, and will continue to tell stories at South Roscommon Singers Circle, joking that he can't sing!

Philp Dolan pictured on the left in a scene from the the film of John McGahern's acclaimed novel 'That They May Face the Rising Sun' alongside the main character of Joe, played by Barry Ward. The film will go on general release at the end of April.