A Tribute to Liam O’Neill by WGI Board Member Joe O’Byrne

8th June 2020 by admin

(21st May 1956 – 29th May 2020)
An Appreciation

The recession of the 1980’s was a difficult time in the history of Ireland, forcing countless people to emigrate. But there were also very many who didn’t, because they had ideas, plans, dreams, and were prepared to live through the straitened times, and fight to make a contribution to the country’s regeneration. One of those was Liam O’Neill. His strong sense of commitment may have been due to the fact that he was born in Chicago, American first generation Irish, his mother returning to Dublin with Liam and his siblings in 1968, when Liam was twelve. Liam did his secondary schooling here, then went to UCD to study philosophy and psychology, funding his student years by heading to Alaska in summertime to fish on trawlers.

Clearly his first Arts degree wasn’t going to get him a job in early 1980’s recession Ireland, but he always had the dream of becoming a filmmaker. So he applied to the Dun Laoghaire Art College – now the National Film School – and was accepted onto its fledgling film course. Liam was one of its first graduates and he emerged in the mid 1980’s as a budding director, writer, cinematographer, at a time when there was next to no film industry here.

But there were a lot of ideas, plans, and ambitions in the air despite the recession. Many organisations would emerge, and Liam was always a formative part of them. For four years in the early 1990s Liam was chairman of Film Base, the filmmakers’ resource centre, which was followed by participation on the Board of Media Desk. These organisations in their own way contributed to the opening up of the Irish film industry and the energy behind them were part of the impetus for the re-constitution of the Irish Film Board (now Screen Ireland) in 1993. He conceived and co-founded IFTN, the Irish Film and Television Network, which to this day is an important information resource centre for the film and television business. Liam contributed a huge amount of energy and time to these enterprises on a voluntary basis, and they are an important part of the early chapter of the history of our current media landscape.

Aside from his general commitment to the industry, Liam had his own talent and ambition to foster. While developing his early film projects, he also spread his creative wings further than film, and worked with Co-Motion Theatre Company for a number of years, producing, directing, doing lighting design and photography, and was involved with a number of key productions at the Dublin Theatre Festivals between 1988 and 1991, which included “The Ghost of Saint Joan”, “The Sinking of the Titanic”, and “Vlad the Impaler”, which he directed.

As the landscape for film improved, Liam set up Paradox Pictures in 1990, and produced a significant number of feature films, including “Pete’s Meteor”, which premiered as part of the Berlinale 1998, “How Harry Became a Tree”, premiering in competition at the Venice Film Festival 2001, and “Separation Anxiety. Liam was always prepared to produce and help other filmmakers get their films made, just as while a student he reached out to students in the years below him in a respectful and inclusive way, and later as a lecturer he brought the same qualities to his teaching work at various institutions such the National Film School, NCAD, and the Dundalk Institute of Technology.

But his own first love was directing and writing, and his credits include “Frankie and Johnnie”, “The Barber Shop”, “Northern Lights”, “Lost and Found”, and most recently “Danny Boy”, and “Kathleen”. When he fell ill Liam was preparing to shoot the film he co-wrote, “The Spectator”, and was completing the development of a feature film script, “Hiding in Plain Sight”, that he intended to direct.

Liam brought great commitment and generosity to his work with and for other people, but he was also a man with a strong sense of social and political commitment, of which his creative work was a part. He was also a joyous person to work with, and there are many who will remember with fondness time spent in his company even in the middle of the enormous stress that production in the media business can generate. Liam fought his way through those situations with determination and good humour, and even when he got his diagnosis of Covid-19 while a patient in St. Luke’s General Hospital, Kilkenny, for an unrelated medical condition, his sense of humour didn’t desert him, and he called his situation a “Comedy of Errors”. He fought the virus bravely for three weeks, but unfortunately succumbed on Friday 29th May at the age of 64. He will be missed terribly by his partner Annabel, and their children Ben and Ella, and by the many people who have been the recipient of his friendship and generosity over the many decades he was active in the media business. As Liam wrote in his rushed last post on Facebook when he was about to be intubated, his final written words: “See you on the other side”.

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