Film is testament to redemption

Anna Maxwell Martin, left, stars as Wendy Parry and Vicky McClure is Susan McHugh in “Mother’s Day.”

By Mike Houlihan

“Out of terrible circumstances, and out of the worst of humanity, can come the best of humanity, and people can respond to terrible things in the most amazing and extraordinary ways that actually bring about change for the better.”

So says Irish film director Fergus O’Brien, regarding his film “Mother’s Day,” about the 1993 IRA bombing in Warrington, England, that killed 3-year-old Jonathon Ball and 12-year-old Tim Parry. The film, a production of the BBC which was broadcast earlier this month in England, is our third film in the 4th Annual Irish-American Movie Hooley in Chicago, screening at the Siskel Film Center on Sunday, Sept. 30.

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The film follows the events in March 1993, the bomb exploding in Warrington the day before Mother’s Day. The murders of those children shocked and outraged Susan McHugh, a Dublin wife and mother, and led her to spearhead an unprecedented and controversial peace movement. Supported by increasing numbers of Irish who answered her call to end the violence, McHugh reaches out in sympathy and friendship to Wendy Parry, grief-stricken mother of the 12-year-old victim, but initially meets with resistance. Director O'Brien and screenwriter Nick Leather (a Warrington native) evenhandedly portray the pain that fired sectarian passions on both sides of the Troubles as the two mothers find common ground for the sake of the children. The film is a portrait of grief but also a testament to the redemption that can be found even behind the most horrifying circumstances.

We’re very proud to close our film festival this year with this deeply moving tribute to the simple power of compassion.

O’Brien told me, “I hail from a small seaside town called Dungarvan, which is County Waterford, southeast coast of Ireland where I was born and grew up, lived there ‘til I was 18 and then sadly, like a lot of people in the 1980s, was part of the huge exodus that formed the Irish diaspora in the UK.”

Fergus O'Brien.

He’s worked in London for 30 years, where he has carved out a highly successful career directing films. He has an award-winning back catalogue, his trademark being films with a social conscience. “Somehow during the course of my career I’ve always been drawn to projects that frighten the life out of me. But that fire in your belly tends to bring good things,” O’Brien said.

Indeed, it has brought us this terrific new film “Mother’s Day,” the story of Susan McHugh ringing up the RTÉ radio program “Liveline” to express her frustration with the “troubles” and launching a juggernaut of sympathy in Ireland for the Parry family, and asking “what can we do about this?”

Mrs. McHugh called the radio show on Monday, by Wednesday she was chairing a meeting at Trinity College with 400 people who came to listen, and “by Sunday of that week, literally a week after the atrocity, there were over 20,000 people, according to conservative estimates, outside the GPO on O’Connell Street in Dublin, and there were other similar protests and rallies happening in Cork and Limerick.”

O’Brien told me, “I think she tapped into a real moment, and managed to articulate something that was being felt across the country at the time, which was that enough is enough,’ as that became her slogan. That was the defining moment, when people on both sides of the Irish sea realized that the problem wasn’t between them, wasn’t between ordinary folk trying to get on with their lives, and actually it was their voice, talking to the minority, to the men of Ireland, saying, ‘Look, we need to find a better way to resolve your differences, because killing children is not the answer.’”

The events triggered in the few short weeks after that Mother’s Day included an overwhelming outpouring of sympathy and well wishes from the people of Ireland for the Parrys. Sacks and sacks of mail were delivered to Wendy Parry’s home in Warrington from ordinary Irish people telling her “When I look at my child, I think of your child.”

“It began to pave the way for what would eventually become the Good Friday Agreement a few years later,” O’Brien said.

Fergus O’Brien’s film is a significant achievement in cinema but also captures Irish history at its best, without glossing over the complexity of the situation, whose time had come to end the violence.

Please join us on Sunday Sept. 30 for “Mother’s Day” at the Siskel Film Center and you can meet director Fergus O’Brien. More information at