From Riverdance to Gaza; Strabane man returning with Trócaire film

John McColgan taking photographs in Jerusalem as Israeli soldiers look on
John McColgan taking photographs in Jerusalem as Israeli soldiers look on

A Strabane native who helped create Riverdance said he was looking forward to returning to the north west tomorrow to show the documentary film he made for Trócaire in Palestine. John McColgan, whose film will be screen in the Gasyard Féile, resided in Strabane until the age of four before moving to Wexford and later Dublin, is a co-founder of Tyrone Productions - Ireland’s longest running independent film company - with his wife Moya Doherty, who hails from Donegal.

Prior to that he had a long and distinguished career with RTE and on TV:AM with Nick Owen, Ann Diamond and David Frost in Britain.

John McColgan Photographer and  �amonn Meehan Executive Director Tr�caire  pictured at the launch of 'This Is Palestine', a photography exhibition by John McColgan in association with Tr�caire. 'Image By Gerard McCarthy

John McColgan Photographer and �amonn Meehan Executive Director Tr�caire pictured at the launch of 'This Is Palestine', a photography exhibition by John McColgan in association with Tr�caire. 'Image By Gerard McCarthy

John said he still has memories of returning to “exotic” Strabane in his youth and sampling the strange sweets purchased with the strange money which, he said, was all so different to life in the South.

He said he was looking forward to returning to the north west this week as part of Féile 2018 with his wife, who will be judging the Mary from Dungloe competition in her native town.

Trócaire is hosting the special screening of ‘This is Palestine,’ a documentary which follows John, now an ambassador for the charity, on a journey through Gaza and the West Bank, tomorrow (Wednesday), at 1.00 p.m. in the Gasyard Centre. The free event is open to everyone.

The film features powerful interviews with people who have lost their homes, land and family members as a result of the ongoing conflict, as well as inspiring footage of the Israeli and Palestinian activists working together for a just peace. It will be followed by discussion with John McColgan and Seán Farrell, Director of Trócaire’s International Division.

Speaking to the Journal, John said he got involved with Trócaire at the suggestion of his brother Gerry, who had previous experience of making documentaries with the charity and because he enjoyed “giving something back”.

A meeting with representatives of the charity resulted in John being appointed an ambassador and the agreement to create ‘This is Palestine’ and also feature an exhibition of photographs.

John recently launched the photographic exhibition, entitled ‘Under The Same Moon’, and featuring a succession of shots, many of them close up portraits of the people he met in Palestine. “You can see the pain and trauma there,” he noted. “‘This is Palestine’ was filmed in Gaza and Jerusalem and looks at human rights abuses. Before we went I read up as much as I could but it doesn’t prepare you for the level of human rights abuses and lack of dignity and respect.”

He described Gaza as being “a large, open air prison” with the people living there facing daily struggles to get clean water, electricity and even food in an area with 90 per cent unemployment and facing the constant threat of bombardment from the skies above them. “It’s a real David and Goliath situation,” John added.

“We talked to a lot of victims. One man and woman had 11 members of their own and their extended family killed. It is an incredibly difficult situation.”

However, he said that the problems were not confined to Gaza, with Palestinians and Israeli Arabs living in other areas also treated with “disdain” - a situation compounded by the recent Israeli Government move to prioritise the rights and freedoms of Israeli Jewish citizens and effectively creating an even more pronounced two tier society.

John, who presents and produced the documentary, said Trócaire had a crucial role to play in the region by supporting partner charities who are there on the ground in Palestine.”They go into various territories and build houses, schools, work on irrigation and farming and work on human rights.”

John also met Israelis, including a Rabbi from Rabbis for Peace and an ex-Israeli soldier from the Breaking The Silence organisation (set up by former Israeli military personnel), who were actively working to highlight what was happening. “There’s quite a significant minority who are very anti-Netanyahu and what the Israeli Government is doing.”

Ambassadorial work aside, John and Moya will forever be associated with Riverdance.

It is now 25 years since Jean Butler and Michael Flatley danced their way into hearts across the Continent during the stunning interval show of the European Song Contest of 1994 in Dublin.

Moya was producing Eurovision and had decided that this would be the interval act, and both she and her husband helped develop it for the show.

John recalls: “There were 4,000 people that night at the Point in Dublin. There was German, French, Italian, Spanish, people from all over who didn’t know what to expect, but then it finished and they all jumped to their feet and cheered as one person. Something special had happened.”

Wasting no time, and without the likes of Facebook or Twitter to promote it back in those days, work began immediately on developing the show into the world-wide touring phenomenon it became. “It’s immensely popular in China, Germany, all over Europe, even in South Africa and all around the world,” John declared.

“I am thrilled that is going well and we are planning the 25th anniversary tour now to start in 2020 in New York. We are putting new numbers into it and it will be a refreshed version.”

*Following on from its screening at the Féile in Derry, This Is Palestine’ will also be screened on TG4 on September 6, and can also be viewed on the Trocaire website.