Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 13 / 29 March 2018

Old Irish man talks peace


Scene from director James Demo's "Peacemaker." Photo: Courtesy Roxie
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Padraig O'Malley is not a household name. Maybe he would be if we the people of the USA took our role in the world seriously. Peace is not something our government pursues. Since WWII, the USA has toppled democratically elected leaders and sown discord by manipulating local factions. One 90-minute documentary isn't going to change our collective ignorance, but will attract those enlightened beings for whom peace is the ultimate good. Warring factions turn out to be Padraig O'Malley's bread and butter, as you'll see in "Peacemaker," starting Friday at the Roxie.

Padraig, pronounced Porrig, is a very tall, very thin old Irishman born in Dublin in 1942. The natural wave of his white hair has a floppiness akin to that of the great Irish revolutionary bard W.B. Yeats. When it came time to finally give up the booze after an illustrious alcoholic career, in 2002 at the age of 60, Padraig cited as his personal "prayer of serenity and peace" this verse by Yeats: "Go away, oh human child/ To the waters and the wild,/ With a fairy hand in hand,/ For the world's more full of suffering/ Than you can understand."

In his work as an international conflict mediator, Padraig says, "I always play the Irish card. Whatever else people may know about the world, they know the people of Ireland suffered." Padraig left Dublin on a Fulbright scholarship to Harvard, specifically to be a co-founder and eventual co-owner of the Plough and Stars bar at 912 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, where he did some of his most brilliant drinking. In 1971 he blew a $10K stipend betting on Muhammad Ali against George Foreman. Paradoxically he says, "This is where my involvement with Northern Ireland began."

In 1975, at the height of the Irish Troubles, he had the "colossal and simple idea" to bring together Protestant Loyalists and Sinn Fein radicals to talk. He organized a milestone peace conference at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "Drinking was almost a prerequisite," Padraig says. "I was able to bond with both sides." He later flew the antagonists to South Africa to meet with both white Afrikaners and black Africans, under the benign eye of Nelson Mandela. His theory that people in divided societies can help those in other divided societies, as Alcoholic Anonymous addicts help other addicts, led to the founding of Forum for Cities in Transition from Conflict. "Around this table we are brother and sister in a family that has experienced distress, trauma, and dispossession," he tells conferees.

Director James Demo spent six years filming O'Malley in far-flung trouble spots Iraq, Kosovo, Nigeria, and Northern Ireland, as well as in Maryland and Massachusetts, where he maintains longterm relationships with two women who have been his faithful nursemaids and collaborators. Demo plays fast and loose with time, place, and geopolitics. O'Malley's professorial and publishing careers are ignored. Equally puzzling, "Peacemaker" only skims the surface of his expertise: negotiation, diplomacy, and clear-eyed dispassionate people-wrangling. Look elsewhere to learn about this charismatic man's life's work. We glimpse conference attendees – we see Foreman knock down Ali – without insight into his groundbreaking process.

After 60 minutes, "Peacemaker" loses traction and shifts into a maudlin, slow-moving, and perverse unraveling of the man and his self-ordained mission. O'Malley is shown in an AA meeting, at the doctor's having his memory tested, and at a U-Haul storage space ready to discard his boxed archives. A former assistant says, "Everything's in place" for his suicide when his brain fails him. Is this meant to spur the Nobel Committee to award him their highest honor? The film's morose finale suggests that conflict mediation was merely the masochistic, reverse ego-trip of an ex-choir boy who needed to fill an existential void. Why would a director undermine his subject by reducing him to an old carcass?

Although not one of his books is mentioned, I did spot a title on a bookshelf, "The AIDS Epidemic: private rights and public interest," as we're shown the septuagenarian struggling to finish his latest book. As editor, he introduced "AIDS" with a Camus quote from "Plague" (1938) that sums up his lifelong crusade: "He knew the tale he had to tell could not be one of final victory. It could only be the record of what would certainly have to be done again in the never-ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite personal afflictions, by all who, unable to be saints, refused to bow down to pestilence, but try their utmost to be healers."


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