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  • The Stranger
  • When we are gone, what and how much do people remember of us? Neal MacGregor, an English artist who died alone and prematurely, aged 44, on the small and remote Donegal island of Inishbofin, left behind only three animal carvings (a salmon, a lobster and a seagull) and volumes of beautifully illustrated notebooks and secret diaries in the stone shed, where he lived without water, electricity or heating. He had nothing else, and was fed by neighbours, or ate a few sprouts that he grew, crabs he caught, or rabbits he trapped. The Irish-speaking islanders on the rapidly depopulating island, knew very little of Neal during the 8 years he lived amongst them. Who was this “Stranger" is what I set off to discover in my film. I have tried to put together the jigsaw, aware of the many missing pieces, the contradictions, and that fine line between reality and myth. This is a documentary about memory and perception, and in this journey of recalling I hope to capture a most unusual portrait of an artist living on the edge, both physically and mentally, and the insular Irish-speaking island community he lived in. Was Neal MacGregor insane, traumatised, enlightened? How was he regarded by his fellowmen on Inishbofin? And what memories do the islanders have of him? What did they think of this atheist Englishman who chose to move to their island – a very Catholic and republican place, where everybody else was trying to leave because of the hardship of island life? Was he a British spy recording the gun-running shipping routes of the IRA, as some islanders thought? Was he trying to take over and control the island, as others thought? How much do people really remember, and how much did they ever really know? Through my research, I have found out some of what the Donegal islanders never knew. Neal was a well-educated Englishman, who had studied art at a prestigious college outside London. It was 1964... he was a great guitarist, he was college Social Secretary, introducing his fellow students to the music of Bert Jansch, Davy Graham, John Renbourne, The Moody Blues and others. It was the Sixties... the music was great... drugs were plentiful…sexual and political revolutions were erupting across the western world. In the late ‘70s Neal became part of a wave of art and craft émigrés, refugees fleeing the burnt-out arts scene of the big cites, like London. The movement that had erupted in the Sixties in a paroxysm of visual enlightenment, artistic daring, drugs and sexual liberation had, two decades later, become too mainstream and formulaic. Neal came to the West of Ireland in search of an artistic purity and an aesthetic unencumbered by technical trickery. Once in Ireland, Neal began his final retreat, spending his last years alone, carving on the stones, building boats, painting, fixing clocks and repairing jewelery and telling noone of his previous life. And then Neal died suddenly and unexpectedly in his hovel.

EDN Member
David Rane


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