Chronicle.lu had the opportunity to interview one of the special guests at the British & Irish Film Festival Luxembourg (BIFFL) 2023 Autumn Edition: Irish writer Lydia Little.
Lydia Little travelled over to Luxembourg to participate in a Q&A session about the documentary Breaking Out, which was screened at the Cinémathèque as part of the film festival on Thursday evening.
Breaking Out documents the life of the late Irish singer-songwriter - and Lydia's brother - Fergus O'Farrell, who was the voice of the band Interference. Fergus was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at a young age but never let his disability get in the way of his creative output.
Since his death in 2016, Fergus' sister has been keeping his story and memory alive, for example through her book Overload: a brother, a wake, and a secret.
Chronicle.lu recently spoke with Lydia Little about both the documentary and her book, as well as her journey through grief and loss.
Chronicle.lu: Breaking Out touches on themes of resilience and the human spirit. How did Fergus' experiences with muscular dystrophy impact his outlook on life and how is this portrayed in the film?
Lydia Little: As Ferg himself says in the movie, for most of his life he never "suffered" from MD [muscular dystrophy], refusing to let it get in the way of what he wanted to do/achieve... The only suffering he might have experienced was maybe a bad hangover (or a broken heart), that is, until he got to a stage where the MD took over and he did actually suffer... and then it impacted him greatly. In the movie Breaking Out, you can really see Ferg's timeline and how the MD morphed him physically. It is heartbreaking to watch yet he keeps his humour throughout (except for the missed Glen gig).
Chronicle.lu: The documentary explores the concept of breaking out, both in terms of physical limitations and personal barriers. Can you elaborate on what breaking out means in the context of your brother's life and the film?
Lydia Little: In Ferg's life? I'd say we have our mother to thank for the early days - she never treated Ferg with kid gloves, encouraging us all equally. There was no drawing of a line between what Ferg could or could not do. He wasn't allowed to get away with anything; the day he said he couldn't reach the bottom tray of the dishwasher, she told him to empty the top one instead. It was the outside world looking in at him that set up restrictions. Ferg broke through those on a constant basis. As for the film, the idea of breaking out could be interpreted on many levels... Everytime I watch the movie I take something different from it. I'll let you decide what Breaking Out means to you.
Chronicle.lu: The film also delves into Fergus' creative process and songwriting. Can you share any insights into how he approached his craft and the role of music in his life?
Lydia Little: This is a tricky one for me to answer because I sort of looked on from the side wings. I was his younger sister with an age gap (four years) and not a musician, so there were many years where I wasn't even really interested... I did wonder had Ferg NOT had MD, might he have lived a "normal life" by going to college, getting a "real job" and kept music as a hobby on the side. I asked him that once and he said, no way, he would have still followed the music.
As an adult looking back, I have a different perspective. I am a writer and know the hunger pangs of needing to create. Where the mind doesn't sit easy unless there has been some scribbling or dumping of the voices in the head. Ferg experienced that too for music/songwriting, and then when he couldn't play/sing anymore, through his art. When he was totally immersed, he might disappear for days, pulling all-nighters. He knew time wasn't his friend and it gave him an added zeal, I think. (Side note: folks, don't take time for granted.)
Chronicle.lu: Fergus was not only a talented musician but also a remarkable individual. What aspects of his personality or life are highlighted in the film?
Lydia Little: Yes, he was both talented and remarkable - and as an older brother, I can say he was also a pain in the arse and an awful tease - we never physically fought, but boy could he slash you with a quick retort or bombard you with facts. There was always a joke at the end of a barb though. He had a wicked (great) sense of humour. And boy was he stubborn. Breaking Out captured his range perfectly!
Chronicle.lu: What would you like people to take away from Breaking Out?
Lydia Little: Take the music. The music, and a full heart.
Chronicle.lu: Can you share a bit about your journey through grief and loss and what inspired you to write Overload?
Lydia Little: Everyone's grief is different. Overload is my version. That said, a big discovery for me was that grief is not all about sadness but finding the joy in grief too. It was a strange experience, and a lot of folks suffer guilt if they feel happy or laugh, as if it is a bad thing to show any joy around the death of a loved one.
I was in the middle of editing the second book in a teen series when Ferg died. I lost my mojo for creative writing, but at the same time, I still had an awful hankering for writing (or 'crá as we like to say - as if you are tormented if you don't). So, I went back to what I used to do as a teen and started a diary again. I put pen to paper old fashioned style and kept the journal with me always. Every so often I would think of how a song would be a good fit for my emotion on a particular day and thought it would be nice to have him on the page with me. So, that is what I did. It's worth saying when I came to that first line in the diary, I wasn't able to actually put down on paper his name. I couldn't say "Fergus is dead". Ferg was my big brother, and I loved him dearly, so I wrote brother with a capital B - "My Brother is dead". And the rest followed from there.
Chronicle.lu: How did writing about your brother's loss help your grieving process?
Lydia Little: Because I was dealing with loss and the secret of how Ferg actually died, writing was a great way to get it out of my head. A dumping of sorts. I put my heart and soul and all the darkness and new joy into the writing. No holding back. But I found by putting the pen to paper the words became very important to me. I wanted them to matter. To me, to Ferg. And by adding his music I felt he was there too, with me on the page. QR codes are throughout the book to allow readers to have a direct link to Ferg's music. So, it is a book with an album or an album with a book!
Chronicle.lu: Grief can be such a complex and personal experience. What do you hope readers will gain or take away from your book?
Lydia Little: That it is ok to feel sad. And it is ok to find some joy along the way too. And how great it can feel to really and truly celebrate someone's life (the Irish really do death well).
Chronicle.lu: Some readers may be experiencing grief themselves. What advice would you offer someone who recently lost a loved one?
Lydia Little: Allow the grief in. And allow some space for joy too.
Overload is available as paperback or download on Amazon and through sweeneyodonovan.ie.