Mosney: a holiday camp no more

Seaview, a documentary of the lives of asylum seekers living in the Mosney holiday camp, was one of few films selected for screening at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival in February 2008. The film was shot over three years by Nicky Gogan and Paul Rowley who lived and worked with the residents in Mosney. Sara Burke writes about the film and its makers.


“It took us a while to get used to the new business, to get used to [the asylum seekers'] culture. But we'd great experience of dealing with families... It was mostly families [in the past]. These people are no different, their concerns are the same as ours”, says Michael Hughes, the security man, explaining the transition of Mosney from holiday camp to accommodation centre for asylum seekers.

Seaview, a new documentary by two young Irish filmmakers, tells the story of this extraordinary place. The film is a beautiful tapestry of life there, past and present. It holds a magnifying glass up to how Ireland is treating its newest residents, who are denied the rights of citizens. It is a kaleidoscope of the lives, conditions and stories which occupy Mosney today.

Built in 1948, Mosney was the Irish incarnation of the Butlins holiday camps, situated in Mosney, Co Meath. It attracted families and couples who went there on holidays to enjoy the sea air 25 miles north of Dublin city. There were amusements, a fun park, a swimming pool with slides, ballroom dancing and bingo, restaurants and bars. In its heyday, it held 2,800 campers and 4,000 day visitors.

Seaview, opens with a tour of the camp's amenities by the resident caretaker; the kitchen (where everything was cooked with steam which was then used to heat the swimming pool), the ‘Traditional Fish and Chip Shop', the old ballroom, its immense grounds, the storage rooms, the bedrooms – relics of good old fashioned pleasure. Mr Hughes reminisces about “the bonny baby, the glamorous granny and lovely legs competitions”.

These days, there are different struggles to be found in this place of ‘escape'. Today, Mosney is home to 1,000 asylum seekers. They do not choose or pay to come here. As part of the government's immigration policy, over 6,000 asylum seekers are housed in accommodation centres around the country, denied the right to work and to earn a living until a decision is made as to their future. Some of the residents have been there for six years. Just 10 per cent of those who stay in Mosney are granted refugee status and allowed to stay in Ireland. Ninety per cent are deported ‘home'.

Ireland attracts far fewer asylum seekers and refugees compared to the rest of Europe, and those who get refugee status represent just five per cent of the total non-Irish born population.

Nicky Gogan and Paul Rowley spent more than three months in Mosney, on and off, over the past three years. They first went there to research a fictional film they wanted to make about a floating ship, housing refugees. They got to know the place and its people. They held workshops with the residents, the first one culminated in a concert where the young people living there rapped and danced. The residents who didn't want to be in front of the cameras were behind them, filming, doing the sound, producing. Some of the footage of the concert recorded by the young residents is in the film.

This duo of festival director/film maker (Gogan) and artist/film maker (Rowley) skilfully allow the residents to tell and direct the storyline, which is interspersed with images and sounds filmed and recorded in Mosney.

In Seaview, engineers, lawyers, teachers, doctors, nurses, farmers, journalists, mothers, and young people, each articulate their reasons for leaving their home country and their experiences of being in Ireland.

“I'm just looking for the zero point, looking for the chance to start from the beginning,” says Ismael, a Kurdish asylum seeker currently living in Mosney, when talking about the Irish asylum process. His hope is to start life again, this time in Ireland. Ismael explains his reasons: “Kurds are the biggest nation without a country, we are 40 million people, spread across four countries but with no country of our own. I went to Europe to seek a safe place, to be a free person with dignity. I believe everyone is equal, but that is not possible in my country.  We are a target to be tortured, persecuted.”

While Seaview tells some gruelling stories of exile, this film is also a beautiful portrayal of humanity, often showing a lighter side to what are otherwise grim lives. There's a scene of children in a classroom, with a middle-aged Irish national school teacher doing a spelling test. When she calls out the word “penalised”, the boy being filmed giggles uncontrollably. There are happy scenes of children dressing up. Of teenagers rapping.

Viewers are introduced to the ‘Kurdish barber', whose sign hangs over an old map of Ireland. He smiles and laughs as he cuts hair. He is a hairdresser on a volunteer basis for the residents, the children, the staff and the security.  

Most of the residents in Mosney are African, some are from eastern Europe and the Persian Gulf. There are over 40 nationalities and ethnic groups living in Mosney at any one time. And they live there in relative harmony.

The basic needs of Mosney's residents are met by the caring and experienced staff. But it is the conditions imposed by government that cause most distress.

“We wake up and eat, not sure what each day brings… it's no life at all. We just live by the day… We are grateful for the food, for the accommodation, most for our children going to school… but people are wasting in the name of the asylum process. I was teaching back home in Nigeria… where we come from you work, if you don't work, you won't eat. Some children here have never seen their parents work or cook. What kind of impression will they have of their parents? It's what being cooked and served that you eat, we have no choice. I cannot put my face to camera because I am scared, that is what asylum does… I had four kids. I lost three kids. [My son is] all I have left.”

These words are spoken by one of the residents too afraid to be filmed.  While she speaks we see images of Mosney, of the pool filling up, of the kitchen utensils, of the train passing by on the horizon. Yet, the pool in Mosney is empty, it's too expensive to keep it full. Kitchen utensils are redundant; residents don't have a sufficient income to be able to buy food to cook. The train passes by, yet these people have no say in where they are going.

Asylum seekers in Ireland are not allowed to work or, apart from the children and young people, to be in education. The adults spend their days idle, each of them speaking about how they'd prefer to work. They are given €19.10 to live on by the State. Many of them speak of how they would prefer to get nothing, to be able to make their own contributions to their new home: Ireland.
Gogan and Rowley made this film completely independently. It had its first showing at the Stranger than Fiction documentary film festival, held in Dublin last September. The Mosney residents who attended the screening found it very emotional, but they liked it, they thought it captured their lives.

Gogan is convinced that it's because they spent so much time there that they gained the trust of the residents, which allowed they to get the footage they did. “It was completely different to what a traditional film crew, who would have been in and out in a few days, would have got. We often spent days and days just hanging around when no one would talk to us. And then someone would say to us ‘I want to talk now' and when one would talk often others would too.

“People are so generous with their stories… people are very afraid. Afraid that their families will be persecuted because of their actions in Ireland. People really fear for their own and their families personal safety… that's why it's so moving. They only talked to us when they were good and ready,” says Rowley.

Since its Dublin premier, Gogan and Rowley went to New York, where Seaview was selected to show at the Independent Feature Project – a festival promoting and selling independent films. There it was chosen for the Berlin Film Festival.

Now that Seaview is on the international film festival circuit, Gogan and Rowley want it released in Irish cinemas and then shown on Irish television. Showing at the Berlin Film Festival is an important step on their odyssey home.