- 24 Jul 20
The brilliantly unbalanced Billy Murphy is back – with the highly anticipated third series of The Young Offenders hitting our screens tonight. Actor Shane Casey (pictured, left) sits down to discuss lockdown, accents, mental health, and what to expect from the upcoming season.
In the seven months since The Young Offenders last graced our screens, our world has changed dramatically – but so too have the lives of Cork’s favourite miscreants, Conor and Jock, with the addition of a baby to the gang radically challenging their outlook on life.
Of course, that’s not to say the lads, played by Alex Murphy and Chris Walley, have fully committed to the world of responsible adulthood. The first episode of the third season, which airs on RTÉ One tonight, is one of the show’s finest yet – with baby Star getting an early initiation into the life of crime on a chaotic heist masterminded by fan favourite Billy Murphy.
Far from the lovably deranged career criminal he portrays, Shane Casey is a remarkably driven and insightful talent – whose serious passion for his craft is balanced by a double-helping of warm Cork City wit.
An accomplished playwright as well as an actor, Shane has been doing his best to use his time in lockdown wisely.
“I’ve been lucky enough, in that I can occupy my time with a bit of writing,” he tells me. “There’s something to be said for just sitting down and starting. It mightn’t be great, but at least you’re getting something done, instead of trying to collect the ideas in your head. It’s been a good learning curve for me. I’ve definitely got a play out over the last few months, and I’d like to write a television show. So it’s been productive in some ways.”
“I think everybody’s had good weeks and bad weeks thought,” he adds. “If you’re an artist, and you came out of this without some sort of product that you could possibly sell onto somebody, you’d be very frustrated. But it’s also very understandable if you don’t have something, because it’s such a stressful time.”
Although currently living in Dublin, with the lifting of lockdown restrictions, Shane’s finally been able to visit his native city again – where they shot both the second and third series in a marathon filming schedule last year. As well as featuring well known Leeside locations like The English Market, The Young Offenders is notable for shining a light on parts of the city that aren’t often seen on the screen – including northside areas like Mayfield, The Glen, Farranree and Fairhill.
“We had a full summer of it last year – 17 weeks,” he says. “It was tough work, but a fantastic experience. We had a little studio built just beyond the outskirts of the city. Being in Cork just made it seem so much more special than filming in some other studio. I would love to see something else happening in Cork now as well.”
As Shane notes, the success of recent Irish film and television productions have opened up exciting new doors for future projects.
“Normal People has given us scope to expand, and show different areas of Ireland – especially to Britain and around the world,” he posits. “That was a very beneficial show to everybody in Ireland. That was the first Irish show I’ve seen in a while that really stepped back, and left space for the audience to think – so we can project onto the characters what we want to do ourselves. So everybody wants to get back now, whether you’re cast, crew, writers or casting people, and show the world what we have to offer. Big up the Normal People people!”
The Young Offenders, alongside Derry Girls, another brilliant Irish series that has proved an international hit, has managed to do what many previously thought impossible – deliver real Irish humour and real Irish accents to a global audience in an authentic and uncompromising manner. Was Shane ever worried aspects of the series wouldn’t translate to an overseas audience?
“I’ve written plays myself, and I’m always brought back to Irvine Welsh and Trainspotting,” Shane reflects. “He said, once you focus enough on the locale, it makes it universal. Essentially, we’re all the same people, no matter matter where we’re from. Whether we’re in Edinburgh, Manchester, London, Cork, Dublin or Sligo, we all have a voice. Our unique voices and accents need to be heard. With things like Netflix, everyone’s palette has also become a little bit more mature and cultured over the last couple of years. The world has become a smaller place.
“Everyone’s uniqueness is being championed at the moment,” he continues. "Even in the music industry, it’s nice to hear people singing in their own accent, and not trying to be someone else. That’s what’s important for young people to realise – we are Irish, we are unique, and we do have our own voice. There are different types of Irish people, but everybody is unique, and we should be embracing that at the moment.”
“The success of Derry Girls is fantastic too,” he adds. “We had the opportunity to meet them at the IFTAs a few years ago. They were really friendly and warm people. We were like, ‘That’s great – they’re doing their thing up there in Derry and we’re trying to do our thing down here in Cork’.”
Indeed, in Cork and beyond, Shane's character has particularly resonated with audiences. He's become a cult hero, complete with his own “I’m Billy Murphy” t-shirts, after his iconic bus hijack in the first season, during which he gave a rousing rendition of The Frank and Walters’ hit ‘After All’.
“It’s been very positive,” Shane says of the reaction to Billy. “I’ve been asked to ring kids who aren’t well, or to send birthday messages. It’s great, because I get a bit of a kick out of it, and I know it’s making people happy, because they enjoy the show. Quite recently, I was out for a walk to the post office up in Fairview, and I passed a bunch of lads – which can be a bit daunting at the best of times. Then they followed me, and I was like, ‘Oh shit, here we got now!’ But it was just nothing but love from the lads. They were gentlemen to me. They were like, ‘Could you come in and hold our school hostage?’ It really brightened my day.
“People see that he’s a flawed human being, as all the characters on the show are," he continues. "They’re not particularly good at being criminals, or scumbags, or head-the-balls – or whatever you want to call them! There's something important happening in Irish television at the moment, that we can see a broader range of characters. Whether it’s the main characters in Normal People, who have, possibly, mental health issues; the girls who were struggling as teenagers in Derry Girls; or the characters on our show, who are going through their own struggles. It’s good that we have a diverse, young audience. And long may it continue. I hope we see more of that over the next coming years.”
Approaching these issues through humour is a method Shane has also explored outside of The Young Offenders.
“I wrote a play a few years ago, called Wet Paint,” he explains. “It was semi-based on my own time as a painter and decorator. I figured humour was the best way of doing it. I did a national tour with it last year, but I put it on originally in the Cork Opera House for a week. The response we got afterwards was amazing. I wanted to make a show that was accessible to people, without being pretentious. Humour is a very safe approach, because then the subtext can be about mental health, or how men talk about their problems, or whatever you want.”
Theatre’s often overlooked role in tackling such themes is just one of the reason he’s urging for the reopening of venues – sooner rather than later.
“We need to sort out the venues really quick – so we can get out there again in a safe, productive environment, and perform for an audience,” he stresses. “There’s planes coming in and out of the country that are full, and I just think that’s ridiculous. We can safely sit in restaurants two metres apart – why can’t we do that in theatres? It’s vitally important that the newly formed Government shows some sort of strong hand, because there doesn’t seem to be anybody saying anything decisive at the moment.”
With lockdown impacting his ability to reach a live audience, Shane is exploring other ways in which he can deliver his message.
“I’m developing workshops on motivation, with a subtext of mental health,” he says. “I was invited down to a writers’ week in Listowel last year, and I talked to 960 teenagers about resilience. I’m an early school leaver, so I talk to them about the choices I made, and even the wrong turns I took. I found my niche a little bit later than I expected.
“Things like that are still viable – whether it’s me coming in to give a chat to school and we’re all wearing visors, or doing it online. I really enjoy that world. Not only does it subsidise the work I want to do, but it’s part of the work I want to do as well. It’s helping people with their mental health, without being a mental health ambassador. People like Bressie are doing a fantastic job at that already. I still want to be Shane Casey: the writer and the television guy. But I do think if we have a voice we need to start using it.”
Whether it’s Blindboy Boatclub discussing cognitive behavioural therapy on his podcast, or Normal People showing a young character attending counselling, Shane reckons Ireland has come a long way in ending the cultural stigma attached to mental health.
“Seeing Connell in Normal People going to a therapist on television was a big moment in Irish television,” he notes. “It’s good to bring it out there without beating people over the head with it. But it’s also vitally important for young people to know that it doesn’t have to be a big issue to go to a counsellor or a mental health practitioner. If you have a pain in your tooth, you might go to the dentist – but you might also go to the dentist if you want a proper clean. So mental health doesn’t have to be a taboo. We can just go in and have a chat.”
“I use a bit of mindfulness, if I’m getting stuck on set – because I had anxiety issues before, predominantly in one or two productions of theatre work,” he adds. “It's an ongoing process. I know young people look for the instant fix, but I can turn on my mindfulness app, and go off and do three to five minutes, and I’ll feel a lot better. That makes it a whole lot easier if I’ve got to do a scene where I’m running around in my underpants up in Mayfield!”
Undoubtedly, the attention-to-detail and work Shane has put into Billy is remarkable – transforming the character from a stereotype to a multi-faceted personality that audiences can form a real connection to.
“I love him!” Shane beams. “I’m very protective of him. Billy is now like an old pair of runners that I like to put on, but I also like to put my work in too. That’s why last summer was so exciting, and so visceral. It really is like a family on set now – but we also know our boundaries, to protect the characters. I will keep some elastic bands in my pockets in case I ever need to flick them at Chris and Alex – just to remember that Billy has a bit of an edge.
“Sometimes I look over at Alex and I can see he’s a little bit stressed because he thinks I might punch him in the stomach,” he laughs. “But I won’t! We just like to play little games with each other on set, to do our jobs, but also to keep it alive. That’s vitally important – because sometimes we do dip our toes into the world of improvisation. When you’re doing that, you make an offer, and if someone accepts the offer, then it generally stays in the scene. Alex accepted an awful lot of the things I was offering him in the original film, and he made my character so much better. Those two guys are really strong actors, and in the coming years, that will really prove to be the case."
And ahead of the third season premiere tonight, Shane is equally hopeful about the future of The Young Offenders.
"We’ve got really exciting moments for all the characters, and moments of growth – especially for Jock," he says. "It shows how friendship evolves as well. I’m really proud of that. I don’t know where it’s going to go over the next couple of years, but it’s definitely got more potential – and there’s so much life in it still."
Series 3 of The Young Offenders airs on RTÉ One tonight, July 24, at 9:35pm.