Because he was nominated for both an Oscar and a BAFTA (which he later won) for his scene-stealing supporting performance in The Banshees of Inisherinmuch has been said about the inspiring rise of Barry Keoghan.
As will likely be etched into Irish folklore as his Hollywood trajectory continues its soaring rise, the Dubliner – born in one of the city’s most deprived neighborhoods – would spend seven years in foster care as a child. It wasn’t until 2010, at the age of 18, that Keoghan’s love of movies was awakened by an ad in a shop window seeking actors for a new crime drama filmed locally. Three years later he landed a role in Irish TV series Love / Hate (which would become a breeding ground for young Irish talent), followed by the 2014 indie hit ’72before breaking out internationally in 2017 with both Dunkirk And Killing a sacred deer.
While Keoghan’s primary on-screen training was almost entirely on-the-job variety (and with some of the biggest names, both in front of and behind the camera, working today), it’s not entirely true to say that he never went to any kind of acting school. In fact, he was one of the very first students of what would later become Dublin’s premier university, the National Screen Acting School of Ireland, better known as Bow Street Academy.
Bow Street – named for the roadside location that was home to the original Jameson whiskey distillery – has helped educate some of Ireland’s best-known rising stars, including the likes of Niamh Algar (Censor, Raised by wolves), Jack Reynor (Transformers, midsommar), Ann Skelly (The Neversthe recently announced Four love letters) and Brian Gleeson (Bad sisters, Peaky Blinders).
But while the school now offers a huge range of programmes, masterclasses and courses, its humble origins – when it first started just 13 years ago in an old rehearsal and recording studio known as The Factory by Dublin’s docklands – much less formal or structured.
“I saw Bowie rehearsing there and U2 was there,” recalls Shimmy Marcus, a filmmaker best known for the 2009 film. Soulboy who now serves as Artistic Director of Bow Street. “But around 2010 it was pretty much dead.”
It was then that three directors – John Carney (who had broken out somewhat spectacularly with his feature film debut Once just three years earlier), Kirsten Sheridan (daughter of Jim Sheridan, with whom she co-wrote In Americaand director of 2001’s Disco Pigs), and Lance Daly (who had just made his name with the 2008 Irish drama Kisses and would later direct the 2018 hit Black ’47) – took over the lease. The original idea was simple: to create a special space for cinematic creativity – a place for filmmakers, made by filmmakers.
“We were envious of musicians who could just go to a coffee shop with their guitars and hang out, jam and create together. Directors couldn’t do that,” Marcus notes. “So the idea of The Factory was to get together: pitch ideas, bounce ideas, develop them and work with some in-house actors to maybe make some low-budget movies.”
The problem, according to Marcus, was that many of the actors available at the time had no specific screen training, and the experience of those who had attended drama school was limited to theatre. So they started doing the training themselves, setting up a workshop with Screen Ireland focused on screen acting. Word got out and it wasn’t long before a number of now well-known names joined in, including Reynor, Gleeson and Derry girls star Louisa Harland. Keoghan was also one of the originals.
“Barry would have been someone who knocked on our door and said, I heard about this place, I want to go in,” says Marcus. (In an interview with the Irish independentKeoghan recalled that at the time he was struggling to find the bus money to take him to The Factory).
Reynor – who would later cast Carney Sing street — soon sparked the idea of setting up the nighttime Actors Studio, where Marcus says they could “throw a few bucks at the light and heat” and practice together, workshop scenes, improvise ideas, create characters and be interviewed in character, and all without any structure or formality. “It was like an acting school and such a fertile ground to create something.”
Marcus recalls a moment when they reenacted the scene Magnolia where John C. Reilly says, “I lost my gun today,” and Carney – who knew Reilly – actually called the star to tell him immediately afterwards.
Not long after founding the Actors Studio, co-founder Daly returned to Dublin from LA where he had filmed the 2011 drama. The good doctor with Orlando Bloom. He brought along fellow Dubliner Gerry Grennell, who had been Bloom’s acting coach.
“But what we didn’t know was that he had also been Heath Ledger’s acting coach for about 10 movies,” says Marcus. As it turned out, Grennell’s list of clients was a who’s who of on-screen greats, including Marlon Brando, Meryl Streep, Sean Penn, Natalie Portman, Tom Cruise, and Oscar Isaac. “He’s one of these unknown heroes.”
Grennell was invited to do a workshop with some of the budding actors on The Factory, and ended up staying for six hours.
“It was absolutely mind-blowing,” Marcus recalled. “And at the end of it I was like, do you have any more of this? And he says, ‘I’m just really scratching here.’”
From that first masterclass, Grennell and the team at The Factory designed and developed a one-year film acting course – the only one in Ireland at the time – which began in 2012 with around 30 students. Keoghan was among the first intake, the skills he had already shown meant he was automatically placed with the need for an audition. But Marcus says that “he was gone after about three weeks,” with work already coming at him thick and fast.
“He couldn’t sit still, so we were like, keep going, you better hit the road.”
The Factory’s reputation grew rapidly and several local manufacturing companies established themselves within its walls. Thanks to the appeal of the founders and Grennell, major talents – including Brendan Gleeson, Saoirse Ronan, Cillian Murphy and Danny de Vito – would drop by and give free lectures.
However, disaster struck in 2014, after only two years of acting classes (and more than 50 students graduating), when the landlord refused to renew the building’s lease and issued an eviction notice. The factory, which had already been designated as a ‘cultural asset’ of the Dublin docks area, no longer existed.
Sensing they were onto something special with the training and not wanting to give up, Marcus, along with casting agent Maureen Hughes and general manager Paul O’Grady, found new, more centrally located premises in the redbrick 17e century Jameson Building, the original home of the famous whiskey-producing family.
Renamed Bow Street Academy, this new facility – which Marcus describes as “like Hogwarts” – opened its doors in early 2015 with a much more formalized structure in the curriculum and a wider range of courses (which has since grown much larger). “And now we have hundreds of students,” he says.
But the ethos in Bow Street is still the same as in The Factory, which is to “understand your relationship to your environment and how you function as a human being in that environment.”
And it still maintains its pure focus on screen acting, which Marcus says differs from the “performative” nature of most drama schools. “Acting on screen is oblivious to the audience – it’s a first-person experience for yourself that lets you observe the camera.”
Grennell is still a regular at the school, teaching most days when he is not traveling or on set. And many big local filmmakers have also dropped by to offer their expertise, including famed Irish TV director Dearbhla Walsh (who spent much of Bad sisters), Damien O’Donnell (East is East) and Juanita Wilson (an Oscar nominee for the short film The DoeR).
“We get a lot of guest directors to come in and work with the students, and it’s great because they come in thinking they’re not going to be very good and they leave thinking, ‘I need some of those phone numbers’ , and end up making movies with them,” claims Marcus.
Shortly after helping open the school in February 2015, Jim Sheridan came to do a workshop and ended up staying for a week, eventually casting 20 students in his 2016 film. The Secret Scripture.
More recently, The Factory co-founder Carney visited Bow Street to test the screen Flora and Sonhis latest feature film and highly anticipated sequel to Sing streetbefore it became one of Sundance’s hits (and a $20 million purchase by Apple TV+). Flora and Sonof course also stars original alumnus Reynor.
Marcus says Reynor and the actors who first came together on The Factory more than 10 years ago are “very protective” of their time during those chaotic and creative days, often not seeing themselves as connected to the much more structured Bow Street Academy. .
“Niamh Alger will tell you she didn’t go to drama school,” he notes. “But in a way she’s right, because we weren’t formalized — that one-year course was just this crazy experiment.” Alger has since returned to lecture in Bow Street.
While Keoghan’s time at the school may have been brief and before it could even call itself a school, Bow Street is still one of the first to celebrate its success (and a photo of him from The Factory’s “class of 2011” hangs proud of one of the walls).
“From the first day he showed up to see legendary casting director Maureen Hughes, his charm, raw talent and ambition won us all over,” the school’s Instagram account posted shortly after his Oscar nomination. “Nothing would stop him and his rise to the top of the industry has been a joy to watch.”
For Marcus, who goes out of his way not to take credit for Keoghan’s achievements or those who made it through The Factory of Bow Street, watching the rise of former students makes all the hard work worth it.
“That’s where our reward is, just look at them and see not only how successful they are, but how good their work is and how they’ve stayed humble.”