Ulster takes bite of cannibal legend

AN upcoming movie about a convict who resorted to cannibalism to survive has a distinct Ulster flavour.

The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce, which will premiere next week, stars two Enniskillen men who travelled to Australia to shoot the brutal tale.


And their appearance is no coincidence as writer and producer Nial Fulton is from Enniskillen.

The movie-maker, who worked with Steven Spielberg on Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, has no qualms about admitting favouritism towards the thesps from the Fermanagh town.

"Because the story centres around two Irish men from the same part of the world, it made perfect sense to me to cast Ciaran and Adrian," he said.

Ciaran McMenamin takes the lead role and Adrian Dunbar stars as Father Phillip Conolly.


The film tells the story of 34-year-old Fermanagh farm labourer Alexander Pearce whose story is legendary in Australia.

Shipped down under for stealing six pairs of shoes, he was brutalised in the horror of both the van Diemen's Land and Sarah Island prisons in the 1820s.

He managed to escape his bonds six months into the sentence before being driven to murder and cannibalism in the searing heat of the Australian outback.

He spent 50 days on the run and was pushed to his limits before facing the stomach-churcning choice - eat or be eaten.

Shot on location in Tasmania and Sydney in May, it was directed by Michael James Rowland.


Writer Fulton said: "Pearce was a petty thief who refused to adhere to the penal system in which he found himself trapped.

"Sarah Island was the most isolated prison on the most isolated island in the world, with no bars or walls.

"The impenetrable rainforest and shark infested oceans that surrounded the island meant any potential escapee had no where to run.

"The prisoners also lived in fear of the natives, the aborigine's they rarely saw but had heard about - savage and quick to spear a white man without a second thought."

Pearce escaped with seven others, and led by English sailor Robert Greenhill they fled into the rainforest where they must learn to fend for themselves.

The men escape with some rations, but do not know the bread they have was baked with ergot, a bacterium which accelerates the speed at which bread rots and which is also a potent hallucinogen.

Starving and suffering mild hallucinations, they begin their sorry trek into the Australian bush.


Nine days later, having crossed some of the most inhospitable terrain imaginable and driven to desperate measures, they kill and eat the first man, Alexander Dalton.

Pearce is later discovered and returned to prison to complete his sentence.

The authorities thought it was an elaborate cover story for the other escaped convicts still at large.

Pearce is put back in Sarah Island but escaped again with a younger man, Thomas Cox, who he soon murders and eats.

When the authorities catch up with him for the final time, Pearce is found guilty of murder and cannibalism and hanged.

An Irish priest, also from Monaghan, listens to his confession three days before he is due to be executed - the starting point for the film.


Fulton said: "I think people will come to the film expecting to be horrified by cannibalism and will find they are horrified at a system which drove men to such barbarity.

"Van Diemen's Land was a place designed to break men, to process them and to rebuild them as new model Christian citizens.

"The real horror for me was always the notion that these men were sent to Sarah Island for minor offences such as thieving and drunkenness.

"The whips they used on Sarah Island had tin shards twisted into them to maximise the damage inflicted on a man's back. Everything about this place was designed to destroy a man. There was no hope at all. And when there is little or no hope, men are driven to extremes."


He said his aim was to put a "human face" to someone who had been painted as a "monster".

"I have never thought of Alexander Pearce as a monster. What he did was terrible but what he endured was in my mind more horrific. I hope people will be shocked by the film but not in the way they thought they might be."

Fulton also hopes that the film might mark a new dawn for home grown Northern Irish television drama.

The film is on RTE1 at 9.30pm on monday, with screenings on Australian TV and the BBC scheduled for the new year.