As America processed the imminent overturning of the Roe v Wade ruling this May, a play about one of the country’s most notorious abortion cases opened at a theatre in New York’s midtown.
Oh Gosnell: The Truth about Abortion dealt with the story of Kermit Gosnell, a doctor who for decades performed illegal late-term abortions in Philadelphia. Gosnell was ultimately convicted of three counts of first-degree murder and a further 21 counts of performing an illegal late-term abortion.
Written by the Irish documentary film-maker Phelim McAleer, the play had troubled origins: the theatre he had originally planned to use backed out and two actors, who were apparently not happy with the material, walked out 24 hours before the first preview was due to begin. When it finally premiered a week later, the New York Times sneered at its “tabloid title”, and its reviewer wrote that the play neither conveyed any “general truth about abortion”, nor was it “constructed to persuade”.
In an email to his subscribers, McAleer — who comes from Tyrone — raged at the “dishonest review”. There was previous with America’s paper of record: until this summer it had completely snubbed the cottage industry that McAleer had made out of the Gosnell case.
A movie, Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer — starring former Lois & Clark star Dean Cain and written by McAleer — had climbed into the US box office top 10 in 2018 but was ignored by reviewers at the NYT and most other major outlets.
The previous year, a book on Gosnell, written by McAleer and his wife Ann McElhinney, had been a top-five bestseller in the US by virtue of sales alone, but did not appear on the NYT bestseller list, which apparently looks at the “context” of sales, as well as the quantity.
Back home, McAleer and McElhinney, from Donegal, also seemed to sail under the radar. While Irish media lauded the work of CNN anchor Donie O’Sullivan, the couple’s liberal-baiting output has largely been overlooked.
Meanwhile, buoyed by the abortion debate, their new podcast on the Gosnell case, Serial Killer: A True Crime Podcast, narrated by Irish voices, has become one of the most downloaded crime podcasts in the world: the latest episode contains “re-enactments of the most dramatic moments from the trial, recordings were not allowed in the courtroom”.
The sense of being an outsider, a renegade in America’s culture wars, has long been part of McAleer and McElhinney’s brand.
Over the last decade, a combination of the growth of a newly combative American conservatism, the rise of crowdfunding — McAleer describes himself as “one of the most successful crowdfunders in the world” — and a combative instinct for self-promotion, have accelerated their careers. They have made environmental documentaries — on climate change and fracking. McAleer’s play Ferguson — about the shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer in Missouri in 2014 — resulted in him being called a “rabble-rousing conservative journalist” by the LA Times and prompted another cast walkout.
The couple have made fans of the rabble-rouser-in-chief. Two years ago, they were invited to the White House by Donald Trump after a Washington performance of their play, FBI Lovebirds, based on text messages between FBI employees that the then-president’s supporters said were involved in the “Russian collusion hoax”.
“We had a ball — the president was in great form — telling stories — being naughty,” McAleer recalls. “We even had the most impromptu White House tour ever, as he took us to a side room off the Oval Office and explained it was where Bill and Monica had their liaison. Shortly afterwards, the lockdowns began. One White House aide later said that that was the last happy day in the White House.”
Their loyalty to Trump persists: asked if she considers the former president responsible for the January 6 riots, McElhinney says simply: “No.”
On a visit home to Ireland this week, McAleer deplores the liberal place it has become. Asked about the recent social changes, such as the legalisation of abortion and gay marriage, he tells Review: “The more progressive Ireland becomes, the more unliveable it seems to become, materially and spiritually.”
He draws a link between recent social changes and the housing crisis and suicide. But how can he draw this correlation when official statistics show that the suicide rate in Ireland fell to its lowest rate in two decades in 2021?
And, despite the housing crisis, the country is also richer, with the average citizen enjoying greater life expectancy than in the 1980s, when we were socially more conservative.
“Ireland is now a country where the media, in an Archbishop McQuaid-ian way, refuse to tell their audiences that anyone has committed suicide — you might read about a tragic death. but they are refusing to mention the word,” McAleer says.
“So I’d be sceptical that this attitude doesn’t slip into the wider world and colour the statistics. I’d like to see these stats broken down generationally — it is probably no surprise that the millionaire old people are happier but there is a suicide epidemic among young people caused by the older generation colluding in their impoverishment.
“Ireland is a country where the old are among the richest in Europe at the expense of the young.”
McAleer grew up in a republican background in Troubles-era Tyrone and says the “Neanderthal nationalism” of his youth, then seen as “anti-progressive and close to barbarism”, has now “become cool”.
Mixed in with his polemical grenades are some undeniably astute observations. He draws a link between the rise of Sinn Féin in this country and the popularity of Trump, Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen in their own countries.
“Obviously, Sinn Féin would be abhorred to be linked to those politicians because they are in public mouthing the establishment platitudes. But look at their ads on Facebook and their speeches and their whispers on the doorsteps, and they are a loud nationalist party shouting an anti-establishment message.”
He started his career as a journalist at a local newspaper in Crossmaglen before moving to The Irish News, where he reported on the Troubles. “Back then, giving a voice to nationalists and republicans in the North was seen as very smelly — the northern and southern establishment looked on you as someone who was a bit grubby.”
In 1994, at MacGill Summer School in Glenties, Donegal, he met Ann, from Bundoran, who was on a break from working as a schoolteacher. McAleer looked “quite a lot like a terrorist, very unkempt,” she tells me. “I knew then he needed taking care of and that I was the person for the job.”
They began working together as a journalistic team in 2000. The first story they worked on together concerned Mihaela Porumbaru, the Romanian child paralysed from the waist down who was handed back to her Romanian foster parents. They would eventually move to the US, where they tackled the issue of global warming. Not Evil Just Wrong, a sort of riposte to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, caused a stir upon its release in 2009 and saw them become in-demand public speakers.
In 2013, the couple made a well-reviewed documentary FrackNation which effectively explored the complexity of issues around fracking, and McAleer says, anticipated some of the issues in Putin’s war in Ukraine. “We offered the documentary to RTÉ and they said they would look at it carefully and get back to us — they are obviously still looking,” he says.
I wonder what prompted the change from traditional journalism and reporting to a more confrontational style of work. “We are not provocateurs,” McElhinney says, “what a waste of life and time to want to provoke.”
“I think definitions have changed, not us,” McAleer adds. “It looks like asking questions is now seen as wrong and provocative and something to be discouraged.”
The claim to not be wilfully provocative seems risible when you look at the couple’s social media channels, on which each post is a carefully aimed kick at the hornets’ nest. The likes of conservative firebrand Ann Coulter are retweeted.
At the beginning of July, McAleer wrote on his Twitter page that the phrase “violent trans activist” is “just repetitive”. Surely he’s not suggesting that trans activists are inherently violent? “I don’t think people should explain jokes,” he replies. “That goes double for Twitter jokes. But your question reminds me of the Russian saying, ‘in every joke there is a little humour’.”
McAleer likens being transgender to conditions like anorexia and bulimia — all, he claims, are young people “damaging their bodies in a new way, which is just an old story”. But all major psychiatric organisations — both the Irish and American national organisations — say that being transgender is not a psychiatric disorder and that allowing transition has positive mental health outcomes. Versus, say, allowing an anorexic to continue starving which would have a potentially lethal outcome.
So how on earth are they comparable? In his answer, McAleer seems to deny the existence of trans children and reiterates the conflation of eating disorder and transgender identity. “Giving irreversible medication to children — advocating surgery because of their feelings is child abuse. Teenage and pre-teenage girls used to starve themselves to change their bodies — we gave them treatment often against their will. Now they can just say they are transgender. We call them brave.”
The couple’s frequent production technique is to harvest actual transcripts from trials — be that Gosnell, Ferguson or Harvey Weinstein — for their work, but neither of them think that objectivity is important in the stories they cover — “truth is more important,” McAleer says, echoing his wife. Nor do they see themselves as campaigners.
“We just see a story that is compelling but not being told,” McAleer says. “There is a tremendous appetite for the truth — one of the most interesting parts of the Gosnell story is that it was a pro-choice Republican governor that ended inspections of abortion clinics and really allowed Gosnell to kill and kill and keep killing — the dynamics and politics behind that are fascinating.”
McAleer is hesitant to discuss the abuse they get: “Journalists nowadays seem to treat nasty tweets as life-threatening — they can dish out vitriol but cry when they get it back.”
But he admits that in the course of his work he gets “regular threats”. A lawyer infiltrated a film set they were working on, “posing as a documentary film-maker”. During another, a landowner “threatened me with a gun when I pointed out the scientific results did not match the claims in her lawsuit”.
McElhinney has recently moved into stand-up comedy and performed her first gig last year at an American Freedom Alliance event on a bill that also featured the far-right English commentator Katie Hopkins as a guest speaker.
Interestingly, other than the odd barb about things like “the 59 sexes”, there’s little of the trademark controversy in the set that Review saw. Instead, there were gentle jokes about drinking during the pandemic, having enough toilet roll for a century and an explanation about what Lemsip and ‘gobshites’ are to Americans (the latter with a photo aid featuring Gavin Newsom, the Democrat governor of California).
Unlike Hopkins, there is little sense that McAleer and McElhinney’s conservatism is performative. Their views seem to be deeply held, and they have parlayed a successful and likely lucrative (they recently raised $2.5m for a new film on Hunter Biden) polemical style into careers that have gathered momentum as American politics and jurisprudence tips further toward the right.
“50pc of the country supported Trump — yet Hollywood just wants to keep sneering — and they wonder why domestic box office is failing,” McAleer says.
And, as to whether they are trying to convince or preach to the right-wing choir, he adds: “(We’re) trying to bring the truth to people — what they do with it is up to them.”