Back in the summer of 1985 a couple of rambunctious Irish lads—one 10, the other 13—were out and about in their Dublin neighborhood, up to their usual tricks. No worries there—they had promised their mums they’d return for supper.
“Aye, sure we will, ma,” had they said, or words to that effect, before they went rambling. But instead of coming back for dinner, they set out on an adventure, a romp that would take them from Dublin across the Irish Sea to Wales, on to London and then New York. All without the benefit of a ticket, a passport, any form of ID. The story of their escapade made headlines on both sides of the Atlantic.
“They decided that they would go on a little wander,” notes Garret Daly, director of Nothing to Declare, an Oscar-contending short documentary on the singular odyssey of Keith Byrne (the younger of the two) and his pal Noel Murray. “It is an incredible story, because it’s one of those stories you can’t imagine happening now.”
As the film explores, this was by no means the first lark for the boys. Growing up in a hardscrabble part of town they had made a habit of “bunking”—slang meaning to avail oneself of transportation without paying a fare.
“We always traveled around Ireland on the buses and on the trains [for free],” recalls Murray, now in his late 40s. “We just liked getting away from the area and just getting up to mischief. That’s what we were doing.”
That day in ’85, the ragamuffins managed to board a Sealink passenger ship docked outside Dublin. That ferried them across choppy waters to Holyhead, Wales, and from there they hopped a train to London. The next day, without so much as a pound in their pockets, they headed to Heathrow Airport.
“They decided to go out to Heathrow simply because they were used to going out to Dublin Airport and, shall we say, ‘taking’ the food from the food stalls at the airport to fill their bellies,” Daly explains. “And they thought, ‘Well, we’ll do the same [at Heathrow].’”
One thing led to another (as seems to have happened regularly with Keith and Noel) and they wound up by the gate for an Air India flight bound for New York. Well, why not continue the sojourn?
“They tried a couple of times to get [aboard], and their technique was they’d hold hands, and they would say, ‘Our mum’s coming with the tickets,’” Daly tells Deadline. “A couple of attempts at this, and eventually they got on the plane.”
Whether Keith and Noel had kissed the Blarney Stone previously or not, the youngsters definitely possessed the gift of gab the stone is said to confer, and they could talk themselves into or out of almost any situation.
“We were very streetwise,” Murray says. “Keith was very mouthy. He’s good with words.”
Murray and Byrne, still gifted raconteurs, reunited for the film to revisit their adventure. Daly also interviewed the New York Port Authority Police personnel on duty at JFK decades ago, including now-retired officer Kenneth White. He’s the one who spotted the urchins after they had made it through customs, en route to the core of the Big Apple.
“The thing that stuck with me was the fact that they were staring at me and really staring at me hard,” White tells Deadline of his encounter with the impish wanderers. “They were with other couples [seemingly], so I didn’t really think too much of it. About 20 minutes later, I see them walking back up the wing, and the way they were dressed, and their ages, it stuck out to me and that’s why I stopped them. I asked them where they were going and they told me they were going to the center of town to meet their parents. And they kept saying ‘Me ma, me ma.’”
Officer White didn’t buy the story they were selling, and he called over a supervisor. The boys were… not exactly detained, but more or less brought to heel. Next thing they knew they were living high off the hog at Air India’s expense.
“We were put into a big fancy hotel, fed like lords,” Murray remembers. “We were well looked after. It was absolutely great. You had very nice people, very nice people.”
Newspapers from New York to Dublin got hold of the story. To this day in Ireland, Daly says, the tale hasn’t been forgotten.
“There was a lot of press about it at the time,” Daly says. “Certainly, over the last 15 years the story started reappearing… That was my first [introduction] to it, and I reached out to see if I could meet the guys. That’s a couple of years ago now, and I think they hadn’t seen each other in a couple of years.”
Despite the passage of time, there’s still a mischievous twinkle in the eyes of Murray and Byrne.
“The minute you put these two together, there’s something that kicks off,” Daly observes. “I hope that that comes across in the documentary… You could see how they managed to get 5,000 kilometers from home the way that they did, because they just have a charm about the way they interact with each other and how they chat.”
Daly and his collaborators tracked down exceptional archive footage from the time—of Dublin, London, and New York—to bring viewers back to that era. It’s a story with echoes of other New York tales of adventure and the unexpected, like the Oscar-winning Man on Wire, and Three Identical Strangers. More than just an entertaining frolic, the film also invites reflection on massive cultural changes since 1985, particularly in the way children are raised.
“I have kids right now that are the exact same age as these two were when they did the trip,” Daly notes, “and I can’t even let them down the road on their bike because I’m terrified of cars speeding around the corner, and it’s quite sad how we’ve restricted to that degree… Kids had a freedom [then].”
What happened to the lads once they were reunited with their parents back in Dublin? What became of their lives in the interim between 1985 and now? The film answers those questions. Oscar Documentary Branch voters can watch it in the Academy’s documentary screening portal. The general public may get a chance to see it beginning next month, although distribution details haven’t yet been released.
Murray hasn’t returned to New York since his spontaneous excursion in 1985. But he’s up for it.
“I’d love to go back and see,” he confides. “I remember going over a bridge. We were in the police car going to the precinct. I remember that. And then I remember the hotel. I just remember big buildings… all the yellow taxis outside.”
There’s only one hitch (or maybe it isn’t). He doesn’t possess a valid passport.
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