CAMBRIDGE — In the teeming, yet tidy, office of his cozy walk-up on Massachusetts Avenue, Padraig O’Malley rattled off his to-do list: He’ll try to persuade Iraqi leaders to address sectarian violence; he’ll kick off a project in Bulgaria to engage disaffected Muslim youth susceptible to the lure of Islamic extremism; he’ll travel to Lebanon to convene a forum that seeks to address conflicts in divided cities of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.
Such an agenda would be daunting for a Secretary of State, to say nothing of a veteran scholar and international mediator who could be basking in life’s third chapter.
But O’Malley, 73, who has spent decades getting implacable foes in conflict-torn societies to sit down together, said in an interview Wednesday that he can’t imagine living any other way. A recovering alcoholic, O’Malley readily admits that he has substituted one addiction for another.
“I’m a workaholic: If I’m not working, I’m anxious,” said O’Malley, who serves as the John Joseph Moakley Distinguished Professor of Peace and Reconciliation at the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies at UMass Boston. “If I stop working for any sustained period of time, for three or four hours, I start suffering from withdrawal syndrome. I have to get back to my work.”
O’Malley’s inability to find inner peace even as he spends his life trying to bring it to others is the subject of “The Peacemaker , ” a documentary by Brookline-based director James Demo that was screened Thursday night in a sold-out show at the Brattle Theatre as part of the Independent Film Festival Boston.
The film is shot over six years at a such disparate locales as Northern Ireland, Nigeria, perilous checkpoints in Iraq and Kosovo, and an alcoholic recovery meeting in the Boston area, where O’Malley, raised in Dublin, has spent much of time since 1988.
It tells the story of how O’Malley, as a 33-year-old part-owner of the Plough & Stars bar in Cambridge, in 1975 helped bring together mortal enemies in the Northern Ireland conflict known as “The Troubles” at a peace conference at UMass Amherst.
It details one of O’Malley’s greatest peacemaking successes, talks that brought leaders of rival paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland together with former combatants in South Africa who had learned to coexist. That process was praised by Northern Irish on all sides as an important precursor to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 that brought to an end the decades-long sectarian conflict.
All this time, O’Malley is bonding with his protagonists over alcohol. When he recognizes his addiction in 2002, he realizes that his recovery provides a model for conflict resolution.
“As one alcoholic is in the best position to help another, so people from divided societies are in the best position to help each other,” O’Malley explained. “It’s similar to the role people who are involved in recovery play in getting people to a meeting, where everyone tells the story of their conflict from how they experienced it. They can see that the first thing they have to do is to realize that they’re addicted to the violence, they’re part of the problem.”
Judging the success of O’Malley’s behind-the-scenes efforts can be difficult, said Charles M. Sennott, founder and director of The GroundTruth Project and a former Boston Globe reporter who has reported on O’Malley’s work in Nigeria, Kosovo, Northern Ireland, and Iraq.
“I’ve seen what it’s like when he convenes people from different sides and watches them work together,” Sennott said. “One of the successes of his work that’s hard to see in the moment is the way it lives on through people getting to know each other. It is about understanding the ripple effect of what he’s dropped into the pond.”
But “The Peacemaker” is not as concerned with O’Malley’s professional success as it is with the toll it takes on his personal life. As he goes from alcoholic to workaholic, O’Malley realizes that he loves no one, and that the one thing that gives him solace is his work.
“Why Padraig matters to me is that Padraig is the person out there striving to end conflict and will risk everything to do it,” said Demo, an independent filmmaker who previously worked with John Savage, Amanda Plummer and Karen Black on the short narrative comedy “First Time Long Time.”
“The attempt is often alone, with no money, against all odds and that is what is so heroic to me about Padraig. The cost is what makes it so bittersweet.”
The film reveals O’Malleys sometimes fractured relationship with his longtime partner, Patricia Keefer, and Gladwin Gilman, the South African girl they raised as their daughter who is now studying at Mount Holyoke College. In one scene, O’Malley is seen worrying that he is losing his memory, and the ability to work. He tells a doctor that he takes Clonazepam for the anxiety he develops when he’s not working. He describes a day in Iraq when 24 bombs went off as the time when he relaxes.
As the film nears its end, Quintin Oliver , who ran the “yes” campaign in Northern Ireland to get the Good Friday Agreement, is shown toasting O’Malley on his 72nd birthday for “his tremendous, meaningful, and impactful life.”
But what concerns “The Peacemaker” is not O’Malley’s legacy. It’s that his next move is not to savor it, but to run out the door. In one of the final scenes, O’Malley is discussing his plan to renew peace talks in Iraq.
“The reality is, that given Iraq, it wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference,” he says.“That’s the reality. And I can see that reality at the end of the day. But the steps in between are kind of exciting and intriguing.”