Asmall boy raised in a henhouse for seven years, a Nobel Prize-winning poet, and an acclaimed author, transforming his art from the written word to the moving image. The story behind Bye Child, the first film written and directed by Bernard MacLaverty, does not need to be exaggerated or dramatised: it is one of unfathomable cruelty, poetic inspiration, and a new, challenging work of art inspired by a feral child.

MacLaverty, 61, the lauded author of Cal, Lamb, and Grace Notes, will next week sit nervously in a theatre while the world premiere of his first film plays to an audience at the

London Film Festival. Bye Child is a 15-minute short, based on the poem of the same name by Seamus Heaney, his old friend and colleague, and made with a new friend and colleague, the producer Andrew Bonner.

MacLaverty, especially for an award-winning writer and honoured academic, seems genuinely astonished by his achievement.

He has travelled a long way in the past year. In late 2002, he had a script, a head full of images, and promises of funding. Now the completed film sits, as a video tape, between us on a coffee table in his Glasgow home.

It might not have happened but for a chance meeting. Bonner, then studying for an MA at Strathclyde University on Seamus Heaney, spoke to MacLaverty after a public reading in 1996. Bonner had been struck by the author's reference in Cal to Bye Child, a poem he was ''obsessed with''. Later, bumping into the writer again in Byres Road, he suggested making the poem into a short film. MacLaverty eventually agreed and set to work on a script, which he said he was happy to write - as long as he directed it, too.

Both men were irresistibly drawn to the creative idea. But Bye Child the poem and Bye Child the film are both much removed from the original story, which is the tragic tale of Kevin Halfpenny.

He was found in 1956, being raised in a hen house in Broclough, County Down. When he was found, aged seven, he weighed only two stone. His height was a mere 30in, and he had suffered from rickets for at least five years owing to a lack of sunlight.

He could not speak but instead made the noises of chickens. His arm and leg joints were swollen, and his shin bones were concave. He could only stand without assistance for a few seconds.

After his chance discovery, the boy's mother, Margaret Halfpenny, was arrested for neglect, but was sentenced to only nine months in jail after pleading guilty. The judge said: ''I do not know whether you are entitled to demand mercy. Perhaps, who knows, there may be some divine providence who will provide it for you, a mercy I could never provide.''

Sister Irene Maher, of Nazareth House in Cape Town, said she had met Kevin later in his life, after he had been taken into religious care. ''The sister who admitted him to a Nazareth House at the time related how the boy perched on his cot and cawed like a hen all through the

first few weeks following his admission,'' she said. ''I saw him grow up, responding to love, enjoying music, but at the same time requiring a lot of medical treatment, especially to his legs; in fact, he had to have a great deal of surgery to straighten them.''

After the brief public horror caused by his case, Kevin Halfpenny dropped out of history. The power of his story, however, endures. With funds from the film council in Northern Ireland, Scottish Screen, and (pounds) 30,000 from the Scottish Arts Council, plus a

couple of locations found in County Antrim, shooting of Bye Child commenced in June this year. Six days later, the film was wrapped.

MacLaverty says filming was a ''terrifying'' and ''scary'' experience. He is used to working alone, pen in hand, with no dissenting voices, no wind or rain or light to worry about, no actors to coax into action. He was worried he would, as he puts it, make a ''total bollix of it''.

But he assuredly hasn't. It's a

lyrical, harsh, poetic, small film. Its denouement is truly haunting and horrific. By linking the squalid fate of the child with the Apollo moon landings of the late 1960s, a chilling sense of isolation, loneliness, and edgy fantasy is evoked. It is a scary little jewel of a film. ''Horror and hatred and duty and repression,'' as MacLaverty says, envelopes the story of how a woman came to believe that her child was best raised in a freezing, tiny hen house.

''I knew, through writing the scripts for the films of Cal, and Lamb, how to work with visual images. What I didn't know was what a best boy was, what a dolly was, that was totally new to me, and so was working with actors,'' he says. ''You just hope something is evoked in the images you have imagined. And then on the shoot, you

discover things, and sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. I think in the end it is a serious work, even if it's dark and disturbing.''

Actress Susan Lynch plays the main character of the mother, and MacLaverty was entranced by her skill and control, not only of her lines, but of her body. In one

traumatic scene she blanches as white as a sheet - MacLaverty praised her fine make-up, only to be astonished to find out she was wearing none, and had just acted the fright she felt.

Bonner is proud of the production, and full of praise for MacLaverty's directorial debut. The author says his maxim one set was: ''Make a decision, even if it's the wrong one, but at least make one.'' It appears to have worked. ''He is just brilliant at working with people; he was superb on set,'' Bonner says. ''First, he is a storyteller, and he just knows what is needed to progress a story, but because of his charm and generosity, everyone that I have talked to on-set had a great time.''

Kevin Halfpenny's story has developed through time like a series of inspired Chinese whispers and passed into urban legend in

Northern Ireland. First is the almost unbelievable reality. Then comes the poem, Bye Child, written by Heaney when he was a young teacher in Belfast, who, in poetic leap, linked the case to the Moon landings. Heaney actually read the poem to MacLaverty when they were young and involved in a literary group in Belfast, well before it was published. Then comes the film: twice removed from the actual case, and inspired by the poem. MacLaverty compares this evolution to the case of the Blue Guitar - originally it was a painting by Picasso, but was then made into a poem by Wallace Stevens, and then into music by Michael Tippett; the same subject with threedifferent interpretations. The story, through this process, has been distilled to its pure and painful essentials: a mother, a lonely house, and a child raised in a hen house with chickens.

MacLaverty says Heaney himself has not seen the film. ''I'm apprehensive, to be honest. I know myself that when someone dabbles with

my work, it is a huge leap to like it,'' he admits. MacLaverty, despite the pride he feels about his work, is not sure whether he will direct again. ''I don't know yet, to be honest. I want to see this played to other people and I want to hear reactions. I'll make that kind of decision later on, and at the moment I am working on another book of short stories.

''The fact is, this is a very bleak and distressing film. But that's the nature of the story and there is absolutely no escaping it.''

Bye Child is being shown on Tuesday and Wednesday in London and at the Glasgow Film Theatre in December.

A tale of neglect

Seamus Heaney, pictured, wrote this poem after he

was inspired by the story

of a feral child. Now Bernard MacLaverty has made a

film from the poem.


(He was discovered in

the henhouse where

she had confined him.

He was incapable of

saying anything.)

When the lamp glowed,

A yolk of light

In their back window,

The child in the outhouse

Put his eye to a chink -

Little henhouse boy,

Sharp-faced as new moons

Remembered, your photo still

Glimpsed like a rodent

On the floor of my mind,

Little moon man,

Kennelled and faithful

At the foot of the yard,

Your frail shape,


Weightless, is stirring

the dust,

The cobwebs, old


Under the roosts

And dry smells from scraps

She put through your


Morning and evening.

After those footsteps, silence;

Vigils, solitudes, fasts,

Unchristened tears,

A puzzled love of the light.

But now you speak at last

With a remote mime

Of something beyond patience,

Your gaping wordless proof

Of lunar distances

Travelled beyond love.

Seamus Heaney