Back in the 1980s a blockbuster summer flick came along called Footloose about how a big city boy’s passion for dance and rock music threatened the conservative Midwest town his parents moved him to.
Tight lipped Bible thumpers vowed to keep his town dance free, even though his senior prom was right on the horizon. Watching the film, though, there’s never question who’ll come out on top in the end.
Footloose certainly struck a chord with a lot of Irish people, but at the time they mostly thought of it as a bit of fairy story. Who’d put up with all that repression now, they asked? What they may not have known is that their own country did just this and much worse besides when their own parents were kids.
In Jimmy’s Hall, the real life story about forgotten hero Jimmy Gralton, director Ken Loach (who gave us the undisputed masterpiece The Wind That Shakes the Barley) introduces us to a forgotten real life hero, played by Dublin-born actor Barry Ward, 32.
Gralton was a real life socialist maverick who returned from the United States to his home county of Leitrim in the early 1930s. Fired up by the revolutionary fervor that led to the Irish Republic and the music of the Jazz Age, he quickly set about turning the local meeting hall into a center of learning independent of the church and state, where the villagers could read, debate and even dance at the weekends.
In Jimmy’s Hall Gralton’s principled vision for the future clashes violently with the local parish priest’s Father Sheridan (memorably played by well-known Broadway veteran Jim Norton), who wants education to be the exclusive preserve of the Catholic Church.
“Behind their little squabble is the big question of who’s going to control the country,” Ward tells the Jimmy’s Hall. “Jimmy Gralton is a little known figure in Ireland now because both the government and the church successfully swept his story under the carpet.”
Was Ward was surprised to learn that there was this kind of push back against the conservative Catholic state that Ireland was becoming?
“Well, it wasn’t surprising to see the extent of the power of the church in the 1930s. What surprised me was that there was an Irishman who had actually been deported from his own country on trumped up charges and nothing was said or done about it by anyone,” Ward said.
“He had dual citizenship in America and he was sent back there and entirely forgotten. That really shook me. That reminded me that these kind of things can happen any time and they’ll be forgotten if people aren’t called to task.”
After principled agitators like Gralton helped to win the new republic, they soon found themselves being written out of picture by the conservative forces that took over the running of the country.
“Fundamentally the film is showing how absolute power corrupts absolutely. Given the power of life and death over Gralton and the local community, Father Sheridan pulls out every stop to eliminate his threat,” Ward said.
He adds that we will always need men like Jimmy Gralton around, and Jimmy’s Hall provides people with a timely reminder of the existence of these forgotten Irish heroes.
For Scots Irish screenwriter Paul Laverty, the first stop in his research trip to write the film was Effernagh in Co. Leitrim, where a field opposite a pub called the Black Swan is all that remains of the real life hall.
“There was a wooden sign with the words, ‘Site of the Pearse-Connolly Hall. In memory of Jimmy Gralton, Leitrim Socialist deported for his political beliefs on August 13, 1933,’” says Laverty.
“Though burnt down by persons unknown on New Year’s Eve 1932, it was still possible to imagine the outline of the hall in the overgrown grass.”
The only sound he could hear now was that of crows he says.
“But gradually I could hear in my mind’s eye the sound of feet tapping, and music drifting down over the 80 year gap. I couldn’t help but smile at the thought of Jimmy’s secret weapon in the battle against drabness, his stylish gramophone brought back from the states, and his collection of records. People traveled over 30 miles on their bicycles to hear and dance to those records the local parish priests called the devil’s music.”
Wards says he has no doubt that Father Sheridan regrets not being able to recruit a man like Jimmy Gralton to the priesthood.
“They could have done with a man like that, an attractive, smart, principled guy. Father Sheridan has some of those characteristics. He just happens to be fighting for the wrong team.”
There’s a tragedy of Jimmy’s hall, Ward suggests. Countless great minds were lost to the priesthood over the decades in Ireland.
“Instead of preaching dogmatic nonsense, if they instead put their minds to something more productive, we could be a lot better off for it,” he says.
What’s depressing is that very little has changed, Ward adds.
“Next year’s the centenary of 1916 and you can bet there’ll be what I can only call false advertising. As if achieving our independence was the be all and end all when in fact all we were doing was perpetuating the problem of the most money in the fewest hands,” Ward says.
“We’re blinded from seeing that by our own patriotism and nationalism sometimes.”
On one of his first days on set Ward remembers asking Loach about his love of Ireland and Irish themes, recalling that Loach also filmed Hidden Agenda in the 1980s.
“I always felt that he got Ireland right in terms of tone and atmosphere and reality. But he maintains that he doesn’t make Irish, English or Scottish movies. He makes international stories about struggle that goes on everywhere,” Ward said.
“He’s more concerned with class than nationality. So he comes to the west of Ireland and makes this film set in the 1930s about regular working folk.”
In Jimmy’s Hall Loach shows us just how much it costs to maintain the status quo. By driving out the best and the brightest, what are you left with? The answer is you’re left with a conformist backwater that’s duller than a wet Wednesday in Co. Fermanagh.
“The up side of that is that people are easily controlled. It used to be the pulpit dumbing people down, but now it’s the TV. The greatest tool of oppression ever invented, it’s even invaded people’s living rooms,” Ward says.
Born and raised in Blanchardstown in Dublin, Ward says he always thought of himself as a sort of country kid because his father was born in Leitrim and raised in Roscommon and he’s never met a more country man in his life.
He thinks of Jimmy’s Hall as a kind of Irish Footloose he confesses.
“It’s mad that it really happened and it’s mad that we never heard about it before. What happens when your own country declares that you’re an illegal alien? If that premise sounds ridiculous you’ll be even more surprised to hear that it has actually happened before, and the country that did it was Ireland!”
Jimmy’s Hall opened July 3.