Liam Mac Uaid reviews Ken Loach’s new film.
The two states in Ireland were the product of a revolution that acknowledged defeat in 1921 when Michael Collins signed the treaty that partitioned the country. Lloyd George had vowed the Irish would face “immediate and terrible war” if they didn’t and the Sinn Féin delegation, which saw the struggle principally as a military one, yielded.
Ken Loach’s new film Jimmy’s Hall is set in county Leitrim about a decade after that event. Collins’ surrender had been opposed by a section of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and there had been a year-long civil war between those determined to force the British out of the whole country and those who reckoned that the 26 counties given a nominal independence with the British commonwealth was as much as could be achieved. One of those was the protagonist of the film, Jim Gralton played by Barry Ward, who returned to Ireland for a short time in 1922, having moved to New York in 1909. During his time back on the family farm he helped rebuild a parish hall which had been burned down by the British army. Its name, the Pearse-Connolly Hall was a political statement in itself, being named in honour of the Marxist James Connolly
Gralton returned to the New York during the civil war but ended up back home in 1932 with a mistaken belief that the new nationalist, ultra Catholic Fianna Fáil government was good news for the left. What he actually returned to was a neo-colonial theocracy in which the education minister believed that it was the state’s duty to give money to the Catholic Church to run the school system without any government oversight. The Church ran every secondary school. In the same year Father John McQuaid, who would go on to be archbishop of Dublin and effective ruler of the country, gave a sermon saying that there was a struggle between Christ and Satan with Jews, Protestants, Freemasons and Communists comprising parts of Satan’s army.
This speech is echoed in the film by Gralton’s nemesis, the local priest Father Sheridan, who is beautifully played by Jim Norton. There is no point judging the grip religion held over the Irish peasantry in that period through 21st century eyes. Until late in the 20th century pre-Christian beliefs and practices survived. Touching a particular priest’s grave could cure warts and certain trees or rocks in a field couldn’t be removed because they belonged to the fairies. Sheridan articulates both the reactionary Catholic nationalism of some of the Irish ruling class but has an enormous moral authority as a spiritual leader. Jim Gralton by contrast joined the Revolutionary Workers’ Group, an early version of the Irish Communist Party and reopened his hall.
This immediately brought him into conflict with the Church and the local middle classes and landed gentry. Large parts of rural Ireland were carved up into estates which had been stolen by aristocratic colonists and big ranchers. There was a massive hunger for land among small tenant farmers who rented smallholding from which they could be evicted. During the civil war one of the fault lines in the IRA had been which side they should support in the conflict between tenants and landlords. Ken Loach’s earlier film The Wind That Shakes The Barley dealt well with this element of the class war.
As with the earlier work Ken is superb at how ordinary people are able to run the things that matter in their own life. The hall is used for concerts, poetry reading, boxing lessons – all the things that made life more than a struggle for survival in a life of deep poverty. However it’s a direct challenge to the Church because it remains defiantly secular and it’s a challenge to the local landowners because it’s a place where people learn to organise and are exposed to new ideas.
When the clash comes it’s brutal. Gralton and his supporters are confronted with an alliance of the Church, the police, the landowners and the local proto-fascists. It’s a Ken Loach film, so don’t go in expecting a feel good ending. What you will get is an exploration of what a triumphant counter-revolution does to a society – how it stifles and blinkers the intellect, not shirking from intimidation and violence to do so. You’ll also be reminded that even in the most unfavourable situations people retain their self-respect through organisation and defiance.
In the long run it looks like Jim Gralton is set to win the cultural battle. Today it’s fairly common for a parish not to have a single priest and there are only two in Dublin diocese under the age of forty.