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JImmy Gralton’s Ireland

Putting the Catholic Church in Its Place

by HARRY BROWNE

Ken Loach and Paul Laverty’s Jimmy’s Hall is as near as makes no difference to being a sequel to their superb 2006 film, The Wind That Shakes the Barley. The earlier film showed how the Irish independence struggle gave way to a brutal counter-revolution that preserved aspects of British colonialism and entrenched a reactionary Irish bourgeoisie to run the new state.

The great new film picks up ten years later and nearly 200 miles north of the Cork setting of The Wind… in the beautiful, boggy landscape of County Leitrim. The revolution that was crushed in 1922-23 attempts one last, jazzy kick in the arse of the new establishment, as an unapologetic republican-socialist returns from New York after a decade’s exile and re-opens a community hall that accepts no authority except that of the people who built it. And in Ireland in 1932, that means defying the Catholic Church.

The story of Jim Gralton and his hall is absolutely true, though director Loach and writer Laverty have taken plenty of liberties with it. Gralton, who had US citizenship, was deported back to New York from the country of his birth in 1933, ironically by a government that was supposed to be truer to the republican ideals of the Irish rebellion than the one that ruled the first decade after independence. Gralton was gone and nearly but not quite forgotten, with a few leftists and local-historians clinging through the decades to his ideas and to a story that knits together Marxist internationalism with Irish anti-imperial resistance; a love for Irish music and culture with the irresistible strains of American jazz. I can remember a quarter-century ago marching through the lanes of a Leitrim village with a few dozen of the assorted clingers, at a very lovely and thought-provoking event called the Jim Gralton Summer School.

Irish actor, playwright and activist Donal O’Kelly became the latest to draw a spark from the Gralton flame when in 2012 he produced a sort of multimedia, audience-participation pageant, directed by Sorcha Fox, called Jimmy Gralton’s Dancehall. (O’Kelly turns up in Loach’s film in a bit part; Fox is wonderful in a more substantial one.) The ‘play’ gets credited by Loach and Laverty, and so it duly turns up with a mention in many of the (mixed) reviews of the film. But I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that none of the international film-critic fraternity actually saw O’Kelly boogy-woogying as JIm Gralton in any of the handful of performances of Jimmy Gralton’s Dancehall that were staged, with the involvement of scores of local people, in remote locations in the west of Ireland.

I saw it in the old ‘Rainbow Ballroom of Romance’ in Glenfarne, County Leitrim, and wrote about it for the Irish edition of the Sunday Times. (My article is behind Rupert Murdoch’s paywall.) As in Loach’s film, Gralton’s stand-off with his parish priest, hater of both Gralton’s politics and his African-Americanised cultural baggage, was the dramatic centre of the affair; but  the dancing, during and after the ‘play’, was the highlight of the show, great Irish highsteppers mixing with African asylum-seekers, and anyone else who showed up, to try some old and new steps, with the floor heaving beneath us. I wrote at the time:

… there’s nothing terribly radical in 2012 about mocking and chiding the 20th-century Catholic Church for its oppressive terror, even if the story of Ireland’s jazz rebellion can always do with more telling. Jimmy Gralton’s Dancehall, happily, does more than mock: it invites everyone to come and dance on the church’s grave. This grave-dance is, you suddenly realise as you’re pulled out on to the dance floor, a party that Ireland has been waiting for, especially now that the hollowness of the Celtic “we all partied” Tiger has been revealed. It’s one thing to condemn the Church for its failings and consign it to history, it’s another thing to celebrate the passing of its power and genuinely let everyone join in.

O’Kelly and Fox used a range of visual and textual tricks, mostly involving slides projected on the back wall of the ballroom, to connect that celebration to various present-day struggles, including that of asylum-seekers fighting against deportation. (The results of the 2004 citizenship referendum, the tenth anniversary of which will be marked next week, mean that the strange spectacle of an Irish-born person being deported as an alien is no longer just a
frontmananomalous old footnote tied to Gralton’s name.)

Loach and Laverty, with their fundamental devotion to realism and verisimilitude, can’t quite play it that way. To be sure, they splendidly capture the joyous defiance of the dancefloor; and cinematographer Robbie Ryan uses Loach’s beloved, dying medium of 35mm film to infuse scenes with a watery Leitrim-light magic. But while playing the story straight, they’ve got a political trick up their sleeves all right: instead of dancing on the Church’s grave, they breathe complex human life into their repressed and repressive clergymen, and remind us that there was (and is) more to reactionary Ireland than the power of the Catholic hierarchy.

It helps that they’ve got great actors to play the young and old priests of the parish: Andrew Scott and Jim Norton. For British and Irish audiences, the latter actor reveals a sort of in-joke that colours our understanding of the film-makers’ purpose. In an absurdly brilliant TV sitcom of the 1990s, Father Ted, produced in London but with Irish writing and acting talent, Norton played Bishop Len Brennan, an occasional character and a nasty, hypocritical piece of work who turned up to bully and discipline the eponymous Father Ted Crilly. In one of the series’ most memorable episodes, Ted, having lost a bet, was required to “kick Bishop Brennan up the arse”.

The joke of the episode (okay, one joke of the episode) is that the beleaguered Ted pursues the arse-kicking task methodically and without rancour, to the extent that when it is completed, the speechless bishop literally cannot believe it has happened. That didn’t stop the TV moment from being enjoyed and understood as a new Ireland’s symbolic revenge for centuries of repression and cruelty (including sexual violence, as the episode’s casual repetition of the phrase “up the arse” keeps insisting). There’s even, inevitably, an academic book called Kicking Bishop Brennan Up the Arse.

So when some of us see actor Jim Norton in clerical garb, part of our reaction is, “Oh yes, we kicked the Church up the arse. In 1998. And in regular repeats since then.” Whether Loach and Laverty intended the connection — and trust me, Jimmy’s Hall  can be enjoyed without prior knowledge of Gralton, O’Kelly or Father Ted — they clearly grasp that the idea of the Church as the sole villain of the piece has been done, and it just doesn’t cut it, not in 1932, not in 2014.

In Jimmy’s Hall, Norton’s Father Sheridan calls Gralton’s attention to a painting on the wall of his study, John Lavery’s 1922 The Blessing of the Colours: it shows a patriotic Irish soldier kneeling, head bowed and flag in his grip, in front of a bishop: State subordinate to Church. This, says the priest, is as it should be. But as the film develops, it becomes clear that the relationship is not as simple as the old priest might wish, and that the Church is not Gralton’s only, or most dangerous, enemy. Gralton moves repeatedly into open conflict with the powerful when he challenges their class power, as when he and his followers restore an evicted tenant family to a rural estate that Irish ‘freedom’ hasn’t freed from its near-feudal lord. When the local big landowners and petty bourgeoisie confer with the priests about what should be done with Gralton, they address the clergy with a striking lack of respect; and by the end Father Sheridan appears to realise dimly that his culture-war with Gralton has been providing cover for an economic war being waged by local and national bosses and proto-fascists.

There is nothing trivial or academic about such an analysis today. For decades in Ireland, the liberal-left has been fighting the authority of the Church; even after (incomplete but culturally real) defeat of its power over the last two decades, Irish public life is dominated by retrospective revelations of the horrifying cruelty of the institutions through which bishops, priests and Catholic religious orders ran and ruined the lives of the disenfranchised: just last week we learned of a mass grave for babies at a home for unmarried mothers in County Galway.  By refusing to paint the Church only in shades of black and blacker, Loach invites us to consider on whose behalf Mother Church crushed the lives, hopes and joys of generations of Ireland’s poor.

After all, the ruling class here has long since stripped off its ecclesiastical garb. The Taoiseach (prime minister), Enda Kenny, is a direct political descendent of the nationalist clerico-fascists so brilliantly captured by Loach, but he conspicuously made his mark early in his term with a stirring retrospective denunciation of the Church, earning him a great rush of liberal kudos. Meanwhile, though, he has ruled with an iron fist on behalf of international bondholders in Ireland’s casino banks, and on behalf of the multinational companies that are happy to make a low-tax home in post-Catholic Ireland.

Love of Ireland lives in every frame of Jimmy’s Hall, in the scenery, in the chat, in the faces of Loach’s usual mix of professional and undiscovered actors. Barry Ward is magnetic as Gralton, Simone Kirby beautifully blue-eyed and careworn as his comrade and love-interest, Oonagh; and Francis Magee visibly channels Robert Mitchum in a key supporting role. It seems that Loach and Laverty love Ireland enough to know that (some electoral grounds for optimism aside) it still needs a Jim Gralton, or a few, not to fight the Church, but to fight the class that now rules without wrapping itself in Christian piety.

Harry Browne lectures in Dublin Institute of Technology and is the author of The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power). Email: harry.browne@gmail.com, Twitter @harrybrowne