Exploring 'Jimmy's Hall' With Actor Barry Ward (Jimmy Gralton)

The following Q&A with Dublin-born actor Barry Ward (Jimmy Gralton in Sixteen Films' biopic "Jimmy's Hall") is part of the studio's Production Notes for the film, shot in the story's actual locales in County Leitrim. The notes, assembled for the produceers by Benji Wilson, were presented to the entertainment industry trade and news media. We are delighted to share these perspectives with our readership, in cooperation with Sixteen Films and Sony Pictures Classics. 


Q: Who was Jimmy Gralton?

A: Jimmy Gralton was a very liberal-minded and forward-thinking man from Leitrim. Born in 1886 he was a farmer and a working man all his life. He travelled the world, as well: He joined the American Navy, was up and down the East Coast from Canada down to South America, and was even reportedly in Calcutta at one point. So he brought a lot of ideas and worldly notions back to Ireland, back to the place of his birth, in Leitrim. Then he established this hall that he thought the community was in dire need of. And he ran into lots of trouble thereafter.

What was his motivation?

I definitely think there was a party animal in there somewhere. He had a real love for good times, and he wanted to share that with others. But he was also very politically minded and he wanted to implement his political ideas. He had spent time in the British army, he was kicked out, he worked in the mines in Wales, worked on the docks in Liverpool, so he saw the plight of the working class and tried to do something about it. Wherever he went he was politically involved; even in New York he had halls not dissimilar to the hall in Leitrim where they would hold political meetings and classes -­‐ he had a big thing for education, a passion he inherited from his mother who always kept books in the house. They both read widely and he noted the importance of that. So wherever he went he tried to encourage other working-class people to educate themselves.

When we begin this film, he has just returned from America …

He had left for the States for 10 years. When this movie opens, he’s returning in ’32. His mum is on her own on a farm so he comes back to tend the farm and look after her because she’s too old and frail to run the place herself. But also he considered it safe to return home at this time because in ’32 there had been quite a right-wing government in the form of Cumann na nGaedheal, present day Fine Gael. They had just been ousted and Fianna Fáil had come in. And Fianna Fáil were considered a party of the left and came in on the back of all of these kind of left-leaning electoral promises. So he came back thinking it would be safe for him to return.

How much did you know about him before you began this film?

There’s very little about Jimmy Gralton (pictured) out there in terms of literature, so I found what there was and that was effectively a couple of pamphlets really. Even when Paul [Laverty] was researching the story for the writing of the script, he sifted through government documents on the deportation and they’ve been totally obliterated: ‘Let’s have no trace of the fact that we have deported a man without fair trial.’ So you can’t find a great deal of information about it. We spoke to family -­‐ there exist some cousins and nephews and they’re all still very much keeping the legacy alive. He’s very much alive in local folklore, but, hopefully, this film will bring Jimmy Gralton to a wider audience.

Aside from his political beliefs, what sort of man do you think he was?

I think he was a very enlightened human being, very sympathetic to people’s plights. I think it physically pained him to see anybody treated in an unjust way. He was always sticking up for people, and he was an incredibly generous man. Every report I read, he was forever dishing out money. He didn’t have a lot, but when he came home from the States he brought home with him a gramophone and some records, for the people to experience some of the great stuff that was going on elsewhere in the world. The really nice detail was when he finally was deported and went back to the States, he sent back a load of money to the people who had housed him while he was on the run -­‐ with strict instructions to have a party.

What was the casting process?

Ken (Loach, pictured) brings people in for a 10-minute meet-and-greet, chat. The auditions entail improvs about subject matters and scenarios and scenes that have nothing to do with the film. For the whole duration of the auditions, you have no idea what it might be for. Now, obviously, word was out that it was a movie about Jimmy Gralton and the Jimmy Gralton story. But as to whether he was the main guy, or not, or whether it was around the fringes of that scene, nobody knew.

What do you think Ken saw in you?

I've not really spoken to him about it, but I think it’s something of the everyman in Jimmy that he wanted rather than casting a big star. Obviously Jimmy Gralton is a very attractive man -­‐ a lot of people listened to him, went to him, followed him. But he was also an everyman and everybody has a bit of Jimmy Gralton in them. So I think he went for an average Joe.

How important is dance in this film?

The authorities, namely the Church and government, didn’t want him stirring up a hornet’s nest. It suited the powers that be to keep people subjugated and keep them down. He was the antithesis of that. He thought, “Let’s rise and let’s live and celebrate, let’s dance and let’s sing.” One of the things that he had brought back from Harlem was this kind of provocative dancing: things like the Lindy Hop and the Charleston that involve closer proximity than people would have been used to. When church and government saw that, they just thought sex, wildness, booze and cavorting. Without ever attending the classes themselves. It was fun and it was exercise; it was soulful and joyous. Yet it was something they felt they couldn’t control.

How is your dancing?

To say I’m passable would be putting it kindly. We had about four weeks of rehearsals in London before we came out to Ireland, which was tough. I just couldn’t get the basics. But it’s like anything -­‐ you spend enough time doing it and you’ll pick it up. By the time we got to shooting the scenes I was flying.

What is the significance of the hall to the local people? (Bottom-left: Inside of the hall set during filming)

It works on two levels; one is the fact that they could go and have fun and celebrate and dance. Because in an earlier scene, you see me come across kids at a crossroads dancing, and they’re dancing outdoors -­‐ it rains in this part of the world for 300 days of the year or thereabouts, so it’s very restrictive. For them to have somewhere where they can go and do the things they love and listen to new music and read new literature and experience the world from the safe confines of a hall, that’s a big, big attraction.

And then on another level it’s the fact that the political situation here was far from stable. There was a lot of capitalist exploitation and wealthy landlords who were being very, very harsh on their tenants, evicting people at the drop of a hat, all in the name of money. Within the hall, they set up a land league and a court where they were trying to implement real justice -­‐ several cases came to them as a last resort. There was a properly established court where they would sit and listen to both sides of the case and give what they deemed to be a fair ruling. And then, with the help of the community and locals, they would implement it by sheer force of numbers.

How would you describe Oonagh and and Jimmy’s relationship?

I think it’s a really sweet and powerful but unconsummated -­‐ circumstances drove a wedge between them and they never got together really. Simone [Kirby, who plays Oonagh], Paul, Ken and I had lengthy discussions about this. Here are two young, single people and it’s written in the stars they are going to get together. In ’22 he flees, they continue writing to each other, but Jimmy has no intention really of coming home. Oonagh has to get on with her life, she meets someone, marries and they have a family. And that's the end of it. So then when Jimmy comes back 10 years later, their love is still very, very strong. But their hands are tied, there’s nothing they can really do about it. It’s got to be put down as a lost opportunity.

Is Jimmy the leader of this gang or just the man who speaks for them?

Ken stressed from the very beginning that there is no real leadership in this. Although people look up to Jimmy for advice, it was very much a democracy at work and each man has an equal say. I think Jimmy made sure that that was seen to be the case. Because even though the hall was largely built with his own money and savings from the States, and indeed it was on his own land, in fact it belonged to the community. Everyone built it with the fruits of their own labour, so anyone who chipped in had an equal ownership of it.

What has it been like making this film?

I had friends who worked on (The Wind That Shakes theBarley, so they told me incessantly about the day-­to­‐day runnings of working on a Ken Loach movie. They loved it. So I kind of knew what was instore -­‐ but then at the same time I never knew what was coming up in the script so there was always that brilliant element of surprise every day. That’s very conducive to a good performance, and it’s very, very actor friendly because you’re experiencing it as the character is -­-  you have to live it in the moment.

You’re from Dublin, do you know Leitrim?

My family hail from here: My dad’s Roscommon and his grandparents are Leitrim. So in many ways, it’s a returning to roots. I had two weeks in Drumshanbo, which is Leitrim as well, before official rehearsals and the rest of the cast arrived. I was working on local farms, and I just met the kindest, warmest people. They thought I was half mad because I was looking for a scythe to practise when they were cutting grass with tractors. But that's what I needed to do. Now I can cut and foot turf as well as scything and raking.

Have you played a role like this before?

No, it’s my first lead in a movie. And I’ve been dying to work with Ken, as most actors and anybody into film would be dying to work with Ken Loach. So it’s a dream job. I'm not even speculating on what it will do career‐wise – you’ve just got to enjoy it for what it is now. Before this I’d done bits and bobs, TV and film. This is my fourth or fifth feature but in the last three or four years I've been doing lots of theatre. Mostly Dublin based – I’ve been very fortunate to have done quite a number of shows at the Abbey National Theatre in Dublin. I was chugging along quite contentedly.


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Tags: Arts, Dance, Drama, Irish Freedom Struggle, Movies, Music, Visual Arts, film


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