High unemployment, mass emigration of the young and problems affecting health and education services are as current today as they were in the first decade of Irish independence, the period that informs the narrative of Ken Loach's newest film, "Jimmy's Hall."
The film, Loach's third to deal with the legacy of British imperialism on Ireland, throws the turmoil of modern-day Ireland into sharp historical focus, almost frighteningly so.
The story is focused on the Leitrim-born socialist Jimmy Gralton, the only Irish citizen ever deported from Ireland. The film depicts life in Ireland 10 years after the formation of the Irish Free State and deals with difficult subjects, but, we believe, it will help the people of Ireland better confront their history since gaining a qualified form of independence. The political and social climate that evolved after the Civil War indeed formed the Ireland of today.
Pictured, newly elected Taoiseach Eamon de Valera with John Charles McQuaid and Papal Nuncio Paschal Robinson, during the Eucharistic Congress, 1932. Eamon de Valera Archive, University College Dublin
At the end of the Civil War, the man that had been largely responsible for that war, Eamon de Valera, gave the order to his followers to “Lay down arms." And so the fight was finished for many who had fought to maintain a viable republic based on the principles of the Proclamation of 1916, as well as the democratic program of the First Dail in 1919. But for many of those of rural and working-class backgrounds, who had been the backbone of the struggle for independence, there remained a battle to settle many unresolved social and agrarian issues.
The Proclamation of the Republic at Easter 1916 had promised ‘equal rights and equal opportunities for all its citizens.’ But this worthy ambition was lost in the madness of the Civil War. The 1919 Declaration of Independence in the first Dail stated: “We declare that the Nation’s sovereignty extends not only to all men and women of the Nation, but to all its material possessions, the Nation’s soil and all its resources, all the wealth and all the wealth-producing processes within the Nation, and we reaffirm that all right to private property must be subordinated to the public right and welfare.”
Pictured, in this scene from "Jimmy's Hall," Jimmy Gralton's fictional flame Oonagh (Clare-born Simone Kirby) fights back against the petit-minded, priest-bidden lackies destined to hold Ireland back for decades to come.
These were the aims and ideals that inspired men like Gralton. Land on the family’s farm was used for the construction of a Pearse-Connolly memorial hall, built with voluntary labour and used as a community centre and for educational classes. The committee that ran the hall consisted of republicans, trade unionists and small farmers. During the struggle for the Republic, it was also used for Sinn Fein courts, where a local land committee settled land disputes.
But after the treaty Gralton’s activities were regarded with hostility by the new Free State army, which imprisoned him for a short period for taking forcible possession of a disputed farm. When the Civil War broke out, Gralton, like many more disillusioned fighters, left Ireland for America and other parts of the world. The first 10 years of independence saw Ireland run by "an oppressive native gombeen ascendency buttressed by the Roman Catholic Church," in the words of Tomas Mac Siomoin, in the introduction to the 2013 release of Liam O'Flaherty's once-banned novel "The House of Gold."
When Gralton returned to Ireland in 1932, he, like many others, had hopes that the newly elected government of Fianna Fail would improve the lot of the small farmers -- and workers in general. He joined Fianna Fail and urged the party to create employment in local areas, but was soon expelled because of his radical beliefs.
The first 10 years of independence saw Ireland run by ‘an oppressive native gombeen ascendency buttressed by the Roman Catholic Church.'
In 1923, in the 26 counties at the end of the Civil War, those with vested interests -- political, economic and religious -- took control of the governing of the Free State.
If the North had a ‘Protestant Government for a Protestant People,' as most in the 32 counties believed, the true beneficiary of ‘independence’ in the South was the Roman Catholic Church. Obscurantist and ultramontane Catholicism would dominate political, educational, social and cultural issues in the new state.
Free State politics became the preserve of the conservatives. The successors to Michael Collins became the Fine Gael (Tribes of Ireland) party, and, in 1926, Collins’s opponent Eamon de Valera set up the Fianna Fail (Warriors of Destiny) party -- both conservative to ultra-conservative in ideology. The small Irish Labour Party recoiled from using the term ‘socialist’ in its charter for fear of being branded ‘communist’ and thereby incurring the wrath of the pulpit. Later, there was de Valera’s Roman Catholic ‘fiefdom’ and a ‘privileged position’ for the Catholic religion (1937) as part of the state apparatus.
Ten years after the death of Collins, de Valera became Taoiseach (Prime Minister). One of his first acts was to inform the directors of the Abbey Theatre that plays by Synge and O’Casey would damage the ‘good name of Ireland.’ From 1932 until 1948, Fianna Fail under de Valera ruled without a break. It was conservative in social and economic policies and had the fullest support, sanction and complicity of the orthodox Catholic Church of the time. Dissenters throughout the country were notably scarce or silent. Intellectualism was suspect and liberalism was equated with ‘communism.’
Pictured, 'IRA's intellectual' Ernie O'Malley, who said of Ireland in 1940 'There is no art, no library worth a small curse, no one who writes or paints near to you: very few people who read.”
Even those with a genuine love for rural Ireland like guerrilla leader Ernie O’Malley found the conditions that prevailed frustrating and hard to tolerate. In 1940, he wrote of the need to be “very intellectually self-supporting in order to live in the Irish countryside. ... There is no art, no library worth a small curse, no one who writes or paints near to you: very few people who read.” His American wife, Helen, wrote even more scathingly, “I don’t believe life in medieval Russia could be any harder than it is in Ireland in 1943," adding that she could well understand “why the average person with any ability leaves.”
And while there can be no justification for the way Gralton was treated and then hunted down and deported, perhaps in some ways he was better off. Even in the Depression years of 1930s America, he was still free to read, to sing and to dance. After all real freedom is having a choice.