In the following three-part series, Sixteen Films' screenwriter Paul Laverty writes about the genesis of "Jimmy's Hall." His observations were first published in Sixteen Films' Production Notes, and are reproduced here with permission. Production Photos see here are by Joss Barratt.
Part 1, 'Long Distant Ripple from Nicaragua'
Sometimes an idea for a story can land in your lap like some benign present from on high and you feel like thanking the lucky stars. Jimmy’s Hall came this way, a long distant ripple from Nicaragua, via an old friend Donal O’Kelly, an actor and playwright whom I had the good fortune to meet there in the eighties while the United States was busy making carnage of the Sandinista revolution and its people.
Over three years ago Donal and Sorcha Fox were planning a community theatre project in County Leitrim to highlight the plight of asylum seekers in Ireland, many of whom were held in limbo for years with the threat of deportation hanging over their heads. Donal imagined a theatrical/dance event with them, linking their plight back to the story of Jimmy Gralton, the only Irishman deported from his own country as an “illegal alien” without trial way back in August 1933.
'Jimmy and his comrades were determined to build a free space in an increasingly authoritarian country dominated by the ideology of the Catholic Church'
The spark to invest so much effort in a story is always a question of the gut. As I read of Jimmy Gralton’s life I wondered out loud to Donal if it might make for a film in its own right. I was struck by the community effort to build a hall with voluntary labour on Jimmy’s land where they could meet to debate, think, study, give classes, and of course sing and dance without interference from anyone, including the Church and the State which were intertwined around each other. Jimmy and his comrades were determined to build a free space in an increasingly authoritarian country dominated by the ideology of the Catholic Church, who insisted education was the sole preserve of Holy Mother Church.(1)
It was both the conciseness, and the possibility of complexity unfurled, that made it such an attractive premise. The hall itself felt like a character. I spoke to Ken [Loach - right] and could sense the same gut reaction, and I noticed that glint in his eye at the prospect of meat and mischief in a story. Rebecca [O’Brien] too was intrigued by the possibility of another film in Ireland, set a decade later from the period we explored in The Wind that Shakes the Barley.
With typical generosity Donal and Sorcha were delighted that we were interested and encouraged me to begin research into the detail of Jimmy’s life and the hall.
First stop was Effernagh in County Leitrim, and the sparse crossroads in the countryside opposite a pub called the Black Swan. By one corner 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 13th 1933.” 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.
'I could hear in my mind’s eye the sound of feet tapping, and music drifting down over the 80 year gap. '
It was a wet, miserable January day, and the only sound was that of crows from the trees opposite. 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. I was to hear stories of people travelling over 30 miles on their bicycles to hear the latest new record from across the Atlantic while local parish priests fumed against the devil’s music and the “Los Angeles-‐ isation” of Irish culture.
I read news reports of over 500 people attending the Republican Courts (in parallel to the boycotted British-‐run courts) held in the hall, set up during the War of Independence in 1921 to solve land disputes. To implement the court’s decisions Jimmy and his comrades formed the Direct Action Committee, which challenged not only the property rights of big ranchers, but upset the right-‐wing flank of the IRA. On one occasion the hall was surrounded by soldiers while Jimmy fled out a back window. It was little wonder that he had to flee for his life to the States in those troubled times (May '22) leading up to the civil war which tore Ireland asunder.
(Pictured, the site of the Pearse-Connolly Hall today.)
As I stood there with the sermons by local parish priests O’Dowd and Cosgrove ringing in my ear from 80 years back I remembered the words of a rich farmer from The Wind that Shakes the Barley, who told the two IRA brothers in the story that if their like were to win the war, Ireland would end up a “priest-‐infested backwater”.
'(The Eucharistic Congress) in 1932 was the perfect platform for de Valera to demonstrate he was a safe pair of hands to the Catholic hierarchy.'
Beyond the site of the hall was Jimmy’s family home, now abandoned and in a state of disrepair set on a few acres of boggy land now covered in reeds. It was not hard to imagine a tough life against the elements. The Plantation story was implicit in the landscape, with many humble Catholic families etching out an existence on poorer land supplemented by trips to Scotland to pick potatoes. I imagined Jimmy’s fierce sense of social justice forged against this backdrop, and nourished by politically aware parents. To be continued.
1. It is hard to quantify the control the Church exerted not only over the daily lives, but over the imagination of a nation, especially after the Eucharistic Congress in 1932 which was the perfect platform for de Valera to demonstrate he was a safe pair of hands to the Catholic hierarchy. Many have commented on the Church’s decline over the past decade but its grip on power has been deep and stubborn. As I write these notes today on the 23 Sept, 2013, the third last day of the shoot, the Irish Times reports on an agreement reached on the “transfer of the first Catholic primary school in the State to become multidenominational and to move out of the Catholic Church control.” On the day the film started a priest on the board of the Trustees of a major Dublin hospital called for a rejection of recent (extremely limited) abortion legislation introduced by the Government to protect the lives of women.