Making of 'Jimmy's Hall': Part 2, 'Ah ... He Was a Free Man'

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'

Part 2, 'Ah...He Was a Free Man'

Part 3: 'Dance Your Anger'

More About Sixteen Films' 'Jimmy's Hall' (Including Local Screenings)

In The Wind that Shakes the Barley we made a key decision. We tried to be truthful to the spirit of the times, but with fictional characters. In this story we were faced with a new challenge. There are key public events in Jimmy Gralton’s life that we know from public sources, principally newspaper reports of the time, and word-­‐of-­‐mouth passed down through the generations.(1)

I owe a great debt of gratitude to Paul Gralton and his father Jim Gralton in particular. Jim’s mother and father, Packie and Maggie Gralton, were both cousins of Jimmy from two different sides of the family and were very close to him. It was even Jimmy who suggested they marry, and he left the farm to Packie and Maggie after his deportation in ’33. Paul and Jim shared stories with me passed down through the generations, and I had a wonderful day with Jim who showed me the places where some key events took place like the cattle drives to implement Republican court decisions in the 1920s, and the community action to force the return of the Milmoe family to their cottage (whose descendants are still there) after they were evicted from the Kingston Estate in the early 1930s. Jimmy was asked to speak to mark the occasion and his main point rings hauntingly true in Ireland of 2013.

This would be a story “freely inspired” by the lives and times of Jimmy and the hall. 

As I listened to Paul and Jim pass on their stories and considerable insight it became obvious too that there is so
much about a person’s personality, inner thoughts, fears, vulnerabilities, imagination, and subtleties of relations with
friends and loved ones that are beyond historical record. There is likewise so much that is beyond the reach of subjective memories passed down from those who knew Jimmy (in their way), and then passed down in turn again to Paul and his generation.

In a film, we have to grapple with the inner life, the contradictions, doubts and motivations or we will be left with the damp squib of a public skeleton. So after discussion with Ken we made another key decision. This would be a story “freely inspired” by the lives and times of Jimmy and the hall. Our story doesn’t pretend to be a conventional biopic. We know he brought back records of Paul Robeson from the States, but did he bring back Bessie Smith? Did a young and curious free spirit like Jimmy go dancing the Shim Sham and Lindy Hop at the Saxony hotel in Harlem while he lived in New York, the only place in the United States where black and white could dance together openly? Nobody knows if he did or not, but in our version we imagine he did.

So did this impulsive, generous man have a secret love? Who knows, but he does in our version, and she is called Oonagh. 

Paul Gralton thought it feasible Jimmy might have brought back some Blues from New York, so we have a jazz band playing in the hall instead of a record playing on a flimsy gramophone. (Not long after Jimmy was deported there were anti-­‐jazz marches lead by priests in Mohill, not far from where Jimmy lived, so these debates were in the air.) We know about the boxing, painting and literature classes at the hall, but the personalities and mix of Jimmy’s friends who taught at the hall, and helped him run it, are imagined. I read of the denunciations from local parish priests O’Dowd and Cosgrove, and others too, and the pronouncements of local Bishops, and after weighing that up, and trying to imagine the times from the point of view of a local priest, we have drawn the fictional characters Father Sheridan and his curate Father Seamus. They struck us as more insightful than the priests of those crude sermons. We know Jimmy went to confront one of them. What he might have said, and how, are imagined.

I asked Paul Gralton if there was any hint that the unmarried Jimmy (he did finally marry in New York towards the end of his life, long after deportation) might have had a secret sweetheart given his personality and “the catch” he would have been in those times having returned from abroad. Paul’s reply struck a chord. “You would never know even if he had.” So did this impulsive, generous man have a secret love? Who knows, but he does in our version, and she is called Oonagh. This is a freely inspired guess, nothing more, nothing less, sparked by the character that took hold as we tried to imagine the man in the round. Does that do an injustice to Jimmy? I hope not. And would the absence of that tenderness, the secret and the intimate, if that had been our choice, have been an even greater injustice to this charismatic ball of energy that Jimmy seemed to be? There are no arithmetical answers to these imponderables. I could only engage with the script if we dived in boldly, and if we have erred, I hope it is in the spirit of Jimmy’s hall itself.

I imagined an old man smiling at the memory of a soul mate: “Ah... he was a free man… a free man.”

How can we know the depth and intricacy of his relationship with his mother Alice? Jim and Paul told me that Alice ran the local mobile library in the area. Did she read to Jimmy, a bright and curious child, and teach him to think, criticise and welcome ideas from beyond Leitrim? I relied on that to imagine the kernel of a loving relationship which in turn led to unbearable choices for Jimmy as the political pressure mounted on him. I can only guess that as a teenager who had the courage to desert the British army because of his political convictions and challenge his superiors at such a tender age he must have had some grounding from his family.

Of all the sources I came across, I was particularly struck by a transcribed interview with Packie Gralton, who helped Jimmy hide when he was on the run. He was asked what Jimmy was like as a person. I imagined an old man smiling at the memory of a soul mate: “Ah... he was a free man… a free man.”

Taking the sources as a whole what struck us, in essence, was a man who had seen the world, lived a full life, and with a generous spirit; who tried to bring the best of what he had learned and experienced back to this modest little hall in a country crossroads some 50 yards from where he was born. He had been a soldier, a sailor, a miner, a docker, a taxi driver, worked in bars and no doubt much else besides. He left school at 14 but judging from the stories and how he wrote and spoke he must have been a man who read and studied. He had a sharp tongue and no doubt this got him into trouble, even accusing Peadar O'Donnell, a fellow-­‐traveller and supporter, of needing to be the “bridegroom at every wedding and corpse at every funeral.” Writing back from New York to Father O'Dowd after his deportation he wrote, “...even the cloak of religion can no longer cover the imperialist hooligan that hides behind it.”

NOTE:

1. There are two documentaries,  one by Pat Feeley for RTE radio, The Gralton Affair and a particularly helpful booklet by him of the same name, and another interesting documentary  made by Michael Carolan commissioned  by SIPTU trade union that apparently never got an airing on TV, despite its quality. There is a later document to Pat Feeley’s written by Des Guckian which also records the main public events in Jimmy’s life and I was lucky enough to trace a recording of Maggie Gralton, Jimmy’s cousin, made not too long before she died. Her My Cousin Jimmy was a warm personal record of her childhood memories.

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Tags: 1916, Film, Irish Freedom Struggle, News, Visual Arts

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