Pauline and I watched Ken Loach’s film Jimmy’s Hall on Friday night. It was very emotional: we were both in tears at the end, and Pauline said to me ‘Think how great Ireland could have been!’ The film is based on the true story of Jim Gralton, the only Irish person ever to be deported from Ireland.
It is set in a small rural community much like our own, in the 1920s and 1930s. Gralton, a socialist, returns to Ireland from the US, having left in the aftermath of the 1919–21 war here. His friends and neighbours ask him to reopen a hall for use as a community centre, where people can meet for cultural, social and educational activities. He duly opens the hall, with assistance from the friends and neighbours, but the local parish priest resents its existence, believing that the Roman Catholic Church should control everything.
The 1916–23 period in Ireland had seen a national rebellion against British rule rather than a social revolution. Poor people were no better off under the conservative governments that followed independence, which deferred to an arrogant and overweening Church. As is brought out in the film, the 1919–21 IRA had actually acted against socialist actions such as land grabs for fear that they would alienate ‘respectable’ international opinion.
The upshot was that the Church, with the state’s connivance, was well placed to crush the spirit of the people as it pleased, Gralton’s deportation being an extreme example. Only in recent decades has it been forced to cede, grudgingly, much of its control.
Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley and Jimmy’s Hall tell the story of those times and places from the point of view of the ordinary Irish people, whose spirit, resilience and sense of fun he captures very well. Things could have been different, and better, for those people. It’s worth keeping this in mind as we continue to mark the events of a century ago, and look to the future.