March 2015        


Some dreams are worth fighting for

Jenny Farrell

Jimmy’s Hall, perhaps Ken Loach’s last major feature film, is of special interest as it celebrates the life and struggle of the Irish communist Jimmy Gralton.
     It is rare indeed to come across a film that unashamedly stands by the tradition of struggle by the dispossessed against the combined forces of economic, political and religious power, either at home or abroad. It is the kind of film Ken Loach has made all his life, films that resonate with anyone who is concerned with social justice. It is a film that affirms us and gives us the courage to continue.
     Readers of Socialist Voice are familiar with the broad outline of the story. Having been driven out of Ireland after first building the Pearse-Connolly Hall on his own land in 1922, Gralton returns to Co. Leitrim ten years later and starts up this community hall again. However, clerical control over Irish society is such that attempts at self-determination are not tolerated.
     Following a campaign of intimidation and brutal attack, leading to the burning of the hall, the state and its newly elected Fianna Fáil government deported Gralton from his homeland to the United States in 1933, where he died in 1945.
     In Loach’s film the Pearse-Connolly Hall becomes an emblem of what can be achieved by people who have been disempowered and dispossessed. The hall forges them into a community where members give and receive culture, education, fun, and a sense of what they can achieve together. Above all, they can create a core of happiness in their lives; they can enjoy learning, they can laugh and dance, they can determine their own destiny. They can live the independence they had fought for.
     And this is not divorced from political thought. The first book Jimmy opens as he lets light back into the closed-up Pearse-Connolly Hall is James Connolly’s Labour in Irish History.
     These themes of community, solidarity and self-determination are central to the film. They are expressed in terms of the film’s form too. While Gralton is undoubtedly a major character in the film, he is not an individualist “hero.” What he does can only be achieved together with the community. The community is the “hero” by extension, as characters receive an individuality and dignity of their own. Gralton is their epitome as he galvanises them, brings out the best in them.
     Gralton as the embodiment of the awareness and eloquence of the working people is illustrated in the speech he gives. He articulates their understanding of what is happening in their own society and how this is part of a global situation. They understand about class and are not deceived by the ruling powers and their hirelings in the media. They stand as mature, intelligent and eloquent human beings.
     Gralton’s speech also makes the parallels between 1932 and our own time absolutely clear. And this infuses the film with a sense of modern urgency.
     The community of the dispossessed is the human essence of Leitrim and Ireland. This is underlined in the way the film is shot. The colours of the costumes worn by the actors merge with the colours of the landscape: they are the true inheritors of the land.
     Only one or two colours stand out: Marie O’Keeffe, among the most courageous characters in the film, often wears a passionate red, and Oonagh is frequently seen in a blue cardigan, the colour of loyalty. Gralton’s mother wears earthy colours.
     These three women are equally striking in their bravery and perception. Marie is submitted to the punishment called for by the Bishop of Galway at the time: “Lay the lash upon the back of disobedience”; and yet she defies this. Oonagh knows she will lose Gralton again, and yet she supports him in taking the stand that will cause his banishment. Mrs Gralton contradicts the authorities and outwits them.
     Loach, who made the award-winning film The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006), revisits Ireland ten years after this film’s setting, at the time of the War of Independence and the Civil War. Jimmy’s Hall shows the country that emerged from these wars and makes it perfectly clear that the promises of a new, more equal society, a change in economic and power structures, a society where people felt a sense of freedom and liberation, had not come about. This promise had been replaced by religion and clerical control.
     The Catholic Church would soon be inciting young men to fight for the fascist Franco. The failure of a national bourgeoisie to deliver the most basic promise of equality to the people who did the fighting is a theme that transcends the borders of Ireland.
     To illustrate just how formidable an opponent the Church was, the two priests portrayed in the film are drawn as more complex characters than they were in reality. Father Sheridan weaves into his sermon of damnation ideals from the struggle for independence regarding Irish culture that many would have identified with. Now he uses these ideals against the interests of the people.
     It is the clerics too who understand the implications of a united working class in Ireland. The film briefly refers to the dramatic unrest in Belfast in October 1932, which united Catholic and Protestant workers. The Church and its political allies have reason to fear this kind of empowering solidarity.
     Another change to the historical record is Jimmy’s relationship with Oonagh, which is imagined but not unimaginable. The importance of this relationship is twofold: firstly, it is a poignant reminder of the price people pay for lifelong struggle. Both Jimmy and Oonagh sacrifice their personal happiness in a long-lasting relationship.
     Secondly, there is a metaphorical level. Jimmy’s relationship with Oonagh parallels his relationship with Ireland. If there had been true independence, Jimmy and Oonagh would undoubtedly have married and had a family. Within the logic of the film we see this as the desired union, which would have produced offspring in tune with the new free and independent Irish state. Instead they are separated and forced to stay apart. Neither achieves true fulfilment with another partner.
     There is a scene in the film that shifts gear within the cinematic language, the night-time meeting and dance of Oonagh and Jimmy in the hall. There is a different, almost theatrical quality to this moonlit scene. It is intensely emotional, albeit different from the passions in other scenes. An Ireland without Jimmy Gralton is incommensurate with itself. And Jimmy comments to Oonagh shortly before his final deportation: “I wish we had another life together.”
     Viewers conversant with the historical facts of the Gralton case may have reason to object to the ending of the film. Loach himself wondered about this. Rather than ending on a note of loss and defeat, he wanted to keep the spirit of Jimmy Gralton alive—the hope he inspired. And so the film ends leaving us with a sense of defiance and a sense that there will be a new attempt at rebuilding the project of the people, the Pearse-Connolly Hall.

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