Ken Loach tells story of Jimmy Gralton, communist Ireland kicked out
'It was extraordinary to be deported as an alien from your own country,' says Loach, whose 1930s-set film recreates events largely forgotten since
Irishman Jimmy Gralton was deported without trial from his homeland in 1933. A self-avowed communist, he was deemed a subversive by the Catholic Church and the government.
But not that much is known about Gralton, who was all but a forgotten figure in his native country until the release a year ago of Jimmy's Hall, Ken Loach's film about the activist.
Loach, a veteran British director, has built a critical and sometimes controversial reputation over the past five decades for his political and socially conscious films such as My Name is Joe (1998) and the award-winning The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006), set during the Irish war of independence.
His frequent collaborator, screenwriter Paul Laverty, brought him Gralton's story.
"It was extraordinary," says Loach. "Extraordinary to be deported as an alien from your own country. The church, the state and the landowners … they were just determined to get rid of him."
And to get rid of any trace of what happened to Gralton.
"Not only was Jimmy kicked out of the country, but what they did was they tried to hide the paperwork," notes Laverty. "Even today, any information about Jimmy's deportation is no longer there. It's interesting when injustice takes place how they try to wipe the record clear."
Jimmy's Hall, which stars Barry Ward as Gralton and Simone Kirby as his former girlfriend Oonagh, revolves around Gralton's return to Ireland in 1932; he had been living in New York during the previous decade. He hopes to live a quiet life with his mother tending to the family farm in County Leitrim.
But the young residents in the poor rural town want him to reopen the former club he had on his land, where people could discuss ideas, learn, dance and listen to music.
When Gralton decides to reopen the club, the authorities and the church act aggressively to close the hall and get rid of him.
"Although the subject matter of this is very Catholic, I think [the story] transcends it," says Laverty. "It's about a safe place where people can meet and think and talk. I think the notion of a safe place to challenge power is way beyond the confines of a 1930s hall and the Catholic Church and Ireland."
When Gralton returned to Ireland, notes Loach, "it was not so long after the Russian Revolution. The Communist Party was more innocent then. People didn't think of Communism as part of Stalin and the gulags and all of that oppression. Many people saw the Communist Party as very progressive."
Jimmy's Hall was filmed on location in County Leitrim. "You were surrounded by that beautiful landscape and the harshness of the land. So you got a sense of how tough it was to survive in such an environment," says Ward.
Though Gralton's house is standing, the club was burned down in 1932. A wooden sign in Leitrim states, "Site of the Pearse-Connolly Hall. In memory of Jimmy Gralton, Leitrim Socialist deported for his political beliefs in August, 13, 1933".
"Every year at the crossroads where the [Graltons'] house was, people gather to sing and dance," says Ward.
Because there was little known about Gralton, says Loach, "you have to fill in the gaps a little bit".
"There was a real Jimmy Gralton, and we know certain public events to his life," adds Laverty. "I spoke to the family, and they told me stories that have been passed down through the generations. But there are some very private things between people you must just imagine."
Such as the character of Oonagh, a fictional creation.
In May, Leitrim County authorities backed a motion by the political party Sinn Fein asking the Irish government to apologise for the deportation of Gralton.
"It's quite interesting that even after all of these years people are still wrestling with the shadow of what happened to Jimmy," says Laverty.
Los Angeles Times
Jimmy's Hall opens on August 13