Ken Loach: high drama

The red and the green

Ken Loach (director) Jimmy’s hall 2014.

The real-life Jimmy Gralton was not the handsome young blade portrayed by Barry Ward in Jimmy’s hall,the 18th feature film of the venerable leftwing director, Ken Loach. He was actually a bespectacled, balding man in his mid-40s. But, apart from this understandable bit of cinematic licence, Loach appears to have rendered accurately the major events of a little known episode of class struggle in the history of the Irish free state that emerged from the war of independence and subsequent civil war.

Jimmy’s hall - just released over here in the United States - is something of an historical sequel to Loach’s more ambitious The wind that shakes the barley (2006), which views the aforementioned conflicts through the eyes of a fictional west Cork Irish Republican Army band. The character upon which Loach’s latest movie is based - this time a real one - was a communist organiser and agitator, who holds the distinction of being the only citizen ever to be deported from southern Ireland in the 20th century.

Loach’s film begins when Gralton returns to his native County Leitrim in 1932, after having spent 10 years as an industrial worker in the US. There, he participated in a campaign to free the legendary Irish labour leader, James Larkin, imprisoned at the time in Sing Sing penitentiary, and founded the James Connolly club of the US Communist Party in New York City.

But Gralton was a well-known radical before he first sailed westward across the Atlantic, which is why his return - to manage the family farm in place of a deceased brother - does not pass unnoticed. In the early 20s, he had been a prominent member of the local anti-treaty IRA, and a leader of the land agitation that then gripped several western counties. He had converted a tin warehouse on his land into a local meeting place and recreation centre named Pearse-Connolly Hall, after the two most prominent leaders of the Easter Rising. The hall had been the venue of a notorious Sinn Féin court (or Gralton court, as it was known thereabouts), one of many such republican tribunals that filled the gap left by the breakdown of civil authority during the troubles. The Gralton court had often used threatened or actual force to restore to their homes tenants evicted by big landlords for non-payment of rent. Reinstated tenants and excitement-starved rural youth had not forgotten their debt of gratitude to a man who was a local legend by the time he came back; neither had Leitrim’s landlords and priests forgiven his affronts to authority. When Gralton is persuaded by neighbours to organise the restoration of the now decayed and weed-grown former gathering place, all the latent antagonisms flare up a second time.

Although the hall’s activities - dances, boxing lessons, literature and Irish-language classes - are more cultural than political, they quickly provoke the enmity of the local gentry, and especially of the clergy, in the person of a parish priest named Father Sheridan (Jim Norton). The ‘masters and pastors’ feel threatened by the very existence of any locus of organised social life and education outside the control of the main pillar of Ireland’s social order, Holy Mother Church. Run by a notorious radical, boasting the county’s only gramophone, and regularly featuring a jazz band playing the latest Yankee hit tunes, Jimmy’s re-opened hall quickly comes under attack as a breeding ground of political and moral subversion.

A different Ireland

Gralton returns to an Ireland that is different in important respects from the one he left a decade earlier. The country’s more conservative elements had prevailed in the civil war, and were now devoting themselves to the work of consolidating the clerical-reactionary state that was to rule the 26 counties for decades to come.

The general election of 1932 brought to power for the first time the Fianna Fáil party of Eamon de Valera, an Easter Week veteran who was to dominate the country’s political life until the 1960s. Although he had nominally headed the anti-treaty forces in the civil war, de Valera had renounced armed struggle and pledged to work within the parliamentary system five years earlier. Yet, despite its bid for respectability, Fianna Fáil could not easily escape the taint of radicalism from its continuing association with the defeated and still armed remnants of the anti-treaty side, and the left republicans and revolutionary socialists who had rallied to the ‘irregulars’ during the civil war. Thus, the pro-treaty politicians and Free State Army officers who dominated the government before the elections sought to keep de Valera out of office by launching an hysterical anti-communist crusade, with the church as its most zealous knight-in-arms.

Although, as Father Sheridan remarks in the film, there could not have been more than two or three hundred genuine communists in the entire island, their small number did not prevent them from becoming a convenient bogey for partisan-political scaremongering. The government of Liam Cosgrave, de Valera’s arch-reactionary predecessor, promulgated amendment 17 to the constitution in 1931, banning over a hundred political organisations and authorising special tribunals for subversives. Jimmy Gralton belonged the Revolutionary Workers Groups, one of the proscribed organisations.

Gralton joined Fianna Fáil on the morrow of its electoral triumph, in hopes that it would pursue a more progressive course than the outgoing government, but soon became disillusioned and resigned, as de Valera continued in his rightward trajectory. The newly elected leader - a famously ascetic and pious former mathematics teacher - missed no opportunity to shed past radical associations and prove his loyalty to the reigning powers, secular and ecclesiastical.

One such opportunity arose with the Eucharistic Congress, a worldwide gathering of Catholic clerics and devout laity, produced with much pomp and circumstance in Dublin in 1932. De Valera made himself conspicuously present. The victories of fascism on the continent put wind in the sails of this reactionary carnival, reinforcing the authority of the Irish church.

Moreover, the Wyndham Act of 1903 had promoted the sale of big landed estates to tenants, and greatly expanded the number of small proprietors. This legislation had conservatised the peasantry, and dampened, if not eliminated, the agrarian discontent that had acquired near civil-war proportions in the era of Parnell and the Land League in the 1880s. These are the unpropitious political circumstances, touched upon but not fully developed in Loach’s film, that attend the local story it proceeds to tell.

The story contains little that one would not expect: an escalating campaign of harassment and terror against Pearse-Connolly Hall. There are the initial warning visits from Sheridan, followed by the rougher forms of persuasion employed by the strong farmers and their hirelings, abetted by the police. Gralton’s partisans, many of them civil war veterans, organise in armed self-defence. The hall is raided, fired upon and ultimately burnt to the ground. Because Catholicism had over the centuries become a bedrock of Irish identity, the pulpit was a mightier weapon than the gun in the arsenal of the existing order.

Waxing righteous from the altar, Sheridan seeks to mobilise national feeling by invoking the people’s ancient ways - going back to St Patrick and the Protestant marauder, Oliver Cromwell - to paint Gralton as a bearer of alien influences and a latter-day anti-Christ. He also reads out and heaps obloquy upon the names of those seen attending events at the hall, from a list compiled by the glowering neighbours he has recruited as informers to stand watch at its door during social events.

Rural Ireland is an intimate place, where even the fiercest of antagonists have often known each other all their lives, and the class struggle commonly assumes a personal face. Hence the one-on-one dual between Jimmy Gralton and Sheridan, whose characters are depicted as having more than one dimension. Gralton, the revolutionary, shows himself open to compromise. At the urging of followers fearful of confronting the church head on, Gralton goes to Sheridan with a proposal that the latter become a trustee of Pearse-Connolly. Sheridan will only agree to do so if the church is given full proprietorship - an offer Jimmy cannot but refuse. Yet Sheridan is no mere pawn of the strong farmers and gombeen men. He is also a believing clerical reactionary, capable of seeing in his adversary a selfless man of principle. He reads the Workers’ Advocate, put out by the Revolutionary Workers’ Groups, and understands the appeal of Marxism for men and women of no property.

A fateful step

The turning point comes when Gralton is prevailed upon by the local IRA to speak at an anti-eviction rally in the neighbouring County Roscommon. Here Loach does not repeat the facile equation he made in The wind that shakes the barley between anti-treaty republicans and socialists, criticised by this writer in an earlier review.1 The IRA men tell Gralton that their ranks are divided over the question of evictions, with about a third on the side of the landlords, a third against them, and another third who are wavering or indifferent. This approximates more closely to the historical truth. Those around Gralton urge him to decline the invitation, arguing that it will only intensify the persecution he is already facing, but he reluctantly accepts.

Standing at a Roscommon crossroads on a horse-drawn trap, Jimmy explains to the assembled crowd that the growing hardship they are now suffering is a result of a crisis of international capitalism. He pours cold water on the official rhetoric of national unity intoned so sanctimoniously from on high in post-treaty times. The colours of the flag may have changed, he says, echoing Connolly, but now as before, the poor still toil and endure, the owners still own, and the state still stands firmly on the latter’s side. Gralton never actually calls himself a communist revolutionary in the film, but his speech can leave little doubt as to his political persuasion.

Gralton’s caution-counselling friends turn out to have been right. His speech earns him a deportation order, urged by Leitrim’s masters and executed by de Valera’s minister of justice. The pretext is that Gralton renounced his Irish citizenship by becoming a naturalised American. Jimmy at first eludes the police and goes on the run. A defence campaign is mounted on his behalf, but the historical currents are not running in his favour. The weight of the church is great enough to intimidate large numbers of people from rallying to his cause, and Gralton is ultimately captured and deported.

The film serves as a reminder that most righteous struggles do not have a triumphal Hollywood ending. Loach allows his audience no more than a fleeting feel-good moment, when a throng of Gralton’s bicycle-riding followers briefly surround the police lorry transporting him to the ship that will carry him back to America. They pay him a final, wistful tribute. Gralton was never again to set foot in his native land. He died in 1945 in New York City, still a militant of the Communist Party.

Past and present

The past can enlighten for its parallels with the present, as well as for its contrasts. In the case of Jimmy’s hall, audiences are probably more likely to be struck by the contrasts. After years of scandals involving Dickensian orphanages and sexually predatory priests, not to mention the overwhelming approval of gay marriage in this spring’s referendum, the centuries-long role of the Irish Catholic church as the custodian of the social order seems finally at an end. Ireland is now no longer the home of the “godforsaken, priest-ridden race” of James Joyce’s description.

Metropolitan capitalism (now including Ireland) has evolved more potent mechanisms of social control than the “faith of our fathers”. In 1932, the acquisition of culture and the stirrings of individual personality amongst those meant to suffer and obey, posed a definite threat to the prevailing powers. Radicals and socialists could fill a void in their lives not only by spreading revolutionary politics, but by creating alternative social and cultural spaces. Today, however, that void is largely occupied by a consumerism that presents infinite diversions and promotes individual expression, even the expression of rebellious impulses, through the decidedly non-threatening activity of acquiring commodities. Even people of little means tend more to be integrated into society through the cash nexus than by direct reliance on one another. Television and information technology have greatly privatised leisure time; social media have displaced dances and weekend socials.

Subversive though Jimmy Gralton’s Pearse-Connolly Hall was in its day, the kind of phenomenon it represents belongs, at least in developed countries, more to the past than to the future. What new forms of solidarity today’s declining western capitalism will throw up is very much an open question.

Loach’s legacy

Ken Loach’s work will soon become part of the past as well. Since the director, now 79, has said that Jimmy’s hall will probably be his last feature film, this may be an appropriate place for a few brief comments on his cinematic legacy. Loach was once associated with Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League and is now a supporter of Left Unity. He leaves no doubt about where his loyalties lie. His films are clearly made from the standpoint of an enemy of capitalism and a partisan of the working class and the oppressed. Land and freedom, his 1995 drama of the Spanish Civil War,is also an unflinching indictment of Stalinism and the Popular Front. Unfortunately, however, political engagement is not always wedded to artistic genius.

Loach never attains the heights of the great auteurs - Vittorio De Sica (The bicycle thief), Gillo Pontecorvo (The battle of Algiers) - from whom he claims to take inspiration. Largely absent from his movies are the lively crosscutting, the striking tableaus, the use of symbols, the revealing details, the vivid characterisations and the small artistic touches that make for outstanding cinematography. Loach’s stories usually unfold in resolutely chronological order, and his presentation is distinctly literal-minded: things and people are simply what they are, no more, no less; they do not stand for or suggest anything else; the different elements are seldom made to cohere in an aesthetic whole.

His characters are sometimes more exemplars of various types than flesh-and-blood individuals, and his attempts to imbue them with personality often fall flat. (Jimmy Gralton’s near-kindling of a romance with an old flame, Oonagh, for instance, is the least memorable part of Loach’s latest film.) The interactions among his characters sometimes focus on illustrating a point at the expense of reflecting life. Anyone looking for the poetry of revolution and the class struggle will be hard put to find it in the films of Ken Loach; his stories are told in a sturdy cinematic prose. And, while by no means descending to crude propaganda, his movies do suffer from some of the character typing and didacticism that much socially and politically themed art is hard pressed to avoid.

Yet Loach’s films seldom fail to engage. The director’s artistic limitations are usually compensated for by the high drama of the tales he chooses to relate. They are the stories of ordinary people, fictional or historical, resisting the ruling classes, individually or collectively. If not for Loach, such stories would remain untold; he stands out as one of the few continuators of the radical independent cinema of the 60s and 70s in the intervening decades of commercial mediocrity. The left and the working class will always value the body of work he leaves behind.

Jim Creegan


1. See ‘Ken Loach’s use of Irish history’ Weekly Worker April 18 2007.