True story of Irish hero James Grafton, who fought for independence from those colonising his land and thoughts, shows the sickening power of the Church in Depression-era Ireland.
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Running time: 110 minutes
Although independence is usually cause for celebration, attaining it from a colonial power is often just one struggle waged and won among others, many of which still have to be achieved. To some extent this was also true of the nation of Ireland: Following the at times very bloody Irish War of Independence of 1919–21, the heavily religious population enabled the Catholic Church to play a significant role in the administration of the country, which at times resembled a theocratic fiefdom rather than a fully fledged democratic system.
The infamous case of James “Jimmy” Gralton dates to the early days of the independent Republic of Ireland. Gralton had grown up in County Leitrim in the north of the country, just south of what would become the border with Northern Ireland after the War of Independence. He emigrated to the United States as a young man, returned to fight for his country’s freedom, and subsequently opened a dance hall in his small town, an event that the conservative church found reprehensible, and he eventually had to flee back to New York City when it seemed clear he would be thrown in jail.
After the boom and bust of the 1920s, at the height of the Great Depression, Gralton (Barry Ward) returned to his homeland in 1932. He reconnects with many people from a decade earlier who encourage him to re-open the centre for music, entertainment, learning and art that once carried his name. He decides to listen and even introduces them to jazz, but the Church, in the form of Father Sheridan (Jim Norton), takes matters into its own hands, ultimately leading to unprecedented action against the man who just wanted his fellow villagers to forget their troubles and be happy.
For those unfamiliar with Gralton’s story, the context is provided in two ways at the outset, although there will surely be details, like the name of the hall (Pearse-Connolly, in reference to two of the most famous casualties of the war), that slip past unnoticed. Along with the serene opening scene, set on a horse with cart in the beautiful Irish countryside, the viewer gets numerous supertitles that sketch the political environment of the time and explain the simmering tensions between the loyalists and the Republicans, although a new, slightly less right-wing party came to power in the early 1930s and filled some with optimism.
In the first few scenes, there is also a smattering of flashbacks to the early 1920s, during the heyday of the dance hall that became the thing of legend to those who had reached their teens by the time of Gralton’s return. However, these flashbacks are elegantly preceded by just the right amount of sparse hints in the dialogue about Gralton’s history, and especially his feud with fellow townsman Commander O’Keefe (Brían F. O’Byrne), to set the scene without filling in all the blanks.
“Scars on the heart … take a long time to heal”, says Father Sheridan, speaking as much about others as about himself, and this single phrase sufficiently illuminates the collision course on which he and Gralton find themselves, although the ever-present fear of communism, and of course of losing control, also animates him greatly. The fear is far from irrational, although his reaction to it paints him as a man out to be vengeful and even authoritarian. As is so often the case, in films from The Magdalene Sisters to Philomena, the Church’s callous pursuit of power is best demonstrated through its brutal disregard for the well-being of children, and some of the most powerful scenes in Jimmy’s Hall feature the adults of tomorrow.
Even to those who don’t know anything about this particular episode, or about this period in Irish history more generally, the story may seem slightly predictable at turns. However, it is to the credit of longtime filmmaker Ken Loach that he never dwells on sentimentality too long and provides us with dialogue scenes that are heavy with words but also compelling character development. The character of the priest has to be mentioned here, as his initial black-and-white view of the world becomes slightly more shaded towards the end, making him a far more complex character than we expect, even while his repulsively unsympathetic behaviour remains.
The major issue at the heart of the story, at least from the Church’s point of view, is whether Gralton is about to embark on a campaign of brainwashing that would turn people into crimson-red communists who will follow him, the Irish Pied Piper, away to the Hamelin of a Marxist dreamland. Father Sheridan phrases the alleged attacks on Irish tradition slightly differently, by talking about the “Los Angelisation of our culture”, and he tells his church-goers that they face a fundamental choice: “Is it Christ? Or is it Gralton?”
By demonising Gralton as the Antichrist, he succeeds not only in tarring him with the brush of evil but also in striking fear in the hearts of his congregants, many of whom may not know better than to put blind trust in the words of their all-too-human priest. The consequences are tragic, but Loach is also an inspirational filmmaker who shows us how Gralton’s stay in Ireland seemed to have changed people for the better.
Although this film was widely considered to be the last by the veteran filmmaker, who at the time of release was in his late 70s and had been making films for more than 45 years (his sophomore production, Kes, released in 1969, often ranks near the top of lists of the best British films ever made), his subsequent film, I, Daniel Blake, would go on to win the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes International Film Festival just two years later, in 2016.