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Sunday 22 October 2017

How church and state forced one Irishman to be deported

Ken Loach's latest film about one man's drive to improve his neighbours' lives has been tipped to win the top award at Cannes.

Passionate: Barry Ward as Jimmy Gralton in Jimmy’s Hall.
Passionate: Barry Ward as Jimmy Gralton in Jimmy’s Hall.
Award: Ken Loach with his Palme D’or in 2006
A scene from the film, 'Jimmy's Hall'.
Family picture of Jimmy Gralton.
Cousin Paul Gralton (far right) with daughter Mir and production crew Eimhear McMahon, Rebecca O’Brien, Ken Loach and Paul Laverty.

Stephen Milton

While the ideals and activism of James Connolly and Jim Larkin form a core element of the country's educational curriculum, the gutsy actions of Leitrim socialist Jimmy Gralton, the only Irish citizen deported in the history of the State, are largely unacknowledged.

But a new film about his life by famed director Ken Loach is tipped to scoop the Palme D'Or at this week's Cannes Film Festival.

Shot on location in Leitrim and Sligo, Jimmy's Hall tells Gralton's rousing story, a man whose determination to improve life for the labouring classes sparked fury among the clergy and local establishment, who branded him a Communist and an enemy of the State.

A farmer's son born in Effernagh, near Gowel, Co Leitrim, Gralton (played by Barry Ward) joined the British army but deserted after refusing to serve in India and worked in the Liverpool docklands and the Welsh mines.

It was in New York where he developed and cultivated his left leanings.

He returned to Leitrim in 1921 and built a hall on his parents' land after the Temperance Hall in Gowel was burnt by the Black and Tans. Pearse-Connolly Hall offered lessons in English, Irish and music and held dances. Jazz was played on the gramophone Jimmy had brought back with him from America.

"People would travel over 30 miles to hear the latest record from across the Atlantic while local priests fumed against the 'devil's music' and the 'Los Angeles-isation' of Irish culture," explains Jimmy Hall's writer Paul Laverty. The hall also served as a court of intercession, passing down judgment on local disputes. It was effective and further provoked the ire of the ruling classes and the right-wing flank of the IRA.

Branded 'an Antichrist' by the clergy, word soon reached the capital and in June 1922, the call came for his arrest.

"The hall was surrounded by soldiers while Jimmy fled out a back window," says Laverty, who also worked on Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley, a previous Palme D'Or recipient.

"Little wonder he had to flee to the US in those troubled times leading up to the Civil War, which tore Ireland asunder."

He returned 10 years later to take over the family farm after his brother Charles died, with no intention of reviving the hall. But he did.

"He wanted to focus on his mother and the farm," says his cousin Paul Gralton, who advised on the film.

"Jimmy was aware of the outcome of reopening old wounds and took much persuading in the end.

"But I think in some ways, he felt obliged to do something because no one else was going to."

The church was incensed by the resurrection of "this den of iniquity". They condemned Jimmy from the pulpit, calling him "a paid agent of Russia".

At a sports day on the Earl of Kingston's estate in Co Roscommon in August 1932, he spoke of "the international crisis in capitalism".

But in a preposterous case of Chinese whispers two IRA men claimed they heard him talking of "two Christs, not one and that the real Christ was not the Irish Christ, but a different one".

The hysteria came to a head. In November 1932, shots were fired into the packed dancehall. A month later, on Christmas Eve, it was burnt to the ground and a deportation order issued for Gralton to leave the country before March 5, 1933.

Jimmy went into hiding for nearly six months but was arrested on August 10, 1933, in a raid near Mohill.

Three days later, he was deported from Cobh, tearfully watching Ireland vanish over the horizon. He never set foot on Irish soil again.

"There was a complete absence of any due process," says Paul Gralton. "Jimmy hoped he would return, that there would be a resolution but there never was."

Free State troops continued to monitor the remaining Graltons. "My grandparents, Packie and Maggie, who Jimmy left the family farm to, were often searched at gunpoint. There were rumours of Stalin's gold buried on the land. And Packie was told that he nor any of his children would ever get a state job, much of the reason why my own father moved to the UK."

Earning a record 12th Palme D'Or nomination for the English director, Jimmy's Hall is a classic Loach story; empathetic and heartfelt. It is intended as a companion piece for The Wind That Shakes the Barley.

"It's set just 10 years later and there's a line in The Wind . . . 'This country will become a priest-infested backwater'. Lo and behold, it came to pass," Loach says.

"While making this film, we understood the absolute power of the church to determine who would be successful or not in the community," he says.

Featuring an impassioned performance by Barry Ward as Gralton, the family estate was initially dubious of the project but seem satisfied with the theatrical result.

"There was trepidation about how would it portray Jimmy," Paul admits, "and fear that it might reopen old wounds. But Ken Loach has produced an honest account that we were all more than happy with. It was a story that needed to be told."

Jimmy spent the rest of his days associated with the American Labour Movement. He married Bessie Cronogue. They had no children and he died in 1945, thousands of miles from his homeleand.

A significant line in the film, offered by Ward as Gralton declares: "What is my crime? Why is an old tin hall so dangerous?"

Along with Connolly and Larkin, many consider Jimmy Gralton as one of the great Irish socialists.

JIMMY'S HALL IS IN CINEMAS FROM MAY 30

Irish Independent

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