Eoghan Harris: John Ford and the Abbey's Protestant Irish patriots
Published 03/06/2012 | 05:00
TO my mind, the most important talk at next week's star-studded John Ford symposium will be given by Professor Adrian Frazier. His brilliant book, Hollywood Irish, shows the links between Easter Rebellion, the Abbey Theatre, John Ford -- and the contribution of Irish Protestant actors to some of the greatest films of all time.
Like most Irish people, I had assumed that John Ford's filmic links with Irish literature were somewhat erratic. Apart from the The Informer, I regarded the rest of his Irish work as somewhat "stage Irish". And I was not alone in having mixed feelings about The Quiet Man.
Frazier's book blew away these prejudices with the same finality as Clint Eastwood (another Ford admirer) dealing with bad elements in Dirty Harry. And while I respect Joseph McBride and Tag Gallagher's biographies of Ford, I feel that Frazier's book is more edged, elegant and economical in its insights, especially its Irish insights.
My feelings about Ford have changed over the years. As a child I had cheered in the cinema at the fight in The Quiet Man. But like all the adolescent nationalists of my generation I soon learned to cringe fashionably at Ford's alleged stage Irishness.
This nationalist hypocrisy of enjoying Ford's films in private, while publicly decrying his depictions of Ireland, also extended to John McCormack. Privately, we played McCormack 78s all the time. Publicly, my party piece was a Peter Cookish pastiche of a McCormack singing Mother Machree on a record with a stuck needle
But my views on Ford (and McCormack) changed after I joined RTE. I
began to watch Ford's films from a technical and aesthetic perspective. The arrival of VHS meant I could study his films scene by scene. Today I revere him as the greatest film director of all time.
Three scenes show Ford's genius, whether using music, words or silence. John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara's eye movements as they are serenaded with (what else?) Mother Machree in Rio Grande. John Wayne and Victor McLaglen's tragic-comic riffs at the end of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Henry Fonda's speech to a lynch mob in Young Mr Lincoln, where Ford shows his respect for Lamar Trotti's screenplay by hardly moving the camera.
Later, when adapting Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe novels, I sank deeper into Ford's debt. As an untried writer I was not Carlton TV's first choice. But thanks to years of soaking in Ford's cavalry trilogy I came up with the correct mix of comedy and drama that had eluded British screenwriters. Daragh O'Malley's fine portrayal of Sergeant Harper is also a homage to Victor McLaglen.
As well as appreciating Ford's aesthetic I also came to admire his politics. A populist in the best American tradition, he took the side of the poor in films such as The Grapes of Wrath. And he gave a sympathetic portrayal of American Indians in films such as Cheyenne Autumn.
Finally, I also admire Ford's moral and physical courage. He put aside his Irish-American prejudices, to back England against Hitler. He fought with bravery on a long front from the Battle of Midway to Omaha beach -- and won a war medal to add to his five Oscars.
Adrian Frazier's book lasers any remaining lazy reflexes about Ford's contribution to modern Irish culture He puts Ford into a proper Irish and American context, and shows him as part of the Irish literary revival.
Frazier begins with a photo, taken in February 1935, showing the the entire Abbey company on the RKO set where Ford was filming Liam O'Flaherty's The Informer. This marked the start of the long love affair between Ford and the Abbey actors that culminated in The Quiet Man (1952). From then on Ford worked hard to forge a firm bond between Irish literature and modern film.
At the heart of Frazier's book are two Irish Protestant Abbey actors. Will Shields (better known to us as Barry Fitzgerald, an actor my generation wrongly assumed to be a Roman Catholic) and his brother Arthur. The Shields brothers were part of a web of patriotic Protestants, stretching from Yeats and Lady Gregory to later luminaries such as Sean O'Casey and Lennox Robinson. It was they who created what we call the Irish Revival and influenced the Easter Rebellion.
Frazier sums up their later feelings about the new State for which they had worked, and, in Arthur Shields case, fought. "The young Protestant bohemians of the early Free State were not Roaring Twenties partyers at the end of the Empire. Many were public-spirited, patriotic intellectuals, who had devoted themselves earnestly to the national cause before the revolution, and they wanted to keep doing so after that."
They were not encouraged to do so. Arthur Shields, like other Protestants, had reservations about the new Catholic nationalist state. "They were ready to Hibernicize the colony, but they could not in good faith join in the State-organised, Savanarolan effort to Catholicize it and Gaelicize it."
Arthur Shields is easily the most attractive figure in Frazier's story. Shields was one of the few Protestants to take part in the Easter Rising on the rebel side. He fought beside James Connolly in the GPO, was one of the last to surrender, and was sent to Frongoch prison camp in Wales.
Like most republicans, then and now, the prisoners paid lip service to rhetoric about Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter. But as prisoners in Frongoch they were also prisoners of their Catholic nationalist culture. And when they began to say the rosary every evening, something in Arthur Shields rebelled.
Shields was anything but an Orangeman, But on July 12 he ironically wrote to tell his family he had spotted an orange sash the previous day. He sardonically added he was "thinking of taking up a lunch pan, and beating it as a drum to lead a parade".
Celebrating John Ford Carol Hunt page 26 Caomhan Keane Living, Page 24
Arthur Shields found the Abbey hard going in the new Gaelicisised state. As a 1916 veteran himself, he was not impressed by De Valera. In September 1938 he told Yeats he was leaving Ireland for good, because to get on in the Free State Abbey "you had to say your prayers in Gaelic".
As Frazier drily observes, "Shields had neither Gaelic nor prayers".
Within seven months, this former Abbey actor, was working under contract for John Ford, in Drums Along the Mohawk, the first step in a stellar film career. One more statistic in the steady drain of Irish Protestants from a State which had made them feel foreigners in their own country.
Adrian Frazier's book brings that lost generation of Irish Protestant patriots back to life. The films of John Ford will continue to keep their memories green. Recessions may come and go. But Rio Grande rolls on forever.
'Hollywood Irish -- John Ford, Abbey Actors and the Irish Revival in Hollywood', Lilliput Press Dublin, 2011, €20
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