'Jimmy's Hall' is a fine film but Irish society wasn't as black and white as Loach depicts
Published 02/06/2014 | 02:30
That fine actor, Jim Norton, seems to have cornered the market in playing obnoxious Catholic priests – it all started, presumably, with his bravura performance as the bullying Bishop Brennan in 'Father Ted' – and he has since played priests in several movies. And God willing (ironically) Mr Norton (76) still has a long career ahead of him as movies and TV storylines provide continuing narratives about odious clergy.
Catholic priests are increasingly taking over the stock villain role that has so successfully been monopolised by Nazis over the past decades. From 'Quirke' to 'Jimmy's Hall', the clergy are the new nasties.
Jim Norton does it all quite superbly in the just-released Ken Loach movie, 'Jimmy's Hall', which has been rightly praised for its visual lyricism and for Barry Ward's fabulous looks.
Jimbo dazzles from the pulpit as the execrable Fr Sheridan, thundering away against decadent jazz and wicked communism in the Ireland of 1932.
The critics have praised Loach's romanticism (and his outstanding cinematographer Robbie Ryan), but have been somewhat sceptical about Loach's black-and-white lefty views. As in: landlords bad, peasants good; clergy, heartless authoritarians, communists and socialists sincerely struggling for fellowship and joy.
How true is all this – and does a drama based on history have to be true anyway? No, it doesn't – Shakespeare told blatant lies about Richard III, striving to curry favour with the political correctness of his day – Tudor rule.
What drama needs is conflict, and in handsome, kind, high-minded, sensitive young communist Jimmy Gralton versus horrible, oppressive, cruel hate-filled clergy and greedy landlords, you duly have conflict. Voila!
However, it's worth examining the politics and historical accuracy of Ken Loach's overview. The problem with Loach's politics is that they are muddled and over-simplified – he can't cope with the complications and layers of debate that are part of real life.
He hates the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, as he made clear in 'The Wind That Shakes the Barley' and in 'Jimmy's Hall', repeatedly describing it as an imperialist coercion by Britain of Ireland – never mentioning the fact that the majority of Irish people supported the 1921 treaty as a peaceful compromise that could be worked on.
He favours Eamon de Valera's republican side in the Civil War and he also abhors the dominance of the Catholic church in independent Ireland.
But he can't deal with the paradox that the Catholic Church was less powerful before Irish independence or that De Valera, the republican, was more deferential to the Catholic Church than Cumann na nGaedheal, which was supported by more southern Protestants.
As the dreadful Fr Sheridan, Jim Norton rails against jazz. This is historically accurate: the Catholic clergy did indeed preach against American jazz in the 1920s, believing its influence would "loosen morals". But they weren't the only ones. Eamon de Valera also loathed jazz – he called it "jungle music" and ensured that it couldn't be played on Radio Eireann until well into the 1950s.
Indeed the adored Soviet Union also banned jazz as "decadent and Western".
The French Communist party, right up to the 1960s, regarded rock 'n' roll as a capitalist plot to distract working-class people from seriousness. Workers should concentrate, instead, on such hobbies as pigeon-fancying ("la colombophilie".)
As late as 1968, Pink Floyd records had to be smuggled into Czechoslovakia – Tom Stoppard has written an entire play about that.
So there's a complicated ideology (ignored in the movie) about opposition to "jazz".
There is also an interesting context about Fr Sheridan's opposition to, and awareness of, the success of Marxism in the 1930s. The priest does have a certain insight into the heart-rending unemployment problems and recession in the 1930s, after the 1929 crash. He sees the "hunger" for a more just system.
But there is another background issue which was also part of what really occurred: and that was the great famine in the Ukraine, directly caused by Stalin's policies of forced agricultural collectivisation.
Some 7.5 million Ukrainians perished in this man-made famine in the early 1930s – a deliberate act of political genocide now called the "Holodomor", akin to the Holocaust.
The Irish Catholic devotional press were carrying reports about these famines from the 1920s – the humble "Messenger of the Sacred Heart" published information about horrifying scenes of hunger and cannibalism even before Malcolm Muggeridge in the 'Manchester Guardian' and Gareth Jones in 'The Times' filed their renowned eye-witness accounts.
So Irish priests did indeed inveigh against Communism in the 1930s – and not just for religious reasons either. Most Irish priests were farmers' sons, and Irish farmers were strongly opposed to state collectivised agriculture – an even worse scenario than the old landlord system, which had anyway seen improvements.
This is the political context that doesn't figure in 'Jimmy's Hall' – though Jimmy does allude to Stalin's rule as "a debate" to be had. (And actually the bitter heritage of that appalling Ukrainian famine is with us to this day, since it underlies so much of nationalist Ukraine's hostility to Russia.)
It's true that the clergy sought to control education, and sometimes even pleasures such as dancing in the Ireland of the 1930s. There were indeed the stern Fr Sheridans which Jim Norton so brilliantly embodies. But the stories behind the stories were also often more complex than any one movie can depict: only a balanced, nuanced approach to history can do that.