Ken Loach won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2006 with The Wind That Shakes the Barley, his film about the Irish War of Independence and the subsequent Irish Civil War. The former three-year war won Ireland its political independence from the United Kingdom in 1922, but the Anglo-Irish treaty that ended it gave rise to a Republic of Ireland still contained within the British Empire, like Canada and Australia. Naturally, not everyone was happy with this, and the two factions within Ireland fought for another year between those seen as closeted British loyalists and the hardline Republicans. Those in favor of the treaty won this latter war, but the fissures ran deep through the fledgling nation for generations, even after the Republic Act severed the last official ties to Britain in 1949.
Loach’s thematic follow-up, Jimmy’s Hall, tells the story of Jimmy Gralton, the Irish Republican and Communist — I know, that sounds very weird to American ears — who became the only citizen ever deported from Ireland.
Gralton emigrated from Ireland to the United States in 1909, but returned to fight in the War of Independence. He became a Communist organizer in the south of County Leitrim, and he and his Republican friends built the Pearce-Connolly dance hall and community center in Effrinagh. They worked together, teaching each other everything from Irish dancing and singing to boxing. They worked to preserve the spoken Irish outside the Gaeltacht on the western peninsulas of Donegal and Connemara. And, of course, they advocated for organized labor.
That’s the part that the landholders — generally members of the Irish Free State faction in favor of the treaty — didn’t care for, and the Irish Catholic Church didn’t like the competition as the center of the community. And so Gralton fled back to the United States for ten years, until he returned in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression.
The film concerns itself mostly with this period. Gralton (Barry Ward) returns to find his brother dead, the hall still shuttered, his compatriot Mossie (Francis Magee) recovering from a long prison term, and the woman he loved, Oonagh (Simone Kirby) married with children of her own. There’s little work, and the young people are eager for something to do, so Jimmy reopens the hall.
This, of course, brings down condemnation from Fr. Sheridan, pastor of the local parish. But the Church isn’t quite so unified this time, as his assistant Fr. Seamus (Andrew Scott) urges caution and conversation. And Loach is careful to avoid painting Fr. Sheridan as simply evil or mean; he’s well aware of what’s happened in Russia under Stalin, and he fears the same would come to Ireland if Communism were to take hold.
Fr. Sheridan’s voice is the loudest, from his pulpit, but the strongest opposition is from the old guard, who feel the younger generation slipping away from their control, and joining with the Republicans. Their fear and rage is brought into horrifying detail in the conflict between O’Keefe (Brían F. O’Byrne), one of the men who ran Gralton off ten years ago, and his daughter Marie (Aisling Franciosi) who sees Gralton as a hero and the hall as a legendary place on a par with Tara and Parnell’s statue.
And yet, for all this anger and hatred, Jimmy’s Hall is a surprisingly happy and upbeat film. The hall opens because people have a great love for their community, and need a place to share it. Loach and cinematographer Robbie Ryan move from a cold, misty blue light to a warm yellow hearth just by crossing the threshold. And when Gralton unpacks the phonograph he shipped all the way from America the crowd eagerly works the new jazz steps into their favorite old dances.
The joy in the Pearce-Connolly Hall is known all too well in this country, even in this day. It’s the joy of a fiercely, stubbornly self-determined people; a joy among the ruins, mixed with profound sadness and bittersweet memory, yet proudly refusing to be snuffed out. It’s the joy of the doomed, determined to wring every last drop of happiness and community out before the axe falls again, as surely as it has every time before.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.
This review also appears at Punch Drunk Critics.