When we think of the Irish and Ireland we tend to think of a couple of things like friendly people, rolling green hills, lots of drinking and music, and the Troubles. It is a film like director Ken Loach’s (The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Sweet Sixteen) Jimmy’s Hall that shows us how complex Irish culture and politics really are. That there were not and probably are not just two sides (Catholic and Protestant), but a myriad of people who don’t think along the lines of religious divide rather are focused on class and the struggle for rights.
During the Depression the United States was not the only country affected. Because of its worldwide influence, the bottom falling out of the American economy had an effect on many countries and one of them was Ireland. It was a hard time for Ireland with unemployment being high and the young people feeling hopeless with nowhere to go off to and find a job. They felt stuck and wanted a distraction. Any kind of distraction.
In a small rural town in the county of Leitrim in the Irish countryside, a now middle aged Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward) returns after a ten year exile to the USA. His elderly mother (Aileen Henry – first film) is glad to see her only living son back home, but others are less than enthused. This is because ten years previous Jimmy had opened up a village hall on the family property where town residents could play music, learn to draw, sing, dance, box, and even read poetry. The leaders of the area labelled Jimmy a Communist and saw him as a threat to the Catholic church. Independent thinking was not welcomed. Jimmy pressed on until he had to flee to the States or be imprisoned. He left behind the woman he loved Oonagh (Simone Kirby – Season of the Witch).
Now he is back and the young people convince him to reopen the Pearse-Connolly Hall. After a slight hesitation he does. Despite the fact that the leaders of the town including Father Sheridan (Jim Norton – Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, American History X) and Mr. O’Keefe (Brian F. O’Byrne – Million Dollar Baby, Mildred Pierce) warn him not to return to his old ways as they fear the residents will begin to follow him rather than themselves, Jimmy begins again to preach of the power of the people and the importance of a community being able to come together. He is an activist who is branded a communist and must be stopped. This because he fights against the land owners evicting poor tenant farmers for no good reason and the church standing by and allowing it. Trouble is brewing again for Jimmy Gralton.
Jimmy’s Hall, written by longtime Ken Loach collaborator Paul Laverty (September 11 – United Kingdom, The Wind That Shakes the Barley), is based on the true story of the life of Jimmy Gralton. Loach has made a fine career out of his concern with depicting the struggles of the working class in the UK and Ireland. His strength as a director and story teller is that he allows a lot of grey to creep into his stories rendering them a lot more powerful and realistic. Oh, you know who the bad and good guys are, but they are not caricatures in that they are depicted as human beings with all kinds of strengths and weaknesses. The slow paced Jimmy’s Hall is a championing of a little known Irish activist told in a way full of intelligence and skill. Loach has raised this banner many a time before, but continues to do it in an engaging and entertaining way.
Once again it is mainly the Catholic Church that is the villain in a film about Ireland. Throughout much of Irish history they had a firm grip on the people and were not about to let a free thinker compromise that. The tale is told in a rather straightforward way with no twists and precious little turns. It is the simplicity of it all that allows the injustice to be the focus of it all. Oppression and facism are shown to be the evil in most societies, no matter the time. Ireland was no different. Freedom of thought was stripped away from a community just because they wanted to decide how to live their lives. How dare they!