How Green was ‘Inishfree’?

tom joad

I’m a sucker for John Ford’s films, and particularly taken by his wide, colourful landscapes. His use of scenes from Monument Valley inspired me to visit there in 1978 and I wasn’t disappointed. The Grapes of Wrath, based on Steinbeck’s novel (with Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, right) is one of my favourite all-time films. The disruption and movement of people is central to its narrative, as indeed is the novel, which translates easily into describing the impact of the 2008 global economic crash, and the behaviour of civic and political leaders, and bankers, and the impact on those who were poorest, forcing them out of their homes and causing many to move on, to be exploited elsewhere.

   Ford’s over-the-top 1951 Oscar-winner, The Quiet Man portrays a mythical, rural Ireland against a background of lush western landscapes. It was filmed in Galway & Mayo at the height of post-war emigration and amidst Ireland’s sluggish shift from rural to urban society. It was made while Ballyfermot was being built. Just think for a moment of images of pony traps in one place and builders’ lorries in the other: of people from the former being housed in the latter, as frequently occurred.

  The story itself is imbued with the emigrant experience. In this case, about the return to a backward, priest-ridden, rural Ireland of an Irish-American, portrayed by John Wayne, to settle in the home in which he was born, back to a place stuck in a time warp and unchanged from the time of his parents. He however, makes a stand against established customs. He declares openly and in defiance of existing codes, his love for a woman whom he seeks to marry outside the traditional dowry system. Symbolically, he represents modernity and a challenge to the old ways of doing things. 

   Although imbued with a fake, imagined Oirishness, and a troubling, sexist view of marriage and relationships, the film conveys a sense of immutable progress, that while change, brought through migration might be slow, it was irreversible.

   Many Irish have a deep scepticism, perhaps some resentment, about the film’s  manufactured Oirishness, but spare thoughts for Welsh miners as portrayed in Ford’s other Oscar-winning 1942 film How Green Was My Valley, based on Llewelyn's book of the same name. It was widely lauded for its stylised portrayal of a seemingly harmonious mining village in the Rhondda valley, in South Wales, under threat from capitalism and labour disputes. In one scene, the mother of a family of Rhondda miners grieves for her departing sons who emigrate to find work, as the requirement for coal and manual labour declines. Her emotion represents the impact of changing events on the traditional values and culture of local communities, whose male members sing Hill of Calvary as they march home from the mines, and deposit their wages into the aprons of awaiting matriarchs.   


   Unsurprisingly, as it is happy, affable fiction, the film provides no background on the growth of Rhondda Valley's population from 1,000 in 1860 to circa 200,000, in the period depicted in the film 50/60 years later, an increase that came about mainly because of inward migration not only from other parts of Wales, but from England, Ireland and from Eastern Europe. Indeed it had a thriving Polish-Jewish community that had no visibility in Ford's film. One wonders what role, if any, the relatively recent blow-ins had in creating the traditional values portrayed? Was the local population happily singing about Calvary before the migrants arrived? What type of rural society existed in Rhondda before the influx, which was necessitated by the short-lived expansion of coal-powered, long-distance steamships, between 1870-1920. The use of diesel in shipping signalled the decline of the Rhondda Valley's coal industry. 

   Perhaps the whole idea of a rural village, with a mining-based tradition and culture, was simply made up, in much the same way that The Quiet Man’s idyllic, fighting, pint-drinking village of Inishfree was also made up.

  In cinema, and fiction, it is easy to skip over reality with beautiful green valleys and picturesque farmlands, but the story of people is more complex. And, history is the story of people, not simply of places. It is the story of people on the move, a story of constant migration and settlement. In Ireland history is the study of the Celts, the Vikings, the Normans, the Scottish and English Settlers, all of whom combined have made us what we are, have made us Irish. It is now also the story of newly arrived populations who have come and settled from Eastern Europe and Africa. History tells the story of their origins, their adaptation, their work, organisation, culture and politics, and contribution to current and future Irish identities.

   In between population movements, societies stagnate: always looking in on themselves, they lose the capacity to develop, grow and inspire. What made America great was the continued influx of people, over centuries; what diminishes it as a society is the closure and restriction of its borders. What made Europe great is that everywhere it included people who settled from other places. What destroyed it twice in the last century was the belief that greatness stemmed from national or ethnic purity. 

   What makes Ireland great is that we too, in the main, have decided that we are always better when people come or leave. Whatever the cinema tells us about our traditions, what is most important is that these are not fixed, but rather they are continually imbued with a sense of the other. True, we were colonised, we were coerced, we were exploited. But who can safely say they are counted among the we and not the they? When people talk about 800 years of occupation, I wonder do they know anything about the formation of tribes, identities, nations and states? Do they not know that the nation state is of relatively recent vintage, a little more than two hundred years old and not likely to last another two? Perhaps future configurations will be both more local and more global; more villages, more federations!  Who knows? Imagining ideal types from the past, or the future, has no real value. The real challenge is to help find a place and identity for those who come seeking it, wherever they come from.

Barry Cullen © 2018 |Admin:| Banner photo -  Boys on scooters over Carnivan Bay