Ryan's Daughter: The film that changed Ireland

A scene from Ryan's Daughter which was filmed in Kerry.

John Daly recalls the impact on a corner of Co Kerry fifty years ago when Hollywood arrived in the shape of ‘Ryan’s Daughter’.

When the front-runners of the Ryan’s Daughter film cavalcade arrived in Dingle in the early weeks of 1969, Ireland was a very different place.

The average industrial wage was £19 a week, the pint of plain was 20 pence, and houses anywhere could be picked up for well under £5000. Into this still inward-looking and deeply conservative country came Robert Mitchum, Sarah Miles, Trevor Howard and hundreds of movie people — transforming Dingle into an offshoot of Hollywood for two tumultuous years.

Suddenly carpenters were earning £50 a week, Ferraris and Maseratis were buzzing around Slea Head, pubs were packed, and a new breed of tourism began to emerge.

(Did I mention the weekend girls flown in from New York? That’s another story altogether). It was 50 years ago, in an Ireland most people nowadays wouldn’t recognise.

Loosely based on Gustave Flaubert’s classic novel, Madame Bovary, the film — which won two Academy Awards — is set in 1916 and tells the story of Rosy Ryan, a young woman married to the much older local schoolteacher, and who engages in a disasterous affair with a British officer.

While the film didn’t garner much praise from the critics, it did go on to change the lives of many people in Dingle and Kerry — and left behind a wealth of tales, tall and true, that still crop up regularly at many a bar counter 50 years later. Even when the latest Star Wars film arrived into the area two years ago, once again trailing big bucks and bigger egos, the global name recognition of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader still found themselves unfavourably compared to the halcyon times between 1969 and ’71.

Memories of the largesse spawned by the enormous Ryan’s Daughter production still abound in the locality, as do the rumours of scandalous goings-on that supposedly occurred when bad weather, artistic temperament, and monstrous egos clashed in a stunningly scenic corner of the world that was, up to that time, an unknown tourist backwater.

Ryan's Daughter.
Ryan's Daughter.

As author Michael Tanner put it in his book, Troubled Epic: On Location With Ryan’s Daughter: “The story of Ryan’s Daughter is a reminder of an era when dinosaurs ruled the cinematic world, when epics were preceded by an overture, ran in excess of three hours, and demanded an intermission. A bygone age when stars really were stars — and behaved like them.”

If the film captured the imagination due to being a blockbuster years before the term entered common parlance, its effect on the hinterland of Dingle and much of Kerry became a legend that continued to grow long after the last prop had been dismantled.

Credited with kick-starting Dingle, and indeed Irish, tourism through a three-hour international advert worth its weight in gold, Ryan’s Daughter also brought a profound social and economic change to a region ravaged by emigration and a pervasive poverty from which fishing and hardscrabble farming were the only escape.

At a time when Ireland teetered between an isolated past and membership of the EEC just a few years down the road, Ryan’s Daughter arrived with a horn of plenty that proved inexhaustible for the duration of the shoot. Carpenters were earning up to £500 a week, as were electricians, plumbers, and any kind of skilled labour.

During the building of Kirrary, the specially constructed village on the side of a mountain, everybody from taxi-drivers and couriers to hardware merchants and local shopkeepers got in on the act as the Hollywood largesse flowed in a seemingly non-stop torrent. Then, of course, there was the drinking.

Married Irish woman Sarah Miles enters into a risky affair with British soldier Christopher Jones in a scene from Ryan's Daughter
Married Irish woman Sarah Miles enters into a risky affair with British soldier Christopher Jones in a scene from Ryan's Daughter

On the wet days — and there were many of those — Dingle got its first glimpse of what the ‘hellraiser’ tag really meant as Robert Mitchum, Trevor Howard, and Leo McKern were allowed full rein in a private fiefdom far from the prying camera lenses of London or LA. This was the era when tweeting was only found on the beaks of birds. Drinking sessions in Kruger’s and Ashe’s, afternoon delights with female ‘consultants’ flown over from New York, and Bentleys racing down rutted boreens where sheep normally grazed.

Six months after the film wrapped and the whole cavalcade had moved on, someone discovered a brand-new Porsche in a lock-up garage — a birthday gift Mitchum had forgotten to take home with him.

Married at the time to the Ryan’s Daughter screenwriter Robert Bolt, Sarah Miles recalled her days and nights in that West Kerry peninsula as “waking every morning to the awesomely barbaric beauty, a place with some of the most unique people in the world.”

She admitted later that the film would always be a high-water mark of her film career: “There is something quite mysterious about Ryan‘s Daughter, that link with the landscape and the people. It seems to be something planted in the psyche that goes on and on.”

While many of Bolt’s other screenplays were better received by the critics — Doctor Zhivago, A Man For All Seasons, Lawrence Of Arabia — Miles recalled that “the continual response to Ryan’s Daughter was so much greater than all of those.”

Having decamped “away from that Dingle madness” at Fermoyle House on the other side of the Conor Pass, Miles and her husband led a mostly quiet existence enlivened only by “those hellish 4am set calls into a wild Kerry darkness.”

Rumours abounded of an affair between the actress and Mitchum, an event she finally admitted to many years later.

“What was the magic Mitchum wove around women?” she asks in her autobiography.

“There is no doubt I found his power fascinating. He knew that any woman who had an ounce of lust within her would find it hard to resist his bear-like proximity. And I was, after all, a woman.”

Mitchum was rarely without company during the filming, with female ‘consultants’ from the US regularly jetting into Shannon, where a car was waiting to take them to his riotous lodgings at Milltown House.

On occasions, however, the star’s cavorting almost caught up with him. Local businessman Tom Ashe recalled getting a phone call from a worried Mitchum early one morning — his wife was flying in that day and he needed to get rid of a female companion — fast.

“I had a priest driving for me at the time,” Ashe recalled. “He was out working with the missions in Korea and was making a few bob during his holidays home.

“He was the right man for a delicate job like that.”

English film director David Lean (1908 - 1991, foremost of group) films a tempestuous sea on the west coast of Ireland for a climactic scene in the MGM film 'Ryan's Daughter', 1970. The camera is equipped with a specially designed plexiglass window which rotates at high speed to prevent seaspray from fogging the lens. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)
English film director David Lean (1908 - 1991, foremost of group) films a tempestuous sea on the west coast of Ireland for a climactic scene in the MGM film 'Ryan's Daughter', 1970. The camera is equipped with a specially designed plexiglass window which rotates at high speed to prevent seaspray from fogging the lens. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)

FORTUNES WERE MADE ON RYAN’S LARGESSE

Ryan’s Daughter pumped an estimated £3 million into the Dingle economy over its two years in the region. “The whole community was left with money,” a local businessman remembered. “Before the film, few houses round here had bathrooms, and carpets on floors were non-existent. Afterwards, sales of carpets and luxury goods soared. Buildings and renovations rose a thousand-fold.” 

Labourers were paid an astronomical £45 a week and an extra £9 for Sundays.

The children in Mitchum’s classroom, drawn from national schools in Dunquin and Feohanagh, were paid £2 a day, and £3 on Sunday. Even farmers got in on the act, being paid £2 per load of stones drawn up the hill to Kirrary. After the filming ended, the Kerryman reported that “it was the end of the rainbow that filled many pots of gold. All in all, the area prospered greatly. Young men bought cars and leather jackets; young girls were now chaperoned openly to the pubs and dancehalls, and enlightening breezes of modernity blew the cobwebs of antiquity cleanly away from the lichen walls of west Kerry.”

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