The incredible story of Jimmy Gralton’s dancehall hits the silver screen

Ken Loach and Paul Laverty tell Padraic Killeen about the incredible story of Jimmy Gralton and how his dancehall became a source of conflict with conservative forces.

The incredible story of Jimmy Gralton’s dancehall hits the silver screen

AS DOUBLE-ACTS go it’s a formidable one. Ken Loach, the illustrious English filmmaker, and screenwriter Paul Laverty, a former human rights worker, have been making films together since 1996’s Carla’s Song, a story based loosely on Laverty’s experiences in war-torn Nicaragua.

Of course, their most acclaimed collaboration is The Wind that Shakes the Barley, their harrowing Irish Civil War drama that won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2006.

Eight years on, and four films later, the duo are back in Cannes with another film rooted in the early history of the Irish Free State — Jimmy’s Hall. The latter is set 10 years after the Civil War, and is based on the true story of Jimmy Gralton, a returned emigrant who was deported from his Leitrim home in 1933, having fallen foul of the conservative Catholic powers of his day. Gralton’s crime was to have opened a dance hall in Gowel which, in addition to hosting community dances, also dared to provide a space for free thinkers.

Though it exposes an oppressive period in Irish social history, the film is marked by warmth and vitality and doused in the humane spirit that Loach brings to bear on all of his films. Most strikingly, it depicts the period as a time when there existed genuine ideological discussion about what direction the ‘Free State’ might take.

'Jimmy's Hall' screenwriter Paul Laverty, director Ken Loach and producer Rebecca O’Brien. Pic: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

“It was a key moment in Irish history,” says Laverty. “De Valera had just come into power in 1933. So it was a moment when the fog had lifted after 10 years of a very conservative, authoritarian, Catholic environment. And the possibility of hope appeared. There had been a great deal of rhetoric about support for the small farmer and the unemployed. In Jimmy Gralton’s personal life this coincided with his brother’s death and so he came home from America. So there’s the possibility that things might be changing and that’s always an interesting starting-off point for a story.”

Inevitably, as the film documents, that possibility for change is extinguished by the powers-that-be.

“Jimmy’s hall was this little space, one of the few ‘free’ spaces in Ireland that they tried to protect,” says Laverty. “People could come along and think and dance and read what they wanted and organise as they felt that they should do. Although this is Ireland in the 1930s it could be anywhere. It’s international. It’s about finding that free space against impunity, against authority, against power. And what is most remarkable is the cruelty and the systematic nature of how they crushed it — how the Church coalesced with the landed gentry and the conservative IRA to ultimately destroy him. And not only that. When they did deport Jimmy they destroyed the records, making it clean, as if it never happened.”

Loach’s films tend to wear their socialist heart on their sleeves but it is his unwavering conviction in the human spirit which has been his trump card always, from Kes through to Looking for Eric. Certainly, Jimmy’s Hall is at its most charming when depicting Gralton (Barry Ward) and his friends, among them his lost love Oonagh (Simone Kirby), as people seized by their passions for community. It is, after all, a film about dancing.

“It’s interesting,” says Loach. “That freedom of spirit to engage and explore the world and to be inquiring — that, in the end, is what is subversive about Jimmy.”

Intriguingly, Laverty’s interest in the Gralton story was first piqued by his friend, the actor and writer Donal O’Kelly. The latter developed his own theatre-piece based around the historical episode and sent the material to Laverty, ultimately encouraging him to make a movie about it.

“Well, Donal’s an old mate who I first met in Nicaragua in the 1980s,” says Laverty. “So I love to think of the film as a little ripple from Nicaragua, because that was another case where possibility was destroyed by extreme violence. And Donal, being his usual generous self, was very helpful and supportive.”

O’Kelly has a small role in the film and an episode involving him is one of the most absorbing sequences in the film. It centres on a tense discussion between Gralton and his cohorts about whether they should get involved in a land-grabbing dispute. Some think it will endanger the newly reopened hall and endanger Gralton’s freedom, too. Others, including Gralton himself, feel a compulsion to act.

“Well, it’s an essential dilemma that all people involved in struggle face,” says the Englishman. “At what point do you hold what you’ve got and, if you do that, do you betray the fundamental principles that you’re fighting for? It’s a critical moment and, struggling through that, I find, is absolutely dramatic. And it’s interesting. Because some critics hate characters that are articulate — particularly working class characters. They want to see them as victims or as bullies. But they don’t want to see articulate, politically experienced people who have thought their ideas through. And it’s the struggle for those ideas — ‘what is the most progressive tactic we can pursue?’ — that is the essence of political activity.”

Loach, 78, has put to bed recent rumours that he is about to hang up his boots. After almost 50 years exploring the exploitation and oppression of people on film, he still has hope, a faith in the spirit of change, albeit not a naïve one.

“In the short term there’s a huge mountain to climb,” he says. “The political choices in any election are so narrow. It’s one version of neo-liberalism versus another version of neo-liberalism. So it’s difficult to see how the interests of the people are represented. But, in the long term, that’s a position that can’t sustain. The dysfunction has to be resolved, but on what terms and in what form it’s resolved, who knows, and will it be resolved before we destroy the planet? These are huge issues.”

True representation of women

Best known for her work in theatre, Simone Kirby has worked with all of the major companies and theatre houses in Ireland, among them Druid, Rough Magic, the Abbey and the Gate. She also delivered a memorable turn in RTE’s hit drama series Pure Mule a few years ago.

The Ennis native has recently finished shooting the second season of hit TV show Peaky Blinders in the UK, the part reunited her with Cillian Murphy who she starred with in Druid’s The Playboy of the Western World some years back.

Simone Kirby plays Oonagh

Kirby has been living in the UK since 2009 when a prestigious gig in Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa at The Old Vic in London persuaded her to make the move permanent. Ironically, when Ken Loach coaxed her back to Ireland to shoot Jimmy’s Hall last year, the activity of dancing was again to the fore. In the film Kirby plays Oonagh, the girl that Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward) was forced to leave behind when first driven out of Ireland in his youth. It’s a fictional part, through which Loach can portray the personal sacrifices of those involved in social struggle.

In a moving performance Kirby renders both Oonagh’s combative spirit and her inner turmoil. After Gralton’s original departure to the US, Oonagh marries another man with whom she has children. But when Gralton returns it’s obvious she only has eyes for him, yet she has to rein in her desire given the social mores of the time.

“My grandmothers would have been grown up on farms in the West of Ireland in those times,” says Kirby. “And I certainly know that choices were very limited and more limited if you had responsibilities. Oonagh can’t go to America with Jimmy in the first place because one of her parents is dying. As the only girl in the family she has to stay behind. Nowadays people can afford to be a bit more selfish. So I do think it’s a very true representation of a woman in those times. And it’s true as a love story as well.”

Simone Kirby (Oonagh) and Barry Ward (Jimmy) dancing in the film ‘Jimmy’s Hall’

In a wonderful scene Oonagh is one of those who is publicly ‘shamed’ when the parish priest reads out a list of names of all who have attended the dance-nights.

“Originally, she wasn’t in the church scene, and I asked Ken why she wasn’t,” recalls Kirby. “He said that because she was part of that group of free thinkers, she wouldn’t be. But as I put it to them, a woman back then who has a son being taught by the priests and a daughter being taught by the nuns would go to Mass, even if she wasn’t a believer.”

Kirby and Ward share poignant dance scenes and dance is used as a symbol for the natural warmth, curiosity and vulnerability of the human spirit.

This comes across during a memorable sequence in which Gralton teaches the shim sham dance to a gathering of renegades, young and old. “The scene where Jimmy teaches everyone the shim sham in the hall was the first day when we all came together as a group really,” says Kirby. “And by the end of that day everyone was in such great form. And it was because suddenly we were a lot more like a community. We were all learning to dance together and we laughed so much and it comes across on film actually. So it sort of mirrored the story.”

* Jimmy’s Hall is released on May 30

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