The Abbey Theatre's adaptation of Jimmy’s Hall is stepping up for freedom

While the subject matter of Jimmy’s Hall is serious, the play is also filled with joy, celebrating the power of music and dance in helping overcome intolerance and oppression.

The Abbey Theatre's adaptation of Jimmy’s Hall is stepping up for freedom

The Abbey’s adaptation of Jimmy’s Hall, with its tale of how a rural dancehall was seen as a threat to the Irish state, is on tour to Cork and Galway, writes Marjorie Brennan

When artistic director of the Abbey, Graham McLaren, was deciding what his directorial debut at the national theatre would be, he was well aware of the expectations in certain circles.

“The newspapers and radio were full of questions like ‘oh, what kind of director is he going to be — is he going to do George Bernard Shaw or is he going to be an O’Casey man? I wanted to kind of side-step that issue.”

McLaren did this by giving the Irish theatrical canon a miss and instead seeking inspiration from a Leitrim socialist who had taken on the might of Church and state over a dance hall.

“Having a platform such as the Abbey on which to show your work, there is a real responsibility and opportunity to tell the stories that people don’t really know — the stories of the ordinary people, who in the last 100 or so years have given all kinds of things to the country. Jimmy Gralton seemed like the perfect vehicle for that,” says the Scottish native, who in 2016 took joint stewardship of the Abbey with Neil Murray.

Gralton had emigrated to New York in 1909 but returned to his home in Effrinagh, Co Leitrim, in 1921, where he rebuilt a dance hall on his father’s land. A socialist and trade union campaigner, he also used the hall to organise political meetings and help advance the rights of tenant farmers. The hall was called a “den of iniquity” by the parish priest and was burned to the ground in 1932.

Gralton was deemed a threat to national security and in 1933, was the first and only Irish citizen to be deported from the country. He died of cancer in New York in 1945. In 2016, President Michael D Higgins unveiled a memorial to Gralton on the site where the hall once stood, and said the deportation was “wrong and indefensible”.

Gralton’s story became more widely known with the release in 2014 of the film Jimmy’s Hall, directed by Ken Loach. As serendipity would have it, Paul McLaverty, who wrote the screenplay for the movie, is a friend of McLaren’s and worked closely with him on the stage adaptation of the film script. Loach also collaborated.

He loved the play. He was astonished at the energy you could get on stage, and the joy and the life. Ken loved the idea that I could bring in all kinds of other influences. Of course, I was saying to him, ‘You’ve got the scenery, you can show me what Effrinagh looks like, I can’t’

The play, which is enjoying a second successful run at the Abbey and will also tour to Cork and Galway, has resonated hugely with audiences, for whom the parallels with today are obvious.

“It’s about civil rights and that is never not going to be an issue,” says McLaren. “Why should someone be deported from a country because of what is in their head? What the government did to that man was illegal, and it has been recognised as such. Unfortunately, we are living in a time where… it’s like snakes and ladders, we are in danger of sliding down that snake again into neo- fascism. There isn’t another word for it.”

While the subject matter of Jimmy’s Hall is serious, the play is also filled with joy, celebrating the power of music and dance in helping overcome intolerance and oppression.

“The great Scottish miner and poet [Joe Corrie], writing about the lockout in the 1920s, said: ‘there is nae power on earth that can crush the people who can sing on a day like this’. There is something about the human spirit, the need to dance, express yourself and be free,” says McLaren. “Jimmy Gralton was like Moses, saying ‘let my people dance’. That was all he did. They burned down the hall, they hunted him for months, they found him, deported him without trial and he was never allowed to set foot in Ireland again. That is a story that has to be told.”

In a fitting testimony to Gralton’s legacy and memory, the original run of Jimmy’s Hall opened in Carrick-on-Shannon, in Leitrim. In the audience was Paul Gralton, Jimmy’s cousin, on whom the play understandably had a very strong emotional impact.

Paul Gralton is a cousin of Jimmys Hall protaganist Jimmy Gralton
Paul Gralton is a cousin of Jimmys Hall protaganist Jimmy Gralton

“It was an amazing, uplifting experience. I took my dad, who couldn’t make the first run of the play, to a preview in the Abbey for this run. There is a particular point where an actor speaks my grandmother’s words from a documentary film. It is very poignant because she is talking about how she always hoped and expected Jimmy to come back but of course he didn’t, sadly. For us as a family, it is incredibly moving but the audience obviously felt the same thing because they were on their feet before the curtain had dropped.”

Gralton, who was raised in Luton, England, now lives in Effrinagh.

“My grandfather was given Jimmy’s land by Jimmy when he left and I used to spend a lot of time down there with him on the farm. I have always seen this as my home. I spend a lot of time down there on the farm, planting vegetables and thinking about the universe,” he laughs.

“Occasionally I’ll get visitors down to the land because they’ll make the connection and pop down. When my grandparents were living there in the time after Jimmy died, there was a cavalcade of people who came through at

different times, including a native of Cork, Michael O’Riordan [founder of the Communist Party who also fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War].”

PAUL Gralton says he is proud of his connection with Jimmy but also pays tribute to the local people who stood up with him.

“Sometimes you think ‘God, what have I done with my life’ when you look back at all those people did, not just Jimmy. The story focuses on him but it was a whole community coming together to act.”

McLaren says he is looking forward to telling Jimmy’s story to audiences in Cork and Galway, and is passionate about bringing more shows out on the road.

“The clue is in the title. We are the national theatre. That is not the national theatre of Dublin 1 or Dublin 4, worse still. We are taking this around the country because people have to remember Jimmy Gralton and the others like him. It is an important thing for us to remember and no better time than now to remember it.”

Jimmy’s Hall runs at the Abbey until Sept 8, then from Sept 11-15 at the Town Hall Theatre, Galway, and Sept 18-22 at the Cork Opera House.

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